It was in that wood yonder, behind the creek, that it happened, sir. My father, the kingdom of Heaven be his, was taking five hundred rubles to the master; in those days our fellows and the Shepelevsky peasants used to rent land from the master, so father was taking money for the half-year. He was a God-fearing man, he used to read the scriptures, and as for cheating or wronging anyone, or defrauding God forbid, and the peasants honored him greatly, and when someone had to be sent to the town about taxes or such-like, or with money, they used to send him. He was a man above the ordinary, but, not that I’d speak ill of him, he had a weakness. He was fond of a drop. There was no getting him past a tavern: he would go in, drink a glass, and be completely done for! He was aware of this weakness in himself, and when he was carrying public money, that he might not fall asleep or lose it by some chance, he always took me or my sister Anyutka with him.
To tell the truth, all our family have a great taste for vodka. I can read and write, I served for six years at a tobacconist’s in the town, and I can talk to any educated gentleman, and can use very fine language, but, it is perfectly true, sir, as I read in a book, that vodka is the blood of Satan. Through vodka my face has darkened. And there is nothing seemly about me, and here, as you may see, sir, I am a cab-driver like an ignorant, uneducated peasant.
And so, as I was telling you, father was taking the money to the master, Anyutka was going with him, and at that time Anyutka was seven or maybe eight a silly chit, not that high. He got as far as Kalantchiko successfully, he was sober, but when he reached Kalantchiko and went into Moiseika’s tavern, this same weakness of his came upon him. He drank three glasses and set to bragging before people:
“I am a plain humble man,” he says, “but I have five hundred rubles in my pocket; if I like,” says he, “I could buy up the tavern and all the crockery and Moiseika and his Jewess and his little Jews. I can buy it all out and out,” he said. That was his way of joking, to be sure, but then he began complaining: “It’s a worry, good Christian people,” said he, “to be a rich man, a merchant, or anything of that kind. If you have no money you have no care, if you have money you must watch over your pocket the whole time that wicked men may not rob you. It’s a terror to live in the world for a man who has a lot of money.”
The drunken people listened of course, took it in, and made a note of it. And in those days they were making a railway line at Kalantchiko, and there were swarms and swarms of tramps and vagabonds of all sorts like locusts. Father pulled himself up afterwards, but it was too late. A word is not a sparrow, if it flies out you can’t catch it. They drove, sir, by the wood, and all at once there was someone galloping on horseback behind them. Father was not of the chicken-hearted brigade — that I couldn’t say — but he felt uneasy; there was no regular road through the wood, nothing went that way but hay and timber, and there was no cause for anyone to be galloping there, particularly in working hours. One wouldn’t be galloping after any good.
“It seems as though they are after someone,” said father to Anyutka, “they are galloping so furiously. I ought to have kept quiet in the tavern, a plague on my tongue. Oy, little daughter, my heart misgives me, there is something wrong!”
He did not spend long in hesitation about his dangerous position, and he said to my sister Anyutka:
“Things don’t look very bright, they really are in pursuit. Anyway, Anyutka dear, you take the money, put it away in your skirts, and go and hide behind a bush. If by ill-luck they attack me, you run back to mother, and give her the money. Let her take it to the village elder. Only mind you don’t let anyone see you; keep to the wood and by the creek, that no one may see you. Run your best and call on the merciful God. Christ be with you!”
Father thrust the parcel of notes on Anyutka, and she looked out the thickest of the bushes and hid herself. Soon after, three men on horseback galloped up to father. One a stalwart, big-jawed fellow, in a crimson shirt and high boots, and the other two, ragged, shabby fellows, navvies from the line. As my father feared, so it really turned out, sir. The one in the crimson shirt, the sturdy, strong fellow, a man above the ordinary, left his horse, and all three made for my father.
“Halt you, so-and-so! Where’s the money!”
“What money? Go to the devil!”
“Oh, the money you are taking the master for the rent. Hand it over, you bald devil, or we will throttle you, and you’ll die in your sins.”
And they began to practice their villainy on father, and, instead of beseeching them, weeping, or anything of the sort, father got angry and began to reprove them with the greatest severity.
“What are you pestering me for?” said he. “You are a dirty lot. There is no fear of God in you, plague take you! It’s not money you want, but a beating, to make your backs smart for three years after. Be off, blockheads, or I shall defend myself. I have a revolver that takes six bullets, it’s in my bosom!”
But his words did not deter the robbers, and they began beating him with anything they could lay their hands on.
They looked through everything in the cart, searched my father thoroughly, even taking off his boots; when they found that beating father only made him swear at them the more, they began torturing him in all sorts of ways. All the time Anyutka was sitting behind the bush, and she saw it all, poor dear. When she saw father lying on the ground and gasping, she started off and ran her hardest through the thicket and the creek towards home.
She was only a little girl, with no understanding; she did not know the way, just ran on not knowing where she was going. It was some six miles to our home. Anyone else might have run there in an hour, but a little child, as we all know, takes two steps back for one forwards, and indeed it is not everyone who can run barefoot through the prickly bushes; you want to be used to it, too, and our girls used always to be crowding together on the stove or in the yard, and were afraid to run in the forest.
Towards evening Anyutka somehow reached a habitation, she looked, it was a hut. It was the forester’s hut, in the Crown forest; some merchants were renting it at the time and burning charcoal. She knocked. A woman, the forester’s wife, came out to her. Anyutka, first of all, burst out crying, and told her everything just as it was, and even told her about the money. The forester’s wife was full of pity for her.
“My poor little dear! Poor mite, God has preserved you, poor little one! My precious! Come into the hut, and I will give you something to eat.”
She began to make up to Anyutka, gave her food and drink, and even wept with her, and was so attentive to her that the girl, only think, gave her the parcel of notes.
“I will put it away, darling, and to-morrow morning I will give it you back and take you home, dearie.”
The woman took the money, and put Anyutka to sleep on the stove where at the time the brooms were drying. And on the same stove, on the brooms, the forester’s daughter, a girl as small as our Anyutka, was asleep. And Anyutka used to tell us afterwards that there was such a scent from the brooms, they smelt of honey! Anyutka lay down, but she could not get to sleep, she kept crying quietly; she was sorry for father, and terrified. But, sir, an hour or two passed, and she saw those very three robbers who had tortured father walk into the hut; and the one in the crimson shirt, with big jaws, their leader, went up to the woman and said:
“Well, wife, we have simply murdered a man for nothing. To-day we killed a man at dinner-time, we killed him all right, but not a farthing did we find.”
So this fellow in the crimson shirt turned out to be the forester, the woman’s husband.
“The man’s dead for nothing,” said his ragged companions. “In vain we have taken a sin on our souls.”
The forester’s wife looked at all three and laughed.
“What are you laughing at, silly?”
“I am laughing because I haven’t murdered anyone, and I have not taken any sin on my soul, but I have found the money.”
“What money? What nonsense are you talking!”
“Here, look whether I am talking nonsense.”
The forester’s wife untied the parcel and, wicked woman, showed them the money. Then she described how Anyutka had come, what she had said, and so on. The murderers were delighted and began to divide the money between them, they almost quarreled, then they sat down to the table, you know, to drink. And Anyutka lay there, poor child, hearing every word and shaking like a Jew in a frying-pan. What was she to do? And from their words she learned that father was dead and lying across the road, and she fancied, in her foolishness, that the wolves and the dogs would eat father, and that our horse had gone far away into the forest, and would be eaten by wolves too, and that she, Anyutka herself, would be put in prison and beaten, because she had not taken care of the money. The robbers got drunk and sent the woman for vodka. They gave her five rubles for vodka and sweet wine. They set to singing and drinking on other people’s money. They drank and drank, the dogs, and sent the woman off again that they might drink beyond all bounds.
“We will keep it up till morning,” they cried. “We have plenty of money now, there is no need to spare! Drink, and don’t drink away your wits.”
And so at midnight, when they were all fairly fuddled, the woman ran off for vodka the third time, and the forester strode twice up and down the cottage, and he was staggering.
“Look here, lads,” he said, “we must make away with the girl, too! If we leave her, she will be the first to bear witness against us.”
They talked it over and discussed it, and decided that Anyutka must not be left alive, that she must be killed. Of course, to murder an innocent child’s a fearful thing, even a man drunken or crazy would not take such a job on himself. They were quarrelling for maybe an hour which was to kill her, one tried to put it on the other, they almost fought again, and no one would agree to do it; then they cast lots. It fell to the forester. He drank another full glass, cleared his throat, and went to the outer room for an axe.
But Anyutka was a sharp wench. For all she was so simple, she thought of something that, I must say, not many an educated man would have thought of. Maybe the Lord had compassion on her, and gave her sense for the moment, or perhaps it was the fright sharpened her wits, anyway when it came to the test it turned out that she was cleverer than anyone. She got up stealthily, prayed to God, took the little sheepskin, the one the forester’s wife had put over her, and, you understand, the forester’s little daughter, a girl of the same age as herself, was lying on the stove beside her.
She covered this girl with the sheepskin, and took the woman’s jacket off her and threw it over herself. Disguised herself, in fact. She put it over her head, and so walked across the hut by the drunken men, and they thought it was the forester’s daughter, and did not even look at her. Luckily for her the woman was not in the hut, she had gone for vodka, or maybe she would not have escaped the axe, for a woman’s eyes are as far-seeing as a buzzard’s. A woman’s eyes are sharp.
Anyutka came out of the hut, and ran as fast as her legs could carry her. All night she was lost in the forest, but towards morning she came out to the edge and ran along the road. By the mercy of God she met the clerk Yegor Danilitch, the kingdom of Heaven be his. He was going along with his hooks to catch fish. Anyutka told him all about it. He went back quicker than he came thought no more of the fish — gathered the peasants together in the village, and off they went to the forester’s.
They got there, and all the murderers were lying side by side, dead drunk, each where he had fallen; the woman, too, was drunk. First thing they searched them; they took the money and then looked on the stove the Holy Cross be with us! The forester’s child was lying on the brooms, under the sheepskin, and her head was in a pool of blood, chopped off by the axe. They roused the peasants and the woman, tied their hands behind them, and took them to the district court; the woman howled, but the forester only shook his head and asked:
“You might give me a drop, lads! My head aches!”
Afterwards they were tried in the town in due course, and punished with the utmost rigor of the law.
So that’s what happened, sir, beyond the forest there, that lies behind the creek. Now you can scarcely see it, the sun is setting red behind it. I have been talking to you, and the horses have stopped, as though they were listening too. Hey there, my beauties! Move more briskly, the good gentleman will give us something extra. Hey, you darlings!