The Bielokonsky Estate by Boris Pilniak

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY

F. O'DEMPSEY

Ivan Koloturov, President of the Bielokonsky Committee of the Poor, had ploughed his tiny holding for twenty years. He always rose before dawn and worked—dug, harrowed, threshed, planed, repaired—with his huge, strong, pock-marked hands; he could only use his muscular strength.

On rising in the morning, he prepared his hash of potatoes and bread, and went out of the hut to work—on the land, with cattle, with wood, stone and iron. He was honest, careful, and laborious. While still a lad of five he had, while driving from the station, helped a stranger in a mechanic's overalls to a seat; the man had told him all were equal in the sight of God, that the land belonged to the peasants, that the proprieters had stolen it from them, and that a time would come when he would have to "do things."

Ivan Koloturov did not understand what he would have to do, but when the fierce wave of the Revolution broke over the country and swept into the Steppe, he was the first to rise to "do things." Now he felt disillusioned. He had wanted to do everything honestly, but he was only able to work with his hands and muscles.

They elected him to the County Committee. He was accustomed to rise before dawn and set to work immediately. Now he was not permitted to do anything before ten o'clock. At ten he went to the Committee where, with the greatest difficulty, he put his name to papers—but this was not work: papers came in and went out independently of him. He did not understand their purport, he only signed them.

He wanted to do something! In the spring he went home to the plough. He had been elected in the Autumn, President of the Committee of the Poor, and he established himself in Prince Prozorovsky's domain, putting on his soldier brother's great coat and carrying a revolver in his belt.

He went home in the evening. His wife met him sullenly, jerking her elbows as she prepared some mash. The children were sitting on the stove, some little pigs grunted in a corner. There was a strong smell of burning wood.

"You won't care to eat with us now after the Barin's meal," nagged the old woman. "You are a Barin yourself now. Ha, ha!"

Ivan remained silent, sitting down on a bench beneath the Ikon.

"So you mix with rascals now," she persisted, "yes, that is what they are, Ivan Koloturov. Discontented rascals!"

"Peace, fool! You don't understand. Be quiet, I say!"

"You are ashamed of me, so you are hiding."

"We will live there together—soon."

"Not I! I will not go there."

"Idiot!"

"Ah, you have already learnt to snarl," the old woman jibed. "Ate your mash then! But perhaps you don't relish it after your Barin's pork."

She was right, he had already eaten—pork, and she had guessed it.
Ivan began to puff. "You are an idiot, I tell you," he growled.

He had come home to have a business talk about their affairs, but he left without settling anything. The old woman's sharp tongue had stung him in a tender spot. It was true that all the respectable peasants had stood aside, and only those who had nothing to lose had joined the Committee.

Ivan passed through the village. As he walked across the park, he saw a light burning in the stables and went over to discover the reason. He found some lads had assembled there and were playing cards and smoking. He watched them awhile, frowningly.

"This is stupid! You will set the place alight," he grumbled.

"What if we do?" the men answered sulkily. "It is for you to defend other people's property?"

"Not other peoples'—ours!" he retorted, then turned away.

"Ivan!" they shouted after him; "have you the wine-cellar key? There are spirits in there—if you don't give it to us, we shall break in…."

The house was dark and silent. The huge, spacious apartments seemed strange, terrible. The Prince still occupied the drawing-room. Ivan entered his office—formerly the dining-room—and lighted a lamp. He went down on his knees and began to pick up the clods of earth that lay on the floor; he threw them out of the window, then fetched a brush and swept up. He could not understand why gentlemen's boots did not leave a trail of dirt behind them.

Then he went into the drawing-room and served the final notice on the
Prince while the men were accommodating themselves in the kitchen.
Then he joined them, lying down on a form without undressing. After a
long time he fell asleep.

He awoke the next morning while all were still sleeping, rose and walked round the manor. The lads were still playing cards in the stable.

"Why aren't you asleep?" one of them asked him.

"I have had all I want," he replied. He called the cow-herd. The man came out, stood still, scratched his head, and swore angrily— indignant at being aroused.

"Don't meddle in other people's affairs," he grunted. "I know when to wake."

The dawn was fine, clear and chilly. A light appeared in the drawing- room, and Ivan saw the Prince go out, cross the terrace and depart into the Steppe.

At ten o'clock, the President entered the office, and set about what was, in his opinion, a torturous, useless business—the making out an inventory of the wheat and rye in each peasant's possession. It was useless because he knew, as did everyone in the village, how much each man had; it was torturous because it entailed such a great deal of writing.

Prince Prozorovsky had risen at daybreak. The sun glared fiercely over the bare autumn-swept park and into the drawing-room windows. The wedding cry of the ravens echoed through the autumnal stillness that hung broodingly over the Steppe.

On such a dazzling golden day as this, the Prince's ancestors had set off with their blood-hounds in by-gone days. In this house a whole generation had lived—now the old family was forced to leave it—for ever!

A red notice—"The Bielokonsky Committee of the Poor"—had been affixed to the front door the previous evening, and the intruders had bustled all night arranging something in the hall. The drawing-room had not so far been touched; the gilt backs of books still glittered from behind glass cases in the study. Oh books! Will not your poison and your delights still abide?

Prince Prozorovsky went out into the fields; they were barren but for dead rye-stalks that stuck up starkly from the earth. Wolves were already on the trail. He wandered all day long, drank the last wine of autumn and listened to the ravens' wedding cries.

When he had beheld this bird's carnival as a child, he had clapped his hands, crying: "Hurrah for my wedding! Hurrah for my wedding!" He had never had a wedding. Now his days were numbered. He had lived for love. He had known many affections, had felt bitter pangs. He had tasted the poison of the Moscow streets, of books and of women; had been touched by the autumnal sadness of Bielokonsky, where he always stayed in the autumn. Now he knew grief!

He walked aimlessly through the trackless fields and down into hollows; the aspens glowed in a purple hue around him; on a hill behind him the old white house stood amid the lilac shrubbery of a decaying park. The crystal clear, vast, blue vista was immeasurably distant.

The hair on his temples was already growing thin and gray—there was no stopping, no returning!

He met a peasant, a rough, plain man in a sheep-skin jacket, driving a cart laden with sacks. The man took off his cap and stopped his horse, to make way for the … gentleman.

"Good morning, little Father," he wheezed, then addressed his beast, pulled the reins, drove on, then stopped again and called out:

"Listen, Barin, I want to tell you…."

The Prince turned round and looked at the man. The peasant was old, his face was covered with hair and wrinkles.

"What will your Excellency do now?"

"That is difficult to say," replied the Prince.

"When will you go?" the old man asked. "Those Committees of the Poor are taking away the corn. There are no matches, no manufacturers, and I am burning splinters for light…. They say no corn is to be sold…. Listen, Barin, I will take some secretly to the station. People are coming from Moscow … and … and … about thirty five of them … thirty five I tell you!… But then, what will there be to buy with the proceeds?… Well, well! It is a great time all the same … a great time, Barin! Have a smoke, your Excellency."

Prozorovsky refused the proffered pipe, and rolled himself a small cigar of an inferior brand. Around was the Steppe. No one saw, no one knew of the peasant's compassion. The prince shook hands with him, turned sharply on his heel and went home.

The cold, clear, glassy water in the park lake was blue and limpid, for it was still too early for it to freeze all over. The sun was now sinking towards the west in an ocean of ruddy gold and amethyst.

Prince Prozorovsky entered his study, sat down at the desk and drew out a drawer full of letters. No! he could not take all his life away with him: He laid the drawer on the desk, then went into the drawing- room. A jug of milk and some bread stood on an album-table. The Prince lighted the fire, burnt some papers, and stood by the mantelpiece drinking his milk and eating the bread, for he had grown hungry during the day…. The milk was sour, the bread stale.

Already the room was filling with the dim shadows of evening, a purplish mist hung outside; the fire burnt with a bright yellow flame.

Heavy footsteps echoed through the silence of the corridor, and Ivan Koloturov appeared in the doorway. Koloturov! As young lads they had played together, Ivan had developed into a sober, sensible, thrifty, and industrious peasant. Standing in the middle of the room, the President silently handed the Prince his paper—it had taken him a whole hour to type it out.

On the sheet was typed "To the Barin Prozorovsky. The Bielokonsky
Committee of the Poor order you to withdraw from the Soviet Estate of
Bielokonsky and from the district precincts. President Koloturov."

"Very well," said the Prince quietly; "I will go this evening."

"You will take no horse."

"I will go on foot."

"As you like," Koloturov replied. "You will take nothing with you." He turned round, stood a moment with his back to the Prince, then went out of the room.

At that instant, a clock struck three quarters of the hour. It was the work of Kuvaldin, the eighteenth century master. It had been in the Moscow Kremlin and had afterwards travelled through the Caucasus with the Vadkovsky Princes. How many times had its ticking sounded during the course of those centuries.

Prozorovsky sat down by the window and looked out at the neglected park. He remained there for about an hour, leaning his arms on the marble sill, thinking, remembering. His reflections were interrupted by Koloturov. The peasant came in silently with two of his men and passed through into the office. They endeavoured silently to lift a writing-table. Something cracked.

The Prince rose and put on his big grey overcoat, a felt hat, and went out. He walked through the rustling gold-green foliage of the park, passed close by some stables and a distillery, descended into a dell, came up on its opposite side. Then, feeling tired, he decided to walk slowly—walk twenty miles on foot for the first time in his life. After all, how simple the whole thing was … it was only terrible in its simplicity.

The sun had already sunk beneath the horizon. The last ravens had flown. An autumn hush over-hung the Steppe. He walked on briskly through the wide, windy, open space, walking for the first time he knew not whither, nor wherefore. He carried nothing, he possessed nothing. The night was silent, dark, autumnal, and frosty.

He walked on briskly for eight miles, heedless of everything around, then he stopped a moment to tie his shoe lace. Suddenly he felt an overwhelming weariness and his legs began to ache; he had covered nearly forty miles during the day.

In front of him lay the village of Makhmytka; he had often ridden there in his youth on secret visits to a soldier's wife; but now he would not go to her; no, not for anything in the world! The village lay pressed to the earth and was ornamented with numerous stacks which smelt of straw and dung. On its outskirts the Prince was met by a pack of baying dogs, who flitted over the ground like dark, ghostly shadows as they leapt round him.

At the first cabin he tapped at the little window, dimly lighted within by some smouldering splinters.

"Who is there?" came the tardy response.

"Let me in for the night, good people," called the Prince.

"Who is it?"

"A traveller."

"Well, just a minute," came the grudging answer.

A bare-footed peasant in red drawers came out holding a lighted splinter over his head and looking round.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "it is you, Prince! So you were too wise to stay, were you? Well, come in."

An immense quantity of straw was spread over the floor. A cricket was chirruping, and there was a smell of soot and dung.

"Lay yourself down, Barin, and God bless you!"

The peasant climbed on to the stove and sighed. His old wife began to mutter something, the man grumbled, then said to the Prince:

"Barin, you can have your sleep, only get up in the morning and leave before daylight, so that none will see you. You know yourself these are troubled times, there is no gainsaying it. You are a gentleman, Barin, and gentlemen have got to be done away with. The old woman will wake you…. Sleep now."

Prozorovsky lay down without undressing, put his cape under his head— and at once caught a cockroach on his neck! Some young pigs grunted in a corner. The hut was swarming with vermin, blackened by smoke and filled with stenches. Here, where men, calves and pigs herded all together, the Prince lay on his straw, tossing about and scratching. He thought of how, some centuries hence, people would be writing of this age with love, compassion, and tenderness. It would be thought of as an epoch of the most sublime and beautiful manifestation of the human spirit.

A little pig came up, sniffed all round him, then trotted away again. A low, bright star peeped in through the window. How infinite the world seemed!

He did not notice when he fell asleep. The old woman woke him at daybreak and led him through the backyard. The dawn was bright and cold, and the grass was covered with a light frost. He walked along briskly, swinging his stick, the collar of his overcoat turned up. The sky was marvellously deep and blue.

At the station the Prince squeezed himself into a warm place on the train, amongst other passengers carrying little sacks and bags of flour. Thus, pressed against the sides of a truck, his clothes bedaubed with white flour, he journeyed off to—Moscow.

Prince Prozorovsky had left at evening. Immediately after, furniture was pulled about and re-arranged, the veneer was chipped off the desk. The clock was about to be transferred to the office, but some one noticed that it had only one hand. None of the men realised that Kuvaldin's old clocks were necessarily one-handed, and moved every five minutes simply because the minutes were not counted singly in those days. Somebody suggested that the clock could be removed from its case.

"Take the clock out of the box," Ivan Koloturov ordered. "Tell the joiners to put some shelves in it, it will do as a cupboard for the office…. Now then, don't stamp, don't stamp!"

That night an old woman came running in. There was a great turmoil in the village: a girl had been abused—no one knew by whom, whether by the villagers themselves or the people who had come from Moscow for flour; the old woman began to accuse the Committee men. She stood by the window and reviled them at the top of her voice. Ivan Koloturov drove her away with a blow on the neck, and she went off wailing bitterly.

It was pitch-dark. The house was quiet. Milkmaids outside were singing boisterously. Ivan went into the study, sat down on the sofa, felt its softness, found a forgotten electric lamp and played with it, flashing its light on the walls as he passed through. He noticed the clock on the floor of the drawing-room and began to think what he would do with it, then he picked it up and threw it into the water- closet. A band of his men had broken their way into the other end of the house, and some one was thumping on the piano; Ivan Koloturov would have liked to have driven them away, to prevent them from doing damage, but he dared not. He suddenly felt sorry for himself and his old wife and he wanted to go home to his stove.

A bell clanged—supper! Ivan quietly stole to the wine-cellar, filled up his jug, and drank, then hurriedly locked the cellar door.

On the way home he fell down in the park; he lay there a long time, trying to lift himself, wanting all the while to say something and to explain—but he fell asleep.

The dark, dismal autumn night enfolded the empty, frozen, desolate
Steppe.