Chapter the Ninth.
The life of villagers in those days. - Liubovitshove's prophecies. - Dobrozhinski - Lord Dobrozhinski's story. - His being drunk. - The little horse. - General Kislovki. - His peculiar habits. - His love of music. - Yosl Lider - A man of steel, but with no heart. - His tricks. - Yosl Lider and the Governor. - Ruvn get away!
In my days the villagers and the wood merchants lived in grand style. The city people lived almost completely from the villagers; all merchants in grain and timber bought exclusively from Jews. The land-holders lived a lordly life. Their children felt just the same as the children of the Lords formerly. The 'possessors' took the best teachers for their children and those who lived close to a big city sent their children to grammar school. In that period all educational institutions were open to Jews. Moreover, as I indicated earlier, the best scholars were related by marriage to villagers and the upper class packed up to move from the city to the village.
When the villagers came to town for Rosheshone you would see fine carriages with excellent equipages and well-to-do people in fine clothes in the streets. They would bring their silver tableware and heavy silver candlesticks and they all tried to outdo each other in lifestyle, showing of how rich they were by buying themselves the most coveted turns at the reading of the scriptures1 and putting the most expensive dishes on their tables. They brought giving banquets2into fashion. They were not stingy with brandies and wines either.
Liubovitshove always made negative remarks about me, was always criticizing whatever I did: In her opinion I was lazy, I was a spendthrift [bay mir iz a groshn a mamzer], I just read books and so on.
"He will never own a penny!", she used to say to my wife.
I know, if you've a penny you should put it aside, save it. In that way your pennies grow into a ruble, one ruble and another ruble makes two rubles, hundred rubles, more. But money just slips through my fingers. A ruble means nothing to me, I don't want to work. I'm a hopeless case.
I've told already that I had put the tavern in good order. I had a good assortment of wines, all kinds of brandies and cognacs, special brand beers and I attracted gentry and peasants from the wide neighborhood. On Sundays and on all non-Jewish holidays my tavern would be packed with people. The farmers would stay in my big room, the gentry folks in the other rooms. On such days I would of course work hard myself too, whatever Liubovitshove says. I even had two people serving and it was quite a task to keep things under control.
On normal days, during the week, there were few guests and there was nothing for me to do. But I had put the place in excellent order, something those simpletons before me hadn't had an inkling of. I had plenty of time and that was exactly what the Lady hated, someone with time.
She never stopped criticizing me. She kept repeating that it would suit me better to be a Rov, or may be [lehavdl]3a priest and to live in a big city. A Rov or a priest, they belonged in her mind to the category of people that don't have to toil.
"All he does is philosophize. Isn't he a poor man? So why doesn't he try to get somewhere? He will never be a solid person, will never make any money and what good is live without money?"
Normally she would try to impress these notions on my wife. She made the same mistake my father made, when he thought that he could talk my wife into making a Khosid out of me. The lady too thought that it would suffice to give her a good talking to, that my wife would at once make a grudging, simple, toiling good fellow out of me, who would walk off into the barn to shuffle straw with a rake, just like Rozenblum.
Liubovitshove had a strong influence on my wife, but nothing good came from it. It only caused my wife to exert herself beyond her powers, something that wasn't necessary at all.
I thought to myself; what good is it do more than necessary, to wear yourself out if life is quite good without such harsh drudgery? Why to stoop down to the level of a farmer, become a coarse fellow, harm your own soul? And, I was right, as became clear eventually, but about that another time.
Lord Dobrozhinski, who had leased his estate to Liubovitshove, was living in with her on the farm and had his meals there. He had a bit left to go out drinking with. He still owned a large forest on the estate, Barke, in the Volkovisk region. He used to write notes to his forester, saying that the bearer of the note should be provided with several cartloads of wood and hand these notes out to the farmers of Makarovitsi, his former serfs. The farmers would repay him by buying him vodka, which they would share with him in my tavern. As a result Sir Dobrozhinski was seldom seen sober. While drinking he would kiss the farmers and their wives and his favored snack was cheese. He had gone completely local. But in his heart he was a fine man with a good character. He was a scion of a noble family.
His grandfather had been Marshal-Superior of the Vilne district. One day this grandfather climbed a high mountain in Biale-Koze, from where one could see all the surrounding fields and villages into the far distance. He declared that everything his eye saw was to be his. And so it was. Having such power it was not a big thing to make such claims come true in those days.
This grandfather had three children, spoiled rotten libertines. While the grandfather was still young he had kept them in hand and curbed their licentiousness, but when he became older he did not have the force to restrain them. They amassed great debts. They even went as far as forging his signature and as a result a lot of farms came under the hammer. The grandfather fell ill from misery and shame and eventually died.
The three sons and a daughter divided the estates and ready money between them: altogether one million two hundred thousand rubles cash money. His father's share had been six estates, three near Makarovtsi and three in the Volkovisk region, a large forest and three hundred thousand rubles cash.
His father's brothers had squandered both their estates and the money, but his father had been a bit more modest, a virtue his son, Sir Dobrozhinski had not inherited from him. He had made a complete ruin of his fathers possessions, sold the estates until only the place at Makarovtsi, the farm with the forest at Barke, the gold and silver tableware and the jewels were left. Later he had sold the tableware and jewelry as well.
He had been clever, he had hated borrowing money. But bit by bit he had sold everything his father owned just to get money for his debaucheries!..
"Eventually I went into debt", the former Lord went on. "My father, seeing that I would destroy the little that was left, died... That was two years after my marriage. My mother died in the same year. I inherited the two estates and twenty thousand rubles. That was when I really started living it up! I loved music, so I hired an orchestra of forty Czechs, to play for me at lunch and during the evenings. I lived in Barke then and since I love horses I bought myself thirty horses, for my carriages. I kept sixty musicians and footmen in total and I never stopped partying; I organized dances and invited all the Lords in the neighborhood; we danced and drank ...
I managed to keep away from the money lenders for a while, but when I finally had to I borrowed recklessly. In the beginning my credit was fine, I didn't care about interest rates and could borrow as much money as I wanted; I kept feasting for about three years. After that my creditors started threatening to auction off my estates. I got quite a lot of money from Liubovitshove and I reached an understanding with my main creditors, settling for forty percent of the amount I owed. I never did pay much of it off though .
My wife realized that I was in a bad situation, that I was going down and would never crawl out again. She left me taking two small children with her. She settled down on her estate, the one that her father had given her for her marriage. - And now, my dear brother, I am a tramp ..., a drunk ..."
Sure, he still owned a horse, thirty rubles worth, a little one, a bag of bones. Sometimes he rode around on it.
This story he once told me on a winter evening demanding a bottle of booze in payment. I give it to him and he doesn't take long finishing it. So he gets drunk and being drunk he starts kissing whoever he can grab: farmers, farmers' wives, everyone. While at it he tells me how much he loves me, God spare me, and he grabs me to give me a bear-hug as well. Now he was a very strong fellow and he embraced me with such force that he smothered me completely. I could not breath and could not wrangle myself loose from him, though I am not a weakling myself. He kept stifling me, my face pressed to his heart, for several minutes until I finally lost consciousness..
Luckily the blacksmith Dovid entered at that moment. He noticed that I had fainted and tore me loose from him, unconscious. He gave a shout and everybody came to my rescue. Had the smith arrived one minute later Dobrozhinski's love would certainly have been fatal to me... Later on he realized what he had done when he had sobered up a little. He fell down on his knees and started kissing my feet, crying big drunken tears and assuring me that it had only happened because he loved me so much...
For about a year Dobrozhinski frequented my tavern, going down hill. He would continually drink vodka and when he got really pissed he would mount his thirty ruble horse and trot off. He was a very good horseman, staying in the saddle even when drunk. Occasionally he would fall off but never came to much harm, because the horse was so tiny and its charge so tall, that his feet nearly scraped the ground.
In that fashion he used to ride to Krinik. His usual trip was to Krinik. On Sundays he would parade through the town, along the shops, followed by all farmers and Jews. Nobody would do him any harm though, no one was mean to him, for actually, everybody loved him.
That's how he cheered up the market place on Sundays. Once he rode his horse right into the Assessor's house, with his head down beside the horses neck. Having squeezed his way through into the room he heartily laughed, holding his belly. He had pulled off quite a stunt. Shortly after that he suddenly disappeared and to this very day I don't know what became of him. May be he died somewhere in miserable circumstances.
To please Rozenblum I also introduced myself to all the Lords in the region. Honestly speaking, I might have done business with them, but I didn't even think about it. Philosophy books, brochures and discussions with all my good friends was all I cared for. I had plenty and enough income. What else would I want?
Another person I remember was a general by the name of Kislovski, who lived in Usnarzh, four versts from Makarovtsti. Shortly after the Polish uprising he had bought both this estate and another bigger farm named Libovitsh, for seven hundred rubles. The farm Libovitsh he had given in lease to a Jew for three thousand rubles a year and he himself lived at Usnarzh. He was the son-in-law of a general. His father-in-law had been a member of the Czar's retinue, until he fell in love in Grodno with a very beautiful Jewish girl. He had married her and they had a daughter, who they married off to Kislovski, a handsome young man in the cavalry.
The father-in-law, the general, had arranged that Kislovski was promoted in rank every three years, until he eventually got the rank of general - though he was a lazy fellow by nature and hated work.
Then his father-in-law had bought him the estates I mentioned before, so he resigned from the military and became a Lord. The father-in-law died and the mother-in-law, the Jewess, came to live with her son-in-law. They were close to Rozenblum and Liubovitshove and would often come to visit them. He was an eccentric, a man with peculiar fancies and strange notions. For instance, he would sometimes tell a farmer who came to work for him to enter and letting him in to his salon he would inform this man that his wife played the piano very well. He would call his wife and tell her to play, which she would do. Kislovski would be very interested in finding out what impression it made on the farmer. He would observe him at length, searching his face, reading his eyes for a sign that would tell him what impression the grand piano made. If it turned out that the farmer liked the music Kislovski would be ever so pleased.
That was really Kislovski.
I knew him as well as one knows a good neighbor. When he came to visit at Rozenblum's place he would almost always halt his horses at my tavern, come in and see me. Everything about him was strange, the way he looked at you, the way he moved, the way he spoke. You always got the impression that the man was driven by a strong and mysterious force inside him.[az in dem mentshn iz gelegn epes shtarkes un umbagrayflekhes.].
One summer day I drove past his place. He happened to be standing at the gate. As usual he invited me to come in and he immediately wanted to treat me to his wife's music. It seems that he wanted to fathom a person's soul by means of music.
I didn't have time, so I thanked him for the honor. Since I was not in for music he wanted to take me on a tour of his property. He wanted to show me his horses and cattle. But instead of showing me around he suddenly turned away to catch a chicken passing by and out of the blue sky he announces:
"Look. this chicken is about to lay an egg ... Imagine, an egg ..."
Having spoken the handsome, but strange and eccentric Lord with his incomprehensible, quaint, queer, bizarre impulses lost in deep thought.
A description of the collection of interesting types and characters I met in this period would not be complete without mentioning Yosl Lider, a man from Krinik.
Yosl was the collector of tax on meat in Krinik, in charge of the 'karobke'4, the word alone would make you shiver, and Yosl was the worst, the most pernicious of his kind. There are many popular songs portraying the figure of the tax collector very negatively, but they all fall short of doing him justice.
A villager would butcher a cow or an ox, or may be some villagers would unite and kill a few oxen in one go and after that they would pickle barrels full of meat. When the bottoms came in sight they would buy more cattle, normally collectively, and go on pickling. That way the whole village would have plenty of meat to eat all winter. A pound of meat would cost them about a penny and sometimes they would even make some money by selling the hide and the rear end to a farmer. Normally they would only kill very meager cows that gave little milk or calves, but meat tax had to be paid anyway. They would make a deal with the meat tax collectors: by paying them five to ten rubles they would be off the hook for a whole year, butchering as many animals as they wanted.
However, many villagers didn't want to pay the tax collector any money at all. So they cheated him, keeping back meat. When he came with his constables on an inspection tour along the villages, to check on the villagers for having undeclared meat, they would hide their meat in a save place, making sure it wouldn't be found. But if he did happen to confiscate some illegal meat he couldn't do much business with it. He couldn't go anywhere with it, because in town people didn't eat old pickled meat. Even a bouillon made from it tasted like the brine from a cask of herring. Only poor people paid a couple of pennies for it. The tax collectors were clearly better off accepting a yearly payment from the villagers.
But with Yosl things were different. If he came in a village to inspect for meat he was worse than a Revisor checking out licenses. When he found illegal meat at someone's place he would take away several valuable household items from the place, as a security, to make sure that people would pay him well. He was neither afraid of the Assessor, nor of the Superintendent of Police of the district. And he wasn't afraid of them, because they were all afraid of him, of his vicious temper but especially of his secret complaints. If it suited him he could denounce them any time. He could have denounced a Governor; he always knew who to accuse, of what and when.
Yosl came always out on top. He couldn't be impressed by rank. He confiscated goods, barrels of vodka and nobody would stand in his way. The villagers ended up paying Yosl as much as he demanded and he made them pay more than the normal tax rate.
As a matter of fact I also butchered together with my neighbors, but I did not go in for pickling the meat to keep it for several months or even half a year like they did. Bless God, I did eat pickled meat myself, but no older than one month old at most. I never paid Yosl a penny and yes, may he forgive me, I did cheat him on taxes. He just asked too much.
I don't know which was worse, his grossly unjust behavior or the never abating fear of him. As soon as the word spread that Yosl was touring the villages on an inspection everyone was scared to death.
Of course, I was plenty scared of him myself, even though I was well connected to Rozenblum. I kept my illegal meat hidden on Rozenblum's farm and never paid Yosl a penny.
Yosl also owned a vodka distillery and evaded excise duty as much as he wanted. The Superintendent of Police didn't have not much up with Yosl and was constantly looking for a way to get even with him. But it was risky to take him on, for an official complaint, even coming from a Jew, is something to reckon with.
One day the Superintendent of Police told the Governor straight out that Lider evaded paying excise duty for his distillery on a grand scale but that all excise tax officers were afraid of him because he was hard to deal with and prone to denounce someone. He told him that it was about time to send a group of tax officers to the place on a surprise inspection.
The Governor sent a commission of six people who entered the distillery during day. They found thirty hidden ten bucket [120 l.] barrels of alcohol, on which no excise duty had been paid.
But Lider, shrewd as he was, took up an ax and smashed up the barrels right in front of them. The alcohol streamed out. Next he quickly jumped on a cart standing ready with the horse in front and rode off in the direction of Sokolke. After driving a couple of versts he turned of the road and drove towards a close by village. With the same ax he damaged a wheel of his cart and then rode into the village with the broken wheel. It was Sunday, so all the farmers were standing on the square in front of the tavern. Yosl drove right into the crowd with his broken wheel and told the farmers in a sad voice that he just had come from Sokolke but that his wheel had collapsed on the way. He begged them to lend him a wheel for his cart. He had to go to his distillery urgently, for he expected excise tax officers to come and inspect the distillery. If he wasn't there, that would cost him. While talking to them he takes out his watch, looks on it and says to himself, but in a loud voice:
"Already three o'clock!.."
That was the time they could come and he was very upset that he might arrive too late.
"Three o'clock, three o'clock, three o'clock!" he kept saying while shaking his head, acting like he was very upset, "Please, give me a wheel, it's three o'clock!"
They gave him a wheel and he went to his distillery.
But, actually it had been four o'clock!
The commission wrote up an official report, fined him twenty two thousand rubles and put forward criminal charges against him for having smashed up the barrels right in front of them [un derbay farfirt a kriminele dyele farn ...> diele - R. delo - deed, case].
A few weeks later the judge [R. sudya] summoned Lider to court with his witnesses, namely all villagers of the village (Lider had named them as his witnesses). They all swore that Lider had been in the village at three o'clock sharp, coming from Sokolke with a broken wheel. They had taken pity on him and lent him a wheel. So ... Yosl came out of court a free man.
When the Superintendent of Police heard that Lider had walked out scot-free he suffered a heart attack. He was a heavy man and collapsed were he stood. The Governor didn't feel like letting him get away with it and sent someone to fetch Lider. Lider understood that the Governor was likely to have him arrested and that he might have to spend an indefinite period in jail, without anyone raising an objection. But he went to the Governor. The Governor, who was furious, did not beat around the bush, saying, "I will have you rot in jail! You scoundrel [mashenik - R. moshenik]!"
Yosl, unruffled, looked at him and answered,
"And I will denounce you for having been an accomplice in smuggling gold from Siberia... You were in cahoots with someone who has done already four years in prison for it ... I know about it, I know everything!.. Those farms you own in the Grodno district you didn't buy, you got them as bribes from several Lords whom I could name."
That was not far from the truth, the Governor lost it for a moment, got confused and Yosl disappeared. It took the Governor a quarter of an hour to regain his self-control. He then raised the whole police force of Grodno to go and search for Lider. But he was gone, like an ocean had swallowed him up. Soon after the Governor laid down his function.
When people asked Lider later how he had dared to say such things to the Governor in his very own house he would answer dryly, "He who wears dirty clothes should not look for stains on someone else's clothes, even if he happens to be a Governor." He didn't change a bit and remained the same vicious meat tax collector he had always been.
I remember another story about that same Yosl. In Krinik the court was trying an important criminal case. I forgot now what it was about exactly , but I think someone had been buried without a permit after an autopsy had been performed on the corpse. But anyway, twelve citizens, some of the finest and richest men of the city among them as well as members of the funeral society, headed by Yosl Lider, were about to be sent to Siberia. A special session of the District Court was held in Krinik and the whole city was astir. Everybody was excited an argued about it. They were afraid of one witness, a member of the funeral society, on whose testimony the whole case rested.
What to do about him? He would certainly cause the whole town great misery. To get in touch with him was quite difficult. The police had already put him under protection and escorted him to court. They guarded him like a treasure.
When the case was heard by the judge and that funeral society man was about to give his testimony, everybody shuddered. He was going to cause everybody a lot of misery. Yosl Lider was red in the face and very excited and suddenly started shouting at the top of his voice while clasping his jaw with his hands:
"Ruvn, vayivrekh, Ruvn, vayivrekh, vayivrekh, vayivrekh!.."
The president asks why he is shouting.
Yosl stooping, bending over and pressing his cheeks with his hands, went on shouting like a wild animal, "Oh! My teeth!.. Ruvn, vayivrekh!.. It's my teeth, nothing to do with you.. Ruvn, vayivrekh ... My teeth are killing me... Ruvn, vayivrekh... Pleyte, pleyte ... Pleyte5...
Understanding that someone was suffering from toothache, they hurriedly went looking for some medicine and Ruvn the funeral society man, who had understood what the shouting meant, quickly disappeared.
As soon as Yosl, who clever and cunning as he was had warned Ruvn with his terrible cries, noticed that the threat to them was gone, since he had escaped, took away his hand from his face and quietly said:
"I feel much better now..."
The Court had to let everybody out of prison, because the crown-witness, on whose testimony the whole case rested, had been missing ...
1alies See Vol. I, Chapt. XXIX.
2pireshkes - R. pirushka - party, celebration.
3lehavdl is a connector, like 'and', but with the additional meaning 'to be distinguished from', used in enumerating items that don't fit together since they are of a different nature.
4karobke - R. box, chest; (meat) tax.
5makhn a vayivrekh; makhn pleyte - to run away. For another instance of the use of 'loshn-koydesh to incite someone to get out of a situation compare: Sholem Aleikhem, motl, peysi dem khasns, Chapt.VII, 'hey':
"daber nisht, du narisher yodl, af dayn okhi!" zogn tsu mir etlekhe yidn ale mitamol. ... ruft zikh on tsu mir eyner, an alter yid mit gneyvishe oygn, farshtelt, af loshn koydesh: "Motl, rays aroys dem yad funem yovn un heyb uf di raglaim un makh pleyte!"
(geshribn in yor 1907).
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