THE ONE THING that sometimes troubled Nikolay in his government of his serfs was his hasty temper and his old habit, acquired in the hussars, of making free use of his fists. At first he saw nothing blameworthy in this, but in the second year of his married life his views on that form of correction underwent a sudden change.
One summer day he had sent for the village elder who had taken control at Bogutcharovo on the death of Dron. The man was accused of various acts of fraud and neglect. Nikolay went out to the steps to see him, and at the first answers the village elder made, shouts and blows were heard in the hall. On going back indoors to lunch, Nikolay went up to his wife, who was sitting with her head bent low over her embroidery frame, and began telling her, as he always did, everything that had interested him during the morning, and among other things about the Bogutcharovo elder. Countess Marya, turning red and pale and setting her lips, sat in the same pose, making no reply to her husband.
The insolent rascal, he said, getting hot at the mere recollection. Well, he should have told me he was drunk, he did not see Why, what is it, Marie? he asked all at once.
Countess Marya raised her head, tried to say something, but hurriedly looked down again, trying to control her lips.
What is it? What is wrong, my darling? His plain wife always looked her best when she was in tears. She never wept for pain or anger, but always from sadness and pity. And when she wept her luminous eyes gained an indescribable charm.
As soon as Nikolay took her by the hand, she was unable to restrain herself, and burst into tears.
Nikolay, I saw he was in fault, but you, why did you! Nikolay! and she hid her face in her hands.
Nikolay did not speak; he flushed crimson, and walking away from her, began pacing up and down in silence. He knew what she was crying about, but he could not all at once agree with her in his heart that what he had been used to from childhood, what he looked upon as a matter of course, was wrong. Its sentimental nonsense, old wives cackleor is she right? he said to himself. Unable to decide that question, he glanced once more at her suffering and loving face, and all at once he felt that she was right, and that he had known himself to be in fault a long time before.
Marie, he said, softly, going up to her: it shall never happen again; I give you my word. Never, he repeated in a shaking voice like a boy begging for forgiveness.
The tears flowed faster from his wifes eyes. She took his hand and kissed it.
Nikolay, when did you break your cameo? she said to change the subject, as she scrutinised the finger on which he wore a ring with a cameo of Laocoon.
To-day; it was all the same thing. O Marie, dont remind me of it! He flushed again. I give you my word of honour that it shall never happen again. And let this be a reminder to me for ever, he said, pointing to the broken ring.
From that time forward, whenever in interviews with his village elders and foremen he felt the blood rush to his face and his fists began to clench, Nikolay turned the ring round on his finger and dropped his eyes before the man who angered him. Twice a year, however, he would forget himself, and then, going to his wife, he confessed, and again promised that this would really be the last time.
Marie, you must despise me, he said to her. I deserve it.
You must run away, make haste and run away if you feel yourself unable to control yourself, his wife said mournfully, trying to comfort him.
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