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The Pipe
by [?]

MELITON SHISHKIN, a bailiff from the Dementyev farm, exhausted by the sultry heat of the fir-wood and covered with spiders’ webs and pine-needles, made his way with his gun to the edge of the wood. His Damka — a mongrel between a yard dog and a setter — an extremely thin bitch heavy with young, trailed after her master with her wet tail between her legs, doing all she could to avoid pricking her nose. It was a dull, overcast morning. Big drops dripped from the bracken and from the trees that were wrapped in a light mist; there was a pungent smell of decay from the dampness of the wood.

There were birch-trees ahead of him where the wood ended, and between their stems and branches he could see the misty distance. Beyond the birch-trees someone was playing on a shepherd’s rustic pipe. The player produced no more than five or six notes, dragged them out languidly with no attempt at forming a tune, and yet there was something harsh and extremely dreary in the sound of the piping.

As the copse became sparser, and the pines were interspersed with young birch-trees, Meliton saw a herd. Hobbled horses, cows, and sheep were wandering among the bushes and, snapping the dry branches, sniffed at the herbage of the copse. A lean old shepherd, bareheaded, in a torn grey smock, stood leaning against the wet trunk of a birch-tree. He stared at the ground, pondering something, and played his pipe, it seemed, mechanically.

“Good-day, grandfather! God help you!” Meliton greeted him in a thin, husky voice which seemed incongruous with his huge stature and big, fleshy face. “How cleverly you are playing your pipe! Whose herd are you minding?”

“The Artamonovs’,” the shepherd answered reluctantly, and he thrust the pipe into his bosom.

“So I suppose the wood is the Artamonovs’ too?” Meliton inquired, looking about him. “Yes, it is the Artamonovs’; only fancy . . . I had completely lost myself. I got my face scratched all over in the thicket.”

He sat down on the wet earth and began rolling up a bit of newspaper into a cigarette.

Like his voice, everything about the man was small and out of keeping with his height, his breadth, and his fleshy face: his smiles, his eyes, his buttons, his tiny cap, which would hardly keep on his big, closely-cropped head. When he talked and smiled there was something womanish, timid, and meek about his puffy, shaven face and his whole figure.

“What weather! God help us!” he said, and he turned his head from side to side. “Folk have not carried the oats yet, and the rain seems as though it had been taken on for good, God bless it.”

The shepherd looked at the sky, from which a drizzling rain was falling, at the wood, at the bailif’s wet clothes, pondered, and said nothing.

“The whole summer has been the same,” sighed Meliton. “A bad business for the peasants and no pleasure for the gentry.”

The shepherd looked at the sky again, thought a moment, and said deliberately, as though chewing each word:

“It’s all going the same way. . . . There is nothing good to be looked for.”

“How are things with you here?” Meliton inquired, lighting his cigarette. “Haven’t you seen any coveys of grouse in the Artamonovs’ clearing?”

The shepherd did not answer at once. He looked again at the sky and to right and left, thought a little, blinked. . . . Apparently he attached no little significance to his words, and to increase their value tried to pronounce them with deliberation and a certain solemnity. The expression of his face had the sharpness and staidness of old age, and the fact that his nose had a saddle-shaped depression across the middle and his nostrils turned upwards gave him a sly and sarcastic look.

“No, I believe I haven’t,” he said. “Our huntsman Eryomka w as saying that on Elijah’s Day he started one covey near Pustoshye, but I dare say he was lying. There are very few birds.”