To A. Voronsky
1 "A nice-sized village is Radovo, I reckon, two hundred farms. You don't need more than a glance to know It isn't without its charms. We're well off for wood and water, There's pasture land too, and fields, And poplars along the borders - All specially planted trees. "We don't like to boast, but truly At fortune we can't feel sore- There's no farm without tin roofing, An orchard, a threshing-floor, And everyone has gay shutters, On holidays - meat and kvass. No wonder the district officer Would always stop by for a glass. "We'd never be late with quit-rent But the head man - he wielded power - Would always demand in addition A measure of millet or flour. And so to avert disaster We'd pay up - for it's no joke - A master is always master And we are just common folk. "But people are all born sinners, And some eyes are shaiper than tusks. The men of the neighbouring village, Kriusha, had eyes on us. Their life was nothing to talk of - For ploughing the most they could raise Was a couple of clapped-out horses And a plough that had seen better days. "So how could they dream of plenty - They were happy to stay alive. Our forest with axes they'd enter And chop trees down on the sly. We caught them one day red-handed With axes - we had ours too. The clatter as axe on axe landed Sent chills down your spine, right through. "The fray bore a whiff of murder. Neither side was quite free of guilt When one of them without further Ado our head man killed. Our villagers met to settle The details to tie up the case. The judge sent ten men in fetters To Siberia for a space. Since then things have all gone to ruin, Our fortune has slipped the rein. For three years just trouble's been brewing - Fire, cattle pest, then fire again." With such dismal stories the driver Regaled me along the night road: In Radovo I had decided To rest for a while and lie low. The war had quite eaten my heart out. For other men's gain and delight I'd shot at my own blood brothers And killed them in hand-to-hand fight. I'd been just a pawn the merchants And nobles had fooled all along. I swore not with guns but with verses I'd wage battle from now on. I threw down my rifle, provided Myself with a set of false docs, And there was I - ready for nineteen Seventeen with its turmoil and shocks. Up freedom sprang, furiously raging. Through gun smoke streaked with fire Upon a white horse like a caliph Came riding Kerensky Esquire. It was war "to the finish", "to victory". And still the same peasant tribe Were driven by scoundrels and lickspits Into frontline trenches to die. Well, I didn't reach out for my sabre... As mortar bombs burst into flame I found other ways to show bravery - The first to desert I became. * The road's quite a good one, the tingling Night air is agreeably chill. The moon with gold powder is sprinkling The village that clings to the hill. "Well, here it is, this is Radovo," The driver announced. "We're there! We've made it in good time, haven't we? I drove the horse hard for the fare. You'll not grudge a tip, will you, mister? The miller's, you said? There it is!... I'm not asking anything extra For a journey as long as this." I paid forty roubles. "You're joking!" Then twenty more. "Still won't do!" Indeed, a repulsive fellow, And barely turned thirty, too. "Hey, have you no conscience?" I asked him. "You're wanting to fleece me, why?" He said without shifting his carcass: "We had a bad crop of rye. And that's why I tell you to give me Ten more or, well, six, if you think - And later tonight in raw spirit Your very good health I'll drink..." * Now I'm at the mill... The fir grove With glow-worms is candle-bright. The old miller can't get a word out, He's overcome with delight: "Sergei, my dear fellow! Tea, maybe, To thaw you out? What a surprise! Come, wife, let's have on the table The samovar and some pies!" It's not a bone-freezer is April, Especially at the month-end. The fine pensive dusk resembled The smiling face of a friend. The miller had strong embraces - A bear would howl in their squeeze. But any friend is a comfort In times as troubled as these. "Where have you been? Are you staying For long?" "For a year." "Fine!" he cried. "The berries and mushrooms this summer Could keep all Moscow supplied. There's wild fowl here in plenty, No need to aim - birds flock past. Come to think of it, it's already Four years Since we saw you last..." The talking was over... Duly We drank a whole samovar dry. As of old with a sheepskin overcoat To the hayloft I retired. I passed through the overgrown orchard, A lilac bough brushed against My cheek, sweet memories were brought back By the sight of the tumbledown fence. It was here by that very gate standing That a lad of sixteen or so Heard a girl in a snow-white mantle In accents caressing say no. Those dear long-gone years! Her image is As bright now as ever it was... So much love we had then for others, But others had little for us. 2 "Come on, Sergei! Time you were rising! My missus was up before dawn And fritters galore she's been frying The cockles of your heart to warm. I'm off now to call on Snegina The landowner... Yesterday I shot her a brace of splendid Young snipe and I mustn't delay." Hail to you, star of life's dawning! I rise, dress, and off I go. A fine mist of dew in the orchard Shrouds the apple-trees, white as snow. I think to myself: How splendid Is the Earth And her tenant - mankind! And how many war-scarred wretches Come home now crippled and blind! How many in graves lie buried And how many more shall die! I felt my jaw tighten with fury And a red fog cloud my eye. No, no! I shall never accept this- That scum, condescendingly smug, Shall throw me, a crippled war veteran, A copper or two in the mud. "Good morning to you there, good woman! A little off colour?" She frowned And, coughing, she commented dully: "It's work, son, that's getting me down. We've no peace here, all's in disorder, The men blowing hot and then cold, The villages everywhere warring, The peasants at each other's throats. There isn't a day that passes Without news of some attack: Today Radovo goes and bashes them, Tomorrow Kriusha hits back. It adds up to lawlessness, doesn't it? They drove out the Tsar... Now look there... There isn't a single misfortune Our foolish folk have been spared. They opened the jails for some reason And let the wild criminals out. Good folk cannot travel in peace on The high road with such men about. They freed that lot too... from Kriusha... What they need is a good long stretch, But that bunch of rogues, thieves and ruffians Are now back at home like the rest. There's one of them called Pron Ogloblin, A ruffian, a chap who has sunk To endless brawling and squabbling, And for weeks at a time he's drunk. Just three years ago, quite brazenly- The great war had started too- In full view of everyone, crazily With an axe the head man he slew. There are thousands like him, no better, Who are free to commit abuse. Russia has gone to the devil... It's done for, is old mother Russ..." What the driver had said, I remembered, So taking a stick and my hat I went off to doff it to the peasants, As a friend dropping in for a chat. * On down the blue footpath strolling I saw someone coming full tilt - My miller in his droshky bowling Towards me across open fields. "Sergei, my dear chap! Stop, it's vital! There's something you simply must know. Just wait while I sort out the bridle. I'll tell you and then you can go. Why didn't you warn me this morning At Snegina's to shut my trap? 'I've got a young joker staying with me,' I told them, 'an odd sort of chap.' (They've always been very agreeable To me - why, I've known them ten years.) And their daughter Anna, who's married, Asked: 'Is it the poet who's here?' 'Yes, it is,' I replied, 'that's the fellow.' 'He's fair-haired?' 'As fair as they come!' 'With locks running riot, all curly?' 'Why, yes, he's a funny one!' 'When did he get here?' 'Quite recently.' I say, mummy dear, it's him! He was once in love so amusingly With me - How his eyes would swim! He was young then, meek and innocent, But now... Can it really be true? He's a writer... Of fame... He'll not visit us Unless we first ask him to.'" As if scoring a triumph, the miller Slyly screwed up his eyes and observed: "Very well! We'll expect you for dinner. And the rest I shall keep in reserve." I followed the road to Kriusha, Took swipes at green corn by the verge. At heart there was nothing stirring And by nothing was I disturbed. My thoughts reeled in a drunken stupour, Such heady sweet scents filled the air... How nice with a soldier's grass widow To start up a passionate affair! * Well, here is Kriusha... For three years These old roots I haven't seen. The lilac weather has dappled With lilac the silent scene. You can't hear a barking dog here. There's nothing to guard, I suppose. Each has just a tumbledown cottage, A long oven fork and a stove. On Pron's porch there's loud debating. A peasant gathering I spy. They're talking of new legislation, The price cattle fetch, and rye. "Hello, friends!" "Hello there, hunter! Hello! How-d'ye-do! Take a seat! Come hear how we live in the country, You lazybones, kicking your feet! What's the latest news in the capital? You know a minister or two? You surely must know what's happening - You mix with the well-to-do. But we won't hold that against you - From our own village you hail. You don't go boasting you're famous And your heart isn't up for sale. You were ever a sharp-eyed fellow, You know our life well... So now say: Will the land be turned over to us peasants Without any fees to pay? 'Keep your hands off!' - The government roar at us And tell us to bide our time. Then what were we fighting the war for And perishing in the front line?" And each of them smiling sullenly Looked searchingly straight in my eye, While I with a heavy heart wondered And nothing could say in reply. My head buzzed, the porch steps were trembling, This question of theirs though Came through: "What sort of a person Is Lenin?" I softly replied: "He is you!" 3 Rumours circulating furtively Were debated in whispers low. My old woman reported As much as I wished to know. One day I got back from hunting And lay on the couch to doze. I was chilled to the very marrow By the mist that from marshes rose. I began to shake in a fever With limbs ice-cold or ablaze, And in that accursed condition I lay for a solid four days. My miller went off his rocker. Away to fetch someone He drove... I caught a glimpse of a pretty frock In white and a turned-up nose. Then later, when I felt better And the state of high fever had passed After five days in bed, one evening I was rid of my chill at last. I rose And had just stepped warily On the floorboards when what did I hear But a voice calling out to me merrily: "So there you are! Greetings, my dear! It's quite a time since I saw you, And girlhood I've long outgrown To become a sedate married woman, And you now a poet of renown. "Let's sit down. It's gone, has the fever? What a different person you are! I couldn't help myself heaving A sigh when I touched your arm. Yes... The past has indeed gone forever. The years fly and time doesn't wait. Once nothing gave me more pleasure Than sitting with you by the gate. We dreamed of the fame life would offer us... For you things have turned out fine, But as for myself a young officer Drove all that out of my mind..." * Listening, I couldn't help noting Her neat features, clearly defined. I wanted to say: "That's enough of that! Some other subject let's find!" But, feeling a little embarrassed, I could do no more than repeat: "Yes... yes... Why, of course, I remember... It's a pleasure, Do please take a seat. I've some verses I'd like to read you About Russian tavern life... They're turned very neatly, with feeling - Heart-breaking in gypsy style." "Sergei! You behave so awfully! It saddens me, It's a shame That news of your drunken debaucheries Is giving you such a bad name. Why, tell me!" "Don't know what's the matter." "Then nobody knows On earth." "I guess the weather was wetter Than it should have been at my birth." "You make it a joke..." "Why not, Anna?" "Is there someone you're in love with?" "No." "Then indeed I can't understand why You should work your own ruin so: Such a splendid future beckons..." Night shadows began to fall... I don't know why, but I gently Fingered her gloves and shawl. . . . Like a clown the moon was guffawing. And though my heart had changed, I started to feel Myself strangely caught in the vortex I'd known as a lad of sixteen. We parted at dawn-every movement And glance was mysterious... There is something fine about summer That brings out the best in us. * That miller of mine... Oh, that miller! He's up to some tricks, I'll be bound. The scoundrel is driving me silly. Like a postman, he's running around. Today he appears with a message Of the kind lovers dote upon: "Please come, There's no dearer fellow Than you, Love, Ogloblin Pron." I set off on foot, Reach Kriusha. Ogloblin stands there by the gate, In a frenzy, with scathing fury The beggarly folk he berates. "Come on, You cockroach progeny, All to Snegina's... Without more fuss! We'll tell her: 'Hand over your property With no compensation from us!' " He saw me and straightaway abating The torrent of hearty abuse Remarked with unfeigned indignation: "The peasants still need to be pushed." "Why, Pron, did you want to see me?" "Not to reap or mow, of course. Let's go to Snegina's... together... And talk to her... I'll get a horse." An old jade was put into harness- Skin and bones between the shafts. You must give extra into the bargain To get such a hack off your hands. At a slow pace we proceeded And the laugh was on us from the start- There wasn't an incline but we did Ourselves have to pull the cart. We arrived. A house with an attic Slightly sagging from subsidence, And a strong heady scent of jasmine From behind the high wattle fence. We got down, Made for the terrace And, shaking the dust off our backs, Heard a voice indoor referring To someone who'd breathed his last: "There's no point endlessly mourning... He's dead now, as chill as can be... There's someone knocking at the door there... So powder your nose... I'll go see..." A corpulent sad-looking lady Had drawn back the solid door-bolt. My companion Pron spoke straightaway Of the land With a rasp in his throat. "Hand it over!..." He kept on muttering, "I won't bend my knees to you!" She took in the words he uttered As if they'd no meaning she knew, Then turned to me, making normal Conversation, though rigid with fear, Said: "And you wish to see my daughter? Be seated... I'll tell her you're here..." I still now distinctly remember The fatal coil of those days. But it wasn't by any means easy For me to observe her face. I gathered Woe had befallen her. I wished to help if I might. "They killed him, they killed my Boris... Don't touch me! Get out of my sight! You're a mean, contemptible coward. He's dead... Why aren't you out there..." Now that, making all allowances, Is more than a fellow can bear. From her slap in the face I was smarting And to Pron I said: "It's no use! Today they're in no mood for talking... Come on, Pron, let's go on a booze..." 4 I spent the whole summer hunting. Her name and her face dim had grown. The plaintive snipe Out in the marshes Lamented the snub I had known. How humble our dear poor land is, Even when all blossoms in sight! How swiftly each summer passes, Like a warm snug May-month night! The dawns are cooler and redder, The mist lies close to the ground, In the oak groves, already shedding Their leaves, the tomtits resound. All smiles my miller is every day, He's seething with merriment. "Come, dear Sergei, let's blaze away At hares to our heart's content!" I'll gladly hunt too... When there's nothing To drive sleep and heartache away. Like a full moon Pron came rolling Round to my place at dusk today. "My dear friend, Congratulations! At long last the hour has struck! There's a new administration! We can now mop the lot of them up. Without any compensation We're taking the land-it's ours. There are Soviets now in Russia And Lenin's the chief commissar. Just think of that, chum, It's happening! We're off on our way, we'll advance! I came near to dying of happiness And my brother he pissed in his pants. Did you ever see anything matching it? So be of good cheer, bless the day! Yes, I'll be the first to establish Our own commune here rightaway!" Now Pron had a brother, Labútya, As much good as your fifth ace: If ever some danger threatened He'd be first to make himself scarce. You surely have seen such people. They jabber a lot, they're a bore. Labútya had won two white medals In the Russo-Japanese war. In a drunken voice, whenever He entered a pub, he sang: "Won't you stand a drink to a fellow Who distinguished himself at Liaoyang." And later, when he'd grown maudlin With booze, he would lean across To impress upon his companion, How sad was Port Arthur's loss. "Dear fellow," He'd say, "It's breaking My heart... No, don't think I'm drunk. Liaoyang alone knows how bravely I fought on the Japanese front." Such folk, whom you can't help noticing, Laze about, but manage quite well. Now. of course, he has a seat in the Soviet, In a locked box his medals dwell. But with just the same proud deportment Of a grey-haired war veteran He wheezes over a bottle About Nerchinsk and Turukhan "Yes. brother, We showed our mettle. By nothing were we deterred... . . . . . . . . . . The jingle, jingle of medals You'd hear ringing in every word. He got on Pron's nerves intensely And Pron would his brother berate. Yet he it was went to inventory The Snegina house and estate. All seizures are hasty: "Let's have it! In due course we ll sort out what s what!" To the district centre they carted The chattels, the women, the stock. While the miller... . . . . My old friend, the miller, Took the women to live at his place. Thereby, lazy bastard, inducing Me to rummage in other folk's fates. Again strange sensations caught me... And there was I gazing upon Full sensitive lips, now contorted With worry, the whole night long. "Forgive me... I spoke in error..." She said over and over again. "I loved my husband terribly. Even thinking of it... gives me pain... But you I was rude to by accident... A feeling of guilt troubled me. Folk call it a 'criminal' passion... And hence my severity. Of course, Up until this autumn A happy life could have been mine... But then you would have discarded me Like a wine bottle drained of wine... And that's why there had to be nothing Between us... No more seeing you... Because, too, I could have hurt mother With all her old-fashioned views." But I switched away from that topic And a long close look I threw At her young and shapely body, She quivered as away she drew. "Tell me, Anna, Doesn't it pain you - The ruin of your estate?" With a curious air of confusion And sorrow she lowered her gaze. . . . . . . . . . . "Look it's growing lighter. The sunrise Is like a fire in the snow... It all reminds me of something... But of what? I do not know... Oh, yes... In childhood... Daybreak... But i t wasn't an autumn scene... You and I were sitting together... We had barely turned sixteen..." Then with a long look of tenderness, Her swanlike arm outstretched, She said with seeming casualness: "Well, that's that... It's time for bed..." . . . . . . . . . Late that afternoon they left us. For where? I have no idea. It's easy to find your direction In plains where the landmarks are clear. What happened next, I don't remember. What Pron did, I do not know. I was off like a shot to Petrograd To dispel my heartache and sloth. 5 How grim and severe those years were! A time no account can span. To soldiers' full-blooded curses The vaults of palaces rang. High spirits! The country in flower! Not for nothing the unwashed mob Would play to their cows on grand pianos The latest Tambov foxtrot. The peasant got hold of a gramophone For his oats, potatoes or bread, And listened to a tango, smoking A cheap fag he lick-rolled himself. To a fistful of profit clinging, At taxes he loudly protests And drives himself crazy, thinking Of what's dangling between his legs. Years raced along At full throttle... The peasant's fortunes ran low And rotting, hidden in bottles, Were many old-currency notes. Country bumpkin! Breadwinner! Rustic! The owner of land and stock Would permit himself for a couple Of dirty old notes - to be flogged. Well, that's enough moaning! Mere phrases And scoffing won't help us along! Today I had word from the miller About what had happened to Pron: "Sergei, bosom friend! Warm greetings To you, brother, warm and sincere! You haven't been back to Kriusha A long time now-fully six years. You know well You'll always be welcome. In spring come and see us, my dear. I can't put it all in a letter, So much has been happening here. The storm has blown over. In general Life here has calmed down a lot. I must tell you, in 1920 Ogloblin Pron was shot. "In Russia... Anything can happen. You never know where and when. One day the village was raided By a bunch of Denikin's men. The fun then really started- The fun of the slaughterhouse. With gritting of teeth and coarse laughter The Cossack whips lashed out. They snuffed out Pron. His brother In a straw pile hid, and lay There dithering Till the last of The Cossacks had galloped away. And still now, when drunk, he's telling Any villager he can waylay: "I merit a Bolshevik medal For the bravery I displayed." The stormclouds are well out of sight now... And though it's not Paradise here All the same come pay us a visit, Bring into my life some cheer..." * So here am I back on the road now. It's a clear black night in June. It's rattling, the cart, as we go along The same way it used to do. The road's quite a good one, the tingle Of country air comes as a thrill. The moon with gold powder is sprinkling The village that clings to the hill. Country chapels and wells, wattle fencing And boundaries past us fly And again my heart starts throbbing As it did in days gone by. I'm back at the mill... The fir grove With glow-worms is candlebright. As always, he splutters the words out, The miller does, in delight: "Sergei, what a pleasure! Tea, maybe, To thaw out? A sight for sore eyes! Come, wife, let's have on the table The samovar and some pies! Sergei, my fine fellow! Now listen! . . . . . . . . "You're getting no younger, I fear... Well, I have a present to give you That I've been safe-keeping here." "A present?" "Not really... A letter. But no need to rush-I suppose It's nearly two months since I went to Collect it for you at the post." I opened... and read it... Why, naturally, Who else could have written me here? So casual too is the handwriting And the London postmark is clear. "Are you there still?... Why, that's wonderful!... Like you, I keep going and, well, Quite often I dream of the wattle fence, The gate and of what you said... It's April in Russia now And the birches and the fir-trees Are seemingly in a blue shroud. Now, as I commit to paper The bitter grief that I feel, You're out with the miller, maybe, Hearing grouse call across the field. I often come down to the quayside And with maybe joy, maybe fear, I look at the ships and stare keenly If a Soviet red flag's flying here. Over there things are getting better. I see a clear road opening... You are dear tome now, just as ever, Dear as my native land and the spring..." A letter. For no special reason. The sort I would never write. With a sheepskin coat, as previously, To the hayloft I go for the night, Through! the overgrown orchard wending My way, lilac brushes my face. So dear is the tumbledown fencing To my suddenly excited gaze. It was there by that very gate standing That a lad of sixteen or so Heard a girl in a snow-white mantle In accents caressing say no. Those dear, long gone years! Her image is As bright now as ever it was. So much love we had then for others, And others too Also loved us.