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Sunday, December 18, 2011

My View of a Winter's Night in Troubled Times

The following encounter could have happened as I wrote it, in Russia about one hundred and thirty years ago.  It could also have happened today.  Nights are still cold.  People are still rich.  And some people are still desperate and hungry.  I live near a casino, and this idea came to me one day while I was driving home from work.  Enjoy!

A Chance Meeting

Armand Gustave Houbigant's
Horse and carriage on Sledges from
 Customs and Habits of the Russians
(from Wikigallery)
            Porfiry Semyonovitch Merschenko was a rich man.  And as rich men often are, he was a big man.  He was rich by no act of his own.  In fact, his wealth, handed down from one Merschenko to another Merschenko many times over, came by no act of any of his family members, save the act of heir making itself.  All true acts of wealth making came by the acts of hard working peasants bound to Merschenko lands.
            No Merschenko peasant, however, could ever hope to compete with their master’s proclivity for largess.  In true aristocratic fashion, Porfiry never had trouble finding a substantial dinner, even in the coldest winters.  The only passion he held as dear as his time spent at the dining table was his time spent at the gaming table.  It was there he found the challenge that he lacked in everyday life.  Spending an evening away from his estate at the tables of his gambling friends was the only excitement he had ever really come to desire.  Chance was the one last facet of his life of which he had no control.
            After one such night of gambling, Porfiry headed home.  He was not half way along the forest road from Novgorod to his own estate when his driver pulled hard on the reins and stopped.  He was talking out loud, to whom, Porfiry knew not.  Resting his head against the side of the carriage, Porfiry had nearly fallen asleep, but he now lifted his head and tapped on the roof of the carriage.
            "Driver!  You—Goladki!  Why have we stopped?"
            There was no response.  Instead, Porfiry could hear the low, measured tones of his driver still conversing with an unknown voice.  Confident in his driver to handle whatever trouble had arisen, Porfiry sat back on his cushions and pulled his lap blanket closer about himself.  Since the carriage had ceased its rhythmic sounds of travel, Porfiry could hear the winds howl mournfully through the tops of the trees.  And hearing them seemed to make him feel them all the more.  Though there had not been any snow yet, it was late in the season, and they were due to get a large amount sometime soon.  The rich man looked out at the trees, mysteriously lit by his carriage lanterns, and thought he could feel the snow in the air, that it would come that very night.
            His curiosity was raised when he felt the carriage sway under the weight of the driver, who was disembarking from his front perch.  He then heard more murmured words, and the sounds of harnesses and tack being fussed with.  The reins must be twisted, or some other such nuisance, he thought.  Certainly it was something not worth looking into.  Yet, for all that, Porfiry could not remain inactive.  His image had to be thought of, so as not to encourage laziness, or insolence in his driver.
            "Goladki!  Speed up, you Tartar imp!  I'm watching you!"  Porfiry pulled up the fur collar of his long coat and smashed his plump head in the warmth of the sable.  He was watching nothing.  He thought briefly of jumping out and lashing the man, but the thought of the cold kept him in his place.
            Only a few moments passed before Porfiry briefly heard a sound like rumbling thunder.  It was, to his great surprise, the sound of one of his horses running off down the road.  The noise faded, and he realized the voices outside had ceased.
            "Goladki!  What are you about out there?"  Porfiry's voice sounded small and child-like in the empty night.
            The door to his carriage burst open, and a strange man stood silhouetted in the light of the carriage lanterns.  "Hello" he said curtly, leaping into the carriage and slamming shut the door.
            Porfiry sat with his mouth open, stupefied to silence.  He tried in vain to demand the identity of his visitor, but could not speak for a full minute.  In the silence, the visitor was pleased to sit in the warmth of the compartment, rubbing his hands vigorously.  He was a tall man, and sat hunched over the front seat with his extensive legs folded awkwardly.  In this way, he was forced to lean forward, partially over the reclining figure of Porfiry.  The combination of Porfiry's bulk and the visitor's height made an uncomfortable fit in the small carriage.
            The visitor was unshaven, dressed in a tight linen blouse and baggy trousers.  Over the blouse was a tattered vest of dirty material difficult to recognize, though it once may have belonged to a wool suit long ago.  The visitor wore no hat, and in consequence, his cheeks, nose and forehead were red with cold.  His black hair stuck out at various points, as did the hairs of what was becoming a beard and mustache.  His eyes glittered with a sort of playfulness that contrasted with his otherwise hard and determined face.
            "Where is Goladki—my driver?"  Porfiry was finally able to stammer.  "And who are you?"
            "I am a friend.  I have been waiting for you for quite awhile.  You're late."
            "I'm what?"
            "You've been gambling much longer than I thought you would.  I hope that won't be a problem.  Your driver, by the way, has wisely decided to travel on without us.  I explained we might be awhile."
            "Get out!"  Porfiry commanded, fully expecting the peasant to comply with his demand.
            "No, I won't.  Not yet.  This was your fourth night in a row at the gambling house, ah?  I can't say I understand that.  It escapes me, the allure it has on men like you.  You see, anything I have must be used to feed my family.  I've not had the opportunity to throw money, or anything really, around for my own entertainment.  That's not to say I would not enjoy a good game of cards.  That's what I'm curious about, if I would enjoy that sort of thing."
            Porfiry sat listening to this speech in fear of the imposing man who loomed in front of him.  But as he recovered his senses, his indignation rose, and grabbing for his oak cane, he tried to swing it within the confines of the compartment.  The visitor's hand grasped the cane, cutting short Porfiry's swing.
            "You like to gamble."  He easily pulled the cane from Porfiry's grip and set it down between them.  "I'm glad you do.  The odds were decent that you might have hit my head.  And with me unarmed, the odds were good that I would not strike back.  Now, I will raise the odds…in my favor."
            The visitor produced a long revolver, from where Porfiry could not see.  His face paled.
            "Don't look so afraid, Master Merschenko; I just want to protect myself.  I know you're name, ah?  Of course I do.  You owned me, as well as the factory I worked in.  Of course, now it is closed."
            "What are you talking about?  I haven't closed any factory."
            "Tell that to your people in Ruzhnik."
            "Ruzhnik?  That's not my village."
            "Yes, you're right about that.  You lost it in a card game last year, didn't you?"
            "What of it?  It’s no concern of yours."  Porfiry defended himself boldly, trying not to cower before the gun.
            "It was my concern when the new owner shut down the factory.”
            “So, now you turn to robbery.”
            “Robbery?  No.  Not for Onufry Chezerov.  I was aiming for something a little more legal—gambling.”  The visitor reached into the folds of his vest and withdrew a small cube made of bone.  “To begin with, I am very cold.  Waiting for you out in this weather has been unbearable.  What do you say we roll for your coat?  It looks very warm.”
            “Roll...?  I will not.”
            “Come, come.  You like to gamble.  You’ve been gambling for hours, over large sums.  This is only a little bet.  If I win, I get your coat; if not, I’ll leave.”
            Chezerov tossed the die onto the floor of the carriage.  Porfiry reluctantly peered over his belly to see the result.
            “A two!”  Chezerov read the number aloud and smiled.  “Maybe we shouldn’t roll after all, ah?”
            “Wait.”  Porfiry reached out to grab the die.  “I have thought about it, and you are right, it is only a little bet.  Why not?”
            He hardly shook the die before dropping it to the floor, between his boots.
            “One!  Incredible!”  Chezerov announced.  “Who could believe I would win with a two?  But I should easily have lost.  This gambling is risky—very risky.”
            Porfiry stared blankly at the cube with its single black dot.  Chezerov shook himself, still holding the pistol, and with his free hand rubbed himself and smacked himself for warmth.
            “So, I won the coat, ah?  Why stare so?  As you agreed, it was only a small bet.  Surely you are used to losing, more so than I.  Its better I won.  You still have the warmth of the carriage.  But you haven’t taken off the coat.”
            Porfiry stammered in hesitation.
            “You keep looking at the die.  As if it were an old friend who has risen up to betray you.  Maybe you are thinking you would have better luck a second time around.  What about your boots?”
            “What about my boots?” demanded Porfiry, aroused from his reverie.
            “Look at my feet.  What a poor excuse for shoes.  No good in this wet cold.”  Porfiry looked and found evidence to the statement.  “You, Master Merschenko, have an excellent pair of boots.  So maybe you want to roll for them.”
            “What would I get if I won?”  The words escaped Porfiry’s full-lipped mouth before he could stop them.
            “You keep the coat, of course!”  Chezerov sang out as he dropped the die.  It rattled to a stop.  “Beat that, and I leave empty-handed.”
            Porfiry could not help himself.  Scooping up the die, he tossed it eagerly.
            “One!” exclaimed Chezerov.  “Even to a newcomer like myself, I think it is remarkable to roll a one twice—in a row, at that.  But that is the fun of the wager, ah?  Who knows what will happen.  Your coat and boots—” Chezerov reached out a hand.  Porfiry pulled himself back against the wall of the carriage.
            “Get out you rascal!  You’ve no right!”
            “I have no doubt,” Chezerov said with a sudden glare, “that you paid all of your losses earlier this evening.”
            “Out!” Porfiry trembled.
            Chezerov stared at the large man.  He still sat leaning forward, and appeared for all the world as if he were going to spring upon his prey.  But to Porfiry’s amazement, Chezerov reached for the latch of the carriage door, and leapt out; slamming shut the door behind him.  Porfiry sat in stunned silence.  He had just concluded that the man Chezerov had complied from the ingrained habit of following orders, when he heard the jingle of harnesses.  He sat still, trying to understand what he was hearing.  His suspicions deepened as he watched the light of the carriage lanterns cut a dance across the windows.  A crash of glass sent flames from the lantern against the top portion of the carriage.  Porfiry sat immobile with horror.  The carriage was burning.
            Shaking in fear and terror, he fought frantically with the latch of the door, fumbling badly with it from panic.  Smoke curled into the compartment from unseen cracks in the walls, and Porfiry whined aloud.  With a determined push, he managed to broach the door.  In desperation, he dumped himself out of the carriage, through the angry flames, rolling his bulk onto the forest road.
            Chezerov was still with him.  Standing beside the burning carriage, his black hair highlighted with the glare of the fire, he appeared to Porfiry as some wicked forest devil—as some evil thing penned in a Pushkin epic.  Porfiry rose to his feet, the heat of the flames burning his face, and the cold of the mud clinging to his hands. 
            “Now, Master Merschenko, pay what you owe.  And be thankful I have only destroyed the carriage.”
            Porfiry grabbed clumsily at the coat, suddenly eager to be rid of it.  The boots he removed in the same manner.  Chezerov threw the coat over his shoulders, but left the boots on the road in front of him.  Without the coat, Porfiry noticed for the first time the extent of the cold night.  It was getting colder, and snow was beginning to descend in big flakes like falling leaves of the forest. 
            “You look rather excited, Master Merschenko.  Was I right?  You have enjoyed our gaming tonight?”
            Porfiry turned his face towards the fire in order to keep himself as warm as possible, ignoring Chezerov at the same time.
            “There is one other thing.  I was hoping to play for the horse.  Although I did unhitch it from the carriage before I started the fire, I still feel he is your horse.  But he is a fine horse, and would fetch a nice price from a trader.  Shall we?”  Chezerov held up the die, which he had apparently taken from the carriage floor, although when he did it, Porfiry did not remember.
            “Roll for the horse?”  Porfiry echoed mournfully.  “I’ve no coat, no boots, no shelter—and you want the horse?”  His voice rose in anger as he listed each item.  “You might as well roll for my life!  What chance would I stand out here?  If you take the horse, take my life!”
            “It is the same if I lose,” answered Chezerov.  “If I roll with you again, and lose the coat and boots back to you, what chance do I have?  A small one, but I am willing to wager on even a small chance like that.  No, if I lose, I do not want you to take my life.  But of course, if that is what you want... it is agreed.  We roll for the horse, and your life.”
            “The bet is no good, you devil!  You’ll kill me either way.  I know you, and can turn you in to the constables.  The roll means nothing.  If I win, you can’t let me go.  You will seal your own fate.”
            “No, whether I lose, and you report me, or I win and become a murderer, nothing will have changed. Fate has sealed me.  Long before this night.  A roll of the die can never change what life I’ve been given.  Now, let’s be done with such unhappy talk, and enjoy the thrill of the game!”
            “You’re mad!  I won’t do it!  No!  Oh Blessed Mary—a five!  I’m lost... you’ve rolled a five!  Help me!”
            Porfiry stood next to the shrinking fire, wringing his hands in fear.  He sunk to his knees, as if his great weight were suddenly too much for his shaking knees. 
            Chezerov stood beside him and pointed the gun at the sobbing man.
            “You’ve gamble enough with the lives of my people.  For this one time, you gamble for your own.  Roll.”
            Porfiry’s ramblings ceased as he scrambled to retrieve the die. 
            “I cannot look.  God in heaven have mercy!”
            He threw the cube onto the frozen mud and collapsed beside it.
            The cold woke him some time later.  The fire had consumed the majority of the carriage; a soft glow was all he could see.  Porfiry still lay in the mud.  Opening his eyes, he saw his pair of boots standing empty near his face.  His coat draped across him where he lay.  Lifting himself, he saw his horse standing tethered to an oak.  He could not see Chezerov anywhere.  As he reached to collect the boots, a small object caught his eye.  Chezerov’s die was stuck in the snow-encrusted mud.  In the dying light of the embers, Porfiry could just barely see six black dots.

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