The Day of Atonement
THE DAY OF ATONEMENT
A TALE OF LITTLE RUSSIA
The lights are out, the moon is rising.
The were-wolf in the wood is feeding.
Listen to me, man; go out of your khata on a clear night, or better still walk to the top of some little hill, and look well at the sky and the earth. Watch the bright moon climbing the heavens, and the stars winking and twinkling, and the light clouds of mist rising from the earth and wandering off somewhere one behind the other like belated travellers on a night journey. The woods will lie as if bewitched, listening to the spells that rise from them after the midnight hour, and the sleepy river will flow murmuring by you, whispering to the sycamores on its banks. Then tell me after that if anything, if any miracle, is not possible in this khata of God's which we call the wide world.
Everything is possible. Take, for instance, an adventure that happened to a friend of mine, the miller from Novokamensk. If no one has told you the story already, I will tell it to you now, only please don't make me swear that every word is true. I won't swear to a thing, for though I got it from the miller himself, I don't know to this day whether it really happened to him or not.
But whether it's true or not, I shall tell it to you as I heard it.
One evening the miller was returning from vespers in Novokamensk, which was about three versts, not more, from his mill. For some reason the miller was a little out of temper, though he himself could not have said why. Everything had gone well in the church, and our miller, who could shout with the best, had read the prayers so loudly and so fast that the good people had been astonished.
"How he does bawl, that son of a gun!" they had exclaimed with the deepest respect. "You can't understand one word he says. He's a regular wheel, he is; he turns and spins and you know he has spokes in him, but you can't see a single one, no matter how closely you look. His reading sounds like an iron wheel rumbling over a stony road; you can't catch a word of it to save your life."
The miller heard what the people were saying among themselves, and it made him glad. He knew how to work for the glory of God, he did! He swung his tongue as a lusty lad swings a flail on a threshing floor, till he was parched to the bottom of his throat and his eyes were popping out of his head.
The priest took him home with him after church, gave him tea, and set a full bottle of herb brandy before him, and this was afterwards taken away empty. The moon was floating high above the fields, and was staring down into the swift little Stony River when the miller left the priest's house and started home to his mill.
Some of the villagers were already asleep; some were sitting in their khatas eating their suppers by the light of a tallow-dip, and some had been tempted out into the street by the warm, clear autumn night. The old people were sitting at the doors of their khatas, but the lasses and lads had gone out under the hedges where the heavy shade of the cherry trees hid them from view, and only their low voices could be heard in various places, with an occasional peal of suppressed laughter, and now and then the incautious kiss of a young couple. Yes, many things can happen in the dense shade of a cherry tree on such a clear, warm night!
But though the miller could not see the villagers, they could see him very well because he was walking down the middle of the street in the full light of the moon. And so they occasionally called out to him as he passed:
"Good evening, Mr. Miller! Aren't you coming from the priest's? Is it at his house you have been such a long time?"
Every one knew that he could not have been anywhere else, but the miller liked the question, and, slackening his pace, he would answer a little proudly each time:
"Yes, yes, I've made him a little visit!" and then he would walk on more puffed-up than ever.
On the other hand, some of the people sat as silent as mice under the eaves of their houses, and only hoped he would go by quickly and not see where they were hidden. But the miller was not the man to pass or forget people who owed him for flour or for grinding, or who simply had borrowed money from him. No use for them to sit out of sight in the dark, as silent as if they had taken a mouthful of water! The miller would stop in front of them every time and say:
"Good evening! Are you there? You can hold your tongues or not as you like, but get ready to pay me your debts, because your time will be up early to-morrow morning. And I won't wait for the money, I promise you!"
And then he would walk on down the street with his shadow running beside him, so black, so very black, that the miller, who was a bookman and always ready to use his brain if need be, said to himself:
"Goodness, how black my shadow is! It really is strange. When a man's overcoat is whiter than flour why should his shadow be blacker than soot?"
At this point in his reflections he reached the inn kept by Yankel the Jew, which stood on a little hill not far from the village. The Sabbath had been over since sunset, but the innkeeper was not at home; only Kharko was there, the Jew's servant, who took his place on Sabbaths and feast-days. Kharko lit his master's candles for him and collected his debts on each Hebrew holiday, for the Jews, as every one knows, strictly observe the rules of their faith. Do you think a Jew would light a candle or touch money on a holiday? Not he! It would be a sin. Kharko the servant did all that for the innkeeper, and he, his wife, and his children, only followed him sharply with their eyes to see that no stray five or ten copeck pieces wandered into his pocket by accident instead of into the till.
"They're cunning people!" thought the miller to himself. "Oh, they're very cunning! They know how to please their God and catch every penny at the same time. Yes, they're clever people, far cleverer than we are, there's no use denying it!"
He paused on the little patch of earth at the inn door trampled hard by the numberless human feet that jostled each other there every week day and shouted:
"Yankel! Hey, Yankel! Are you at home or not?"
"He isn't at home, can't you see that?" answered the servant from behind the counter.
"Where is he, then?"
"Where should he be? In the city of course," answered the servant. "Don't you know what to-day is?"
"No, what is it?"
"Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement!"
"Ah, so that's the explanation!" thought the miller.
And I must tell you that even though Kharko was a common servant and the servant of a Jew at that, he had been a soldier, and could write, and was a very proud person. He liked to turn up his nose and give himself airs, especially before the miller. He could read in church no worse than the miller himself, except that he had a cracked voice and talked through his nose. In reading the prayers he always managed to keep up with Philip the miller, but in reading the Acts he was left far behind. But he never yielded an inch. If the miller said one thing, he always said another. If the miller said "I don't know," the servant would answer "I do." A disagreeable fellow he was! So now he was delighted because he had said something that had made the miller scratch his head under his hat.
"Perhaps you don't know even yet what day this is?"
"How can I keep track of every Jewish holiday? Am I a servant of Jews?" retorted the miller angrily.
"Every holiday, indeed! That's just it; this isn't like every holiday. They only have one like this every year. And let me tell you something: no other people in the whole world have a holiday like this one."
"You don't say so!"
"You've heard about Khapun, I suppose?"
The miller only whistled. Of course, he might have guessed it! And he peeped in through the window of the Jewish khata. The floor was strewn with hay and straw; in two and three branched candlesticks slender tallow candles were burning; he could hear a humming that seemed to come from several huge, lusty bees. It was Yankel's young second wife and a few Jewish children mumbling and humming their unintelligible prayers with closed eyes. There was, however, something remarkable about these prayers; it seemed as if each one of these Jews were possessed by some alien creature, sitting there in him weeping and lamenting, remembering something and praying for something. But to whom were they praying, and for what were they asking? No one could have said. Only whatever it was, it seemed to have no connection either with the inn or with money.
The miller was filled with pity and sadness and dread as he listened to the prayers of the Jews. He glanced at the servant, who could also hear the humming through the door of the inn, and said:
"They're praying! And so you say Yankel has gone to the city?"
"And what did he want to do that for? Supposing Khapun should happen to get him?"
"I don't know why he went," answered the servant. "If it had been me, though I've fought with every heathen tribe under the sun and got a medal for it, no silver roubles on earth could have tempted me away from here. I should have stayed in my khata; Khapun would hardly snatch him out of his hut."
"And why not? If he wanted to catch a man he'd get him in his khata as well as anywhere else, I suppose."
"You think he would, do you? If you wanted to buy a hat or a pair of gloves, where would you go for them?"
"Where should I go but to a store?"
"And why would you go to a store?"
"What a question! Because there are plenty of hats there."
"Very well. And if you looked into the synagogue now you would see Jews a-plenty in there. They are jostling one another, and weeping and screaming so that the whole city from one end to another can hear their lamentations. Where the gnats are there the birds go. Khapun would be a fool if he trotted about hunting and rummaging through all the woods and villages. He has only one day in the year, and do you think he would waste it like that? Some villages have Jews in them, and some haven't."
"Well, there aren't many that haven't!"
"I know there aren't many that haven't, but there are some. And then, he can pick and choose so much better out of a crowd."
Both men were silent. The miller was thinking that the servant had caught him again with his clever tongue, and he was feeling uncomfortable for the second time. The humming and weeping and lamenting of the Jews still came to them through the windows of the hut.
"Perhaps they are praying for the old man?"
"Perhaps they are. Anything is possible."
"Does it really ever happen?" asked the miller, wishing to tease the servant, and at the same time feeling a twinge of human pity for the Jew. "Perhaps it's only gossip. You know how people will gabble silly nonsense, and how every one believes them."
These words displeased Kharko.
"Yes, people do gabble nonsense; like you, for instance!" he answered. "Do you think I invented the story myself, or my father or my father-in-law, when every Christian knows it is true?"
"Well, but have you seen it happen yourself?" asked the miller irritably, stung by the servant's scornful words.
Now you must know that when the miller was in a passion he sometimes said that he didn't believe in the Devil himself, and wouldn't, until he saw him sitting in the palm of his hand. And he was flying into a passion now.
"Have you seen it happen yourself?" he repeated. "If you haven't, don't say it's true, do you hear?"
Then the servant hung his head, and even went so far as to cough. Though he had been a soldier and was a lively fellow, he could sing very small at times.
"No, I haven't seen it myself, I won't tell you a lie. And you, Mr. Miller, have you ever seen the city of Kiev?"
"No, I haven't: I won't tell you a lie, either."
"But Kiev is there just the same!"
When he heard it put as clearly as that, the miller's eyes nearly popped out of his head.
"Whatever is true, is true," he assented. "Yes, Kiev is there, though I haven't seen it. One certainly ought to believe what honest folks say. You see, I should like to—I want to ask you who told you the story?"
"Who told it to me? Bah! Who told you about Kiev?"
"Tut, tut, what a tongue you have! It's sharper than a razor; may it shrivel in your head!"
"There's no reason why my tongue should shrivel in my head. You'd better believe what people say when every one says it. If every one says it, it must be true. If it weren't true, every one wouldn't say it; only magpies like you would say it, so there!"
"Tut, tut, tut! For Heaven's sake stop a minute! You rattle out your words like a pestle in a mortar. I see I was on the wrong track, but I only wanted to know how the story began."
"It began because it happens every year. Whatever happens people will talk about; what doesn't happen isn't worth talking about."
"What a fellow you are! Wait a minute, let me catch your prattle by the tail; you whirl like a wild mare in a bog. Only just tell me what really takes place, that's all!"
"Eh hey, so you don't know, I see, what takes place on the Day of Atonement?"
"I used to know, and that's why I didn't ask. I used to hear people chattering like you about Khapun, Khapun, but what the sense of it was I never could make out."
"Then you ought to have said so at once, and I should have told you long ago. I don't like proud people who, when they want a drink of gorelka, say they'd drink water if it didn't taste so bad. If you want to know what happens I'll tell you, because I've been about the world and am not a stay-at-home like you. I have lived in the city for more than a year, and this is the first time I have ever worked for a Jew."
"And isn't it a sin to work for a Jew?" asked the miller.
"It would be for any one else; a soldier can do anything. We get a paper given to us that says so."
"Can a piece of paper really——"
Then the soldier began telling the miller very affably all about Khapun and how he carries off one Jew a year on this day.
And if you don't know it, I might as well tell you that Khapun is a regular Hebrew devil. He is just like ours in every way, black, with horns just like him, and he has wings like a huge bat; the only difference is that he wears ringlets and a skull cap, and only has power over Jews. If a Christian meets him at midnight in the desert, or even on the shore of a pond, he runs away like a scary dog. But he can do what he likes with the Jews, so he catches one every year and carries him away.
And Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day fixed for him to make his choice. Long before that day comes the Jews weep and tear their clothes, and even put ashes out of their stoves on their heads for some reason or other. On the evening of the day they bathe in the rivers and ponds, and as soon as the sun goes down the poor wretches all go to their churches, and you never heard in your life such screams as come from there then! They all bawl at the top of their lungs, keeping their eyes shut tight with terror all the time. Then, as soon as the sky grows dark and the evening star comes out, Khapun comes flying from where he lives, and hovers over the church. He beats on the windows with his wings, and looks in to choose his prey. But when midnight comes, that's when the Jews begin to get really frightened. They light all the candles to give themselves courage, fall down on the floor, and begin to scream as if some one were cutting their throats. And while they are lying there squirming Khapun flies into the room in the shape of a great crow, and they all feel the cold wind of his wings blowing across their hearts. The Jew whom Khapun has already spotted through the window feels the devil's claws sinking into his back. Ugh! It makes one's flesh creep even to tell of it, so just think what the poor Jew must feel! Of course he yells as loud as ever he can. But who can hear him when all the rest of them are yelling like lunatics, too? And maybe one of his neighbours does hear him, and is only glad it isn't himself who is in such a sorry plight.
Kharko himself had heard more than once the pitiful, clear, long-drawn notes of a trumpet floating out over the city. It was a novice in the synagogue trumpeting out a farewell call to his unfortunate brother, while the rest of the Jews were putting on their shoes in the entry—Jews always go into church in their stocking feet—or standing in little groups in the moonlight, whispering together on tip-toe, staring up at the sky. And when the last man has gone, one lonely pair of shoes is left lying in the entry, waiting for its owner. Ah, those shoes will have to wait a long time, for at that very moment Khapun is flying with their owner high over woods and fields, over valleys and hills and plains, flapping his wings, and keeping well out of sight of Christian eyes. The accursed one is glad when the night is cloudy and dark. But when it is clear and still like to-night, with the moon shining as bright as day, the devil's work may very well come to naught.
"And why?" asked the miller, trembling lest the talkative Kharko should begin poking insults at him again. But this time the servant answered quietly enough:
"Well, you see, any Christian, no matter if he's stupid, like you, can call to the devil: 'Drop it! It is mine!' and Khapun will drop the Jew at once. The devil will flutter his wings, and fly away with a shrill cry like a wounded hawk, to be left without prey for a year. The Jew will fall to the ground. It will be lucky for him if he wasn't too high up and if he falls into a bog or some other soft spot. If he doesn't, no one will profit by his fall, neither he nor the devil."
"So that's how it is!" said the miller, staring nervously at the sky, in which the moon was shining with all its might. The heavens were clear; only one little cloudlet like a bit of black down was flying swiftly along between the moon and the wood that shrouded the river bank. It was a cloud, of course, but one thing about it seemed strange to the miller. Not a breath of wind was stirring, the leaves on the bushes were motionless as if in a trance, and yet the cloud was flying like a bird straight toward the city.
"Come here; let me show you something!" the miller called to the servant.
Kharko came out of the inn, and leaning against the door post, said calmly:
"Well, what is it? A fine thing you have found to show me! That's a cloud, that is; let it alone!"
"Take another look at it! Is there any wind blowing?"
"Well, well, well! That is funny!" said the servant, perplexed. "It's making straight for the city, too."
And both men scratched their heads and craned their necks.
The same humming sounds came to their ears through the window as before; the miller caught a glimpse of lugubrious yellow faces, closed eyes, and motionless lips. The little Jews were crying and wriggling, and once more the miller seemed to see an alien presence in them weeping and praying for something unknown, long lost, and already half forgotten.
"Well, I must be going home," said the miller, collecting his wits. "And yet I wanted to pay Yankel a few copecks."
"That's all right. I can take them for him," said the servant, without looking at the miller.
But the miller pretended not to have heard this last remark. The sum was not so small that he cared to intrust it to a servant, much less to a vagabond soldier. With a sum like that the fellow might easily kick up his heels, as the saying is, and run away, not only out of the village, but even out of the District. If he did that, look for the wind in the fields, you would find it sooner than Kharko!
"Good night!" said the miller at last.
"Good night! And I'll take the money if you'll give it to me!"
"Don't bother; I can give it to him myself."
"Do as you like. But if I took it you wouldn't be bothered about it any more. Well, well, it's time to close the inn. You're the last dog that'll be round to-night, I'll be bound."
The servant scratched his back on the door post, whistled not very agreeably after the miller, and bolted the door on which were depicted in white paint a quart measure, a wine-glass, and a tin mug. Meanwhile the miller descended the hill, and walked down the road in his long white overcoat, with his coal-black shadow running beside him as before.
But the miller was not thinking of his shadow now. His thoughts were of something far different.
The miller had not gone more than a hundred yards when he heard a rustling and fluttering that sounded like two large birds taking flight from behind the hedge. But it was not a pair of birds; it was only a lad and a lass, startled by the miller's sudden appearance out of the darkness. The lad, it seemed, was not to be frightened. Creeping into the shadows so that the two white figures were barely visible under the cherry trees, he put his arm firmly around the girl, and continued his low-toned discourse. A few yards farther on the miller heard something that halted him with annoyance.
"Hey, you there! I don't know what your name is——" he cried. "But you might wait until I had gone by to do your kissing. Your smacks can be heard all over the village."
And he walked right up to the hedge.
"You cur you, what do you mean by poking your nose into other people's affairs?" a lad answered out of the darkness. "Wait a minute, I'll kiss you on the nose with my fist! I'll teach you to interfere with people!"
"Come, come, never mind!" said the miller, stepping back. "One would think you were doing something important! You're a bad lad, you are, to smack a girl like that; you make a man envious. Oh, what are people coming to!"
He stood still for a moment, thought a bit, scratched his head, and finally turned aside, threw his leg over the hedge, and crossed a field to a widow's cottage that stood a little way back from the road in the shade of a tall poplar tree.
The khata was a tiny, lop-sided affair, crumbling and falling to pieces. Its one little window was so minute that it would have been almost invisible had the night been at all dark. But now the whole cottage was glowing in the moonlight; its straw roof was shining like gold, its walls seemed to be made of silver, and the little window was blinking like a dark eye.
No light shone behind it. Probably the old woman and her daughter had no fuel and nothing to cook for supper.
The miller paused a moment, then knocked twice at the window and went a few steps aside.
He had not long to wait before two plump girlish arms were wound tightly around his neck, and something glowed among his whiskers that felt very much like two lips pressed to his mouth. Hey ho, what more is there to tell! If you have ever been kissed like that you know yourself how it feels. If you haven't, it's no use trying to tell you.
"Oh, Philipko, my darling for whom I have longed!" crooned the girl. "You have come, you have come! And I have been waiting so wearily for you. I thought I should parch up with longing, like grass without water."
"Eh hey, she hasn't parched up, though, thank God!" thought the miller, as he pressed the girl's not emaciated form to his breast. "Thank God, she is all right yet!"
"And when shall we have the wedding, Philip?" asked the girl with her hands still lying on Philip's shoulders, while she devoured him with burning eyes as dark as an autumn night. "Saint Philip's day will soon be here."
This speech was less to the miller's liking than the girl's kisses.
"So that's what she's driving at!" thought he.
"Ah, Philip, Philip, now you're going to catch it!"
But he summoned all the courage he had, and, turning his eyes away, answered:
"What a hurry you're in, Galya, I declare! Thinking about the wedding already, are you? How can we get married when I am a miller and may soon be the richest man in the village, and you are only a poor widow's daughter?"
The girl staggered back at these words as if a snake had bitten her. She jumped away from Philip and laid her hand on her heart.
"But I thought—oh, my poor head then—why did you knock at the window, you wicked man?"
"Eh hey!" answered the miller. "You ask why I knocked. Why shouldn't I knock when your mother owes me money? And then you come jumping out and begin to kiss me. What can I do? I know how to kiss as well as any man——"
And he stretched out his hand toward her again, but the moment he touched the girl's body she started as if an insect had stung her.
"Get away!" she screamed, so angrily that the miller fell back a step. "I'm not a rouble bill that you can lay your hands on as if I belonged to you. If you come back again I'll warm you up so that you'll forget how to make love for three years."
The miller was taken aback.
"What a little firebrand it is! Do you think I'm a Jew that you howl at me so hatefully?"
"If you're not a Jew, then what are you? You charge half a rouble for every rouble you lend, and then you come to me for interest besides! Get away, I tell you, you horrid brute!"
"Well, my girl!" said the miller, nervously covering his face with his hand as if she had really hit him with her fist. "I see it's no use for a sensible man to talk to you. Go and send your mother to me."
But the old woman had already come out of the hut, and was making a low curtsey to the miller. Philip enjoyed this more than he had the words of the girl. He stuck his arms akimbo, and the head of his black shadow rubbed so hard against the wall that he wondered his hat didn't come off.
"Do you know what I've come for, old woman?" he asked.
"Oh, how should I not know, poor wretch that I am! You have come for my money."
"Ha, ha, not your money, old woman!" the miller laughed. "I'm not a robber; I don't come at night and take money that isn't mine
"Yes, you have come for money that isn't yours!" retorted Galya, angrily falling upon the miller. "You have come for it!"
"Crazy girl!" exclaimed the miller, stepping back. "Upon my word there isn't another girl in the whole village as crazy as you are. And not in the village alone, in the whole District. Just think a minute what you have said! If it weren't for your mother, who probably wouldn't testify against you, I'd have you up in court before Christmas for cheating me. Come, think a little what you're doing, girl!"
"Why need I think when I'm doing right?"
"How can it be right for the old woman to borrow money from me and not pay?"
"You lie! You lie like a dog! You came courting me when you were still a workman at the mill; you came to our khata and never said a word about wanting anything in return. And then, when your uncle died and you came to be a miller yourself, you collected the whole debt, and now even that won't satisfy you!"
"And the flour?"
"Well, what about the flour? How much do you ask for it?"
"Sixty copecks a pood, not less! No one would let you have it cheaper than that, no, not if you threw your precious self in with it into the bargain."
"And how much have you already collected from us?"
"Tut, tut, how she does talk! You've a tongue in your head as bad as Kharko's, girl. I'll answer that by asking you for the interest. Have you paid it?"
But Galya was silent. It is often that way with girls. They talk and talk and rattle along like a mill with all its stones grinding, and then they suddenly stop dead. You'd think they had run short of water. That's how Galya did. She burst into a flood of bitter tears, and went away wiping her eyes on the wide sleeve of her blouse.
"There now!" said the miller, a little confused but satisfied in his heart. "That's what comes of attacking people. If you hadn't begun shouting at me there wouldn't have been anything to cry for."
"Hold your tongue! Hold your tongue, you foul creature!"
"Hold your own tongue, if that's what you think!"
"Be quiet, be quiet, my honey!" the mother joined in, heaving a deep sigh. The old woman was evidently afraid of irritating the miller; it was clear she could not pay him now that her time was up.
"I won't be quiet, mother, I won't, I won't!" answered the girl, as if all the wheels in her mill had begun turning again. "I won't be quiet; and if you want to know, I'm going to scratch out his eyes so that he won't dare to get me gossiped about for nothing, and come knocking at my window and kissing me! Tell me what you meant by knocking, or I'll catch you by the top-knot without stopping to ask if you are a miller and a rich man or not. You never used to be proud like that; you came courting me yourself and pouring out tender words. But now you hold your nose so high that your hat won't stay on your head!"
"Oi, honey, honey, do be quiet, my poor dear little orphan!" begged the old woman with another grievous sigh. "And you, Mr. Miller, don't think ill of the poor silly girl. Young hearts and young wisdom are mates; they are like new beer in a ferment. They boil and foam, but if you will let them stand awhile they will grow sweet to a man's taste."
"What do I care?" answered the miller. "I don't ask for either bitter or sweet from her, because you are not my equals, either of you. Give me the money, old woman, and I'll never come near your khata again."
"Okh, but we have no money! Wait a little; we will work for some, my daughter and I, and then we will pay you. Oh, misery me, Philipko, dearie, what a time I do have with you and with her! You know yourself I have loved you like a son; I never thought, I never guessed, you would cast my debts in my teeth and with the interest, too! Oh, if I could only get my daughter married! A good husband would be easy to find, but she won't have any one. Ever since you have come courting the girl you seem to have cast a spell over her. 'I'd rather be buried in the cold ground than marry any one else,' she says. I was foolish ever to let you stay here until dawn. Oi, misery me!"
"But what can I do?" asked the miller. "You don't understand these things, old woman. A rich man has many calls on his money. I pay the Jew what I owe him; now you must pay me."
"Wait just one month!"
The miller rubbed his head and reflected. He felt a little sorry for the old woman, and Galya's embroidered blouse was gleaming in the distance.
"Very well, then, only I'll have to add thirty copecks to the debt for interest. You'd better pay at once."
"What can I do? It's my fate not to pay, I can see that."
"All right, I'll leave it at that. I'm not a Jew. I'm a decent sort of a fellow. Any one else would have charged you forty copecks at least, I know that for certain, and I'm only asking you twenty, and shall wait till St. Philip's day for the money. But then you will have to look out. If you don't pay, I'll complain about you to the police."
With these words he turned, bowed, and walked away across the pasture, without so much as a glance at the hut at whose door there shone for a long time a white embroidered blouse. It shone against the dark shade of the cherry trees like a little white star, and the miller could not see the black eyes weeping, the white arms stretched out toward him, the young breast sighing for his sake.
"Don't cry, my honey; don't cry, my sugar-plum!" the old woman soothed her child. "Don't cry, it's God's will, my darling."
"Okh, mother, mother, if only you had let me scratch out his eyes, perhaps I should feel better!"
After that adventure the miller's thoughts became gloomier than ever.
"Somehow nothing ever goes right in this world," he said to himself. "Unpleasant things are always happening, a man never knows why. For instance, that girl there drove me away. She called me a Jew. If I were a Jew and had as much money as I have and a business like mine, would I live as I do? Of course not! Look what my life is! I work in the mill myself; I don't half sleep by night; I don't half eat by day; I keep my eye on the water to see it doesn't run out; I keep my eye on the stones to see they don't come loose; I keep my eye on the shafts and the pinions and the cogs to see they run smoothly and don't miss a stroke. Yes, and I keep my eye on that infernal workman of mine. How can one depend on a servant? If I turn my back for an instant the scoundrel runs off after the girls. Yes, a miller's life is a dog's life, it is! Of course, though, ever since my uncle—God rest his soul—fell into the mill-pond drunk, and the mill came to me, the money has been collecting in my pockets. But what's the result? Don't I have to tramp for hours after every single rouble I make, and get abused for it to my face, yes, to my very face? And how much do I get in the end? A trifle! A Christian never does get as much as a Jew. Now if only the devil would carry away that Jew Yankel I might be able to manage. The people wouldn't go to any one but me then, whether they wanted flour or money for taxes. Oho! In that case I might even open a little inn, and then I could either get some one to run the mill for me, or else sell it. Bother the mill, say I! Somehow a man isn't a man as long as he has to work. The fact is, one copeck begets another. Only fools don't know that. If you buy yourself a pair of pigs, for instance—pigs are prolific animals—in a year you'll have a herd of them, and money's just the same. If you put it out to pasture among stupid folk you can sit still and yawn until the time comes to drive it home. Every copeck will have brought forth ten copecks, every rouble will have brought forth ten roubles."
The miller had now reached the crest of a hill from where the road sloped gently to the river. From here, when the night breeze breathed into his face, he could faintly hear the sleepy water murmuring in the mill-race. Looking behind him, the miller could see the village sleeping among its gar dens, and the widow's little khata under its tall poplars. He stood plunged in thought for a few moments, scratching the back of his head.
"Ah, what a fool I am!" he said at last, resuming his journey. "If my uncle hadn't taken it into his head to get drunk on gorelka and walk into the mill-pond I might have been married to Galya today, but now she's beneath me. Okh, but that girl is sweet to kiss! Goodness, how sweet she is! That's why I say that nothing ever goes right in this world. If that little face had a nice dowry behind it, if it had even as much as old Makogon is giving away with his Motria, there would be nothing more to be said!"
He cast one last look behind him, and turned on his way, when suddenly the stroke of a bell resounded from the village. Something seemed to have fallen from the church steeple that rose from a hill in the centre of the town, and to be flying, clanging and rocking, across the fields.
"Eh, hey, it is midnight on earth," the miller mused, and with a great yawn he turned and walked rapidly down the hill, thinking of his flock as he went. He saw his roubles as if they had been alive, passing from hand to hand and from business to business, grazing and multiplying. He laughed to recall that some fools thought they worked for themselves. And when the time was ripe, he, the owner of the flock, would drive it and its increase back into his iron chest.
These thoughts were all pleasant ones, but the recollection of the Jew spoilt them again. The miller was provoked because that son of Israel had seized all the grazing for himself, leaving his poor roubles nowhere to feed and nothing to grow fat on, like a flock of sheep in a field where Jewish goats had already been pasturing. Every one knew they never could fatten there!
"Oh, I wish the devil would get him, the foul brute!" the miller said to himself, and he decided it was the thought of the Jew that depressed him so. That's what, was wrong with the world. Those infernal Jews prevented Christians from collecting their lawful profits.
Half way down the hill, where the peaceful, drowsy sound of the water in the mill-race came unintermittently to his ears, the miller suddenly stopped and struck his forehead with the palm of his hand.
"Ha! What a joke it would be! It would be a grand joke, I swear! This the Day of Atonement. What if the Hebrew devil should take a fancy to our inn-keeper Yankel? But he won't! It couldn't possibly happen. The town is crammed with Jews, and Yankel is a tipsy old wretch, as bony as a hedgehog. Who would want him? No," thought the miller, "I'm not lucky enough for Khapun to choose our Yankel out of thousands of others."
Then, like a nest of ants in a turmoil, another train of thought began to pass through his head.
"Ah, Philip, Philip!" he said to himself. "It isn't right for a Christian to think such things! Recollect yourself! Yankel would leave children behind him, as well as debts. And another reason why it is sinful: Yankel has never done you any harm. If others have reason to blame the old inn-keeper, you yourself are not guiltless of usury."
But the miller hastily sent other and angrier thoughts to attack these last unpleasant reflections that had begun to bite his conscience like vicious dogs.
"But after all, a Sheeny is only a Sheeny, and isn't in the same class with Christians at all. Even if I do lend money—and I do, there's no use denying it—it's better for Christians to pay interest to a brother Christian than to a heathen Jew."
At that moment the last notes of the bell pealed out from the belfry.
Probably Ivan Kadilo, the bell-ringer, had gone to sleep in the church and had pulled the bell rope in his sleep, so long had he taken to sound the hour of midnight. To atone for his neglect, this last tug was so violent that the miller actually jumped as the sound came rolling over the hill, over his head, across the river, across the wood, and away over the distant fields through which wound the road to the city.
"Every one is asleep now," the miller thought, and something gripped his heart. "Every one is asleep where he wants to be; all but the Jews crowded weeping into their churches, and I, who am standing here by my mill-pond like a lost soul, thinking wicked thoughts."
And everything seemed very strange to him.
"I hear the sound of the bell dying away over the fields," thought he, "and I feel as if something invisible were running, moaning, through the country. I see the woods beyond the river drenched with dew and shining in the moonlight, and I begin to wonder why they should be covered with frost on a summer's night. And when I remember that my uncle was drowned in that pond, and how glad I was that it happened, I seem to lose heart entirely. I don't know whether to go down to the mill or to stay where I am."
"Gavrilo! Hey, Gavrilo!" he shouted at last. "There now! The mill is empty, and that scamp has made off to the village again after the girls."
Philip stepped out into a bright spot of moonlight on the dam, and stood listening to the water trickling through the sluices. It seemed to him to be stealing out of the pond and creeping toward the mill-wheels.
"I had better go to bed," he thought. "But I'll see that everything is all right first."
The moon had long since climbed to the zenith, and was looking down into the water. The miller wondered that the little river should be deep enough to hold the moon, and the dark blue sky with all its stars, and the little black cloudlet that was flying along all alone like a bit of down from the direction of the city.
But as his eyes were already half blind with sleep he did not wonder long. Having opened the outer door of the mill and bolted it again from the inside so that he should hear his reprobate workman when he came home, he lay down to sleep.
"Hallo, get up, Philip!" he suddenly thought to himself, and he jumped out of bed in the darkness as if some one had hit him with an axe. "I forgot that that little cloud was the same one the Jew's servant and I saw flying toward the city, and wondered as we watched it how it could move without wind. There isn't much wind now, and what there is isn't coming from that quarter. Wait a minute, Philip, there's something queer about this!"
The miller was very sleepy, but, nevertheless, he went out barefoot on to the dam, and stood in the middle of it scratching his chest and back (the mill was not free from fleas). A light breeze was blowing from the mill-pond behind him, and yet there was that little cloud flying directly in his face. Only it now no longer looked feathery-light, neither did it fly as swiftly and freely as before. It seemed to be swaying a little and falling to earth like a wounded bird. As it flew across the moon the miller at last saw very clearly what it was, for against that bright orb were silhouetted a pair of dark, flapping wings, and below them was hanging a human form with a long, quivering beard.
"Aha, here's a pretty to do!" thought the miller. "He's carrying one of them away. What shall I do? If I shout to him: drop it, it is mine! the poor Jew may break his neck or fall into the pond. He's pretty high up."
But he soon saw that the situation was changing. The devil was circling over the mill with his burden, and beginning to sink to the ground.
"He was greedy and chose a morsel too big for him," the miller said to himself. "Now I can rescue the Jew; he's a living soul, after all, and isn't to be compared to a devil. Come then, God bless me, let me shout my loudest!"
But instead of shouting he strangely enough ran away from the dam as fast as his legs could carry him, and hid under the sycamores that stood like nixies at the edge of the mill-pond, bathing their green branches in its dark water. The darkness was as deep under them as in a barrel, and the miller felt sure that no one could see him. To tell the honest truth, his teeth were chattering madly and his hands and feet were trembling as the shafts trembled when his mill was running. Nevertheless, he couldn't resist the temptation of peeping out to see what would happen next.
First the devil fell almost to earth with his prey, and then rose again above the tree-tops, but it was plain to see that his load was too heavy for him. Twice he actually touched the water, so that the ripples spread in circles from the Jew's feet, but each time he flapped his wings, and rose again with his prey as a sea-gull rises from the water with a heavy fish. At last, after circling about two or three times, the devil fell heavily on to the dam, and lay as if dead, with the fainting Jew inanimate at his side.
And I must tell you—I had nearly forgotten it—that our friend the miller had long ago seen whom the Jewish Khapun had brought from the city. And when he recognised him—need I conceal it when he has confessed it himself?—he grew merry at heart and thought:
"Thank God, it is no other than our inn-keeper from Novokamensk! What happens next is none of my business, because I don't think I ought to interfere in other people's affairs. When two dogs are fighting there's no reason a third should jump in. Again I say, let sleeping dogs lie. What if I hadn't have happened to be here? I'm not the Jew's guardian."
And he also thought:
"Aha, Philipko, now your time has come in Novokamensk!"
Both the unfortunate Jew and the devil lay motionless on the dam for a long time. The moon had begun to redden, and was hanging above the treetops as if only waiting to see what the end would be before setting. A hoarse cock crowed in the village, and a dog yelped twice. But no other cocks or dogs answered these two; it evidently still lacked some hours to dawn.
The miller was exhausted, and was already beginning to think it had all been a dream, especially as the dam now lay wrapped in profoundest darkness, so that it was impossible to distinguish what the black object lying upon it was. But when the solitary cock-crow resounded from the village the dark mass stirred. Yankel raised his head in its skull-cap, looked about him, got up, and began to steal softly away, stepping high like a stork with his thin legs, in his stocking-feet.
"Hi, there! Stop him; he's making off!" the startled miller came near shouting, but next moment he saw the devil catch Yankel by his long coattails.
"Wait a bit!" Khapun cried. "There's plenty of time yet. What a hurry you're in! Here you are wanting to be off again before I've had time to rest! It's all right for you, but what about me, who have to drag a big fellow like you along? I'm nearly dead!"
"Very well, then," said the Jew, trying to free his coat-tails from the devil's grasp. "Rest a little longer, and I'll walk to my inn on foot."
The devil jumped up in surprise.
"What's that you're saying?" he cried. "Do you think I have hired myself out to you as a cart to take you home from church, you hound? You must be joking!"
"Why should I be joking?" asked the wily Yankel, pretending to have no idea what the Devil wanted with him. "I am very grateful indeed to you for having brought me so far, and I can now go on quite well by myself. It is only a short way. I wouldn't think of troubling you any more."
The devil quivered with rage. He ran round and round on the same spot like a chicken with its head off, and knocked Yankel down with his wing. He was panting like a blacksmith's bellows.
"Well, I never!" the miller thought. "I don't care if it is sin to admire a devil, I do admire this one; he would never let his lawful property slip between his fingers, one can see that!"
Yankel sat up and began to yell with all his might. Even the devil could do nothing to stop him. Every one knows that as long as a Jew has a breath in his body nothing will make him hold his tongue.
"What does it matter, though?" thought the miller, looking round at his empty mill. "My man is either amusing himself with the girls or else lying drunk under a hedge."
A sleepy frog in the mud answered Yankel's pitiful screams with a croak, and a bittern, that foul bird of the night, boomed twice as if from an empty barrel: boo-oo, boo-oo! The moon had finally sunk behind the wood, assured that the Jew was dead and done for; darkness had fallen upon the mill, the dam, and the river, and a white mist had gathered over the pond.
The devil carelessly shook his wings, and lay down again, saying with a laugh:
"Scream as loud as you like! The mill is deserted."
"How do you know it's deserted?" snapped the Jew, and he began to scream for the miller.
"Mr. Miller! Oi, Mr. Miller! Golden, silver, diamond Mr. Miller! Please, please come here for one little tiny second and say three words, three little tiny words! I'll make you a present of half the debt you owe me if you'll only come!"
"You'll make me a present of the whole debt!" said a voice in the miller's heart.
The Jew stopped screaming, his head sank forward on his breast, and he burst into a fit of bitter weeping.
Again some time passed. The moon had now set, and its last rays had died out of the sky. Everything in heaven and on earth seemed wrapped in the deepest slumber; not a sound could be heard except the Jew's low weeping and his exclamations of:
"Oh, my Sarah! Oh, my poor children! My poor little children!"
The devil felt a little rested, and sat up. Although it was dark, the miller could distinctly see a pair of horns like a young calf's outlined against the white mist that hung over the pond.
"He looks just like ours!" thought the miller, feeling as if he had swallowed something exceedingly cold.
Then he saw the Jew nudge the devil with his elbow.
"What are you nudging me for?" asked Khapun.
"Sh, I want to tell you something."
"Won't you please tell me why it is your custom always to carry off a poor Jew? Why don't you catch a daintier morsel? For instance, there is an excellent miller living right here."
The devil sighed deeply. Perhaps he was tired of sitting there on the edge of the pond by the empty mill; anyhow, he entered into conversation with the Jew. He raised his skull-cap—you must know that he wore a skull-cap with long ringlets hanging from underneath it, just as the servant had described him—and scratched his crown with a rasping noise like the most savage of cats clawing a board when a mouse has escaped it. Then he said:
"Alas, Yankel, you don't know our business! I couldn't possibly approach him."
"And why, may I ask, would you have to take the time to approach him? I know for myself that you snatched me away before I could even yell."
The devil laughed so merrily that he actually frightened a night-bird out of the reeds, and said:
"That's a fact! You were easy to catch. And do you know why?"
"Because you're a good lusty catcher yourself. I assure you there's no other race on earth as sinful as you Jews."
"Oi, vei, that is most surprising! And what are our sins?"
"Listen and I shall tell you."
The devil turned to the Jew and began counting on his fingers.
"Number one. You are usurers."
"One," repeated Yankel, also counting on his fingers.
"Number two. You live by the blood and sweat of the people."
"Number three. You sell the people vodka."
"Number four. You dilute it with water."
"Oh, let number four go! And what is the next?"
"Are four sins so few? Ah, Yankel, Yankel!"
"Oh, I don't say four are few, I only say that you don't know your own business. Do you think the miller isn't a usurer, do you think the miller doesn't live by the sweat and blood of the people?"
"Come, now, don't pick at the miller! He's not that kind of a man he's a Christian. A Christian is supposed to have pity not only on his own people but on others, too, even on Jews like you. That's why it's so hard for me to catch a Christian."
"Oi, vei, what a mistake you make there!" cried the Jew gaily. "Here, let me tell you something——"
He jumped up, and the devil rose too; they stood facing one another. The Jew whispered something in the devil's ear, motioning toward some object behind him under the sycamore tree. He pointed it out to the devil with his crooked forefinger.
"That's number one!"
"You're lying; it can't be true!" the devil answered, a little startled, peering toward the trees where Philip was hiding.
"Ha, ha, I know better! Just wait a moment."
Once more he whispered something, and then said aloud:
"Number two! And this——" again he whispered in the devil's ear. "Makes three, as I am an honest Jew!"
The devil shook his head and answered doubtfully:
"It can't be true."
"Let's make a bet. If I am right you shall let me go free when a year is up, and repay me my losses into the bargain."
"Ha! I agree. What a joke it would be! Then I should try my power——"
"You're getting a fine bargain, I can tell you!"
At that moment the cock in the village crowed once more, and although his voice was so sleepy that again no other bird answered him out of the silent night, Khapun shuddered.
"Here, what am I standing here gaping at you for while you tell me tales? A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Come along!"
He flapped his wings, flew a few feet along the dam, and once more fell upon poor Yankel like a hawk, burying his claws in the back of his shirt, and preparing to take flight.
Alas, how piteously old Yankel screamed, stretching out his arms toward the village and his native hut, calling his wife and children by name!
"Oi, my Sarah! Oi, Shlemka, Iteley, Movshey! Oi, Mr. Miller, Mr. Miller! Please, please save me! Say the three words! I see you; there you are, standing under the sycamore tree. Have pity on a poor Jew! He has a living soul like you!"
Very, very piteous were poor Yankel's lamentations! Icy fingers seemed to clutch the miller's heart and squeeze it until it ached. The devil seemed to be waiting for something, his wings fluttered like the wings of a young bustard that has not learnt to fly. He hovered silently over the dam with Yankel in his talons.
"What a wretch that devil is!" thought the miller, hiding farther under the trees. "He is only tormenting the poor Jew. If the cocks should crow again——"
Hardly had that thought entered his head than the devil laughed till the wood rang, and suddenly sprang aloft into the sky. The miller peered upward, but in a few seconds the devil appeared no larger than a sparrow. Then he glimmered for a moment like a fly, then like a gnat, and at last disappeared.
Then the miller was seized with genuine terror. His knees knocked together, his teeth chattered, his hair stood on end so high that, had he been wearing a hat, it would certainly have been knocked off his head. He never could say exactly what he did next.
Some one was knocking so loudly at the door of the mill that the whole building was filled with noisy echoes that reverberated in every corner. The miller thought the devil might have come back he and the Jew had not together for nothing!—so he only buried his head under the pillow.
"Bang—bang! Bang—bang! Hey, master, unlock the door!"
"And why won't you?"
The miller raised his head.
"Ah, that sounds like Gavrilo's voice. Gavrilo, is that you?"
"Who else should it be?"
"Swear that it's you!"
"All right, then, I swear it's me. How could I not be myself? And jet you want me to swear it! There's a marvel for you!"
Even then the miller wouldn't believe him. He went upstairs and peeped out of a window over the door, and there beneath him stood Gavrilo. The miller was much relieved and went down to open the door.
Gavrilo was actually staggered when the miller appeared in the doorway.
"Why, master, what has happened to you?"
"What's the matter?"
"Why on earth have you smeared your face all over with flour? You're as white as chalk!"
"Didn't you come across the river?"
"And didn't you look up?"
"And didn't you see some one?"
"Who? Fool! The creature that nabbed Yankel the inn-keeper."
"Who the devil nabbed him?"
"Who, indeed? Why, the Jewish devil, Khapun. Don't you know what day this has been?"
Gavrilo looked at the miller with troubled eyes and asked:
"Have you been to the village this evening?"
"Did you stop at the inn?"
"Did you drink any gorelka?"
"Bah, what's the use of talking to a fool? I did have some gorelka at the priest's, but all the same I have just seen with my own eyes the devil resting on the dam with the Jew in his claws."
"Right there, in the middle of the dam."
"And what happened next?"
"Well, and then——" the miller whistled and waved his hand in the air.
Gavrilo stared at the dam, scratched his topknot, and looked up at the sky.
"There's a marvel for you! What'll we do now? How can we get along without the Jew?"
"Why are you so anxious to have a Jew here, hey?"
"It isn't only me. One can't—oh, don't argue about it, master, things wouldn't be the same without a Jew; one couldn't get along without one."
"Tut, tut! What a fool you are!"
"What are you scolding me for? I don't say I'm clever, but I know millet from buckwheat. I work in the mill, but I drink vodka at the tavern. Tell me, as you're so clever, who will be our inn-keeper now?"
"Perhaps I will."
Gavrilo stared at the miller with his eyes starting out of his head. Then he shook his head, clicked his tongue, and said:
"So, that's your idea!"
The miller now noticed for the first time that Gavrilo was very uncertain on his legs and that the lads had given him another black eye. To tell the truth, the fellow looked so ugly and pale that you wanted to spit at the sight of him. He was a great hand with the girls, and the lads had more than once fallen upon him. Whenever they caught him they were sure to beat him almost to death. Of course it was no wonder they beat him; the wonder was there was ever anything for which to do it!
"There is no face in the world so ugly but some girl will fall in love with it," thought the miller. "But they love him by threes and fours and dozens. Ugh! You scarecrow!"
"Come, Gavrilo, boy," he nevertheless said in a coaxing voice, "come and sleep with me. When a man has seen what I have he feels a bit nervous."
"All right, it's all the same to me."
A minute later a certain workman was whistling through his nose. And let me tell you, I spent the night at the mill once myself, and I have never heard any one whistle through his nose as Gavrilo did. If a man didn't like it he had better not spend the night in the same house with him or he wouldn't sleep a wink.
"Gavrilo!" said the miller. "Hey, Gavrilo!"
"Well, then, what is it? If I couldn't sleep myself at least I wouldn't keep others awake!"
"Did they beat you again?"
"What if they did?"
"Where have you been?"
"You want to know everything, don't you? In Konda."
"In Konda? Why did you go there?"
"Because! What else do you want to know? Hee, hee, hee!"
"Aren't there girls enough for you in Novokamensk?"
"Bah! It makes me sick to look at them. There isn't one there that suits me."
"What about Galya, the widow's daughter?"
"Galya? What do I care about Galya?"
"What, have you been courting her?"
"Of course I have; what do you think?"
The miller flounced over in bed.
"You're lying, you hound; a plague seize your mother!"
"I'm not lying and I never lie. I leave that to cleverer men than I am."
Gavrilo yawned and said in a sleepy voice:
"Do you remember, master, how my right eye was so swelled up for a week that you couldn't even see it?"
"That devil's child entertained me by doing that. Confound her, say I! Galya, indeed!"
"So that's how things are, is it?" thought the miller. "Gavrilo! Hey, Gavrilo! Oh, the hound, he's snoring again—Gavrilo!"
"What do you want? Have you gone crazy?"
"Do you want to get married?"
"I haven't made my boots yet. When I've made my boots I'll think about it."
"But I'd give you boots, and tar for them, and a hat and a belt."
"Would you? And I'll tell you something better still."
"That the cocks are already crowing in the village. Can't you hear them going it?"
It was true. In the village, perhaps at Galya's cottage, a shrill-voiced cock was splitting his throat shouting "cock-a-doodle-doo!"
"Cock-a-doodle-doo!" answered other voices from far and near like water boiling in a kettle, and all the cracks in the wall of the little room began to gleam white, even down to the tiniest chink.
The miller yawned blissfully.
"Ah, now they are far away!" he thought. "How funny it was! He flew all the way from the city to my mill while the clock was striking twelve. Ha, ha, and so Yankel has gone! What a joke! Why, if I should tell it to any one, they'd call me a liar. But why should I lie? They'll find it out for themselves to-morrow. Perhaps I'd better not mention it at all. They would say I ought to have—but what's the use of arguing about it? If I had killed the Jew myself, or anything like that, I should have been responsible for what happened, but as it is, it doesn't concern me at all. What need had I to interfere? Let sleeping dogs lie, say I. A shut mouth plays safe. They won't hear anything from me."
So Philip the miller reasoned with himself, and tried to ease his conscience a little. It was only as he was on the verge of falling asleep that a thought crept out of some recess of his brain like a toad out of a hole, and that thought was:
"Now, Philip, now's your time!"
This thought chased all the others out of his mind and took possession of it.
With it he went to sleep.
Early next morning, while the dew is still glittering on the grass, behold the miller dressed and on his way to the village. He found the people there buzzing like bees in a hive.
"Hey! Have you heard the news?" they cried. "Only a pair of shoes came back from the city last night instead of the inn-keeper."
It was the talk of the village that morning, and the amount of gossip was sinful!
When Yankel's widow had a pair of shoes returned to her instead of her husband, she lost her head entirely and didn't know what in the world to do. To make matters worse, Yankel had wisely taken all his bonds to town with him, never dreaming that Khapun would get him that night. How could the poor Jew guess that out of the whole Hebrew congregation the devil would happen to choose him?
"That's the way people always are, they never know, they never feel when trouble like, for instance, Khapun is hanging over their heads."
So spoke the village folk, shaking their heads as they left the inn where the young Jewess and her children were tearing their clothes and beating their foreheads on the floor. And at the same time each man thought to himself:
"Well, anyhow, the bond I gave him has gone to the devil!"
To tell you the truth, there were very few in the village whose consciences whispered to them:
"It wouldn't be a bad idea to return the principal to the Jewess even if we kept the interest."
And the fact is no one gave up so much as one crooked penny.
The miller did not pay anything either, but then he thought he was different.
The widow Yankel begged and implored the townsfolk to help her, and even made her children throw themselves at their feet, beseeching them to let her have fifty, or even twenty, copecks on every rouble so that she shouldn't starve, and might somehow manage to take her little orphans to the city. And more than one kind-hearted man was so moved that the tears trickled down his whiskers, and more than one nudged his neighbour and said:
"Haven't you any fear of God in you, neighbour? Didn't you owe the Jew money? Why don't you pay her? Upon my word, you ought to, even if it's only a little."
But the neighbour would only scratch his topknot under his hat and answer:
"Why should I pay him, when with my own hands I took him every penny I owed him the day he went to the city? Would you have me to pay twice? Now with you, neighbour, it's different!"
"Why is it different with me when I did exactly what you did? Yankel came to me just before he went away and begged me to pay him, and I did."
The miller listened to all this, and his heart ached to hear it.
"What a bad lot they are!" he thought. "Goodness knows, they're a bad lot! There's absolutely no fear of God in their hearts. I see from this that they'll never pay me unless they're driven to do it. So, gentlemen, I must take care or I shall get robbed; only a born fool would put his finger in the mouth of any one of you! No, you needn't expect that of me! I'm not going to make a fool of myself. You'll not spit in my porridge. If anything, I'll spit in yours."
Old Prisia alone took the Jewess two dozen eggs and a piece of cloth, and payed the inn-keeper's widow as many copecks as she owed her.
"Take them, dearie, in God's name," said she. "If I owe you a little more I'll bring it here as God sends it to me. I have brought you all I have now."
"There's a crafty old woman for you!" the miller again commented angrily. "She wouldn't pay me a thing yesterday and yet she is able to pay the Jewess. How wicked these people are! One can't even trust the old women. She says she can't pay a good Christian like me and then goes and hands over all her money to a nasty Jewess. Wait a bit, old woman, I'll get even with you some day!"
Well, Yankel's widow gathered her children about her, and sold the inn and the stock of vodka for a song; but there wasn't much vodka left, for Yankel had meant to bring back a cask from the city, and people said, too, that Kharko had filched a cask or two from what had remained. So she took what she could get and left Novokamensk on foot with her children. Two she carried in her arms, a third toddled at her side holding on to her skirt, and the two eldest skipped on ahead.
And again the villagers scratched their heads, while those who had a conscience thought: "If only I could give the Jewess a wagon for the money I owe her perhaps I'd feel easier."
But, you see, each man was afraid that the others would guess he hadn't squared his account with the Jew.
And the miller thought again:
"Oh, what wicked people! Now I know how gladly they'd hustle me out of the way if I should ever stumble or come a cropper."
So the poor widow crawled away to the city, and heaven only knows what became of her there. Maybe she and the children found something to do; maybe they all died of hunger. Everything is possible. But as a matter of fact, Jews are tenacious creatures. They may live badly, but they manage to stay alive.
Then the people began to ask themselves who would be the next inn-keeper in Novokamensk. For though Yankel had gone and the women and children of the inn had wandered away into the wide world, the tavern still stood on its hill, and on its doors were still depicted in white paint a quart measure and a tin mug. And everything else was there in its proper place.
Even Kharko still sat on the hill smoking his long pipe and waiting to see whom God would send him for a master.
One evening though, when the village folk were standing in front of the empty tavern and wondering who would be their next inn-keeper, the priest came up, and bowing deeply—for the mayor was there, and as he is a great man it is no sin even for a priest to bow to him—began to say what a good thing it would be if a meeting could be arranged to close up the tavern for good and all. He, the priest, would write a letter with his own hand and send it to the bishop. And this would be a splendid, beautiful thing, and beneficial to the whole village.
The old men and the women answered that what the priest had said was the honest truth, but the miller thought the priest's idea absolutely worthless and even insulting.
"What a wicked priest!" he thought with indignation. "There's a friend for you! Just you wait a bit, though, holy Father, ou'll see what'll happen."
"You are quite right, Father," he answered in oily tones, "your letter will do a great deal of good, only I don't know whom it will help most, you or the village. You know yourself—don't take it ill—that you always send to the city for vodka and so you don't need the tavern. It would be very nice for you to have the bishop read your letter and praise it."
The people shouted with laughter, but the priest only spat in a great huff, clapped his straw hat on his head, and walked away down the street as if nothing had happened and he was simply taking an evening stroll.
Need I tell you more? You must surely have guessed already that the miller had made up his mind to be the keeper of the Jewish tavern. And having made up his mind he talked very agreeably to the mayor, entertained whichever members of the County Court he thought advisable, and reasoned very cleverly with the captain of police and with the head of the District, as well as with the judge, the treasurer, and finally with the commissioner of rural police and the customs inspector.
On his way back from the village after all these exertions the miller passed the inn. There was Kharko, sitting on the hill smoking his pipe. The miller only nodded to him, but Kharko—although he was a proud fellow—jumped up at once and ran toward him.
"Well, what have you got to say?" asked the miller.
"What should I have to say? I am waiting for you to tell me something."
Kharko didn't want to nail the miller down with words yet, so he listened to what the miller said, pulled off his cap with both hands, and wisely answered:
"I shall be very glad to do all I can for my kind master."
So the miller took possession of the inn and lorded it in Novokamensk better than Yankel had done. He put his roubles out to pasture among the people, and when the time came he drove them and their increase back into his chest. And no one there was to get in his way.
And if it was true that more than one person wept bitter tears because of him—why there is no room for truth in this world. And many did weep; whether more than had wept when Yankel kept the inn or fewer, I cannot attempt to say. Who can take the measure of human grief and who can count human tears?
Ah, no one has ever measured the grief and no one has ever counted the tears of the world, but the old folks say, "walking or riding, trouble's always in hiding"; and that "the back doesn't laugh at a stick or a staff." I don't know how true that is, but it seems true to me.
I must admit I didn't mean to tell you all this about my friend, but it's too late to take it back now. I've begun the story and I shall go on to the end. A song's not a song, they say, if a word is missing. And after all, if the miller doesn't hide anything, why should I?
You see, the state of affairs was this. All old Yankel had ever wanted had been human money. If he heard with one corner of his ear that some one had a rouble or two loose in his pocket his heart would give him a little prod and he would immediately think of some way in which he could pull up that rouble and put it to work for him, as one might pull a fish out of somebody else's pond. If he succeeded, he and his Sarah would rejoice over their good fortune.
But that wasn't enough for the miller. Yankel had always grovelled before every one, but the miller held his head as high as a turkey cock. Yankel had always slipped up to the back door of the District policeman's house and stood timidly on the threshold, but the miller swaggered all over the front steps as if he were at home there. Yankel never took it hard if he got his ears boxed by some drunken fellow. He howled a bit and then stopped, perhaps squeezing a few extra copecks out of his tormentor one day or another to make up for it. But if the miller ever got hold of a peasant's top-knot it would probably stay in his hands, and his eyes would flash like the sparks from a blacksmith's hammer. With the miller it was: pay up both money and respect! And he got them both, there's no use denying it. The people bowed low before their icons, but they bowed lower before my friend.
And yet he never could get enough. He went about as surly and angry as if a puppy were worrying his heart, thinking to himself all the time:
"Everything is wrong in this world, everything is wrong! Somehow money doesn't make a man as happy as it ought to."
Kharko once asked him:
"Why do you go about looking as cross as if some one had thrown a bucket of slops over you, master? What does my master want?"
"Perhaps if I got married I should be happier."
"Then go ahead and get married."
"That's just the trouble. How can I get married when the thing's impossible no matter how I tackle it? I'll tell you the truth: I fell in love with Galya, the widow's daughter, before I ever came to be a miller and while I was still a workman at the mill. If my uncle hadn't got drowned I should be married to her to-day. But now you see yourself that she is below me."
"Of course, she is below you! All you can do now is to marry rich old Makogon's daughter Motria."
"There you are! I can see for myself and every one says that my money and old Makogon's would just match, but there you are again—the girl is so ugly. She sits all day like a great bale of hay everlastingly hulling seeds. Every time I look at her I feel as if some one had got me by the nose and were pulling me away from her. How different Galya is! That's why I say everything is wrong in this world. If a man loves one girl the other one's sure to have the money. I shall certainly shrivel up some day like a blade of grass. I loathe the world."
The soldier took his pipe out of his mouth, spat, and said:
"That's bad! Any one but me would never have thought of a way out of it, but I'm going to give you some advice that you'll not be sorry if you take. Will you give me the pair of new boots that Opanas left in pawn if I tell you what to do?"
"I wouldn't begrudge you a pair of boots for your advice, but have you thought of something that really will help me?"
Well, it turned out that that wicked soldier had thought of a plan which, if it had gone through a little bit sooner, would certainly have sent the miller straight to the devil in hell and I should never have been telling you this story.
"Very well, then, listen carefully to me," Kharko said. "Plainly, there are three of you, one man and two girls. And plainly one man can't possibly marry them both unless he's a Turk."
"How right the wretch is!" thought the miller. "What's coming next?"
"Good! Now as you are a rich man and Motria is a rich girl, and baby can see who ought to marry who. Send the match-makers to old Makogon."
"That's all very well! I knew that without being told. But what about Galya?"
"Do you want to hear to the end? Or do you yourself know what I'm going to say?"
"Come, come, don't get cross!"
"You make every one cross. I'm not the man to begin saying something and then stop before I've finished. Now, to come to Galya. Used she to love you?"
"I should say she did!"
"And what were you when she loved you?"
"A workman in the mill."
"Then a baby could understand that too. If the girl loved a workman once, let her marry a workman now."
The miller's eyes grew as round as saucers and his head began to go round like a mill-wheel.
"But I'm not a workman any longer!"
"How dreadful! And isn't there a workman at the mill?"
"You mean Gavrilo? So that's your idea, is it? Very well, let him give you a pair of boots for it! Neither he nor his uncle nor his aunts will ever see me stand that arrangement, I can tell you! I'd sooner go and break every bone in his body."
"Gracious, what a hot-tempered fellow you are; hot enough to boil an egg! I was going to tell you something entirely different when you boiled over like this."
"What can you tell me now seeing that that little joke didn't please me?"
Kharko took his pipe out of his mouth, winked, and clicked his tongue so sympathetically the miller felt better at once.
"And you—did you love her though she was poor?"
"Yes, indeed I did!"
"Well, then, go on loving her to your heart's content after she has married the workman. And this is the end of my speech. You three will live at the mill together and the fourth fool won't count. Aha! Now you know whether I have brought you honey or gall, don't you? Yes indeed! Kharko's head is all right because he was always licked on the back. That's why he's such a clever fellow and knows who will get the kernel of the nut, who will get the shell, and who will get the pair of boots."
"But what if your plan shouldn't work?"
"Why shouldn't it work?"
"For lots of reasons. Perhaps old Makogon won't consent."
"Bah! Let me talk to him."
"Well, what would you say?"
"I'll tell you. I'd be on my way from the city with a load of vodka. He'd be coming toward me. We'd talk a while and then I'd say: I've found a husband for your daughter; it's our miller."
"And what would he say?"
"He'd say: 'Well I never! Your grandmother never expected that! How much is he worth?'"
"And what would you answer?"
"I'd answer: Of course my grandmother never expected it because she died long ago, God rest her soul! So you don't know, I see, that the devil has carried away our Jew?"
"'Then that's altogether different,' he'd say. "'If there's no Jew in the village the miller will be a substantial man.'"
"All right, supposing Makogon gives his consent, will Galya marry the workman?"
"If you drive the girl and her mother out of their khata she will be glad to live at the mill."
"I see—well, well——"
The miller scratched his head in perplexity, and things went on like that, you must know, not only for a day but for almost a year. The miller had hardly had time to look about him before St. Philip's day had come and gone, and Easter, and Spring, and Summer. Then once again he found himself standing at the door of the tavern, with Kharko leaning against the door post beside him. The moon was shining exactly as it had shone one year before, the river was sparkling as it had sparkled then, the street was just as white, and the same black shadow was lying on the silver ground beside the miller. And something flashed across his memory.
"Listen to me, Kharko!"
"What do you want?"
"What day of the week is it?"
"It was Saturday last year, do you remember?"
"Saturdays are as thick as flies."
"I mean the Day of Atonement one year ago."
"Oh, that's what you're thinking of! Yes, it was Saturday last year."
"When will the Day of Atonement be this year?"
"I can't say when it will be. There's no Jew near here now, so I don't know."
"Look at the sky. It's clear and bright, just as it was that night."
And the miller glanced in terror at the window of the Jewish hut, afraid of seeing again those Hebrew children nodding their heads and humming their prayers for their daddy whom Khapun was carrying away over the hills and dales.
But no! All that was over. Probably not a bone was left of Yankel by now; his orphans had wandered away into the wide world, and their hut was as dark as a tomb. The miller's heart was as full of darkness as the deserted Jewish khata.
"I didn't save the Jew," he thought. "It was I who made his children orphans, and now what dreadful things am I plotting against the widow's daughter?"
"Would it be right for us to do it?" he asked of Kharko.
"Why not? Of course there are some people who won't eat honey. Perhaps you are one of them."
"No, I'm not one of them, but still—well, good-bye!"
The miller started down the hill, and once more Kharko whistled after him. Although he did not whistle as insultingly as he had the year before, it flicked the miller on the raw.
"What do you mean by whistling, you rascal?" he asked, turning round.
"What, mayn't a man even whistle?" Kharko retorted crossly. "I used to whistle when I was orderly to the Captain, and yet I mayn't do it here!"
"After all, why shouldn't he whistle?" the miller thought. "Only why does everything happen just as it did that evening?"
So he walked away down the hill and Kharko went on whistling, only more softly. The miller passed the garden where the cherry trees grew, and once more what seemed to be two great birds rose out of the grass. Once more a tall hat and a girl's white blouse gleamed in the darkness and some one gave a smack that resounded through the bushes. Ugh, out upon you! But this time the miller did not stop to scold the shameless youngster; he was afraid he might get the very same answer he had had the year before. So our Philip went his way quietly toward the widow's cottage.
There stood the little khata shimmering under the moon; the tiny window was winking, and the tall poplar seemed to be bathing in the moonlight. The miller stopped at the stile, scratched his head under his hat, and again threw his leg across the hedge.
"Okh, there is sure to be a fuss as there was last time, only worse," thought the miller. "That infernal Kharko with his infernal talk told me just what to say, but now, when I remember what he told me, it doesn't somehow seem right. It doesn't sound common sense. But what will be, will be!" and he knocked again.
A pale face and a pair of black eyes gleamed for an instant at the window.
"Mother, mother mine!" whispered Galya. "Here's that wicked miller again standing at the window and tapping on the pane."
"Ah, she doesn't lean out to put her arms around me and kiss me this time, even by mistake," thought the miller sadly.
The girl came out softly and stood a long way off with her arms folded on her white breast.
"What do you mean by knocking again?"
Alas, it is bitter for a man to hear such cold words from the girl who has been his darling love! The miller longed to embrace her girlish form and show her why he had knocked. To tell you the truth, he was already beginning to sidle toward her when he remembered what Kharko had told him, and answered instead:
"Why should I not knock when you owe me so much that you will never be able to pay me? Your hut isn't worth the debt."
"If you know we shall never pay you, don't come knocking at the window by night, you godless man! You will drive my old mother into her grave."
"Who the devil is driving her into her grave, Galya? If you only would let me, I would give your mother a peaceful old age."
"No, I'm not lying! Oi, Galya, Galya! I can't live without loving you!"
"You lie like a dog! Who was it sent the match-makers to Makogon?"
"Whether I sent them or not, I'll tell you the whole truth and swear to it if you like. I'm pining and fading away without you. And I'm going to tell you just what we'll do, and if you're a sensible girl you'll listen to me. But I make one condition: listen with your ears and answer with your tongue. No hand play this time! If there is, I'll be angry."
"You've a funny way of doing things," said Galya, folding her arms. "However, I'll listen to you; but I warn you, if you begin to talk nonsense don't call on your God to help you!"
"It won't be nonsense. You see—oh, how did Kharko begin?"
"Kharko? What has Kharko to do with you and me?"
"Oh, do be quiet or I won't be able to get anything straight. Listen to me: used you to love me?"
"Would I have kissed an ugly face like yours if I hadn't?"
"And what was I then, a workman in the mill or not?"
"A workman, of course. I wish to goodness you had never become a miller!"
"Tut, tut, don't talk so much or I'll get mixed up! So you see it is clear that you loved a workman once and that therefore you ought to marry a workman now and live at the mill. And I shall go on loving you as I always have, even if I marry ten Motrias."
Galya actually rubbed her eyes; she thought she was dreaming.
"What nonsense are you talking, man? Either I'm absolutely crazy or else there's a screw loose in your head. How can I marry a workman now that you are a miller? And how can you marry me when you're sending the match-makers to Motria? What nonsense you're talking, man! Cross yourself with your left hand!"
"What do you mean?" answered the miller. "Do you think I haven't a workman at the mill? What about Gavrilo? Isn't he one? He's a little stupid, I know, but that will be all the better for us, Galya, my darling."
Only then did the girl at last understand what the miller was driving at with his cunning talk. You should have seen her throw up her arms and heard her scream!
"Oi, mother, dear mother, listen to what he is saying! He wants to turn Turk and to keep two wives! Fetch the pitchfork out of the cottage quick, while I settle him with my hands!"
So she fell upon the miller, and the miller fell back. He escaped to the stile, put one foot upon it, and said:
"Oho! So that's your game, little viper! Very well then, quit this hut with your mother! Tomorrow I'll take it for your ebts. Away with you!"
But she shouted back:
"Get out of my garden, you Turk, as long as it's mine! If you don't I'll scratch you with my nails so that even your Motria won't know where your eyes and nose and mouth have been. Not only will you not have two sweethearts, not one will look at an eyeless creature like you."
What use to talk to her? The miller spat, jumped quickly over the hedge, and left the village in a rage. When he reached the crest of the hill from where there came to him the murmuring of the stream in the mill-race, he looked back and shook his fist.
And at that moment he heard the sound of a bell: ding, dong; ding, dong! Again Kadilo was ringing the hour of midnight from the village belfry.
The miller reached his mill. It was all drenched with dew; the moon was shining, the wood was shimmering, and a bittern, that foul bird, was awake and booming in the reeds, sleepless, as if it were waiting for some one, as if it were calling up some one out of the pond.
Dread fell upon Philip the miller.
"Hey! Gavrilo!" he shouted.
"Oo-oo, oo-oo!" answered the bittern from the marsh, but not a squeak came from the mill.
"Oh, the confounded scapegrace! He's run off after the girls again." So thought the miller, and somehow did not feel like going alone into the empty mill. Although he was used to it, he sometimes remembered that not only fish but adders were to be found swimming about among the piles in the dark water under the floor.
He looked in the direction of the city. The night was warm and bright; a light mist was circling over the river that flowed through the woods, lost in the shimmering murk. There was not a cloud in the sky.
The miller looked behind him, and wondered afresh at the depth of his pond that found room in its bosom for the moon and the stars and the whole of the dark blue sky.
As he gazed at the pond he saw in the water something resembling a gnat flying across the stars. He looked more closely, and saw the gnat grow to the size of a fly, and the fly to a sparrow, and the sparrow to a crow, and the crow to a hawk.
"Well, I'll be damned!" cried the miller, and, raising his eyes, he saw something flying not through the water but through the air, and making straight for the mill.
"The Lord preserve us! There's Khapun again hurrying to the city after his prey. Look at him, the unholy brute, how late he is this time! It's past midnight already, and he's just starting out."
While the miller was standing there staring up at the sky, the cloud, which was now as large as an eagle, circled over the mill and began to descend. Out of it came a humming sound like out of a huge swarm of bees that has left its hive and is hovering over a garden.
"What! Is he going to rest on my dam again?" thought the miller. "What a habit he makes of it now! Wait a bit, mister! I'll put up a cross there next year, and then you won't come stopping at my dam on your journey like a gentleman at an inn. But what is he making that noise for, like those rattling kites children fly? I must hide under the sycamores again, and see what he's going to do next."
But before he had had time to reach the trees, the miller looked up and nearly shrieked aloud with terror. He saw his guest hovering right over the mill holding—what? You will never guess what the devil held in his clutches.
It was Yankel the Jew! Yes, he had brought back the selfsame Yankel whom he had carried away the year before. He was holding him tight by the back, and in Yankel's hands was a huge bundle tied up in a sheet. The devil and Yankel were abusing one another in the air, and making as much fuss as ten Jews in a bazaar squabbling over one peasant.
The devil dropped on to the dam like a stone. If it hadn't been for his soft bundle every bone in Yankel's body would certainly have been broken to pieces. As soon as they touched the ground both jumped to their feet and went at it again, hammer and tongs.
"Oi, oi! What a dirty, foul trick!" screamed Yankel. "Couldn't you have let me down more gently? I suppose you knew you had a living man in your claws?"
"I wish you and your bundle had gone right through the earth!"
"Pooh! What harm does my little bundle do you? You don't have to carry it."
"Your little bundle indeed! A whole mountain of trash! I have only just managed to drag you back. Oo-ff! There was nothing about this in our contract."
"But when has it ever been known that a man went on a journey without any baggage? If you carry a man you must carry his things too; that's understood without any contract. I see! You've been trying to cheat poor Yankel the Jew from the very start, and that's why you're quarrelling now!"
"Huh! Any one who tried to cheat you, you old fox, wouldn't live three days! I'm precious sorry I ever agreed to anything!"
"And do you think I am perfectly delighted to have made your acquaintance? Oi, vei! You'd better tell me yourself what our contract was. But you may have forgotten it, so I'll remind you. We made a bet. Perhaps you will say we didn't make a bet? That would be a nice trick!"
"Who said we didn't make a bet? Did I say we didn't?"
"And how could you say we didn't, when we made it right here in this very place? Perhaps you don't remember what the bet was, as I do. You said: Jews are usurers, Jews sell the people vodka, Jews have pity on their own people but on no one else; that's why every one wishes them to the devil. Of course, perhaps you didn't say that, and perhaps I didn't say in answer: there stands a miller behind that very sycamore tree who, if he had any pity for Jews, would shout to you now and say: 'Drop him, Mr. Devil; he has a wife, he has children!' But he won't do it. That was number one!"
"How could the wretch have guessed that?" thought the miller; but the devil said:
"Very well; number one!"
"And then I said—don't you remember?—I said: as soon as I've gone the miller will open a tavern and will begin selling diluted vodka. He lends money already at a fine rate of interest. That was number two!"
"All right; number two!" the devil agreed, but the miller scratched his head and thought:
"How could the infernal brute have guessed all that?"
"And I went on to say that, as a matter of fact, Christians did wish us to the devil. But do you think, said I, that if one of us Jews were here now and saw what you want to do to me he wouldn't raise a fine riot? But every one you ask will say of the miller in a year: the devil fly away with him! That was number three!"
"All right; number three. I don't deny it."
"And a fine business it would be if you did deny it! What sort of an honest Hebrew devil would you be after that? Tell me now what you agreed to do on your part."
"I have done all I agreed. I have left you alive for a year; number one. I have brought you back here; number two——"
"And what about number three? What are you going to do about that?"
"What do you think I'm going to do? If you win the bet I'll let you go scot free."
"And my losses? Don't you know that you owe me for my losses?"
"Losses? What losses can you have had when we allowed you to do business with us for a whole year without paying a license? You wouldn't have made as much profit in three years on earth. Just think for yourself: I carried you off in your shirt without even a pair of shoes to your feet, and look what a big bundle you've brought back! Where did you get it from if you made nothing but losses?"
"Oi, vei! There you are scolding me about my bundle again! Whatever I made there by trading is my own business. Did you count my profits? I tell you I made nothing but losses out of my dealings with you, besides losing a year here on earth."
"Oh, you swindler you!" shouted the devil.
"I a swindler? No, you're a swindler yourself, you thief, you liar, you scab!"
And they began again to wrangle so violently that their words became quite unintelligible. They waved their arms, their skull-caps quivered, and they stood up on tip-toe like two cocks preparing to fight. The devil was the first to regain control of himself.
"But we don't yet know who has won the bet! It is true that the miller didn't take pity on you, but we haven't decided the other points yet. We haven't asked the people whether he opened a tavern or not."
"I have opened two!" the miller thought, scratching his head again. "Oh, why didn't I wait a year? Then Yankel would have been sent to the devil for good, but now something disagreeable may come of it."
He looked round at his mill. Couldn't he possibly slip away to the village by crawling behind it? But just as he was contemplating this move, the sound of muttering and of uncertain footsteps came to his ears from the wood. Yankel threw his bundle over his shoulder, and ran to the very sycamore tree where the miller was hiding. The miller hardly had time to slip behind a big willow tree before the devil and Yankel were both under the sycamore, and at that moment Gavrilo appeared at the far end of the dam. Gavrilo's coat was in tatters and was hanging off one shoulder; his hat was on one side of his head, and his bare feet were continually quarrelling with one another. If one wanted to go to the right, the other, out of contrariness, tried to go to the left. One pulled one way and the other the other, until the poor man's head and feet nearly flew off in opposite directions. So the poor lad staggered along, weaving patterns all across the dam from one side to the other, but not progressing forward very fast.
The devil saw that Gavrilo was full, so he came out and stood in the middle of the dam just as he was. Why the devil need any one stand on ceremony with a drunkard?
"Good evening, good fellow!" he called. "Where did you get so full?"
As he said this, the miller noticed for the first time how miserable and ragged Gavrilo had grown during the last year. And it was all because he drank up at his master's tavern everything that he earned from his master. It was long since he had seen any money; he took it all out in vodka.
The workman walked right up to the devil, saying:
"Whoa there! What has come over these devilish feet of mine? When I want them to walk, they stop; when they see any one standing under my very nose, they rush on ahead. Who are you?"
"With your permission, I am the devil."
"Wha-at? I believe you're lying. Well, I never! But perhaps you are right after all! There are your horns and your tail, just as they ought to be. But why do you wear ringlets hanging down your cheeks?"
"To tell you the truth, I'm the Hebrew devil."
"Aha! There's a marvel for you! If I were to tell people I had seen your honour no one would believe me. Wasn't it you who carried off our Yankel last year?"
"Yes, it was I."
"And whom are you after now? Not me? If you are, I swear I'll yell. Yes, I'll yell like mad. You don't know what a voice I have."
"Come, don't scream for nothing, good fellow. What good would you be to me?"
"Then perhaps it's the miller you want? If you'd like me to call him, I will. But no, wait a bit. Who would be our inn-keeper if you took him away?"
"Does he keep an inn?"
"Does he? He keeps two: one in the village and one by the side of the road."
"Ha! ha! ha! And is that why you would be sorry to lose the miller?"
"Oi, what a loud laugh you have! Ha! I'm not the fellow to be sorry on the miller's account. No, I didn't mean that at all. He's not a man to be sorry for. He thinks poor Gavrilo's a fool. And he's right too. I'm not very clever—don't think ill of me for it—but still, when I eat I don't put my porridge in another man's mouth, but into my own. And if I get married it will be for myself, and if I don't get married it will be for myself too. Am I right or not?"
"You're right, you're right, but I don't yet know what you're driving at."
"Hee, hee, perhaps you don't know because you don't need to. But I need to know, and I do know why he wants to get me married. Oi, I know it very well, even though I'm not very bright. When you carried Yankel away that time I was sorry to see him go, and I said to my master: Well, who is going to keep the inn for us now? And he answered: Bah, you fool, do you think some one won't turn up? Perhaps I'll keep it myself! That's why I say now: take the miller if you want him; we'll find some one else to be a Jew in his place. And now let me tell you, my good man—good gracious, your honour, don't think ill of me for calling a foul fiend a man!—and now let me tell you something: I'm getting terribly sleepy. Do as you please, but catch him yourself; I'm going to bed, I am, because I'm not very well. That will be splendid. Ah!"
Gavrilo's legs began weaving again, and he had hardly opened the door of the mill before he fell down and began to snore.
The devil laughed merrily, and, going to the edge of the dam, beckoned to Yankel where he stood under the sycamore tree.
"You seem to have won, Yankel," he shouted. "It looks very much like it. But give me something to wear, all the same; I'll pay you for it."
Yankel took a pair of breeches to the light and looked them over to be sure he wasn't giving the devil a new pair, and while he was busy with them, an ox-cart appeared on the road leading out of the wood. The oxen were sleepily nodding their heads, the wheels were quietly squeaking, and in the cart lay a peasant, Opanas the Slow, without a coat, without a hat, without boots, bawling a song at the top of his voice.
Opanas was a good peasant, but the poor fellow sorely loved vodka. Whenever he dressed up to go anywhere Kharko would be sure to call to him from his look-out at the inn-door:
"Won't you drink a little mugful, Opanas? What's your hurry?"
And Opanas would drink it.
Then, when he had crossed the dam and reached the village, the miller himself would call to him from the door of the other tavern:
"Won't you come in and have a little mugful, Opanas? What's the hurry?"
And Opanas would have another drink there. First thing you knew he would turn home without having been anywhere else at all.
Yes, he was a good peasant, but fate had ordained him always to fall between the two taverns. And yet he was a merry fellow and was always singing songs. That is man's nature. When he has drunk up everything he possesses and knows that an angry wife is waiting for him at home, he will make up a song and think he has got rid of his troubles. And so it was with Opanas. He was lying in his wagon singing so loudly that even the frogs jumped into the water as he drove up, and this was his song:
"Oxen, oxen, how you crawl,
Walking down the road;
If I stood up, I should fall,
Oi, I'd surely fall.
I've drunk up my coat and hat,
The boots from off my feet;
In the inn, I'll swear to that,
The miller's vodka's sweet.
"Oi, what is that devilish brute standing right in the middle of the dam for, keeping my oxen from crossing? If I wasn't too tired to get out of the cart, I'd show him how to plant himself there in the middle of the road. Gee, gee, gee-up!"
"Stop a minute, my good man!" said the devil very sweetly. "I want to have a minute's talk with you."
"A minute's talk? All right then, talk away, only I'm in a hurry. The tavern at Novokamensk will soon be closed so that no one can get in. But I don't know what you want to talk about; I don't know you. Well?"
"About whom were you singing that pretty song?"
"Thank you for praising it! I was singing about the miller that lives in this mill, but whether the song was pretty or not is my own affair, because I was singing it to myself. Perhaps some people would fly when they heard the song, perhaps some would cry. Gee, gee, gee-up! What! Are you still standing there?"
"I'm still standing here."
"You said in your song that the miller's vodka is good. Is that so?"
"Aha, now I see how sly you are! You begin quarrelling with a man's song before he has sung it to the end. That's the devil's own trick! You don't know the proverb, I see: don't go to hell before your father; if you do, you'll be sorry. If that's how you feel, I'd better sing my song to the end, so here goes:
Yes, the vodka in the inn
Is good as any sold;
Two parts of it are liquor,
One is water cold.
"Get out of the way, then! What are you standing there for? What do you want now? Wait a minute till I get out of my wagon and find out whether you're going to stand there much longer! What would you think if I gave you a taste of my stick, hey?"
"I'm going in a minute, my good man, only tell me one thing more. What would you think if the devil flew away with your miller here as he flew away with Yankel?"
"What would I think? I wouldn't think anything at all. He'll get him some day, that's certain; he'll surely get him. But you're still standing there, I see. Take care, I'm climbing out of my wagon! Look, I've already raised one leg!"
"All right, all right, go along with you if you're as cross as all that!"
"Are you out of the way?"
"Gee, gee, gee-up!"
The oxen shook their horns, the yoke and axles creaked, the wagon trembled, and Opanas continued his song:
"Oxen, oxen, how you crawl,
Hurry up and trot.
The miller has my coat and wheels,
So now he has the lot."
The wheels bumped down off the dam, and Opanas' song died away behind the hill.
But before it had quite died away another song rang out from across the river. A ringing chorus of women's voices came streaming through the night, first from afar, and then from in the wood. A party of women and girls, who had been gathering in the harvest on a distant farm, were now on their way home late at night, and were singing to give themselves courage in the wood.
The devil at once slipped to Yankel's side under the willow tree.
"Come, give me something more to wear, quick!"
Yankel handed him a heap of rags. The devil hurled them to the ground, and seized the bundle.
"Here! What do you mean by giving me these rags as if I were a beggar? I'd be ashamed to be seen in them. Give me something respectable!"
The devil seized what he wanted, folded his wings, which were as soft as a bat's, in a second, jumped like a flash into a pair of blue breeches as wide as the sea, threw on the rest of his clothes, drew his belt tight, and covered his horns with a high fur hat. Only his tail hung out over the top of one boot, and trailed along in the sand like a snake.
Then he smacked his lips, stamped his foot, stuck his arms akimbo, and went out to meet the lasses, looking for all the world like any young townsman, or perhaps some would-be gentleman steward.
He planted himself in the middle of the dam.
The song rang out nearer and nearer and clearer and clearer, floating away under the bright moon until it seemed as if it must wake the whole of the sleeping world. Then it suddenly broke off short.
The young women poured out of the wood as poppies might pour out of a girl's apron, saw the long-tailed dandy standing before them, and instantly huddled together in a group at the farther end of the dam.
"Who is that standing there?" asked one of the girls.
"It's the miller," answered another.
"The miller! Why, it doesn't look like him one bit!"
"Perhaps it's his workman."
"Who ever saw a workman dressed like that?"
"Tell us who you are if you're not a bad spirit!" called the widow Buchilikha, evidently the boldest of the party.
The devil bowed to them from a distance, and then approached, cringing and scraping like any little upstart who tries to appear a gentleman.
"Don't be afraid, my birdies," said he. "I'm a young man, but I won't do you any harm. Come on, and don't be afraid."
Each trying to push the other ahead, the women and girls stepped on to the dam, and soon surrounded the devil. Ah, there is nothing pleasanter than to be surrounded by a dozen or so frolicsome lasses bombarding you with swift glances, nudging one another with their elbows, and giggling. The devil's heart was beginning to leap and sparkle a little, like birch bark in a fire; he hardly knew what to do or where to turn. And the girls kept laughing at him louder and louder.
"That's right, that's right, little birdies!" thought the miller, peering out from behind his gnarled willow-tree. Remember, my duckies, how many songs Philipko has sung with you, how many dances he has led! See what trouble I'm in! Save me; I'm caught like a fly in a cobweb!"
He thought that if only they were to give the devil one little pinch the fiend would sink into the ground.
But old Buchilikha stopped the girls and exclaimed:
"Get along with you, little magpies, you've laughed at the poor lad till his nose hangs down and his arms are limp. Tell us, young fellow, for whom are you waiting here at the edge of the pond?"
"For the miller."
"Then you're a friend of his?"
"A plague upon any friend of mine that's like him!" the miller tried to cry, but his words stuck in his throat, and the devil replied:
"He's no very great friend of mine, but I can call him an old acquaintance."
"Is it long since you've seen him?"
"Yes, a long time."
"Then you wouldn't recognise him now. He used to be a nice lad, but he holds his head so high now that you couldn't touch his nose with a pitchfork."
"Yes, indeed. It's true, isn't it, girls?"
"It's true, true, true!" chattered the whole bevy.
"Tut, tut, not quite so loud!" cried the devil, putting his fingers in his ears. "Tell me: what has happened to him, and since when has he changed?"
"Since he grew rich."
"And began to lend money."
"And opened a tavern."
"He and his horrid Kharko have fuddled my husband Opanas so that the poor man never goes anywhere now except to the tavern."
"He has ruined our husbands and fathers with his drink."
"Oi, oi, he's a misery to us all, the horrid miller!" screamed one of the band, and in place of their songs, a chorus of wails and women's lamentations rang out across the river.
Philip rather scratched his head to hear the way the young women were interceding for him. But the devil's mind now seemed to be quite made up. He glanced at the girls out of one corner of his eye and rubbed his hands together.
"And that isn't all!" shouted the widow Buchilikha louder than the loudest. "Have you heard what he wanted to do to the widow's Galya?"
"Faugh!" spat the miller. "What a damned lot of magpies they are! What need to tell what they're not asked about? And how in the world did they find it out? Though it only happened in the village to-night, they have heard the whole story in the hay-fields! Why on earth does God allow women to live in this world?"
"And what did my friend try to do to the widow's daughter?" asked the devil, looking about him as if he weren't particularly interested in the story.
So the magpies went on to tell him everything, talking all at once, and laid the whole affair before him from beginning to end.
The devil shook his head.
"Oi, oi, oi! That's bad, very bad. I don't suppose any one ever heard of your former inn-keeper Yankel doing anything like that?"
"Oh, what Jew ever thought of doing such a thing?"
"Oh, no, never!"
"I see, my daisies, my little peaches, that you don't love my friend very much."
"Let him get the love of all the devils; he needn't expect any from us!"
"Oi, oi, oi, you don't wish him much good, I see!"
"May the fever take him and shake him to pieces!"
"May he follow his uncle into the pond!"
"May the devil carry him off as he carried off Yankel!"
They all burst out laughing.
"You are right, Olena; he is worse than a Jew."
"At least the Jew was a decent fellow; he let the girls alone and lived with his Sarah."
The devil actually jumped in his tracks.
"Thank you, thank you, my birdies, for your friendly words. Isn't it time for you to be going on?"
With that he threw back his head like a cock that intends to give an extra loud crow, and burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. He laughed so loud that all the evil spirits on the bed of the river woke up, and circles began spreading across the surface of the pond. But the girls shied away from him like a flock of sparrows into which some one has thrown a stone, and vanished as if the wind had suddenly blown them off the dam.
The goose-flesh ran up and down the miller's back, and he stared down the road that led to the village.
"The best thing for me to do," he thought, "is to make off after those girls as fast as my legs will carry me. I used to be able to run with the best."
But at that moment he suddenly felt relieved, for he saw some one coming toward the mill-dam. And it wasn't just any one, either, but his own servant Kharko.
"A miss is as good as a mile!" he thought. "There is my man!"
The servant was barefooted; he was wearing a red shirt; a cap without a brim was stuck on the back of his head, and on a stick he was carrying Opanas' new boots, which were dripping tar all over the dam.
"What a hurry he's in!" thought the miller. "He's got hold of the boots already. But never mind, all my hopes are centred on him now."
As soon as the servant caught sight of a stranger on the dam he instantly thought that here was some thieving tramp waiting to steal his boots. So he stopped a few steps from Khapun and said:
"You'd better not come any nearer, I warn you! I won't give them up!"
"What's the matter with you? Come to your senses, good man! Haven't I boots of my own? Look, they are better than yours!"
"Then why have you planted yourself there by night, like a crooked willow tree by a pond?"
"Well, you see, I wanted to ask you a question."
"Splendid! A riddle is it, eh? Who told you I could answer riddles better than any one else?"
"Ha, ha, I've heard people say so!"
The soldier set down his boots, took out his tobacco-pouch, and began filling his pipe. Then he struck a light with a flint, and, blowing out a thick cloud of smoke from under his nose, said:
"Now, then, spout it out. What's your riddle?"
"It isn't exactly a riddle. I wanted to ask you who you think is the best man in this neighbourhood?"
"And why do you think that? Isn't there any one here better than you are?"
"You ask me what I think. Very well, I answer that I won't give the first place to any one."
"You're right. And the miller, what sort of a man is he?"
The soldier blew out of his mouth a cloud of smoke that looked as large in the moonlight as the tail of a white horse. Then he eyed the devil askance and asked:
"You're not a Customs officer, are you?"
"And you're not in the police—a detective, by any chance?"
"No, no, I tell you! What, a clever chap like you, and you can't even see when a man's just an ordinary fellow and when he isn't?"
"Who said I couldn't? I can see through and through you. I only asked that on the chance. And now, let me see; you asked me what sort of man the miller was?"
"Well, he's just about medium height, neither very large nor very small; a good average."
"Oh, that's not what I wanted to know!"
"Isn't it? What more do you want me to tell you? Perhaps you would like to know where his warts are, if he has any?"
"You're trying to throw dust in my eyes I see, but I'm in a hurry. Tell me in plain words: is the miller a good man or a bad one?"
The soldier blew another huge tail of smoke out of his mouth and said:
"What a hasty fellow you are! You like to eat, but you won't chew."
The devil opened his eyes wide, and the miller's heart jumped for joy.
"What a tongue that boy has!" he thought. "And yet how often have I wished that it might drop off. But now it has come in useful. How he is roasting the devil!"
"You like to eat, but you won't chew, I tell you!" the soldier repeated sternly. "You want me to tell you whether the miller is a good man or not. Every man's good in my opinion. I've eaten bread from many a stove, friend. I wouldn't even cough where you would die of suffocation. Do you think you've struck a fool in me?"
"Splendid! Splendid! Give it to him hard!" the miller said to himself, dancing with joy. "My name isn't Philip the miller if the devil doesn't look more foolish than a sheep before half an hour is over! I read so fast in church that no one can understand me, but he talks quietly, and yet just listen to what he is saying!"
And in fact the poor devil was scratching his head so hard that he was nearly knocking his hat off.
"Hold on, soldier!" he exclaimed. "You and I seem to run on and on and never get anywhere. We're all tangled up."
"I don't know about you, but there's no tangle I can't get out of."
"But look here; I asked you whether the miller was a good man or not, and see where you've led me!"
"Then let me ask you a question: is water good or not?"
"Water? What's the matter with water?"
"But if there was kvass about you would turn up your nose at water, wouldn't you? Water would seem tasteless, then, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, perhaps it would."
"And if there was beer on the table you wouldn't drink kvass, would you?"
"No, certainly not."
"And if some one brought you a mug of gorelka you wouldn't look at beer, eh?"
"You're quite right."
"Very well then, you see!"
The devil broke out into a sweat, and the tail hanging out from under his coat beat the ground till it actually raised a cloud of dust from the dam. The soldier threw the stick with his boots on it over his shoulder and was preparing to take his departure when the devil thought of a way he might catch him. He stepped a few steps to one side, and said:
"Well,—go along, go along! I shall wait here a little while longer in case Kharko the soldier should happen to come by."
The soldier stopped.
"What do you want with him?"
"Nothing much, but they tell me that Kharko is a bright fellow and that he knows a thing or two! I thought at first you were he. But now I see I was wrong. One simply goes round and round in a circle with you, and can't get going to save one's life."
The soldier set down his boots.
"Come on, ask me another question!"
"Oh, what's the use?"
"Very well, then: tell me, whom did you like the best, Yankel the inn-keeper, or the miller?"
"Why didn't you ask me that at once? I don't like people that hunt for their beards alongside their noses. Some people would rather walk ten versts through the fields than go one verst by the straight road. But I'll answer you straight to the point, as they say. Yankel kept one inn, but the miller keeps two."
"Oh, hang him, he needn't have said that!" thought the miller, miserably. "It would have been ever so much better if he hadn't referred to it."
But the soldier continued:
"When I worked for Yankel, I wore bast shoes, now I wear boots!"
"From where did you get them?"
"From where, eh? Our business is like a well with two buckets. One bucket fills and the other grows empty. One goes up and the other goes down. I used to wear bast shoes; now I wear boots. Opanas used to wear boots; now he goes barefoot because he's a fool. The bucket comes to the wise man full and goes away empty. Now do you understand?"
The devil listened attentively, and said:
"Wait a minute! At last we seem to be getting somewhere!"
"But I've been telling you the same thing all along. If you call Yankel kvass, then the miller is beer; but if you were to give me a glass of good vodka, I should let the beer alone."
The tip of the devil's tail skipped about so madly on the sand that Kharko noticed it at last. He blew a puff of smoke right into the devil's face, and put his foot on the tail as if by accident. The devil jumped, and yelped like a great dog. Both he and Kharko took fright; they opened their eyes wide, and stood for half a minute staring at one another without saying a word.
At last Kharko whistled in that insolent way of his, and said:
"Ah, ha! ah, ha! So that's the game, is it?"
"And what did you think?" asked the devil.
"Now I know the kind of a queer bird you are!"
"I'm what you see I am."
"Then you're the one who—last year—?"
"And you're after him?"
"You're right. And what do you think of my plan?"
Kharko stretched his limbs, blew a puff of smoke, and answered:
"Take him! I won't cry over him. I'm a poor man. It's none of my business. I'll sit in the inn smoking my pipe till a third one comes along."
Once more the devil roared with laughter, but the soldier only slung his boots across his back and walked rapidly away. As he passed the sycamore tree the miller heard him muttering to himself:
"So that's the game, is it? He's carried off one and now he's come back for the other. Well, it's none of my business. When the devil got the Jew the miller got the goods. Now he's come for the miller and the goods will be mine. A soldier is his own master. Now that I've the business in my own hands, let's see if I can't keep it. I'll not be poor Kharko any longer, but Mr. Khariton Tregubov. Only I'm not a fool. No temptation on earth will ever take me on to this dam at night."
And with that he began climbing the hill.
The miller stared from side to side. Who would help him now? Not a soul was in sight. Darkness was falling; a frog was croaking sleepily in the mud; a bittern was booming angrily in the reeds. The edge of the moon was peeping over the woods as if asking: "What will become of Philip the miller now?"
It looked at him, winked, and set behind the trees.
The devil stood on the dam holding his sides with laughter. His shouts of merriment shook the floury dust out of every cranny in the old mill; all the spirits of the forest and pond awoke and came flitting toward him, some floating like shadows out of the wood, some hanging like filmy clouds over the water. The pond stirred, streaks of swirling white vapour rose from it, and ripples ran in circles across its surface. The miller gave it one look, and his blood ran cold: a blue face with dull, staring eyes was glaring up at him out of the water, its long whiskers waving like the antennas of a water-beetle. Who could it be but his uncle, rising from the pond and coming straight toward the sycamore tree?
Yankel the Jew had long since crept silently out on to the dam, picked up the clothes which the devil had discarded, slipped across to the sycamore tree, and hastily tied up his bundle. There was no more mention of losses now; any man would have been afraid to mention them, I can tell you! Losses be hanged! Yankel hoisted his bundle on to his back and shuffled quietly away, following the others along the path that led from the mill to the village.
The miller made a rush for his mill; once there, at least he would be able to lock himself in or else wake his workman! But he had hardly quitted his tree before the devil jumped after him. Philip dashed into the mill, slammed the door, rushed into his room, hurriedly lit a light, and fell down on the floor screaming with might and main, just like—what do you think?—the Jews in their synagogue!
And the devil circled over the mill, stuck his inquisitive nose in at the window, and couldn't make out how to get at the tempting morsel before him. Suddenly, bang! Something dropped to the floor with a thump as if a huge cat had jumped into the room. That confounded devil had come down the chimney! The fiend sprang to his feet, and next instant the miller felt him sitting on his back, digging his claws into his flesh.
What could he do?
Suddenly, another bang! Darkness fell, and the devil was dragging the miller through a black, narrow hole. The miller smelt clay, clouds of soot rose about him, and all at once he saw lying below him the chimney and the roof of the mill, growing smaller and smaller every second, as if they and the dam and the sycamore trees and the pond were falling into a bottomless pit. And there lay the sky, reflected upside-down in the calm mill-pond spread out below them as smooth as a platter, and in it the peaceful stars were twinkling as they had always twinkled before. And the miller saw flying across those dark blue depths a form that looked first like a hawk, and then like a crow, and then like a sparrow, and then like a large fly.
"He is taking me ever so high!" thought the miller. "There go your profits for you, Philipko, and your inns, and all your fine show! Is there no Christian soul who will call to him: Drop it, it is mine?"
But Christian soul there was none! Below him slept the mill, and out of the pond the monstrous face of his uncle alone was glaring at him with glassy eyes, laughing to itself and waving its whiskers.
Farther on the Jew was still crawling up the hill, stooping under his heavy white bundle. Half way up the ascent stood Kharko, shading his eyes with his hand and gazing up at the sky.
The scattered band of girls had overtaken Opanas and his oxen. They were flying along like lunatics and Opanas was staring straight up at the sky as he lay in his cart. Though his heart was kind, his eyes were blind with vodka, and his tongue was as heavy as lead. There was no one, no one, who would cry: Drop it, it is mine!
And there lay the village. There was the tavern, closed for the night; there stood the sleeping cottages, and there lay the gardens. There, too, stood the tall poplar tree and the widow's little khata. Old Prisia and her daughter were sitting on a bench at the door, weeping and embracing one another. And why were they weeping? Was it because next day the miller was going to drive them out of their native hut?
The miller's heart leaped. At least these two might give him a kind thought! He plucked up courage and shouted:
"Don't cry, Galya; don't cry, little sweetheart! I'll forgive you all your debts and the interest, too! Oh, I'm in trouble, in worse trouble than you are. The Evil One is carrying me away as a spider carries a little fly."
Tender and sensitive is the heart of a girl! It did not seem possible that Galya could have heard the miller's cry from such a great distance, but she shuddered nevertheless, and raised her dark, weeping eyes to heaven.
"Farewell, farewell, my beautiful black eyes," the miller sighed, and at that instant he saw the girl's hands clutch her breast and heard her rend the air with a piercing scream:
"Drop it, foul fiend! Drop it, it is mine!"
The sound tore at the devil's ears like the mighty swing of a brandished chain. His wings fluttered feebly, his claws relaxed their hold, and Philip floated down like a feather, turning from side to side.
The devil dropped after him like a stone. But as soon as he reached him and grabbed him afresh, Galya shouted again:
"Drop it, accursed one, it is mine!"
The devil dropped the miller, and once more the poor man floated downward. So it happened three times, while the marsh lying between the mill and the village spread ever wider and wider beneath them.
Splash! The miller fell into the soft mud with such a bump that the bog bounced as if it had been on springs, and threw the miller ten feet into the air. He fell down again, jumped up, and took to his heels helter-skelter as fast as his legs could carry him. As he ran he screamed at the top of his lungs, feeling every second that the devil was going to grab him.
He reached the first hut on the outskirts of the village, flew the hedge at a bound, and found himself in the middle of the widow's cottage. Here he came to his senses for the first time.
"Well, I am in your cottage, thank God!" he said.
Just think of it, good people, what a prank he had played! There he was early in the morning, before sunrise, before even the cows had been driven out to pasture, bareheaded, barefooted, in rags, plunging into the hut of two unmarried women, a widow and a young girl! Yes, and the fact that he was hatless was a small matter; it was lucky indeed he hadn't lost something else on the way; if he had, he would have disgraced the poor women forever! And on top of it all what did he say? "Thank God, I am in your cottage!"
The old woman could only wave her arms, but Galya jumped up in her nightgown from a bench, threw on a dress, and cried to the miller:
"What are you doing here, you wicked man? Are you so drunk that you can't find your own hut, and so come rushing into ours, hey?"
But the miller stood in front of her looking at her with gentle if slightly staring eyes, and said:
"Come on, hit me as hard as you can!"
And she hit him once: bang!
"Hit me again!"
So she hit him again.
"That's right. Do you want to hit me any more?"
So she hit him a third time. Then, when she saw that not only did he not mind, but stood there looking at her with gentle eyes, she threw up her hands and burst into tears.
"Oi, misery me, poor orphan that I am, who will come to my help? Oi, what a man this is! Isn't it enough for him that he has deceived a young girl like me, and that he wants to turn Turk, and has made every one gossip about me, and disgraced me before the whole village? Look at him, look at him, good people! I have hit him three times and he won't even turn away. Oi, what can I do with a man like him, tell me, somebody, do!"
But the miller asked:
"Are you going to hit me again or not? Tell me truly. If you aren't, I'm going to sit down on that bench, because I'm tired."
Galya's hands were approaching the miller again, but the old woman guessed there was something out of the ordinary about the business, and said to her daughter:
"Wait a bit, child! Why do you go on slapping the man's neck without even stopping to ask him a question? Can't you see that the lad's a little bit off his head? Tell me, neighbour, where did you come from so suddenly, and what do you mean by saying: Thank God I am in your cottage, when you know you oughtn't to be here at all?"
The miller rubbed his eyes and said:
"Tell me the honest truth, Auntie, am I asleep? Am I still alive? Has one night or one year passed since yesterday evening? And did I come here from the mill or did I drop from the sky?"
"Tut, tut, man! Cross yourself with your left hand! What nonsense you're talking. You must have been dreaming!"
"I don't know, good mother, I don't know. I can't make head or tail of it myself."
He was about to sit down on a bench, when he caught sight through the window of Yankel the inn-keeper, crawling along with a huge bundle on his back. The miller jumped up, pointed toward the window, and asked the two women:
"Who is that walking along there?"
"Why, that's our Yankel!"
"And what is he carrying?"
"A bundle from the city."
"Then why do you say I've been dreaming? Don't you see that the Jew has come back? I saw him at the mill a moment ago, carrying that very same bundle."
"And why shouldn't he have come back?"
"Because the devil carried him off last year. Khapun, you know."
Well, in a word, there was a great deal of amazement when the miller told of all that had happened to him. And in the meanwhile a crowd was beginning to collect in the road in front of the cottage; the people looked in at the window, and began making slanderous comments.
"Look at that!" they said. "There's a nice state of affairs! The miller comes tearing across the fields without a hat, without boots, all ragged and torn, and runs straight into the widow's cottage, and there he sits with them now!"
"Hey! Tell us, good man, whom have you come to see all dressed up like that? Is it Old Prisia, or young Galya?"
You will agree, I am sure, that no one can allow a poor girl to be gossiped about like that. The miller was simply obliged to marry her. But Philip has confessed to me many a time himself that he had always loved the widow's Galya, and that after the night when she rescued him from the foul fiend's clutches, she grew so dear to him that he wouldn't have let himself be driven away from her with a stick.
They are living at the mill now, and already have several children. The miller has forgotten his inn and no longer lends money at interest. And whenever a voice in his heart whispers to him to wish Yankel the Jew out of the village to the devil, he only makes a contemptuous gesture.
"And the inn?" He used sometimes to ask people after his adventure. "Will it still remain?"
"Of course the inn will remain. What should become of it?"
"But who will keep it? Perhaps you are thinking of doing it yourself?"
"Yes, perhaps I am."
And at that the miller would only whistle.
Yes, that is the adventure that befell the miller. Such a strange adventure it was that to this day no one has decided whether it really happened or not. If you say it was all a falsehood, I can answer that the miller was not a man to tell lies. Then, Gavrilo the workman is still living at the mill, and though he confesses himself that he was thoroughly drunk that night, he remembers clearly that the miller opened the door for him, and that his master's face was whiter than flour. And Yankel came back at dawn, and Opanas reached home drunk and without his boots, so it seems as if the miller could not really have dreamt it after all.
But then, again, take this: how could it be true, when the whole affair would have taken a year to happen and yet the miller ran barefoot into Galya's cottage the very next morning? A great many people actually saw him, and wondered why the miller was tearing barefoot across the fields to visit the girl.
The best plan, I think, is not to look too closely into the story. Whether it happened or whether it didn't, I'll give you a piece of advice. If you know a miller, or any man who keeps two taverns and who abuses the Jews and yet fleeces the people like sheep, tell your friend this story. I recommend it to you; the plan has been tried. Whether he gives up his business or not, he will at least bring you a mugful of vodka that, for once, won't be diluted with water.
There are people, of course, and this too has been found to be true, who will growl at you like dogs as soon as you tell them the story. People like them I answer with these words: Grumble and growl as much as you like, but I give you fair warning: take care the same thing doesn't happen to you!
And I say this because, you see, the people of Novokamensk have more than once seen that very same devil again. Ever since he has had a taste of the miller, he doesn't want to go home without some dainty morsel. So he flies about, peering in every direction like a lost bird.
Therefore, take care, good people, that something evil doesn't befall you.
And now, good-bye! If I haven't told the story to suit your taste, don't think ill of me, I'm only plain man.
- Ten days after the Jewish New Year, which is celebrated in the early Autumn, comes Yom Kippur, or the day of Purification, called by the peasants of Little Russia the "Day of Atonement." A superstition exists among them that on this day the Jewish Devil Khapun (the Snatcher) carries off one Jew each year out of the Synagogue. This superstition probably had its origin in the extremely impressive ceremonies which the Jews carry out at this season with extraordinary zeal under the eyes of the Christian village population.
- Kvass: a foamy, fermented drink, made of brown flour and hops.