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The Pipe
by [?]

“That’s true,” Meliton agreed; “the peasant is good for nothing nowadays.”

“It’s no good hiding what is wrong; we get worse from year to year. And if you take the gentry into consideration, they’ve grown feebler even more than the peasants have. The gentleman nowadays has mastered everything; he knows what he ought not to know, and what is the sense of it? It makes you feel pitiful to look at him. . . . He is a thin, puny little fellow, like some Hungarian or Frenchman; there is no dignity nor air about him; it’s only in name he is a gentleman. There is no place for him, poor dear, and nothing for him to do, and there is no making out what he wants. Either he sits with a hook catching fish, or he lolls on his back reading, or trots about among the peasants saying all sorts of th ings to them, and those that are hungry go in for being clerks. So he spends his life in vain. And he has no notion of doing something real and useful. The gentry in old days were half of them generals, but nowadays they are — a poor lot.”

“They are badly off nowadays,” said Meliton.

“They are poorer because God has taken away their strength. You can’t go against God.”

Meliton stared at a fixed point again. After thinking a little he heaved a sigh as staid, reasonable people do sigh, shook his head, and said:

“And all because of what? We have sinned greatly, we have forgotten God . . and it seems that the time has come for all to end. And, after all, the world can’t last for ever — it’s time to know when to take leave.”

The shepherd sighed and, as though wishing to cut short an unpleasant conversation, he walked away from the birch-tree and began silently reckoning over the cows.

“Hey-hey-hey!” he shouted. “Hey-hey-hey! Bother you, the plague take you! The devil has taken you into the thicket. Tu-lu-lu!”

With an angry face he went into the bushes to collect his herd. Meliton got up and sauntered slowly along the edge of the wood. He looked at the ground at his feet and pondered; he still wanted to think of something which had not yet been touched by death. Patches of light crept upon the slanting streaks of rain again; they danced on the tops of the trees and died away among the wet leaves. Damka found a hedgehog under a bush, and wanting to attract her master’s attention to it, barked and howled.

“Did you have an eclipse or not?” the shepherd called from the bushes.

“Yes, we had,” answered Meliton.

“Ah! Folks are complaining all about that there was one. It shows there is disorder even in the heavens! It’s not for nothing. . . . Hey-hey-hey! Hey!”

Driving his herd together to the edge of the wood, the shepherd leaned against the birch-tree, looked up at the sky, without haste took his pipe from his bosom and began playing. As before, he played mechanically and took no more than five or six notes; as though the pipe had come into his hands for the first time, the sounds floated from it uncertainly, with no regularity, not blending into a tune, but to Meliton, brooding on the destruction of the world, there was a sound in it of something very depressing and revolting which he would much rather not have heard. The highest, shrillest notes, which quivered and broke, seemed to be weeping disconsolately, as though the pipe were sick and frightened, while the lowest notes for some reason reminded him of the mist, the dejected trees, the grey sky. Such music seemed in keeping with the weather, the old man and his sayings.

Meliton wanted to complain. He went up to the old man and, looking at his mournful, mocking face and at the pipe, muttered:

“And life has grown worse, grandfather. It is utterly impossible to live. Bad crops, want. . . . Cattle plague continually, diseases of all sorts. . . . We are crushed by poverty.”