On arriving at Deadville Station, Gleb Smirnoff, the surveyor, found that the farm to which his business called him still lay some thirty or forty miles farther on. If the driver should be sober and the horses could stand up, the distance would be less than thirty miles; with a fuddled driver and old skates for horses, it might amount to fifty.
“Will you tell me, please, where I can get some post-horses?” asked the surveyor of the station-master.
“What? Post-horses? You won’t find even a stray dog within a hundred miles of here, let alone post-horses! Where do you want to go?”
“To Devkino, General Hohotoff’s farm.”
“Well,” yawned the station-master, “go round behind the station; there are some peasants there that sometimes take passengers.”
The surveyor sighed and betook himself wearily to the back of the station. There, after a long search and much disputing and agitating, he at last secured a huge, lusty peasant, surly, pock-marked, wearing a ragged coat of grey cloth and straw shoes.
“What a devil of a wagon you have!” grumbled the surveyor, climbing in. ” I can’t tell which is the front and which is the back.”
“Can’t you? The horse’s tail is in front and where your honour sits is the back.”
The pony was young but gaunt, with sprawling legs and ragged ears. When the driver stood up and beat it with his rope whip, it only shook its head; when he rated it soundly and beat it a second time the wagon groaned and shuddered as if in a fever; at the third stroke the wagon rocked, and at the fourth, moved slowly away.
“Will it be like this all the way?” asked the surveyor, violently shaken and wondering at the ability of Russian drivers for combining the gentle crawl of a tortoise with the most soul-racking bumping.
“We’ll get there,” the driver soothed him. “The little mare is young and spry. Only let her once get started and there is no stopping her. Get up, you devil!”
They left the station at dusk. To the right stretched a cold, dark plain so boundless and vast that if you crossed it no doubt you would come to the Other End of Nowhere. The cold autumn sunset burnt out slowly where the edge of it melted into the sky. To the left, in the fading light, some little mounds rose up that might have been either trees or last year’s haystacks. The surveyor could not see what lay ahead, for here the whole landscape was blotted out by the broad, clumsy back of the driver. The air was still, but frosty and cold.
“What desolation!” thought the surveyor, trying to cover his ears with his coat collar; “not a hut nor a house! If we were beset and robbed here not a soul would know it, not if we were to fire cannons. And that driver isn’t trustworthy. What a devil of a back he has! It is as much as a man’s life is worth even to touch a child of nature like that with his forefinger! He has an ill-looking snout, like a wild animal. Look here, friend,” asked the surveyor, “what’s your name?”
“My name? Klim.”
“Well, Klim, how is it about here? Not dangerous? No one plays any pranks, do they?”
“Oh, Lord preserve us, no! Who would there be to play pranks?”
“That’s right. But, in any case, I have three revolvers here” the surveyor lied “and, you know, it’s a bad plan to joke with a revolver. One revolver is a match for ten robbers.”
Night fell. Suddenly the wagon creaked, groaned, trembled, and turned to the left, as if against its will.
“Where is he taking me now?” thought the surveyor. “He was going straight ahead, and now he has suddenly turned to the left. I am afraid the scoundrel is carrying me off to some lonely thicket and things have been known to happen. Listen!” he said to the driver, “so you say there is no danger here? Well, that’s a pity. I love a good fight with robbers. I am small and sickly to look at, but I have the strength of an ox. Three robbers attacked me once, and what do you think? I shook one of them so that well, it killed him. The other two I had sent to hard labour in Siberia. I can’t think where all my strength comes from. I could take a big rascal like you in one hand and skin him!”
Klim looked round at the surveyor, blinked all over his face, and dealt his pony a blow.
“Yes, my friend,” continued the surveyor, “Heaven help the robber that falls into my hands! Not only would he be left without arms or legs, but he would have to answer for his crimes in court, where all the judges and lawyers are friends of mine. I am a government official, and a very important one. When I am travelling like this the government knows it and keeps an eye on me to see that no one does me any harm. There are policemen and police captains hidden in the bushes all along the road. Stop! Stop!” yelled the surveyor suddenly. “Where are you going? Where are you taking me to? ”
“Can’t you see? Into the wood.”
“So he is,” thought the surveyor. “I was frightened, I mustn’t show my feelings; he has already seen that I am afraid of him. What makes him look around at me so often? He must be meditating something. At first we barely moved, and now we are flying. Listen, Klim, why do you hurry your horse so?”
“I am not hurrying her; she is running away of her own accord. When once she begins running away, nothing will stop her. She is sorry herself that her legs are made that way.”
“That’s a lie, my friend, I can see it’s a lie. I advise you not to go so fast. Hold your horse in, do you hear? Hold him in!”
“Because because I have four friends following me from the station. I want them to catch up. They promised to catch me up in this wood. It will be jollier travelling with them. They are big, strong fellows, every one of them has a revolver. Why do you look round and jump about as if you were sitting on a tack? Hey? See here, I there is nothing about me worth looking at, there is nothing interesting about me in the least unless it is my revolvers! Here, if you want to see them I’ll take them out and show them to you let me get them.”
The surveyor pretended to be searching in his pockets, and at that moment something happened which not even his worst fears had led him to expect. Klim suddenly threw himself out of the wagon and ran off on all fours through the forest.
“Help!” He shouted. “Help! Take my horse, take my wagon, accursed one, only spare me my soul! Help!”
The sound of his hurrying footsteps died away, the dry leaves rustled, all was still. When this unexpected judgment fell on him, the surveyor’s first act was to stop the horse; then he settled himself more comfortably in the wagon and began to think.
“So he has taken fright and made off, the fool! Well, what shall I do now? I don’t know the way, so I can’t go on alone, and, anyway, if I did, it would look as if I had stolen his horse. What shall I do? Klim! Klim!”
“Klim!” answered the echo.
At the idea of spending the whole night alone in a dark forest, listening to the wolves, the echo, and the snorting of the lean pony, the surveyor felt the gooseflesh running up and down his spine.
“Klim!” He yelled. “Dear old Klim! Good old Klim! Where are you?”
For two hours he called, and it was not until he had lost his voice and resigned himself to the thought of a night in the forest that a faint breeze brought him the sound of a groan.
“Klim, is that you, old man? Come, Klim, let us start!”
“You’ll kill me!”
“Why, Klim, I was only joking, old chap; upon my word I was. Fancy my carrying revolvers with me! I lied like that because I was afraid. Do let us start; I am frozen!”
Klim, thinking, no doubt, that a real robber would have made off long ago with the horse and wagon, came out of the forest and approached his fare with caution.
“What are you afraid of, idiot? I was only joking, and you are afraid of me! Get in!”
“Lord, Mister,” muttered Klim, climbing into the wagon, “if I had foreseen this I wouldn’t have taken you for a hundred roubles. You have nearly scared me to death!”
Klim beat his pony the wagon shuddered; Klim beat him again the wagon rocked; at the fourth stroke, as the wagon moved slowly away, the surveyor pulled his coat collar over his ears and abandoned himself to meditation.
Neither Klim nor the road seemed dangerous now.
[Every month, The Reading Room showcases a short story, or excerpts of a book, from some of the greatest writers the world has ever seen. This month’s selection is Overseasoned by Anton Chekhov.]