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11 . 129 . 241

Out in the field the birch-tree stood Combing her curls in the field she stood....


Wounded by an axe-blade, the silver birch is weeping Down her silver birch bark, silver tears are creeping. Don’t you cry, my birch-tree, dearest, do not sorrow, This will not be fatal; it will heal tomorrow.



* I t

The leaves came rustling down. Sadly, submissively, almost without pause the forests were shedding their scar- let foliage. The sorrowful rustle of falling leaves, drown- ing every other sound, held sway in the deep forest. From the roads and woodland clearings, where they lay thickly, gusts of wind lifted them in clouds high into the air, set them swirling and then carried them away towards the east; at such times a scarlet storm seemed to be raging over the dismal autumn land.

The rustle of the falling leaves filled Andrei’s heart with anxiety and grief. He trailed along wearily in his faded tunic, with a rolled greatcoat and rifle slung over


his shoulder, frequently wiping his dusty face with his forage cap. At times his legs felt so shaky that he was surprised to find himself stili marching. Autumn that year had burst upon his native district at the appointed time, yet somehow Andrei regarded its advent as particularly sudden and bold. He could not bear to see the cruel force of autumn triumphing everywhere—in the gleaming, gilded woods, in the bare, empty fields.

At noon, Andrei halted on the crest of a hill, and straightened up to his full height, forcing himself to look at the surrounding country. The roads were filled with columns of soldiers, lorries and carts rumbling along in a thick screen of dust. In the autumn sky German planes glistening in the sun were droning eastward; they swooped down on the roads, screaming, and the earth shuddered heavily, and coughed up ragged black plumes of smoke.

“What an autumn!” Andrei shouted wildly, wiping his face with his cap.

The commander of his section, Sergeant Matvei Yurgin, a tall, dark-skinned, glum-looking Siberian, glanced at him anxiously.

“What’s up? What’s come over you?”

“Don’t you see what an autumn it is?”

“It’s a noisy autumn....”

“It’s terrible,” Andrei retorted.

“You're ill,” Yurgin declared with conviction.

The division was withdrawing by way of remote paths and sometimes, where there were no paths at all, through the dense, marsh-ridden forests of the Rzhev region.

Just off the road, on the slope of a little rise, stood a lone birch sapling with tender, satiny white bark. The young birch-tree was shaking its branches with childish glee, as if bidding a rapturous greeting to the sun; and the wind, playing with the tree, was gaily counting the tinkling pure gold of its foliage. A faint luminescence,


as from some magic lamp, seemed to glow from the leaves. There was something challenging, even impudent, about its loneliness in that dreary autumn field.

The birch caught Andrei's eye, and he felt that nature herself had granted it the right to stand in that fie'd through the ages. Abruptly he turned off the road. He walked up to the birch, and a sudden pain rose in his chest.

Andrei had loved birch-trees since childhood. He loved lo watch them in the spring when they awakened and began to grope in the air with their maked branches; he loved to breathe in the fragrance of their dew-drenched leaves at dawn; he loved to watch their rustling dance round the edge of the glades, to watch them reach out their heavily-frosted arms toward the windoys and rock red-breasted bullfinches on their poigheee”

Matvei Yurgin called to Andrei from the road. Andrei neither turned nor answered; he was hurriedly unshou'der- ing his greatcoat. Yurgin strode back to him and asked even more anxiously than before, ‘‘What’s come over you, Andrei? What’s the matter?”

Andrei looked at the Sergeant as he had never looked at him before.

“How much longer will this go on?” said Andrei, leaning forward. “How much longer?”

Yurgin had never seen him in such a state. Andrei was a quiet, easy-going soldier; a steady light always shone in his bright, crystal-clear eyes. What had hap- pened to him? A dark, dry flush burned in his handsome, thoughtful face, there was mute anguish in his tear-filled eyes, and his parched lips were trembling.

“How much farther?” he whispered vehemently.

Now Yurgin understood. “Come, come,” he said’ in a softer voice. “We've got commanders for that. They know. When they give the order we'll make a stand. What’s the matter with you?”


Andrei had suddenly dropped to the ground beside the birch. He sat there motionless for a minute, with his hands over his eyes. Then he looked up at the west. The entire horizon was shrouded in a dark purplish haze illuminated from time to time by brilliant flashes; over the dismal autumn fields the storm of leaves raged un- ceasingly.

“Why did they come here?” Andrei asked with anguish in this voice. “Why?”

Yurgin made no reply, knowing that Andrei did not expect one. Andrei picked up the greatcoat. Then, with- out turning to look east, where a dark fir-wood stood, Andrei confided, “On the other side of that wood is Olkhovka.”

“Your village?” Yurgin asked in surprise.


Andrei sat motionless by the birch a minute more, his hands over his eyes. ...

* II *

It was a long way through the dense wood. An oppres- sive smell of damp hung in the still air. Along the muddy road moss-grown firs reared high into the sky. Under the firs, bowing feebly, grew stunted rusty alders that had never seen the sun. In the drowsy glades and openings lay stagnant marshes with rank reddish water.

Late in the afternoon the battalion emerged from the wood, and the men were confronted by a broad open slope rising to a large village. This was Olkhovka. All over the village grew tall, leafy birches; their satiny bark gave off a soft, radiant glow that suffused the entire hill-top. The men quickened their pace. As soon as they climbed the slope many of them dropped down to rest beside the wicker fences of the outlying- cottages: A large group,


water-bottles in hand, gathered around a weil at the edge of the village.

Andrei also headed for the well. His face was coated with dust, and reflections of the flashes streaking across the dark western sky seemed to flicker in his eyes. Mat- vei Yurgin filled Andrei’s water-bottle for him out of turn. Andrei took a few noisy gulps, then lowered the bottle and looked at the village. The Olkhovka water seemed to revive him. Now that he was in O!khovka the thoughts that had been tormenting him on the way lost their meaning and vanished of their own accord. He must content himself with the little that life granted; even this was not given to all.

Matvei Yurgin leaned against a fence, screwing the cap on his water-bottle. “You have good water here,” he remarked appreciatively, with his habitual restraint.

“Yes, it’s not everywhere you find water like that,” Andrei answered. ‘‘That was a real drink—refreshed me and gave me a kick too.”

“All right,” Yurgin said dourly, “but don’t get so worked up.”

He hitched his water-bottle to his belt. “There’s the Battalion Commander. Ask him to let you drop in,” he advised Andrei. ‘Only mind you don’t stay long.”

Andrei sprang away from the fence. ‘“‘Where is he?”

Several horsemen had ridden into the village. Ahead on a sweating bay, his grey trench coat flung open, rode Senior Lieutenant Loznevoi, the Battalion Commander. He had a long, Iean face with a thin hooked nose; in the shadow cast by the long peak of his crimson-banded cap a pair of wary grey eyes gleamed like cold steel. His features wore a disgruntled expression that rarely changed and when he did smile it was 1a crooked smile, ‘with the left side of his face only.

Andrei was a little afraid of the Battalion Commander. But now, oblivious of everything, he strode up to him with


unusual determination. Reining in his horse, Loznevoi had turned in his saddle and was pointing out something in the west to the other horseman; a Cossak whip with a carved crop hung from his wrist.

“Comrade Battalion Commander, Comrade!.. .” Andrei interrupted him desperately.

Loznevoi swung round in his saddle.

“What's that? What are you shouting about?”

“This is my village. My home is here, Comrade Bat- talion Commander!” he burst out in confusion. “May | drop in? I’ll catch up!”

“Where is your house?” Loznevoi asked in a stern, suspicious tone.

“Right over on the other side.”

Loznevoi put his hand to the peak of his cap and looked in the direction Andrei indicated. The sun shone full on one side of his face and on his beaky nose. He smiled his crooked smile and asked, “Will there be something to eat?”

“Why of course, Comrade Battalion Commander. All you want.”

“Lead the way!” Loznevoi commanded suddenly. “Your Juck’s in. We'll spend the night here.” Gathering the reins, he turned to the other riders. ‘“Khmelko, billet the men. You, Kostya, come with me!”

“Yes, Comrade Battalion Commander!” And _ the orderly prodded his horse.

The village was in commotion. Many of the villagers were boarding up their windows. Women were dashing about loading sacks and bright-coloured bundles inio carts and seating howling children on them. Shrill voices rang out over the streets.

“Get your things loaded. Look, here’s some more of the army.”

“Oh dear, if we could only set out before dark.”


“Buck up there, women, what are you stopping for?”

A flush spread under the heavy tan of Andrei’s cheeks. All of a sudden he felt so hot that he pulled olf his cap and wiped his temples with it. “Everybody's leaving,” he murmured to himself.

While retreating with his unit Andrei had aiready passed through many villages, large aid small-—ani everywhere he had seen the same thing: in agitated, grief-stricken crowds the people were avandoning birth- place and home, abandoning all that was dear to their hearts, and, cursing the Germans, were moving cast. Wherever he had passed, road or no road, he had seen uprooted families seeking salvation in flight. But only now, when he saw what was happening in his nalive Olkhovka, did Andrei realize the full import of the calam- ity; it was as if from here, from this lofty Olkhovka hill, he had seen for a second the whole broad expanse of his homeland. “What about my folk? Perhaps they will be going too?” Andrei thought suddenly. ‘Shall I find them at home?” This thought spurred’ hini-orns He walked as fast as he could, swinging his cap in hfs hand; as he walked along he took in with naive excileyhent the familiar sights of his village.

Battalion Commander Loznevoi rode his horse at a walk slightly behind Andrei, keeping his eyes on him for a long time. During this week of retreat there had al- ready been several cases of soldiers asking “to drop in home.” He had never before seen men speak of their homes with such agitation and longing. It depressed him every time.

“Look how he runs,” he remarked, turning to his or- derly.

“Like the wind,” the orderly replied cheerfully.

“Even forgotten about the war, hasn’t he?”

The orderly prodded his horse and brought it level. with his commander’s. Kostya was a fair-haired lad, very 2—880 17 oat


young, with shoulders that had not yet broadened out ‘and soft lips that still retained a carefree boyish warmth. Grinning artlessly from ear to ear, he replied in the same cheerful voice, “The war? He’s got no time for that now.”

“See the panic in the village?”

“How can I help seeing it! The people are on the run!”

“The people and the army,” Loznevoi added glumly.

The Lopukhov house stood at the edge of the village, overlooking the steep eastern slope of the hill. From here the Lopukhovs were the first in Olkhovka to see the sun, rested after the night, rise over the dense Rzhev forests. Most of the Lopukhov farmstead had been built in recent years. Time and the elements had only slightly weathered the big peasant cottage with its wooden roof. Under the eaves white pigeons calmly sat preening them- selves and gazing up into the sky.

While he was still some distance away Andrei saw that the house had not been abandoned like others in the village, and, pausing on a hillock, he turned to Loznevoi and called out breathlessly, “They're home! We're in time”!

He plunged forward and threw open the gate.


From the depths of the yard came a woman’s ecstatic cry. Loznevoi reined in his horse by the fence and looked into the yard. On the ramp in front of the barn stood a slim-waisted black-eyed young woman in a cherry-col- oured cotton dress. She stood for an instant in confusion, convulsively pressing her hands to her high breast, then gave another cry, dashed headlong from the barn and, rather than embracing, fell limply on the broad shoulders of Andrei, who had stepped forward to meet her. Loznevoi froze in his saddle. “His wife! I say, what a beauty! And how she loves him!’ It was several seconds before the could tear his admiring gaze from her.


A plump elderly woman in a hand:-knitted grey wool jacket came out on the porch. She walked down in cau- tious haste, one step at a time.

“Bless me!” she exclaimed. “Andrei, my son!”

From behind the shed leaped a biond youngster whose broad frame instantly stamped him a Lopukhov. He threw a glance at Andrei, who was still embracing his wife, and shouted, “Bro-ther!”’ at the top of his voice.

They all gathered round Andrei, whom the reunion had instantly transformed; his tanned, weather-beaten face was wreathed in smiles, and his gentle, crystal-clear eyes shone like spring sunshine. They hugged him with excla- mations and tears, oblivious of the strangers at the gate. Even the vicious-looking black watch-dog forgot his duty and yelped and frisked about the family group.

“Now, now, that’s enough,” Andrei said at last. “What are you crying about?”

Loznevoi dismounted. He handed Kostya his reins and whip, took off his cap, wiped his lean face with a handker- chief and quickly smoothed down his ruffled, mousy hair. Casting another glance at Maryika, he whispered to Kostya, “He didn’t run for nothing!”

Kostya nodded. “Terrific,” he replied admiringly.

The first to recover was the dog, Chorny, who, sensing strangers, looked toward the gate and gave a short bark. Realizing that his Battalion Commander was looking on, Andrei felt awkward and began to free himself gently from the embraces of his family.

“All right, that’s enough. Where’s Father?”

Maryika knitted her brows. ‘Oh, Father! ...”

“What's the matter? Where is he?”

“Over there, in the vegetable garden....”

“What’s wrong?” Andrei asked anxiously.

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” his mother put in quickly. She touched her younger son on the shoulder. ‘‘Vasya, dear, run over and tell him. Has the gone deaf there or what?”


Andrei gathergd that there had been some sort of quarrel in the house. He stopped his brother.

“Wait, Vasya, I'll go myself,” he said. Then he turned to the gate. “Comrade Battalion Commander, what are you standing there for? Come in. Mother, Maryika, this is our Battalion Commander! You look after him and I'll go to the vegetable garden....”

At close sight everything about Maryika suddenly seemed familiar to Loznevoi: the tight black braids fixed in a crown on her proud head; the soft, pretty face bright with animation; the faint, ruddy glow under the tan of her cheeks; the lips, as full as a child’s and ready at any moment to break into a smile, and the dark eyes shining with happiness. Somewhere, at some time, he had seen her. But where? When? Or had he only dreamed of someone like her? Loznevoi was even somewhat confused. Lowering his eyes, he put his fingers to his cap.

“Peace to this house.”

Andrei’s mother, Alevtina Lopukhova, bowed. “You are welcome.”

But Maryika, taking in the guest with a quick glance, answered, not knowing why herself, mockingly and im- pertinently, “What peace? The war is knocking at our gates! We had peace, but it’s gone.... You ought to fight better!”

“Really, Maryika!” her mother fluttered.

“She’s got a sharp little tongue!’ Loznevoi remarked in embarrassment.

“Yes, indeed!”

He watched her slowly climb the steps without turn- ing, the muscles of her long brown legs flexing smoothly. She was wearing light house shoes. In front of the door she shrugged her right shoulder and tossed her proud head, as though casting off an annoying thought.

; “Yes, she is sharp!...” Loznevoi said when the girl disappeared in the passage without turning as he had


wanted her to. But now there was a puzzled note in his voice.

... Beyond the shed, in a corner of the vegetable garden, under a spreading mountain ash whose leaves had turned an ominous reddish colour, was a pit, and next to it a heap of yellow earth. Damp, clayey clods were flying out of the pit. Andrei realized at once that his father was in a bad mood. ‘What on earth have they been quarrelling about?” he wondered as he strode over the rows of withered cucumber plants. At the sound of ap- proaching footsteps Erofei Lopukhov, Andrei’s father, stopped digging, looked up from the bottom of the hole and, realizing that one of the family was approaching, asked grumpily, ‘“\Who’s that out there? What’s going on in the yard?”

“It’s me,” said Andrei, coming up to the hole.

“Andrei? It can’t be!”

Like the other members of the household, Erofei was both surprised and overjoyed by his son’s unexpected arriv- al. But he was so taken up with some thought of his own that he neither released his spade, nor climbed out of the hole. “I’ll finish digging,” he said to himself, “and then I'll climb out.” A robust, broad-shouldered man in a long, loose, unbelted blue blouse dark with perspiration at the back, he stood there in the pit, his broad, o!d-fashioned blond beard uplifted, looking up with quick, frowning grey eyes. After inspecting his son in the unfamiliar army uniform and evidently reaching some secret conclusion about him, he heaved a brief, sad sigh.

“Well, so you’ve had enough fighting?”

Andrei squatted at the edge of the pit. “We're with- drawing for the time being.”

“And then?”

Andrei held a lump of cool earth in his palm for a moment and then slowly crushed iit. Deliberately, in


a rather flat voice, he said, “Then I suppose we'll come back.”

“Come back? How soon, though?”

Andrei made no reply. He gazed reflectively for a while at the mountain ash; the sunlight was playing on its reddish leaves and clusters of berries.

“What's the pit for?”

The answer came unwillingly. “For our belongings.”

“And what about yourselves?”


“When are you leaving?”

This time it was Erofei who did not answer; and it seemed to Andrei that he was restraining his irrita- tion with difficulty as he leaned on his spade and looked up out of the pit. He was breathing heavily through his nostrils.

“Where to?” he said suddenly with his habitual blus- ter, although he had not wanted to use that tone in talking to his son at such a time. “Come on, you tell me. Where to? To the back of beyond? And leave the house?”

Shining beads of perspiration broke out on Andrei’s forehead. Wiping his face with his cap, he glanced round, as if looking for someone to take over this conversation with his father. Carts began to raltle down the hillside past the vegetable garden. A string of women, talking in shrill voices, filed past the fence.

“All the same,” Andrei said quietly, “you ought to go. Look, all the collective-farm people are leaving.”

“You're all so clever when it comes to telling other people!” Erofei lost control of himself and gave full vent to his irritation. “Your better half is yelling her head off all the time too! Where can we go? She doesn’t think about that. To roam the roads? I know what that means! The world’s big but it’s mot very cosy. Besides, if we leave behind everything we've got, it’ll be looted.


People are always ready to grab anything that’s left lying about. And what you do take, you'll lose on the road. No, we can’t leave our home. With God’s help, nothing will happen to us. They aren’t fighting civilians. You army men go ahead with your fighting, but we'll have no part in it. That’s the way it’s always been.”

“All the same, you'd better leave,” Andrei repeated stubbornly.

With a quick angry glance at his son Erofei raised his spade in one hand and jabbed it viciously into the earth.

“That’s all there is to it! I’ve said my say!”

* Wr *

All his youth Erofei Lopukhov had worked as a hired hand for wealthy farmers of the locality, and longest of all for Polikarp Dryagin, a hard, grasping man who was successful in everything he undertook. By the modest standards of the Rzhev region, Polikarp Dryagin had a large farm; the had five horses, a stable full of small live- stock, and a water-mill. Although Dryagin was a surly, close-fisted master who paid less than anyone else, Erofei came to him every spring.

“What draws you to that house?” the villagers used to ask him. “Dryagin would suck blood out of a stone!”

“Aye, that’s so!” Erofei would agree cheerfully.

“Then why do you work for him>”

“Can’t help it!”

Being Dryagin’s hired man meant a hard life, but still it was to him that Erofei went, and he went with a purpose: he was secretly learning from him how to “make good.” It was Dryagin, with his high and unham- pered way of living, who fired the dreams of wealth in the callow mind of the penniless farm lad. Erofei was a strong, handsome, capable young fellow, the envy of the


entire village. He had early become aware of this, and was proud of himself. Looking at the withered, wolfishly lean Dryagin, Erofei would think sneeringly, “Am I any worse than him? Why should I have to live as I do? No, I'm not that sort! I won't live that way—and that’s that!” His dreams of wealth gave him no rest. All the time he worked for Dryagin he studied the way Dryagin quickly expanded his farm like a man skilfully building up a camp-fire and fanning it into a blaze. He envied Dryagin with all his heart and sincerely admired every success he achieved.

“Look at Dryagin!”’ he used to say to the villagers, almost with pride. “That was fast work, that was! He grabbed another strip of land this year! See that, eh? Getting richer all the time, our Dryagin is, getting richer!”

When he drew his pay in the late autumn he would tell hi- neighbours disappointedly, but with envious admiration:

“What a darn skinflint that Dryagin is! In the spring we fixed our terms, but when pay-day came along he cheated me. I argued all I could, but he still cheated me! And there’s nothing you can say about it! He twisted me round his little finger! And the neat way he did it—it’s a miracle! Oh, he knows how to get along, our Dryagin does! He does, indeed!”

During his long years as a hired man Erofei managed somehow to acquire a horse and ‘a cow and set up a little place of his own. Then he got married and became his own master—with dizzying dreams of wealth.

The hard Dryagin school did not yield results, how- ever. Erofei worked day and night, and resorted to every possible dodge to expand the farm. But nothing came of it. Some spiteful will seemed to be turning everything against him: a wolf killed his colt, then a hailstorm ruined the wheat crop, then his cow strayed and was drowned in a marsh, then a fire razed the house. To top it all, his


wife gave birth to three daughters in a row. And what good were daughters to a peasant? He did not receive an extra share of land for them. They had to be brought up, and a dowry put away for them besides, Disappointed in his fierce yearning for a prosperous life, Erofei sometimes turned to drink. “Damn this damned life!” he would roar as he staggered about the house. “Just can’t get ahead! Not a ray of hope. How long will this go on?”

Erofei remained poor right up to the revolution. In the first year of Soviet power he was given more land, a horse, and building timber. And then his dreams of wealth revived with even greater intensity.

“What a government!” he bellowed for all Olkhovka to hear. “It’s ours! Ours! With a government like this, .men, we'll get along fine!”

Soon after, Andrei was born. Erofei’s spirits soared. Andrei grew up a quiet, good-natured boy, but he was strong and industrious, While still a boy, he began to do all the jobs about the farm, and very efficiently at that. Erofei’s heart beat faster with joy; the farm was improv- ing rapidly, and there were hopes that his cherished dream might soon come true.

But then the organization of collective farms began. To the surprise of many, Erofei who had always been a poor peasant ind had only recently got on his feet, flatly refused to join the collective farm. He stubbornly held out on his beloved little farmstead, as on an island amid the spring flood. One year passed, then another, but he continued to hold back. At last he suddenly dis- appeared from the village—went off to seek his fortune elsewhere.

For about three years he roamed along the upper reaches of the Volga. It was rumoured that he was a drayman in Rzhev, then that he was a tanbark purchas- ing agent, then a timber rafter.... The Olkhovka folk had already decided that the self-willed Erofei had


broken completely with his home and the land. Then one day he returned, as suddenly as he had left, sullen, and aged by his wanderings; only his trim blond beard told people who he was.

By then the Lopukhovs had been in the collective farm a long time, but Erofei did not reproach his family for disregarding his orders. During his wanderings Andrei had grown into a big, strong, handsome fellow—the type the Lopukhovs were noted for. He was respected in the collective farm for his straightforwardness, his good na- ture and his industry. No matter what the job was, he put his heart into it. All the villagers had become accustomed to thinking of him as the head of the househo!d. Erofei ex- pected his now grown-up son to balk at stern paternal rule. But he turned out to be as retiring, good-natured and gentle as before; he had inherited much of his mother’s character.

“Well, boss, how are things going?” Erofei asked, sizing up his son. Andrei stood shyly before his father on the threshold, his tufty blond head: lowered. “How are you managing the place? How’s your work going? Well, why don’t you say something?”

“Not bad,” Andrei mumbled.

But Alevtina, with proud glances at her son, pro- duced his little grey work-day record book from the cup- board and placed it before her husband.

“Just look at this! This is his work!’ Then she added with ia sob, “Everybody here seems to be doing nicely!”

When Erofei had taken ia good look round Olkhovka he saw that quite a different life had indeed begun there. Many of the villagers were building new houses. All had plenty of stock of their own.

Erofei did not conceal his chagrin from his family. “Damn it, there’s luck for you!’ he swore. “Look at that! Who the devil could have told that the collective farm would get along like that?”


There was nothing for it but to give in. Erofei joined the collective farm and to everybody’s surprise began to work industriously: he had to get into favour with the other members, win their confidence and, before o'!d age broke him, make up for the years of aimless wandering. And soon the Lopukhovs became prosperous; they caught up with everybody who had joined the collective farm earlier.

Then the war broke out. The German hordes advanced into the interior of the country. Oppressive uncertainty beset Erofei. He became silent and gloomy, especially after Andrei was called up. It was difficult to gather what he thought about the war. Sometimes after listening to the news from the battle fronts he would make a sour face and wave his hand.

“Blockheads! Have they gone crazy?”

But the next day, after listening to the latest news, he would contract his bushy eyebrows and sigh.

“Aye, advancing all the time.... It’s past my under- standing! What will happen?”

At the beginning of October the Germans breached the Central Front over a broad sector and quickly moved towards Moscow. By that time all the collective-farm live- stock in O!tkhovka had been driven off to the east. The collective farmers, however, were in no hurry to leave home; they kept hoping the enemy would soon be checked. But suddenly all roads were flooded with the retreating units of the Red Army. Then the Olkhovka folk took to flight from their native village.

Erofei also decided to leave, but when he started packing, his heart contnacted with pain. How could he take alongall his possessions in one cart? At every turn he came upon something that had to be left behind: various carpenter’s tools, brand-new pickling ed beehives, the geese.... Would he ever be able to acqttfre all that again? No, Erofei knew ‘how hard it was te agi

7 Me

by such possessions. And he arrived at a sudden and firm decision to remain in the village.

“No, I can't do it!’ he said to the family, clutching at his heart.

All the family tried their best to persuade him to go, but he remained adamant. After a stormy quarrel with them all, and with Maryika especially, he stamped out to the vegetable garden to dig a pit in which to hide his belongings.

* IV >

Andrei had married in the spring, shortly before the war. To many his marriage with Maryika had come as a surprise. And at first Andrei himself could not believe in his luck.

All the lads of Andrei’s age were daring, venturesome and boisterous young fellows; with them about, il was always gay and noisy in the village. This made the quiet and bashful Andrei stand out all the more in their midst.

The Olkhovka girls respected Andrei, as did everyone else in the village. But naturally, they liked to make fun of the quiet fellows, Andrei included. Their ringleader in mischief was usually Maryika Logova, widow Anfissa Markovna’s daughter. Maryika, a dark, vivacious beauty with the voice of a lark, was the most attractive girl in Olkhovka. It seemed as though by common agreement her girl-friends had given her alone most of their beauty and vivacity and, thus lavishly endowed, she had grown up the pride and joy of the entire village.

One hot summer day Andrei was building a shed for the watchman at the collective farm vegetable gardens. Towards evening the girls of the gardening team came to visit him after watering the vegetables. The first to ap- proach the shed, where Andrei was at work with his axe, was Maryika. A full pail of water swayed at either end of the yoke she carried.


“Andrei!” she called out slyly.

Andrei poked his head out of the shed.

“Like a drink?”

“T think I would. Stuffy, isn’t it?”

While Andrei, his foretock dangling, drank from one of the pails, Maryika kept her mischievous gaze fixed on his perspiring back. The moment he straightened up she splashed water on him from the other pail.

“Up to your tricks again!” was all Andrei had time to say.

At a sign from Maryika the girls rushed up in a squealing crowd and, dancing round him, began to drench him with water. Andrei did not move. His high forehead became plastered with wet hair. His soaked shirt clung tightly to his straight shoulders and broad chest. Those few seconds showed how much calm and affectionate strength he possessed. He did not get angry with the girls. He only shielded himself with his arms while they splashed water on him.

“Steady on, that’s enough!” he pleaded in embarrass- ment. “That’s enough, girls!”

“Pour!” commanded Maryika.

“Now then, you heard what I said!”

That was the beginning. Every day new tricks were played on him.

Erofei had long since decided to marry his son off. All the young men of Andrei’s age had celebrated their weddings. And it was to Andrei’s advantage as well to set up a family. He had not served in the army: a bad chill he had caught while rafting timber, had excused him at the time of the call-up, and he had stayed behind at the collective farm. But for some reason Andrei was in no hurry about marrying. This irritated his father. Life on the farm was going well and Erofei reasoned thriftily that an extra pair of hands in the house would mean extra wealth.


But the summer passed and winter—the wedding season—came, and still his son did not broach the topic. When, at the end of the winter, Andrei turned twenty- three, Erofei lost his patience.

“Well, Andrei, enough stalling!” he said firmly one morning soon after his name-day. “Do you hear?”

“What’s the matter, Dad?”

Erofei flared up. “Don’t stand there asking ques- ° tions! Get married! And that’s all there is to it!”

Andrei was filling cartridges to go grouse shoot- ing. After a long pause he answered glumly, “I'll wait a bit.”

“What for?” Erofei shouted. “What the devil for? Your mother’s run off her feet all on her own! All over the house there’s jobs to be done!”

“Pll wait a while.”

“Lord, what a plague you are!”

Despite all Erofei’s arguments his son did not consent to get married. At last he realized that he was wasting his time and decided to act in the old-fashioned way. Grandpa Silanty happened to be walking past the house and Erofei invited him in.

It’s something very important, Grandpa!” he said wor- tiedly. A match has to be arranged urgently. Can you do it, Grandpa? Haven’t forgotten how?”

Old Silanty checked the trembling of his head for a minute and fixed his faded eyes on Erofei.

“A match? Arrange a match? Why, Erofei, we'll be the laughing-stock of the whole collective farm!”

“A laughing-stock, Grandpa? This is no laughing mat- ter. What’s wrong about going and having a talk with people? You can do that, can’t you?”

Old Silanty shook with laughter. “Arnange a match! Why doesn’t he do it himself?”

“But Grandpa!” Erofei frowned crossly. ‘‘How can he do it himself? Never on your life!”


“That's true,” Grandpa agreed. “Your boy's a quiel fellow for these times. The kind that never make a fuss for nothing. Reminds me of the saying, ‘A strong man never starts a fight.’ He’s a fine boy!”

But Erofei only waved this disappointing conclusion aside and started again on his son.

“Well, speak up,” he said to Andrei. “Who's he to go to?”

“Don’t make people laugh,” Andrei replied, rattling his cartridges noisily.

“Laughter isn’t smoke; it won’l sting your eyes! Speak up—well?””

“IT won't say anything. ...”

“Don’t you be stubborn, Andrei!’ threatened Grandpa Silanty, who had suddenly decided to try his hand at his forgotten vocation once again. “Or else I'll arrange a match with Fenya, the half-wit! Then you'll be sorry!”

Andrei himself had long been contemplating marriage. But only one girl appealed to him: Maryika Logova. Since that incident in the vegetable garden her face had been constantly in his mind, and his secret love for her caused him much suffering. As yet, however, he was afraid even to think about marrying Maryika.

“Look here!’ Andrei exclaimed when Grandpa Silanty suddenly decided to support his father. “First one of you acts silly and now it’s both of you. I’ve had enough!” Then he added unexpectedly, “I’ll arrange the marriage myself.”

“Yourself?” his father asked. “Who with?”

“T’ll find somebody better than half-wit Fenya.”

“Who, for instance?”

“Maryika Logova.”

Erofei stared distrustfully at his son for a few sec- onds. “What on earth—have you gone crazy?” he asked irritably.



“You're a fool! A fool pure and simple!” Erofei stormed. “The best girl in the collective farm. She has brains and looks and everything! And comes from a good family, besides. Why, she’s a first-rate girl.”

“That’s the kind I need.”

“But will she ever marry you? Have you thought about that? Huh! Some idea! Look at him! As I live and breathe, he’s gone mad! Hasn’t she made enough fun of you yet? Or do you want some more?”

“No, she won't marry him,” Grandpa Silanty con- firmed.

Andrei was always tractable, but this time he stated firmly that he would marry Maryika Logovia and nobody else. He promised to speak to her as soon as possible. Still ina temper, Erofei agreed to postpone his own plan.

That evening Andrei saw Maryika on the village green, “Well, come what may,” he thought, all afire. “Today I'll speak!” But Maryika, noticing that he had taken a seat to the side, gave him a flashing glance with her black eyes and started talking to her girl-friends. Andrei realized that she was plotting some new mischief, grew confused and promptly rejected his bold idea.

The accordionist bent his tousled head over his in- strument iand struck a loud chord for the singing. Maryika sprang forward and took up a pose with arms akimbo, While the accordionist fingered the white keys she cast a slow, artful look at the other girls. Then, tossing her plaits, she began to sing:

Ah, my heart, my heart unbridled, Ah, beat softer, softer, heart!

For my laddie love is coming

And we never more shall part.

Sofia Veselova came up and stood on the other side of the accordionist. Clasping one hand to her breast, she


glanced at Maryika and with mock anxiety chanted in a throaty voice:

The wind is gone, and yet the birch-tree Sings her song the whole day through. Ah, my pretty, save thy trouble

He has not a thought for thee.

Andrei saw that the girls were going to make fun of him, and at the first opportunity he slipped away from the gathering.

“Well?” his father asked at the threshold.

“She said she’d think it over,’ Andrei replied gloomily.

Andrei hoped that his father, busy preparing the col- lective farm’s harness for the spring, would soon forget about the marriage. But Erofei had firmly resolved to see the matter through to the end. Almost every morning he asked him how the courtship was coming along. At the end of a week Andrei had run out of excuses.

“She turned me down!” he declared. “Flat.”

“What do you mean, turned you down?” his father stormed, That week he had often thought about Maryika and, little by little, grown accustomed to the idea that she should and would come into the house as his daughter- in-law.

“Just that. She turned me down... .”

“You're hopeless!”

When Erofej ran into Maryika in the farm-yard late the same afternoon he could not check himself. “So we're not good enough for you?” he cried heatedly. ‘“‘Then who do you need? One of the district chiefs, eh? With a brief- case? No, my girl, mind you don’t make a mistake! We’re not just ordinary people, either, let me tell you! They’ve written about him in the newspaper. You needn’t turn your nose up at us!”

3—880 33

Maryika was staggered.

“Erofei Kuzmich!” she exchaimed, “What’s the matter with you? What are you talking about?”

“As if you don’t know! After a whole week of talk- ing! But I’ll just tell you straight to your face: if you take a fellow with a brief-case you'll be sorry for the rest of your days! That’s how it'll turn out, mark my words! For all your conceit!”

Immediately after her talk with Erofei, Maryika stepped into the club-house as though by chance. Andrei was repairing the stage. When he saw her he almost dropped his plane; he suddenly felt certain that one of the most important events in his life was now about to take place.

A few minutes later they were sitting on a stack of fresh-sawn planks that smelled of resin.

“Well, if you’re willing, I'll be faithful to you to the grave,” Andrei was saying, holding Maryika’s hand. He shook his head, as though his happiness were more than he could bear, and Maryika was surprised to see tears glisten in his eyes. “My whole life will be with you alone. ...”

The marriage took place soon after.

* V *

Maryika bustled about the house gaily, without con- cealing her happiness. The joy of seeing