Yermolai and the Miller's Wife
by Ivan Turgenev
One evening I went with the huntsman Yermolai "stand-shooting."
. . . But perhaps all my readers may not know what "stand-shooting"
is. I will tell you.
A quarter of an hour before sunset in springtime you go
out into the woods with your gun, but without your dog. You seek out a spot for
yourself on the outskirts of the forest, take a look round, examine your caps,
and glance at your companion. A quarter of an hour passes; the sun has set, but
it is still light in the forest; the sky is clear and transparent; the birds are
chattering and twittering; the young grass shines with the brilliance of emerald.
. . . You wait. Gradually the recesses of the forest grow dark; the blood-red
glow of the evening sky creeps slowly on to the roots and the trunks. of the
trees, and keeps rising higher and higher, passes from the lower, still almost
leafless branches, to the motionless, slumbering tree-tops. . . . And now even
the topmost branches are darkened; the purple sky fades to dark-blue. The forest
fragrance grows stronger; there is a scent of warmth and damp earth; the
fluttering breeze dies away at your side. The birds go to sleep—not all at
once—but after their kinds; first the finches are hushed, a few minutes later
the warblers, and after them the yellow buntings. In the forest it grows darker
and darker. The trees melt together into great masses of blackness; in the
dark-blue sky the first stars come timidly out. All the birds are asleep. Only
the redstarts and the nuthatches are still chirping drowsily. . . . And now they,
too, are still. The last echoing call of the peewit rings over our heads; the
oriole's melancholy cry sounds somewhere in the distance; then the nightingale's
first note. Your heart is weary with suspense, when suddenly—but only hunters
can understand me—suddenly in the deep hush there is a peculiar croaking and
whirring sound, the measured sweep of swift wings is heard, and the snipe,
gracefully bending its long beak, sails smoothly from behind a dark bush to meet
That is the meaning of "stand-shooting."
And so I had gone out stand-shooting with Yermolai. But
excuse me, reader: I must first introduce you to Yermolai.
Picture to yourself a tall gaunt man of forty-five, with
a long thin nose, a narrow forehead, little grey eyes, a bristling head of hair,
and thick sarcastic lips. This man wore, winter and summer alike, a yellow
nankin coat of foreign cut, but with a sash round the waist; he wore blue
pantaloons and a cap of astrakhan, presented to him in a merry hour by a
spendthrift landowner. Two bags were fastened on to his sash, one in front,
skilfully tied into two halves, for powder and for shot; the other behind for
game; wadding Yermolai used to produce out of his peculiar, seemingly
inexhaustible cap. With the money he gained by the game he sold, he might easily
have bought himself a cartridge-box and powder-flask; but he never once even
contemplated such a purchase, and continued to load his gun after his old
fashion, exciting the admiration of all beholders by the skill with which he
avoided the risks of spilling or mixing his powder and shot. His gun was a
single-barrelled flint-lock, endowed, moreover, with a villainous habit of
"kicking." It was due to this that Yermolai's right cheek was
permanently swollen to a larger size than the left. How he ever succeeded in
hitting anything with this gun, it would take a shrewd man to discover—but he
did. He had, too, a setter-dog, by name Valetka, a most extraordinary creature.
Yermolai never fed him. "Me feed a dog!" he reasoned; "why, a
dog's a clever beast; he finds a living for himself." And certainly, though
Valetka's extreme thinness was a shock even to an indifferent observer, he still
lived and had a long life; and in spite of his pitiable position he was not even
once lost, and never showed an inclination to desert his master. Once indeed, in
his youth, he had absented himself for two days, on courting bent, but this
folly was soon over with him. Valetka's most noticeable peculiarity was his
impenetrable indifference to everything in the world. . . . If it were not a dog
I was speaking of, I should have called him "disillusioned." He
usually sat with his cropped tail curled up under him, scowling and twitching at
times, and he never smiled. (It is well known that dogs can smile, and smile
very sweetly.) He was exceedingly ugly; and the idle house-serfs never lost an
opportunity of jeering cruelly at his appearance; but all these jeers, and even
blows, Valetka bore with astonishing indifference. He was a source of special
delight to the cooks, who would all leave their work at once and give him chase
with shouts and abuse, whenever, through a weakness not confined to dogs, he
thrust his hungry nose through the half-open door of the kitchen, tempting with
its warmth and appetizing smells. He distinguished himself by untiring energy in
the chase, and had a good scent; but if he chanced to overtake a slightly
wounded hare, he devoured it with relish to the last bone, somewhere in the cool
shade under the green bushes, at a respectful distance from Yermolai, who was
abusing him in every known and unknown dialect.
Yermolai belonged to one of my neighbours, a landlord of
the old style. Landlords of the old style don't care for game, and prefer the
domestic fowl. Only on extraordinary occasions, such as birthdays, namedays, and
elections, the cooks of the old-fashioned landlords set to work to prepare some
long-beaked birds, and, falling into the state of frenzy peculiar to Russians
when they don't quite know what to do, they concoct such marvellous sauces for
them that the guests examine the proffered dishes curiously and attentively, but
rarely make up their minds to try them. Yermolai was under orders to provide his
master's kitchen with two brace of grouse and partridges once a month. But he
might live where and how he pleased. They had given him up as a man of no use
for work of any kind—"bone lazy," they called him. Powder and shot,
of course, they did not provide him, following precisely the same principle in
virtue of which he did not feed his dog. Yermolai was a very strange kind of man;
heedless as a bird, rather fond of talking, awkward and vacant-looking; he was
excessively fond of drink, and never could sit still long; in walking he
shambled along, and rolled from side to side; and yet he got over fifty miles in
the day with his rolling, shambling gait. He exposed himself to the most varied
adventures: spent the night in the marshes, in trees, on roofs, or under bridges;
more than once he had got shut up in lofts, cellars, or barns; he sometimes lost
his gun, his dog, his most indispensable garments; got long and severe
thrashings; but he always returned home after a little while, in his clothes,
and with his gun and his dog. One could not call him a cheerful man, though one
almost always found him in an even frame of mind; he was looked on generally as
an eccentric. Yermolai liked a little chat with a good companion, especially
over a glass, but he would not stop long; he would get up and go. "But
where the devil are you going? It's dark out of doors." "To Chaplino."
"But what's taking you to Chaplino, ten miles away?" "I am going
to stay the night at Sofron's there." "But stay the night here."
"No, I can't." And Yermolai, with his Valetka, would go off into the
dark night, through woods and watercourses, and the peasant Sofron very likely
did not let him into his place, and even, I am afraid, gave him a blow to teach
him "not to disturb honest folks." But none could compare with
Yermolai in skill in deep-water fishing in springtime, in catching crayfish with
his hands, in tracking game by scent, in snaring quails, in training hawks, in
capturing the nightingales who had the greatest variety of notes. . . . One
thing he could not do, train a dog; he had not patience enough. He had a wife,
too. He went to see her once a week. She lived in a wretched, tumble-down little
hut, and led a hand-to-mouth existence, never knowing overnight whether she
would have food to eat on the morrow; and in every way her lot was a pitiful
one. Yermolai, who seemed such a careless and easy-going fellow, treated his
wife with cruel harshness; in his own house he assumed a stern and menacing
manner; and his poor wife did everything she could to please him, trembled when
he looked at her, and spent her last farthing to buy him vodka; and when he
stretched himself majestically on the stove and fell into an heroic sleep, she
obsequiously covered him with her sheepskin. I happened myself more than once to
catch an involuntary look in him of a kind of savage ferocity; I did not like
the expression of his face when he finished off a wounded bird with his teeth.
But Yermolai never remained more than a day at home, and away from home he was
once more the same "Yermolka," (i.e., the shooting cap), as he was
called for a hundred miles round, and as he sometimes called himself. The lowest
house-serf was conscious of being superior to this vagabond—and perhaps this
was precisely why they treated him with friendliness; the peasants at first
amused themselves by chasing him and driving him like a hare over the open
country, but afterwards they left him in God's hands, and when once they
recognized him as "queer," they no longer tormented him, and even gave
him bread and entered into talk with him. . . . This was the man I took as my
huntsman, and with him I went stand-shooting to a great birch wood on the banks
of the Ista.
Many Russian rivers, like the Volga, have one bank
rugged and precipitous, the other bounded by level meadows; and so it is with
the Ista. This small river winds extremely capriciously, coils like a snake, and
does not keep a straight course for half a mile together; in some places, from
the top of a sharp declivity, one can see the river for ten miles, with its
dykes, its pools and mills, and the gardens on its banks, shut in with willows
and thick flower-gardens. There are fish in the Ista in endless numbers,
especially roaches (the peasants take them in hot weather from under the bushes
with their hands); little sandpipers flutter whistling along the stony banks,
which are streaked with cold clear streams; wild ducks dive in the middle of the
pools, and look round warily; in the coves under the overhanging cliffs herons
stand out in the shade. . . . We stood in ambush nearly an hour, killed two
brace of wood snipe, and, as we wanted to try our luck again at sunrise (stand-shooting
can be done as well in the early morning), we resolved to spend the night at the
nearest mill. We came out of the wood and went down the slope. The dark-blue
waters of the river ran below; the air was thick with the mists of night. We
knocked at the gate. The dogs began barking in the yard.
"Who is there?" asked a hoarse and sleepy
"We are hunters; let us stay the night." There
was no reply. "We will pay."
"I will go and tell the master—Sh! curse the dogs!
Go to the devil with you!"
We listened as the workman went into the cottage; he
soon came back to the gate. "No," he said; "the master tells me
not to let you in."
"He is afraid; you are hunters, you might set the
mill on fire; you've firearms with you, to be sure."
"But what nonsense!"
"We had our mill on fire like that last year; some
fish-dealers stayed the night, and they managed to set it on fire somehow."
"But, my good friend, we can't sleep in the open
"That's your business." He went away, his
boots clacking as he walked.
Yermolai promised him various unpleasant things in the
future. "Let us go to the village," he brought out at last, with a
sigh. But it was two miles to the village:
"Let us stay the night here," I said, "in
the open air—the night is warm; the miller will let us have some straw if we
pay for it."
Yermolai agreed without discussion. We began again to
"Well, what do you want?" the workman's voice
was heard again; "I've told you we can't."
We explained to him what we wanted. He went to consult
the master of the house, and returned with him. The little side gate creaked.
The miller appeared, a tall, fat-faced man with a bull neck, round-bellied and
corpulent. He agreed to my proposal. A hundred paces from the mill there was a
little out-building open to the air on all sides. They carried straw and hay
there for us; the workman set a samovar down on the grass near the river, and,
squatting on his heels, began to blow vigorously into its pipe. The embers
glowed, and threw a bright light on his young face. The miller ran to wake his
wife, and suggested at last that I myself should sleep in the cottage; but I
preferred to remain in the open air. The miller's wife brought us milk, eggs,
potatoes and bread. Soon the samovar boiled, and we began drinking tea. A mist
had risen from the river; there was no wind; from all round came the cry of the
corn-crake, and faint sounds from the mill-wheels of drops that dripped from the
paddles and of water gurgling through the bars of the lock. We built a small
fire on the ground. While Yermolai was baking the potatoes in the embers, I had
time to fall into a doze. I was waked by a discreetly subdued whispering near
me. I lifted my head; before the fire, on a tub turned upside down, the miller's
wife sat talking to my huntsman. By her dress, her movements, and her manner of
speaking, I had already recognized that she had been in domestic service, and
was neither peasant nor city-bred; but now for the first time I got a clear view
of her features. She looked about thirty; her thin, pale face still showed the
traces of remarkable beauty; what particularly charmed me was her eyes, large
and mournful in expression. She was leaning her elbows on her knees, and had her
face in her hands. Yermolai was sitting with his back to me and thrusting sticks
into the fire.
"They've the cattle-plague again at Zheltukhina,"
the miller's wife was saying; "father Ivan's two cows are dead—Lord have
mercy on them!"
"And how are your pigs doing?" asked Yermolai,
after a brief pause.
"You ought to make me a present of a sucking pig."
The miller's wife was silent for a while, then she
"Who is it you're with?" she asked.
"A gentleman from Kostomarovo."
Yermolai threw a few pine twigs on the fire; they all
caught fire at once, and a thick white smoke came puffing into his face.
"Why didn't your husband let us into the cottage?"
"Afraid! the fat old tub! Arina Timofeyevna, my
darling, bring me a little glass of spirits."
The miller's wife rose and vanished into the darkness.
Yermolai began to sing in an undertone:
When I went to see my sweetheart,
I wore out all my boots. . .
Arina returned with a small flask and a glass. Yermolai
got up, crossed himself, and drank it off at a draught. "Good!" was
The miller's wife sat down again on the tub.
"Well, Arina Timofeyevna, are you still ill?"
"What is it?"
"My cough troubles me at night."
"The gentleman's asleep, it seems," observed
Yermolai after a short silence. "Don't go to a doctor, Arina; it will be
worse if you do."
"Well, I am not going."
"But come and pay me a visit."
Arina hung down her head dejectedly.
"I will drive my wife out for the occasion,"
continued Yermolai. "Upon my word, I will."
"You had better wake the gentleman, Yermolai
Petrovich; you see, the potatoes are done."
"Oh, let him snore," observed my faithful
servant indifferently; "he's tired with walking, so he sleeps sound."
I turned over in the hay. Yermolai got up and came to
me. "The potatoes are ready; will you come and eat them?"
I came out of the out-building; the miller's wife got up
from the tub and was going away. I addressed her:
"Have you kept this mill long?"
"It's two years since I came on Trinity Day."
"And where does your husband come from?"
Arina had not caught my question.
"Where's your husband from?" repeated Yermolai,
raising his voice.
"From Belev. He's a Belev townsman."
"And are you too from Belev?"
"No, I'm a serf; I was a serf."
"Zvyerkov was my master. Now I am free."
"Weren't you his wife's lady's maid?"
"How did you know? Yes."
I looked at Arina with redoubled curiosity and sympathy.
"I know your master," I continued.
"Do you?" she replied in a low voice, and her
I must tell the reader why I looked with such sympathy
at Arina. During my stay at Petersburg I had become by chance acquainted with Mr.
Zvyerkov. He had a rather influential position, and was reputed a man of sense
and education. He had a wife, fat, sentimental, lachrymose and spiteful—an
ordinary and disagreeable creature; he had, too, a son, the very type of the
young swell of today, pampered and stupid. The exterior of Mr. Zvyerkov himself
did not prepossess one in his favour; his little mouse-like eyes peeped slyly
out of a broad, almost square face; he had a large, sharp nose, with distended
nostrils; his close-cropped grey hair stood up like a brush above his furrowed
brow; his thin lips were forever twitching and smiling mawkishly. Mr. Zvyerkov's
favourite position was standing with his short legs wide apart and his podgy
hands in his trouser pockets. Once I happened somehow to be driving alone with
Mr. Zvyerkov in a coach out of town. We fell into conversation. As a man of
experience and of judgement, Mr. Zvyerkov began to try to set me in "the
path of truth."
"Allow me to observe to you," he piped at last:
"all you young people criticize and form judgements on everything at random;
you have little knowledge of your own country; Russia, young gentlemen, is an
unknown land to you; that's where it is!. . . You are forever reading German.
For instance, now you say this and that and the other about anything; for
instance, about the house serfs. . . . Very fine; I don't dispute it's all very
fine; but you don't know them; you don't know the kind of people they are."
(Mr. Zvyerkov blew his nose loudly and took a pinch of snuff.) "Allow me to
tell you as an illustration one little anecdote; it may perhaps interest you."
(Mr. Zverkov cleared his throat.) "You know, doubtless, what my wife is; it
would be difficult, I should imagine, to find a more kind-hearted woman, you
will agree. For her waiting-maids, existence is simply a perfect paradise, and
no mistake about it. . . . But my wife has made it a rule never to keep married
serving-maids. Certainly it would not do; children come—and one thing and the
other—and how is a lady's maid to look after her mistress as she ought, to fit
in with her ways; she is no longer able to do it; her mind is on other things.
One must look at things through human nature. Well, we were driving once through
our village, it must be—let me be correct—yes, fifteen years ago. We saw, at
the bailiff's, a young girl, his daughter, very pretty indeed; something even—you
know—something of the good servant in her manners. And my wife said to me:
'Koko'—you understand, of course, that is her pet name for me—'let us take
this girl to Petersburg; I like her, Koko. . . .' I said, 'Let us take her, by
all means.' The bailiff, of course, was at our feet; he could not have expected
such good fortune, you can imagine. . . . Well, the girl, of course, cried
violently. Of course, it was hard for her at first; the parental home . . . and
that sort of thing . . . there was nothing surprising in that. However, she soon
got used to us: at first we put her in the maidservants' room; they trained her,
of course. And what do you think? The girl made wonderful progress; my wife
became simply devoted to her, promoted her at last above the rest to wait on
herself . . . observe. . . . And one must do her the justice to say, my wife had
never such a maid, absolutely never; attentive, modest, and obedient—simply
all that could be desired. My wife was very good to her; she even spoilt her, I
must confess; she dressed her well, fed her from our own table, gave her tea to
drink, and so on, as you can imagine! So she waited on my wife like this for ten
years. Suddenly, one fine morning, picture to yourself, Arina—her name was
Arina—rushes unannounced into my study and flops down at my feet. That's a
thing, I tell you plainly, I can't endure. No human being ought ever to lose
sight of his personal dignity. Am I not right? 'What do you want?' 'Your honour,
Alexander Silitch, I beseech a favour of you.' 'What favour?' 'Let me be married.'
I must confess I was taken aback. 'But you know, you fool, your mistress has no
other lady's maid?' 'I will wait on Mistress as before.' 'Nonsense! Nonsense!
Your mistress can't endure married serving-maids.' 'Malanya could take my
place.' 'Don't argue with me.' 'I obey your will.' I must confess it was quite a
shock. I assure you, I am like that; nothing wounds me so—nothing, I venture
to say, wounds me so deeply as ingratitude. I need not tell you—you know what
my wife is: an angel upon earth, goodness inexhaustible. One would fancy even
the worst of men would be ashamed to hurt her. Well, I sent Arina away. I
thought, perhaps, she would come to her senses; I was unwilling, do you know, to
believe in wicked, black ingratitude in anyone. What do you think? Within six
months she thought fit to come to me again with the same request. And here I
must confess I turned her out in a temper and threatened to tell my wife about
it. I felt revolted. But imagine my amazement when, some time later, my wife
comes to me in tears, so agitated that I felt positively alarmed. 'What has
happened?' 'Arina. . . . You understand. . . . I am ashamed to tell it.' 'Impossible!
Who is the man?' 'Petrushka, the footman.' My indignation broke out then. I am
like that. I don't like half-measures! Petrushka—well, he wasn't to blame. We
might flog him, but in my opinion he was not to blame. Arina. . . . Well, well,
well! What more's to be said? I gave orders, of course, that her hair should be
cut off, she should be dressed in sackcloth, and sent back to the village. My
wife was deprived of an excellent lady's maid; but there was no help for it:
immorality cannot be tolerated in a household in any case. Better to cut off the
infected member at once. There, there! now you can judge the thing for yourself—you
know that my wife is . . . yes, yes, yes! indeed! . . . an angel! She had grown
attached to Arina, and Arina knew it, and had the face to. . . . Eh? no, tell me
. . . eh? And what's the use of talking about it. Anyway, there was no help for
it. I, indeed—I, in particular, felt hurt, felt wounded for a long time by the
ingratitude of this girl. Whatever you say—it's no good to look for feeling,
for heart, in these people! You may feed the wolf as you will; he has always a
hankering for the woods. It was a good lesson! But I only wanted to give you an
example. . . ."
And Mr. Zvyerkov, without finishing his sentence, turned
away his head, and, wrapping himself more closely into his cloak, manfully
repressed his involuntary emotion. The reader now probably understands why I
looked with sympathetic interest at Arina.
"Have you long been married to the miller?" I
asked her at last.
"How was it? Did your master allow it?"
"They bought my freedom."
"Who is that?"
"My husband." (Yermolai smiled to himself.)
"Has my master perhaps spoken to you of me?" added Arina, after a
I did not know what reply to make to her question.
"Arina!" cried the miller from a distance. She
got up and walked away.
"Is her husband a good fellow?" I asked
"Have they any children?"
"There was one, but it died."
"How was it? Did the miller take a liking to her?
Did he give much to buy her freedom?"
"I don't know. She can read and write; in their
business it's of use. I suppose he liked her."
"And have you known her long?"
"Yes. I used to go to her master's. Their house
isn't far from here."
"And do you know the footman Petrushka?"
"You mean Pyotr Vasilyevich? Of course, I knew him."
"Where is he now?"
"He was sent for a soldier."
We were silent for a while.
"She doesn't seem well?" I asked Yermolai at
"I should think not! Tomorrow, I say, we shall have
good sport. A little sleep now would do us no harm."
A flock of wild ducks swept whizzing over our heads, and
we heard them drop down into the river not far from us. It was now quite dark,
and it began to be cold; in the thicket sounded the melodious notes of a
nightingale. We buried ourselves in the hay and fell asleep.