Hovhannes Tumanian: The Master and the Laborer

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Translation of story by Hovhannes Tumanian

ONCE UPON A TIME there lived two brothers, who were very poor. They decided that the older of the two should find work as a labourer for some rich landowner, and send his earnings home.

The younger brother stayed at home, and the elder went and hired huinself to a rich master.

The agreement was that he should work until spring, until the first cuckoo called, but the master added a clause,

“If either of us gets angry with the other before then, he will pay a fine. If you get angry with me, you will pay me a thousand rubles. If I get angry with you, I shall pay you a thousand rubles.”

“But I have not the money!” exclaimed the labourer.

“That doesn’t matter. If you lose, you’ll stay on and work for me ten years without pay!”

At first the labourer wanted to refuse, but then he thought:

“After all, I can control myself and never get angry. If the master loses his temper, he’ll have to pay me a thousand rubles. What can I lose?”

He accepted.

Early the next morning the master sent him to work in the fields.

“Take a scythe, and mow as long as there is light,” he said.

The labourer toiled in the field all day long, and returned home in the evening completely worn out. The master said to him:

“Why have you come home so early?”

“What do you mean? The sun has set!”

“Well, and what of it? Didn’t I tell you to work as long as there’s light? The sun has gone down, but the moon is up, and there’s quite enough light to work by.”

“Do you mean I can never rest?” cried the labourer.

“Aha—you are getting angry!”

“No, no, not at all. . . . Only I’m very tired. . . . i’ll just rest a bit, and then go out to the field again.

He worked all night until the moon went down. But then the sun came up again. The poor man sunk down exhausted. He began to curse his master.

“Curse your field, and your bread, and your money,” he cried.

At that moment the master came up to him, and said:

“So you are angry! Don’t forget our agreement. Now you either pay me a thousand rubles, or you work for me without pay for ten years.

The labourer didn’t know what to do. He had no money, but he couldn’t go on working for such a harsh master. Finally he signed a paper stating he owed the master a thousand rubles, and went home empty-handed.

His younger brother asked him what had happened, and he told the whole story.

“That’s nothing. Don’t worry,” said the younger brother. “Now you stay at home, and I’ll go and find work.”

He went to the same master his brother had worked for. The master offered him the same conditions. If the labourer got angry, he was to pay the master a thousand rubles, or work ten years without pay. If the master got angry, he was to pay the labourer a thousand rubles, and let him go free.

“No, that’s not enough,” said the younger brother. “Let’s make it two thousand rubles you pay me if you get angry and two thousand rubles I pay you if I get angry—or work twenty years for you without pay.

“Agreed!” cried the master eagerly, and took the man into his service.

The next morning the sun was already high, but the master found the labourer still fast asleep.

“Get up this minute! It’s nearly noon, and you re not at work yet!”

“Are you angry?” asked the labourer, suddenly opening his eyes.

“No, no—not by any means!” answered the master hastily. “I was merely suggesting it was time for you to start mowing that field.”

“Oh, there’s time enough for that,” replied the labourer lazily.

Finally he got up and began leisurely pulling on his boots.

“Can’t you hurry up a bit?”

“Why, are you getting angry.

“No, no—I merely wanted to say that you’d be late for work.”

“Oh, well, that’s different. But remember our agreement—you must carry it out, you know.”

By the time the labourer was ready and reached the field, it was nearly noon. “What’s the use of working now? It’s too late. Look, everybody’s having their lunch. Let us eat too,’’ said the labourer.

They sat down and ate. After they had finished, the labourer said: “I’m a working man. I need to have a short nap to keep up my strength.” With that he went to sleep and slept until evening.

“Here, wake up! Have you no shame?” cried the master, shaking him. “All the neighbours have finished mowing their fields, while ours stands there untouched! What a fine worker you are!”

“Seems to me you re really angry this time! said the labourer, raising his head.

“No, no, not at all. I was merely telling you it was time to go home now.

“Well, that’s different. Let’s go home then.

“When they reached the house, the master found a guest waiting for him. He sent the labourer to kill a sheep so they could prepare a meal for the guest.

“Which sheep shall I kill?” asked the labourer.

"Any you can catch," said the master.

Off the labourer went. Soon afterwards the neighbours came running to the master, and said: “Your worker must have gone mad; he’s killing all your sheep!”

The master ran out of the house, and saw his entire flock lying there slaughtered.

“What have you done, curse you?” he yelled. “You ye ruined me! May the Lord punish you!”

“But you told me yourself to kill any I could catch, and I caught them all!” answered the labourer blandly. “Can it be that you are angry.

“No, no, not at all. I am merely sorry that you killed all my sheep.

“All right, then. If you are not angry with me, I can go on working for you,” said the labourer. He continued to work for a few months, nearly driving his master mad with his tricks. Finally the master decided to get rid of him.

According to the terms of their agreement, the worker was to stay until the first cuckoo called in the forest. The master decided he would make use of this clause. However, winter was only beginning, and it was a long time until the cuckoo would be heard, so he took his wife with him to the woods. He helped her climb a tree, and told her to sit there and call out as a cuckoo would. Then he went home, and told the labourer they would go hunting together in the forest.

As soon as they entered the woods, the master’s wife began to call out, “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” The master turned to the labourer, and said, “Congratulations! There’s the first cuckoo and now you are free again!”

The labourer saw through the trick.

“No,” he said. “How can a cuckoo make itself heard in the beginning of winter? It must be a very strange sort of cuckoo indeed. I’m going to shoot it, and take a good look at it!”

With that he raised his gun and aimed at the tree in which the master’s wife was perched.

The master threw himself upon the labourer and tried to wrest the gun from him. “Curse you, you bandit! I can’t stand your tricks any longer!”

"Ah, now you’ll admit that you really are angry at last,” cried the labourer eagerly.

“Yes, yes, I’m, angry! I admit it!” said the master. “Come along, I’ll give you your two thousand rubles, only go away and leave me in peace. Now I understand the old proverb that says, ‘Never dig pitfalls for others, you might fall into them yourself!’”

And the younger brother went home with two thousand rubles in his pocket.