Leonid Leonov: The Tramp

The tea was like brewed hay, and the sugar tasted like kerosene. Chadaev tossed the unfinished cup down onto the table and listened absentmindedly to the hubbub in the inn. By midday, as always during the Sunday bazaars, the commotion was growing louder, but Chadaev was wrapped in total silence. Suddenly he stood up, and with his arms extended forward, he moved toward the tavern's rear door. Valuing the irreproachable reputation of his establishment more than his single eye, the tavern-keeper came out to follow Chadaev, but his suspicions were in vain.

In the greenish, strong-smelling dusk of the courtyard that was streaked with light coming in through the cracks, the lodger harnessed his mare. Soft and straight-haired, the mare reluctantly pulled away from the abundantly filled feeding trough. The lodger didn't get angry; he didn't even notice. However, he picked up a crust of bread that someone had dropped on the dirty straw. He gazed at it for a long time before placing it into his traveling bag. Disappointed in the secret of Chadaev, the tavern-keeper came out of his hiding place. Chadaev became embarrassed.

"The dogs will probably be happy to see this," he said quietly about the bread.

"And who will be happy to see you?" the tavern-keeper responded; and winking his malicious, smirking eye, he went back into the tavern.

Chadaev rode out of the courtyard.

The April midday was filled with the short warbling of larks. Water puddles rippled with dazzling light; an illusive murmur filled the world. Filtering through to the heart, it instilled a pleasant, almost intoxicating lightness; but to Chadaev, this spring, his forty-fifth, seemed like an excess of nature gone mad. Pulling his wife's letter out from his bosom, a letter for whose sake he was prematurely and against all common sense leaving the district center, he again attempted to fathom its worrisome scribblings. "My dear husband," he read mainly from memory, "I am pining. My dear husband, I cry every day. My dear husband, I don't know how to pass the time. My dear husband, we...." The artful words rustled on the wind and lashed at Chadaev with a cruel and joyful laughter. With an equal force he lashed his horse with the whip, and the cart runners began to sputter depressingly in the well-worn rut.

To the envy of the world, good fortune had accompanied him his entire life. In the year before he was called up for service, he had married the ever-cheerful Katerinka; Katerinka's boisterous youth did not fade even in his ancient, creaking home, where every spring the incessant warbling of starlings sounded in the windows. Provided with everything needed for conquering life, Chadaev lacked only the gift of laughter; but even this bitter injustice of nature brought an advantage to him: he was feared. The war spared his tall, reddish body, which looked like a pine tree against the sunset; he returned intact, having received not so much as a black-eye. But then suddenly, petty misfortunes, like mice, began to plague him. He fought with them for a whole year, getting crazy from the battle, but still hordes of them attacked to gnaw at his celebrated prosperity. On days of respite, he bitterly looked into himself but could find no cause for his ruin. Only now, traveling to this latest punishment of fate, did he recall one adventure at the front...and although a muzhik is not ashamed of any sin that is covered in a soldier's greatcoat, this recollection burned and gnawed away at Chadaev's very essence, and there was no way to root it out.

During a lull in the war and the revolutionary liberties, his inglorious regiment languished under the southern sun. There, Chadaev took up with a Moldavian woman, a peasant just like himself. She was as comforting as his own Katerinka and, in fact, she went by the same name. She was pining over her husband, who was languishing in captivity. She was attracted to Chadaev's restless northern strength. He spent his days and nights in her little home under the acacias, he ate her chickens and drank her wine, and he often discussed the hidden charms of this little Moldavian with his circle of friends. He took a temporary delight in her Moldavian love. Chadaev left her without regrets, and the woman's tears prevented her from seeing that, along with her brief happiness, he was carrying away to the north her sewing machine, which he had taken a fancy to during one of their tender moments.... Chadaev could still not forget how he traveled for seventeen inclement days on the train, lolling in a typhoid-induced drowsiness, firmly clenching the stolen treasure between his knees. For him, it became more dear than bread or life because he was bringing it as a present for his northern Katerinka, whom he decided was the basis of his essentially dreamlike happiness. But when in the evening, as the cattle were being driven home, he stepped up onto the porch of his home, hungry and sweaty, swaying under the weight of his cherished burden, Katerinka began to cry. Halting, Chadaev gazed with turbid eyes at the crying woman, and his beard became like fire, as if he were carrying someone else's blood in it from the war.

His illness and awakening to life opened for him strange treasures, which had hitherto stood outside of his meager, antlike way of life. He looked with sorcererlike eyes all around himself and, in a non-muzhik way, he admired everything--from the flying midge to the growing tree; however, the muzhik in him won out over the man. All winter he worked with great energy to put the decrepit farm back to rights--clearing out the garden and erecting a number of starling houses in front of the home, as if attempting to lure happiness itself into the moss-covered walls. But the starlings never settled in, the apple trees were wormy, and Katerinka's gaiety left with the snows. Then he worriedly awaited children; but although there were dreams of fertility, there were no children. Katerinka flailed about like nettle-grass against a bathhouse window. She often ran from their home to the neighbors, and began to look older than her mother. But once she came back from hay-mowing looking light and young; she was silent and sat by the window all evening. During the night, when everything in the Chadaev household--cattle and possessions--was slumbering, Katerinka began to laugh in her sleep. Descending from the stove, Chadaev gloomily studied her as she tossed and turned, illuminated by the thieves' light of the moon. No matter how hard Chadaev peered through this small crack into Katerinka's secret, he could perceive nothing that night. It was quiet all around, with not even the smallest wind outside the window.

By dawn the rains abated, days of good weather rushed in, and the lost smile returned to the home. Alone with her thoughts, Katerinka sang the old songs of young women; and although she lacked the voice to sing them to the end, her husband excitedly rejoiced in her transformation. Abundance again visited this creaking place, and birds sang in the trees, as if purchased specially for this purpose. Chadaev slumbered on like a mountain, lullabied by the wind, and only this last letter from his wife, this splash of another's happiness, aroused his cumbersome torpor. Abandoning his business in the district town, where he had gone on the matter of an arrears payment, he was returning home, like to an inevitable grave.

The innkeeper had foretold the truth--even the dogs had all run off. No one greeted the master. Tying the mare to the wattle fence, Chadaev intently gazed at the unanswering holes of the windows, corseted with the luster of sunset. An icicle under the awning let fall tiresome drops. Chadaev furiously whipped it with his knout, and again waited; but his wife was not there. Then a boy sailing boats on a melted pond shouted to him through the paling that Katerinka was at the settlements with Seryoga. Chadaev shuttered and looked around: the neighbor's mare, looking for a stud, was scratching herself by a tree, and two old women at the well were unabashedly studying him and his confusion.

Then, in his caftan and with his knout, Chadaev set off for the settlements, and again his hands themselves stretched out in front of him, as if hurrying to some villainy.

Read more >>>


Popular posts from this blog

Solzhenitsyn’s cathedrals

Why Stalin Starved Ukraine

Svetlana Alexievich: ‘After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom’