Oblomov, p.15
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       Oblomov, p.15

           Ivan Goncharov

  Oblomov’s father was not idle, either. He sat at the window all morning, keeping a wary eye on all that was going on in the yard.

  ‘Hey, Ignashka, what are you carrying there, you fool?’ he would ask a servant walking across the yard.

  ‘I’m taking the knives to be sharpened, sir,’ the man would answer, without looking at his master.

  ‘Very well, and mind you sharpen them properly.’

  Then he would stop a peasant woman.

  ‘Hey, my good woman, where have you been?’

  ‘To the cellar, sir,’ she would stop and reply, shielding her eyes and gazing at the window. ‘Been to fetch some milk for dinner.’

  ‘All right, go, go,’ her master would reply. ‘And mind you don’t spill the milk. And you, Zakharka, where are you off to again, you rogue?’ he shouted later. ‘I’ll show you how to run! It’s the third time I’ve seen you. Back to the hall with you!’

  And Zakharka went back to the hall to doze.

  If the cows came back from the fields, Oblomov’s father would be the first to see that they were watered; if he saw from the window that the dog was chasing a hen, he would at once take stern measures to restore order.

  His wife, too, was very busy: she spent three hours explaining to Averka, the tailor, how to make a tunic for Oblomov out of her husband’s jacket, drawing the pattern in chalk and watching that Averka did not steal any cloth; then she went to the maids’ room to tell each girl what her daily task of lace-making was; then she called Nastasya Ivanovna, or Stepanida Agapovna, or someone else from her retinue for a walk in the garden with the practical purpose of seeing how ripe the apples were, if the one that was ripe the day before had fallen off the tree, to do some grafting or pruning, and so on. Her chief concern, however, was the kitchen and the dinner. The whole household was consulted about the dinner: the aged aunt, too, was invited to the council. Everyone suggested a dish: giblet soup, noodles, brawn, tripe, red or white sauce. Every advice was taken into consideration, thoroughly discussed, and then accepted or rejected in accordance with the final decision of the mistress of the house. Nastasya Petrovna or Stepanida Ivanovna was constantly being sent to the kitchen to remind the cook of something or other, to add one dish or cancel another, to take sugar, honey, wine for the cooking, and see whether the cook had used all that he had been given.

  Food was the first and foremost concern at Oblomovka. What calves were fattened there every year for the festival days! What birds were reared there! What deep understanding, what hard work, what care were needed in looking after them! Turkeys and chickens for name-days and other solemn occasions were fattened on nuts. Geese were deprived of exercise and hung up motionless in a sack a few days before a festival so that they should get covered with fat. What stores of jams, pickles, and biscuits! What meads, what kvases, were brewed, what pies baked at Oblomovka!

  And so up to midday everyone was busy, everyone was living a full, conspicuous, ant-like life. These industrious ants were not idle on Sundays and holidays, either: on those days the clatter of knives in the kitchen was louder than ever; the kitchen-maid journeyed a few times from the barn to the kitchen with a double quantity of flour and eggs; in the poultry yard there was a greater uproar and more bloodshed than ever. An enormous pie was baked, which was served cold for dinner on the following day; on the third and fourth day its remnants were sent to the maids’ room, where it lasted till Friday, when one stale end of it without stuffing descended by special favour to Antip, who, crossing himself, proudly and fearlessly demolished this interesting fossil, enjoying the consciousness that it was his master’s pie more than the pie itself, like an archaeologist who will enjoy drinking some wretched wine out of what remains of some vessel a thousand years old.

  The child kept observing and watching it all with his childish mind, which did not miss anything. He saw how often a usefully and busily spent morning was followed by midday and dinner.

  At midday it was hot; not a cloud in the sky. The sun stood motionless overhead scorching the grass. There was not the faintest breeze in the motionless air. Neither tree nor water stirred; an imperturbable stillness fell over the village and the fields, as though everything were dead. The human voice sounded loud and clear in the empty air. The flight and the buzzing of a beetle could be heard a hundred yards away, and from the thick grass there came the sound of snoring, as if someone were fast asleep there. In the house, too, dead silence reigned. It was the hour of after-dinner sleep. The child saw that everyone – father, mother, the old aunt, and their retinue – had retired to their rooms; and those who had no rooms of their own went to the hay-loft, the garden, or sought coolness in the hall, while some, covering their faces from the flies with a handkerchief, dropped off to sleep where the heat and the heavy dinner had overcome them. The gardener stretched himself out under a bush in the garden beside his mattock, and the coachman was asleep in the stables. Oblomov looked into the servants’ quarters: there everyone was lying stretched out side by side on the floor, on the benches, and in the passage, and the children, left to their own devices, were crawling about and playing in the sand. The dogs, too, stole into their kennels, there being no one to bark at. One could walk through the house from one end to the other without meeting a soul; it would have been easy to steal everything and take it away in carts, if there were any thieves in those parts, for no one would have interfered with them. It was a sort of all-absorbing and invincible sleep, a true semblance of death. Everything was dead, except for the snoring that came in all sorts of tones and variations from every corner of the house. Occasionally someone would raise his head, look round senselessly, in surprise, and turn over, or spit without opening his eyes, and munching his lips or muttering something under his breath, fall asleep again. Another would suddenly, without any preliminary preparations, jump up from his couch, as though afraid of losing a precious moment, seize a mug of kvas, and blowing away the flies that floated in it, which made the hitherto motionless flies begin to move about in the hope of improving their position, have a drink, and then fall back on the bed as though shot dead.

  The child went on watching and watching. He ran out into the open with his nurse again after dinner. But in spite of the strict injunctions of her mistress and her own determination, the nurse could not resist the fascination of sleep. She, too, was infected by the epidemic that raged in Oblomovka. At first she looked sedulously after the child, did not let him go far from her, scolded him for being naughty; then, feeling the symptoms of the infection, she begged him not to go out of the gate, not to tease the goat, and not to climb on the dovecote or the gallery. She herself sat down in some shady nook – on the front steps, at the entrance to the cellar, or simply on the grass, with the apparent intention of knitting a sock and looking after the child. But soon her admonitions grew more sluggish and she began nodding. ‘Oh dear,’ she thought, falling asleep, ‘that fidget is sure to climb on the gallery or – run off to – the ravine…’ At this point the old woman’s head dropped forward and the sock fell out of her hands; she lost sight of the child and, opening her mouth slightly, began to snore softly.

  The child had been waiting impatiently for that moment, with which his independent life began. He seemed to be alone in the whole world; he tiptoed past his nurse and ran off to see where everybody was asleep; he stopped and watched intently if someone woke for a minute, spat and mumbled in his sleep, then, with a sinking heart, ran up on the gallery, raced round it on the creaking boards, climbed the dovecote, penetrated into the remotest corners of the garden, where he listened to the buzzing of a beetle and watched its flight in the air for a long time; he listened to the chirring in the grass and tried to catch the disturbers of peace; caught a dragon-fly, tore off its wings to see what it would do, or stuck a straw through it and watched it fly with that appendage; observed with delight, holding his breath, a spider sucking a fly and the poor victim struggling and buzzing in its clutches. In the end the child killed both the victim and its to
rturer. Then he went to a ditch, dug up some roots, peeled them, and enjoyed eating them more than the jams and apples his mother gave him. He ran out of the gate, too: he would like to go to the birch-wood, which seemed to him so near that he was sure he would get there in five minutes, not by the road, but straight across the ditch, the wattle fences, and the pits; but he was afraid, for he had been told that there were wood demons and robbers and terrible beasts there. He wanted to go to the ravine, too, for it was only about a hundred yards from the garden; he ran to the very edge of it, to peer into it as into the crater of a volcano, when suddenly all the stories and legends about the ravine rose before his mind’s eye; he was thrown into a panic, and rushed more dead than alive back to his nurse trembling with fear, and woke the old woman. She awoke with a start, straightened the kerchief on her head, pushed back the wisps of grey hair under it with a finger, and, pretending not to have been asleep at all, glanced suspiciously at Oblomov and at the windows of her master’s house and, with trembling fingers, began clicking with the knitting-needles of the sock that lay on her lap.

  Meanwhile the heat had begun to abate a little; everything in nature was getting more animated; the sun had moved towards the woods. In the house, too, the silence was little by little broken; a door creaked somewhere; someone could be heard walking in the yard; someone else sneezed in the hay-loft. Soon a servant hurriedly brought an enormous samovar from the kitchen, bending under its weight. The company began to assemble for tea; one had a crumpled face and swollen eyelids; another had a red spot on the cheek and on the temple; a third was still too sleepy to speak in his natural voice. They wheezed, groaned, yawned, scratched their heads, stretched themselves, still barely awake. The dinner and the sleep had made them terribly thirsty. Their throats were parched; they drank about twelve cups of tea each, but this did not help; they moaned and groaned; they tried cranberry water, pear water, kvas, and some medicinal drinks to quench their thirst. All sought deliverance from it as though it were some punishment inflicted on them by God; all rushed about, panting for a drink, like a caravan of travellers in the Arabian desert looking in vain for a spring of water.

  The little boy was there beside his mother, watching the strange faces around him and listening to their languid and sleepy conversation. He enjoyed looking at them, and thought every stupid remark they made interesting. After tea they all found something to do: one went down to the river and walked slowly along the bank, kicking the pebbles into the water; another sat by the window watching everything that went on outside; if a cat ran across the yard or a magpie flew by, he followed it with his eyes and the tip of his nose, turning his head to right and left. So dogs sometimes like to sit for a whole day on the window-sill, basking in the sun and carefully examining every passer-by. Oblomov’s mother would put his head on her lap and slowly comb his hair, admiring its softness and making Nastasya Ivanovna and Stepanida Tikhonovna admire it too. She talked to them of his future, conjuring up a vision of him as the hero of some brilliant exploit, while they predicted great riches for him.

  But presently it was getting dark, again a fire crackled in the kitchen and again there was a loud clatter of knives; supper was being prepared. The servants had gathered at the gates; sounds of the balalaika and of laughter were heard there. They were playing catch.

  The sun was setting behind the woods; its last few warm rays cut straight across the woods like shafts of fire, brightly gilding the tops of the pines. Then the rays were extinguished one by one, the last one lingering for a long time and piercing the thicket of branches like a thin quill; but it, too, was extinguished. Objects lost their shapes: at first everything was merged into a grey, and then into a black, mass. The birds gradually stopped singing; soon they fell silent altogether, except one, which, as though in defiance of the rest, went on chirping monotonously amid the general silence and at intervals which were getting longer and longer till, finally, it gave one last low whistle, slightly rustled the leaves round it, and fell asleep. All was silent. Only the grasshoppers chirped louder than ever. White mists rose from the ground and spread over the meadows and the river. The river, too, grew quieter; a few more moments and something splashed in it for the last time, and it grew motionless. There was a smell of damp in the air. It grew darker and darker. The trees began to look like groups of monsters; the woods were full of nameless terrors; someone suddenly moved about there with a creaking noise, as though one of the monsters shifted from one place to another, a dead twig cracking under its foot. The first star, like a living eye, gleamed brightly in the sky, and lights appeared in the windows of the house.

  It was the time of solemn and universal stillness in nature, a time when the creative mind is most active, when poetic thoughts are fanned into flames, when passion burns more brightly or anguish is felt more acutely in the heart, when the seed of a criminal design ripens more imperturbably and more strongly in the cruel heart, and when everybody in Oblomovka is once more peacefully and soundly asleep.

  ‘Let’s go for a walk, Mummy,’ said Oblomov.

  ‘Good heavens, child,’ she replied, ‘go for a walk at this hour! It’s damp, you’ll get your feet wet, and it’s so frightening: the wood-demon is walking about in the woods now, carrying off little children.’

  ‘Where to? What is he like? Where does he live?’ the little boy asked.

  And his mother gave full rein to her unbridled fancy. The boy listened to her, opening and closing his eyes, till at last he was overcome by sleep. The nurse came and, taking him from his mother’s lap, carried him off to bed asleep, his head hanging over her shoulder.

  ‘Well, thank goodness, another day gone,’ the Oblomovka inhabitants said, getting into bed, groaning, and crossing themselves. ‘We’ve lived through it safely, God grant it may be the same to-morrow! Praise be unto thee, O Lord!’

  Then Oblomov dreamt of another occasion: one endless winter evening he was timidly pressing closely to his nurse, who was whispering a fairy-story to him about some wonderful country where there was no night and no cold, where all sorts of miracles happened, where the rivers flowed with milk and honey, where no one did a stroke of work all the year round, and fine fellows, like Oblomov, and maidens more beautiful than words can tell did nothing but enjoy themselves all day long. A fairy godmother lived there, who sometimes took the shape of a pike and who chose for her favourite some quiet and harmless man – in other words, some loafer, ill-treated by everyone, and for no reason in the world, bestowed all sorts of treasures on him, while he did nothing but eat and drink and dressed in costly clothes, and then married some indescribable beauty, Militrissa Kirbityevna. The little boy listened breathlessly to the story, pricking up his ears, and his eyes glued to his nurse’s face. The nurse or the traditional tale so artfully avoided every reference to reality that the child’s imagination and intellect, having absorbed the fiction, remained enslaved by it all his life. The nurse told him good-humouredly the story of Yemelya-the-Fool, that wickedly insidious satire on our forefathers and, perhaps, on ourselves too. Though when he grew up Oblomov discovered that there were no rivers flowing with milk and honey, nor fairy godmothers, and though he smiled at his nurse’s tales, his smile was not sincere, and it was accompanied by a secret sigh: the fairy-tale had become mixed up with real life in his mind, and sometimes he was sorry that fairy-tale was not life and life was not fairy-tale. He could not help dreaming of Militrissa Kirbityevna; he was always drawn to the land where people do nothing but have a good time and where there are no worries or sorrows; he preserved for the rest of his life a predisposition for doing no work, walking about in clothes that had been provided for him, and eating at the fairy godmother’s expense.

  Oblomov’s father and grandfather, too, had heard as children the same fairy stories, handed down for centuries and generations in their stereotyped form by their nurses.

  In the meantime the nurse was drawing another picture for the little boy’s imagination. She was telling him about the heroic exploits o
f our Achilles and Ulysses, about the great bravery of Ilya Muromets, Dobryna Nikitich, Alyosha Popovich, Polkan the Giant, Kolechishche the Traveller, about how they had journeyed all over Russia, defeating numberless hosts of infidels, how they vied with each other in drinking big goblets of wine at one gulp without uttering a sound; she then told him of wicked robbers, sleeping princesses, towns and people turned to stone; finally, she passed on to our demonology, dead men, monsters, and werewolves.

  With Homer’s simplicity and good humour and his eye for vivid detail and concrete imagery, she filled the boy’s memory and imagination with the Iliad of Russian life, created by our Homers in the far-off days when man was not yet able to stand up to the dangers and mysteries of life and nature, when he trembled at the thought of werewolves and wood-demons and sought Alyosha Popovich’s help against the adversities threatening him on all sides, and when the air, water, forests, and plains were full of marvels. Man’s life in those days was insecure and terrible; it was dangerous for him to go beyond his own threshold; a wild beast might fall upon him any moment, or a robber might kill him, or a wicked Tartar rob him of all his possessions, or he might disappear without a trace. Or else signs from heaven might appear, pillars or balls of fire; or a light might glimmer above a new grave; or some creature might walk about in the forest as though swinging a lantern, laughing terribly and flashing its eyes in the dark. And so many mysterious things happened to people, too: a man might live for years happily without mishap, and all of a sudden he would begin to talk strangely or scream in a wild voice, or walk in his sleep; another would for no reason at all begin to writhe on the ground in convulsions. And before it happened, a hen had crowed like a cock or a raven had croaked over the roof. Man, weak creature that he is, felt bewildered, and tried to find in his imagination the key to his own being and to the mysteries that encompassed him. And perhaps it was the everlasting quiet of a sleepy and stagnant life and the absence of movement and of any real terrors, adventures, and dangers that made man create amidst the real life another fantastic one where he might find amusement and true scope for his idle imagination or an explanation of ordinary events and the causes of the events outside the events themselves. Our poor ancestors groped their way through life, they neither controlled their will nor let it be inspired, and then marvelled naïvely or were horrified at the discomforts and evils of life, and sought for an explanation of them in the mute and obscure hieroglyphics of nature. A death, they thought, was caused by the fact that, shortly before, a corpse had been carried out of the house head and not feet foremost, and a fire because a dog had howled for three nights under the window; and they took great care that a corpse should be carried out feet foremost, but went on eating the same food and sleeping on the bare grass as before; a barking dog was beaten or driven away, but still they shook the sparks from a burning splinter down the cracks of the rotten floor. And to this day the Russian people, amid the stark and commonplace realities of life, prefer to believe in seductive legends of the old days, and it may be a long, long time before they give up this belief.

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