Biryuk by Ivan
the Russian By
An Extract from
I was coming back from hunting one evening alone in a racing droshky. I
was six miles from home; my good trotting mare galloped bravely along
the dusty road, pricking up her ears with an occasional snort; my weary
dog stuck close to the hind-wheels, as though he were fastened there. A
tempest was coming on. In front, a huge, purplish storm-cloud slowly
rose from behind the forest; long grey rain-clouds flew over my head
and to meet me; the willows stirred and whispered restlessly. The
suffocating heat changed suddenly to a damp chilliness; the darkness
rapidly thickened. I gave the horse a lash with the reins, descended a
steep slope, pushed across a dry water-course overgrown with brushwood,
mounted the hill, and drove into the forest. The road ran before me,
bending between thick hazel bushes, now enveloped in darkness; I
advanced with difficulty. The droshky jumped up and down over the hard
roots of the ancient oaks and limes, which were continually intersected
by deep ruts—the tracks of cart wheels; my horse began to stumble. A
violent wind suddenly began to roar overhead; the trees blustered; big
drops of rain fell with slow tap and splash on the leaves; there came a
flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. The rain fell in torrents. I
went on a step or so, and soon was forced to stop; my horse foundered;
I could not see an inch before me. I managed to take refuge somehow in
a spreading bush. Crouching down and covering my face, I waited
patiently for the storm to blow over, when suddenly, in a flash of
lightning, I saw a tall figure on the road. I began to stare intently
in that direction—the figure seemed to have sprung out of the ground
near my droshky.
'Who's that?' inquired a ringing voice.
'Why, who are you?'
'I'm the forester here.'
I mentioned my name.
'Oh, I know! Are you on your way home?'
'Yes. But, you see, in such a storm….'
'Yes, there is a storm,' replied the voice.
A pale flash of lightning lit up the forester from head to foot; a
brief crashing clap of thunder followed at once upon it. The rain
lashed with redoubled force.
'It won't be over just directly,' the forester went on.
'What's to be done?'
'I'll take you to my hut, if you like,' he said abruptly.
'That would be a service.'
'Please to take your seat'
He went up to the mare's head, took her by the bit, and pulled her up.
We set off. I held on to the cushion of the droshky, which rocked 'like
a boat on the sea,' and called my dog. My poor mare splashed with
difficulty through the mud, slipped and stumbled; the forester hovered
before the shafts to right and to left like a ghost. We drove rather a
long while; at last my guide stopped. 'Here we are home, sir,' he
observed in a quiet voice. The gate creaked; some puppies barked a
welcome. I raised my head, and in a flash of lightning I made out a
small hut in the middle of a large yard, fenced in with hurdles. From
the one little window there was a dim light. The forester led his horse
up to the steps and knocked at the door. 'Coming, coming!' we heard in
a little shrill voice; there was the patter of bare feet, the bolt
creaked, and a girl of twelve, in a little old smock tied round the
waist with list, appeared in the doorway with a lantern in her hand.
'Show the gentleman a light,' he said to her 'and I will put your
droshky in the shed.'
The little girl glanced at me, and went into the hut. I followed her.
The forester's hut consisted of one room, smoky, low-pitched, and
empty, without curtains or partition. A tattered sheepskin hung on the
wall. On the bench lay a single-barrelled gun; in the corner lay a heap
of rags; two great pots stood near the oven. A pine splinter was
burning on the table flickering up and dying down mournfully. In the
very middle of the hut hung a cradle, suspended from the end of a long
horizontal pole. The little girl put out the lantern, sat down on a
tiny stool, and with her right hand began swinging the cradle, while
with her left she attended to the smouldering pine splinter. I looked
round—my heart sank within me: it's not cheering to go into a
peasant's hut at night. The baby in the cradle breathed hard and fast.
'Are you all alone here?' I asked the little girl.
'Yes,' she uttered, hardly audibly.
'You're the forester's daughter?'
'Yes,' she whispered.
The door creaked, and the forester, bending his head, stepped across
the threshold. He lifted the lantern from the floor, went up to the
table, and lighted a candle.
'I dare say you're not used to the splinter light?' said he, and he
shook back his curls.
I looked at him. Rarely has it been my fortune to behold such a comely
creature. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and in marvellous proportion.
His powerful muscles stood out in strong relief under his wet homespun
shirt. A curly, black beard hid half of his stern and manly face; small
brown eyes looked out boldly from under broad eyebrows which met in the
middle. He stood before me, his arms held lightly akimbo.
I thanked him, and asked his name.
'My name's Foma,' he answered, 'and my nickname's Biryuk' (i.e.
wolf). [Footnote: The name Biryuk is used in the Orel province to
denote a solitary, misanthropic man.—Author's Note.]
'Oh, you're Biryuk.'
I looked with redoubled curiosity at him. From my Yermolaï and others I
had often heard stories about the forester Biryuk, whom all the
peasants of the surrounding districts feared as they feared fire.
According to them there had never been such a master of his business in
the world before. 'He won't let you carry off a handful of brushwood;
he'll drop upon you like a fall of snow, whatever time it may be, even
in the middle of the night, and you needn't think of resisting him—
he's strong, and cunning as the devil…. And there's no getting at him
anyhow; neither by brandy nor by money; there's no snare he'll walk
into. More than once good folks have planned to put him out of the
world, but no—it's never come off.'
That was how the neighbouring peasants spoke of Biryuk.
'So you're Biryuk,' I repeated; 'I've heard talk of you, brother. They
say you show no mercy to anyone.'
'I do my duty,' he answered grimly; 'it's not right to eat the master's
bread for nothing.'
He took an axe from his girdle and began splitting splinters.
'Have you no wife?' I asked him.
'No,' he answered, with a vigorous sweep of the axe.
'She's dead, I suppose?'
'No … yes … she's dead,' he added, and turned away. I was silent;
he raised his eyes and looked at me.
'She ran away with a travelling pedlar,' he brought out with a bitter
smile. The little girl hung her head; the baby waked up and began
crying; the little girl went to the cradle. 'There, give it him,' said
Biryuk, thrusting a dirty feeding-bottle into her hand. 'Him, too, she
abandoned,' he went on in an undertone, pointing to the baby. He went
up to the door, stopped, and turned round.
'A gentleman like you,' he began, 'wouldn't care for our bread, I dare
say, and except bread, I've—'
'I'm not hungry.'
'Well, that's for you to say. I would have heated the samovar, but I've
no tea…. I'll go and see how your horse is getting on.'
He went out and slammed the door. I looked round again, the hut struck
me as more melancholy than ever. The bitter smell of stale smoke choked
my breathing unpleasantly. The little girl did not stir from her place,
and did not raise her eyes; from time to time she jogged the cradle,
and timidly pulled her slipping smock up on to shoulder; her bare legs
'What's your name?' I asked her.
'Ulita,' she said, her mournful little face drooping more than ever.
The forester came in and sat down on the bench.
'The storm 's passing over,' he observed, after a brief silence; 'if
you wish it, I will guide you out of the forest.'
I got up; Biryuk took his gun and examined the firepan.
'What's that for?' I inquired.
'There's mischief in the forest…. They're cutting a tree down on
Mares' Ravine,' he added, in reply to my look of inquiry.
'Could you hear it from here?'
'I can hear it outside.'
We went out together. The rain had ceased. Heavy masses of storm-cloud
were still huddled in the distance; from time to time there were long
flashes of lightning; but here and there overhead the dark blue sky was
already visible; stars twinkled through the swiftly flying clouds. The
outline of the trees, drenched with rain, and stirred by the wind,
began to stand out in the darkness. We listened. The forester took off
his cap and bent his head…. 'Th … there!' he said suddenly, and he
stretched out his hand: 'see what a night he's pitched on.' I had heard
nothing but the rustle of the leaves. Biryuk led the mare out of the
shed. 'But, perhaps,' he added aloud, 'this way I shall miss him.'
'I'll go with you … if you like?' 'Certainly,' he answered, and he
backed the horse in again; 'we'll catch him in a trice, and then I'll
take you. Let's be off.' We started, Biryuk in front, I following him.
Heaven only knows how he found out his way, but he only stopped once or
twice, and then merely to listen to the strokes of the axe. 'There,' he
muttered, 'do you hear? do you hear?' 'Why, where?' Biryuk shrugged his
shoulders. We went down into the ravine; the wind was still for an
instant; the rhythmical strokes reached my hearing distinctly. Biryuk
glanced at me and shook his head. We went farther through the wet
bracken and nettles. A slow muffled crash was heard….
'He's felled it,' muttered Biryuk. Meantime the sky had grown clearer
and clearer; there was a faint light in the forest. We clambered at
last out of the ravine.
'Wait here a little,' the forester whispered to me. He bent down, and
raising his gun above his head, vanished among the bushes. I began
listening with strained attention. Across the continual roar of the
wind faint sounds from close by reached me; there was a cautious blow
of an axe on the brushwood, the crash of wheels, the snort of a
'Where are you off to? Stop!' the iron voice of Biryuk thundered
suddenly. Another voice was heard in a pitiful shriek, like a trapped
hare…. A struggle was beginning.
'No, no, you've made a mistake,' Biryuk declared panting; 'you're not
going to get off….' I rushed in the direction of the noise, and ran
up to the scene of the conflict, stumbling at every step. A felled tree
lay on the ground, and near it Biryuk was busily engaged holding the
thief down and binding his hands behind his back with a kerchief. I
came closer. Biryuk got up and set him on his feet. I saw a peasant
drenched with rain, in tatters, and with a long dishevelled beard. A
sorry little nag, half covered with a stiff mat, was standing by,
together with a rough cart. The forester did not utter a word; the
peasant too was silent; his head was shaking.
'Let him go,' I whispered in Biryuk's ears; 'I'll pay for the tree.'
Without a word Biryuk took the horse by the mane with his left hand; in
his right he held the thief by the belt. 'Now turn round, you rat!' he
'The bit of an axe there, take it,' muttered the peasant.
'No reason to lose it, certainly,' said the forester, and he picked up
the axe. We started. I walked behind…. The rain began sprinkling
again, and soon fell in torrents. With difficulty we made our way to
the hut. Biryuk pushed the captured horse into the middle of the yard,
led the peasant into the room, loosened the knot in the kerchief, and
made him sit down in a corner. The little girl, who had fallen asleep
near the oven, jumped up and began staring at us in silent terror. I
sat down on the locker.
'Ugh, what a downpour!' remarked the forester; 'you will have to wait
till it's over. Won't you lie down?'
'I would have shut him in the store loft, on your honour's account,' he
went on, indicating the peasant; 'but you see the bolt—'
'Leave him here; don't touch him,' I interrupted.
The peasant stole a glance at me from under his brows. I vowed inwardly
to set the poor wretch free, come what might. He sat without stirring
on the locker. By the light of the lantern I could make out his worn,
wrinkled face, his overhanging yellow eyebrows, his restless eyes, his
thin limbs…. The little girl lay down on the floor, just at his feet,
and again dropped asleep. Biryuk sat at the table, his head in his
hands. A cricket chirped in the corner … the rain pattered on the
roof and streamed down the windows; we were all silent.
'Foma Kuzmitch,' said the peasant suddenly in a thick, broken voice;
'What is it?'
'Let me go.'
Biryuk made no answer.
'Let me go … hunger drove me to it; let me go.'
'I know you,' retorted the forester severely; 'your set's all alike—
'Let me go,' repeated the peasant. 'Our manager … we 're ruined,
that's what it is—let me go!'
'Ruined, indeed!… Nobody need steal.'
'Let me go, Foma Kuzmitch…. Don't destroy me. Your manager, you know
yourself, will have no mercy on me; that's what it is.'
Biryuk turned away. The peasant was shivering as though he were in the
throes of fever. His head was shaking, and his breathing came in broken
'Let me go,' he repeated with mournful desperation. 'Let me go; by God,
let me go! I'll pay; see, by God, I will! By God, it was through
hunger!… the little ones are crying, you know yourself. It's hard for
'You needn't go stealing, for all that.'
'My little horse,' the peasant went on, 'my poor little horse, at least
… our only beast … let it go.'
'I tell you I can't. I'm not a free man; I'm made responsible. You
oughtn't to be spoilt, either.'
'Let me go! It's through want, Foma Kuzmitch, want—and nothing else—
let me go!'
'I know you!'
'Oh, let me go!'
'Ugh, what's the use of talking to you! sit quiet, or else you'll catch
it. Don't you see the gentleman, hey?'
The poor wretch hung his head…. Biryuk yawned and laid his head on
the table. The rain still persisted. I was waiting to see what would
Suddenly the peasant stood erect. His eyes were glittering, and his
face flushed dark red. 'Come, then, here; strike yourself, here,' he
began, his eyes puckering up and the corners of his mouth dropping;
'come, cursed destroyer of men's souls! drink Christian blood, drink.'
The forester turned round.
'I'm speaking to you, Asiatic, blood-sucker, you!'
'Are you drunk or what, to set to being abusive?' began the forester,
puzzled. 'Are you out of your senses, hey?'
'Drunk! not at your expense, cursed destroyer of souls—brute, brute,
'Ah, you——I'll show you!'
'What's that to me? It's all one; I'm done for; what can I do without a
home? Kill me—it's the same in the end; whether it's through hunger or
like this—it's all one. Ruin us all—wife, children … kill us all at
once. But, wait a bit, we'll get at you!'
Biryuk got up.
'Kill me, kill me,' the peasant went on in savage tones; 'kill me;
come, come, kill me….' (The little girl jumped up hastily from the
ground and stared at him.) 'Kill me, kill me!'
'Silence!' thundered the forester, and he took two steps forward.
'Stop, Foma, stop,' I shouted; 'let him go…. Peace be with him.'
'I won't be silent,' the luckless wretch went on. 'It's all the same—
ruin anyway—you destroyer of souls, you brute; you've not come to ruin
yet…. But wait a bit; you won't have long to boast of; they'll wring
your neck; wait a bit!'
Biryuk clutched him by the shoulder. I rushed to help the peasant….
'Don't touch him, master!' the forester shouted to me.
I should not have feared his threats, and already had my fist in the
air; but to my intense amazement, with one pull he tugged the kerchief
off the peasant's elbows, took him by the scruff of the neck, thrust
his cap over his eyes, opened the door, and shoved him out.
'Go to the devil with your horse!' he shouted after him; 'but mind,
He came back into the hut and began rummaging in the corner.
'Well, Biryuk,' I said at last, 'you've astonished me; I see you're a
'Oh, stop that, master,' he cut me short with an air of vexation;
'please don't speak of it. But I'd better see you on your way now,' he
added; 'I suppose you won't wait for this little rain….'
In the yard there was the rattle of the wheels of the peasant's cart.
'He's off, then!' he muttered; 'but next time!'
Half-an-hour later he parted from me at the edge of the wood.