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  • 24. Alyosha the Pot

    By Leo Tolstoy

    “Less time consuming than
    Moby-Dick or War and Peace,” our friends at htmlgiant.com remind us of the stories in our Classic Stories collections. In that spirit comes Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” a simple story of a simple man, his reach for happiness, and the fate that befalls him. Alyosha’s quiet innocence reminds me of Wilder’s Old Malcolm, yet there is little chance for reverie in Tolstoy’s world—not when the cloud of mortality
    darkens the sky.

    Alyosha was a younger brother. He was nicknamed “the Pot,” because once, when his mother sent him with a pot of milk for the deacon’s wife, he stumbled and broke it. His mother thrashed him soundly, and the children in the village began to tease him, calling him “the Pot.” Alyosha the Pot: and this is how he got his nickname.

    Alyosha was a skinny little fellow, lop-eared—his ears stuck out like wings—and with a large nose. The children always teased him about this, too, saying “Alyosha has a nose like a gourd on a pole!”

    There was a school in the village where Alyosha lived, but reading and writing and such did not come easy for him, and besides there was no time to learn. His older brother lived with a merchant in town, and Alyosha had begun helping his father when still a child. When he was only six years old, he was already watching over his family’s cow and sheep with his younger sister in the common pasture. And long before he was grown, he had started taking care of their horses day and night. From his twelfth year he plowed and carted. He hardly had the strength for all these chores, but he did have a certain manner—he was always cheerful. When the children laughed at him, he fell silent or laughed himself. If his father cursed him, he stood quietly and listened. And when they finished and ignored him again, he smiled and went back to whatever task was before him.

    When Alyosha was nineteen years old, his brother was taken into the army; and his father arranged for Alyosha to take his brother’s place as a servant in the merchant’s household. He was given his brother’s old boots and his father’s cap and coat and was taken into town. Alyosha was very pleased with his new clothes, but the merchant was quite dissatisfied with his appearance.

    “I thought you would bring me a young man just like Semyon,” said the merchant, looking Alyosha over carefully. “But you’ve brought me such a sniveler. What’s he good for?”

    “Ah, he can do anything—harness and drive anywhere you like. And he’s a glutton for work. Only looks like a stick. He’s really very wiry.”

    “That much is plain. Well, we shall see.”

    “And above all he’s a meek one. Loves to work.”

    “Well, what can I do? Leave him.”

    And so Alyosha began to live with the merchant.

    *

    The merchant’s family was not large. There were his wife, his old mother, and three children. His older married son, who had only completed grammar school, was in business with his father. His other son, a studious sort, had been graduated from the high school and was for a time at the university, though he had been expelled and now lived at home. And there was a daughter, too, a young girl in the high school.

    At first they did not like Alyosha. He was too much the peasant and was poorly dressed. He had no manners and addressed everyone familiarly as in the country. But soon they grew used to him. He was a better servant than his brother and was always very responsive. Whatever they set him to do he did willingly and quickly, moving from one task to another without stopping. And at the merchant’s, just as at home, all the work was given to Alyosha. The more he did, the more everyone heaped upon him. The mistress of the household and her old mother-in-law, and the daughter, and the younger son, even the merchant’s clerk and the cook—all sent him here and sent him there and ordered him to do everything that they could think of. The only thing that Alyosha ever heard was “Run do this, fellow,” or “Alyosha, fix this up now,” or “Did you forget, Alyosha? Look here, fellow, don’t you forget!” And Alyosha ran, and fixed, and looked, and did not forget, and managed to do everything and smiled all the while.

    Alyosha soon wore out his brother’s boots, and the merchant scolded him sharply for walking about in tatters with his bare feet sticking out and ordered him to buy new boots in the market. These boots were truly new, and Alyosha was very happy with them; but his feet remained old all the same, and by evening they ached so from running that he got mad at them. Alyosha was afraid that when his father came to collect his wages, he would be very annoyed that the master had deducted the cost of the new boots from his pay.

    In winter Alyosha got up before dawn, chopped firewood, swept out the courtyard, fed grain to the cow and the horses and watered them. Afterward, he lit the stoves, cleaned the boots and coats of all the household, got out the samovars and polished them. Then, either the clerk called him into the shop to take out the wares or the cook ordered him to knead the dough and to wash the pans. And later he would be sent into town with a message, or to the school for the daughter, or to fetch lamp oil or something else for the master’s old mother. “Where have you been loafing, you worthless thing?” one would say to him, and then another. Or among themselves they would say “Why go yourself? Alyosha will run for you. Alyosha, Alyosha!” And Alyosha would run.

    Alyosha always ate breakfast on the run and was seldom in time for dinner. The cook was always chiding him, because he never took meals with the others, but for all that she did feel sorry for him and always left him something hot for dinner and for supper.

    Before and during holidays there was a lot more work for Alyosha, though he was happier during holidays, because then everyone gave him tips, not much, only about sixty kopeks usually; but it was his own money, which he could spend as he chose. He never laid eyes on his wages, for his father always came into town and took from the merchant Alyosha’s pay, giving him only the rough edge of his tongue for wearing out his brother’s boots too quickly. When he had saved two rubles altogether from tips, Alyosha bought on the cook’s advice a red knitted sweater. When he put it on for the first time and looked down at himself, he was so surprised and delighted that he just stood in the kitchen gaping and gulping.

    Alyosha said very little, and when he did speak, it was always to say something necessary abruptly and briefly. And when he was told to do something or other or was asked if he could do it, he always answered, without the slightest hesitation, “I can do it.” And he would immediately throw himself into the job and do it.

    Alyosha did not know how to pray at all. His mother had once taught him the words, but he had forgotten even as she spoke. Nonetheless, he did pray, morning and evening, but simply, just with his hands, crossing himself.

    *

    Thus Alyosha lived for a year and a half, and then, during the second half of the second year, the most unusual experience of his life occurred. This experience was his sudden discovery, to his complete amazement, that besides those relationships between people that arise from the need that one may have for another, there also exist other relationships that are completely different: not a relationship that a person has with another because that other is needed to clean boots, to run errands or to harness horses; but a relationship that a person has with another who is in no way necessary to him, simply because that other one wants to serve him and to be loving to him. And he discovered, too, that he, Alyosha, was just such a person. He realized all this through the cook Ustinja. Ustinja was an orphan, a young girl yet, and as hard a worker as Alyosha. She began to feel sorry for Alyosha, and Alyosha for the first time in his life felt that he himself, not his services, but he himself was needed by another person. When his mother had been kind to him or had felt sorry for him, he took no notice of it, because it seemed to him so natural a thing, just the same as if he felt sorry for himself. But suddenly he realized that Ustinja, though completely a stranger, felt sorry for him, too. She always left him a pot of kasha with butter, and when he ate, she sat with him, watching him with her chin propped upon her fist. And when he looked up at her and she smiled, he, too, smiled.

    It was all so new and so strange that at first Alyosha was frightened. He felt that it disturbed his work, his serving, but he was nonetheless very happy. And when he happened to look down and notice his trousers, which Ustinja had mended for him, he would shake his head and smile. Often while he was working or running an errand, he would think of Ustinja and mutter warmly “Ah, that Ustinja!” Ustinja helped him as best she could, and he helped her. She told him all about her life, how she had been orphaned when very young, how an old aunt had taken her in, how this aunt later sent her into town to work, how the merchant’s son had tried stupidly to seduce her, and how she put him in his place. She loved to talk, and he found listening to her very pleasant. Among other things he heard that in town it often happened that peasant boys who came to serve in households would marry the cooks. And once she asked him if his parents would marry him off soon. He replied that he didn’t know and that there was no one in his village whom he wanted.

    “What, then, have you picked out someone else?” she asked.

    “Yes. I’d take you. Will you?”

    “O Pot, my Pot, how cunningly you put it to me!” she said, cuffing him playfully on the back with her ladle.

    At Shrovetide Alyosha’s old father came into town again to collect his son’s wages. The merchant’s wife had found out that Alyosha planned to marry Ustinja, and she was not at all pleased. “She will just get pregnant, and then what good will she be!” she complained to her husband.

    The merchant counted out Alyosha’s money to his father. “Well, is my boy doing all right by you?” asked the old man. “I told you he was a meek one, would do anything you say.”

    “Meek or no, he’s done something stupid. He has got it into his head to marry the cook. And I will not keep married servants. It doesn’t suit us.”

    “Eh, that little fool! What a fool! How can he think to do such a stupid thing! But don’t worry over it. I’ll make him forget all that nonsense.”

    The old man walked straight into the kitchen and sat down at the table to wait for his son. Alyosha was, as always, running an errand, but he soon came in all out of breath.

    “Well, I thought you were a sensible fellow, but what nonsense you’ve thought up!” Aloysha’s father greeted him.

    “I’ve done nothing.”

    “What d’you mean nothing! You’ve decided to marry. I’ll marry you when the time comes, and I’ll marry you to whoever I want, not to some town slut.”

    The old man said a great deal more of the same sort. Alyosha stood quietly and sighed.

    When his father finished, he smiled.

    “So I’ll forget about it,” he said.

    “See that you do right now,” the old man said curtly as he left.

    When his father had gone and Alyosha remained alone with Ustinja, who had been standing behind the kitchen door listening while his father was talking, he said to her: “Our plan won’t work out. Did you hear? He was furious, won’t let us.”

    Ustinja began to cry quietly into her apron. Alyosha clucked his tongue and said, “How could I not obey him? Look, we must forget all about it.”

    In the evening, when the merchant’s wife called him to close the shutters, she said to him, “Are you going to obey your father and forget all this nonsense about marrying?”

    “Yes. Of course. I’ve forgot it,” Alyosha said quickly, then smiled and immediately began weeping.

    *

    From that time Alyosha did not speak again to Ustinja about marriage and lived as he had before.

    One morning during Lent the clerk sent Alyosha to clear the snow off the roof. He crawled up onto the roof, shoveled it clean, and began to break up the frozen snow near the gutters when his feet slipped out from under him and he fell headlong with his shovel. As ill luck would have it, he fell not into the snow, but onto an entryway with an iron railing. Ustinja ran up to him, followed by the merchant’s daughter.

    “Are you hurt, Alyosha?”

    “Yes. But it’s nothing. Nothing.”

    He wanted to get up, but he could not and just smiled. Others came and carried him down into the yard-keeper’s lodge. An orderly from the hospital arrived, examined him, and asked where he hurt. “It hurts all over,” he replied. “But it’s nothing. Nothing. Only the master will be annoyed. Must send word to Papa.”

    Alyosha lay abed for two full days, and then, on the third day, they sent for a priest.

    “You’re not going to die, are you?” asked Ustinja.

    “Well, we don’t all live forever. It must be some time,” he answered quickly, as always. ‘Thank you, dear Ustinja, for feeling sorry for me. See, it’s better they didn’t let us marry, for nothing would have come of it. And now all is fine.”

    He prayed with the priest, but only with his hands and with his heart. And in his heart he felt that if he was good here, if he obeyed and did not offend, then there all would be well.

    He said little. He only asked for something to drink and smiled wonderingly. Then he seemed surprised at something, and stretched out and died.

    *

    From Family Happiness, a new collection of short fiction by Leo Tolstoy.

    Read more about the Classic Stories collection!



    One Comment

    1. cast iron guttering on November 2, 2010 :

      Please give me more information. I love it, Thanks again.

    3 Trackbacks

    1. […] Tolstoy’s up at Fifty Two Stories – Another week, and another story served up at Harper Perennial’s Fifty-Two Stories website (the website that shares a FREE short story every seven days). This week it’s a story some geezer called Leo Tolstoy, and although I’ve never heard of him myself the story – Alyosha the Pot, looks interesting. It’s about a guy called Alyosha, who Tolstoy describes as a skinny fellow with a large nose, and ears that stick out like wings. Not a lot going for poor old Alyosha is there? Now I’ve got to read it just to see how the poor fellow fares. […]

    2. […] – A Tolstoyan start to the day with a read through of Alyosha the Pot (can be read for free at Fifty-Two Stories). A great story, albeit short, but ohh so sad. Not a clever move starting off the day with such a […]

    3. […] The width and breadth of stories served up by Cal is astounding. From classics from the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde and Willa Cather to up-to-the-minute story offerings from contemporary talents such as […]

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