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 sportsmen 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 down behind a dark bush to meet your shot.
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 German 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, skillfully 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-barreled flintlock,
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 neighbors, a landowner of
the old style. Landowners of the old style don't care for
game, and prefer the domestic fowl. Only on extraordinary
occasions, such as birthdays, name days, and elections, the
cooks of the old-fashioned landowners 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 marvelous 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,"
as the expression is among us in Orel. 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 Tchaplino."
"But what's taking you to Tchaplino, ten miles away?" "I am going
to stay the night at Sophron'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 water courses, and the peasant
Sophron 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, tumbledown 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 easygoing 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 a
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 recognised 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 acclivity, 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 voice.
"We are sportsmen; let us stay the night." There was no reply. "We will
"I will go and tell the master--Sh! Curse the dogs! Go to the devil
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 sportsmen; 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 air!"
"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 knock.
"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 outhouse 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 the pipe of it. 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 Zheltonhiny," the miller's wife
was saying; "Father Ivan's two cows are dead--Lord have mercy on
"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 sighed.
"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 Timofyevna, 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 shoes.
Arina returned with a small flask and a glass. Yermolai got up,
crossed himself, and drank it off at a draught. "Good!" was his
The miller's wife sat down again on the tub.
"Well, Arina Timofyevna, 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 Petrovitch; 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 outhouse; 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
"From Byelev. He's a Byelev townsman."
"And are you too from Byelev?"
"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 head drooped.
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--a vulgar 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 favor; his little mouse-like eyes peeped slyly out of a broad,
almost square, face; he had a large, prominent nose, with distended
nostrils; his close-cropped grey hair stood up like a brush above
his scowling brow; his thin lips were forever twitching and smiling
mawkishly. Mr. Zvyerkov's favorite position was standing with his
legs wide apart and his fat 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 judgment, Mr. Zvyerkov began to try to set me in "the path of
"Allow me to observe to you," he drawled at last; "all you young
people criticize and form judgments 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 for ever
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. Zvyerkov 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 lady's 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 attractive 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 . . . in
fact . . . 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. But my wife, I must confess, spoiled her too much;
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 their personal
dignity. Am I not right? What do you say? 'Your honor, Alexander
Selitch, I beseech a favor of you.' 'What favor?' 'Let me be
married.' I must confess I was taken aback. 'But you know, you
stupid, your mistress has no other lady's maid?' 'I will wait on
mistress as before.' 'Nonsense! nonsense! your mistress can't
endure married lady's maids,' 'Malanya could take my place.' 'Pray
don't argue.' '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 got rid of Arina. 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. 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 was not 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 into the country. 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. Education,
by all means! 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
"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 brief
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 Yermolai.
"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
"And do you know the footman Petrushka?"
"Piotr Vassilyevitch? 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 last.
"I should think not! Tomorrow, I say, we shall have a 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.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~