The Musk-Ox

( by Nikolay Leskov, 1862.
Abridged.
Translated by R. Norman )

( Photo by blast99 )

When I first made the acquaintance of Vasilii Petrovich, he was already known as “The Musk-Ox”. He got his name because his appearance reminded one strangely of a musk-ox, portrayed in the “Illistrated Guide to Zoology”, by Julian Simashko. He was twenty-eight, but looked much older. He was neither an athlete nor a giant, but a man of outstanding strength and good health, small in stature, squarely built and broad-shouldered…

His distinctive trait was an evangelic heedlessness of the morrow. The son of a village sexton – brought up in the most dreadful poverty – his father died when he was quite small – he never lent a thought to any lasting betterment of his position in life and never in fact worried what was in store for him. He had no precious possessions to give away, but he was capable of presenting his last shirt to anyone in need and believed the same of all the people he made friends with…

He could not bear conversations about women, considered them all and every one as “fools”, and very seriously regretted that his aged mother was a woman, and not some sexless creature. The self-sacrifice of Vasilii Petrovich was boundless. He never showed any of us that he was fond of anyone; but we were all perfectly aware that there was no limit to what he would do for the sake of every one of his friends and acquaintances…

How and why he had become a member of the little circle to which I also belonged during my brief stay in our Provincial centre, I do not know… It was in the summer of 1854. … I arrived in Kursk about seven in the morning. It was in the merry month of May, and I went straight to Chelnovsky. … Chelnovsky was exceedingly glad to see me, and made me promise that I would stop with him all the time I was at Kursk…

One day, tired and exhausted, I returned home soon after one in the afternoon… I retired to my bed book… When you come out of the glare of a scorching sun into a clean, cool room where there are no pestering flies, and where there is a neat tidy bed, you can drop off to sleep with the greatest of ease. On this occasion I proved it in practice and never noticed how the book slipped out of my hand… My full awakening, however, occurred only when my relative entered the study and cried:

“Get up, man, I’ll show you a beastie.”

“What a beastie?” I asked, not fully restored to what is known as a waking state from the state known as sleep….

I have the honour of presenting to you – the Musk-Ox. His staple food is grass, but when no grass is to be had, he has been known to eat lichen.”…

The Musk-Ox stood in the doorway, smiling… His face remained perfectly serene; not a single line of it moved, and in his eyes there lay the same deep and sad expression, and yet you saw that these same eyes were laughing – laughing with the kindliest laughter a Russian sometimes laughs with at himself and his bitter lot…

He stood his little pipe on the floor by the stove, sat down at the feet of Chelnovsky, and after scratching his left shoulder with his right hand, said sotto voce: “I’ve been looking for a tutor’s job.”…

“In the country again?”

“I like it better in the country.”

“And I suppose you’ll walk outagain after a week. Do you know what he did last spring?” said Chelnovsky, turning to me. “I got him a post – a hundred and twenty roubles a year, all found – and he had to coach a boy for the second form of a Gymnasium School. We fitted him out with all he needed – poshed up the lad. Noe – I figured – our Musk-Ox is fixed up at last! And would you believe it: back he was after a month – anyone would have said he had sprung from the earth. And what’s more, he’d left all his clothes behind in payment for the coaching.”…

The Musk-Ox stopped in front ob me, and after a moment’s deliberation said:

“It’s quite a different story…. They had a chef there – Yegor – a young lad. He got married – found himself a sexton’s daughter from among our ecclesiastical paupers. My young gent had been instructed on everything, and there he was, making up to her. The wench was young, of course, and spirited, and not that kind, and stood no nonsense. She complained to her husband, and the husband to the lady of the house. She said something or other to her son, but he was back at his old pranks. This happened again, and then a third time; again the chef went to the lady to say his wife had no peace from the young master – again nothing happened. I was wild. “See here,” said I to him: “If ever I catch you pinching Alenka again, I’ll give you such a crack.” He went as red as a tomato with annoyance – it made his noble blood boil, you know – and off he dashed to his mamma, with me behind. There she was, sitting in her armchair, also as red as a tomato, while her precious darling was detailing a complaint against me in French. No sooner did she catch sight of me than she takes his hand and simpers, the Devil alone knows why. “There-there,” she says, “my friend Vasilii Petrovich doubtless thought he saw something – he is jesting – and you will prove to him that he is making a mistake.” And all the time I see her looking at me from the corner of her eye. The little blighter went out, and she – you know – instead of speaking to me about her son, says to me: “How chivalrous you are, Vasilii Petrovich! You’re not sweet on someone too, are you?” Well, I just can’t stand that sort of thing,” said the Musk-Ox with a determined jerk of his arm. “I just can’t listed no that sort of thing,” he repeated, his voice rising, and he began to pace the room once more.

“So you left the house there and then?”

“No, six weeks later.”

“And continued to live on good terms?”

“Well, I didn’t speak to anyone…. Only, you know, one day I was sitting under the window after dinner. I was reading my Tacitus, when I became aware that someone was hollering in the servants’ quarters. What the hullabaloo was about I couldn’t make out, only it was Alenka’s voice. The little skunk must be having his bit of fun, I reckoned. Up I got and went to the servants’ hall. Then I heard Alenka crying and screaming through her tears: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” “Have you no fear of God,” and all that sort of thing. Well, I looked in, and there was Alenka in the loft, over a step-ladder, while my young hopeful was under the step-ladder, so that the good woman couldn’t possibly get down. It was too embarrassing – you know how they go about in the country… nothing on underneath. And the little swine was egging her: “Go on, now; come down,” he was saying, “or I’ll pull the ladder away.” I was so furious, I went into the lobby and gave him such a tap!”

“So that the blood spurted from his ear and nose,” Chelnovsky prompted, laughing gaily.

“Well – whatever kind of tap he was fated to have…”

“And what did the mother have to say about it?”

“Well, I didn’t go to look at her after that. I went straight from the servants hall to Kursk.”

“How many miles would that be?”

“A hundred and thirteen; but it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been thirteen hundred.”

If you could have seen the Musk-Ox just then, you would have had no doubt whatever that to him it really did not make the slightest difference how many miles he would have had to walk and whom he would have had to “tap”, if, in his opinion, “a tap” was required.

( Photo by Dexter )

THE END.

 

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