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Eduard Vilde: Mäeküla piimamees (Milkman of the Manor)

Ulrich von Kremer is the owner of Mäeküla Manor. He is not doing well. He knows where the blame lies – poor soil, lazy peasants and the peasants having too many children. Ulrich himself has no children; indeed, he is not and has never been married, though he did have opportunities to do so. When he is in the country, at Mäeküla, and not at his town house, he likes to walk around his estate and observe the peasants at work. One day, he passes the farm of Tōnu Prillup. He is surprised to observe, from afar, that someone appears to be sleeping in the yard. On approaching, he sees what seems to be a woman asleep and Prillup’s two young children. They address the woman as Mari. Who is she? Prillup’s wife is called Leenu and her children would certainly not address her by her first name. By now, the woman is awake and he asks her who she is. She declines to answer. Again he asks and again she refuses to answer. Embarrassed, Ulrich carries on walking. When he later meets Prillup, working in the field, he learns that Leenu has died and that Prillup has married his sister-in-law, Mari, because I had no choice, he explains. He later learns from Mari that she had felt obliged to marry her brother-in-law, in order to look after her late sister’s children and because her other sisters would not or could not marry Prillup.

In addition to looking after the children, Mari has to take over some of Leenu’s other duties. These include washing Ulrich’s windows and milking the cows. When she washes his windows – the first tine that she has ever washed windows in her life – Ulrich is not only impressed with her window-washing skills, he is also very much attracted to her. When he learns that she is milking, he goes and watches. Indeed, whenever she has to come to his house to perform cleaning duties (for which she is paid), he makes sure that he is there, instead of going off, as he did with Leenu. But how can he have her? He is very concerned about undertaking any action, for both moral and religious reasons but, finally, he has an idea. Yaan Karu, another tenant farmer, has the lucrative milking contract for the estate. He has to pay Ulrich money for this but manages to make a lot of money for himself. Ulrich decides to offer Prillup the contract in return for Mari becoming his mistress. Prillup is initially very reluctant but when it is agreed that Prillup will not only get the contract but also Karu’s farm, he is more enthusiastic. But how to persuade Mari? He puts it to her but, not surprisingly, she rejects it out of hand. When they have financial difficulties – they are behind with the rent – he puts it more strongly. Ulrich threatens to evict them for non-payment of rent but Mari is sure that they will be able to find somewhere else. Mari has only once been to town – when they were married – and very much liked it. When she mentions it, he suggests that, with the money they will earn, they will be able to go to town regularly.

Eventually, she relents. Karu is evicted and the Prillups take over his farm and the milk business. But things do not go well. Karu had said earlier that everyone wanted to buy Mäeküla milk and butter but this seems not to be the case. Not many many people do buy it. Of course, Karu has not given Prillup details of his contacts and his customers, so Prillup is left at the end of the market with a fair amount of milk and butter, which he has to sell cheaply, by wandering the streets of the town. This continues for some time and does not improve, as Prillup hoped it would. Meanwhile, Mari is getting money from Ulrich and is able to buy herself some nice clothes. Prillup meanwhile is not earning enough to pay what he owes Ulrich. Moreover, Prillup is increasingly unhappy with the idea and with Mari going off with Ulrich.

While it is a fairly straightforward tale, that it is not particularly original, Vilde tells it well, examining the psychology of both Ulrich von Kremer and Tōnu Prillup. Indeed, the book has been called the first Estonian psychological novel. We get plenty of local colour and realistic description of the farm during Ulrich’s walks but we also get a good psychological story of two men, both conflicted and doubting in their own way.

Publishing history

First published by Mote in 1916
First English translation by Eesti Raamat in 1976