Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Old-Fashioned Gentry
By Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852)
From ‘Mirgorod’: Translation of Isabel Florence Hapgood

I AM very fond of the modest life of those isolated owners of remote estates which are generally called “old-fashioned” in Little Russia, and which, like ruinous and picturesque houses, are beautiful through their simplicity and complete contrast to a new and regular building whose walls have never yet been washed by the rain, whose roof has not yet been overgrown with moss, and whose porch, still possessed of its stucco, does not yet display its red bricks. I can still see the low-roofed little house, with its veranda of slender, blackened wooden columns, surrounding it on all sides, so that in case of a thunder-storm or a hail-storm you could close the window shutters without getting wet; behind it fragrant wild-cherry trees, row upon row of dwarf fruit-trees, overtopped by crimson cherries and a purple sea of plums, covered with a lead-colored bloom, luxuriant maples under whose shade rugs were spread for repose; in front of the house the spacious yard, with short fresh grass, through which paths had been worn from the storehouses to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the apartments of the family; a long-necked goose drinking water with her young goslings, soft as down; the picket fence festooned with bunches of dried apples and pears, and rugs hung out to air; a cart-load of melons standing near the store-house, the oxen unyoked and lying lazily beside it. All this has for me an indescribable charm,—perhaps because I no longer see it, and because anything from which we are separated pleases us.  1
  But more than all else, the owners of this distant nook,—an old man and old woman,—hastening eagerly out to meet me, gave me pleasure. Afanasy Ivanovitch Tovstogub and his wife, Pulkheria Ivanovna Tovstogubikha, according to the neighboring peasants’ way of expressing it, were the old people of whom I began to speak. If I were a painter and wished to depict Philemon and Baucis on canvas, I could have found no better models than they. Afanasy Ivanovitch was sixty years old, Pulkheria Ivanovna was fifty-five. Afanasy Ivanovitch was tall, always wore a short sheepskin coat covered with camlet, sat all doubled up, and was almost always smiling, whether he were telling a story or only listening to one. Pulkheria Ivanovna was rather serious, and hardly ever laughed; but her face and eyes expressed so much goodness, so much eagerness to treat you to all the best they owned, that you would probably have found a smile too repelling on her kind face. The delicate wrinkles were so agreeably disposed on their countenances that an artist would certainly have appropriated them. It seemed as though in them you might read their whole life: the pure, peaceful life led by the old, patriotic, simple-hearted, and at the same time wealthy families, which always present a marked contrast to those baser Little-Russians who work up from tar-burners and peddlers, throng the court-rooms like grasshoppers, squeeze the last copper from their fellow-countrymen, crowd Petersburg with scandal-mongers, finally acquire capital, and triumphantly add an f to their surnames which end in o. No, they did not resemble those despicable and miserable creatures, but all ancient and native Little-Russian families.  2
  They never had any children, so all their affection was concentrated on themselves.  3
  The rooms of the little house in which our old couple dwelt were small, low-ceiled, such as are generally to be seen with old-fashioned people. In each room stood a huge stove, which occupied nearly one-third of the space. These little rooms were frightfully hot, because both Afanasy Ivanovitch and Pulkheria Ivanovna were fond of heat. All their fuel was stored in the ante-room, which was always filled nearly to the ceiling with straw, which is generally used in Little Russia in place of wood.  4
  The chairs of the room were of wood, and massive, in the style which generally marked those of the olden times: all had high, turned backs of natural wood, without any paint or varnish; they were not even upholstered, and somewhat resembled those which are still used by bishops. Triangular tables stood in the corners, a square table stood in front of the sofa; and there was a large mirror in a slender gilt frame, carved in foliage, which the flies had covered with black spots; in front of the sofa was a mat with flowers which resembled birds, and birds which resembled flowers: and these things constituted almost the entire furniture of the far from elegant little house where my old people lived. The maids’ room was filled with young and elderly serving-women in striped chemises, to whom Pulkheria Ivanovna sometimes gave trifles to sew, and whom she set to picking over berries, but who ran about the kitchen or slept the greater part of the time. Pulkheria Ivanovna regarded it as a necessity that she should keep them in the house, and she kept a strict watch of their morals; but to no purpose.  5
  Afanasy Ivan’itch very rarely occupied himself with the farming; although he sometimes went out to see the mowers and reapers, and gazed with great intensity at their work. All the burden of management devolved upon Pulkheria Ivan’na. Pulkheria Ivanovna’s housekeeping consisted of a constant locking and unlocking of the storehouse, of salting, drying, and preserving incalculable quantities of fruits and vegetables. Her house was exactly like a chemical laboratory. A fire was constantly laid under an apple-tree; and the kettle or the brass pan with preserves, jelly, marmalade,—made with honey, with sugar, and with I know not what else,—was hardly ever taken from the tripod. Under another tree the coachman was forever distilling vodka with peach-leaves, with wild cherry, cherry flowers, wild gentian, or cherry-stones, in a copper still; and at the end of the process he was never able to control his tongue, but chattered all sorts of nonsense which Pulkheria Ivanovna did not understand, and took himself off to the kitchen to sleep. Such a quantity of all this stuff was preserved, salted, and dried that it would probably have overwhelmed the whole yard at least (for Pulkheria Ivanovna liked to lay in a store far beyond what was calculated for consumption), if the greater part of it had not been devoured by the maid-servants, who crept into the storehouse and over-ate themselves to such a fearful extent that they groaned and complained of their stomachs for a whole day afterwards.  6
  Both the old folks, in accordance with old-fashioned customs, were very fond of eating. As soon as daylight dawned (they always rose early) and the doors had begun their many-toned concert of squeaks, they sat down at the table and drank coffee. When Afanasy Ivanovitch had drunk his coffee, he went out, flirted his handkerchief, and said, “Kish, kish! go away from the veranda, geese!” In the yard he generally encountered the steward: he usually entered into conversation with him, inquired about the work of the estate with the greatest minuteness, and imparted to him such a multitude of observations and orders as would have caused any one to marvel at his understanding of business; and no novice would have ventured to conjecture that so acute a master could be robbed. But his steward was a clever rascal: he knew well what answers he must give, and better still how to manage things.  7
  This done, Afanasy Ivanovitch returned to the house, and approaching Pulkheria Ivanovna, said, “Well, Pulkheria Ivan’na, is it time to eat something, do you think?”  8
  “What shall we have to eat now, Afanasy Ivan’itch,—some wheat and suet cakes, or some patties with poppy-seeds, or some salted mushrooms?”  9
  “Some mushrooms, then, or some patties, if you please,” said Afanasy Ivan’itch; and then suddenly a table-cloth would make its appearance on the table, with the patties and mushrooms.  10
  An hour before dinner Afanasy Ivan’itch took another snack, and drank vodka from an ancient silver cup, ate mushrooms, divers dried fishes, and other things. They sat down to dine at twelve o’clock. There stood upon the table, in addition to the platters and sauce-boats, a multitude of pots with covers pasted on, that the appetizing products of the savory old-fashioned cooking might not be exhaled abroad. At dinner the conversation turned upon subjects closely connected with the meal.  11
  After dinner Afanasy Ivanovitch went to lie down for an hour, at the end of which time Pulkheria Ivanovna brought him a sliced watermelon and said, “Here, try this, Afanasy Ivan’itch; see what a good melon it is.”  12
  “Don’t put faith in it because it is red in the centre, Pulkheria Ivan’na,” said Afanasy Ivanovitch, taking a good-sized chunk. “Sometimes they are not good though they are red.”  13
  But the watermelon slowly disappeared. Then Afanasy Ivanovitch ate a few pears, and went out into the garden for a walk with Pulkheria Ivanovna. When they returned to the house, Pulkheria Ivanovna went about her own affairs; but he sat down on the veranda facing the yard, and observed how the interior of the store-room was alternately disclosed and revealed, and how the girls jostled each other as they carried in or brought out all sorts of stuff in wooden boxes, sieves, trays, and other receptacles for fruit. After waiting a while, he sent for Pulkheria Ivanovna or went in search of her himself, and said, “What is there for me to eat, Pulkheria Ivan’na?”  14
  “What is there?” asked Pulkheria Ivanovna. “Shall I go and tell them to bring you some curd dumplings with berries, which I had set aside for you?”  15
  “That would be good,” answered Afanasy Ivanovitch.  16
  “Or perhaps you could eat some kisel?” [A jelly-like pudding, made of potato flour, and flavored with some sour fruit juice.]  17
  “That is good also,” replied Afanasy Invanovitch; whereupon all of them were immediately brought and eaten in due course.  18
  Before supper Afanasy Invanovitch took another appetizing snack.  19
  At half-past nine they sat down to supper. After supper they went directly to bed, and universal silence settled down upon this busy yet quiet nook.  20
  The chamber in which Afanasy Ivanovitch and Pulkheria Ivanovna slept was so hot that very few people could have stayed in it more than a few hours; but Afanasy Ivanovitch, for the sake of more warmth, slept upon the stove bench, although the excessive heat caused him to rise several times in the course of the night and walk about the room. Sometimes Afanasy Ivanovitch groaned as he walked thus about the room.  21
  Then Pulkheria Ivanovna inquired, “Why do you groan, Afanasy Ivan’itch?”  22
  “God knows, Pulkheria Ivan’na! It seems to me that my stomach aches a little,” said Afanasy Ivanovitch.  23
  “Hadn’t you better eat something, Afanasy Ivan’itch?”  24
  “I don’t know; perhaps it would be well, Pulkheria Ivan’na: by the way, what is there to eat?”  25
  “Sour milk, or some stewed dried pears.”  26
  “If you please, I will try them,” said Afanasy Ivanovitch. A sleepy maid was sent to ransack the cupboards, and Afanasy Ivanovitch ate a plateful; after which he remarked, “Now I seem to feel relieved.”  27
  I loved to visit them; and though I over-ate myself horribly, like all their guests, and although it was very bad for me, still I was always glad to go to them. Besides, I think that the air of Little Russia must possess some special properties which aid digestion; for if any one were to undertake to eat in that way here, there is not a doubt but that he would find himself lying on the table a corpse, instead of in bed.  28
  Pulkheria Ivanovna had a little gray cat, which almost always lay coiled up in a ball at her feet. Pulkheria Ivanovna stroked her occasionally, and tickled her neck with her finger, the petted cat stretching it out as long as possible. It would not be correct to affirm that Pulkheria Ivanovna loved her so very much, but she had simply become attached to her from seeing her continually about. Afanasy Ivanovitch often joked about the attachment.  29
  Behind their garden lay a large forest, which had been spared by the enterprising steward, possibly because the sound of the axe might have reached the ears of Pulkheria Ivanovna. It was dense, neglected; the old tree trunks were concealed by luxuriant hazel-bushes, and resembled the feathered legs of pigeons. In this wood dwelt wild cats. These cats had a long conference with Pulkheria Ivanovna’s tame cat through a hole under the storehouse, and at last led her astray, as a detachment of soldiers leads astray a dull-witted peasant. Pulkheria Ivanovna noticed that her cat was missing, and caused search to be made for her; but no cat was to be found. Three days passed; Pulkheria Ivanovna felt sorry, but in the end forgot all about her loss.  30
  [The cat returns to the place half starved, and is coaxed to come into the house and eat, but runs away on Pulkheria Ivanovna’s trying to pet her.]

  The old woman became pensive. “It is my death which is come for me,” she said to herself; and nothing could cheer her. All day she was sad. In vain did Afanasy Ivanovitch jest, and seek to discover why she had suddenly grown so grave. Pulkheria Ivanovna either made no reply, or one which did not in the least satisfy Afanasy Ivanovitch. The next day she had grown visibly thinner.
  “What is the matter with you, Pulkheria Ivanovna? You are not ill?”  32
  “No, I am not ill, Afanasy Ivan’itch. I want to tell you about a strange occurrence. I know that I shall die this year; my death has already come for me.”  33
  Afanasy Ivanovitch’s mouth was distorted with pain. Nevertheless he tried to conquer the sad feeling in his mind, and said smiling, “God only knows what you are talking about, Pulkheria Ivan’na! You must have drunk some of your peach infusion instead of your usual herb tea.”  34
  “No, Afanasy Ivan’itch, I have not drunk my peach infusion,” replied Pulkheria Ivanovna. “I beg of you, Afanasy Ivan’itch, to fulfill my wishes. When I die, bury me by the church wall. Put on me my grayish gown,—the one with the small flowers on a cinnamon ground. My satin gown with the red stripes you must not put on me: a corpse needs no clothes; of what use are they to her? But it will be good for you. Make yourself a fine dressing-gown, in case visitors come, so that you can make a good appearance when you receive them.”  35
  “God knows what you are saying, Pulkheria Ivan’na!” said Afanasy Ivanovitch. “Death will come some time; but you frighten me with such remarks.”  36
  “Mind, Yavdokha,” she said, turning to the housekeeper, whom she had sent for expressly, “that you look after your master when I am dead, and cherish him like the apple of your eye, like your own child. See that everything he likes is prepared in the kitchen; that his linen and clothes are always clean; that when visitors happen in, you dress him properly, otherwise he will come forth in his old dressing-gown, for he often forgets now whether it is a festival or an ordinary day.”  37
  Poor old woman! She had no thought for the great moment which was awaiting her, nor of her soul, nor of the future life: she thought only of her poor companion, with whom she had passed her life, and whom she was about to leave an orphan and unprotected. After this fashion did she arrange everything with great skill, so that after her death Afanasy Ivanovitch might not perceive her absence. Her faith in her approaching end was so firm, and her mind was so fixed upon it, that in a few days she actually took to her bed, and was unable to swallow any nourishment.  38
  Afanasy Ivanovitch was all attention, and never left her bedside. “Perhaps you could eat something, Pulkheria Ivan’na,” he said, gazing uneasily into her eyes. But Pulkheria Ivanovna made no reply. At length, after a long silence, she moved her lips as though desirous of saying something—and her spirit fled.  39
  Afanasy Ivanovitch was utterly amazed. It seemed to him so terrible that he did not even weep. He gazed at her with troubled eyes, as though he did not understand the meaning of a corpse.  40
  Five years passed. Being in the vicinity at the end of the five years, I went to the little estate of Afanasy Ivanovitch, to inquire after my old neighbor, with whom I had spent the day so agreeably in former times, dining always on the choicest delicacies of his kind-hearted wife. When I drove up to the door, the house seemed twice as old as formerly; the peasants’ cottages were lying on one side, without doubt exactly like their owners; the fence and hedge around the yard were dilapidated; and I myself saw the cook pull out a paling to heat the stove, when she had only a couple of steps to take in order to get the kindling-wood which had been piled there expressly for her use. I stepped sadly upon the veranda; the same dogs, now blind or with broken legs, raised their bushy tails, all matted with burrs, and barked.  41
  The old man came out to meet me. So this was he! I recognized him at once, but he was twice as bent as formerly. He knew me, and greeted me with the smile which was so familiar to me. I followed him into the room. All there seemed as in the past; but I observed a strange disorder, a tangible loss of something. In everything was visible the absence of the pains-taking Pulkheria Ivanovna. At table, they gave us a knife without a handle; the dishes were prepared with little art. I did not care to inquire about the management of the estate; I was even afraid to glance at the farm buildings. I tried to interest Afanasy Ivanovitch in something, and told him divers bits of news. He listened with his customary smile, but his glance was at times quite unintelligent; and thoughts did not wander therein—they simply disappeared.  42
  “This is the dish—” said Afanasy Ivanovitch when they brought us curds and flour with cream, “—this is the dish—” he continued, and I observed that his voice began to quiver, and that tears were on the point of bursting from his leaden eyes; but he collected all his strength in the effort to repress them: “this is the dish which the—the—the de—ceas—” and his tears suddenly gushed forth, his hand fell upon his plate, the plate was overturned, flew from the table, and was broken. He sat stupidly, holding the spoon, and tears like a never-ceasing fountain flowed, flowed in streams down upon his napkin.  43
  He did not live long after this. I heard of his death recently. What was strange, though, was that the circumstances attending it somewhat resembled those connected with the death of Pulkheria Ivanovna. One day, Afanasy Ivanovitch decided to take a short stroll in the garden. As he went slowly down the path with his usual heedlessness, a strange thing happened to him. All at once he heard some one behind him say in a distinct voice, “Afanasy Ivan’itch!” He turned round, but there was no one there. He looked on all sides; he peered into the shrubbery,—no one anywhere. The day was calm and the sun was shining brightly. He pondered for a moment. Then his face lighted up, and at last he cried, “It is Pulkheria Ivanovna calling me!”  44
  He surrendered himself utterly to the moral conviction that Pulkheria Ivanovna was calling him. He yielded with the meekness of a submissive child, withered up, coughed, melted away like a candle, and at last expired like it when nothing remains to feed its poor flame. “Lay me beside Pulkheria Ivan’na”—that was all he said before his death.  45
  His wish was fulfilled; and they buried him beside the churchyard wall close to Pulkheria Ivanovna’s grave. The guests at the funeral were few, but there was a throng of common and poor people. The house was already quite deserted. The enterprising clerk and village elder carried off to their cottages all the old household utensils which the housekeeper did not manage to appropriate.  46

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