The Kiss and Other Stories/The Reed
RELAXED from his tramp in the breathless fir-wood, covered with cobwebs and fir-needles, Meliton Shishkoff, steward at Dementieff's farm, gun on shoulder, walked by the margin of the wood. His Damka, cross between setter and yard-dog, pregnant but unnaturally thin, with wet tail between legs, dragged herself after her master, and did her best to escape being pricked. It was a tedious, cloudy morning. The mist-shrouded trees and bracken scattered big drops, and the damp forest exhaled a smell of decay.
Ahead, where the wood ended, rose birches, and between their trunks and branches gleamed a vision of mist. Some one behind the birches played a home-made shepherd's reed. The musician piped only half a dozen notes, piped them idly, with no attempt at melody, and his music sounded rude and tedious beyond words.
Where the forest thinned and fir-trees mingled with young birches Meliton saw a herd. Hamshackled horses, cows, and sheep wandered between the bushes, and, making the branches crackle, snuffed at the forest grass. Near the edge of the wood, leaning against a wet birch-trunk, stood an old, thin shepherd, capless, in a tattered frieze caftan. Lost in thought, he looked at the ground and piped his reed mechanically.
“Morning, grandfather! God be good!” Meliton greeted him in a thin, hoarse voice, in no way suited to his great height and big, fleshy face. “You play your reed well! Whose are the animals?”
“Artamonoff's,” answered the shepherd reluctantly. He thrust his reed into the bosom of his caftan.
“And the wood also is Artamonoff's?” asked Meliton, looking around. “Of course, Artamonoff's . . . I don't know where I am. I scratched my face to pieces in the briers.”
He sat down on the wet ground and rolled a cigarette in a piece of newspaper.
Like his liquid voice, everything about Meliton was petty and clashed with his stature, breadth, and fleshy face — his smile, his eyes, his buttons, the cap which barely kept on his solid, close-clipped head. As he spoke and smiled, his clean-shaven, puffy face and his whole flgure expressed childishness, timidity, and meekness.
“It's bad weather, God better it!” he said, turning away his head. “The oats are not yet in, and the rain is on us, Lord help us!”
The shepherd looked at the drizzling sky, at the wood, at the steward's soaked clothing, thought, and made no reply.
“The whole summer's been the same . . .” sighed Meliton. “Bad for the muzhiks, and for the quality no consolation. . . .”
Again the shepherd looked at the sky, again he thought, and then began, with pauses, as if chewing each word.
“The whole world goes the same way. . . . You can expect no good.”
“But how are things with you?” asked Meliton. He lighted his cigarette. “Have you seen any woodcock broods in Artamonoff's clearing?”
The shepherd was silent. Again he looked at the sky and about him, thought, and blinked his eyes. . . . It was plain that he ascribed no small weight to his own words, and to increase their value delayed them with a certain solemnity. His glance was keen, with the keenness of the old and grave; and the upturned nostrils and saddle-shaped depression in his nose expressed cunning and contempt.
“No, it seems, I saw none,” he answered. “Our gamekeeper, Artemka, says that he saw one brood near Pustoshka on Elijah's Day. I expect he lied. Birds are scarce.”
“Yes, brother, scarce! . . . Everywhere scarce. Shooting's hardly worth while. . . . There's no game at all, and what there is isn't worth shooting. Little bits of things; it's painful to see them.”
Meliton laughed and waved his hand.
“What's happening all over this world makes me laugh. The birds have gone off the rails; they sit so late that some haven't hatched out by Peter's Day.”
“All things go the same way,” said the shepherd, lifting his face. “Last year game birds were scarce, this year they're scarcer still, and in five years to come—mark my words — there won't be one left! Not only no game, but no birds of any kind.”
“That's true,” said Meliton thoughtfully. “That's true!”
The shepherd laughed bitterly and shook his head.
“It's a miracle!” he said. “What has become of them all? Twenty years gone by, I remember, there were geese and cranes, ducks and grouse—flocks upon flocks of them! I remember; the squire and his friends would come down and shoot, and all you could hear all day was pu, pu, pu, pu, pu! Plover and snipe without end to them, and little teals and woodcock as common as starlings—or sparrows, if you will. No end to them! Where are they gone? Even the birds of prey are gone! Gone are the eagles and the hawks and the owls. . . . Beasts of all sorts are few. The wolf and the fox are rare sights to-day, not to' mention bears and otters. And in those days there were elks. Forty years I watch the works of God from day to day, and all, I can see it plainly, is going in one way!”
“To the worse, lad. To ruin's the only conclusion. . . . The time is nigh for God's world to perish.”
The old man put on his cap and looked up.
“It's a pity!” he sighed after a short silence. “Lord, what a pity! It's God's will, of course—not we made the world, but it's a pity, brother! When a tree is withered, or a cow dies, we're sorry to see it. But what do you say, good man, to the whole world perishing? What good. Lord Jesus? And the sun . . . and the sky, and the woods . . . and the rivers . . . and the beasts—surely all these were made, adapted, fitted to one another. Each for its own work, each in its own place. . . . And all this will perish!”
A mournful smile passed over the shepherd's face, and he blinked his eyes.
“You think the whole world perishes?” said Meliton thoughtfully. “It may be; perhaps we are really near the end. But I don't believe that birds alone prove anything.”
“Not birds only,” replied the shepherd. “But beasts also . . . and cattle and bees and fish. . . . If you don't believe what I say, ask the old men. They'll tell you that fish are not what they used to be. In the sea, in the lakes, in the rivers, the fish grow less and less. In our Pestchanka, I remember, we caught pike a full yard long. Burbot were everywhere, and roach and bream—every fish on earth showed himself sometimes; but now if you catch a nine-inch pike or perch you may thank the Lord. There isn't even a carp left. Every year things get worse and worse, and soon you'll see there'll be no fish at all. . . . And take the rivers of the present day! The rivers are drying up.”
“It is. They're shallower and shallower every year; and already, brother, there are no deep pools as there used to be. Do you see those bushes?” The old man pointed aside. “Behind them there's an old channel; in my father's time, the Pestchanka flowed there; but look now, and see where the devil has taken it! It changes its course and will change it till it dries up altogether. And what's become of the smaller streams? In this very wood there was a brook so big that the muzhiks laid nets in it and caught pike; wild ducks wintered there; and now even in flood-time you can't float a boat in it. Yes, brother. Look where you will, everything is bad. Everything!”
The pair were silent. Meliton, lost in thought, stared at one point. He sought but one place in Nature untouched by the all-embracing ruin. On the mist and oblique rain-belts, as on muffed glass, slipped bright spots and at once vanished — the rising sun strove to pierce the clouds and look upon the earth.
“And the forests?” stammered Meliton.
“And the forests,” repeated the shepherd. “The forests are cut down, burnt, and dried up, and no new trees grow. What does grow is soon cut down; to-day it is up — to-morrow — look over your shoulder! — and down it's cut. . . . And so on without end until none remain! I, good man, have been watching the village flock ever since the Emancipation, and before that I was shepherd to the squire, shepherd in this very place; and I can't recall a summer day in all my life when I wasn't here. And all those years I observe the world of God. I have seen with my own eyes, brother; and I can tell you that all things that grow are on the way to ruin. Take rye, or oats, or even any flower; they're all on their way to the same end.”
“The people, perhaps, are better?” said the steward.
“Cleverer maybe. Yes, that's true, but what good is cleverness? What use are brains to people on the brink of ruin? You don't want your brains to die. What good are brains to the sportsman if there is no game? That's just how I reason it: God's given us men brains, and taken away our strength. The people have grown weak, too weak to talk about. Look at me! I have not a kopeck of money; in all the village, I am the last muzhik. But all the same, lad, I have strength. I am a strong man. Look at me! Seventy years I've lived; and I watch these flocks day after day, yes, and by night—I watch them for twenty kopecks and never sleep and never catch cold! My son is a cleverer man; but put him in my place, and next day he'll come and ask for higher wages, or go into hospital. So it is! Beyond bread I ask for nothing; it's written, give us this day our daily bread; but your muzhik nowadays must have tea and vodka, and white bread, and he sleeps from sundown to dawn, and drinks medicines, and is spoilt all round. And why? Because he's weak, he has no strength to endure. He would like to do without sleep, but his eyes shut—he's no good for anything!”
“That's true,” said Meliton. “The muzhik nowadays is good for nothing.”
“There's no use hiding it; we get worse every year. And as for the gentry, they're weaker still than the muzhiks. Your gentleman of to-day learns everything that's no good for him to know. And what use is it? . . . Skinny, weak, like some Hungarian or Frenchman; no dignity, nothing to look at; only one thing to boast of—he knows he's a gentleman. He sits with a rod and catches fish, or lies on his back reading books, or goes among the muzhiks and talks to them, and when he sees some one hungry hires him as a clerk. He lives among trifles, and has no real business in him. The old gentry were generals—the new ones are trash!”
“They're impoverished—badly,” said Meliton.
“Because God's taken their strength, that's why. You've no chance against God.”
Again Meliton stared fixedly at one point. After thinking a moment, he sighed, as sigh grave, sagacious men, shook his head, and said—
“What is the cause? We sin much. . . . We have forgotten God. . . . And now we see the result. The time draws nigh for the end of everything. The world can't last for ever . . . it, too, must have a rest.”
The shepherd sighed. He wished, it seemed, to drop a painful subject. He returned to the birches, and began to count the cattle.
“Gei, gei, gei !” he cried. “Gei, gei, gei! I can't abide you. The devil seems to drive you the wrong way.”
He glared angrily and went among the bushes to collect his herd. Meliton rose, and walked slowly by the edge of the wood. He looked at the ground, and thought and tried to remember a single thing that was not yet tainted by death. Again on the slant rain-belts slipped bright spots; they quivered in the tree-tops, and were extinguished in the wet leaves. Damka found a hedgehog under a bush, and to call her master's attention, whined.
“You had an eclipse, or not?” cried the shepherd from behind the bushes.
“Yes,” cried Mehton.
“You had? . . . Everywhere the people complain of it. That means, brother, there's disorder in heaven too. An eclipse isn't sent for nothing. Gei, gei, gei!”
Having got his flock together, the shepherd leaned against a birch-tree, and, looking at the sky, drew the reed idly from his bosom and began to play. He played mechanically as before, keeping to half a dozen notes, as if he handled the reed for the first time; and the notes came forth in-esolutely, without order, with no melody imaginable; so that Meliton, deep in thought on the world's coming destruction, found the music painful and unpleasant and wished it would cease. The high, piping notes, which trembled and died away, seemed to weep disconsolately, as if the reed itself were pained and frightened; and the lower notes seemed to speak of the mist, the grey heavens, the melancholy trees. The music, in truth, seemed made for the weather, the old man, and his words.
Meliton felt impelled to complain. He went up to the shepherd, looked at his sad, ironical face and at the reed, and muttered —
“And life has gro^vn worse, grandfather! There's no living nowadays. Famines . . . and poverty . . . murrain, sickness! We are crushed by need.”
The steward's puffy face turned purple, and his expression was feminine and plaintive. He twitched his fingers, as if seeking words to clothe inexpressible affliction, and continued —
“Eight children, a wife ... a mother still alive, and ten roubles a month for wages, to board myself! My wife a devil from poverty . . . and I a drunkard! I am a deliberate, grave man. I want to sit at home in peace; but all day long, like a dog, I wander about with my gun . . . because it is more than I can bear. I hate my home!”
Afraid that his tongue had carried him away, and that he had said what should be concealed, the steward waved his hand, and continued bitterly —
“If the world must perish, then let it — the sooner the better! There's no use delaying it, no use in suffering without cause. . . .”
The old man took the reed from his lips, and, closing one eye, looked along it. His face was sad, and covered with drops as with tears. He smiled and answered —
“It's a pity, brother! Lord, what a pity! The earth, the woods, the sky . . . the beasts and birds! . . . all these were made, adapted to their uses, each has its mind! And all will perish. . . . But most luckless of all are we men!”
In the forest rustled heavy rain. Meliton looked towards the sound, buttoned his coat to the neck, and said —
“I must go back to the village. Good-bye, grandfather! What is your name?” “Poor Luka.”
“Well, good-bye, Luka. Thanks for your good words. Damka! Come!”
Having taken leave of the shepherd, Meliton walked along the wood, and thence through a meadow that gradually merged in a marsh. The water rose in his foot-prints, and the rusty reed-grass bent, as if afraid of his tread. Beyond the marsh, on the banks of the Pestchanka of which grandfather Luka had spoken, rose willows; and behind the willows, in blue patches, stood the squire's barns. The world around presaged the coming of that sad, inevitable time when fields turn dark, when earth grows muddy and cold, when the weeping willow is sadder and down its trunk creep tears, when the crane alone evades the universal wretchedness; and even he, afraid to anger grieved Nature by boasting his delight, fills the air with a tedious, melancholy song.
Meliton walked to the river, and heard the sounds of the reed fading slowly away. He still wished to complain. He looked about him sadly, filled with intolerable pity for the sky, the earth, the sun, the woods, his Damka; and as a high note from the reed whined and trembled past his ears, he felt intense bitterness and offence at the chaos reigning throughout the world.
ITxe high note quivered, and ceased, and the reed was still.