Oblomov, p.14
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       Oblomov, p.14

           Ivan Goncharov

  The Lord has never visited those parts either by Egyptian or ordinary plagues. No one of the inhabitants has ever seen or remembered any terrible heavenly signs, fiery balls, or sudden darkness; there are no poisonous snakes there; locusts do not come; there are no roaring lions, nor growling tigers, nor even bears nor wolves, because there are no forests. Only ruminating cows, bleating sheep, and cackling hens walk about the villages and fields in vast numbers.

  It is hard to say whether a poet or a dreamer would have been pleased with nature in this peaceful spot. These gentlemen, as everyone knows, love to gaze at the moon and listen to the song of the nightingale. They love the coquette-moon when she dresses up in amber clouds and peeps mysteriously through the branches or flings sheaves of silvery beams into the eyes of her admirers. But in that country no one has even heard of the moon being anything but an ordinary moon. It stares very good-naturedly at the villages and the fields, looking very like a polished brass basin. The poet would have looked at her in vain with eyes of rapture; she gazes as good-naturedly at a poet as does a round-faced village beauty in response to the eloquent and passionate glances of a city philanderer.

  There are no nightingales in those parts, either – perhaps because there are no shady nooks and roses there. But what an abundance of quail! At harvest time in the summer boys catch them with their hands. Do not imagine, however, that quail are regarded there as a gastronomic luxury – no, the morals of the inhabitants had not been corrupted to that extent: a quail is a bird which is not mentioned in the dietary rules. In that part of the country it delights the ear with its singing; that is why almost every house has a quail in a string cage under the roof.

  The poet and dreamer would have remained dissatisfied by the general appearance of that modest and unpretentious district. They would never have succeeded in seeing an evening in the Swiss or Scottish style, when the whole of nature – the woods, the river, the cottage walls, and the sandy hills – is suffused by the red glow of the sunset, against which is set off a cavalcade of gentlemen, riding on a twisting, sandy road after having escorted a lady on a trip to some gloomy ruin and now returning at a smart pace to a strong castle, where an ancient native would tell them a story about the Wars of the Roses and where, after a supper of wild goat’s meat, a young girl would sing them a ballad to the accompaniment of a lute – scenes with which the pen of Walter Scott has so richly filled our imagination. No, there is nothing like that in our part of the country.

  How quiet and sleepy everything is in the three or four villages which compose this little plot of land! They lie close to one another and look as though they had been flung down accidentally by a giant’s hand and scattered about in different directions, where they had remained to this day. One cottage, dropped on the edge of a ravine, has remained hanging there since time immemorial, half of it suspended in the air and propped up by three poles. People have lived quietly and happily there for three or four generations. One would think that a hen would be afraid to go into it, and yet Onisim Suslov, a steady man, who is too big to stand up in his own cottage, lives there with his wife. Not everyone would be able to enter Onisim’s cottage, unless, indeed, the visitor persuaded it to stand with its back to the forest and its front to him. For its front steps hang over the ravine, and in order to enter it one has to hold on to the grass with one hand and its roof with the other, and then lift one’s foot and place it firmly on the steps.

  Another cottage clings precariously to the hillside like a swallow’s nest; three other cottages have been thrown together accidentally not far away, and two more stand at the very bottom of the ravine.

  Everything in the village is quiet and sleepy: the doors of the silent cottages are wide open; not a soul is to be seen; only the flies swarm in clouds and buzz in the stuffy air. On entering a cottage, you will call in vain in a loud voice: dead silence will be your answer; very seldom will some old woman, who is spending her remaining years on the stove, reply with a painful sigh or a sepulchral cough; or a three-year-old child, long-haired, barefoot, and with only a torn shirt on, will appear from behind a partition, stare at you in silence, and hide himself again.

  In the fields, too, peace and a profound silence reign; only here and there a ploughman can be seen stirring like an ant on the black earth – and, scorched by the heat and bathed in perspiration, pitching his plough forward. The same imperturbable peace and quiet prevail among the people of that locality. No robberies, murders, or fatal accidents ever happened there; no strong passions or daring enterprises ever agitated them. And, indeed, what passions or daring enterprises could have agitated them? Everyone there knew what he was capable of. The inhabitants of those villages lived far from other people. The nearest villages and the district town were twenty and twenty-five miles away. At a certain time the peasants carted their corn to the nearest landing-stage of the Volga, which was their Colchis or Pillars of Hercules, and some of them went to the market once a year, and that was all the intercourse they had with the outside world. Their interests were centred upon themselves and they never came into contact with or ran foul of any one else’s. They knew that the administrative city of the province was sixty miles away, but very few of them ever went there; they also knew that farther away in the same direction was Saratov or Nizhny-Novgorod; they had heard of Petersburg and Moscow, and that French and Germans lived beyond Petersburg, and the world farther away was for them as mysterious as it was for the ancients – unknown countries, inhabited by monsters, people with two heads, giants; farther away still there was darkness, and at the end of it all was the fish which held the world on its back. And as their part of the country was hardly ever visited by travellers, they had no opportunity of learning the latest news of what was going on in the world: the peasants who supplied them with their wooden vessels lived within fifteen miles of their villages and were as ignorant as they. There was nothing even with which they could compare their way of living and find out in this way whether they lived well or no, whether they were rich or poor, or whether there was anything others had that they, too, would like.

  These lucky people imagined that everything was as it should be and were convinced that everyone else lived like them and to live otherwise was a sin. They would not believe it if someone told them that there were people who had other ways of ploughing, sowing, harvesting, and selling. What passions and excitements could they possibly have? Like everyone else, they had their worries and weaknesses, rent and taxes, idleness and sleep; but all this did not amount to a great deal and did not stir their blood. For the last five years not one of the several hundred peasants of that locality had died a natural, let alone a violent, death. And when someone had gone to his eternal sleep either from old age or from some chronic illness, the people there had gone on marvelling at such an extraordinary event for months. And yet it did not surprise them at all that, for instance, Taras the blacksmith had nearly steamed himself to death in his mud hut so that he had to be revived with cold water. The only crime that was greatly prevalent was the theft of peas, carrots, and turnips from the kitchen gardens, and on one occasion two sucking pigs and a chicken had suddenly disappeared – an event which outraged the whole neighbourhood and was unanimously attributed to the fact that carts with wooden wares had passed through the village on their way to the fair. But, generally speaking, accidents of any kind were extremely rare.

  Once, however, a man had been found lying in a ditch by the bridge outside a village, evidently a member of a co-operative group of workmen who had passed by on their way to the town. The boys were the first to discover him, and they ran back terrified to the village with the news that some terrible serpent or werewolf was lying in a ditch, adding that he had chased them and nearly eaten Kuzka. The braver souls among the peasants armed themselves with pitchforks and axes and went in a crowd to the ditch.

  ‘Where are you off to?’ The old men tried to stop them. ‘Think yourselves stout fellows, do you? What do you want there? Leave it alone, no one
’s driving you.’

  But the peasants went, and about a hundred yards from the spot began calling to the monster in different voices, and as there was no reply, they stopped, then moved on again. A peasant lay in the ditch, leaning his head against its side; a bundle and a stick with two pairs of bast-shoes tied on it, lay beside him. They did not venture near him or touch him.

  ‘Hey you, there!’ they shouted in turn, scratching their heads or their backs. ‘What’s your name? Hey, you! What do you want here?’

  The stranger tried to raise his head but could not; evidently he was either ill or very tired. One peasant nearly brought himself to touch him with his pitchfork.

  ‘Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him!’ many of the others cried. ‘How do we know what sort of a man he is? He hasn’t said a word. He may be one of them – don’t touch him, lads!’

  ‘Let’s go,’ some said. ‘Come on now: he isn’t one of ours, is he? He’ll only bring us trouble!’

  And they all went back to the village, telling the old men that a stranger was lying there who would not speak and goodness only knows what he was up to.

  ‘Don’t have anything to do with him if he is a stranger,’ the old men said, sitting on the mound of earth beside their cottages, with their elbows on their knees. ‘Let him do as he likes! You shouldn’t have gone at all!’

  Such was the spot where Oblomov suddenly found himself in his dream. Of the three or four villages scattered there, one was Sosnovka and another Vavilovka, about a mile from each other. Sosnovka and Vavilovka were the hereditary property of the Oblomov family and were therefore known under the general name of Oblomovka. The Oblomov country seat was in Sosnovka. About three and a half miles from Sosnovka lay the little village of Verkhlyovo, which had once belonged to the Oblomov family but which had long since passed into other hands, and a few more scattered cottages which went with it. This village belonged to a rich landowner who was never to be seen on his estate, which was managed by a German steward.

  Such was the whole geography of the place.

  Oblomov woke up in the morning in his small bed. He was only seven. He felt light-hearted and gay. What a pretty, red-cheeked, and plump boy he was! He had such sweet, round cheeks that were the envy of many a little rogue who would blow up his own on purpose, but could never get cheeks like that. His nurse was waiting for him to wake up. She began putting on his stockings, but he did not let her; he played about, dangling his legs. His nurse caught him, and they both laughed. At last she succeeded in making him get up. She washed his face, combed his hair, and took him to his mother. Seeing his mother, who had been dead for years, Oblomov even in his sleep thrilled with joy and his ardent love for her; two warm tears slowly appeared from under his eyelashes and remained motionless. His mother covered him with passionate kisses, then looked at him anxiously to see if his eyes were clear, if anything hurt him, asked the nurse if he had slept well, if he had waked in the night, if he had tossed in his sleep, if he had a temperature. Then she took him by the hand and led him to the ikon. Kneeling down and putting her arm round him, she made him repeat the words of a prayer. The boy repeated them after her absent-mindedly, gazing at the window, through which the cool of the morning and the scent of lilac poured into the room.

  ‘Are we going for a walk to-day, Mummy?’ he suddenly asked in the middle of the prayer.

  ‘Yes, darling,’ she replied hurriedly, without taking her eyes off the ikon and hastening to finish the holy words.

  The boy repeated them listlessly, but his mother put her whole soul into them. Then they went to see his father, and then they had breakfast.

  At the breakfast table Oblomov saw their aunt, an old lady of eighty; she was constantly grumbling at her maid, who stood behind her chair waiting on her and whose head shook with age. Three elderly spinsters, his father’s distant relations, were also there, as well as his father’s slightly mad brother, and a poor landowner by the name of Chekmenev, the owner of seven serfs, who was staying with them, and several old ladies and old gentlemen. All these members of the Oblomov retinue and establishment picked up the little boy and began showering caresses and praises on him; he had hardly time to wipe away the traces of the unbidden kisses. After that they began stuffing him with rolls, biscuits, and cream. Then his mother hugged and kissed him again and sent him for a walk in the garden, the yard, and the meadow, with strict instructions to his nurse not to leave the child alone, not to let him go near the horses, the dogs, and the goat or wander too far from the house, and, above all, not to let him go to the ravine, which had a bad name as the most terrible place in the neighbourhood. Once they found a dog there which was reputed to be mad only because it ran away and disappeared behind the hills when attacked with pitchforks and axes; carcasses were thrown into the ravine, and wolves and robbers and other creatures which did not exist in those parts or anywhere else in the world were supposed to live there.

  The child did not wait for his mother to finish her warnings: he was already out in the yard. He examined his father’s house and ran round it with joyful surprise, as though he had never seen it before: the gates which leaned to one side; the wooden roof which had settled in the middle and was overgrown with tender green moss; the rickety front steps; the various outbuildings and additions built on to it, and the neglected garden. He was dying to climb on to the projecting gallery which went all round the house and to have a look at the stream from there; but the gallery was very old and unsafe, and only the servants were allowed to go there – nobody else used it. He didn’t heed his mother’s prohibition and was already running to the inviting steps when his nurse appeared and succeeded in catching him. He rushed away from her to the hay-loft, intending to climb up the steep ladder leading to it, and she had no sooner reached the hay-loft than she had to stop him climbing up the dovecote, getting into the cattle yard and – Lord forbid – the ravine.

  ‘Dear me, what an awful child – what a fidget, to be sure!’ his nurse said. ‘Can’t you sit still for a minute, sir? Fie, for shame!’

  The nurse’s days – and nights – were one continuous scurrying and dashing about: one moment in agony, another full of joy, afraid that he might fall and hurt himself, deeply moved by his unfeigned childish affection, or vaguely apprehensive about his distant future – this was all she lived for, these agitations warmed the old woman’s blood and sustained her sluggish existence which might otherwise have come to an end long before.

  The child, however, was not always so playful; sometimes he suddenly grew quiet and gazed intently at everything as he sat beside his nurse. His childish mind was observing closely all that was going on around him; these impressions sank deeply into his soul, and grew and matured with him.

  It was a glorious morning; the air was cool; the sun was still low. Long shadows fell from the house, the trees, the dovecote, and the gallery. The garden and the yard were full of cool places, inviting sleep and day-dreaming. Only the rye-fields in the distance blazed and shimmered, and the stream sparkled and glittered in the sun so that it hurt one’s eyes to look at it.

  ‘Why, Nanny, is it so dark here and so light there, and why will it be light here soon as well?’

  ‘Because the sun is going to meet the moon, my dear, and frowns when it can’t find it, but as soon as it sees it in the distance it grows brighter.’

  The little boy grew thoughtful and went on looking all about him: he saw Antip going to get water and another Antip, ten times bigger than the real one, walking beside him along the ground, and the water-barrel looked as big as a house, and the horse’s shadow covered the whole of the meadow, and after taking only two steps across the meadow, it suddenly moved across the hill, and Antip had had no time to leave the yard. The child, too, took two steps – another step and he would be on the other side of the hill. He would like to have gone there to see where the horse had disappeared to. He ran to the gate, but his mother’s voice could be heard from the window:

  ‘Nurse, don’t you see tha
t the child has run out in the sun! Take him where it’s cool. If his head gets hot, he’ll be sick and lose his appetite. If you’re not careful, he’ll run to the ravine.’

  ‘Oh, you naughty boy!’ the nurse grumbled softly as she took him back to the house.

  The boy watched with his keen and sensitive eyes what the grown-ups were doing and how they were spending the morning. Not a single detail, however trifling, escaped the child’s inquisitive attention; the picture of his home-life was indelibly engraved on his memory; his malleable mind absorbed the living examples before him and unconsciously drew up the programme of his life in accordance with the life around him.

  The morning could not be said to be wasted in the Oblomov house. The clatter of knives chopping meat and vegetables in the kitchen could be heard as far as the village. From the servants’ hall came the hum of the spindle and the soft, thin voice of a woman: it was difficult to say whether she was crying or improvising a melancholy song without words. As soon as Antip returned to the yard with the barrel of water, the women and the coachmen came trudging towards it from every direction with pails, troughs, and jugs. Then an old woman carried a basinful of flour and a large number of eggs from the storehouse to the kitchen; the cook suddenly threw some water out through the window and splashed Arapka, which sat all morning with its eyes fixed on the window, wagging its tail and licking its chops.


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