Old Peter's Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome
The Christening of the Village
The Christening of the Village
THIS chapter is not one of old Peter's stories, though there are, doubtless, some stories in it. It tells how Vanya and Maroosia drove to the village to see a new baby.
Old Peter had a sister who lived in the village not so very far away from the forest. And she had a plump daughter, and the daughter was called Nastasia, and she was married to a handsome peasant called Sergie, who had three cows, a lot of pigs, and a flock of fat geese. And one day when old Peter had gone to the village to buy tobacco and sugar and sun flower seeds, he came back in the evening, and said to the children:
"There's something new in the village."
"What sort of a something?" asked Vanya.
"Alive," said old Peter.
"Is there a lot of it?" asked Vanya.
"No, only one."
"Then it can't be pigs," said Vanya, in a melancholy voice. "I thought it was pigs."
"Perhaps it is a little calf," said Maroosia.
"I know what it is," said Vanya.
"It's a foal. It's brown all over with white on its nose, and a lot of white hairs in its tail."
"What is it then, grandfather?"
"I'll tell you, little pigeons. It's small and red, and it's got a bumpy head with hair on it like the fluff of a duckling. It has blue eyes, and ten fingers to its fore paws, and ten toes to its hind feet - five to each."
"It's a baby," said Maroosia.
"Yes. Nastasia has got a little son, Aunt Sofia has got a grandson, you have got a new cousin, and I have got a new great-nephew. Think of that! Already it's a son, and a cousin, and a grandson, and a great-nephew, and he's only been alive twelve hours. He lost no time in taking a position for himself. He'll be a great man one of these days if he goes on as fast as that."
The children had jumped up as soon as they knew it was a baby.
"When is the christening?"
"The day after tomorrow."
"Who is going to the christening?"
"The baby, of course."
"Yes; but other people?"
"All the village."
"I have to go, and I suppose there'll be room in the cart for two little bear cubs like you."
And so it was settled that Vanya and Maroosia were to go to the christening of their new cousin, who was only twelve hours old. All the next day they could think of nothing else, and early on the morning of the christening they were up and about, Maroosia seeing that Vanya had on a clean shirt, and herself putting a green ribbon in her hair. The sun shone, and the leaves on the trees were all new and bright, and the sky was pale blue through the flickering green leaves.
Old Peter was up early too, harnessing the little yellow horse into the old cart. The cart was of rough wood, without springs, like a big box fixed on long larch poles between two pairs of wheels. The larch poles did instead of springs, bending and creaking, as the cart moved over the forest track. The shafts came from the front wheels upwards to the horse's shoulders, and between the ends of them there was a tall strong hoop of wood, called a douga, which rose high over the shoulders of the horse, above his collar, and had two little bells hanging from it at the top. The wooden hoop was painted green with little red flowers. The harness was mostly of ropes, but that did not matter so long as it held together. The horse had a long tail and mane, and looked as untidy as a little boy; but he had a green ribbon in his forelock in honour of the christening, and he could go like anything, and never got tired.
When all was ready, old Peter arranged a lot of soft fresh hay in the cart for the children to sit in. Hay is the best thing in the world to sit in when you drive in a jolting Russian cart. Old Peter put in a tremendous lot, so that the horse could eat some of it while waiting in the village, and yet leave them enough to make them comfortable on the journey back. Finally, old Peter took a gun that he had spent all the evening before in cleaning, and laid it carefully in the hay.
"What is the gun for?" asked Vanya.
"I am to be a godparent," said old Peter, "and I want to give him a present. I could not give him a better present than a gun, for he shall be a forester, and a good shot, and you cannot begin too early."
Presently Vanya and Maroosia were tucked into the hay, and old Peter climbed in with the plaited reins, and away they went along the narrow forest track, where the wheels followed the ruts and splashed through the deep holes; for the spring was young, and the roads had not yet dried. Some of the deepest holes had a few pine branches laid in them, but that was the only road-mending that ever was done. Overhead were the tall firs and silver birches with their little pale round leaves; and somewhere, not far away, a cuckoo was calling, while the murmur of the wild pigeons never stopped for a moment.
They drove on and on through the forest, and at last came out from among the trees into the open country, a broad, flat plain stretching to the river. Far away they could see the big square sail of a boat, swelled out in the light wind, and they knew that there was the river, on the banks of which stood the village. They could see a small clump of trees, and, as they came nearer, the pale green cupolas of the white village church rising above the tops of the birches.
Presently they came to a rough wooden bridge, and crossed over a little stream that was on its way to join the big river.
Vanya looked at it.
"Grandfather," he asked, "when the frost went, which was water first - the big river or the little river?"
"Why, the little river, of course," said old Peter. "It's always the little streams that wake first in the spring, and running down to the big river make it swell and flood and break up the ice. It's always been so ever since the quarrel between the Vazouza and the Volga."
"What was that?" said Vanya.
"It was like this," said old Peter.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Vazouza and the Volga flow for a long way side by side, and then they join and flow together. And the Vazouza is a little river; but the Volga is the mother of all Russia, and the greatest river in the world.
And the little Vazouza was jealous of the Volga.
"You are big and noisy," she says to the Volga, "and terribly strong; but as for brains," says she, "why, I have more brains in a single ripple than you in all that lump of water."
Of course the Volga told her not to be so rude, and said that little rivers should know their place and not argue with the great.
But the Vazouza would not keep quiet, and at last she said to the Volga: "Look here, we will lie down and sleep, and we will agree that the one of us who wakes first and comes first to the sea is the wiser of the two."
And the Volga said, "Very well, if only you will stop talking."
So the little Vazouza and the big Volga lay and slept, white and still, all through the winter. And when the spring came, the little Vazouza woke first, brisk and laughing and hurrying and rushed away as hard as she could go towards the sea. When the Volga woke the little Vazouza was already far ahead. But the Volga did not hurry. She woke slowly and shook the ice from herself, and then came roaring after the Vazouza, a huge foaming flood of angry water.
And the little Vazouza listened as she ran, and she heard the Volga coming after her; and when the Volga caught her up - a tremendous foaming river, whirling along trees and blocks of ice - she was frightened, and she said,-
"O Volga, let me be your little sister. I will never argue with you any more. You are wiser than I and stronger than I. Only take me by the hand and bring me with you to the sea."
And the Volga forgave the little Vazouza, and took her by the hand and brought her safely to the sea. And they have never quarrelled again. But all the same, it is always the little Vazouza that gets up first in the spring, and tugs at the white blankets of ice and snow, and wakes her big sister from her winter sleep.
* * * * * * * * * *
They drove on over the flat open country, with no hedges, but only ditches to drain off the floods, and very often not even ditches to divide one field from another. And huge crows, with grey hoods and shawls, pecked about in the grass at the road side or flew heavily in the sunshine. They passed a little girl with a flock of geese, and another little girl lying in the grass holding a long rope which was fastened to the horns of a brown cow. And the little girl lay on her face and slept among the flowers, while the cow walked slowly round her, step by step, chewing the grass and thinking about nothing at all.
And at last they came to the village, where the road was wider; and instead of one pair of ruts there were dozens, and the cart bumped worse than ever. The broad earthy road had no stones in it; and in places where the puddles would have been deeper than the axles of the wheels, it had been mended by laying down fir logs and small branches in the puddles, and putting a few spadefuls of earth on the top of them.
The road ran right through the village. On either side of it were little wooden huts. The ends of the timbers crossed out side at the four corners of the huts. They fitted neatly into each other, and some of them were carved. And there were no slates or tiles on the roofs, but little thin slips of wood overlapping each other. There was not a single stone hut or cottage in the village. Only the church was partly brick, whitewashed, with bright green cupolas up in the air, and thin gold crosses on the tops of the cupolas, shining in the clear sky.
Outside the church were rows of short posts, with long rough fir timbers nailed on the top of them, to which the country people tied their horses when they came to church. There were several carts there already, with bright-coloured rugs lying on the hay in them; and the horses were eating hay or biting the logs. Always, except when the logs are quite new, you can tell the favourite places for tying up horses to them, because the timbers will have deep holes in them, where they have been gnawed away by the horses' teeth. They bite the timbers, while their masters eat sunflower seeds, not for food, but to pass the time.
"Now then," said old Peter, as he got down from the cart, tied the horse, gave him an armful of hay from the cart, and lifted the children out. "Be quick. We shall be late if we don't take care. I believe we are late already. Good health to you, Fedor," he said to an old peasant, "and has the baby gone in?"
"He has, Peter. And my health is not so bad; and how is yours?"
"Good also, Fedor, thanks be to God. And will you see to these two? for I am a god-parent, and must be near the priest."
"Willingly," said the old peasant Fedor. "How
they do grow, to be sure, like young birch trees. Come along then,
Old Peter hurried into the church, followed by Fedor with Vanya and Maroosia. They all crossed themselves and said a prayer as they went in.
The ceremony was just beginning.
The priest, in his silk robes, was standing before the gold and painted screen at the end of the church, and there were the basin of holy water, and old Peter's sister, and the nurse Babka Tanya, very proud, holding the baby in a roll of white linen, and rocking it to and fro. There were coloured pictures of saints all over the screen, which stretches from one side of the church to the other. Some of the pictures were framed in gilt frames under glass, and were partly painted and partly metal. The faces and hands of the saints were painted, and their clothes were glittering silver or gold. Little lamps were burning in front of them, and candles.
A Russian christening is very different from an English one. For one thing, the baby goes right into the water, not once, but three times. Babka Tanya unrolled the baby, and the priest covered its face with his hand, and down it went under the water, once, twice, and again. Then he took some of the sacred ointment on his finger and anointed the baby's forehead, and feet, and hands, and little round stomach. Then, with a pair of scissors, he cut a little pinch of fluff from the baby's head, and rolled it into a pellet with the ointment, and threw the pellet into the holy water. And after that the baby was carried solemnly three times round the holy water. The priest blessed it and prayed for it; and there it was, a little true Russian, ready to be carried back to its mother, Nastasia, who lay at home in her cottage waiting for it.
When they got outside the church, they all went to Nastasia's cottage to congratulate her on her baby, and to tell her what good lungs it had, and what a handsome face, and how it was exactly like its father.
Nastasia smiled at Vanya and Maroosia; but they had no eyes except for the baby, and for all that belonged to it, especially its cradle. Now a Russian baby has a very much finer cradle than an English baby. A long fir pole is fastened in the middle and at one end to the beams in the ceiling of the hut, so that the other end swings free, just below the rafters. From this end is hung a big basket, and on the ropes by which the basket hangs are fastened shawls of bright colours. The baby is tucked in the basket, the shawls closed round it; and as the mother or the nurse sits at her spinning, she just kicks the basket gently now and again, and it swings up and down from the end of the pole, as if it were hung from the branch of a tree.
This baby had a fine new basket and a larch pole, newly fixed, white and shining, under the dark beams of the ceiling. It had presents besides old Peter's gun. It had a fine wooden spoon with a picture on it of a cottage and a fish. It had a wooden bowl and a painted mug, bought from one of the peddling barges that go up and down the rivers selling chairs and crockery, just like the caravans that travel our English roads. And also, although it was so young, it had a little sacred picture, made of metal, a picture of St Nikolai; because this was St Nikolai's day, and the baby was called Nikolai.
There was a samovar already steaming in the cottage, and a great cake of pastry, and cabbage and egg and fish. And there were cabbage soup with sour cream, and black bread and a little white bread, and red kisel jelly and a huge jug of milk.
And everybody ate and drank and talked as if they were never going to stop. The sun was warm, and presently the men went outside and sat on a log, leaning their backs against the wall of the hut and making cigarettes and smoking, or eating sunflower seeds, cracking the husks with their teeth, taking out the white kernels, and blowing the husks away. And the women sat in the hut, and now and then brought out glasses of hot tea to the men, and then went back again to talk of what a fine man the baby would be, and to remember other babies. And the old women looked at the young mothers and laughed, and said that they could remember the days when they were christened - when they were babies themselves, no bigger than the little Nikolai who swung in the basket and squalled, or slept proudly, just as if he knew that all the world belonged to him because he was so very young. And Vanya and Maroosia ate sunflower seeds too, and sometimes played outside the cottage and sometimes inside; but mostly stood very quiet close to the swinging cradle, waiting till old Babka Tanya, the nurse, should pull the shawls a little way aside and let them see the pink, crumpled face of the little Nikolai, and the yellow fluff, just like a duckling's, which covered his bumpy pink head.
At last, towards evening, old Peter packed what was left of the hay into the cart, and packed Vanya and Maroosia in with the hay. Everybody said good-byes all round, and Peter climbed in and took up the rope reins.
"He'll be a fine man," he shouted through the door to Nastasia, "a fine man; and God grant he'll be as healthy as he is good. Till we meet again," he cried out merrily to the villagers; and Vanya and Maroosia waved their hands, and off they drove, back again to the hut in the forest.
They were very much quieter on the way back than they had been when they drove to the village in the morning. And the early summer day was quiet as it came to its end. There was a corn-crake rattling in the fields, and more than once they saw frogs hop out of the road as they drove by in the twilight. A hare ran before them through the dusk and disappeared. And when they came to the wooden bridge over the stream, a tall grey bird with a long beak rose up from the bank and flew slowly away, carrying his long legs, like a thin pair of crutches, straight out behind him.
"Who is that?" asked Vanya sleepily from his nest in the hay.
"That is Mr. Crane," said old Peter. "Perhaps he is on his way to visit Miss Heron and tell her that this time he has really made up his mind, and to ask her to let bygones be bygones."
"What bygones?" said Vanya.
Old Peter watched the crane's slow, steady flight above the low marshy ground on either side of the stream, and then he said:
"Why, surely you know all about that. It is an old story, little one, and I must have told it you a dozen times."
"No, never, grandfather," said Maroosia. She was nearly as sleepy as Vanya after the day in the village, and the fuss and pleasure of the christening.
"Oh, well," said old Peter; and he told the tale of Mr. Crane and Miss Heron as the cart bumped slowly along the rough road, while Vanya and Maroosia looked out with sleepy eyes from their nest of hay and listened, and the sky turned green, and the trees grew dim, and the frogs croaked in the ditches.
* * * * * * * * * *
Mr. Crane and Miss Heron lived in a marsh five miles across from end to end. They lived there, and fed on the frogs which they caught in their long bills, and held up in the air for a moment, and then swallowed, standing on one leg. The marsh was always damp, and there were always plenty of frogs, and life went well for them, except that they saw very little company. They had no one to pass the time of day with. For Mr. Crane had built his little hut on one side of the marsh, and Miss Heron had built hers on the other.
So it came into the head of Mr. Crane that it was dull work living alone. If only I were married, he thought, there would be two of us to drink our tea beside the samovar at night, and I should not spend my evenings in melancholy, thinking only of frogs. I will go to see Miss Heron, and I will offer to marry her.
So off he flew to the other side of the marsh, flap, flap, with his legs hanging out behind, just as we saw him tonight. He came to the other side of the marsh, and flew down to the hut of Miss Heron. He tapped on the door with his long beak.
"Is Miss Heron at home?"
"At home," said Miss Heron.
"Will you marry me?" said Mr. Crane.
"Of course I won't," said Miss Heron; "your legs are long and ill-shaped, and your coat is short, and you fly awkwardly, and you are not even rich. You would have no dainties to feed me with. Off with you, long-bodied one, and don't come bothering me."
She shut the door in his face.
Mr. Crane looked the fool he thought himself, and went off home, wishing he had never made the journey.
But as soon as he was gone, Miss Heron, sitting alone in her hut, began to think things over and to be sorry she had spoken in such a hurry.
"After all," thinks she, "it is poor work living alone. And Mr. Crane, in spite of what I said about his looks, is really a handsome enough young fellow. Indeed at evening, when he stands on one leg, he is very handsome indeed. Yes, I will go and marry him."
So off flew Miss Heron, flap, flap, over five miles of marsh, and came to the hut of Mr. Crane.
"Is the master at home?"
"At home," said Mr. Crane.
"Ah, Mr. Crane," said Miss Heron, "I was chaffing you just now. When shall we be married?"
"No, Miss Heron," said Mr. Crane, "I have no need of you at all. I do not wish to marry, and I would not take you for my wife even if I did. Clear out, and let me see the last of you." He shut the door.
Miss Heron wept tears of shame, that ran from her eyes down her long bill and dropped one by one to the ground. Then she flew away home, wishing she had not come.
As soon as she was gone Mr. Crane began to think, and he said to himself, "What a fool I was to be so short with Miss Heron! It's dull living alone. Since she wants it, I will marry her." And he flew off after Miss Heron. He came to her hut, and told her,-
"Miss Heron, I have thought things over. I have decided to marry you."
"Mr. Crane," said Miss Heron, "I, too, have thought things over. I would not marry you, not for ten thousand young frogs."
Off flew Mr. Crane.
As soon as he was gone Miss Heron thought, "Why didn't
I agree to marry Mr. Crane? It's dull alone. I will go at once and tell
him I have changed my mind."
And so they go on to this day - first one and then the other flying across the marsh with an offer of marriage, and flying back with shame. They have never married, and never will.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Grandfather," whispered Maroosia, tugging at old Peter's sleeve, "Vanya is asleep."
They drove on through the forest silently, except for the creaking of the cart and the loud singing of the nightingales in the tops of the tall firs. They came at last to their hut.
"Ah!" said old Peter, as he lifted them out, first one and then the other; "it isn't only Vanya who's asleep." And he carried them in, and put them to bed without waking them.
The text came from:
Ransome, Arthur. Old Peter's Russian Tales. London and Edinburgh: T. C. & E. C. Jack, Ltd., 1916.