The countess and her daughters had gone to bed long before the return of the sportsmen. At breakfast next morning the boys attempted to relate their adventures, but their vocabulary being wholly insufficient, the coachman was sent for, and requested to give a full account of the proceedings. This he did, and added on his own account that the little lords had been as cool and collected as if they had been wolf-hunting all their lives.
After breakfast, the letter-bag arrived, and the countess, having opened her correspondence, said that her husband would return the next day. Great as was the pleasure of the ladies, the boys hardly felt enthusiastic over the news; they were so jolly as they were, that they feared any change would be for the worse.
Next day the count arrived, and the boys soon felt that they had no cause for apprehension. He greeted them with much cordiality, and told them that he had heard from the countess that he had to thank them for having made the time of his absence pass so cheerfully, and that she had said she did not know how they would have got through the dull time without them. The boys, after the manner of their kind, were bad hands at compliment; but they managed to express in their best Russian their thanks for the extreme kindness which they had received.
The days went on after the count’s arrival much as they had done before, except that the boys now took to horse exercise, accompanying their host as he rode round his estate, and visited the various villages upon it.
The houses in these villages astonished the boys. Built of mud, of one story only and flat-roofed, they each occupied a large extent of ground; for here whole families lived together. As the sons grew up and married, instead of going into separate houses, and setting up life on their own account, they brought their wives home, as did their children when their turn came also to marry, so that under one roof resided as many as four generations, counting some forty or fifty souls altogether.
Each village had its headman, who settled all disputes, but against whose decision, if it failed to give satisfaction, there was an appeal to the master. The serfs worked, the count told the boys, without pay, but they had so many days in each month when they cultivated the land which was common to the village. They could, the count said, be sold, but in point of fact never were sold except with the land.
“It’s a bad system, and I wish that they were as free is your laborers are in England.”
“Of course our people cannot be sold,” Jack said, “but after all there’s not so much difference in that respect, for if an estate changes hands, they work for the new owner just as yours do.”
“Yes, but your laborers cannot be killed or even flogged by their masters with impunity.”
“No, I should think not,” Jack exclaimed. “We should have a revolution in no time, if masters were to try that sort of thing.”