Saturday, October 13, 2007

 

CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN By MAXIM GORKY

CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
By MAXIM GORKY
Translated from the Russian by J. M. SHIRAZI and Others
Introduction by G. K. CHESTERTON
THE MODERN LIBRARY
PUBLISHERSNEW YORK
Copyright, 1918, by
BONI & LIVERIGHT, INC.
Manufactured in the United States of America
for The Modern Library, Inc., by H. Wolff
CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . V
Creatures That Once were Men . . . . 13
Twenty-Six Men and a Girl . . . . .104
Chelkash . . . . . . . . . . . . . .125
My Fellow-Traveller . . . . . . . .178
On a Raft . . . . . . . . . . . . .229
INTRODUCTION
By G. K. CHESTERTON
It is certainly a curious fact that so many of the voices of
what is called our modern religion have come from countries
which are not only simple, but may even be called barbaric.
A nation like Norway has a great realistic drama without
having ever had either a great classical drama or a great
romantic drama. A nation like Russia makes us feel its modern
fiction when we have never felt its ancient fiction. It has
produced its Gissing without producing its Scott. Everything
that is most sad and scientific, everything that is most grim
and analytical, everything that can truly be called most
modern, everything that can without unreasonableness be
called most morbid, comes from these fresh and untried and
unexhausted nationalities. Out of these infant peoples come
the oldest voices of the earth.
This contradiction, like many other contradictions, is one
which ought first of all to be registered as a mere fact;
long before we attempt to explain why things contradict
themselves, we ought, if we are honest men and good critics,
to register the preliminary truth that things do contradict
themselves. In this case, as I say, there are many possible
and suggestive explanations. It may be, to take an example,
that our modern Europe is so exhausted that even the vigorous
expression of that exhaustion is difficult for every one
except the most robust.
vi INTRODUCTION
It may be that all the nations are tired; and it may be that
only the boldest and breeziest are not too tired to say that
they are tired. It may be that a man like Ibsen in Norway or
a man like Gorky in Russia are the only people left who have
so much faith that they can really believe in scepticism. It
may be that they are the only people left who have so much
animal spirits that they can really feast high and drink
deep at the ancient banquet of pessimism. This is one of the
possible hypotheses or explanations in the matter: that all
Europe feels these things and that only have strength to
believe them also. Many other explanations might, however,
also be offered. It might be suggested that half-barbaric
countries, like Russia or Norway, which have always lain,
to say the least of it, on the extreme edge of the circle of
our European civilization, have a certain primal melancholy
which belongs to them through all the ages. It is highly
probable that this sadness, which to us is modern, is to
them eternal. It is highly probable that what we have
solemnly and suddenly discovered in scientific text-books
and philosophical magazines they absorbed and experienced
thousands of years ago, when they offered human sacrifice
in black and cruel forests and cried to their gods in the
dark. Their agnosticism is perhaps merely paganism; their
paganism, as in old times, is merely devil-worship. Certainly,
Schopenhauer could hardly have written his hideous essay on
women except in a country which had once been full of slavery
and the service of fiends. It may be that these moderns are
tricking us altogether, and are hiding in their current
scientific jargon things that they knew before science or
civilization were.
vii INTRODUCTION
They say that they are determinists; but the truth is,
probably, that they are still worshipping the Norns. They
say that they describe scenes which are sickening and
dehumanizing in the name of art or in the name of truth; but
it may be that they do it in the name of some deity
indescribable, whom they propitiated with blood and terror
before the beginning of history.
This hypothesis, like the hypothesis mentioned before it,
is highly disputable, and is at best a suggestion. But there
is one broad truth in the matter which may in any case be
considered as established. A country like Russia has far
more inherent capacity for producing revolution in
revolutionists than any country of the type of England or
America. Communities highly civilized and largely urban tend
to a thing which is now called evolution, the most cautious
and the most conservative of all social influences. The
loyal Russian obeys the Czar because he remembers the Czar
and the Czar's importance. The disloyal Russian frets
against the Czar because he also remembers the Czar, and
makes a note of the necessity of knifing him. But the loyal
Englishman obeys the upper classes because he has forgotten
that they are there. Their operation has become to him like
daylight, or gravitation, or any of the forces of nature.
And there are no disloyal Englishmen; there are no English
revolutionists, because the oligarchic management of England
is so complete as to be invisible. The thing which can once
get itself forgotten can make itself omnipotent.
viii INTRODUCTION
Gorky is preeminently Russian, in that he is a revolutionist;
not because most Russians are revolutionists (for I imagine
that they are not), but because most Russians--indeed, nearly
all Russian--are in that attitude of mind which makes
revolution possible, and which makes religion possible, an
attitude of primary and dogmatic assertion. To be a
revolutionist it is first necessary to be a revelationist.
It is necessary to believe in the sufficiency of some theory
of the universe or the State. But in countries that have
come under the influence of what is called the evolutionary
idea, there has been no dramatic righting of wrongs, and
(unless the evolutionary idea loses its hold) there never
will be. These countries have no revolution, they have to
put up with an inferior and largely fictitious thing which
they call progress.
The interest of the Gorky tale, like the interest of so many
other Russian masterpieces, consists in this sharp contact
between a simplicity, which we in the West feel to be very
old, and a rebelliousness which we in the West feel to he
very new. We cannot in our graduated and polite civilization
quite make head or tail of the Russian anarch; we can only
feel in a vague way that his tale is the tale of the Missing
Link, and that his head is the head of the superman. We hear
his lonely cry of anger. But we cannot be quite certain
whether his protest is the protest of the first anarchist
against government, or whether it is the protest of the last
savage against civilization. The cruelty of ages and of
political cynicism or necessity has done much to burden the
race of which Gorky writes; but time has left them one thing
which it has not left to the people in Poplar or West Ham.
ix INTRODUCTION
It has left them, apparently, the clear and childlike power
of seeing the cruelty which encompasses them. Gorky is a
tramp, a man of the people, and also a critic, and a bitter
one. In the West poor men, when they become articulate in
literature, are always sentimentalists and nearly always
optimists.
It is no exaggeration to say that these people of whom Gorky
writes in such a story as "Creatures that once were Men"
are to the Western mind children. They have, indeed, been
tortured and broken by experience and sin. But this has only
sufficed to make them sad children or naughty children or
bewildered children. They have absolutely no trace of that
quality upon which secure government rests so largely in
Western Europe, the quality of being soothed by long words
as if by an incantation. They do not call hunger "economic
pressure"; they call it hunger. They do not call rich men
"examples of capitalistic concentration," they call them
rich men. And this note of plainness and of something nobly
prosaic is as characteristic of Gorky, in some ways the most
modern, and sophisticated of Russian authors, as it is of
Tolstoy or any of the Tolstoyan type of mind. The very
title of this story strike the note of this sudden and simple
vision. The philanthropist writing long letters to the Daily
Telegraph says, of men living in a slum, that "their
degeneration is of such a kind as almost to pass the limits
of the semblance of humanity," and we read the whole thing
with a tepid assent as we should read phrases about the
virtues of Queen Victoria or the dignity of the House of
Commons.
x INTRODUCTION
The Russian novelist, when he describes a dosshouse, says,
"Creatures that once were Men." And we are arrested, and
regard the facts as a kind of terrible fairy tale. This story
is a test case of the Russian manner, for it is in itself a
study of decay, a study of failure, and a study of old age.
And yet the author is forced to write even of staleness
freshly; and though he is treating of the world as seen
by eyes darkened or blood-shot with evil experience, his
own eyes look out upon the scene with a clarity that is almost
babyish. Through all runs that curious Russian sense that
every man is only a man, which, if the Russians ever are a
democracy, will make them the most democratic democracy that
the world has ever seen. Take this passage, for instance,
from the austere conclusion of "Creatures that once were Men":
Petunikoff smiled the smile of the conqueror and went back
into the dosshouse, but suddenly he stopped and trembled.
At the door facing him stood an old man with a stick in his
hand and a large bag on his back, a horrible old man in rags
and tatters, which covered his bony figure. He bent under
the weight of his burden, and lowered his head on his breast,
as if he wished to attack the merchant.
"What are you? Who are you?" shouted Petunikoff.
"A man . . ." he answered, In a hoarse voice. This hoarseness
pleased and tranquillized Petunikoff, he even smiled.
"A man! And are there really men like you?" Stepping aside,
he let the old man pass. He went, saying slowly:
"Men are of various kinds . . . as God wills . . . There are
worse than me . . . still worse. . .
Yes. . . ."
xi INTRODUCTION
Here, in the very act of describing a kind of a fall from
humanity, Gorky expresses a sense of the strangeness and
essential value of the human being which is far too commonly
absent altogether from such complex civilizations as our own.
To no Westerner, I am afraid, would it occur, when asked
what he was, to say, "A man." He would be a plasterer who
had walked from Reading, or an iron-puddler who had been
thrown out of work in Lancashire, or a University man who
would be really most grateful for the loan of five shillings,
or the son of a lieutenant-general living in Brighton, who
would not have made such an application if he had not known
that he was talking to another gentleman. With us it is not
a question of men being of various kinds; with us the kinds
are almost different animals. But in spite of all Gorky's
superficial scepticism and brutality, it is to him the fall
from humanity, or the apparent fall from humanity, which is
not merely great and lamentable, but essential and even
mystical. The line between man and the beasts is one of the
transcendental essentials of every religion; and it is, like
most of the transcendental things of religion, identical
with the main sentiments of the man of common sense. We feel
this gulf when theologies say that it cannot be crossed. But
we feel it quite as much (and that with a primal shudder)
when philosophers or fanciful writers suggest that it might
be crossed. And if any man wishes to discover whether or no
he has really learned to regard the line between man and
brute as merely relative and evolutionary, let him say again
to himself those frightful words, "Creatures that once were Men."
G. K. CHESTERTON.
CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
PART I
In front of you is the main street, with two rows of
miserable-looking huts with shuttered windows and old walls
pressing on each other and leaning forward. The roofs of
these time-worn habitations are full of holes, and have been
patched here and there with laths; from underneath them
project mildewed beams, which are shaded by the dusty-leaved
elder-trees and crooked white willow--pitiable flora of
those suburbs inhabited by the poor.
The dull green time-stained panes of the windows look upon
each other with the cowardly glances of cheats. Through the
street and toward the adjacent mountain runs the sinuous
path, winding through the deep ditches filled with
rain-water. Here and there are piled heaps of dust and other
rubbish--either refuse or else put there purposely to keep
the rain-water from flooding the houses. On the top of the
mountain, among green gardens with dense foliage, beautiful
stone houses lie hidden; the belfries of the churches rise
proudly toward the sky, and their gilded crosses shine beneath
the rays of the sun. During the rainy weather the
neighboring town pours its water into this main road, which,
at other times, is full of its dust, and all these miserable
houses seem, as it were, thrown by some powerful hand into
that heap of dust, rubbish, and rainwater.
14 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
They cling to the ground beneath the high mountain, exposed
to the sun, surrounded by decaying refuse, and their sodden
appearance impresses one with the same feeling as would the
half-rotten trunk of an old tree.
At the end of the main street, as if thrown out of the town,
stood a two-storied house, which had been rented from
Petunikoff, a merchant and resident of the town. It was in
comparatively good order, being farther from the mountain,
while near it were the open fields, and about half-a-mile
away the river ran its winding course.
This large old house had the most dismal aspect amid its
surroundings. The walls bent outward, and there was hardly
a pane of glass in any of the windows, except some of the
fragments, which looked like the water of the marshes--dull
green. The spaces of wall between the windows were covered
with spots, as if time were trying to write there in
hieroglyphics the history of the old house, and the tottering
roof added still more to its pitiable condition. It seemed as
if the whole building bent toward the ground, to await the
last stroke of that fate which should transform it into a
chaos of rotting remains, and finally into dust.
The gates were open, one-half of them displaced and lying on
the ground at the entrance, while between its bars had grown
the grass, which also covered the large and empty court-yard.
In the depths of this yard stood a low, iron-roofed,
smoke-begrimed building. The house itself was of course
unoccupied, but this shed, formerly a blacksmith's forge,
was now turned into a "dosshouse," kept by a retired captain
named Aristid Fomich Kuvalda.
15 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
In the interior of the dosshouse was a long, wide and grimy
board, measuring some 28 by 70 feet. The room was lighted
on one side by four small square windows, and on the other
by a wide door. The unpainted brick walls were black with
smoke, and the ceiling, which was built of timber, was almost
black. In the middle stood a large stove, the furnace of which
served as its foundation, and around this stove and along the
walls were also long, wide boards, which served as beds for
the lodgers. The walls smelt of smoke, the earthen floor of
dampness, and the long, wide board of rotting rags.
The place of the proprietor was on the top of the stove,
while the boards surrounding it were intended for those who
were on good terms with the owner, and who were honored by
his friendship. During the day the captain passed most of his
time sitting on a kind of bench, made by himself by placing
bricks against the wall of the court-yard, or else in the
eating-house of Egor Yavilovitch, which was opposite the
house, where he took all his meals and where he also drank
vodki.
Before renting this house, Aristid Kuvalda had kept a registry
office for servants in the town. If we look further back into
his former life, we shall find that he once owned printing
works, and previous to this, in his own words, he "just lived!
And lived well too, Devil take it, and like one who knew how!"
He was a tall, broad-shouldered man of fifty, with a
raw-looking face, swollen with drunkenness, and with a
dirty yellowish beard.
16 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
His eyes were large and gray, with an insolent expression of
happiness. He spoke in a bass voice and with a sort of
grumbling sound in his throat, and he almost always held
between his teeth a German china pipe with a long bowl. When
he was angry the nostrils of his big, crooked red nose swelled,
and his lips trembled, exposing to view two rows of large and
wolf-like yellow teeth. He had long arms, was lame, and always
dressed in an old officer's uniform, with a dirty, greasy cap
with a red band, a hat without a brim, and ragged felt boots
which reached almost to his knees. In the morning, as a rule,
he had a heavy drunken headache, and in the evening he caroused.
However much he drank, he was never drunk, and so was always
merry.
In the evenings he received lodgers, sitting on his brick-made
bench with his pipe in his mouth.
"Whom have we here?" he would ask the ragged and tattered object
approaching him, who had probably been chucked out of the town
for drunkenness, or perhaps for some other reason not quite so
simple. And after the man had answered him, he would say, "Let
me see legal papers in confirmation of your lies." And if there
were such papers they were shown. The captain would then put
them in his bosom, seldom taking any interest in them, and would
say: "Everything is in order. Two kopecks for the night, ten
kopecks for the week, and thirty kopecks for the month. Go and
get a place for yourself, and see that it is not other people's,
or else they will blow you up. The people that live here are
particular."
17 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Don't you sell tea, bread, or anything to eat?"
"I trade only in walls and roofs, for which I pay to the
swindling proprietor of this hole--Judas Petunikoff, merchant
of the second guild--five roubles a month," explained Kuvalda
in a business-like tone. "Only those come to me who are not
accustomed to comfort and luxuries. . .but if you are
accustomed to eat every day, then there is the eating-house
opposite. But it would be better for you if you left off that
habit. You see you are not a gentleman. What do you eat? You
eat yourself!"
For such speeches, delivered in a strictly business-like manner,
and always with smiling eyes, and also for the attention he paid
to his lodgers, the captain was very popular among the poor of
the town. It very often happened that a former client of his
would appear, not in rags, but in something more respectable and
with a slightly happier face.
"Good-day, your honor, and how do you do?"
"Alive, in good health! Go on."
"Don't you know me?"
"I did not know you."
"Do you remember that I lived with you last winter for nearly a
month . . . when the fight with the police took place, and
three were taken away?"
"My brother, that is so. The police do come even under my
hospitable roof!"
"My God! You gave a piece of your mind to the police inspector
of this district!"
"Wouldn't you accept some small hospitality from me? When I
lived with you, you were. . . ."
18 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Gratitude must be encouraged because it is seldom met with.
You seem to be a good man, and, though I don't remember you,
still I will go with you into the public-house and drink to
your success and future prospects with the greatest pleasure."
"You seem always the same . . . Are you always joking?"
"What else can one do, living among you unfortunate men?"
They went. Sometimes the Captain's former customer, uplifted
and unsettled by the entertainment, returned to the dosshouse,
and on the following morning they would again begin treating
each other till the Captain's companion would wake up to
realize that he had spent all his money in drink.
"Your honor, do you see that I have again fallen into your
hands? What shall we do now?"
"The position, no doubt, is not a very good one, but still
you need not trouble about it," reasoned the Captain. "You
must, my friend, treat everything indifferently, without
spoiling yourself by philosophy, and without asking yourself
any question. To philosophize is always foolish; to
philosophize with a drunken headache, ineffably so. Drunken
headaches require vodki, and not the remorse of conscience
or gnashing of teeth . . . save your teeth, or else you will
not be able to protect yourself. Here are twenty kopecks. Go
and buy a bottle of vodki for five kopecks, hot tripe or lungs,
one pound of bread and two cucumbers. When we have lived off
our drunken headache we will think of the condition of
affairs. . . ."
19 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
As a rule the consideration of the "condition of affairs"
lasted some two or three days, and only when the Captain had
not a farthing left of the three roubles or five roubles given
him by his grateful customer did he say: "You came! Do you
see? Now that we have drunk everything with you, you fool,
try again to regain the path of virtue and soberness. It has
been truly said that if you do not sin, you will not repent,
and, if you do not repent, you shall not be saved. We have done
the first, and to repent is useless. Let us make direct for
salvation. Go to the river and work, and if you think you
cannot control yourself, tell the contractor, your employer,
to keep your money, or else give it to me. When you get
sufficient capital, I will get you a pair of trousers and
other things necessary to make you seem a respectable and
hard-working man, persecuted by fate. With decent-looking
trousers you can go far. Now then, be off!"
Then the client would go to the river to work as a porter,
smiling the while over the Captain's long and wise speeches.
He did not distinctly understand them, but only saw in front
of him two merry eyes, felt their encouraging influence, and
knew that in the loquacious Captain he had an arm that would
assist him in time of need.
And really it happened very often that, for a month or so,
some ticket-of-leave client, under the strict surveillance of
the Captain, had the opportunity of raising himself to a
condition better than that to which, thanks to the Captain's
cooperation, he had fallen.
20 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Now, then, my friend!" said the Captain, glancing critically
at the restored client, "we have a coat and jacket. When I had
respectable trousers I lived in town like a respectable man.
But when the trousers wore out, I, too, fell off in the opinion
of my fellow-men and had to come down here from the town. Men,
my fine mannikin, judge everything by the outward appearance,
while, owing to their foolishness, the actual reality of things
is incomprehensible to them. Make a note of this on your nose,
and pay me at least half your debt. Go in peace; seek, and you
may find."
"How much do I owe you, Aristid Fomich?" asks the client, in
confusion.
"One rouble and 70 kopecks . . . Now, give me only one rouble,
or, if you like, 70 kopecks, and as for the rest, I shall wait
until you have earned more than you have now by stealing or by
hard work, it does not matter to me."
"I thank you humbly for your kindness!" says the client, touched
to the heart. "Truly you are a kind man . . .; Life has
persecuted you in vain . . . What an eagle you would have been
in your own place!"
The Captain could not live without eloquent speeches.
"What does 'in my own place' mean? No one really knows his own
place in life, and every one of us crawls into his harness. The
place of the merchant Judas Petunikoff ought to be in penal
servitude, but he still walks through the streets in daylight,
and even intends to build a factory. The place of our teacher
ought to be beside a wife and half-a-dozen children, but he is
loitering in the public-house of Vaviloff.
21 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"And then, there is yourself. You are going to seek a situation
as a hall porter or waiter, but I can see that you ought to be a
soldier in the army, because you are no fool, are patient and
understand discipline. Life shuffles us like cards, you see, and
it is only accidentally, and only for a time, that we fall into
our own places!"
Such farewell speeches often served as a preface to the
continuation of their acquaintance, which again began with
drinking and went so far that the client would spend his last
farthing. Then the Captain would stand him treat, and they
would drink all they had.
A repetition of similar doings did not affect in the least
the good relations of the parties.
The teacher mentioned by the Captain was another of those
customers who were thus reformed only in order that they
should sin again. Thanks to his intellect, he was the nearest
in rank to the Captain, and this was probably the cause of his
falling so low as dosshouse life, and of his inability to rise
again. It was only with him that Aristid Kuvalda could
philosophize with the certainty of being understood. He valued
this, and when the reformed teacher prepared to leave the
dosshouse in order to get a corner in town for himself, then
Aristid Kuvalda accompanied him so sorrowfully and sadly that
it ended, as a rule, in their both getting drunk and spending
all their money. Probably Kuvalda arranged the matter
intentionally so that the teacher could not leave the
dosshouse, though he desired to do so with all his heart. Was
it possible for Aristid Kuvalda, a nobleman (as was evident
from his speeches), one who was accustomed to think, though
the turn of fate may have changed his position, was it possible
for him not to desire to have close to him a man like himself?
We can pity our own faults in others.
22 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
This teacher had once taught at an institution in one of the
towns on the Volga, but in consequence of some story was
dismissed. After this he was a clerk in a tannery, but again
had to leave. Then he became a librarian in some private
library, subsequently following other professions. Finally,
after passing examinations in law he became a lawyer, but
drink reduced him to the Captain's dosshouse. He was tall,
round-shouldered, with a long, sharp nose and bald head. In
his bony and yellow face, on which grew a wedge-shaped beard,
shone large, restless eyes, deeply sunk in their sockets, and
the corners of his mouth drooped sadly down. He earned his
bread, or rather his drink, by reporting for the local papers.
He sometimes earned as much as fifteen roubles. These he gave
to the Captain and said:
"It is enough. I am going back into the bosom of culture.
Another week's hard work and I shall dress respectably, and
then Addio, mio caro!"
"Very exemplary! As I heartily sympathize with your decision,
Philip, I shall not give you another glass all this week," the
Captain warned him sternly.
"I shall be thankful! . . . You will not give me one drop?"
The Captain beard in his voice a beseeching note to which he
turned a deaf ear.
"Even though you roar, I shall not give it you!"
"As you like, then," sighed the teacher, and went away to
continue his reporting.
23 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
But after a day or two he would return tired and thirsty, and
would look at the Captain with a beseeching glance out of the
corners of his eyes, hoping that his friend's heart would
soften.
The Captain in such cases put on a serious face and began
speaking with killing irony on the theme of weakness of
character, of the animal delight of intoxication, and on such
subjects as suited the occasion. One must do him justice: he
was captivated by his role of mentor and moralist, but the
lodgers dogged him, and, listening sceptically to his
exhortations to repentance, would whisper aside to each other:
"Cunning, skilful, shifty rogue! I told you so, but you would
not listen. It's your own fault!"
"His honor is really a good soldier. He goes first and examines
the road behind him!"
The teacher then hunted here and there till he found his friend
again in some corner, and grasping his dirty coat, trembling
and licking his dry lips, looked into his face with a deep,
tragic glance, without articulate words.
"Can't you?" asked the Captain sullenly.
The teacher answered by bowing his head and letting it fall on
his breast, his tall, thin body trembling the while.
"Wait another day . . . perhaps you will be all right then,"
proposed Kuvalda. The teacher sighed, and shook his head
hopelessly.
The Captain saw that his friend's thin body trembled with the
thirst for the poison, and took some money from his pocket.
"In the majority of cases it is impossible to fight against
fate," said he, as if trying to justify himself before someone.
24 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
But if the teacher controlled himself for a whole week, then
there was a touching farewell scene between the two friends,
which ended as a rule in the eating-house of Vaviloff. The
teacher did not spend all his money, but spent at least half
on the children of the main street. The poor are always rich
in children, and in the dirt and ditches of this street there
were groups of them from morning to night, hungry, naked and
dirty. Children are the living flowers of the earth, but
these had the appearance of flowers that have faded
prematurely, because they grew in ground where there was no
healthy nourishment. Often the teacher would gather them round
him, would buy them bread, eggs, apples and nuts, and take
them into the fields by the river side. There they would sit
and greedily eat everything he offered them, after which they
would begin to play, filling the fields for a mile around with
careless noise and laughter. The tall, thin figure of the
drunkard towered above these small people, who treated him
familiarly, as if he were one of their own age. They called
him "Philip," and did not trouble to prefix "Uncle" to his
name. Playing around him, like little wild animals, they
pushed him, jumped upon his back, beat him upon his bald head,
and caught hold of his nose. All this must have pleased him,
as he did not protest against such liberties. He spoke very
little to them, and when he did so he did it cautiously as if
afraid that his words would hurt or contaminate them. He
passed many hours thus as their companion and plaything,
watching their lively faces with his gloomy eyes.
25 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Then he would thoughtfully and slowly direct his steps to the
eating-house of Vaviloff, where he would drink silently and
quickly till all his senses left him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Almost every day after his reporting he would bring a
newspaper, and then gather round him all these creatures that
once were men. On seeing him, they would come forward from
all corners of the court-yard, drunk, or suffering from drunken
headache, dishevelled, tattered, miserable, and pitiable. Then
would come the barrel-like, stout Aleksei Maksimoviteh
Simtsoff, formerly Inspector of Woods and Forests, under the
Department of Appendages, but now trading in matches, ink,
blacking, and lemons. He was an old man of sixty, in a canvas
overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat, the greasy borders of which
hid his stout, fat, red face. He had a thick white beard, out
of which a small red nose turned gaily heavenward. He had
thick, crimson lips and watery, cynical eyes. They called him
"Kubar, a name which well described his round figure an
buzzing speech. After him, Kanets appeared from some
corner--a dark, sad-looking, silent drunkard: then the former
governor of the prison, Luka Antonovitch Martyanoff, a man who
existed on "remeshok," "trilistika" and "bankovka," * and many
such cunning games, not much appreciated by the police.
Note by translator.--Well-known games or chance, played by the
lower classes. The police specially endeavor to stop them,
but unsuccessfully.
26 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
He would throw his hard and oft-scourged body on the grass
beside the teacher, and, turning his eyes round and scratching
his head, would ask in a hoarse, bass voice, "May I?"
Then appeared Pavel Solntseff, a man of thirty years of age,
suffering from consumption. The ribs of his left side had
been broken in a quarrel, and the sharp, yellow face,
like that of a fox, always wore a malicious smile. The thin
lips, when opened, exposed two rows of decayed black teeth,
and the rags on his shoulders swayed backward and forward as
if they were hung on a clothes pole. They called him
"Abyedok." He hawked brushes and bath brooms of his own
manufacture, good, strong brushes made from a peculiar kind
of grass.
Then followed a lean and bony man of whom no one knew anything,
with a frightened expression in his eyes, the left one of
which had a squint. He was silent and timid, and had been
imprisoned three times for theft by the High Court of Justice
and the Magisterial Courts. His family name was Kiselnikoff,
but they called him Paltara Taras, because he was a head and
shoulders taller than his friend, Deacon Taras, who had been
degraded from his office for drunkenness and immorality. The
Deacon was a short, thick-set person, with the chest of an
athlete and a round, strong head. He danced skilfully, and
was still more skilful at swearing. He and Paltara Taras
worked in the wood on the banks of the river, and in free
hours he told his friend or any one who would listen, "Tales
of my own composition," as he used to say. On hearing these
stories, the heroes of which always seemed to be saints, kings,
priests, or generals, even the inmates of the dosshouse spat
and rubbed their eyes in astonishment at the imagination of the
Deacon, who told them shameless tales of lewd, fantastic
adventures, with blinking eyes and a passionless expression of
countenance.
27 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The imagination of this man was powerful and inexhaustible; he
could go on relating and composing all day, from morning to
night, without once repeating what he had said before. In his
expression you sometimes saw the poet gone astray, sometimes
the romancer, and he always succeeded in making his tales
realistic by the effective and powerful words in which he told
them.
There was also a foolish young man called Kuvalda Meteor. One
night he came to sleep in the dosshouse, and had remained ever
since among these men, much to their astonishment. At first
they did not take much notice of him. In the daytime, like all
the others, he went away to find something to eat, but at
nights he always loitered around this friendly company till at
last the Captain took notice of him.
"Boy! What business have you here on this earth?"
The boy answered boldly and stoutly:
"I am a barefooted tramp. . . ."
The Captain looked critically at him. This youngster had long
hair and a weak face, with prominent cheekbones and a turned-up
nose. He was dressed in a blue blouse without a waistband, and
on his head he wore the remains of a straw hat, while his feet
were bare.
"You are a fool!" decided Aristid Kuvalda. "what are you
knocking about here for? You are of absolutely no use to us . . .
Do you drink vodki? . . . No? . . . Well, then, can you steal?"
Again, "No." "Go away, learn, and come back again when you know
something, and are a man. . . ."
28 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The youngster smiled. "No. I shall live with you."
"Why?"
"Just because. . . ."
"Oh, you . . . Meteor!" said the Captain.
"I will break his teeth for him," said Martyanoff.
"And why?" asked the youngster.
"Just because. . . ."
"And I will take a stone and hit you on the head," the young
man answered respectfully.
Martyanoff would have broken his bones, had not Kuvalda
interrupted with: "Leave him alone. . .Is this a home to
you or even to us? You have no sufficient reason to break his
teeth for him. You have no better reason than he for living
with us."
"Well, then, Devil take him! . . . We all live in the world
without sufficient reason . . . We live, and why? Because!
He also because . . . let him alone. . . ."
"But it is better for you, young man, to go away from us,"
the teacher advised him, looking him up and down with his sad
eyes. He made no answer, but remained. And they soon became
accustomed to his presence, and ceased to take any notice of
him. But he lived among them, and observed everything.
The above were the chief members of the Captain's company, and
he called them with kind-hearted sarcasm "Creatures that once
were Men." For though there were men who had experienced as
much of the bitter irony of fate as these men; yet they were
not fallen so low.
29 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Not infrequently, respectable men belonging to the cultured
classes are inferior to those belonging to the peasantry, and
it is always a fact that the depraved man from the city is
immeasurably worse than the depraved man from the village.
This fact was strikingly illustrated by the contrast between
the formerly well-educated men and the mujiks who were living
in Kuvalda's shelter.
The representative of the latter class was an old mujik
called Tyapa. Tall and angular, he kept his head in such a
position that his chin touched his breast. He was the
Captain's first lodger, and it was said of him that he had a
great deal of money hidden somewhere, and for its sake had
nearly had his throat cut some two years ago: ever since then
he carried his head thus. Over his eyes hung grayish eyebrows,
and, looked at in profile, only his crooked nose was to be
seen. His shadow reminded one of a poker. He denied that he
had money, and said that they "only tried to cut his throat
out of malice," and from that day he took to collecting rags,
and that is why his head was always bent as if incessantly
looking on the ground. When he went about shaking his head,
and minus a walking-stick in his hand, and a bag on his
back--the signs of his profession--he seemed to be thinking
almost to madness, and, at such times, Kuvalda spoke thus,
pointing to him with his finger:
"Look, there is the conscience of Merchant Judas Petunikoff.
See how disorderly, dirty, and low is the escaped conscience."
30 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Tyapa, as a rule, spoke in a hoarse and hardly audible voice,
and that is why he spoke very little, and loved to be alone.
But whenever a stranger, compelled to leave the village,
appeared in the dosshouse, Tyapa seemed sadder and angrier,
and followed the unfortunate about with biting jeers and a
wicked chuckling in his throat. He either put some beggar
against him, or himself threatened to rob and beat him, till
the frightened mujik would disappear from the dosshouse and
never more be seen. Then Tyapa was quiet again, and would
sit in some corner mending his rags, or else reading his Bible,
which was as dirty, worn, and old as himself. Only when the
teacher brought a newspaper and began reading did he come from
his corner once more. As a rule, Tyapa listened to what was
read silently and sighed often, without asking anything of
anyone. But once when the teacher, having read the paper,
wanted to put it away, Tyapa stretched out his bony hand, and
said, "Give it to me. . . ."
"What do you want it for?"
"Give it to me . . . Perhaps there is something in it about
us. . . ."
"About whom?"
"About the village."
They laughed at him, and threw him the paper. He took it, and
read in it how in the village the hail had destroyed the
cornfields, how in another village fire destroyed thirty houses,
and that in a third a woman had poisoned her family--in fact,
everything that it is customary to write of--everything, that
is to say, which is bad, and which depicts only the worst side
of the unfortunate village.
31 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE. MEN
Tyapa read all this silently and roared, perhaps from sympathy,
perhaps from delight at the sad news.
He passed the whole Sunday in reading his Bible, and never went
out collecting rags on that day. While reading, he groaned and
sighed continually. He kept the book close to his breast, and
was angry with any one who interrupted him or who touched his
Bible.
"Oh, you drunken blackguard," said Kuvalda to him, "what do you
understand of it?"
"Nothing, wizard! I don't understand anything, and I do not
read any books . . . But I read. . . ."
"Therefore you are a fool . . ." said the Captain, decidedly.
"When there are insects in your head, you know it is
uncomfortable, but if some thoughts enter there too, how will
you live then, you old toad?"
"I have not long to live," said Tyapa, quietly.
Once the teacher asked how he had learned to read.
"In prison," answered Tyapa shortly.
"Have you been there?"
"I was there. "
"For what?"
"Just so . . . It was a mistake . . . But I brought the Bible
out with me from there. A lady gave it to me . . . It is good
in prison, brother."
"Is that so? And why?"
"It teaches one . . . I learned to read there . . . I also got
this book . . . And all these you see, free. . . ."
When the teacher appeared in the dosshouse, Tyapa had already
lived there for some time. He looked long into the teacher's
face, as if to discover what kind of a man he was.
32 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Tyapa often listened to his conversation, and once,
sitting down beside him, said:
"I see you are very learned . . . Have you read the Bible?"
"I have read it. . . ."
"I see; I see . . . Can you remember it?"
"Yes . . . I remember it. . . ."
Then the old man leaned to one side and gazed at the other
with a serious, suspicious glance.
"There were the Amalekites, do you remember?"
"Well?"
"Where are they now?"
"Disappeared . . . Tyapa . . . died out. . . ."
The old man was silent, then asked again: "And where are
the Philistines?"
"These also. . . ."
"Have all these died out?"
"Yes . . . all. . . ."
"And so . . . we also will die out?"
"There will come a time when we also will die," said the
teacher indifferently.
"And to what tribe of Israel do we belong?"
The teacher looked at him, and began telling him about
Scythians and Slavs. . . .
The old man became all the more frightened, and glanced at
his face.
"You are lying!" he said scornfully, when the teacher had
finished.
"What lie have I told?" asked the teacher.
33 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"You mentioned tribes that are not mentioned in the Bible."
He got up and walked away, angry and deeply insulted.
"You will go mad, Tyapa," called the teacher after him with
conviction.
Then the old man came back again, and stretching out his hand,
threatened him with his crooked and dirty finger.
"God made Adam--from Adam were descended the Jews, that means
that all people are descended from Jews . . . and we also. . . ."
"Well?"
"Tartars are descended from Ishmael, but he also came of the
Jews. . . ."
"What do you want to tell me all this for?"
"Nothing! Only why do you tell lies?" Then he walked away,
leaving his companion in perplexity. But after two days he came
again and sat by him.
"You are learned . . . Tell me, then, whose descendants are we?
Are we Babylonians, or who are we?"
"We are Slavs, Tyapa," said the teacher, and attentively awaited
his answer, wishing to understand him.
"Speak to me from the Bible. There are no such men there."
Then the teacher began criticizing the Bible. The old man
listened, and interrupted him after a long while.
"Stop . . . Wait! That means that among people known to God
there are no Russians? We are not known to God? Is it so?
God knew all those who are mentioned in the Bible . . . He
destroyed them by sword and fire, He destroyed their cities;
but He also sent prophets to teach them.
34 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
That means that He also pitied them. He scattered the Jews
and the Tartars . . . But what about us? Why have we prophets
no longer?"
"Well, I don't know!" replied the teacher, trying to understand
the old man. But the latter put his hand on the teacher's
shoulder, and slowly pushed him backward and forward, and his
throat made a noise as if he were swallowing something. . . .
"Tell me! You speak so much . . . as if you knew everything.
It makes me sick to listen to you . . . you darken my soul . . .
I should be better pleased if you were silent. Who are we, eh?
Why have we no prophets? Ha, ha! . . . Where were we when Christ
walked on this earth? Do you see? And you too, you are
lying . . . Do you think that all die out? The Russian people
will never disappear . . . You are lying. It has been written
in the Bible, only it is not known what name the Russians are
given. Do you see what kind of people they are? They are
numberless . . . How many villages are there on the earth?
Think of all the people who live on it, so strong, go numerous I
And you say that they will die out; men shall die, but God wants
the people, God the Creator of the earth! The Amalekites did
not die out. They are either German or French . . . But you,
eh, you! Now then, tell me why we are abandoned by God? Have
we no punishments nor prophets from the Lord? Who then will
teach us?" Tyapa spoke strongly and plainly, and there was
faith in his words.
35 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
He had been speaking a long time, and the teacher, who was
generally drunk and in a speechless condition, could not stand
it any longer. He looked at the dry, wrinkled old man, felt
the great force of these words, and suddenly began to pity
himself. He wished to say something so strong and convincing
to the old man that Tyapa would be disposed in his favor; he
did not wish to speak in such a serious, earnest way, but in
a soft and fatherly tone. And the teacher felt as if something
were rising from his breast into his throat . . . But he could
not find any powerful words.
"What kind of a man are you? . . . Your soul seems to be torn
away--and you still continue speaking . . . as if you knew
something . . . It would be better if you were silent."
"Ah, Tyapa, what you say is true," replied the teacher sadly.
"The people . . . you are right . . . they are numberless . . .
but I am a stranger to them . . . and they are strangers to me
. . . Do you see where the tragedy of my life is hidden? . . .
But let me alone! I shall suffer . . . and there are no
prophets also . . . No. You are right, I speak a great deal
. . . But it is no good to anyone. I shall be always silent
. . . Only don't speak with me like this . . . Ah, old man,
you do not know . . . You do not know . . . And you cannot
understand."
And in the end the teacher cried. He cried so easily and so
freely, with such torrents of flowing tears, that he soon
found relief.
36 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"You ought to go into a village . . . become a clerk or a
teacher . . . You would be well fed there. What are you crying
for?" asked Tyapa sadly.
But the teacher was crying as if the tears quieted and comforted
him.
From this day they became friends, and the "creatures that once
were men," seeing them together, said: "The teacher is friendly
with Tyapa . . . He wishes his money. Kuvalda must have put
this into his head . . . To look about to see where the old
man's fortune is. . . ."
Probably they did not believe what they said. There was one
strange thing about these men, namely, that they painted
themselves to others worse than they actually were. A man who
has good in him does not mind sometimes showing his worse nature.
* * * * * * * * * *
When all these people were gathered round the teacher, then the
reading of the newspaper would begin.
"Well, what does the newspaper discuss to-day? Is there any feuilleton?"
"No," the teacher informs him.
"Your publisher seems greedy . . . but is there any leader?"
"There is one to-day . . . It appears to be by Gulyaeff."
"Aha! Come, out with it I He writes cleverly, the rascal."
"'The taxation of immovable property,'" reads the teacher, "It
was introduced some fifteen years ago, and up to the present it
has served as the basis for collecting these taxes in aid of the
city revenue. . . .'"
37 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"That is simple," comments Captain Kuvalda. "It continues to
serve. That is ridiculous. To the merchant who is moving
about in the city, it is profitable that it should continue
to serve. Therefore it does continue."
"The article, in fact, is written on the subject," says the
teacher.
"Is it? That is strange, it is more a subject for a
feuilleton."
"Such a subject must be treated with plenty of pepper. . . ."
Then a short discussion begins. The people listen attentively,
as only one bottle of vodki has been drunk.
After the leader, they read the local events, then the court
proceedings, and, if in the police court it reports that the
defendant or plaintiff is a merchant, then Aristid Kuvalda
sincerely rejoices. If someone has robbed the merchant, "That
is good," says he. "Only it is a pity they robbed him of so
little." If his horses have broken down, "It is sad that he
is still alive." If the merchant has lost his suit in court,
"It is a pity that the costs were not double the amount."
"That would have been illegal," remarks the teacher.
"Illegal! But is the merchant himself legal?" inquires Kuvalda
bitterly. "What is the merchant? Let us investigate this rough
and uncouth phenomenon. First of all, every merchant is a
mujik. He comes from a village, and in course of time becomes
a merchant. In order to be a merchant, one must have money.
38 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Where can the mujik get the money from? It is well known that
he does not get it by honest hard work, and that means that the
mujik, somehow or other, has been swindling. That is to say,
a merchant is simply a dishonest mujik."
"Splendid!" cry the people, approving the orator's deduction,
and Tyapa bellows all the time, scratching his breast. He
always bellows like this as he drinks his first glass of vodki,
when he has a drunken headache. The Captain beams with joy.
They next read the correspondence. This is, for the Captain,
"an abundance of drinks," as he himself calls it. He always
notices how the merchants make this life abominable, and how
cleverly they spoil everything. His speeches thunder at and
annihilate merchants. His audience listens to him with the
greatest pleasure, because he swears atrociously. "If I wrote
for the papers," he shouts, "I would show up the merchant in
his true colors . . . I would show that he is a beast, playing
for a time the role of a man. I understand him! He is a rough
boor, does not know the meaning of the words 'good taste,' has
no notion of patriotism, and his knowledge is not worth five
kopecks."
Abyedok, knowing the Captain's weak point, and fond of making
other people angry, cunningly adds:
"Yes, since the nobility began to make acquaintance with hunger,
men have disappeared from the world. . . ."
"You are right, you son of a spider and a toad. Yes, from the
time that the noblemen fell, there have been no men. There are
only merchants, and I hate them."
39 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"That is easy to understand, brother, because you too, have
been brought down by them. . . ."
"I? I was ruined by love of life . . . Fool that I was, I loved
life, but the merchant spoils it, and I cannot bear it, simply
for this reason, and not because I am a nobleman. But if you
want to know the truth, I was once a man, though I was not noble.
I care now for nothing and nobody . . . and all my life has been
tame--a sweetheart who has jilted me--therefore I despise life,
and am indifferent to it."
"You lie!" says Abyedok.
"I lie?" roars Aristid Kuvalda, almost crimson with anger.
"Why shout?" comes in the cold sad voice of Martyanoff.
"Why judge others? Merchants, noblemen. . .what have we to
do with them?"
"Seeing what we are" . . . puts in Deacon Taras.
"Be quiet, Abyedok," says the teacher good-naturedly.
"Why do you provoke him?" He does not love either discussion
or noise, and when they quarrel all around him his lips form
into a sickly grimace, and he endeavors quietly and reasonably
to reconcile each with the other, and if he does not succeed
in this he leaves the company. Knowing this, the Captain, if
he is not very drunk, controls himself, not wishing to lose,
in the person of the teacher, one of the best of his listeners.
"I repeat," he continues, in a quieter tone, "that I see life
in the hands of enemies, not only enemies of the noble but of
everything good, avaricious and incapable of adorning existence
in any way."
40 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"But all the same, says the teacher, "merchants, so to speak,
created Genoa, Venice, Holland--and all these were merchants,
merchants from England, India, the Stroyanoff merchants. . . ."
"I do not speak of these men, I am thinking of Judas Petunikoff,
who is one of them. . . ."
"And you say you have nothing to do with them?" asks the teacher
quietly.
"But do you think that I do not live? Aha! I do live, but I
suppose I ought not to be angry at the fact that life is
desecrated and robbed of all freedom by these men."
"And they dare to laugh at the kindly anger of the Captain, a
man living in retirement?" says Abyedok teasingly.
"Very well! I agree with you that I am foolish. Being a
creature who was once a man, I ought to blot out from my heart
all those feelings that once were mine. You may be right, but
then how could I or any of you defend ourselves if we did away
with all these feelings?"
"Now then, you are talking sense," says the teacher encouragingly.
"We want other feelings and other views on life . . . We want
something new. . .because we ourselves are a novelty in this
life. . . ."
"Doubtless this is most important for us," remarks the teacher.
"Why?" asks Kanets. "Is it not all the same whatever we say or
think? We have not got long to live I am forty, you are fifty
. . . there is no one among us younger than thirty, and even
at twenty one cannot live such a life long."
41 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"And what kind of novelty are we?" asked Abyedok mockingly.
"Since nakedness has always existed "
"Yes, and it created Rome," said the teacher.
"Yes, of course," says the Captain, beaming with joy.
"Romulus and Remus, eh? We also shall create when our time
comes. . . ."
"Violation of public peace," interrupts Abyedok. He laughs
in a self-satisfied way. His laughter is impudent and insolent,
and is echoed by Simtsoff, the Deacon and Paltara Taras. The
naive eyes of young Meteor light up, and his cheeks flush
crimson.
Kanets speaks, and it seems as if he were hammering their heads.
"All these are foolish illusions . . . fiddlesticks!"
It was strange to see them reasoning in this manner, these
outcasts from life, tattered, drunken with vodki and wickedness,
filthy and forlorn. Such conversations rejoiced the Captain's
heart. They gave him an opportunity of speaking more, and
therefore he thought himself better than the rest. However low
he may fall, a man can never deny himself the delight of feeling
cleverer, more powerful, or even better fed than his companions.
Aristid Kuvalda abused this pleasure, and never could have
enough of it, much to the disgust of Abyedok, Kubar, and others
of these creatures that once were men, who were less interested
in such things.
Politics, however, were more to the popular taste. The
discussions as to the necessity of taking India or of subduing
England were lengthy and protracted.
42 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Nor did they speak with less enthusiasm of the radical measure
of clearing Jews off the face of the earth. On this subject
Abyedok was always the first to propose dreadful plans to effect
the desired end, but the Captain, always first in every other
argument, did not join in this one. They also spoke much and
impudently about women, but the teacher always defended them,
and sometimes was very angry when they went so far as to pass
the limits of decency. They all, as a rule, gave in to him,
because they did not look upon him as a common person, and also
because they wished to borrow from him on Saturdays the money
which he had earned during the week. He had many privileges.
They never beat him, for instance, on these occasions when the
conversation ended in a free fight. He had the right to bring
women into the dosshouse; a privilege accorded to no one else,
as the Captain had previously warned them.
"No bringing of women to my house," he had said. "Women,
merchants and philosophers, these are the three causes of my
ruin. I will horsewhip anyone bringing in women. I will
horsewhip the woman also . . . And as to the philosopher,
I'll knock his head off for him." And notwithstanding his age
he could have knocked anyone's head off, for he possessed
wonderful strength. Besides that, whenever he fought or
quarrelled, he was assisted by Martyanoff, who was accustomed
during a general fight to stand silently and sadly back to back
with Kuvalda, when he became an all destroying and impregnable
engine of war. Once when Simtsoff was drunk, he rushed at the
teacher for no reason whatever, and getting hold of his head
tore out a bunch of hair.
43 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Kuvalda, with one stroke of his fist in the other's chest, sent
him spinning, and he fell to the ground. He was unconscious
for almost half-an-hour, and when he came to himself Kuvalda
compelled him to eat the hair he had torn from the teacher's
head. He ate it, preferring this to being beaten to death.
Besides reading newspapers, fighting and indulging in general
conversation, they amused themselves by playing cards. They
played without Martyanoff because he could not play honestly.
After cheating several times, he openly confessed:
"I cannot play without cheating . . . it is a habit of mine."
"Habits do get the better of you," assented Deacon Taras. "I
always used to beat my wife every Sunday after Mass, and when
she died I cannot describe how extremely dull I felt every
Sunday. I lived through one Sunday--it was dreadful, the second
I still controlled myself, the third Sunday I struck my Asok.
. . . She was angry and threatened to summon me. Just imagine
if she had done so! On the fourth Sunday, I beat her just as
if she were my own wife! After that I gave her ten roubles,
and beat her according to my own rules till I married again!"
"You are lying, Deacon! How could you marry a second time?"
interrupted Abyedok.
"Ay, just so . . . She looked after my house . . ."
"Did you have any children?" asked the teacher.
"Five of them . . . One was drowned . . . the oldest . . .
he was an amusing boy! Two died of diphtheria . . . One of
the daughters married a student and went with him to Siberia.
44 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The other went to the University of St. Petersburg and died
there . . . of consumption they say. Ye--es, there were five
of them . . . Ecclesiastics are prolific, you know." He began
explaining why this was so, and they laughed till they nearly
burst at his tales. When the laughter stopped, Aleksei
Maksimovitch Simtsoff remembered that he too had once had a
daughter.
"Her name was Lidka . . . she was very stout. . . ."
More than this he did not seem to remember, for he looked at
them all, was silent and smiled . . . in a guilty way. Those
men spoke very little to each other about their past, and they
recalled it very seldom, and then only its general outlines.
When they did mention it, it was in a cynical tone. Probably,
this was just as well, since, in many people, remembrance of
the past kills all present energy and deadens all hope for the
future.
* * * * * * * * * *
On rainy, cold, or dull days in the late autumn, these
"creatures that once were men" gathered in the eating-house of
Vaviloff. They were well known there, where some feared them
as thieves and rogues, and some looked upon them contemptuously
as hard drinkers, although they respected them, thinking that
they were clever.
The eating-house of Vaviloff was the club of the main street,
and the "creatures that once were men" were its most intellectual
members.
45 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
On Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings, when the eating-house
was packed, the "creatures that once were men" were only too
welcome guests. They brought with them, besides the forgotten
and poverty-stricken inhabitants of the street, their own spirit,
in which there was something that brightened the lives of men
exhausted and worn out in the struggle for existence, as great
drunkards as the inhabitants of Kuvalda's shelter, and, like
them, outcasts from the town. Their ability to speak on all
subjects, their freedom of opinion, skill in repartee, courage
in the presence of those of whom the whole street was in terror,
together with their daring demeanor, could not but be pleasing
to their companions. Then, too, they were well versed in law,
and could advise, write petitions, and help to swindle without
incurring the risk of punishment. For all this they were paid
with vodki and flattering admiration of their talents.
The inhabitants of the street were divided into two parties
according to their sympathies. One was in favor of Kuvalda,
who was thought "a good soldier, clever, and courageous"; the
other was convinced of the fact that the teacher was "superior"
to Kuvalda. The latter's admirers were those who were known to
be drunkards, thieves, and murderers, for whom the road from
beggary to prison was inevitable. But those who respected the
teacher were men who still had expectations, still hoped for
better things, who were eternally occupied with nothing, and
who were nearly always hungry.
The nature of the teacher's and Kuvalda's relations toward the
street may be gathered from the following:
46 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Once in the eating-house they were discussing the resolution
passed by the Corporation regarding the main street, viz., that
the inhabitants were to fill up the pits and ditches in the
street, and that neither manure nor the dead bodies of domestic
animals should be used for the purpose, but only broken tiles,
etc., from the ruins of other houses.
"Where am I going to get these same broken tiles and bricks?
I could not get sufficient bricks together to build a
hen-house," plaintively said Mokei Anisimoff, a man who hawked
kalaches (a sort of white bread) which were baked by his wife.
"Where can you get broken bricks and lime rubbish? Take bags
with you, and go and remove them from the Corporation buildings.
They are so old that they are of no use to anyone, and you will
thus be doing two good deeds; firstly, by repairing the main
street; and secondly, by adorning the city with a new Corporation
building."
"If you want horses, get them from the Lord Mayor, and take his
three daughters, who seem quite fit for harness. Then destroy
the house of Judas Petunikoff and pave the street with its
timbers. By the way, Mokei, I know out of what your wife baked
to-day's kalaches; out of the frames of the third window and the
two steps from the roof of Judas' house."
When those present had laughed and joked sufficiently over the
Captain's proposal, the sober market gardener, Pavlyugus asked:
"But seriously, what are we to do, your honor? . . . Eh? What
do you think?"
47 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"I? I shall neither move hand nor foot. If they wish to clean
the street, let them do it."
"Some of the houses are almost coming down. . . ."
"Let them fall; don't interfere; and when they fall ask help
from the city. If they don't give it you, then bring a suit
in court against them! Where does the water come from? From
the city! Therefore let the city be responsible for the
destruction of the houses."
"They will say it is rain-water."
"Does it destroy the houses in the city? Eh? They take taxes
from you, but they do not permit you to speak! They destroy
your property and at the same time compel you to repair it!"
And half the radicals in the street, convinced by the words
of Kuvalda, decided to wait till the rain-water came down in
huge streams and swept away their houses. The others, more
sensible, found in the teacher a man who composed for them an
excellent and convincing report for the Corporation. In this
report the refusal of the street's inhabitants to comply with
the resolution of the Corporation was well explained that the
Corporation actually entertained it. It was decided that the
rubbish left after some repairs had been done to the barracks
should be used for mending and filling up the ditches in their
street, and for the transport of this five horses were given
by the fire brigade. Still more, they even saw the necessity
of laying a drain-pipe through the street. This and many
other things vastly increased the popularity of the teacher.
He wrote petitions for them and published various remarks in
the newspapers.
48 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
For instance, on one occasion Vaviloff's customers noticed that
the herrings and other provisions of the eating-house were not
what they should be, and after a day or two they saw Vaviloff
standing at the bar with the newspaper in his hand making a
public apology.
"It is true, I must acknowledge, that I bought old and not very
good herrings, and the cabbage . . . also . . . was old. It is
only too well known that anyone can put many a five-kopeck piece
in his pocket in this way. And what is the result? It has not
been a success; I was greedy, I own, but the cleverer man has
exposed me, so we are quits. . . ."
This confession made a very good impression on the people, and
it also gave Vaviloff the opportunity of still feeding them with
herrings and cabbages which were not good, though they failed
to notice it, so much were they impressed.
This incident was very significant, because it increased not only
the teacher's popularity, but also the effect of press opinion.
It often happened, too, that the teacher read lectures on
practical morality in the eating-house.
"I saw you," he said to the painter, Yashka Tyarin; "I saw you,
Yakov, beating your wife. . . ."
Yashka was "touched with paint" after having two glasses of
vodki, and was in a slightly uplifted condition.
The people looked at him, expecting him to make a row, and all
were silent.
"Did you see me? And how did it please you?" asks Yashka.
The people control their laughter.
49 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"No; it did not please me," replies the teacher. His tone is
so serious that the people are silent.
"You see I was just trying it," said Yashka, with bravado,
fearing that the teacher would rebuke him. "The wife is
satisfied. . . She has not got up yet today. . . ."
The teacher, who was drawing absently with his fingers on the
table, said, "Do you see, Yakov, why this did not please me?
. . . Let us go into the matter thoroughly, and understand what
you are really doing, and what the result may be. Your wife is
pregnant. You struck her last night on her sides and breast.
That means that you beat not only her but the child too. You
may have killed him, and your wife might have died or else have
become seriously ill. To have the trouble of looking after a
sick woman is not pleasant. It is wearing, and would cost you
dear, because illness requires medicine, and medicine money.
If you have not killed the child, you may have crippled him, and
he will he born deformed, lop-sided, or hunch-backed. That
means that he will not be able to work, and it is only too
important to you that he should be a good workman. Even if he
be born ill, it will be bad enough, because he will keep his
mother from work, and will require medicine. Do you see what
you are doing to yourself? Men who live by hard work must be
strong and healthy, and they should have strong and healthy
children . . . Do I speak truly?"
"Yes," assented the listeners.
"But all this will never happen," says Yashka, becoming rather
frightened at the prospect held out to him by the teacher.
50 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"She is healthy, and I cannot have reached the child . . .
She is a devil--a hag!" he shouts angrily. "I would . . . She
will eat me away as rust eats iron."
"I understand, Yakov, that you cannot help beating your wife,"
the teacher's sad and thoughtful voice again breaks in. "You
have many reasons for doing so . . . It is your wife's character
that causes you to beat her so incautiously . . . But your own
dark and sad life. . . ."
"You are right!" shouts Yakov. "We live in darkness, like the
chimney-sweep when he is in the chimney!"
"You are angry with your life, but your wife is patient; the
closest relation to you--your wife, and you make her suffer
for this, simply because you are stronger than she. She is
always with you, and cannot get away. Don't you see how absurd
you are?"
"That is so . . . Devil take it! But what shall I do? Am I
not a man?"
"Just so! You are a man. . . . I only wish to tell you that if
you cannot help beating her, then beat her carefully and always
remember that you may injure her health or that of the child.
It is not good to beat pregnant women . . . on their belly or
on their sides and chests . . . Beat her, say, on the neck
. . . or else take a rope and beat her on some soft place. . . ."
The orator finished his speech and looked upon his hearers with
his dark, pathetic eyes, seeming to apologize to them for some
unknown crime.
51 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The public understands it. They understand the morale of the
creature who was once a man, the morale of the public-house and
much misfortune.
"Well, brother Yashka, did you understand? See how true it
is!"
Yakov understood that to beat her incautiously might be
injurious to his wife. He is silent, replying to his
companions' jokes with confused smiles.
"Then again, what is a wife?" philosophizes the baker,
Mokei Anisimoff. "A wife . . . is a friend if we look at the
matter in that way. She is like a chain, chained to you for
life . . . and you are both just like galley slaves. And if
you try to get away from her, you cannot, you feel the chain."
"Wait," says Yakovleff; "but you beat your wife too."
"Did I say that I did not? I beat her . . There is nothing
else handy . . . Do you expect me to beat the wall with my
fist when my patience is exhausted?"
"I feel just like that too . . ." says Yakov.
"How hard and difficult our life is, my brothers! There is no
real rest for us anywhere!"
"And even you beat your wife by mistake," some one remarks
humorously. And thus they speak till far on in the night or
till they have quarrelled, the usual result of drink or of
passions engendered by such discussions.
The rain beats on the windows, and outside the cold wind is
blowing. The eating-house is close with tobacco smoke, but
it is warm, while the street is cold and wet. Now and then,
the wind beats threateningly on the windows of the eating-house,
as if bidding these men to come out and be scattered like dust
over the face of the earth.
52 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Sometimes a stifled and hopeless groan is heard in its howling
which again is drowned by cold, cruel laughter. This music
fills one with dark, sad thoughts of the approaching winter,
with its accursed short, sunless days and long nights, of the
necessity of possessing warm garments and plenty to eat. It is
hard to sleep through the long winter nights on an empty
stomach. Winter is approaching. Yes, it is approaching . . .
How to live?
These gloomy forebodings created a strong thirst among the
inhabitants of the main street, and the sighs of the "creatures
that once were men increased with the wrinkles on their brows,
their voices became thick and their behavior to each other more
blunt. And brutal crimes were committed among them, and the
roughness of these poor unfortunate outcasts was apt to increase
at the approach of that inexorable enemy, who transformed all
their lives into one cruel farce. But this enemy could not be
captured because it was invisible.
Then they began beating each other brutally, and drank till they
had drunk everything which they could pawn to the indulgent
Vaviloff. And thus they passed the autumn days in open wickedness,
in suffering which was eating their hearts out, unable to rise out
of this vicious life and in dread of the still crueller days of
winter.
Kuvalda in such cases came to their assistance with his philosophy.
"Don't lose your temper, brothers, everything has an end, this is
the chief characteristic of life.
53 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The winter will pass, summer will follow . . . a glorious time,
when the very sparrows are filled with rejoicing." But his
speeches did not have any effect--a mouthful of even the freshest
and purest water will not satisfy a hungry man.
Deacon Taras also tried to amuse the people by singing his songs
and relating his tales. He was more successful, and sometimes
his endeavors ended in a wild and glorious orgy at the
eating-house. They sang, laughed and danced, and for hours
behaved like madmen. After this they again fell into a
despairing mood, sitting at the tables of the eating-house, in
the black smoke of the lamp and the tobacco; sad and tattered,
speaking lazily to each other, listening to the wild howling
of the wind, and thinking how they could get enough vodki to
deaden their senses.
And their hand was against every man, and every man's hand
against them.
PART II
All things are relative in this world, and a man cannot sink
into any condition so bad that it could not be worse. One
day, toward the end of September, Captain Aristid Kuvalda was
sitting, as was his custom, on the bench near the door of the
dosshouse, looking at the stone building built by the merchant
Petunikoff close to Vaviloff's eating-house, and thinking
deeply. This building, which was partly surrounded by woods,
served the purpose of a candle factory.
54 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Painted red, as if with blood, it looked like a cruel machine
which, though not working, opened a row of deep, hungry,
gaping jaws, as if ready to devour and swallow anything. The
gray wooden eating-house of Vaviloff, with its bent roof
covered with patches, leaned against one of the brick walls
of the factory, and seemed as if it were some large form of
parasite clinging to it. The Captain was thinking that they
would very soon be making new houses to replace the old
building. "They will destroy the dosshouse even," he
reflected. "It will be necessary to look out for another,
but such a cheap one is not to be found. It seems a great
pity to have to leave a place to which one is accustomed,
though it will be necessary to go, simply because some
merchant or other thinks of manufacturing candles and soap."
And the Captain felt that if he could only make the life of
such an enemy miserable, even temporarily, oh! with what
pleasure he would do it!
Yesterday, Ivan Andreyevitch Petunikoff was in the dosshouse
yard with his son and an architect. They measured the yard
and put small wooden sticks in various places, which, after
the exit of Petunikoff and at the order of the Captain,
Meteor took out and threw away. To the eyes of the Captain
this merchant appeared small and thin. He wore a long
garment like a frock-coat, a velvet cap, and high,
well-cleaned boots. He had a thin face with prominent
cheek-bones, a wedge-shaped grayish beard, and a high forehead
seamed with wrinkles from beneath which shone two narrow,
blinking, and observant gray eyes . . . a sharp, gristly nose,
a small mouth with thin lips . . . altogether his appearance
was pious, rapacious, and respectably wicked.
55 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Cursed cross-bred fox and pig!" swore the Captain under his
breath, recalling his first meeting with Petunikoff. The
merchant came with one of the town councillors to buy the
house, and seeing the Captain asked his companion:
"Is this your lodger?"
And from that day, a year and a half ago, there has been keen
competition among the inhabitants of the dosshouse as to which
can swear the hardest at the merchant. And last night there
was a "slight skirmish with hot words," as the Captain called
it, between Petunikoff and himself. Having dismissed the
architect the merchant approached the Captain.
"What are you hatching?" asked he, putting his hand to his cap,
perhaps to adjust it, perhaps as a salutation.
"What are you plotting?" answered the Captain in the same tone.
He moved his chin so that his beard trembled a little; a
non-exacting person might have taken it for a bow; otherwise it
only expressed the desire of the Captain to move his pipe from
one corner of his mouth to the other. "You see, having plenty
of money, I can afford to sit hatching it. Money is a good
thing, and I possess it," the Captain chaffed the merchant,
casting cunning glances at him. "It means that you serve money,
and not money you," went on Kuvalda, desiring at the same time
to punch the merchant's belly.
"Isn't it all the same? Money makes life comfortable, but no
money," . . . and the merchant looked at the Captain with a
feigned expression of suffering. The other's upper lip curled,
and exposed large, wolf-like teeth.
56 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"With brains and a conscience, it is possible to live without
it. Men only acquire riches when they cease to listen to their
conscience . . . the less conscience the more money!"
"Just so; but then there are men who have neither money nor
conscience."
"Were you just like what you are now when you were young?"
asked Kuvalda simply. The other's nostrils twitched. Ivan
Andreyevitch sighed, passed his hand over his eyes and said:
"Oh! When I was young I had to undergo a great many difficulties
. . . Work! Oh! I did work!"
"And you cheated, too, I suppose?"
"People like you? Nobles? I should just think so!
They used to grovel at my feet!"
"You only went in for robbing, not murder, I suppose?" asked the
Captain. Petunikoff turned pale, and hastily changed the
subject.
"You are a bad host. You sit while your guest stands."
"Let him sit, too," said Kuvalda.
"But what am I to sit on?"
"On the earth . . . it will take any rubbish . . ."
"You are the proof of that," said Petunikoff quietly, while
his eyes shot forth poisonous glances.
And he went away, leaving Kuvalda under the pleasant impression
that the merchant was afraid of him. If he were not afraid of
him he would long ago have evicted him from the dosshouse.
57 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
But then he would think twice before turning him out, because of
the five roubles a month. And the Captain gazed with pleasure
at Petunikoff's back as he slowly retreated from the court-yard.
Following him with his eyes, he noticed how the merchant passed
the factory and disappeared into the wood, and he wished very
much that he might fall and break all his bones. He sat
imagining many horrible forms of disaster while watching
Petunikoff, who was descending the hill into the wood like a
spider going into its web. Last night he even imagined that the
wood gave way before the merchant and he fell . . . but
afterward he found that he had only been dreaming.
And to-day, as always, the red building stands out before the
eyes of Aristid Kuvalda, so plain, so massive, and clinging so
strongly to the earth, that it seems to be sucking away all its
life. It appears to be laughing coldly at the Captain with its
gaping walls. The sun pours its rays on them as generously as
it does on the miserable hovels of the main street.
"Devil take the thing!" exclaimed the Captain, thoughtfully
measuring the walls of the factory with his eyes. "If only
. . . ." Trembling with excitement at the thought that had just
entered his mind Aristid Kuvalda jumped up and ran to Vaviloff's
eating-house muttering to himself all the time.
Vaviloff met him at the bar and gave him a friendly welcome.
"I wish your honor good health!" He was of middle height and
had a bald head, gray hair, and straight mustaches like
tooth-brushes. Upright and neat in his clean jacket, he showed
by every movement that he was an old soldier.
58 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Egorka, show me the lease and plan of your house,"
demanded Kuvalda impatiently.
"I have shown it you before." Vaviloff looked up suspiciously
and closely scanned the Captain's face.
"Show it me!" shouted the Captain, striking the bar with his
fist and sitting down on a stool close by.
"But why?" asked Vaviloff, knowing that it was better to keep
his wits about him when Kuvalda got excited.
"You fool! Bring it at once."
Vaviloff rubbed his forehead, and turned his eyes to the
ceiling in a tired way.
"Where are those papers of yours?"
There was no answer to this on the ceiling, so the old sergeant
looked down at the floor, and began drumming with his fingers
on the bar in a worried and thoughtful manner.
"It's no good your making wry faces!" shouted the Captain, for
he had no great affection for him, thinking that a former
soldier should rather have become a thief than an eating-house
keeper.
"Oh! Yes! Aristid Fomich, I remember now. They were left at
the High Court of Justice at the time when I came into
possession."
"Get along, Egorka! It is to your own interest to show me the
plan, the title-deeds, and everything you have immediately. You
will probably clear at least a hundred roubles over this, do
you understand?"
Vaviloff did not understand at all; but the Captain spoke in
such a serious and convincing tone that the sergeant's eyes
burned with curiosity, and, telling him that he would see if
the papers were in his desk, he went through the door behind
the bar.
59 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Two minutes later he returned with the papers in his hand,
and an expression of extreme astonishment on his face.
"Here they are; the deeds about the damned houses!"
"Ah! You . . . vagabond! And you pretend to have been a
soldier, too!" And Kuvalda did not cease to belabor him with
his tongue, as he snatched the blue parchment from his hands.
Then, spreading the papers out in front of him, and excited
all the more by Vaviloff's inquisitiveness, the Captain began
reading and bellowing at the same time. At last he got up
resolutely, and went to the door, leaving all the papers on
the bar, and saying to Vaviloff:
"Wait! Don't lift them!"
Vaviloff gathered them lip, put them into the cashbox, and
locked it, then felt the lock with his hand, to see if it were
secure. After that, he scratched his bald head, thoughtfully,
and went up on the roof of the eating-house. There he saw the
Captain measuring the front of the house, and watched him
anxiously, as he snapped his fingers, and began measuring the
same line over again. Vaviloff's face lit up suddenly, and he
smiled happily.
"Aristid, Fomich, is it possible?" he shouted, when the Captain
came opposite to him.
"Of course it is possible. There is more than one short in the
front alone, and as to the depth I shall see immediately."
"The depth . . . seventy-three feet."
60 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"What? Have you guessed, you shaved, ugly face?"
"Of course, Aristid Fomich! If you have eyes you can see a
thing or two," shouted Vaviloff joyfully.
A few minutes afterward they sat side by side in Vaviloff's
parlor, and the Captain was engaged in drinking large
quantities of beer.
"And so all the walls of the factory stand on your ground,"
said he to the eating-house keeper. "Now, mind you show no
mercy! The teacher will be here presently, and we will get
him to draw up a petition to the court. As to the amount of
the damages you will name a very moderate sum in order not to
waste money in deed stamps, but we will ask to have the factory
knocked down. This, you see, donkey, is the result of
trespassing on other people's property. It is a splendid
piece of luck for you. We will force him to have the place
smashed, and I can tell you it will be an expensive job for
him. Off with you to the court. Bring pressure to bear on
Judas. We will calculate how much it will take to break the
factory down to its very foundations. We will make an estimate
of it all, counting the time it will take too, and we will make
honest Judas pay two thousand roubles besides."
"He will never give it!" cried Vaviloff, but his eyes shone
with a greedy light.
"You lie! He will give it . . . Use your brains . . . What else
can he do? But look here, Egorka, mind you, don't go in for
doing it on the cheap. They are sure to fry to buy you off.
Don't sell yourself cheap. They will probably use threats, but
rely upon us. . . ."
61 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The Captain's eyes were alight with happiness, and his face
with excitement. He worked upon Vaviloff's greed, and urging
upon him the importance of immediate action in the matter,
went away in a very joyful and happy frame of mind.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the evening everyone was told of the Captain's discovery,
and they all began to discuss Petunikoff's future predicament,
painting in vivid colors his excitement and astonishment on the
day the court messenger handed him the copy of the summons.
The Captain felt himself quite a hero. He was happy and all
his friends highly pleased. The heap of dark and tattered
figures that lay in the courtyard made noisy demonstrations of
pleasure. They all knew the merchant, Petunikoff, who passed
them very often, contemptuously turning up his eyes and giving
them no more attention than he bestowed on the other heaps of
rubbish lying on the ground. He was well fed, and that
exasperated them still more; and now how splendid it was that
one of themselves had struck a hard blow at the selfish
merchant's purse! It gave them all the greatest pleasure. The
Captain's discovery was a powerful instrument in their hands.
Every one of them felt keen animosity toward all those who were
well fed and well dressed, but in some of them this feeling was
only beginning to develop. Burning interest was felt by those
"creatures that once were men" in the prospective fight between
Kuvalda and Petunikoff, which they already saw in imagination.
62 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
For a fortnight the inhabitants of the dosshouse awaited the
further development of events, but Petunikoff never once visited
the building. It was known that he was not in town, and that
the copy of the petition had not yet been handed to him.
Kuvalda raged at the delays of the civil court. It is improbable
that anyone had ever awaited the merchant with such impatience as
did this bare-footed brigade.
"He isn't even thinking of coming, the wretch! . . ."
"That means that he does not love me!" sang Deacon Taras, leaning
his chin on his hand and casting a humorous glance toward the
mountain.
At last Petunikoff appeared. He came in a respectable cart with
his son playing the role of groom. The latter was a red-cheeked,
nice-looking youngster, in a long square-cut overcoat. He wore
smoked eyeglasses. They tied the horse to an adjoining tree, the
son took the measuring instrument out of his pocket and gave it
to his father, and they began to measure the ground. Both were
silent and worried.
"Aha!" shouted the Captain gleefully.
All those who were in the dosshouse at the moment came out to
look at them and expressed themselves loudly and freely in
reference to the matter.
"What does the habit of thieving mean? A man may sometimes make
a big mistake when he steals, standing to lose more than he
gets," said the Captain, causing much laughter among his staff
and eliciting various murmurs of assent.
"Take care, you devil!" shouted Petunikoff, "lest I have you in
the police court for your words!"
63 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"You can do nothing to me without witnesses . . . Your son cannot
give evidence on your side" . . . the Captain warned him.
"Look out all the same, you old wretch, you may be found guilty
too!" And Petunikoff shook his fist at him. His son, deeply
engrossed in his calculations, took no notice of the dark group
of men, who were taking such a wicked delight in adding to his
father's discomfiture. He did not even once look in their
direction.
"The young spider has himself well in hand," remarked Abyedok,
watching young Petunikoff's every movement and action. Having
taken all the measurements he desired, Ivan Andreyevitch knit
his brows, got into the cart, and drove away. His son went with
a firm step into Vaviloff's eating-house, and disappeared behind
the door.
"Ho, ho! That's a determined young thief! . . . What will happen
next, I wonder . . .?" asked Kuvalda.
"Next? Young Petunikoff will buy out Egor Vaviloff," said
Abyedok with conviction, and smacked his lips as if the idea
gave him great pleasure.
"And you are glad of that?" Kuvalda asked him gravely.
"I am always pleased to see human calculations miscarry,"
explained Abyedok, rolling his eyes and rubbing his hands with
delight. The Captain spat angrily on the ground and was silent.
They all stood in front of the tumble-down building, and silently
watched the doors of the eating-house. More than an hour passed
thus.
64 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Then the doors opened and Petunikoff came out as silently as he
had entered. He stopped for a moment, coughed, turned up the
collar of his coat, glanced at the men, who were following all
his movements with their eyes, and then went up the street
toward the town.
The Captain watched him for a moment, and turning to Abyedok
said smilingly:
"Probably you were right after all, you son of a scorpion and
a wood-louse! You nose out every evil thing. Yes, the face
of that young swindler shows that be has got what he wanted. . .
I wonder how much Egorka has got out of them. He has evidently
taken something . . . He is just the same sort of rogue that
they are . . . they are all tarred with the same brush. He has
got some money, and I'm damned if I did not arrange the whole
thing for him! It is best to own my folly . . . Yes, life is
against us all, brothers . . . and even when you spit upon
those nearest to you, the spittle rebounds and hits your own
face."
Having satisfied himself with this reflection, the worthy Captain
looked round upon his staff. Every one of them was disappointed,
because they all knew that something they did not expect had
taken place between Petunikoff and Vaviloff, and they all felt
that they had been insulted. The feeling that one is unable to
injure anyone is worse than the feeling that one is unable to do
good, because to do harm is far easier and simpler.
"Well, why are we loitering here? We have nothing more to wait
for . . . except the reward that I shall get out--out of Egorka,
. . ." said the Captain, looking angrily at the eating-house.
"So our peaceful life under the roof of Judas has come to an end.
65 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Judas will now turn us out . . . So do not say that I have not
warned you."
Kanets smiled sadly.
"What are you laughing at, jailer?" Kuvalda asked.
"Where shall I go then?"
"That, my soul, is a question that fate will settle for you, so
do not worry," said the Captain thoughtfully, entering the
dosshouse. "The creatures that once were men" followed him.
"We can do nothing but await the critical moment," said the
Captain, walking about among them. "When they turn us out we
shall seek a new place for ourselves, but at present there is
no use spoiling our life by thinking of it . . . In times of
crisis one becomes energetic . . . and if life were fuller of
them and every moment of it so arranged that we were compelled
to tremble for our lives all the time . . . By God! life would be
livelier and even fuller of interest and energy than it is!"
"That means that people would all go about cutting one another's
throats," explained Abyedok smilingly.
"Well, what about it?" asked the Captain angrily. He did not
like to hear his thoughts illustrated.
"Oh! Nothing! When a person wants to get anywhere quickly he
whips up the horses, but of course it needs fire to make engines
go. . . ."
"Well, let everything go to the Devil as quickly as possible.
I'm sure I should be pleased if the earth suddenly opened up or
was burned or destroyed somehow . . . only I were left to the
last in order to see the others consumed. . . ."
66 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Ferocious creature!" smiled Abyedok.
"Well, what of that? I . . . I was once a man . . . now I am
an outcast . . . that means I have no obligations. It means
that I am free to spit on everyone. The nature of my present
life means the rejection of my past . . . giving up all relations
toward men who are well fed and well dressed, and who look upon
me with contempt because I am inferior to them in the matter of
feeding or dressing. I must develop something new within myself,
do you understand? Something that will make Judas Petunikoff and
his kind tremble and perspire before me!"
"Ah! You have a courageous tongue!" jeered Abyedok.
"Yes . . . You miser!" And Kuvalda looked at him contemptuously.
"What do you understand? What do you know? Are you able to
think? But I have thought and I have read . . . books of which
you could not have understood one word."
"Of course! One cannot eat soup out of one's hand . . . But
though you have read and thought, and I have not done that or
anything else, we both seem to have got into pretty much the
same condition, don't we?"
"Go to the Devil!" shouted Kuvalda. His conversations with
Abyedok always ended thus. When the teacher was absent his
speeches, as a rule, fell on the empty air, and received no
attention, and he knew this, but still he could not help
speaking. And now, having quarrelled with his companion, he
felt rather deserted; but, still longing for conversation, he
turned to Simtsoff with the following question:
67 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"And you, Aleksei Maksimovitch, where will you lay your gray
head?"
The old man smiled good-humoredly, rubbed his hands, and
replied, "I do not know . . . I will see. One does not require
much, just a little drink."
"Plain but honorable fare!" the Captain said. Simtsoff was
silent, only adding that he would find a place sooner than any
of them, because women loved him. This was true. The old man
had, as a rule, two or three prostitutes, who kept him on their
very scant earnings. They very often beat him, but he took this
stoically. They somehow never beat him too much, probably
because they pitied him. He was a great lover of women, and
said they were the cause of all his misfortunes. The character
of his relations toward them was confirmed by the appearance of
his clothes, which, as a rule, were tidy, and cleaner than those
of his companions. And now, sitting at the door of the dosshouse,
he boastingly related that for a long time past Redka had been
asking him to go and live with her, but he had not gone because
he did not want to part with the company. They heard this with
jealous interest. They all knew Redka. She lived very near the
town, almost below the mountain. Not long ago, she had been in
prison for theft. She was a retired nurse; a tall, stout peasant
woman with a face marked by smallpox, but with very pretty,
though always drunken, eyes.
"Just look at the old devil!" swore Abyedok, looking at Simtsoff,
who was smiling in a self-satisfied way.
"And do you know why they love me? Because I know how to cheer
up their souls."
68 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Do you?" inquired Kuvalda.
"And I can make them pity me . . . And a woman, when she pities!
Go and weep to her, and ask her to kill you . . . she will pity
you--and she will kill you."
"I feel inclined to commit a murder," declared Martyanoff,
laughing his dull laugh.
"Upon whom?" asked Abyedok, edging away from him.
"It's all the same to me . . . Petunikoff . . . Egorka or even
you!"
"And why?" inquired Kuvalda.
"I want to go to Siberia . . . I have had enough of this vile
life . . . one learns how to live there!"
"Yes, they have a particularly good way of teaching in Siberia,"
agreed the Captain sadly.
They spoke no more of Petunikoff, or of the turning out of the
inhabitants of the dosshouse. They all knew that they would
have to leave soon, therefore they did not think the matter
worth discussion. It would do no good, and besides the weather
was not very cold though the rains had begun . . . and it would
be possible to sleep on the ground anywhere outside the town.
They sat in a circle on the grass and conversed about all sorts
of things, discussing one subject after another, and listening
attentively even to the poor speakers in order to make the time
pass; keeping quiet was as dull as listening. This society of
"creatures that once were men" had one fine characteristic--no
one of them endeavored to make out that he was better than the
others, nor compelled the others to acknowledge his superiority.
69 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The August sun seemed to set their tatters on fire as they sat
with their backs and uncovered heads exposed to it . . . a
chaotic mixture of the vegetable, mineral, and animal kingdoms.
In the corners of the yard the tall steppe grass grew
luxuriantly . . . Nothing else grew there but some dingy
vegetables, not attractive even to those who nearly always
felt the pangs of hunger.
* * * * * * * * * *
The following was the scene that took place in Vaviloff's
eating-house.
Young Petunikoff entered slowly, took off his hat, looked around
him, and said to the eating-house keeper:
"Egor Terentievitch Vaviloff? Are you he?"
"I am," answered the sergeant, leaning on the bar with both arms
as if intending to jump over it.
"I have some business with you," said Petunikoff.
"Delighted. Please come this way to my private room."
They went in and sat down, the guest on the couch and his host
on the chair opposite to him. In one corner a lamp was burning
before a gigantic icon, and on the wall at the other side there
were several oil lamps. They were well kept and shone as if
they were new. The room, which contained a number of boxes and
a variety of furniture, smelt of tobacco, sour cabbage, and olive
oil. Petunikoff looked around him and made a face. Vaviloff
looked at the icon, and then they looked simultaneously at one
another, and both seemed to be favorably impressed. Petunikoff
liked Vaviloff's frankly thievish eyes, and Vaviloff was pleased
with the open cold, determined face of Petunikoff, with its
large cheeks and white teeth.
70 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Of course you already know me, and I presume you guess what I
am going to say to you," began Petunikoff.
"About the lawsuit? . . . I presume?" remarked the ex-sergeant
respectfully.
"Exactly! I am glad to see that you are not beating about the
bush, but going straight to the point like a business man,"
said Petunikoff encouragingly.
"I am a soldier," answered Vaviloff, with a modest air.
"That is easily seen, and I am sure we shall be able to finish
this job without much trouble."
"Just so."
"Good! You have the law on your side, and will, of course, win
your case. I want to tell you this at the very beginning."
"I thank you most humbly," said the sergeant, rubbing his eyes
in order to hide the smile in them.
"But tell me, why did you make the acquaintance of your future
neighbors like this through the law courts?"
Vaviloff shrugged his shoulders and did not answer.
"It would have been better to come straight to us and settle
the matter peacefully, eh? What do you think?"
"That would have been better, of course, but you see there is
a difficulty . . . I did not follow my own wishes, but those
of others . . . I learned afterward that it would have been
better if . . . but it was too late."
71 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Oh! I suppose some lawyer taught you this?"
"Someone of that sort."
"Aha! Do you wish to settle the affair peacefully,"
"With all my heart!" cried the soldier.
Petunikoff was silent for a moment, then looked at him, and
suddenly asked, coldly and dryly, "And why do you wish to do
so?"
Vaviloff did not expect such a question, and therefore had no
reply ready. In his opinion the question was quite unworthy
of any attention, and so he laughed at young Petunikoff.
"That is easy to understand. Men like to live peacefully with
one another."
"But," interrupted Petunikoff, "that is not exactly the reason
why. As far as I can see, you do not distinctly understand
why you wish to be reconciled to us . . . I will tell you."
The soldier was a little surprised. This youngster, dressed
in a check suit, in which he looked ridiculous, spoke as if
he were Colonel Rakshin, who used to knock three of the
unfortunate soldier's teeth out every time he was angry.
"You want to be friends with us because we should be such
useful neighbors to you . . . because there will be not less
than a hundred and fifty workmen in our factory, and in
course of time even more. If a hundred men come and drink
one glass at your place, after receiving their weekly wages,
that means that you will sell every month four hundred glasses
more than you sell at present. This is, of course, the lowest
estimate and then you have the eating-house besides. You are
not a fool, and you can understand for yourself what
profitable neighbors we shall be."
72 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"That is true," Vaviloff nodded "I knew that before."
"Well, what then?" asked the merchant loudly.
"Nothing . . . let us be friends!"
"It is nice to see that you have decided so quickly. Look here,
I have already prepared a notification to the court of the
withdrawal of the summons against my father. Here it is; read
it, and sign it."
Vaviloff looked at his companion with his round eyes and
shivered, as if experiencing an unpleasant sensation.
"Pardon me . . . sign it? And why?"
"There is no difficulty about it . . . write your Christian
name and surname and nothing more," explained Petunikoff,
pointing obligingly with his finger to the place for the
signature.
"Oh! It is not that . . . I was alluding to the compensation
I was to get for my ground."
"But then this ground is of no use to you," said Petunikoff
calmly.
"But it is mine!" exclaimed the soldier.
"Of course, and how much do you want for it?"
"Well, say the amount stated in the document," said Vaviloff
boldly.
"Six hundred!" and Petunikoff smiled softly. "You are a funny
fellow!"
"The law is on my side . . . I can even demand two thousand.
I can insist on your pulling down the building . . . and
enforce it too. That is why my claim is so small. I demand
that you should pull it down!"
"Very well. Probably we shall do so . . . after three years,
and after having dragged you into enormous law expenses.
73 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
And then, having paid up, we shall open our public-house, and
you will he ruined . . . annihilated like the Swedes at
Poltava. We shall see that you are ruined . . . we will take
good care of that. We could have begun to arrange about a
public-house now, but you see our time is valuable, and
besides we are sorry for you. Why should we take the bread
out of your mouth without any reason?"
Egor Terentievitch looked at his guest, clenching his teeth,
and felt that he was master of the situation, and held his
fate in his hands. Vaviloff was full of pity for himself at
having to deal with this calm, cruel figure in the checked suit.
"And being such a near neighbor you might have gained a good
deal by helping us, and we should have remembered it too.
Even now, for instance, I should advise you to open a small
shop for tobacco, you know, bread, cucumbers, and so on . . .
All these are sure to be in great demand."
Vaviloff listened, and being a clever man, knew that to throw
himself upon the enemy's generosity was the better plan. It
was as well to begin from the beginning, and, not knowing what
else to do to relieve his mind, the soldier began to swear at
Kuvalda.
"Curses be upon your head, you drunken rascal! May the Devil
take you!"
"Do you mean the lawyer who composed your petition?" asked
Petunikoff calmly, and added, with a sigh, "I have no doubt
he would have landed you in rather an awkward fix . . . had
we not taken pity upon you."
74 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Ah!" And the angry soldier raised his hand.
"There are two of them . . . One of them discovered it, the
other wrote the petition, the accursed reporter!"
"Why the reporter?"
"He writes for the papers . . . He is one of your lodgers . . .
there they all are outside . . . Clear them away, for Christ's
sake! The robbers! They disturb and annoy everyone in the
street. One cannot live for them . . . And they are all
desperate fellows . . . You had better take care, or else they
will rob or burn you.
"And this reporter, who is he?" asked Petunikoff, with interest.
"He? A drunkard. He was a teacher, but was dismissed. He
drank everything he possessed . . . and now he writes for the
papers and composes petitions. He is a very wicked man!"
"H'm! And did he write your petition, too? I suppose it was
he who discovered the flaws in the building. The beams were
not rightly put in?"
"He did! I know it for a fact! The dog! He read it aloud in
here and boasted, 'Now I have caused Petunikoff some loss!'"
"Ye--es . . . Well, then, do you want to be reconciled?"
"To be reconciled?" The soldier lowered his head and thought.
"Ah! This is a hard life!" said he, in a querulous voice,
scratching his head.
"One must learn by experience, Petunikoff reassured him,
lighting a cigarette.
"Learn . . . It is not that, my dear sir; but don't you see
there is no freedom? Don't you see what a life I lead?
75 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
I live in fear and trembling . . . I am refused the freedom
so desirable to me in my movements, and I fear this ghost of
a teacher will write about me in the papers. Sanitary
inspectors will be called for . . . fines will have to be paid
. . . or else your lodgers will set fire to the place or rob
and kill me . . . I am powerless against them. They are not
the least afraid of the police, and they like going to prison,
because they get their food for nothing there."
"But then we will have them turned out if we come to terms
with you," promised Petunikoff.
"What shall we arrange, then?" asked Vaviloff sadly and
seriously.
"Tell me your terms."
"Well, give me the six hundred mentioned in the claim."
"Won't you take a hundred roubles?" asked the merchant calmly,
looking attentively at his companion, and smiling softly. "I
will not give you one rouble more" . . . he added.
After this, he took out his eyeglasses and began cleaning them
with his handkerchief. Vaviloff looked at him sadly and
respectfully. The calm face of Petunikoff, his gray eyes and
clear complexion, every line of his thickset body betokened
self-confidence and a well-balanced mind. Vaviloff also liked
Petunikoff's straightforward manner of addressing him without
any pretensions, as if he were his own brother, though Vaviloff
understood well enough that he was his superior, he being only
a soldier.
76 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Looking at him, he grew fonder and fonder of him, and,
forgetting for a moment the matter in hand, respectfully asked
Petunikoff:
"Where did you study?"
"In the technological institute. Why?" answered the other,
smiling:
"Nothing. Only . . . excuse me!" The soldier lowered his
head, and then suddenly exclaimed, "What a splendid thing
education is! Science--light. My brother, I am as stupid
as an owl before the sun . . . Your honor, let us finish
this job."
With an air of decision he stretched out his hand to
Petunikoff and said:
"Well, five hundred?"
"Not more than one hundred roubles, Egor Tereutievitch."
Petunikoff shrugged his shoulders as if sorry at being unable
to give more, and touched the soldier's hairy hand with his
long white fingers. They soon ended the matter, for the
soldier gave in quickly and met Petunikoff's wishes. And when
Vaviloff had received the hundred roubles and signed the paper,
he threw the pen down on the table and said bitterly:
"Now I will have a nice time! They will laugh at me, they will
cry shame on me, the devils!"
"But you tell them that I paid all your claim," suggested
Petunikoff, calmly puffing out clouds of smoke and watching
them float upward.
"But do you think they will believe it? They are as clever
swindlers if not worse . . ."
Vaviloff stopped himself in time before making the intended
comparison, and looked at the merchant's son in terror.
77 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The other smoked on, and seemed to be absorbed in that
occupation. He went away soon, promising to destroy the nest
of vagabonds. Vaviloff looked after him and sighed, feeling
as if he would like to shout some insult at the young man who
was going with such firm steps toward the steep road,
encumbered with its ditches and heaps of rubbish.
In the evening the Captain appeared in the eatinghouse. His
eyebrows were knit and his fist clenched. Vaviloff smiled at
him in a guilty manner.
"Well, worthy descendant of Judas and Cain, tell us. . . ."
"They decided" . . . said Vaviloff, sighing and lowering his
eyes.
"I don't doubt it; how many silver pieces did you receive?"
"Four hundred roubles"
"Of course you are lying . . . But all the better for me.
Without any further words, Egorka, ten per cent. of it for my
discovery, four per cent. to the teacher for writing the
petition, one 'vedro' of vodki to all of us, and refreshments
all round. Give me the money now, the vodki and refreshments
will do at eight o'clock."
Vaviloff turned purple with rage, and stared at Kuvalda with
wide-open eyes.
"This is humbug! This is robbery! I will do nothing of the
sort. What do you mean, Aristid Fomich? Keep your appetite
for the next feast! I am not afraid of you now. . . ."
Kuvalda looked at the clock.
"I give you ten minutes, Egorka, for your idiotic talk."
78 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Finish your nonsense by that time and give me what I demand.
If you don't I will devour you! Kanets has sold you
something? Did you read in the paper about the theft at
Basoff's house? Do you understand? You won't have time to
hide anything, we will not let you . . . and this very night
. . . do you understand?"
"Why, Aristid Fomich?" sobbed the discomfited merchant.
"No more words! Did you understand or not?"
Tall, gray, and imposing, Kuvalda spoke in half whispers, and
his deep bass voice rang through the house Vaviloff always
feared him because he was not only a retired military man,
but a man who had nothing to lose. But now Kuvalda appeared
before him in a new role. He did not speak much, and jocosely
as usual, but spoke in the tone of a commander, who was
convinced of the other's guilt. And Vaviloff felt that the
Captain could and would ruin him with the greatest pleasure.
He must needs bow before this power. Nevertheless, the soldier
thought of trying him once more. He sighed deeply, and began
with apparent calmness:
"It is truly said that a man's sin will find him out . . . I
lied to you, Aristid Fomich, . . . I tried to be cleverer than
I am . . . I only received one hundred roubles."
"Go on!" said Kuvalda.
"And not four hundred as I told you . . . That means. . . ."
"It does not mean anything. It is all the same to me whether
you lied or not. You owe me sixty-five roubles. That is not
much, eh?"
79 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Oh! my Lord! Aristid Fomich! I have always been attentive to
your honor and done my best to please you.
"Drop all that, Egorka, grandchild of Judas!"
"All right! I will give it you . . . only God will punish you
for this. . . ."
"Silence! You rotten pimple of the earth!" shouted the
Captain, rolling his eyes. "He has punished me enough already
in forcing me to have conversation with you . . . I will kill
you on the spot like a fly!"
He shook his fist in Vaviloff's face and ground his teeth till
they nearly broke.
After he had gone Vaviloff began smiling and winking to
himself. Then two large drops rolled down his cheeks. They
were grayish, and they hid themselves in his moustache, while
two others followed them. Then Vaviloff went into his own
room and stood before the icon, stood there without praying,
immovable, with the salt tears running down his wrinkled brown
cheeks. . . .
* * * * * * * * * *
Deacon Taras, who, as a rule, loved to loiter in the
woods and fields, proposed to the "creatures that once were
men" that they should go together into the fields, and there
drink Vaviloff's vodki in the bosom of Nature. But the Captain
and all the rest swore at the Deacon, and decided to drink it
in the courtyard.
"One, two, three," counted Aristid Fomich; "our full number is
thirty, the teacher is not here . . . but probably many other
outcasts will come. Let us calculate, say, twenty persons, and
to every person two-and-a-half cucumbers, a pound of bread, and
a pound of meat . . . That won't be bad! One bottle of vodki each,
and there is plenty of sour cabbage, and three watermelons.
80 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
I ask you, what the devil could you want more, my scoundrel
friends? Now, then, let us prepare to devour Egorka Vaviloff,
because all this is his blood and body!"
They spread some old clothes on the ground, setting the
delicacies and the drink on them, and sat around the feast,
solemnly and quietly, but almost unable to control the craving
for drink that was shining in their eyes.
The evening began to fall, and its shadows were cast on the
human refuse of the earth in the courtyard of the dosshouse;
the last rays of the sun illumined the roof of the tumble-down
building. The night was cold and silent.
"Let us begin, brothers!" commanded the Captain.
"How many cups have we? Six . . . and there are thirty of us!
Aleksei Maksimovitch, pour it out. Is it ready? Now then,
the first toast . . . Come along!"
They drank and shouted, and began to eat.
"The teacher is not here . . . I have not seen him for three
days. Has anyone seen him?" asked Kuvalda.
"No one."
"It is unlike . . . Let us drink to the health of Aristid
Kuvalda . . . the only friend who has never deserted me for
one moment of my life! Devil take him all the same! I might
have had something to wear had he left my society at least
for a little while."
"You are bitter . . ." said Abyedok, and coughed.
The Captain, with his feeling of superiority to the others,
never talked with his mouth full.
81 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Having drunk twice, the company began to grow merry; the food
was grateful to them.
Paltara Taras expressed his desire to hear a tale, but the
Deacon was arguing with Kubaroff over his preferring thin
women to stout ones, and paid no attention to his friend's
request. He was asserting his views on the subject to
Kubaroff with all the decision of a man who was deeply
convinced in his own mind.
The foolish face of Meteor, who was lying on the ground,
showed that he was drinking in the Deacon's strong words.
Martyanoff sat, clasping his large hairy hands round his
knees, looking silently and sadly at the bottle of vodki and
pulling his moustache as if trying to bite it with his teeth,
while Abyedok was teasing Tyapa.
"I have seen you watching the place where your money is
hidden !"
"That is jour luck," shouted Tyapa.
"I will go halves with you, brother."
"All right, take it and welcome."
Kuvalda felt angry with these men. Among them all there was
not one worthy of hearing his oratory or of understanding him.
"I wonder where the teacher is?" he asked loudly.
Martyanoff looked at him and said, "He will come soon.. . ."
"I am positive that he will come, but he won't come in a
carriage. Let us drink to your future health. If you kill
any rich man go halves with me . . . then I shall go to
America, brother. To those . . . what do you call them?
Limpas? Pampas?
82 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
I will go there and I will work my way until I become the
President of the United States, and then I will challenge the
whole of Europe to war and I will blow it up! I will buy the
army . . . in Europe that is--I will invite the French, the
Germans, the Turks, and so on, and I will kill them by the
hands of their own relatives . . . Just as Elia Marumets
bought a Tartar with a Tartar. With money it would be
possible even for Elia to destroy the whole of Europe and to
take Judas Petunikoff for his valet. He would go . . . Give
him a hundred roubles a month and he would go! But he would
be a bad valet, because he would soon begin to steal. . . ."
"Now, besides that, the thin woman is better than the stout
one, because she costs one less," said the Deacon,
convincingly. "My first Deaconess used to buy twelve arshins
for her clothes, but the second one only ten. And so on even
in the matter of provisions and food."
Paltara Taras smiled guiltily. Turning his head towards the
Deacon and looking straight at him, he said, with conviction:
"I had a wife once, too."
"Oh! That happens to everyone," remarked Kuvalda; but go on
with your lies."
"She was thin, but she ate a lot, and even died from
over-eating."
"You poisoned her, you hunchback!" said Abyedok, confidently.
"No, by God I It was from eating sturgeon," said Paltara Taras.
"But I say that you poisoned her!" declared Abyedok, decisively.
83 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
It often happened, that having said something absolutely
impossible and without proof, he kept on repeating it, beginning
in a childish, capricious tone, and gradually raising his voice
to a mad shriek.
The Deacon stood up for his friend. "No; he did not poison her.
He had no reason to do so."
"But I say that he poisoned her!" swore Abyedok.
"Silence!" shouted the Captain, threateningly, becoming still
angrier. He looked at his friends with his blinking eyes, and
not discovering anything to further provoke his rage in their
half-tipsy faces, he lowered his head, sat still for a little
while, and then turned over on his back on the ground. Meteor
was biting cucumbers. He took a cucumber in his hand without
looking at it, put nearly half of it into his mouth, and bit it
with his yellow teeth, so that the juice spurted out in all
directions and ran over his cheeks. He did not seem to want to
eat, but this process pleased him. Martyanoff sat motionless
on the ground, like a statue, and looked in a dull manner at
the half-vedro bottle, already getting empty. Abyedok lay on
his belly and coughed, shaking all over his small body. The
rest of the dark, silent figures sat and lay around in all
sorts of positions, and their tatters made them look like
untidy animals, created by some strange, uncouth deity to make
a mockery of man.
"There once lived a lady in Suzdale,
A strange lady,
She fell into hysterics,
Most unpleasantly!"
84 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
sang the Deacon in low tones embracing Aleksei Maksimovitch,
who was smiling kindly into his face.
Paltaras Taras giggled voluptuously.
The night was approaching. High up in the sky the stars were
shining . . . and on the mountain and in the town the lights
of the lamps were appearing. The whistles of the steamers
were heard all over the river, and the doors of Yaviloff's
eating-house opened noisily. Two dark figures entered the
courtyard, and one of them asked in a hoarse voice:
"Are you drinking?" And the other said in a jealous aside:
"Just see what devils they are!"
Then a hand stretched over the Deacon's head and took away
the bottle, and the characteristic sound of vodki being poured
into a glass was heard. Then they all protested loudly.
"Oh this is sad!" shouted the Deacon. "Krivoi, let us remember
the ancients! Let us sing 'On the Banks of Babylonian Rivers.'"
"But can he?" asked Simtsoff.
"He? He was a chorister in the Bishop's choir. Now then,
Krivoi! . . . On the r-i-v-e-r-s-----" The Deacon's voice was
loud and hoarse and cracked, but his friend sang in a shrill
falsetto.
The dirty building loomed large in the darkness and seemed to
be coming nearer, threatening the singers, who were arousing
its dull echoes. The heavy, pompous clouds were floating in
the sky over their heads. One of the "creatures that once
were men" was snoring; while the rest of them, not yet so
drunk as he was, ate and drank quietly or spoke to each other
at long intervals.
85 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
It was unusual for them to be in such low spirits during such
a feast, with so much vodki. Somehow the drink tonight did
not seem to have its usual exhilarating effect.
"Stop howling, you dogs!" . . . said the Captain to the singers,
raising his head from the ground to listen.
"Some one is passing . . . in a droshky. . . ."
A droshky at such a time in the main street could not but
attract general attention. Who would risk crossing the ditches
between it and the town, and why? They all raised their heads
and listened. In the silence of the night the wheels were
distinctly heard. They came gradually nearer. A voice was
heard, asking roughly:
"Well, where then?"
Someone answered, "It must be there, that house."
"I shall not go any farther."
"They are coming here!" shouted the Captain.
"The police!" someone whispered in great alarm.
"In a droshky! Fool!" said Martyanoff, quietly.
Kuvalda got up and went to the entrance.
"Is this a lodging-house?" asked someone, in a trembling voice.
"Yes. Belonging to Aristid Kuvalda . . ." said the Captain,
roughly.
"Oh! Did a reporter, one Titoff, live here?"
"Aha! Have you brought him?"
"Yes. . . ."
"Drunk?"
"Ill."
86 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"That means he is very drunk. Ay, teacher! Now, then, get up!"
"Wait, I will help you . . . He is very ill . . . he has been
with me for the last two days . . . Take him under the arms
. . . The doctor has seen him. He is very bad."
Tyapa got up and walked to the entrance, but Abyedok laughed,
and took another drink.
"Strike a light, there!" shouted the Captain.
Meteor went into the house and lighted the lamp. Then a thin
line of light streamed out over the courtyard, and the Captain
and another man managed to get the teacher into the dosshouse.
His head was hanging on his breast, his feet trailed on the
ground, and his arms hung limply as if broken. With Tyapa's
help they placed him on a wide board. He was shivering all
over.
"We worked on the same paper . . . he is very unlucky . . .
I said, 'Stay in my house, you are not in the way,' . . . but
he begged me to send him 'home.' He was so excited about it
that I brought him here, thinking it might do him good . . .
Home! This is it, isn't it?"
"Do you suppose he has a home anywhere else?" asked Kuvalda,
roughly, looking at his friend. "Tyapa, fetch me some cold
water."
"I fancy I am of no more use," remarked the man in some
confusion. The Captain looked at him critically. His clothes
were rather shiny, and tightly buttoned up to his chin. His
trousers were frayed, his hat almost yellow with age and
crumpled like his lean and hungry face.
87 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"No, you are not necessary! We have plenty like you here,"
said the Captain, turning away.
"Then, good-bye!" The man went to the door, and said quietly
from there, "If anything happens . . . let me know in the
publishing office . . . My name is Rijoff. I might write a
short obituary . . . You see he was an active member of the
Press."
"H'm, an obituary, you say? Twenty lines forty kopecks? I
will do more than that. When he dies I will cut off one of
his legs and send it to you. That will be much more profitable
than an obituary. It will last you for three days . . . His
legs are fat. You devoured him when he was alive. You may as
well continue to do so after he is dead. . . ."
The man sniffed strangely and disappeared. The Captain sat
down on the wooden board beside the teacher, felt his forehead
and breast with his hands and called "Philip!"
The sound re-echoed from the dirty walls of the dosshouse and
died away.
"This is absurd, brother," said the Captain, quietly arranging
the teacher's untidy hair with his hand. Then the Captain
listened to his breathing, which was rapid and uneven, and
looked at his sunken gray face. He sighed and looked upon him,
knitting his eyebrows. The lamp was a bad one . . . The light
was fitful, and dark shadows flickered on the dosshouse walls.
The Captain watched them, scratching his beard.
Tyapa returned, bringing a vedro of water, and placing it beside
the teacher's head, he took his arm as if to raise him up.
88 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"The water is not necessary," and the Captain shook his head.
"But we must try to revive him," said the old rag-collector.
"Nothing is needed," said the Captain, decidedly.
They sat silently looking at the teacher.
"Let us go and drink, old devil!"
"But he?"
"Can you do him any good?"
Tyapa turned his back on the teacher, and both went out into
the courtyard to their companions.
"What is it?" asked Abyedok, turning his sharp nose to the
old man.
The snoring of those who were asleep, and the tinkling sound
of pouring vodki was heard . . . The Deacon was murmuring
something. The clouds swam low, so low that it seemed as if
they would touch the roof of the house and would knock it over
on the group of men.
"Ah! One feels sad when someone near at hand is dying,"
faltered the Captain, with his head down. No one answered him.
"He was the best among you . . . the cleverest, the most
respectable. I mourn for him."
"R-e-s-t with the Saints . . . Sing, you crooked hunchback!"
roared the Deacon, digging his friend in the ribs.
"Be quiet!" shouted Abyedok, jumping vengefully to his feet.
"I will give him one on the head," proposed Martyanoff, raising
his head from the ground.
89 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"You are not asleep?" Aristid Fomich asked him very softly.
"Have you heard about our teacher?"
Martyanoff lazily got up from the ground, looked at the line
of light coming out of the dosshouse, shook his head and
silently sat down beside the Captain.
"Nothing particular . . . The man is dying remarked the Captain,
shortly.
"Have they been beating him?" asked Abyedok, with great interest.
The Captain gave no answer. He was drinking vodki at the moment.
"They must have known we had something in which to commemorate
him after his death!" continued Abyedok, lighting a cigarette.
Someone laughed, someone sighed. Generally speaking, the
conversation of Abyedok and the Captain did not interest them,
and they hated having to think at all. They had always felt the
teacher to be an uncommon man, but now many of them were drunk
and the others sad and silent. Only the Deacon suddenly drew
himself up straight and howled wildly:
"And may the righteous r-e-s-t!"
"You idiot!" hissed Abyedok. "What are you howling for?"
"Fool!" said Tyapa's hoarse voice. "When a man is dying one must
be quiet . . . so that he may have peace.
Silence reigned once more. The cloudy sky threatened thunder,
and the earth was covered with the thick darkness of an autumn
night.
"Let us go on drinking!" proposed Kuvalda, filling up the
glasses.
"I will go and see if he wants anything," said Tyapa.
90 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"He wants a coffin!" jeered the Captain.
"Don't speak about that," begged Abyedok in a low voice.
Meteor rose and followed Tyapa. The Deacon tried to get up,
but fell and swore loudly.
When Tyapa had gone the Captain touched Martyanoff's shoulder
and said in low tones:
"Well, Martyanoff . . . You must feel it more then the others.
You were . . . But let that go to the Devil . . . Don't you
pity Philip?"
"No," said the ex-jailer, quietly, "I do not feel things of
this sort, brother . . . I have learned better this life is
disgusting after all. I speak seriously when I say that I
should like to kill someone."
"Do you?" said the Captain, indistinctly. "Well let's have
another drink . . . It's not a long job ours, a little drink
and then . . ."
The others began to wake up, and Simtsoff shouted in a blissful
voice: "Brothers! One of you pour out a glass for the old man!"
They poured out a glass and gave it to him. Having drunk it
he tumbled down again, knocking against another man as he fell.
Two or three minutes' silence ensued, dark as the autumn night.
"What do you say?"
"I say that he was a good man . . . a quiet and good man,"
whispered a low voice.
"Yes, and he had money, too . . . and he never refused it to
a friend. . . ."
Again silence ensued.
"He is dying!" said Tyapa, hoarsely, from behind the
91 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Captain's head. Aristid Fomich got up, and went with firm
steps into the dosshouse.
"Don't go!" Tyapa stopped him. "Don't go! You are drunk!
It is not right." The Captain stopped and thought.
"And what is right on this earth? Go to the Devil!" And he
pushed Tyapa aside.
On the walls of the dosshouse the shadows were creeping,
seeming to chase each other. The teacher lay on the board
at full length and snored. His eyes were wide open, his naked
breast rose and fell heavily, the corners of his mouth foamed,
and on his face was an expression as if he wished to say
something very important, but found it difficult to do so.
The Captain stood with his hands behind him, and looked at him
in silence. He then began in a silly way:
"Philip! Say something to me . . . a word of comfort to a
friend . . . come . . . I love you, brother! All men are
beasts . . . You were the only man for me . . . though you
were a drunkard. Ah! how you did drink vodki, Philip! That
was the ruin of you I You ought to have listened to me, and
controlled yourself . . . Did I not once say to you. . . ."
The mysterious, all-destroying reaper, called Death, made up
his mind to finish the terrible work quickly, as if insulted
by the presence of this drunken man at the dark and solemn
struggle. The teacher sighed deeply, and quivered all over,
stretched himself out, and died. The Captain stood shaking
to and fro, and continued to talk to him.
92 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Do you want me to bring you vodki? But it is better that you
should not drink, Philip . . . control yourself or else drink!
Why should you really control yourself? For what reason,
Philip? For what reason?"
He took him by the foot and drew him closer to himself.
"Are you dozing, Philip? Well, then, sleep Good-night . . .
To-morrow I shall explain all this to you, and you will
understand that it is not really necessary to deny yourself
anything . . . But go on sleeping now . . . if you are not
dead."
He went out to his friends, followed by the deep silence, and
informed them:
"Whether he is sleeping or dead, I do not know I am a little
drunk."
Tyapa bent further forward than usual and crossed himself
respectfully. Martyanoff dropped to the ground and lay there.
Abyedok moved quietly, and said in a low and wicked tone:
"May you all go to the Devil! Dead? What of that? Why should
I care? Why should I speak about it? It will be time enough
when I come to die myself . . . I am not worse than other
people."
"That is true," said the Captain, loudly, and fell to the
ground. "The time will come when we shall all die like others
. . . Ha! ha! How shall we live? That is nothing . . .
But we shall die like everyone else, and this is the whole end
of life, take my word for it. A man lives only to die, and he
dies . . . and if this be so what does it matter how or where
he died or how he lived? Am I right, Martyanoff? Let us
therefore drink . . . while we still have life!"
93 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The rain began to fall. Thick, close darkness covered the
figures that lay scattered over the ground, half drunk, half
asleep. The light in the windows of the dosshouse flickered,
paled, and suddenly disappeared. Probably the wind blew it
out or else the oil was exhausted. The drops of rain sounded
strangely on the iron roof of the dosshouse. Above the
mountain where the town lay the ringing of bells was heard,
rung by the watchers in the churches. The brazen sound
coming from the belfry rang out into the dark and died away,
and before its last indistinct note was drowned another stroke
was heard and the monotonous silence was again broken by the
melancholy clang of bells.
* * * * * * * * * *
The next morning Tyapa was the first to wake up. Lying on his
back he looked up into the sky. Only in such a position did
his deformed neck permit him to see the clouds above his head.
This morning the sky was of a uniform gray. Up there hung the
damp, cold mist 0รบ dawn, almost extinguishing the sun, hiding
the unknown vastness behind and pouring despondency over the
earth. Tyapa crossed himself, and leaning on his elbow,
looked round to see whether there was any vodki left. The
bottle was there, but it was empty. Crossing over his
companions he looked into the glasses from which they had
drunk, found one of them almost full, emptied it, wiped his
lips with his sleeve, and began to shake the Captain.
The Captain raised his head and looked at him with sad eyes.
94 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"We must inform the police . . . Get up!"
"Of what?" asked the Captain, sleepily and angrily.
"What, is he not dead?"
"Who?"
"The learned one." .
"Philip? Ye-es!"
"Did you forget? . . . Alas!" said Tyapa, hoarsely.
The Captain rose to his feet, yawned and stretched himself
till all his bones cracked.
"Well, then! Go and give information.
"I will not go . . . I do not like them," said the Captain
morosely.
"Well, then, wake up the Deacon . . . I shall go, at any
rate."
"All right! . . . Deacon, get up!"
The Captain entered the dosshouse, and stood at the teacher's
feet. The dead man lay at full length, his left hand on his
breast, the right hand held as if ready to strike some one.
The Captain thought that if the teacher got up now, he would
be as tall as Paltara Taras. Then he sat by the side of the
dead man and sighed, as he remembered that they had lived
together for the last three years. Tyapa entered holding his
head like a goat which is ready to butt.
He sat down quietly and seriously on the opposite side of the
teacher's body, looked into the dark, silent face, and began
to sob.
"So . . . he is dead . . . I too shall die soon. . . ."
"It is quite time for that!" said the Captain, gloomily.
95 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"It is," Tyapa agreed. "You ought to die too. Anything is
better than this. . . ."
"But perhaps death might be worse? How do you know?"
"It could not be worse. When you die you have only God to
deal with . . . but here you have to deal with men . . . and
men--what are they?"
"Enough! . . . Be quiet!" interrupted Kuvalda angrily.
And in the dawn, which filled the dosshouse, a solemn stillness
reigned over all. Long and silently they sat at the feet of
their dead companion, seldom looking at him, and both plunged
in thought. Then Tyapa asked:
"Will you bury him?"
"I? No, let the police bury him!"
"You took money from Vaviloff for this petition . . . and I
will give you some if you have not enough." .
"Though I have his money . . . still I shall not bury him."
"That is not right. You are robbing the dead. I will tell
them all that you want to keep his money." . . . Tyapa
threatened him.
"You are a fool, you old devil!" said Kuvalda, contemptuously.
"I am not a fool . . . but it is not right nor friendly."
"Enough! Be off!"
"How much money is there?"
"Twenty-five roubles," . . . said Kuvalda, absently.
"So! . . . You might gain a five-rouble note. . . ."
96 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"You old scoundrel! . . ." And looking into Tyapa's face the
Captain swore.
"Well, what? Give. . . ."
"Go to the Devil! . . . I am going to spend this money in
erecting a monument to him."
"What does he want that for?"
"I will buy a stone and an anchor. I shall place the stone
on the grass, and attach the anchor to it with a very heavy
chain."
"Why? You are playing tricks. . . ."
"Well . . . It is no business of yours."
"Look out! I shall tell . . ." again threatened Tyapa.
Aristid Fomich looked at him sullenly and said nothing. Again
they sat there in that silence which, in the presence of the
dead, is so full of mystery.
"Listen . . . They are coming!" Tyapa got up and went out of
the dosshouse.
Then there appeared at the door the Doctor, the Police
Inspector of the district, and the examining Magistrate or
Coroner. All three came in turn, looked at the dead teacher,
and then went out, throwing suspicious glances at Kuvalda.
He sat there, without taking any notice of them, until the
Police Inspector asked him:
"Of what did he die?"
"Ask him . . . I think his evil life hastened his end."
"What?" asked the Coroner.
"I say that he died of a disease to which he had not been
accustomed. . . ."
97 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"H'm, yes. Had he been ill long?"
"Bring him over here, I cannot see him properly," said the
Doctor, in a melancholy tone. "Probably there are signs
of . . ."
"Now, then, ask someone here to carry him out!" the Police
Inspector ordered Kuvalda.
"Go and ask them yourself! He is not in my way here . . ."
the Captain replied, indifferently.
"Well!" . . . shouted the Inspector, making a ferocious face.
"Phew!" answered Kuvalda, without moving from his place and
gnashing his teeth restlessly.
"The Devil take it!" shouted the Inspector, so madly that the
blood rushed to his face. "I'll make you pay for this!
I'll----"
"Good-morning, gentlemen!" said the merchant Petunikoff, with
a sweet smile, making his appearance in the doorway.
He looked round, trembled, took off his cap and crossed himself.
Then a pompous, wicked smile crossed his face, and, looking at
the Captain, he inquired respectfully:
"What has happened? Has there been a murder here?"
"Yes, something of that sort," replied the Coroner.
Petunikoff sighed deeply, crossed himself again, and spoke in
an angry tone.
"By Cod! It is just as I feared. It always ends in your
having to come here . . . Ay, ay, ay! God save everyone.
Times without number have I refused to lease this house to
this man, and he has always won me over, and I was afraid.
You know . . . They are such awful people . . . better give
it them, I thought, or else. . . ."
98 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
He covered his face with his hands, tugged at his beard, and
sighed again.
"They are very dangerous men, and this man here is their leader
. . . the ataman of the robbers."
"But we will make him smart!" promised the Inspector, looking
at the Captain with revengeful eyes.
"Yes, brother, we are old friends of yours . . ." said Kuvalda
in a familiar tone. "How many times have I paid you to be
quiet?"
"Gentlemen!" shouted the Inspector, "did you hear him? I want
you to bear witness to this. Aha, I shall make short work of
you, my friend, remember!"
"Don't count your chickens before they are hatched . . . my
friend," said Aristid Fomich.
The Doctor, a young man with eye-glasses, looked at him
curiously, the Coroner with an attention that boded him no
good, Petunikoff with triumph, while the Inspector could hardly
restrain himself from throwing himself upon him.
The dark figure of Martyanoff appeared at the door of the
dosshouse. He entered quietly, and stood behind Petunikoff,
so that his chin was on a level with the merchant's head.
Behind him stood the Deacon, opening his small, swollen,
red eyes.
"Let us be doing something, gentlemen," suggested the Doctor.
Martyanoff made an awful grimace, and suddenly suddenly sneezed
on Petunikoff's head. The latter gave a yell, sat down
hurriedly, and then jumped aside, almost knocking down the
Inspector, into whose open arms he fell.
99 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"Do you see," said the frightened merchant, pointing to
Martyanoff, "do you see what kind of men they are."
Kuvalda burst out laughing. The Doctor and the Coroner smiled
too, and at the door of the dosshouse the group of figures was
increasing . . . sleepy figures, with swollen faces, red,
inflamed eyes, and dishevelled hair, staring rudely at the
Doctor, the Coroner, and the Inspector.
"Where are you going?" said the policeman on guard at the door,
catching hold of their tatters and pushing them aside. But he
was one against many, and, without taking any notice, they all
entered and stood there, reeking of vodki, silent and
evil-looking.
Kuvalda glanced at them, then at the authorities, who were
angry at the intrusion of these ragamuffins, and said,
smilingly, "Gentlemen, perhaps you would like to make the
acquaintance of my lodgers and friends? Would you? But,
whether you wish it or not, you will have to make their
acquaintance sooner or later in the course of your duties."
The Doctor smiled in an embarrassed way. The Coroner pressed
his lips together, and the Inspector saw that it was time to
go. Therefore, he shouted:
"Sideroff! Whistle! Tell them to bring a cart here."
"I will go," said Petunikoff, coming forward from a corner.
"You had better take it away to-day, sir, I want to pull down
this hole. Go away! or else I shall apply to the police!"
100 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
The policeman's whistle echoed through the courtyard. At the
door of the dosshouse its inhabitants stood in a group,
yawning, and scratching themselves.
"And so you do not wish to be introduced? That is rude of
you!" laughed Aristid Fomich.
Petunikoff took his purse from his pocket, took out two
five-kopeck pieces, put them at the feet of the dead man, and
crossed himself.
"God have mercy . . . on the burial of the sinful. . . ."
"What!" yelled the Captain, "you give for the burial?
Take them away, I say, you scoundrel! How dare you give your
stolen kopecks for the burial of an honest man? I will tear
you limb from limb!"
"Your Honor!" cried the terrified merchant to the Inspector,
seizing him by the elbow.
The Doctor and the Coroner jumped aside. The Inspector shouted:
"Sideroff, come here!"
"The creatures that once were men" stood along the wall, looking
and listening with an interest, which put new life into their
broken-down bodies.
Kuvalda, shaking his fist at Petunikoff's head, roared and
rolled his eyes like a wild beast.
"Scoundrel and thief! Take back your money! Dirty worm! Take
it back, I say . . . or else I shall cram it down your throat.
. . . Take your five-kopeck pieces!"
Petunikoff put out his trembling hand toward his mite, and
protecting his head from Kuvalda's fist with the other hand,
said:
101 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"You are my witnesses, Sir Inspector, and you good people!"
"We are not good people, merchant!" said the voice of Abyedok,
trembling with anger.
The Inspector whistled impatiently, with his other hand
protecting Petunikoff, who was stooping in front of him as if
trying to enter his belly.
"You dirty toad! I shall compel you to kiss the feet of the
dead man. How would you like that?" And catching Petunikoff
by the neck, Kuvalda hurled him against the door, as if he
bad been a cat.
The "creatures that once were men" sprang aside quickly to let
the merchant fall. And down he fell at their feet, crying
wildly:
"Murder! Help! Murder!"
Martyanoff slowly raised his foot, and brought it down heavily
on the merchant's head. Abyedok spat in his face with a grin.
The merchant, creeping on all-fours, threw himself into the
courtyard, at which everyone laughed. But by this time the
two policemen had arrived, and pointing to Kuvalda, the
Inspector said, pompously:
"Arrest him, and bind him hand and foot!"
"You dare not! . . . I shall not run away . . . I will go
wherever you wish, . . ." said Kuvalda, freeing himself from
the policemen at his side.
The "creatures that once were men" disappeared one after the
other. A cart entered the yard. Some ragged wretches brought
out the dead man's body.
102 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
"I'll teach you! You just wait!" thundered the Inspector at
Kuvalda.
"How now, ataman?" asked Petunikoff maliciously, excited and
pleased at the sight of his enemy in bonds. That, you fell
into the trap? Eh? You just wait. . . ."
But Kuvalda was quiet now. He stood strangely straight and
silent between the two policemen, watching the teacher's body
being placed in the cart. The man who was holding the head
of the corpse was very short, and could not manage to place
it on the cart at the same time as the legs. For a moment
the body hung as if it would fall to the ground, and hide
itself beneath the earth, away from these foolish and wicked
disturbers of its peace.
"Take him away!" ordered the Inspector, pointing to the
Captain.
Kuvalda silently moved forward without protestation, passing
the cart on which was the teacher's body. He bowed his head
before it without looking. Martyanoff, with his strong face,
followed him. The courtyard of the merchant Petunikoff
emptied quickly.
"Now then, go on!" called the driver, striking the horses with
the whip. The cart moved off over the rough surface of the
courtyard. The teacher was covered with a heap of rags, and
his belly projected from beneath them. It seemed as if he
were laughing quietly at the prospect of leaving the dosshouse,
never, never to return. Petunikoff, who was following him with
his eyes, crossed himself, and then began to shake the dust and
rubbish off his clothes, and the more he shook himself the more
pleased and self-satisfied did he feel. He saw the tall figure
of Aristid Fomich Kuvalda, in a gray cap with a red band, with
his arms bound behind his back, being led away.
103 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
Petunikoff smiled the smile of the conqueror, and went back
into the dosshouse, but suddenly he stopped and trembled. At
the door facing him stood an old man with a stick in his hand
and a large bag on his back, a horrible old man in rags and
tatters, which covered his bony figure. He bent under the
weight of his burden, and lowered his head on his breast, as
if he wished to attack the merchant.
"What are you? Who are you?" shouted Petunikoff.
"A man . . ." he answered in a hoarse voice. This hoarseness
pleased and tranquillized Petunikoff, he even smiled.
"A man! And are there really men like you?" Stepping aside he
let the old man pass. He went, saying slowly:
"Men are of various kinds . . . as God wills . . . There are
worse than me . . . still worse . . . Yes. . . ."
The cloudy sky hung silently over the dirty yard and over the
cleanly-dressed man with the pointed beard, who was walking
about there, measuring distances with his steps and with his
sharp eyes. On the roof of the old house a crow perched and
croaked, thrusting its head now backward, now forward. In the
lowering gray clouds, which hid the sky, there was something
hard and merciless, as if they had gathered together to wash
all the dirt off the face of this unfortunate, suffering, and
sorrowful earth.
104
TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
There were six-and-twenty of us--six-and-twenty living
machines in a damp, underground cellar, where from morning
till night we kneaded dough and rolled it into kringels.
Opposite the underground window of our cellar was a bricked
area, green and mouldy with moisture. The window was
protected from outside with a close iron grating, and the
light of the sun could not pierce through the window panes,
covered as they were with flour dust.
Our employer had bars placed in front of the windows, so that
we should not be able to give a bit of his bread to passing
beggars, or to any of our fellows who were out of work and
hungry. Our employer called us rogues, and gave us halfrotten
tripe to eat for our mid-day meal, instead of meat.
It was swelteringly close for us cooped up in that stone
underground chamber, under the low, heavy, soot-blackened,
cobwebby ceiling. Dreary and sickening was our life between
its thick, dirty, mouldy walls.
Unrefreshed, and with a feeling of not having had our sleep
out, we used to get up at five o'clock in the morning; and
before six, we were already seated, worn out and apathetic,
at the table, rolling out the dough which our mates had already
prepared while we slept.
105 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
The whole day, from ten in the early morning until ten at night,
some of us sat round that table, working up in our hands the
yielding paste, rolling it to and fro so that it should not get
stiff; while the others kneaded the swelling mass of dough. And
the whole day the simmering water in the kettle, where the
kringels were being cooked, sang low and sadly; and the baker's
shovel scraped harshly over the oven floor, as he threw the
slippery bits of dough out of the kettle on the heated bricks.
From morning till evening wood was burning in the oven, and the
red glow of the fire gleamed and flickered over the walls of the
bake-shop, as if silently mocking us. The giant oven was like
the misshapen head of a monster in a fairy tale; it thrust
itself up out of the floor, opened wide jaws, full of glowing
fire, and blew hot breath upon us; it seemed to be ever watching
out of its black air-holes our interminable work. Those two
deep holes were like eye~the cold, pitiless eyes of a monster.
They watched us always with the same darkened glance, as if they
were weary of seeing before them such eternal slaves, from whom
they could expect nothing human, and therefore scorned them with
the cold scorn of wisdom.
In meal dust, in the mud which we brought in from the yard on
our boots, in the hot, sticky atmosphere, day in, day out, we
rolled the dough into kringels, which we moistened with our own
sweat. And we hated our work with a glowing hatred; we never
ate what had passed through our hands, and preferred black bread
to kringels.
106 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
Sitting opposite each other, at a long table--nine facing nine--
we moved our hands and fingers mechanically during endlessly
long hours, till we were so accustomed to our monotonous work
that we ceased to pay any attention to it.
We had all studied each other so constantly, that each of us
knew every wrinkle of his mates' faces. It was not long also
before we had exhausted almost every topic of conversation;
that is why we were most of the time silent, unless we were
chaffing each other; but one cannot always find something
about which to chaff another man, especially when that man is
one's mate. Neither were we much given to finding fault with
one another; how, indeed, could one of us poor devils be in a
position to find fault with another, when we were all of us
half dead and, as it were, turned to stone? For the heavy
drudgery seemed to crush all feeling out of us. But silence
is only terrible and fearful for those who have said everything
and have nothing more to say to each other; for men, on the
contrary, who have never begun to communicate with one another,
it is easy and simple.
Sometimes, too, we sang; and this is how it happened that we
began to sing: one of us would sigh deeply in the midst of our
toil, like an overdriven horse, and then we would begin one of
those songs whose gentle swaying melody seems always to ease
the burden on the singer's heart.
At first one sang by himself, and we others sat in silence
listening to his solitary song, which, under the heavy vaulted
roof of the cellar, died gradually away, and became extinguished,
like a little fire in the steppes, on a wet autumn night, when
the gray heaven hangs like a heavy mass over the earth.
107 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
Then another would join in with the singer, and now two soft,
sad voices would break into song in our narrow, dull hole of a
cellar. Suddenly others would join in, and the song would roll
forward like a wave, would grow louder and swell upward, till it
would seem as if the damp, foul walls of our stone prison were
widening out and opening. Then, all six-and-twenty of us would
be singing; our loud, harmonious song would fill the whole
cellar, our voices would travel outside and beyond, striking, as
it were, against the walls in moaning sobs and sighs, moving our
hearts with soft, tantalizing ache, tearing open old wounds, and
awakening longings.
The singers would sigh deeply and heavily; suddenly one would
become silent and listen to the others singing, then let his
voice flow once more in the common tide. Another would exclaim
in a stifled voice, "Ah!" and would shut his eyes, while the
deep, full sound waves would show him, as it were, a road, in
front of him--a sunlit, broad road in the distance, which he
himself, in thought wandered along.
But the flame flickers once more in the huge oven, the baker
scrapes incessantly with his shovel, the water simmers in the
kettle, and the flicker of the fire on the wall dances as before
in silent mockery. While in other men's words we sing out our
dumb grief, the weary burden of live men robbed of the sunlight,
the burden of slaves.
108 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
So we lived, we six-and-twenty, in the vault-like cellar of a
great stone house, and we suffered each one of us, as if we
had to bear on our shoulders the whole three storys of that
house.
But we had something else good, besides the singing--something
we loved, that perhaps took the place of the sunshine.
In the second story of our house there was established a
gold-embroiderer's shop, and there, living among the other
embroidery girls, was Tanya, a little maid-servant of sixteen.
Every morning there peeped in through the glass door a rosy
little face, with merry blue eyes; while a ringing, tender
voice called out to us:
"Little prisoners! Have you any knugels, please, for me?"
At that clear sound, we knew so well, we all used to turn
round, gazing with simple-hearted joy at the pure girlish face
which smiled at us so sweetly. The sight of the small nose
pressed against the window-pane, and of the white teeth
gleaming between the half-open lips, had become for us a daily
pleasure. Tumbling over each other we used to jump up to open
the door, and she would step in, bright and cheerful, holding
out her apron, with her head thrown on one side, and a smile
on her lips. Her thick, long chestnut hair fell over her
shoulder and across her breast. But we, ugly, dirty and
misshapen as we were, looked up at her--the threshold door was
four steps above the floor--looked up at her with heads thrown
back, wishing her good-morning, and speaking strange,
unaccustomed words, which we kept for her only.
109 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
Our voices became softer when we spoke to her, our jests were
lighter. For her--everything was different with us. The baker
took from his oven a shovel of the best and the brownest
kringels, and threw them deftly into Tanya's apron.
"Be off with you now, or the boss will catch you!" we warned
her each time. She laughed roguishly, called out cheerfully:
"Good-bye, poor prisoners!" and slipped away as quick as a
mouse.
That was all. But long after she had gone we talked about her
to one another with pleasure. It was always the same thing as
we had said yesterday and the day before, because everything
about us, including ourselves and her, remained the same--as
yesterday--and as always.
Painful and terrible it is when a man goes on living, while
nothing changes around him; and when such an existence does
not finally kill his soul, then the monotony becomes with
time, even more and more painful. Generally we spoke about
women in such a way, that sometimes it was loathsome to us
ourselves to hear our rude, shameless talk. The women whom
we knew deserved perhaps nothing better. But about Tanya we
never let fall an evil word; none of us ever ventured so much
as to lay a hand on her, even too free a jest she never heard
from us. Maybe this was so because she never remained for
long with us; she flashed on our eyes like a star falling from
the sky, and vanished; and maybe because she was little and
very beautiful, and everything beautiful calls forth respect,
even in coarse people.
110 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
And beside~though our life of penal labor had made us dull
beasts, oxen, we were still men, and, like all men, could
not live without worshipping something or other. Better
than her we had none, and none but her took any notice of us,
living in the cellar--no one, though there were dozens of
people in the house. And then, to--most likely, this was
the chief thing--we all regarded her as something of our own,
something existing as it were only by virtue of our kringels.
We took on ourselves in turns the duty of providing her with
hot kringels, and this became for us like a daily sacrifice
to our idol, it became almost a sacred rite, and every day
it bound us more closely to her. Besides kringels, we gave
Tanya a great deal of advice to wear warmer clothes, not to
run upstairs too quickly, not to carry heavy bundles of wood.
She listened to all our counsels with a smile, answered them
by a laugh, and never took our advice, but we were not
offended at that; all we wanted was to show how much care we
bestowed upon her.
Often she would apply to us with different requests, she asked
us, for instance; to open the heavy door into the store-cellar,
and to chop wood: with delight and a sort of pride, we did this
for her, and everything else she wanted.
But when one of us asked her to mend his solitary shirt for
him, she said, with a laugh of contempt:
"What next! A likely idea!"
We made great fun of the queer fellow who could entertain such
an idea, and--never asked her to do anything else. We loved
her--all is said in that.
111 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
Man always wants to lay his love on someone, though sometimes
he crushes, sometimes he sullies, with it; he may poison
another life because he loves without respecting the beloved.
We were bound to love Tanya, for we had no one else to love.
At times one of us would suddenly begin to reason like this:
"And why do we make so much of the wench? What is there in
her? eh? What a to-do we make about her!"
The man who dared to utter such words we promptly and
coarsely cut short--we wanted something to love: we had
found it and loved it, and what we twenty-six loved must be
for each of us unalterable, as a holy thing, and anyone who
acted against us in this was our enemy. We loved, maybe, not
what was really good, but you see there were twenty-six of us,
and so we always wanted to see what was precious to us held
sacred by the rest.
Our love is not less burdensome than hate, and maybe that is
just why some proud souls maintain that our hate is more
flattering than our love. But why do they not run away from
us, if it is so?
* * * * * * * * * *
Besides our department, our employer had also a bread-bakery;
it was in the same house, separated from our hole only by a
wall; but the bakers--there were four of them--held aloof from
us, considering their work superior to ours, and therefore
themselves better than us; they never used to come into our
workroom, and laughed contemptuously at us when they met us
in the yard. We, too, did not go to see them; this was
forbidden by our employer, from fear that we should steal
the fancy bread.
112 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
We did not like the bakers, because we envied them; their work
was lighter than ours, they were paid more, and were better
fed; they had a light, spacious workroom, and they were all so
clean and healthy--and that made them hateful to us. We all
looked gray and yellow; three of us had syphilis, several
suffered from skin diseases, one was completely crippled by
rheumatism. On holidays and in their leisure time the bakers
wore pea-jackets and creaking boots, two of them had accordions,
and they all used to go for strolls in the town garden--we wore
filthy rags and leather clogs or plaited shoes on our feet, the
police would not let us into the town gardens--could we possibly
like the bakers?
And one day we learned that their chief baker had been drunk,
the master had sacked him and had already taken on another, and
that this other was a soldier, wore a satin waistcoat and a
watch and gold chain. We were inquisitive to get a sight of
such a dandy, and in the hope of catching a glimpse of him we
kept running one after another out into the yard.
But he came of his own accord into our room. Kicking at the
door, he pushed it open, and leaving it ajar, stood in the
doorway smiling, and said to us:
"God help the work! Good-morning, mates!"
The ice-cold air, which streamed in through the open door,
curled in streaks of vapor round his feet. He stood on the
threshold, looked us up and down, and under his fair, twisted
mustache gleamed big yellow teeth. His waistcoat was really
something quite out of the common, blue-flowered, brilliant
with shining little buttons of red stones. He also wore a watch
chain.
113 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
He was a fine fellow, this soldier; tall, healthy, rosy-cheeked,
and his big, clear eyes had a friendly, cheerful glance. He wore
on his head a white starched cap, and from under his spotlessly
clean apron peeped the pointed toes of fashionable, well-blacked
boots.
Our baker asked him politely to shut the door. The soldier did
so without hurrying himself, and began to question us about the
master. We explained to him, all speaking together, that our
employer was a thorough-going brute, a rogue, a knave, and a
slave-driver; in a word, we repeated to him all that can and
must be said about an employer, but cannot be repeated here.
The soldier listened to us, twisted his mustache, and watched
us with a friendly, open-hearted look.
"But haven't you got a lot of girls here?" he asked suddenly.
Some of us began to laugh deferentially, others put on a meaning
expression, and one of us explained to the soldier that there
were nine girls here.
"You make the most of them?" asked the soldier, with a wink.
We laughed, but not so loudly, and with some embarrassment.
Many of us would have liked to have shown the soldier that we
also were tremendous fellows with the girls, but not one of us
could do so; and one of our number confessed as much, when he
said in a low voice:
"That sort of thing is not in our line."
"Well, no; it wouldn't quite do for you," said the soldier with
conviction, after having looked us over.
114 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
"There is something wanting about you all you don't look the
right sort. You've no sort of appearance; and the women, you
see, they like a bold appearance, they will have a well set-up
body. Everything has to be tip-top for them. That's why they
respect strength. They want an arm like that!"
The soldier drew his right hand, with its turned-up shirt sleeve,
out of his pocket, and showed us his bare arm. It was white and
strong, and covered with shining yellow hairs.
"Leg and chest, all must be strong. And then a man must be
dressed in the latest fashion, so as to show off his looks to
advantage. Yes, all the women take to me. Whether I call to
them, or whether I beckon them, they with one accord, five at
a time, throw themselves at my head."
He sat down on a flour sack, and told at length all about the
way women loved him, and how bold he was with them. Then he
left, and after the door had creaked to behind him, we sat for
a long time silent, and thought about him and his talk. Then
we all suddenly broke silence together, and it became apparent
that we were all equally pleased with him. He was such a nice,
open-hearted fellow; he came to see us without any
standoffishness, sat down and chatted. No one else came to us
like that, and no one else talked to us in that friendly sort
of way. And we continued to talk of him and his coming triumph
among the embroidery girls, who passed us by with contemptuous
sniffs when they saw us in the yard, or who looked straight
through us as if we had been air.
115 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
But we admired them always when we met them outside, or when
they walked past our windows; in winter, in fur jackets and
toques to match; in summer, in hats trimmed with flowers, and
with colored parasols in their hands. We talked, however, about
these girls in a way that would have made them mad with shame
and rage, if they could have heard us.
"If only he does not get hold of little Tanya!" said the baker,
suddenly, in an anxious tone of voice.
We were silent, for these words troubled us. Tanya had quite
gone out of our minds, supplanted, put on one side by the strong,
fine figure of the soldier.
Then began a lively discussion; some of us maintained that Tanya
would never lower herself so; others thought she would not be
able to resist him, and the third group proposed to give him a
thrashing if he should try to annoy Tanya. And, finally, we all
decided to watch the soldier and Tanya, and to warn the girl
against him. This brought the discussion to an end.
Four weeks had passed by since then; during this time the soldier
baked white bread, walked about with the gold-embroidery girls,
visited us often, but did not talk any more about his conquests;
only twisted his mustache, and licked his lips lasciviously.
Tanya called in as usual every morning for "little kringels,"
and was as gay and as nice and friendly with us as ever. We
certainly tried once or twice to talk to her about the soldier,
but she called him a "goggle-eyed calf," and made fun of him
all round, and that set our minds at rest. We saw how the
gold-embroidery girls carried on with the soldier, and we were
proud of our girl; Tanya's behavior reflected honor on us all; we
imitated her, and began in our talks to treat the soldier with
small consideration.
116 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
She became dearer to us, and we greeted her with more
friendliness and kindliness every morning.
One day the soldier came to see us, a bit drunk, and sat down
and began to laugh. When we asked him what he was laughing
about, he explained to us:
"Why two of them--that Lydka girl and Grushka-- have been
clawing each other on my account. You should have seen the
way they went for each other! Ha! ha! One got hold of the
other one by the hair, threw her down on the floor of the
passage, and sat on her! Ha! ha! ha! They scratched and tore
each others' faces. It was enough to make one die with
laughter! Why is it women can't fight fair? Why do they always
scratch one another, eh?"
He sat on the bench, healthy, fresh and jolly; he sat there and
went on laughing. We were silent. This time he made an
unpleasant impression on us.
"Well, it's a funny thing what luck I have with the women-folk!
Eh? I've laughed till I'm ill! One wink, and it's all over
with them! It's the d-devil!"
He raised his white hairy hands, and slapped them down on his
knees. And his eyes seem to reflect such frank astonishment,
as if he were himself quite surprised at his good luck with
women. His fat, red face glistened with delight and self
satisfaction, and he licked his lips more than ever.
Our baker scraped the shovel violently and angrily along the
oven floor, and all at once he said sarcastically:
117 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
"There's no great strength needed to pull up fir saplings, but
try a real pine-tree."
"Why-what do you mean by saying that to me?" asked the soldier.
"Oh, well. . . ."
"What is it?"
"Nothing-it slipped out!"
"No, wait a minute! What's the point? What pinetree?"
Our baker did not answer, working rapidly away with the shovel
at the oven; flinging into it the half-cooked kringels, taking
out those that were done, and noisily throwing them on the
floor to the boys who were stringing them on bast. He seemed
to have forgotten the soldier and his conversation with him.
But the soldier had all at once dropped into a sort of
uneasiness. He got up on to his feet, and went to the oven,
at the risk of knocking against the handle of the shovel, which
was waving spasmodically in the air.
"No, tell me, do--who is it? You've insulted me. I? There's
not one could withstand me, n-no! And you say such insulting
things to me?"
He really seemed genuinely hurt. He must have had nothing else
to pride himself on except his gift for seducing women; maybe,
except for that, there was nothing living in him, and it was
only that by which he could feel himself a living man.
There are men to whom the most precious and best thing in their
lives appears to be some disease of their soul or body. They
spend their whole life in relation to it, and only living by it,
suffering from it, they sustain themselves on it, they complain
of it to others, and so draw the attention of their fellows to
themselves.
118 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
For that they extract sympathy from people, and apart from it
they have nothing at all. Take from them that disease, cure
them, and they will be miserable, because they have lost their
one resource in life--they are left empty then. Sometimes a
man's life is so poor, that he is driven instinctively to
prize his vice and to live by it; one may say for a fact that
often men are vicious from boredom.
The soldier was offended, he went up to our baker and roared:
"No, tell me do-who?"
"Tell you?" the baker turned suddenly to him.
"Well?"
"You know Tanya?"
"Well?"
"Well, there then! Only try."
"You!"
"Her? Why that's nothing to me-pooh!"
"We shall see!"
"You will see! Ha! ha!"
"She'll----"
"Give me a month!"
"What a braggart you are, soldier!"
"A fortnight! I'll prove it! Who is it? Tanya! Pooh!"
"Well, get out. You're in my way!"
"A fortnight--and it's done! Ah, you----"
"Get out, I say!"
119 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
Our baker, all at once, flew into a rage and brandished his
shovel. The soldier staggered away from him in amazement,
looked at us, paused, and softly, malignantly said, "Oh, all
right, then!" and went away.
During the dispute we had all sat silent, absorbed in it.
But when the soldier had gone, eager, loud talk and noise
arose among us.
Some one shouted to the baker: "It's a bad job that you've
started, Pavel!"
"Do your work!" answered the baker savagely.
We felt that the soldier had been deeply aggrieved, and that
danger threatened Tanya. We felt this, and at the same time
we were all possessed by a burning curiosity, most agreeable
to us. What would happen? Would Tanya hold out against the
soldier? And almost all cried confidently: "Tanya? She'll
hold out! You won't catch her with your bare arms!"
We longed terribly to test the strength of our idol; we
forcibly proved to each other that our divinity was a strong
divinity and would come victorious out of this ordeal. We
began at last to fancy that we had not worked enough on the
soldier, that he would forget the dispute, and that we ought
to pique his vanity more keenly. From that day we began to
live a different life, a life of nervous tension, such as we
had never known before. We spent whole days in arguing
together; we all grew, as it were, sharper; and got to talk
more and better. It seemed to us that we were playing some
sort of game with the devil, and the stake on our side was
Tanya. And when we learned from the bakers that the soldier
had begun "running after our Tanya," we felt a sort of
delighted terror, and life was so interesting that we did not
even notice that our employer had taken advantage of our
pre-occupation to increase our work by fourteen pounds of
dough a day.
120 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
We seemed, indeed, not even tired by our work. Tanya's name
was on our lips all day long. And every day we looked for
her with a certain special impatience. Sometimes we pictured
to ourselves that she would come to us, and it would not be
the same Tanya as of old, hut somehow different. We said
nothing to her, however, of the dispute regarding her. We
asked her no questions, and behaved as well and affectionately
to her as ever. But even in this a new element crept in, alien
to our old feeling for Tanya--and that new element was keen
curiosity, keen and cold as a steel knife.
"Mates! To-day the time's up!" our baker said to us one
morning, as he set to work.
We were well aware of it without his reminder; but still we
were thrilled.
"Look at her. She'll he here directly," suggested the baker.
One of us cried out in a troubled voice, "Why! as though one
could notice anything!"
And again an eager, noisy discussion sprang up among us.
To-day we were about to prove how pure and spotless was the
vessel into which we had poured all that was best in us. This
morning, for the first time, it became clear to us, that we
really were playing a great game; that we might, indeed,
through the exaction of this proof of purity, lose our
divinity altogether.
121 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
During the whole of the intervening fortnight we had heard
that Tanya was persistently followed by the soldier, but
not one of us had thought of asking her how she had behaved
toward him. And she came every morning to fetch her kringels,
and was the same toward us as ever.
This morning, too, we heard her voice outside: "You poor
prisoners! Here I am!"
We opened the door, and when she came in we all remained,
contrary to our usual custom, silent. Our eyes fixed on
her, we did not know how to speak to her, what to ask her.
And there we stood in front of her, a gloomy, silent crowd.
She seemed to be surprised at this unusual reception; and
suddenly we saw her turn white and become uneasy, then she
asked, in a choking voice:
"Why are you--like this?"
"And you?" the baker flung at her grimly, never taking his
eyes off her.
"What am I?"
"N---nothing."
"Well, then, give me quickly the little kringels."
Never before had she bidden us hurry.
"There's plenty of time," said the baker, not stirring, and
not removing his eyes from her face.
Then, suddenly, she turned round and disappeared through the
door.
The baker took his shovel and said, calmly turning away toward
the oven:
"Well, that settles it! But a soldier! a common beast like
that--a low cur!"
122 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
Like a flock of sheep we all pressed round the table, sat down
silently, and began listlessly to work. Soon, however, one of
us remarked:
"Perhaps, after all----"
"Shut up!" shouted the baker.
We were all convinced that he was a man of judgment, a man who
knew more than we did about things. And at the sound of his
voice we were convinced of the soldier's victory, and our
spirits became sad and downcast.
At twelve o'clock--while we were eating our dinners--the
soldier came in. He was as clean and as smart as ever, and
looked at us--as usual--straight in the eyes. But we were all
awkward in looking at him.
"Now then, honored sirs, would you like me to show you a
soldier's quality?" he said, chuckling proudly.
"Go out into the passage, and look through the crack--do you
understand?"
We went into the passage, and stood all pushing against one
another, squeezed up to the cracks of the wooden partition of
the passage that looked into the yard. We had not to wait
long. Very soon Tanya, with hurried footsteps and a careworn
face, walked across the yard, jumping over the puddles of
melting snow and mud: she disappeared into the store cellar.
Then whistling, and not hurrying himself, the soldier followed
in the same direction. His hands were thrust in his pockets;
his mustaches were quivering.
Rain was falling, and we saw how its drops fell into the
puddles, and the puddles were wrinkled by them. The day was
damp and gray--a very dreary day. Snow still lay on the roofs,
but on the ground dark patches of mud had begun to appear.
123 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
And the snow on the roofs too was covered by a layer of
brownish dirt. The rain fell slowly with a depressing sound.
It was cold and disagreeable for us waiting.
The first to come out of the store cellar was the soldier;
he walked slowly across the yard, his mustaches twitching, his
hands in his pockets--the same as always.
Then--Tanya, too, came out. Her eye~her eyes were radiant
with joy and happiness, and her lips--were smiling. And she
walked as though in a dream, staggering, with unsteady steps.
We could not bear this quietly. All of us at once rushed to
the door, dashed out into the yard and--hissed at her, reviled
her viciously, loudly, wildly.
She started at seeing us, and stood as though rooted in the
mud under her feet. We formed a ring round her! and
malignantly, without restraint, abused her with vile words,
said shameful things to her.
We did this not loudly, not hurriedly, seeing that she could
not get away, that she was hemmed in by us, and we could
deride her to our hearts' content. I don't know why, but we
did not beat her. She stood in the midst of us, and turned
her head this way and that, as she heard our insults. And
we-more and more violently flung at her the filth and venom
of our words.
The color had left her face. Her blue eyes, so happy a moment
before, opened wide, her bosom heaved, and her lips quivered.
We in a ring round her avenged ourselves on her as though she
had robbed us. She belonged to us, we had lavished on her our
best, and though that best was a beggar's crumb, still we were
twenty-six, she was one, and so there was no pain we could
give her equal to her guilt!
124 TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL
How we insulted her! She was still mute, still gazed at us
with wild eyes, and a shiver ran all over her.
We laughed, roared, yelled. Other people ran up from
somewhere and joined us. One of us pulled Tanya by the sleeve
of her blouse.
Suddenly her eyes flashed; deliberately she raised her hands
to her head and straightening her hair she said loudly but
calmly, straight in our faces:
"Ah, you miserable prisoners!"
And she walked straight at us, walked as directly as though
we had not been before her, as though we were not blocking
her way.
And hence it was that no one did actually prevent her passing.
Walking out of our ring, without turning round, she said
loudly and with indescribable contempt:
"Ah, you scum--brutes."
And--was gone.
We were left in the middle of the yard, in the rain, under the
gray sky without the sun.
Then we went mutely away to our damp stone cellar. As before
--the sun never peeped in at our windows, and Tanya came no more!
CHELKASH
An Episode
Darkened by the dust of the dock, the blue southern sky is
murky; the burning sun looks duskily into the greenish sea, as
though through a thin gray veil. It can find no reflection in
the water, continually cut up by the strokes of oars, the screws
of steamers, the deep, sharp keels of Turkish feluccas and other
sailing vessels, that pass in all directions, ploughing up the
crowded harbor, where the free waves of the sea, pent up within
granite walls, and crushed under the vast weights that glide
over its crests, beat upon the sides of the ships and on the
bank; beat and complain, churned up into foam and fouled with
all sorts of refuse.
The jingle of the anchor chains, the rattle of the links of the
trucks that bring down the cargoes, the metallic clank of sheets
of iron falling on the stone pavement, the dull thud of wood,
the creaking of the carts plying for hire, the whistles of the
steamers, piercingly shrill and hoarsely roaring, the shouts of
dock laborers, sailors, and customs officers--all these sounds
melt into the deafening symphony of the working day, that
hovering uncertainty hangs over the harbor, as though afraid to
float upward and be lost.
125 CHELKASH
And fresh waves of sound continually rise up from the earth to
join it; deep, grumbling, sullen reverberations setting all
around quaking; shrill, menacing notes that pierce the ear and
the dusty, sultry air.
The granite, the iron, the wood, the harbor pavement, the ships
and the men--all swelled the mighty strains of this frenzied,
impassioned hymn to Mercury. But the voices of men, scarcely
audible in it, were weak and ludicrous. And the men, too,
themselves, the first source of all that uproar, were ludicrous
and pitiable: their little figures, dusty, tattered, nimble,
bent under the weight of goods that lay on their backs, under
the weight of cares that drove them hither and thither, in the
clouds of dust, in the sea of sweltering heat and din, were so
trivial and small in comparison with the colossal iron monsters,
the mountains of bales, the thundering railway trucks and all
that they had created. Their own creation had enslaved them,
and stolen away their individual life.
As they lay letting off steam, the heavy giant steamers
whistled or hissed, or seemed to heave deep sighs, and in every
sound that came from them could be heard the mocking note of
ironical contempt for the gray, dusty shapes of men, crawling
about their decks and filling their deep holds with the fruits
of their slavish toil. Ludicrous and pitiable were the long
strings of dock laborers bearing on their backs thousands of
tons of bread, and casting it into the iron bellies of the
ships to gain a few pounds of that same bread to fill their
own bellies--for their worse luck not made of iron, but alive
to the pangs of hunger.
127 CHELKASH
The men, tattered, drenched with sweat, made dull by weariness,
and din and heat; and the mighty machines, created by those men,
shining, well-fed, serene, in the sunshine; machines which in
the last resort are, after all, not set in motion by steam, but
by the muscles and blood of their creators--in this contrast
was a whole poem of cruel and frigid irony.
The clamor oppressed the spirit, the dust fretted the nostrils
and blinded the eyes, the sweltering heat baked and exhausted
the body, and everything-buildings, men, pavement--seemed
strained, breaking, ready to burst, losing patience, on the
verge of exploding into some immense catastrophe, some outbreak,
after which one would be able to breathe freely and easily in
the air refreshed by it. On the earth there would be quietness;
and that dusty uproar, deafening, fretting the nerves, driving
one to melancholy frenzy, would vanish; and in town, and sea
and sky, it would be still and clear and pleasant. But that
was only seeming. It seemed so because man has not yet grown
weary of hoping for better things, and the longing to feel free
is not dead in him.
Twelve times there rang out the regular musical peal of the
bell. When the last brazen clang had died away, the savage
orchestra of toil had already lost half its volume. A minute
later it had passed into a dull, repining grumble. Now the
voices of men and the splash of the sea could be heard more
clearly. The dinner-hour had come.
128 CHELKASH
CHAPTER I
When the dock laborers, knocking off work, had scattered about
the dock in noisy groups, buying various edibles from the women
hawking food, and were settling themselves to dinner in shady
corners on the pavement, there walked into their midst Grishka
Chelkash, an old hunted wolf, well known to all the dock
population as a hardened drunkard and a bold and dexterous thief.
He was barefoot and bareheaded, clad in old, threadbare, shoddy
breeches, in a dirty print shirt, with a torn collar that
displayed his mobile, dry, angular bones tightly covered with
brown skin. From the ruffled state of his black, slightly
grizzled hair and the dazed look on his keen, predatory face,
it was evident that he had only just waked up. There was a
straw sticking in one brown mustache, another straw clung to
the scrubby bristles of his shaved left cheek, and behind his
ear he had stuck a little, freshly-picked twig of lime. Long,
bony, rather stooping, he paced slowly over the flags, and
turning his hooked, rapacious-looking nose from side to side,
he cast sharp glances about him, his cold, gray eyes shining,
as he scanned one after another among the dock laborers. His
thick and long brown mustaches were continually twitching like
a cat's whiskers, while he rubbed his hands behind his back,
nervously clenching the long, crooked, clutching fingers.
Even here, among hundreds of striking-looking, tattered
vagabonds like himself, he attracted attention at once from
his resemblance to a vulture of the steppes, from his hungrylooking
thinness, and from that peculiar gait of his, as though
pouncing down on his prey, so smooth and easy in appearance,
but inwardly intent and alert, like the flight of the keen,
nervous bird he resembled.
129 CHELKASH
As he reached one of the groups of ragged dockers, reclining
in the shade of a stack of coal baskets, there rose to meet
him a thick-set young man, with purple blotches on his dull
face and scratches on his neck, unmistakable traces of a
recent thrashing. He got up and walked beside Chelkash,
saying, in an undertone:
"The dock officers have got wind of the two cases of goods.
They're on the look-out. D'ye hear, Grishka?"
"What then?" queried Chelkash, cooly measuring him with his
eyes.
"How 'what then?' They're on the look-out, I say. That's all."
"Did they ask for me to help them look?"
And with an acrid smile Chelkash looked toward the storehouse
of the Volunteer Fleet.
"You go to the devil!"
His companion turned away.
"Ha, wait a bit! Who's been decorating you like that? Why,
what a sight they have made of your signboard! Have you seen
Mishka here?"
"I've not seen him this long while!" the other shouted, and
hastily went back to his companions.
Chelkash went on farther, greeted by everyone as a familiar
figure. But he, usually so lively and sarcastic, was
unmistakably out of humor to-day, and made short and abrupt
replies to all inquiries.
130 CHELKASH
From behind a pile of goods emerged a customs-house officer,
a dark green, dusty figure, of military erectness. He barred
the way for Chelkash, standing before him in a challenging
attitude, his left hand clutching the hilt of his dirk, while
with his right he tried to seize Chelkash by the collar.
"Stop! Where are you going?"
Chelkash drew back a step, raised his eyes, looked at the
official, and smiled dryly.
The red, good-humoredly crafty face of the official, in its
attempt to assume a menacing air, puffed and grew round and
purple, while the brows scowled, the eyes rolled, and the
effect was very comic.
"You've been told--don't you dare come into the dock, or I'll
break your ribs! And you're here again!" the man roared
threateningly.
"How d'ye do, Semyonitch! It's a long while since we've seen
each other," Chelkash greeted him calmly, holding out his hand.
"Thankful never to see you again! Get along, get along!"
But yet Semyonitch took the outstretched hand.
"You tell me this," Chelkash went on, his gripping fingers
still keeping their hold of Semyonitch's hand, and shaking
it with friendly familiarity, "haven't you seen Mishka?"
"Mishka, indeed, who's Mishka? I don't know any Mishka. Get
along, mate! or the inspector'll see you, he'll----"
"The red-haired fellow that I worked with last time on the
'Kostroma'?" Chelkash persisted.
"That you steal with, you'd better say. He's been taken to
the hospital, your Mishka; his foot was crushed by an iron
bar. Go away, mate, while you're asked to civilly, go away,
or I'll chuck you out by the scruff of your neck."
131 CHELKASH
"A-ha, that's like you! And you say-you don't know Mishka!
But I say, why are you so cross, Semyonitch?"
"I tell you, Grishka, don't give me any of your jaw. Go---o!"
The official began to get angry and, looking from side to side,
tried to pull his hand away from Chelkash's firm grip.
Chelkash looked calmly at him from under his thick eyebrows,
smiled behind his mustache and not letting go of his hand,
went on talking.
"Don't hurry me. I'll just have my chat out with you, and
then I'll go. Come, tell us how you're getting on; wife
and children quite well?" And with a spiteful gleam in his
eyes, he added, showing his teeth in a mocking grin:
"I've been meaning to pay you a call for ever so long, but
I've not had the time, I'm always drinking, you see."
"Now--now then-you drop that! You--none of your jokes, you
bony devil. I'm in earnest, my man. So you mean you're coming
stealing in the houses and the streets?"
"What for? Why there's goods enough here to last our time--for
you and me. By God, there's enough, Semyonitch! So you've
been filching two cases of goods, eh? Mind, Semyonitch, you'd
better look out? You'll get caught one day!"
Enraged by Chelkash's insolence, Semyonitch turned blue, and
struggled, spluttering and trying to say something.
132 CHELKASH
Chelkash let go of his hand, and with complete composure
strode back to the dock gates. The customs-house officer
followed him, swearing furiously. Chelkash grew more
cheerful; he whistled shrilly through his teeth, and
thrusting his hands in his breeches pockets, walked with the
deliberate gait of a man of leisure, firing off to right and
to left biting jeers and jests. He was followed by retorts
in the same vein.
"I say, Grishka, what good care they do take of you! Made
your inspection, eh?" shouted one out of a group of dockers,
who had finished dinner and were lying on the ground, resting.
"I'm barefoot, so here's Semyonitch watching that I shouldn't
graze my foot on anything," answered Chelkash.
They reached the gates. Two soldiers felt Chelkash all over,
and gave him a slight shove into the streets.
"Don't let him go!" wailed Semyonitch, who had stayed behind
in the dockyard.
Chelkash crossed the road and sat down on a stone post opposite
the door of the inn. From the dock gates rolled rumbling an
endless string of laden carts. To meet them, rattled empty
carts, with their drivers jolting up and down in them. The
dock vomited howling din and biting dust, and set the earth
quaking.
Chelkash, accustomed to this frenzied uproar, and roused by
his scene with Semyonitch, felt in excellent spirits. Before
him lay the attractive prospect of a substantial haul, which
would call for some little exertion and a great deal of
dexterity; Chelkash was confident that he had plenty of the
latter, and, half-closing his eyes, dreamed of how he would
indulge to~morrow morning when the business would be over and
the notes would be rustling in his pocket.
133 CHELKASH
Then he thought of his comrade, Mishka, who would have been
very useful that night, if he had not hurt his foot; Chelkash
swore to himself, thinking that, all alone, without Mishka,
maybe he'd hardly manage it all. What sort of night would it
be? Chelkash looked at the sky, and along the street.
Half-a-dozen paces from him, on the flagged pavement, there
sat, leaning against a stone post, a young fellow in a coarse
blue linen shirt, and breeches of the same, in plaited bark
shoes, and a torn, reddish cap. Near him lay a little bag,
and a scythe without a handle, with a wisp of hay twisted
round it and carefully tied with string. The youth was
broad-shouldered, squarely built, flaxen headed, with a
sunburnt and weather-beaten face, and big blue eyes that
stared with confident simplicity at Chelkash.
Chelkash grinned at him, put out his tongue, and making a
fearful face, stared persistently at him with wide-open eyes.
The young fellow at first blinked in bewilderment, but then,
suddenly bursting into a guffaw, shouted through his laughter:
"Oh! you funny chap!" and half getting up from the ground,
rolled clumsily from his post to Chelkash's, upsetting his
bag into the dust, and knocking the heel of his scythe on the
stone.
"Eh, mate, you've been on the spree, one can see!" he said to
Chelkash, pulling at his trousers.
"That's so, suckling, that's so indeed!" Chelkash admitted
frankly; he took at once to this healthy, simple-hearted
youth, with his childish clear eyes. "Been off mowing, eh?"
134 CHELKASH
"To be sure! You've to mow a verst to earn ten kopecks! It's
a poor business! Folks--in masses! Men had come tramping from
the famine parts. They've knocked down the prices, go where
you will. Sixty kopecks they paid in Kuban. And in years gone
by, they do say, it was three, and four, and five roubles."
"In years gone by! Why, in years gone by, for the mere sight
of a Russian they paid three roubles out that way. Ten years
ago I used to make a regular trade of it. One would go to a
settlement--'I'm a Russian,' one said--and they'd come and
gaze at you at once, touch you, wonder at you, and--you'd get
three roubles. And they'd give you food and drink--stay as
long as you like!"
As the youth listened to Chelkash, at first his mouth dropped
open, his round face expressing bewildered rapture; then,
grasping the fact that this tattered fellow was romancing, he
closed his lips with a smack and guffawed. Chelkash kept a
serious face, hiding a smile in his mustache.
"You funny chap, you chaff away as though it were the truth,
and I listen as if it were a bit of news! No, upon my soul,
in years gone by----"
"Why, and didn't I say so? To be sure, I'm telling
you how in years gone by----"
"Go on!" the lad waved his hand. "A cobbler, eh? or a tailor?
or what are you?"
"I?" Chelkash queried, and after a moment's thought he said:
"I'm a fisherman."
135 CHELKASH
"A fisherman! Really? You catch fish?"
"Why fish? Fishermen about here don't catch fish only. They
fish more for drowned men, old anchors, sunk ships--everything!
There are hooks on purpose for all that."
"Go on! That sort of fishermen, maybe, that sing of themselves:
"We cast our nets
Over banks that are dry,
Over storerooms and pantries!"
"Why, have you seen any of that sort?" inquired Chelkash,
looking scoffingly at him and thinking that this nice youth
was very stupid.
"No, seen them I haven't! I've heard tell."
"Do you like them?"
"Like them? May be. They're all right, fine bold chaps--free."
"And what's freedom to you? Do you care for freedom?"
"Well, I should think so! Be your own master, go where you
please, do as you like. To be sure! If you know how to behave
yourself, and you've nothing weighing upon you--it's first rate.
Enjoy yourself all you can, only be mindful of God."
Chelkash spat contemptuously, and turning away from the youth,
dropped the conversation.
"Here's my case now," the latter began, with sudden animation.
"As my father's dead, my bit of land's small, my mother's old,
all the land's sucked dry, what am I to do? I must live. And
how? There's no telling.
136 CHELKASH
"Am I to marry into some well-to-do house? I'd be glad to, if
only they'd let their daughter have her share apart.
"Not a bit of it, the devil of a father-in-law won't consent
to that. And so I shall have to slave for him--for ever so
long--for years. A nice state of things, you know!
"But if I could earn a hundred or a hundred and fifty roubles,
I could stand on my own feet, and look askance at old Antip,
and tell him straight out! Will you give Marfa her share
apart? No? all right, then! Thank God, she's not the only
girl in the village. And I should be, I mean, quite free and
independent.
"Ah, yes!" the young man sighed. "But as 'tis, there's
nothing for it, but to marry and live at my father-in-law's.
I was thinking I'd go, d'ye see, to Kuban, and make some two
hundred roubles-straight off! Be a gentleman! But there,
it was no go! It didn't come off. Well, I suppose I'll have
to work for my father-in-law! Be a day-laborer. For I'll
never manage on my own bit--not anyhow. Heigh-ho!"
The lad extremely disliked the idea of bondage to his future
father-in-law. His face positively darkened and looked gloomy.
He shifted clumsily on the ground and drew Chelkash out of the
reverie into which he had sunk during his speech.
Chelkash felt that he had no inclination now to talk to him,
yet he asked him another question: "Where are you going now?"
137 CHELKASH
"Why, where should I go? Home, to be sure."
"Well, mate, I couldn't be sure of that, you might be on your
way to Turkey."
"To Th-urkey!" drawled the youth. "Why, what good Christian
ever goes there! Well I never!"
"Oh, you fool!" sighed Chelkash, and again he turned away from
his companion, conscious this time of a positive disinclination
to waste another word on him. This stalwart village lad roused
some feeling in him. It was a vague feeling of annoyance, that
grew instinctively, stirred deep down in his heart, and hindered
him from concentrating himself on the consideration of all that
he had to do that night.
The lad he had thus reviled muttered something, casting
occasionally a dubious glance at Chelkash. His cheeks were
comically puffed out, his lips parted, and his eyes were screwed
up and blinking with extreme rapidity. He had obviously not
expected so rapid and insulting a termination to his
conversation with this long-whiskered ragamuffin. The ragamuffin
took no further notice of him. He whistled dreamily, sitting on
the stone post, and beating time on it with his bare, dirty heel.
The young peasant wanted to be quits with him.
"Hi, you there, fisherman! Do you often get tipsy like this?"
he was beginning, but at the same instant the fisherman turned
quickly towards him, and asked:
"I say, suckling! Would you like a job to-night with me? Eh? Tell me quickly!"
"What sort of a job?" the lad asked him, distrustfully.
138 CHELKASH
"What! What I set you. We're going fishing. You'll row the
boat."
"Well. Yes. All right. I don't mind a job. Only there's
this. I don't want to get into a mess with you. You're so
awfully deep. You're rather shady."
Chelkash felt a scalding sensation in his breast, and with
cold anger he said in a low voice:
"And you'd better hold your tongue, whatever you think, or
I'll give you a tap on your nut that will make things light
enough."
He jumped up from his post, tugged at his moustache with his
left hand, while his sinewy right hand was clenched into a
fist, hard as iron, and his eyes gleamed.
The youth was frightened. He looked quickly round him, and
blinking uneasily, he, too, jumped up from the ground.
Measuring one another with their eyes, they paused.
"Well?" Chelkash queried, sullenly. He was boiling inwardly,
and trembling at the affront dealt him by this young calf,
whom he had despised while he talked to him, but now hated
all at once because he had such clear blue eyes, such health,
a sunburned face, and broad, strong hands; because he had
somewhere a village, a home in it, because a well-to-do
peasant wanted him for a son-in-law, because of all his life,
past and future, and most of all, because he--this babe
compared with Chelkash--dared to love freedom, which he could
not appreciate, nor need. It is always unpleasant to see
that a man one regards as baser or lower than oneself likes
or hates the same things, and so puts himself on a level with
oneself.
139 CHELKASH
The young peasant looked at Chelkash and saw in him an employer.
"Well," he began, "I don't mind. I'm glad of it. Why, it's
work for, you or any other man. I only meant that you don't
look like a working man--a bit too-ragged. Oh, I know that
may happen to anyone. Good Lord, as though I've never seen
drunkards! Lots of them! and worse than you too."
"All right, all right! Then you agree?" Chelkash said more
amicably.
"I? Ye-es! With pleasure! Name your terms."
"That's according to the job. As the job turns out.
According to the job. Five roubles you may get. Do you see?"
But now it was a question of money, and in that the peasant
wished to be precise, and demanded the same exactness from his
employer. His distrust and suspicion revived.
"That's not my way of doing business, mate! A bird in the
hand for me."
Chelkash threw himself into his part.
"Don't argue, wait a bit! Come into the restaurant."
And they went down the street side by side, Chelkash with the
dignified air of an employer, twisting his mustaches, the
youth with an expression of absolute readiness to give way to
him, but yet full of distrust and uneasiness.
"And what's your name?" asked Chelkash.
"Gavrilo!" answered the youth.
140 CHELKASH
When they had come into the dirty and smoky eating-house, and
Chelkash going up to the counter, in the familiar tone of an
habitual customer, ordered a bottle of vodka, cabbage soup,
a cut from the joint, and tea, and reckoning up his order,
flung the waiter a brief "put it all down!" to which the waiter
nodded in silence,--Gavrilo was at once filled with respect for
this ragamuffin, his employer, who enjoyed here such an
established and confident position.
"Well, now we'll have a bit of lunch and talk things over.
You sit still, I'll be back in a minute."
He went out. Gavrilo looked round. The restaurant was in
an underground basement; it was damp and dark, and reeked with
the stifling fumes of vodka, tobacco-smoke, tar, and some
acrid odor. Facing Gavrilo at another table sat a drunken man
in the dress of a sailor, with a red beard, all over coal-dust
and tar. Hiccupping every minute, he was droning a song all
made up of broken and incoherent words, strangely sibilant
and guttural sounds. He was unmistakably not a Russian.
Behind him sat two Moldavian women, tattered, black-haired
sunburned creatures, who were chanting some sort of song, too,
with drunken voices.
And from the darkness beyond emerged other figures, all
strangely dishevelled, all half-drunk, noisy and restless.
Gavrilo felt miserable here alone. He longed for his employer
to come back quickly. And the din in the eating-house got
louder and louder. Growing shriller every second, it all
melted into one note, and it seemed like the roaring of some
monstrous boast, with hundreds of different throats, vaguely
enraged, trying to struggle out of this damp hole and unable
to find a way out to freedom.
141 CHELKASH
Gavrilo felt something intoxicating and oppressive creeping
over him, over all his limbs, making his head reel, and his
eyes grow dim, as they moved inquisitively about the
eating-house.
Chelkash came in, and they began eating and drinking and
talking. At the third glass Gavrilo was drunk. He became
lively and wanted to say something pleasant to his employer,
who--the good fellow!--though he had done nothing for him yet,
was entertaining him so agreeably. But the words which flowed
in perfect waves to his throat, for some reason would not come
from his tongue.
Chelkash looked at him and smiled sarcastically, saying:
"You're screwed! Ugh--milksop!--with five glasses! how will
you work?"
"Dear fellow!" Gavrilo melted into a drunken, good-natured
smile. "Never fear! I respect you! That is, look here! Let
me kiss you! eh?"
"Come, come! A drop more!"
Gavrilo drank, and at last reached a condition when everything
seemed waving up and down in regular undulations before his
eyes. It was unpleasant and made him feel sick. His face wore
an expression of childish bewilderment and foolish enthusiasm.
Trying to say something, he smacked his lips absurdly and
bellowed. Chelkash, watching him intently, twisted his
mustaches, and as though recollecting something, still smiled
to himself, but morosely now and maliciously.
142 CHELKASH
The eating-house roared with drunken clamor. The red-headed
sailor was asleep, with his elbows on the table.
"Come, let's go then!" said Chelkash, getting up.
Gavrilo tried to get up, but could not, and with a vigorous
oath, he laughed a meaningless, drunken laugh.
"Quite screwed!" said Chelkash, sitting down again opposite
him.
Gavrilo still guffawed, staring with dull eyes at his new
employer. And the latter gazed at him intently, vigilantly
and thoughtfully. He saw before him a man whose life had
fallen into his wolfish clutches. He, Chelkash, felt that he
had the power to do with it as he pleased. He could rend it
like a card, and he could help to set it on a firm footing in
its peasant framework. He reveled in feeling himself master
of another man, and thought that never would this peasant-lad
drink of such a cup as destiny had given him, Chelkash, to
drink. And he envied this young life and pitied it, sneered
at it, and was even troubled over it, picturing to himself
how it might again fall into such hands as his.
And all these feelings in the end melted in Chelkash into one
--a fatherly sense of proprietorship in him. He felt sorry
for the boy, and the boy was necessary to him. Then Chelkash
took Gavrilo under the arms, and giving him a slight shove
behind with his knee, got him out into the yard of the
eating-house, where he put him on the ground in the shade of
a stack of wood, then he sat down beside him and lighted his
pipe.
143 CHELKASH
Gavrilo shifted about a little, muttered, and dropped asleep.
CHAPTER II.
"Come, ready?" Chelkash asked in a low voice of Gavrilo, who
was busy doing something to the oars.
"In a minute! The rowlock here's unsteady, can I just knock
it in with the oar?"
"No--no! Not a sound! Push it down harder with your hand,
it'll go in of itself."
They were both quietly getting out a boat, which was tied to
the stern of one of a whole flotilla of oakladen barges, and
big Turkish feluccas, half unloaded, hall still full of palmoil,
sandal wood, and thick trunks of cypress.
The night was dark, thick strata of ragged clouds were moving
across the sky, and the sea was quiet, black, and thick as oil.
It wafted a damp and salt aroma, and splashed caressingly on
the sides of the vessels and the banks, setting Chelkash's boat
lightly rocking. There were boats all round them. At a long
distance from the shore rose from the sea the dark outlines of
vessels, thrusting up into the dark sky their pointed masts
with various colored lights at their tops. The sea reflected
the lights, and was spotted with masses of yellow, quivering
patches. This was very beautiful on the velvety bosom of the
soft, dull black water, so rhythmically, mightily breathing.
The sea slept the sound, healthy sleep of a workman, wearied
out by his day's toil.
144 CHELKASH
"We're off!" said Gavrilo, dropping the oars into the water.
"Yes!" With a vigorous turn of the rudder Chelkash drove the
boat into a strip of water between two barks, and they darted
rapidly over the smooth surface, that kindled into bluish
phosphorescent light under the strokes of the oars. Behind
the boat's stern lay a winding ribbon of this phosphorescence,
broad and quivering.
"Well, how's your head, aching?" asked Chelkash, smiling.
"Awfully! Like iron ringing. I'll wet it with some water in
a minute."
"Why? You'd better wet your inside, that may get rid of it.
You can do that at once." He held out a bottle to Gavrilo.
"Eh? Lord bless you!"
There was a faint sound of swallowing.
"Aye! aye! like it? Enough!" Chelkash stopped him.
The boat darted on again, noiselessly and lightly threading
its way among the vessels. All at once, they emerged from
the labyrinth of ships, and the sea, boundless, mute, shining
and rhythmically breathing, lay open before them, stretching
far into the distance, where there rose out of its waters
masses of storm clouds, some lilac-blue with fluffy yellow
edges, and some greenish like the color of the seawater, or
those dismal, leaden-colored clouds that cast such heavy,
dreary shadows, oppressing mind and soul. They crawled slowly
after one another, one melting into another, one overtaking
another, and there was something weird in this slow procession
of soulless masses.
145 CHELKASH
It seemed as though there, at the sea's rim, they were a
countless multitude, that they would forever crawl thus
sluggishly over the sky, striving with dull malignance to
hinder it from peeping at the sleeping sea with its millions
of golden eyes, the various colored, vivid stars, that shine
so dreamily and stir high hopes in all who love their pure,
holy light. Over the sea hovered the vague, soft sound of
its drowsy breathing.
"The sea's fine, eh?" asked Chelkash.
"It's all right! Only I feel scared on it," answered Gavrilo,
pressing the oars vigorously and evenly through the water.
The water faintly gurgled and splashed under the strokes of
his long oars, splashed glittering with the warm, bluish,
phosphorescent light.
"Scared! What a fool!" Chelkash muttered, discontentedly.
He, the thief and cynic, loved the sea. His effervescent,
nervous nature, greedy after impressions, was never weary of
gazing at that dark expanse, boundless, free, and mighty. And
it hurt him to hear such an answer to his question about the
beauty of what he loved. Sitting in the stern, he cleft the
water with his oar, and looked on ahead quietly, filled with
desire to glide far on this velvety surface, not soon to quit
it.
On the sea there always rose up in him a broad, warm feeling,
that took possession of his whole soul, and somewhat purified
it from the sordidness of daily life. He valued this, and
loved to feel himself better out here in the midst of the water
and the air, where the cares of life, and life itself, always
lose, the former their keenness, the latter its value.
146 CHELKASH
"But where's the tackle? Eh?" Gavrilo asked suspiciously all
at once, peering into the boat.
Chelkash started.
"Tackle? I've got it in the stern."
"Why, what sort of tackle is it?" Gavrilo inquired again with
surprised suspicion in his tone.
"What sort? lines and--" But Chelkash felt ashamed to lie to
this boy, to conceal his real plans, and he was sorry to lose
what this peasant-lad had destroyed in his heart by this
question. He flew into a rage. That scalding bitterness he
knew so well rose in his breast and his throat, and
impressively, cruelly, and malignantly he said to Gavrilo:
"You're sitting here--and I tell you, you'd better sit quiet.
And not poke your nose into what's not your business. You've
been hired to row, and you'd better row. But if you can't
keep your tongue from wagging, it will be a bad lookout for
you. D'ye see?"
For a minute the boat quivered and stopped. The oars rested
in the water, setting it foaming, and Gavrilo moved uneasily
on his seat.
"Row!"
A sharp oath rang out in the air. Gavrilo swung the oars.
The boat moved with rapid, irregular jerks, noisily cutting
the water.
"Steady!"
Chelkash got up from the stern, still holding the oars in his
hands, and peering with his cold eyes into the pale and
twitching face of Gavrilo. Crouching forward Chelkash was
like a cat on the point of springing. There was the sound of
angry gnashing of teeth.
147 CHELKASH
"Who's calling?" rang out a surly shout from the sea.
"Now, you devil, row! quietly with the oars! I'll kill you,
you cur. Come, row! One, two! There! you only make a sound!
I'll cut your throat!" hissed Chelkash.
"Mother of God--Holy Virgin--" muttered Gavrilo, shaking and
numb with terror and exertion.
The boat turned smoothly and went back toward the harbor, where
the lights gathered more closely into a group of many colors
and the straight stems of masts could be seen.
"Hi! Who's shouting?" floated across again. The voice was
farther off this time. Chelkash grew calm again.
"It's yourself, friend, that's shouting!" he said in the
direction of the shouts, and then he turned to Gavrilo, who
was muttering a prayer.
"Well, mate, you're in luck! If those devils had overtaken us,
it would have been all over with you. D'you see? I'd have you
over in a trice--to the fishes!"
Now, when Chelkash was speaking quietly and even good-humoredly,
Gavrilo, still shaking with terror, besought him!
"Listen, forgive me! For Christ's sake, I beg you, let me go!
Put me on shore somewhere! Aie-aie-aie! I'm done for
entirely! Come, think of God, let me go! What am I to you?
I can't do it! I've never been used to such things. It's the
first time. Lord! Why, I shall be lost! How did you get
round me, mate? eh? It's a shame of you! Why, you're ruining
a man's life! Such doings."
148 CHELKASH
"What doings?" Chelkash asked grimly. "Eh? Well, what doings?"
He was amused by the youth's terror, and he enjoyed it and the
sense that he, Chelkash, was a terrible person.
"Shady doings, mate. Let me go, for God's sake! What am I to
you? eh? Good--dear--!"
"Hold your tongue, do! If you weren't wanted, I shouldn't have
taken you. Do you understand? So, shut up!"
"Lord!" Gavrilo sighed, sobbing.
"Come, come! you'd better mind!" Chelkash cut him short.
But Gavrilo by now could not restrain himself, and quietly
sobbing, he wept, sniffed, and writhed in his seat, yet rowed
vigorously, desperately. The boat shot on like an arrow.
Again dark hulks of ships rose up on their way and the boat
was again lost among them, winding like a wolf in the narrow
lanes of water between them.
"Here, you listen! If anyone asks you anything, --hold your
tongue, if you want to get off alive! Do you see?"
"Oh--oh!" Gavrilo sighed hopelessly in answer to the grim
advice, and bitterly he added: "I'm a lost man!"
"Don't howl!" Chelkash whispered impressively.
This whisper deprived Gavrilo of all power of grasping
anything and transformed him into a senseless automaton,
wholly absorbed in a chill presentiment of calamity.
149 CHELKASH
Mechanically he lowered the oars into the water, threw himself
back, drew them out and dropped them in again, all the while
staring blankly at his plaited shoes. The waves splashed
against the vessels with a sort of menace, a sort of warning
in their drowsy sound that terrified him. The dock was reached.
From its granite wall came the sound of men's voices, the splash
of water, singing, and shrill whistles.
"Stop!" whispered Chelkash. "Give over rowing! Push along with
your hands on the wall! Quietly, you devil!"
Gavrilo, clutching at the slippery stone, pushed the boat
alongside the wall. The boat moved without a sound, sliding
alongside the green, shiny stone.
"Stop! Give me the oars! Give them here. Where's your
passport? In the bag? Give me the bag! Come, give it here
quickly! That, my dear fellow, is so you shouldn't run off.
You won't run away now. Without oars you might have got off
somehow, but without a passport you'll be afraid to. Wait
here! But mind--if you squeak--to the bottom of the sea you
go!"
And, all at once, clinging on to something with his hands,
Chelkash rose in the air and vanished onto the wall.
Gavrilo shuddered. It had all happened so quickly. He felt
as though the cursed weight and horror that had crushed him
in the presence of this thin thief with his mustaches was
loosened and rolling off him. Now to run! And breathing
freely, he looked round him. On his left rose a black hulk,
without masts, a sort of huge coffin, mute, untenanted, and
desolate.
150 CHELKASH
Every splash of the water on its sides awakened a hollow,
resonant echo within it, like a heavy sigh.
On the right the damp stone wall of the quay trailed its
length, winding like a heavy, chill serpent. Behind him, too,
could be seen black blurs of some sort, while in front, in the
opening between the wall and the side of that coffin, he could
see the sea, a silent waste, with the storm-clouds crawling
above it. Everything was cold, black, malignant. Gavrilo
felt panic-stricken. This terror was worse than the terror
inspired in him by Chelkash; it penetrated into Gavrilo's bosom
with icy keenness, huddled him into a cowering mass, and kept
him nailed to his seat in the boat.
All around was silent. Not a sound but the sighs of the sea,
and it seemed as though this silence would instantly be rent
by something fearful, furiously loud, something that would
shake the sea to its depths, tear apart these heavy flocks of
clouds on the sky, and scatter all these black ships. The
clouds were crawling over the sky as dismally as before; more
of them still rose up out of the sea, and, gazing at the sky,
one might believe that it, too, was a sea, but a sea in
agitation, and grown petrified in its agitation, laid over
that other sea beneath, that was so drowsy, serene, and smooth.
The clouds were like waves, flinging themselves with curly gray
crests down upon the earth and into the abysses of space, from
which they were torn again by the wind, and tossed back upon
the rising billows of cloud, that were not yet hidden under the
greenish foam of their furious agitation.
151 CHELKASH
Gavrilo felt crushed by this gloomy stillness and beauty, and
felt that he longed to see his master come back quickly. And
how was it that he lingered there so long? The time passed
slowly, more slowly than those clouds crawled over the sky.
And the stillness grew more malignant as time went on. From
the wall of the quay came the sound of splashing, rustling,
and something like whispering. It seemed to Gavrilo that he
would die that moment.
"Hi! Asleep? Hold it! Carefully!" sounded the hollow voice
of Chelkash.
From the wall something cubical and heavy was let down.
Gavrilo took it into the boat. Something else like it
followed. Then across the wall stretched Chelkash's long
figure, the oars appeared from somewhere, Gavrilo's bag
dropped at his feet, and Chelkash, breathing heavily, settled
himself in the stern.
Gavrilo gazed at him with a glad and timid smile.
"Tired?"
"Bound to be that, calf! Come now, row your best! Put your
back into it! You've earned good wages, mate. Half the job's
done. Now we've only to slip under the devils' noses, and
then you can take your money and go off to your Mashka.
You've got a Mashka, I suppose, eh, kiddy?"
"N--no!" Gavrilo strained himself to the utmost, working his
chest like a pair of bellows, and his arms like steel springs.
The water gurgled under the boat, and the blue streak behind
the stern was broader now. Gavrilo was soaked through with
sweat at once, but he still rowed on with all his might.
152 CHELKASH
After living through such terror twice that night, he dreaded
now having to go through it a third time, and longed for one
thing only--to make an end quickly of this accursed task, to
get on to land, and to run away from this man, before he
really did kill him, or get him into prison. He resolved not
to speak to him about anything, not to contradict him, to do
all he told him, and, if he should succeed in getting
successfully quit of him, to pay for a thanksgiving service
to be said to-morrow to Nikolai the Wonder-worker. A passionate
prayer was ready to burst out from his bosom. But he restrained
himself, puffed like a steamer, and was silent, glancing from
under his brows at Chelkash.
The latter, with his lean, long figure bent forward like a bird
about to take flight, stared into the darkness ahead of the
boat with his hawk eyes, and turning his rapacious, hooked nose
from side to side, gripped with one hand the rudder handle,
while with the other he twirled his mustache, that was
continually quivering with smiles. Chelkash was pleased with
his success, with himself, and with this youth, who had been so
frightened of him and had been turned into his slave. He had a
vision of unstinted dissipation to-morrow, while now he enjoyed
the sense of his strength, which had enslaved this young, fresh
lad. He watched how he was toiling, and felt sorry for him,
wanted to encourage him.
'Eh!" he said softly, with a grin. "Were you awfully scared?
eh?"
"Oh, no!" sighed Gavrilo, and he cleared his throat.
153 CHELKASH
"But now you needn't work so at the oars. Ease off! There's
only one place now to pass. Rest a bit."
Gavrilo obediently paused, rubbed the sweat off his face with
the sleeve of his shirt, and dropped the oars again into the
water.
"Now, row more slowly, so that the water shouldn't bubble.
We've only the gates to pass. Softly, softly. For they're
serious people here, mate. They might take a pop at one in a
minute. They'd give you such a bump on your forehead, you
wouldn't have time to call out."
The boat now crept along over the water almost without a sound.
Only from the oars dripped blue drops of water, and when they
trickled into the sea, a blue patch of light was kindled for a
minute where they fell. The night had become still warmer and
more silent. The sky was no longer like a sea in turmoil, the
clouds were spread out and covered it with a smooth, heavy
canopy that hung low over the water and did not stir. And the
sea was still more calm and black, and stronger than ever was
the warm salt smell from it.
"Ah, if only it would rain!" whispered Chelkash. "We could get
through then, behind a curtain as it were."
On the right and the left of the boat, like houses rising out
of the black water, stood barges, black, motionless, and
gloomy. On one of them moved a light; some one was walking up
and down with a lantern. The sea stroked their sides with a
hollow sound of supplication, and they responded with an echo,
cold and resonant, as though unwilling to yield anything.
154 CHELKASH
"The coastguards!" Chelkash whispered hardly above a breath.
From the moment when he had bidden him row more slowly, Gavrilo
had again been overcome by that intense agony of expectation.
He craned forward into the darkness, and he felt as though he
were growing bigger; his bones and sinews were strained with
a dull ache, his head, filled with a single idea, ached, the
skin on his back twitched, and his legs seemed pricked with
sharp, chill little pins and needles. His eyes ached from the
strain of gazing into the darkness, whence he expected every
instant something would spring up and shout to them: "Stop,
thieves!"
Now when Chelkash whispered: "The coastguards!" Gavrilo
shuddered, and one intense, burning idea passed through him,
and thrilled his overstrained nerves; he longed to cry out, to
call men to his aid. He opened his mouth, and half rose from
his seat, squared his chest, drew in a full draught of breath--
and opened his mouth--but suddenly, struck down by a terror
that smote him like a whip, he shut his eyes and rolled forward
off his seat.
Far away on the horizon, ahead of the boat, there rose up out
of the black water of the sea a huge fiery blue sword; it rose
up, cleaving the darkness of night, its blade glided through
the clouds in the sky, and lay, a broad blue streak on the
bosom of the sea. It lay there, and in the streak of its light
there sprang up out of the darkness ships unseen till then,
black and mute, shrouded in the thick night mist.
155 CHELKASH
It seemed as though they had lain long at the bottom of the
sea, dragged down by the mighty hands of the tempest; and now
behold they had been drawn up by the power and at the will of
this blue fiery sword, born of the sea--had been drawn up to
gaze upon the sky and all that was above the water. Their
rigging wrapped about the masts and looked like clinging
seaweeds, that had risen from the depths with these black
giants caught in their snares. And it rose upward again from
the sea, this strange blue sword,--rose, cleft the night again,
and again fell down in another direction. And again, where it
lay, there rose up out of the dark the outlines of vessels,
unseen before.
Chelkash's boat stopped and rocked on the water, as though in
uncertainty. Gavrilo lay at the bottom, his face hidden in
his hands, until Chelkash poked him with an oar and whispered
furiously, but softly:
"Fool, it's the customs cruiser. That's the electric light!
Get up, blockhead! Why, they'll turn the light on us in a
minute! You'll be the ruin of yourself and me! Come!"
And at last, when a blow from the sharp end of the oar struck
Gavrilo's head more violently, he jumped up, still afraid to
open his eyes, sat down on the seat, and, fumbling for the
oars, rowed the boat on.
"Quietly! I'll kill you! Didn't I tell you? There, quietly!
Ah, you fool, damn you! What are you frightened of? Eh, pig
face? A lantern and a reflector, that's all it is. Softly
with the oars! Mawkish devil! They turn the reflector this
way and that way, and light up the sea, so as to see if there
are folks like you and me afloat.
156 CHELKASH
To catch smugglers, they do it.They won't get us, they've
sailed too far off. Don't be frightened, lad, they won't catch
us. Now we--" Chelkash looked triumphantly round. "It's over,
we've rowed out of reach! Foo--o! Come, you're in luck."
Gavrilo sat mute; he rowed, and breathing hard, looked askance
where that fiery sword still rose and sank. He was utterly
unable to believe Chelkash that it was only a lantern and a
reflector. The cold, blue brilliance, that cut through the
darkness and made the sea gleam with silver light, had
something about it inexplicable, portentous, and Gavrilo now
sank into a sort of hypnotized, miserable terror. Some vague
presentiment weighed aching on his breast. He rowed
automatically, with pale face, huddled up as though expecting
a blow from above, and there was no thought, no desire in him
now, he was empty and soulless. The emotions of that night
had swallowed up at last all that was human in him.
But Chelkash was triumphant again; complete success! all
anxiety at an end! His nerves, accustomed to strain, relaxed,
returned to the normal. His mustaches twitched voluptuously,
and there was an eager light in his eyes. He felt splendid,
whistled through his teeth, drew in deep breaths of the damp
sea air, looked about him in the darkness, and laughed goodnaturedly
when his eyes rested on Gavrilo.
The wind blew up and waked the sea into a sudden play of fine
ripples. The clouds had become, as it were, finer and more
transparent, but the sky was still covered with them.
157 CHELKASH
The wind, though still light, blew freely over the sea, yet
the clouds were motionless and seemed plunged in some gray,
dreary dream.
"Come, mate, pull yourself together! it's high time! Why,
what a fellow you are; as though all the breath had been
knocked out of your skin, and only a bag of bones was left!
My dear fellow! It's all over now! Hey!"
It was pleasant to Gavrilo to hear a human voice, even though
Chelkash it was that spoke.
"I hear," he said softly.
"Come, then, milksop. Come, you sit at the rudder and I'll
take the oars, you must be tired!"
Mechanically Gavrilo changed places. When Chelkash, as he
changed places with him, glanced into his face, and noticed
that he was staggering on his shaking legs, he felt still
sorrier for the lad. He clapped him on the shoulder.
"Come, come, don't be scared! You've earned a good sum for
it. I'll pay you richly, mate. Would you like twenty-five
roubles, eh?"
"I--don't want anything. Only to be on shore."
Chelkash waved his hand, spat, and fell to rowing, flinging
the oars far back with his long arms.
The sea had waked up. It frolicked in little waves, bringing
them forth, decking them with a fringe of foam, flinging them
on one another, and breaking them up into tiny eddies. The
foam, melting, hissed and sighed, and everything was filled
with the musical plash and cadence. The darkness seemed more
alive.
158 CHELKASH
"Come, tell me," began Chelkash, "you'll go home to the village,
and you'll marry and begin digging the earth and sowing corn,
your wife will bear you children, food won't be too plentiful,
and so you'll grind away all your life. Well? Is there such
sweetness in that?"
"Sweetness!" Gavrilo answered, timid and trembling, "what,
indeed?"
The wind tore a rent in the clouds and through the gap peeped
blue bits of sky, with one or two stars. Reflected in the
frolicking sea, these stars danced on the waves, vanishing and
shining out again.
"More to the right!" said Chelkash. "Soon we shall be there.
Well, well! It's over. A haul that's worth it! See here.
One night, and I've made five hundred roubles! Eh? What do
you say to that?"
"Five hundred?" Gavrilo, drawled, incredulously, but he was
seared at once, and quickly asked, prodding the bundle in the
boat with his foot. "Why, what sort of thing may this be?"
"That's silk. A costly thing. All that, if one sold it for
its value, would fetch a thousand. But I sell cheap. Is that
smart business?"
"I sa--ay?" Gavrilo drawled dubiously. "If only I'd all that!"
be sighed, recalling all at once the village, his poor little
bit of land, his poverty, his mother, and all that was so far
away and so near his heart; for the sake of which he bad gone
to seek work, for the sake of which he had suffered such
agonies that night. A flood of memories came back to him of
his village, running down the steep slope to the river and
losing itself in a whole forest of birch trees, willows, and
mountain-ashes. These memories breathed something warm into
him and cheered him up. "Ah, it would be grand!" he sighed
mournfully.
159 CHELKASH
"To be sure! I expect you'd bolt home by the railway! And
wouldn't the girls make love to you at home, aye, aye! You
could choose which you liked! You'd build yourself a house.
No, the money, maybe, would hardly be enough for a house."
"That's true--it wouldn't do for a house. Wood's dear down
our way."
"Well, never mind. You'd mend up the old one. How about a
horse? Have you got one?"
"A horse? Yes, I have, but a wretched old thing it is."
"Well, then, you'd have a horse. A first-rate horse! A cow
--sheep--fowls of all sorts. Eh?"
"Don't talk of it! If I only could! Oh, Lord! What a life
I should have!"
"Aye, mate, your life would be first-rate. I know something
about such things. I had a home of my own once. My father
was one of the richest in the village."
Chelkash rowed slowly. The boat danced on the waves that
sportively splashed over its edge; it scarcely moved forward
on the dark sea; which frolicked more and more gayly. The
two men were dreaming, rocked on the water, and pensively
looking around them. Chelkash had turned Gavrilo's thoughts
to his village with the aim of encouraging and reassuring him.
160 CHELKASH
At first he had talked grinning sceptically to himself under
his mustaches, but afterward, as he replied to his companion
and reminded him of the joys of a peasant's life, which he had
so long ago wearied of, had forgotten, and only now recalled,
he was gradually carried away, and, instead of questioning the
peasant youth about his village and its doings, unconsciously
he dropped into describing it himself:
"The great thing in the peasant's life, mate, is its freedom!
You're your own master. You've your own home--worth a
farthing, maybe--but it's yours! You've your own land--only
a handful the whole of it--but it's yours! Hens of your own,
eggs, apples of your own! You're king on your own land! And
then the regularity. You get up in the morning, you've work
to do, in the spring one sort, in the summer another, in the
autumn, in the winter--different again. Wherever you go,
you've home to come back to! It's snug! There's peace!
You're a king! Aren't you really?" Chelkash concluded
enthusiastically his long reckoning of the peasant's
advantages and privileges, forgetting, somehow, his duties.
Gavrilo looked at him with curiosity, and he, too, warmed to
the subject. During this conversation he had succeeded in
forgetting with whom he had to deal, and he saw in his
companion a peasant like himself--cemented to the soil for
ever by the sweat of generations, and bound to it by the
recollections of childhood--who had wilfully broken loose
from it and from its cares, and was bearing the inevitable
punishment for this abandonment.
"That's true, brother! Ah, how true it is! Look at you, now,
what you've become away from the land! Aha! The land,
brother, is like a mother, you can't forget it for long."
161 CHELKASH
Chelkash awaked from his reverie. He felt that scalding
irritation in his chest, which always came as soon as his
pride, the pride of the reckless vagrant, was touched by
anyone, and especially by one who was of no value in his eyes.
"His tongue's set wagging!" he said savagely, "you thought,
maybe, I said all that in earnest. Never fear!"
"But, you strange fellow !"--Gavrilo began, overawed again--
"Was I speaking of you? Why, there's lots like you! Ah,
what a lot of unlucky people among the people! Wanderers----"
"Take the oars, you sea-calf!" Chelkash commanded briefly, for
some reason holding back a whole torrent of furious abuse,
which surged up into his throat.
They changed places again, and Chelkash, as he crept across
the boat to the stern, felt an intense desire to give Gavrilo
a kick that would send him flying into the water, and at the
same time could not pluck up courage to look him in the face.
The brief conversation dropped, but now Gavrilo's silence even
was eloquent of the country to Chelkash. He recalled the past,
and forgot to steer the boat, which was turned by the current
and floated away out to sea. The waves seemed to understand
that this boat had missed its way, and played lightly with it,
tossing it higher and higher, and kindling their gay blue light
under its oars. While before Chelkash's eyes floated pictures
of the past, the far past, separated from the present by the
whole barrier of eleven years of vagrant life.
162 CHELKASH
He saw himself a child, his village, his mother, a red-cheeked
plump woman, with kindly gray eyes, his father, a red-bearded
giant with a stern face. He saw himself betrothed, and saw his
wife, black-eyed Anfisa, with her long hair, plump, mild, and
good-humored; again himself a handsome soldier in the Guards;
again his father, gray now and bent with toil, and his mother
wrinkled and bowed to the ground; he saw, too, the picture of
his welcome in the village when he returned from the service;
saw how proud his father was before all the village of his
Grigory, the mustached, stalwart soldier, so smart and handsome.
Memory, the scourge of the unhappy, gives life to the very
stones of the past, and even into the poison drunk in old days
pours drops of honey, so as to confound a man with his mistakes
and, by making him love the past, rob him of hope for the future.
Chelkash felt a rush of the softening, caressing air of home,
bringing back to him the tender words of his mother and the
weighty utterances of the venerable peasant, his father; many
a forgotten sound and many a lush smell of mother-earth,
freshly thawing, freshly ploughed, and freshly covered with
the emerald silk of the corn. And he felt crushed, lost,
pitiful, and solitary, torn up and cast out for ever from that
life which had distilled the very blood that flowed in his veins.
"Hey! but where are we going?" Gavrilo asked suddenly.
Chelkash started and looked round with the uneasy look of a bird
of prey.
"Ah, the devil's taken the boat! No matter. Row a bit harder.
We'll be there directly."
163 CHELKASH
"You were dreaming?" Gavrilo inquired, smiling.
Chelkash looked searchingly at him. The youth had completely
regained his composure; he was calm, cheerful and even seemed
somehow triumphant. He was very young, all his life lay before
him. And he knew nothing. That was bad. Maybe the earth would
keep hold of him. As these thoughts flashed through his head,
Chelkash felt still more mournful, and to Gavrilo he jerked out
sullenly:
"I'm tired. And it rocks, too."
"It does rock, that's true. But now, I suppose, we shan't get
caught with this?" Gavrilo shoved the bale with his foot.
"No. You can be easy. I shall hand it over directly and get
the money. Oh, yes!"
"Five hundred?"
"Not less, I dare say."
"I say--that's a sum! If I, poor wretch, had that! Ah, I'd
have a fine time with it."
"On your land?"
"To be sure! Why, I'd be off----"
And Gravilo floated off into day dreams. Chelkash seemed
crushed. His mustaches drooped, his right side was soaked by
the splashing of the waves, his eyes looked sunken and had
lost their brightness. He was a pitiable and depressed figure.
All that bird-of-prey look in his figure seemed somehow
eclipsed under a humiliated moodiness, that showed itself in
the very folds of his dirty shirt.
"I'm tired out, too--regularly done up."
"We'll be there directly. See over yonder."
164 CHELKASH
Chelkash turned the boat sharply, and steered it toward
something black that stood up out of the water.
The sky was again all covered with clouds, and fine, warm rain
had come on, pattering gayly on the crests of the waves.
"Stop! easy!" commanded Chelkash.
The boat's nose knocked against the hull of the vessel. "Are
they asleep, the devils?" grumbled Chelkash, catching with his
boat-hook on to some ropes that hung over the ship's side.
"The ladder's not down. And this rain, too. As if it couldn't
have come before! Hi, you spongeos. Hi! Hi!"
"Is that Selkash?" they heard a soft purring voice say overhead.
"Come, let down the ladder."
"Kalimera, Selkash."
"Let down the ladder, you smutty devil!" yelled Chelkash.
"Ah, what a rage he's come in to-day. Ahoy!"
"Get up, Gavrilo!" Chelkash said to his companion.
In a moment they were on the deck, where three dark-bearded
figures, eagerly chattering together, in a strange staccato
tongue looked over the side into Chelkash's boat. The fourth
clad in a long gown, went up to him and pressed his hand
without speaking, then looked suspiciously round at Gavrilo.
"Get the money ready for me by the morning," Chelkash said to
him shortly. "And now I'll go to sleep. Gavrilo, come along!
Are you hungry?"
165 CHELKASH
"I'm sleepy," answered Gavrilo, and five minutes later he was
snoring in the dirty hold of the vessel, while Chelkash,
sitting beside him, tried on somebody's boots. Dreamily
spitting on one side, he whistled angrily and mournfully
between his teeth. Then he stretched himself out beside
Gavrilo, and pulling the boots off his feet again and putting
his arms under his head, he fell to gazing intently at the
deck, and pulling his mustaches.
The vessel rocked softly on the frolicking water, there was a
fretful creaking of wood somewhere, the rain pattered softly
on the deck, and the waves splashed on the ship's side.
Everything was melancholy and sounded like the lullaby of a
mother, who has no hope of her child's happiness. And
Chelkash fell asleep.
CHAPTER III
He was the first to wake, he looked round him uneasily, but at
once regained his self-possession and stared at Gavrilo who was
still asleep. He was sweetly snoring, and in his sleep smiled
all over his childish, sun-burned healthy face. Chelkash
sighed and climbed up the narrow rope-ladder. Through the
port-hole he saw a leaden strip of sky. It was daylight, but
a dreary autumn grayness.
Chelkash came back two hours later. His face was red, his
mustaches were jauntily curled, a smile of good-humored gayety
beamed on his lips. He was wearing a pair of stout high boots,
a short jacket, and leather breeches, and he looked like a
sportsman. His whole costume was worn, but strong and very
becoming to him, making him look broader, covering up his
angularity, and giving him a military air.
166 CHELKASH
"Hi, little calf, get up!" He gave Gavrilo a kick.
Gavrilo started up, and, not recognizing him, stared at him in
alarm with dull eyes. Chelkash chuckled.
"Well, you do look--" Gavrilo brought out with a broad grin at
last. "You're quite a gentleman!"
"We soon change. But, I say, you're easily scared! aye! How
many times were you ready to die last night? eh? tell me!"
"Well, but just think, it's the first time I've ever been on
such a job! Why one may lose one's soul for all one's life!"
"Well, would you go again? Eh?"
"Again? Well--that--how can I say? For what inducement?
That's the point!"
"Well, if it were for two rainbows?"
"Two hundred roubles, you mean? Well--I might."
"But I say! What about your soul?"
"Oh, well--maybe one wouldn't lose it!" Gavrilo smiled. "One
mightn't--and it would make a man of one for all one's life."
Chelkash laughed good-humoredly.
"All right! that's enough joking. Let's row to land. Get
ready!"
"Why, I've nothing to do! I'm ready."
And soon they were in the boat again, Chelkash at the rudder,
Gavrilo at the oars. Above them the sky was gray, with clouds
stretched evenly across it. The muddy green sea played with
their boat, tossing it noisily on the waves that sportively
flung bright salt drops into it. Far ahead from the boat's
prow could be seen the yellow streak of the sandy shore, while
from the stern there stretched away into the distance the free,
gambolling sea, all furrowed over with racing flocks of billows,
decked here and there with a narrow fringe of foam.
167 CHELKASH
Far away they could see numbers of vessels, rocking on the
bosom of the sea, away on the left a whole forest of masts and
the white fronts of the houses of the town. From that direction
there floated across the sea a dull resounding roar, that
mingled with the splash of the waves into a full rich music. And
over all was flung a delicate veil of ash-colored mist, that made
things seem far from one another.
"Ah, there'll be a pretty dance by evening!" said Chelkash,
nodding his head at the sea.
"A storm?" queried Gavrilo, working vigorously at the waves with
his oars. He was already wet through from head to foot with the
splashing the wind blew on him from the sea.
"Aye, aye!" Chelkash assented.
Gavrilo looked inquisitively at him, and his eyes expressed
unmistakable expectation of something.
"Well, how much did they give you?" he asked, at last, seeing
that Chelkash was not going to begin the conversation.
"Look!" said Chelkash, holding out to Gavrilo something he had
pulled out of his pocket.
Gavrilo saw the rainbow-colored notes and everything danced in
brilliant rainbow tints before his eyes.
"I say! Why, I thought you were bragging! That's--how much?"
"Five hundred and forty! A smart job!"
168 CHELKASH
"Smart, yes!" muttered Gavrilo, with greedy eyes, watching the
five hundred and forty roubles as they were put back again in
his pocket. "Well, I never! What a lot of money!" and he
sighed dejectedly.
"We'll have a jolly good spree, my lad!" Chelkash cried
ecstatically. "Eh, we've enough to. Never fear, mate, I'll
give you your share. I'll give you forty, eh? Satisfied?
If you like, I'll give it you now!"
"If--you don't mind. Well? I wouldn't say no!"
Gavrilo was trembling all over with suspense and some other
acute feeling that dragged at his heart.
"Ha--ha--ha! Oh, you devil's doll! 'I'd not say no!' Take
it, mate, please! I beg you, indeed, take it! I don't know
what to do with such a lot of money! You must help me out,
take some, there!"
Chelkash held out some red notes to Gavrilo. He took them
with a shaking hand, let go the oars, and began stuffing them
away in his bosom, greedily screwing up his eyes and drawing
in his breath noisily, as though he had drunk something hot.
Chelkash watched him with an ironical smile. Gavrilo took up
the oars again and rowed nervously, hurriedly, keeping his eyes
down as though he were afraid of something. His shoulders and
his ears were twitching.
"You're greedy. That's bad. But, of course, you're a
peasant," Chelkash said musingly.
"But see what one can do with money!" cried Gavrilo, suddenly
breaking into passionate excitement, and jerkily, hurriedly,
as though chasing his thoughts and catching his words as they
flew, he began to speak of life in the village with money and
without money. Respect, plenty, independence gladness!
169 CHELKASH
Chelkash heard him attentively, with a serious face and eyes
filled with some dreamy thought. At times he smiled a smile
of content. "Here we are!" Chelkash cried at last,
interrupting Gavrilo.
A wave caught up the boat and neatly drove it onto the sand.
"Come, mate, now it's over. We must drag the boat up farther,
so that it shouldn't get washed away. They'll come and fetch
it. Well, we must say good-bye! It's eight versts from here
to the town. What are you going to do? Coming back to the
town, eh?"
Chelkash's face was radiant with a good-humoredly sly smile,
and altogether he had the air of a man who had thought of
something very pleasant for himself and a surprise to Gavrilo.
Thrusting his hand into his pocket, he rustled the notes there.
"No--I--am not coming. I---" Gavrilo gasped, and seemed choking
with something. Within him there was raging a whole storm of
desires, of words, of feelings, that swallowed up one another
and scorched him as with fire.
Chelkash looked at him in perplexity.
"What's the matter with you?" he asked.
"Why----" But Gavrilo's face flushed, then turned gray, and he
moved irresolutely, as though he were half longing to throw
himself on Chelkash, or half torn by some desire, the
attainment of which was hard for him.
Chelkash felt ill at ease at the sight of such excitement in
this lad. He wondered what form it would take.
170 CHELKASH
Gavrilo began laughing strangely, a laugh that was like a sob.
His head was downcast, the expression of his face Chelkash
could not see; Gavrilo's ears only were dimly visible, and
they turned red and then pale.
"Well, damn you!" Chelkash waved his hand, "Have you fallen
in love with me, or what? One might think you were a girl!
Or is parting from me so upsetting? Hey, suckling! Tell me,
what's wrong? or else I'm off!"
"You're going!" Gavrilo cried aloud.
The sandy waste of the shore seemed to start at his cry, and
the yellow ridges of sand washed by the sea-waves seemed
quivering. Chelkash started too. All at once Gavrilo tore
himself from where he stood, flung himself at Chelkash's feet,
threw his arms round them, and drew them toward him. Chelkash
staggered; he sat heavily down on the sand, and grinding his
teeth, brandished his long arm and clenched fist in the air.
But before he had time to strike he was pulled up by Gavrilo's
shame-faced and supplicating whisper:
"Friend! Give me--that money! Give it me, for Christ's sake!
What is it to you? Why in one night--in only one night--while
it would take me a year--Give it me--I will pray for you!
Continually--in three churches--for the salvation of your soul!
Why you'd cast it to the winds--while I'd put it into the land.
0, give it me! Why, what does it mean to you? Did it cost you
much? One night--and you're rich! Do a deed of mercy! You're
a lost man, you see--you couldn't make your way--while I--oh,
give it to me!"
Chelkash, dismayed, amazed, and wrathful, sat on the sand,
thrown backward with his hands supporting him; he sat there in
silence, rolling his eyes frightfully at the young peasant,
who, ducking his head down at his knees, whispered his prayer
to him in gasps. He shoved him away at last, jumped up to his
feet, and thrusting his hands into his pockets, flung the
rainbow notes at Gavrilo.
171 CHELKASH
"There, cur! Swallow them!" he roared, shaking with excitement,
with intense pity and hatred of this greedy slave. And as he
flung him the money, he felt himself a hero. There was a
reckless gleam in his eyes, an heroic air about his whole person.
"I'd meant to give you more, of myself. I felt sorry for you
yesterday. I thought of the village. I thought: come, I'll
help the lad. I was waiting to see what you'd do, whether
you'd beg or not. While you!--Ah, you rag! you beggar! To
be able to torment oneself so--for money! You fool. Greedy
devils! They're beside themselves--sell themselves for five
kopecks! eh?"
"Dear friend! Christ have mercy on you! Why, what have I
now! thousands! ! I'm a rich man!" Gavrilo shrilled in ecstasy,
all trembling, as he stowed away the notes in his bosom. "Ah,
you good man! Never will I forget you! Never! And my wife
and my children--I'll bid them pray for you!"
Chelkash listened to his shrieks and wails of ecstasy, looked
at his radiant face that was contorted by greedy joy, and
felt that he, thief and rake as he was, cast out from
everything in life, would never be so covetous, so base, would
never so forget himself. Never would he be like that! And
this thought and feeling, filling him with a sense of his own
independence and reckless daring, kept him beside Gavrilo on
the desolate sea shore.
172 CHELKASH
"You've made me happy!" shrieked Gavrilo, and snatching
Chelkash's hand, he pressed it to his face.
Chelkash did not speak; he grinned like a wolf. Gavrilo still
went on pouring out his heart:
"Do you know what I was thinking about? As we rowed here--
I saw--the money--thinks I--I'll give it him--you--with the
oar--one blow! the money's mine, and into the sea with him--
you, that is--eh! Who'll miss him? said I. And if they do
find him, they won't be inquisitive how--and who it was killed
him. He's not a man, thinks I, that there'd be much fuss about!
He's of no use in the world! Who'd stand up for him? No,
indeed--eh?"
"Give the money here!" growled Chelkash, clutching Gavrilo by
the throat.
Gavrilo struggled away once, twice. Chelkash's other arm
twisted like a snake about him--there was the sound of a shirt
tearing--and Gavrilo lay on the sand, with his eyes staring
wildly, his fingers clutching at the air and his legs waving.
Chelkash, erect, frigid, rapacious--looking, grinned
maliciously, laughed a broken, biting laugh, and his mustaches
twitched nervously in his sharp, angular face.
Never in all his life had he been so cruelly wounded, and never
had he felt so vindictive.
"Well, are you happy now?" he asked Gavrilo through his
laughter, and turning his back on him he walked away in the
direction of the town. But he had hardly taken two steps when
Gavrilo, crouched like a cat on one knee, and with a wide sweep
of his arm, flung a round stone at him, viciously, shouting:
173 CHELKASH
"O--one!"
Chelkash uttered a cry, clapped his hands to the nape of his
neck, staggered forward, turned round to Gavrilo, and fell on
his face on the sand. Gavrilo's heart failed him as he watched
him. He saw him stir one leg, try to lift his head, and then
stretch out, quivering like a bowstring. Then Gavrilo rushed
fleeing away into the distance, where a shaggy black cloud hung
over the foggy steppe, and it was dark. The waves whispered,
racing up the sand, melting into it and racing back. The foam
hissed and the spray floated in the air.
It began to rain, at first slightly, but soon a steady, heavy
downpour was falling in streams from the sky, weaving a regular
network of fine threads of water that at once hid the steppe
and the sea. Gavrilo vanished behind it. For a long while
nothing was to be seen but the rain and the long figure of the
man stretched on the sand by the sea. But suddenly Gavrilo ran
back out of the rain. Like a bird he flew up to Chelkash,
dropped down beside him, and began to turn him over on the
ground. His hand dipped into a warm, red stickiness. He
shuddered and staggered back with a face pale and distraught.
"Brother, get up!" he whispered through the patter of the lain
into Chelkash's ear.
Revived by the water on his face, Chelkash came to himself,
and pushed Gavrilo away, saying hoarsely:
"Get--away!"
"Brother! Forgive me--it was the devil tempted me," Gavrilo
whispered, faltering, as he kissed Chelkash's band.
174 CHELKASH
"Go along. Get away!" he croaked.
"Take the sin from off my soul! Brother! Forgive me!"
"For--go away, do! Go to the devil!" Chelkash screamed
suddenly, and he sat up on the sand. His face was pale and
angry, his eyes were glazed, and kept closing, as though he
were very sleepy. "What more--do you want? You've done--your
job--and go away! Be off!" And he tried to kick Gavrilo away,
as he knelt, overwhelmed, beside him, but he could not, and
would have rolled over again if Gavrilo had not held him up,
putting his arms round his shoulders. Chelkash's face was
now on a level with Gavrilo's. Both were pale, piteous, and
terrible-looking.
"Tfoo!" Chelkash spat into the wide, open eyes of his companion.
Meekly Gavrilo wiped his face with his sleeve, and murmured:
"Do as you will. I won't say a word. For Christ's sake,
forgive me!"
"Snivelling idiot! Even stealing's more than you can do!"
Chelkash cried scornfully, tearing a piece of his shirt under
his jacket, and without a word, clenching his teeth now and
then, he began binding up his head. "Did you take the notes?"
he filtered through his teeth.
"I didn't touch them, brother! I didn't want them! there's
ill-luck from them!"
Chelkash thrust his hand into his jacket pocket, drew out a
bundle of notes, put one rainbow-colored note back in his
pocket, and handed all the rest to Gavrilo.
175 CHELKASH
"Take them and go!"
"I won't take them, brother. I can't! Forgive me!"
"T-take them, I say!" bellowed Chelkash, glaring horribly.
"Forgive me! Then I'll take them," said Gavrilo, timidly,
and he fell at Chelkash's feet on the damp sand, that was
being liberally drenched by the rain.
"You lie, you'll take them, sniveller!" Chelkash said with
conviction, and with an effort, pulling Gavrilo's head up by
the hair, he thrust the notes in his face.
"Take them! take them! You didn't do your job for nothing,
I suppose. Take it, don't be frightened! Don't be ashamed
of having nearly killed a man! For people like me, no one
will make much inquiry. They'll say thank you, indeed, when
they know of it. There, take it! No one will ever know what
you've done, and it deserves a reward. Come, now!"
Gavrilo saw that Chelkash was laughing, and he felt relieved.
He crushed the notes up tight in his hand.
"Brother! You forgive me? Won't you? Eh?" he asked tearfully.
"Brother of mine!" Chelkash mimicked him as he got, reeling,
on to his legs. "What for? There's nothing to forgive.
To-day you do for me, to-morrow I'll do for you."
"Oh, brother, brother!" Gavrilo sighed mournfully, shaking
his head.
Chelkash stood facing him, he smiled strangely, and the rag
on his head, growing gradually redder, began to look like a
Turkish fez.
176 CHELKASH
The rain streamed in bucketsful. The sea moaned with a hollow
sound, and the waves beat on the shore, lashing furiously and
wrathfully against it.
The two men were silent.
"Come, good-bye!" Chelkash said, coldly and sarcastically.
He reeled, his legs shook, and he held his head queerly, as
though he were afraid of losing it.
"Forgive me, brother!" Gavrilo besought him once more.
"All right!" Chelkash answered, coldly, setting off on his way.
He walked away, staggering, and still holding his head in his
left hand, while he slowly tugged at his brown mustache with
the right.
"Gavrilo looked after him a long while, till the had
disappeared in the rain, which still poured down in fine,
countless streams, and wrapped everything in an impenetrable
steel-gray mist.
Then Gavrilo took off his soaked cap, made the sign of the
cross, looked at the notes crushed up in his hand, heaved a
deep sigh of relief, thrust them into his bosom, and with long,
firm strides went along the shore, in the opposite direction
from that Chelkash had taken.
The sea howled, flinging heavy, breaking billows on the sand
of the shore, and dashing them into spray, the rain lashed the
water and the earth, the wind blustered. All the air was full
of roaring, howling, moaning. Neither distance nor sky could
be seen through the rain.
Soon the rain and the spray had washed away the red patch on
the spot where Chelkash had lain, washed away the traces of
Chelkash and the peasant lad on the sandy beach. And no trace
was left on the seashore of the little drama that had been
played out between two men.
MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
(THE STORY OF A JOURNEY)
I met him in the harbor of Odessa. For three successive days
his square, strongly-built figure attracted my attention. His
face--of a Caucasian type--was framed in a handsome beard. He
haunted me. I saw him standing for hours together on the stone
quay, with the handle of his walking stick in his mouth,
staring down vacantly, with his black almond-shaped eyes into
the muddy waters of the harbor. Ten times a day, he would pass
me by with the gait of a careless lounger. Whom could he be?
I began to watch him. As if anxious to excite my curiosity,
he seemed to cross my path more and more often. In the end,
his fashionably-cut light check suit, his black hat, like that
of an artist, his indolent lounge, and even his listless, bored
glance grew quite familiar to me. His presence was utterly
unaccountable, here in the harbor, where the whistling of the
steamers and engines, the clanking of chains, the shouting of
workmen, all the hurried maddening bustle of a port, dominated
one's sensations, and deadened one's nerves and brain.
Everyone else about the port was enmeshed in its immense
complex machinery, which demanded incessant vigilance and
endless toil.
179 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Everyone here was busy, loading and unloading either steamers
or railway trucks. Everyone was tired and careworn. Everyone
was hurrying to and fro, shouting or cursing, covered with
dirt and sweat. In the midst of the toil and bustle this
singular person, with his air of deadly boredom, strolled
about deliberately, heedless of everything.
At last, on the fourth day, I came across him during the
dinner hour, and I made up my mind to find out at any cost
who he might be. I seated myself with my bread and water-melon
not far from him, and began to eat, scrutinizing him and
devising some suitable pretext for beginning a conversation
with him.
There he stood, leaning against a pile of tea boxes, glancing
aimlessly around, and drumming with his fingers on his walking
stick, as if it were a flute. It was difficult for me, a man
dressed like a tramp, with a porter's knot over my shoulders,
and grimy with coal dust, to open up a conversation with such
a dandy. But to my astonishment I noticed that he never took
his eyes off me, and that an unpleasant, greedy, animal light
shone in those eyes. I came to the conclusion that the object
of my curiosity must be hungry, and after glancing rapidly
round, I asked him in a low voice: "Are you hungry?"
He started, and with a famished grin showed rows of strong
sound teeth. And he, too, looked suspiciously round. We were
quite unobserved. Then I handed him half my melon and a chunk
of wheaten bread. He snatched it all from my hand, and
disappeared, squatting behind a pile of goods. His head peeped
out from time to time; his hat was pushed back from his
forehead, showing his dark moist brow.
180 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
His face wore a broad smile, and for some unknown reason he kept
winking at me, never for a moment ceasing to chew.
Making him a sign to wait a moment, I went away to buy meat,
brought it, gave it to him, and stood by the boxes, thus
completely shielding my poor dandy from outsiders' eyes. He
was still eating ravenously, and constantly looking round as
if afraid someone might snatch his food away; but after I
returned, he began to eat more calmly, though still so fast
and so greedily that it caused me pain to watch this famished
man. And I turned my back on him.
"Thanks! Many thanks indeed!" He patted my shoulder,
snatched my hand, pressed it, and shook it heartily.
Five minutes later he was telling me who he was. He was a
Georgian prince, by name Shakro Ptadze, and was the only son
of a rich landowner of Kutais in the Caucasus. He had held
a position as clerk at one of the railway stations in his own
country, and during that time had lived with a friend. But
one fine day the friend disappeared, carrying off all the
prince's money and valuables. Shakro determined to track and
follow him, and having heard by chance that his late friend
had taken a ticket to Batoum, he set off there. But in Batoum
he found that his friend had gone on to Odessa. Then Prince
Shakro borrowed a passport of another friend--a hair-dresser--
of the same age as himself, though the features and
distinguishing marks noted therein did not in the least
resemble his own.
181 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Arrived at Odessa, he informed the police of his loss,
and they promised to investigate the matter. He had been
waiting for a fortnight, had consumed all his money, and for
the last four days had not eaten a morsel.
I listened to his story, plentifully embellished as it was
with oaths. He gave me the impression of being sincere. I
looked at him, I believed him, and felt sorry for the lad.
He was nothing more--he was nineteen, but from his naivety
one might have taken him for younger. Again and again, and
with deep indignation, he returned to the thought of his
close friendship for a man who had turned out to be a thief,
and had stolen property of such value that Shakro's stern old
father would certainly stab his son with a dagger if the
property were not recovered.
I thought that if I didn't help this young fellow, the greedy
town would suck him down. I knew through what trifling
circumstances the army of tramps is recruited, and there
seemed every possibility of Prince Shakro drifting into this
respectable, but not respected class. I felt a wish to help
him. My earnings were not sufficient to buy him a ticket to
Batoum, so I visited some of the railway offices, and begged
a free ticket for him. I produced weighty arguments in favor
of assisting the young fellow, with the result of getting
refusals just as weighty. I advised Shakro to apply to the
Head of the Police of the town; this made him uneasy, and he
declined to go there. Why not? He explained that he had not
paid for his rooms at an hotel where he had been staying, and
that when requested to do so, he had struck some one.
182 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
This made him anxious to conceal his identity, for he supposed,
and with reason, that if the police found him out he would have
to account for the fact of his not paying his bill, and for
having struck the man. Besides, he could not remember exactly
if he had struck one or two blows, or more.
The position was growing more complicated.
I resolved to work till I had earned a sum sufficient to carry
him back to Batoum. But alas! I soon realized that my plan
could not be carried out quickly--by no means quickly--for my
half-starved prince ate as much as three men, and more. At
that time there was a great influx of peasants into the Crimea
from the famine-stricken northern parts of Russia, and this
had caused a great reduction in the wages of the workers at
the docks. I succeeded in earning only eighty kopecks a day,
and our food cost us sixty kopecks.
I had no intention of staying much longer at Odessa, for I had
meant, some time before I came across the prince, to go on to
the Crimea. I therefore suggested to him the following plan:
that we should travel together on foot to the Crimea, and there
I would find him another companion, who would continue the
journey with him as far as Tiflis; if I should fail in finding
him a fellow-traveler, I promised to go with him myself.
The prince glanced sadly at his elegant boots, his hat, his
trousers, while he smoothed and patted his coat. He thought
a little time, sighed frequently, and at last agreed. So we
started off from Odessa to Tiflis on foot.
183 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
CHAPTER II.
By the time we had arrived at Kherson I knew something of my
companion. He was a naively savage, exceedingly undeveloped
young fellow; gay when he was well fed, dejected when he was
hungry, like a strong, easy-tempered animal. On the road he
gave me accounts of life in the Caucasus, and told me much
about the landowners; about their amusements, and the way they
treated the peasantry. His stories were interesting, and had
a beauty of their own; but they produced on my mind a most
unfavorable impression of the narrator himself.
To give one instance. There was at one time a rich prince,
who had invited many friends to a feast. They partook freely
of all kinds of Caucasian wines and meats, and after the feast
the prince led his guests to his stables. They saddled the
horses, the prince picked out the handsomest, and rode him
into the fields. That was a fiery steed! The guests praised
his form and paces. Once more the prince started to ride
round the field, when at the same moment a peasant appeared,
riding a splendid white horse, and overtook the prince--
overtook him and laughed proudly! The prince was put to shame
before his guests! He knit his brow, and beckoned the peasant
to approach; then, with a blow of his dagger, he severed the
man's head from his body. Drawing his pistol, he shot the
white horse in the ear. He then delivered himself up to
justice, and was condemned to penal servitude.
184 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Through the whole story there rang a note of pity for the
prince. I endeavored to make Shakro understand that his pity
was misplaced.
"There are not so many princes," he remarked didactically, "as
there are peasants. It cannot be just to condemn a prince for
a peasant. What, after all is a peasant? he is no better than
this!" He took up a handful of soil, and added: "A prince is
a star!"
We had a dispute over this question and he got angry. When
angry, he showed his teeth like a wolf, and his features seemed
to grow sharp and set.
"Maxime, you know nothing about life in the Caucasus; so you
had better hold your tongue!" he shouted.
All my arguments were powerless to shatter his naive
convictions. What was clear to me seemed absurd to him. My
arguments never reached his brain; but if ever I did succeed
in showing him that my opinions were weightier and of more
value than his own, he would simply say:
"Then go and live in the Caucasus, and you will see that I am
right. What every one does must be right. Why am I to believe
what you say? You are the only one who says such things are
wrong; while thousands say they are right!"
Then I was silent, feeling that words were of no use in this
case; only facts could confute a man, who believed that life,
just as it is, is entirely just and lawful. I was silent,
while he was triumphant, for he firmly believed that he knew
life and considered his knowledge of it something unshakeable,
stable and perfect. My silence seemed to him to give him a
right to strike a fuller note in his stories of Caucasian
life--a life full of so much wild beauty, so much fire and
originality.
185 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
These stories, though full of interest and attraction for me,
continued to provoke my indignation and disgust by their
cruelty, by the worship of wealth and of strength which they
displayed, and the absence of that morality which is said to
be binding on all men alike.
Once I asked him if he knew what Christ had taught.
"Yes, of course I do!" he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
But after I had examined him on this point, it turned out that
all he knew was, that there had once been a certain Christ,
who protested against the laws of the Jews, and that for this
protest he was crucified by the Jews. But being a God, he did
not die on the cross, but ascended into heaven, and gave the
world a new law.
"What law was that?" I inquired.
He glanced at me with ironical incredulity, and asked: "Are
you a Christian? Well, so am I a Christian. Nearly all the
people in the world are Christians. Well, why do you ask then?
You know the way they all live; they follow the law of Christ!"
I grew excited, and began eagerly to tell him about Christ's
life. At first he listened attentively; but this attention
did not last long, and he began to yawn.
I understood that it was useless appealing to his heart, and
I once more addressed myself to his head, and talked to him
of the advantages of mutual help and of knowledge, the
benefits of obedience to the law, speaking of the policy of
morality and nothing more.
"He who is strong is a law to himself! He has no need of
learning; even blind, he'll find his way," Prince Shakro
replied, languidly.
186 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Yes, he was always true to himself. This made me feel a
respect for him; but he was savage and cruel, and sometimes
I felt a spark of hatred for Prince Shakro. Still, I had not
lost all hope of finding some point of contact with him, some
common ground on which we could meet, and understand one
another.
I began to use simpler language with the prince, and tried to
put myself mentally on a level with him. He noticed these
attempts of mine, but evidently mistaking them for an
acknowledgment on my part of his superiority, adopted a still
more patronizing tone in talking to me. I suffered, as the
conviction came home to me, that all my arguments were
shattered against the stone wall of his conception of life.
CHAPTER III.
Soon we had left Perekop behind us. We were approaching the
Crimean mountains. For the last two days we bad seen them
against the horizon. The mountains were pale blue, and looked
like soft heaps of billowy clouds. I admired them in the
distance, and I dreamed of the southern shore of the Crimea.
The prince hummed his Georgian songs and was gloomy. We had
spent all our money, and there was no chance of earning
anything in these parts.
We bent our steps toward Feodosia, where a new harbor was in
course of construction. The prince said that he would work,
too, and that when we had earned enough money we would take
a boat together to Batoum.
187 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
In Batoum, he said, he had many friends, and with their
assistance he could easily get me a situation--as a houseporter
or a watchman. He clapped me patronizingly on the
back, and remarked, indulgently, with a peculiar click of his
tongue:
"I'll arrange it for you! You shall have such a life tse',
tse'! You will have plenty of wine, there will be as much
mutton as you can eat. You can marry a fat Georgian girl;
tse', tse', tse'! She will cook you Georgian dishes; give
you children--many, many children! tse', tse', tse'!"
This constant repetition of "tse', tse', tse'!" surprised me
at first; then it began to irritate me, and, at last, it
reduced me to a melancholy frenzy. In Russia we use this
sound to call pigs, but in the Caucasus it seems to be an
expression of delight and of regret, of pleasure and of
sadness.
Shakro's smart suit already began to look shabby; his
elegant boots had split in many places. His cane and hat had
been sold in Kherson. To replace the hat he had bought an
old uniform cap of a railway clerk. When he put this cap on
for the first time, he cocked it on one side of his head, and
asked: "Does it suit me? Do I look nice?"
CHAPTER IV.
At last we reached the Crimea. We had left Simpheropol behind
us, and were moving towards Jalta.
188 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
I was walking along in silent ectasy, marvelling at the beauty
of this strip of land, caressed on all sides by the sea.
The prince sighed, complained, and, casting dejected glances
about him, tried filling his empty stomach with wild berries.
His knowledge of their nutritive qualities was extremely
limited, and his experiments were not always successful.
Often he would remark, ill-humoredly:
"If I'm turned inside out with eating this stuff, how am I to
go any farther? And what's to be done then?"
We had no chance of earning anything, neither had we a penny
left to buy a bit of bread. All we had to live on was fruit,
and our hopes for the future.
The prince began to reproach me with want of enterprise and
laziness--with "gaping about," as he expressed it.
Altogether, he was beginning to bore me; but what most tried
my patience were his fabulous accounts of his appetite.
According to these accounts, after a hearty breakfast at noon
of roast lamb, and three bottles of wine, he could easily, at
his two o'clock dinner, dispose of three plates of soup, a pot
of pilave, a dish of shasleek, and various other Caucasian
dishes, washed down abundantly with wine. For whole days he
would talk of nothing but his gastronomic tastes and knowledge:
and while thus talking, he would smack his lips, his eyes would
glow, he would show his teeth, and grind them together; would
suck in and swallow the saliva that came dripping from his
eloquent lips. Watching him at these moments, I conceived for
him a deep feeling of disgust, which I found difficult to
conceal.
189 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Near Jalta I obtained a job at clearing away the dead branches
in an orchard. I was paid fifty kopecks in advance, and laid
out the whole of this money on bread and meat. No sooner had
I returned with my purchase, than the gardener called me away
to my work. I had to leave my store of food with Shakro, who,
under the pretext of a headache, had declined to work. When I
returned in an hour's time, I had to acknowledge that Shakro's
stories of his appetite were all too true. Not a crumb was
left of all the food I had bought! His action was anything
but a friendly one, but I let it pass. Later on I had to
acknowledge to myself the mistake I then made.
My silence did not pass unnoticed by Shakro, who profited by
it in his own fashion. His behavior toward me from that time
grew more and more shameless. I worked, while he ate and
drank and urged me on, refusing, on various pretexts, to do
any work himself. I am no follower of Tolstoi. I felt amused
and sad as I saw this strong healthy lad watching me with
greedy eyes when I returned from a hard day's labor, and found
him waiting for me in some shady nook. But it was even more
mortifying to see that he was sneering at me for working. He
sneered at me because he had learned to beg, and because he
looked on me as a lifeless dummy. When he first started
begging, he was ashamed for me to see him, but he soon got
over this; and as soon as we came to some Tartar village, he
would openly prepare for business. Leaning heavily on his
stick, he would drag one foot after him, as though he were
lame. He knew quite well that the Tartars were mean, and never
give alms to anyone who is strong and well.
190 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
I argued with him, and tried to convince him of the shamefulness
of such a course of action. He only sneered.
"I cannot work," was all he would reply.
He did not get much by his begging.
My health at that time began to give way. Every day the
journey seemed to grow more trying. Every day our relations
toward each other grew more strained. Shakro, now, had begun
shamelessly to insist that I should provide him with food.
"It was you," he would say, "who brought me out here, all this
way; so you must look after me. I never walked so far in my
life before. I should never have undertaken such a journey on
foot. It may kill me! You are tormenting me; you are crushing
the life out of me! Think what it would be if I were to die!
My mother would weep; my father would weep; all my friends
would weep! Just think of all the tears that would be shed!"
I listened to such speeches, but was not angered by them. A
strange thought began to stir in my mind, a thought that made
me bear with him patiently. Many a time as be lay asleep by
my side I would watch his calm, quiet face, and think to myself,
as though groping after some idea:
"He is my fellow-traveller--my fellow-traveller."
At times, a dim thought would strike me, that after all Shakro
was only right in claiming so freely, and with so much
assurance, my help and my care. It proved that he possessed
a strong will.
191 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
He was enslaving me, and I submitted, and studied his
character; following each quivering movement of the muscles
of his face, trying to foresee when and at what point he
would stop in this process of exploiting another person's
individuality.
Shakro was in excellent spirits; he sang, and slept, and
jeered at me, when he felt so disposed. Sometimes we
separated for two or three days. I would leave him some bread
and some money (if we had any), and would tell him where to
meet me again. At parting, he would follow me with a
suspicious, angry look in his eyes. But when we met again he
welcomed me with gleeful triumph. He always said, laughing:
"I thought you had run off alone, and left me! ha! ha! ha!"
I brought him food, and told him of the beautiful places I had
seen; and once even, speaking of Bakhtchesarai, I told him
about our Russian poet Pushkin, and recited some of his verses.
But this produced no effect on him.
"Oh, indeed; that is poetry, is it? Well, songs are better
than poetry, I knew a Georgian once! He was the man to sing!
He sang so loud--so loud--he would have thought his throat
was being cut? He finished by murdering an inn-keeper, and
was banished to Siberia."
Every time I returned, I sank lower and lower in the opinion
of Shakro, until he could not conceal his contempt for me.
Our position was anything but pleasant. I was seldom lucky
enough to earn more than a rouble or a rouble and a-half a
week, and I need not say that was not nearly sufficient to
feed us both.
192 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
The few bits of money that Shakro gained by begging made but
little difference in the state of our affairs, for his belly
was a bottomless pit, which swallowed everything that fell
in its way; grapes, melons, salt fish, bread, or dried fruit;
and as time went on he seemed to need ever more and more food.
Shakro began to urge me to hasten our departure from the
Crimea, not unreasonably pointing out that autumn would soon
be here and we had a long way still to go. I agreed with this
view, and, besides, I had by then seen all that part of the
Crimea. So we pushed on again toward Feodosia, hoping to earn
something there. Once more our diet was reduced to fruit, and
to hopes for the future.
Poor future! Such a load of hopes is cast on it by men, that
it loses almost all its charms by the time it becomes the
present!
When within some twenty versts of Aloushta we stopped, as
usual, for our night's rest. I had persuaded Shakro to keep
to the sea coast; it was a longer way round, but I longed to
breathe the fresh sea breezes. We made a fire, and lay down
beside it. The night was a glorious one. The dark green sea
splashed against the rocks below; above us spread the majestic
calm of the blue heavens, and around us sweet-scented trees
and bushes rustled softly. The moon was rising, and the
delicate tracery of the shadows, thrown by the tall, green
plane trees, crept over the stones. Somewhere near a bird
sang; its note was clear and bold. Its silvery trill seemed
to melt into the air that was full of the soft, caressing
splash of the waves. The silence that followed was broken by
the nervous chirp of a cricket
193 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
The fire burned bright, and its flames looked like a large
bunch of red and yellow flowers. Flickering shadows danced
gaily around us, as if exulting in their power of movement,
in contrast with the creeping advance of the moon shadows.
From time to time strange sounds floated through the air.
The broad expanse of sea horizon seemed lost in immensity. In
the sky overhead not a cloud was visible. I felt as if I were
lying on the earth's extreme edge, gazing into infinite space,
that riddle that haunts the soul. The majestic beauty of the
night intoxicated me, while my whole being seemed absorbed in
the harmony of its colors, its sounds, and its scents.
A feeling of awe filled my soul, a feeling as if something
great were very near to me. My heart throbbed with the joy
of life.
Suddenly, Shakro burst into loud laughter, "Ha! ha! ha! How
stupid your face does look! You've a regular sheep's head!
Ha! ha! ha!"
I started as though it were a sudden clap of thunder. But it
was worse. It was laughable, yes, but oh, how mortifying it
was!
He, Shakro, laughed till the tears came. I was ready to cry,
too, but from quite a different reason. A lump rose in my
throat, and I could not speak. I gazed at him with wild eyes,
and this only increased his mirth. He rolled on the ground,
holding his sides. As for me, I could not get over the insult--
for a bitter insult it was. Those--few, I hope--who will
understand it, from having had a similar experience in their
lives, will recall all the bitterness it left in their souls.
194 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
"Leave off!" I shouted, furiously.
He was startled and frightened, but he could not at once
restrain his laughter. His eyes rolled, and his cheeks swelled
as if about to burst. All at once he went off into a guffaw
again. Then I rose and left him.
For some time I wandered about, heedless and almost unconscious
of all that surrounded me, my whole soul consumed with the
bitter pang of loneliness and of humiliation. Mentally, I had
been embracing all nature. Silently, with the passionate love
any man must feel if he has a little of the poet in him, I was
loving and adoring her. And now it was nature that, under the
form of Shakro, was mocking me for my passion. I might have
gone still further in my accusations against nature, against
Shakro, and against the whole of life, had I not been stopped
by approaching footsteps.
"Do not be angry," said Shakro in a contrite voice, touching my
shoulder lightly. "Were you praying?' I didn't know it, for
I never pray myself."
He spoke timidly, like a naughty child. In spite of my
excitement, I could not help noticing his pitiful face
ludicrously distorted by embarrassment and alarm.
"I will never interfere with you again. Truly! Never!" He
shook his head emphatically. "I know you are a quiet fellow.
You work hard, and do not force me to do the same. I used to
wonder why; but, of course, it's because you are foolish as
a sheep!"
That was his way of consoling me! That was his idea of asking
for forgiveness! After such consolation, and such excuses,
what was there left for me to do but forgive, not only for the
past, but for the future!
195 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Half an hour later he was sound asleep, while I sat beside him,
watching him. During sleep, every one, be he ever so strong,
looks helpless and weak, but Shakro looked a pitiful creature.
His thick, half-parted lips, and his arched eyebrows, gave to
his face a childish look of timidity and of wonder. His
breathing was quiet and regular, though at times he moved
restlessly, and muttered rapidly in the Georgian language; the
words seemed those of entreaty. All around us reigned that
intense calm which always makes one somehow expectant, and
which, were it to last long, might drive one mad by its
absolute stillness and the absence of sound--the vivid shadow
of motion, for sound and motion seem ever allied.
The soft splash of the waves did not reach us. We were resting
in a hollow gorge that was overgrown with bushes, and looked
like the shaggy mouth of some petrified monster. I still
watched Shakro, and thought: "This is my fellow traveler.
I might leave him here, but I could never get away from him,
or the like of him; their name is legion. This is my life
companion. He will leave me only at death's door."
CHAPTER V.
At Feodosia we were sorely disappointed. All work there was
already apportioned among Turks, Greeks, Georgians, tramps,
and Russian peasants from Poltava and Smolensk, who had all
arrived before us. Already, more than four hundred men had,
like ourselves, come in the hopes of finding employment; and
were also, like ourselves, destined to remain silent spectators
of the busy work going on in the port.
196 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
In the town, and outside also, we met groups of famished
peasants, gray and careworn, wandering miserably about. Of
tramps there were also plenty, roving around like hungry wolves.
At first these tramps took us for famished peasants, and tried
to make what they could out of us. They tore from Shakro's
back the overcoat which I had bought him, and they snatched my
knapsack from my shoulders. After several discussions, they
recognized our intellectual and social kinship with them; and
they returned all our belongings. Tramps are men of honor,
though they may be great rogues.
Seeing that there was no work for us, and that the construction
of the harbor was going on very well without our help, we moved
on resentfully toward Kertch.
My friend kept his word, and never again molested me; but he
was terribly famished, his countenance was as black as thunder.
He ground his teeth together, as does a wolf, whenever he saw
someone else eating; and he terrified me by the marvellous
accounts of the quantity of food he was prepared to consume.
Of late he had begun to talk about women, at first only
casually, with sighs of regret. But by degrees he came to
talk more and more often on the subject, with the lascivious
smile of "an Oriental." At length his state became such, that
he could not see any person of the other sex, whatever her age
or appearance, without letting fall some obscene remark about
her looks or her figure.
197 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
He spoke of women so freely, with so wide a knowledge of the
sex; and his point of view, when discussing women, was so
astoundingly direct, that his conversation filled me with
disgust. Once I tried to prove to him that a woman was a
being in no way inferior to him. I saw that he was not merely
mortified by my words, but was on the point of violently
resenting them as a personal insult. So I postponed my
arguments till such time as Shakro should be well fed once
more.
In order to shorten our road to Kertch we left the coast, and
tramped across the steppes. There was nothing in my knapsack
but a three-pound loaf of barley bread, which we had bought
of a Tartar with our last five-kopeck piece. Owing to this
painful circumstance, when, at last we reached Kertch, we
could hardly move our legs, so seeking therefore work was out
of the question. Shakro's attempts to beg by the way had proved
unsuccessful; everywhere he had received the curt refusal:
"There are so many of you."
This was only too true, for the number of people, who, during
that bitter year, were in want of bread, was appalling. The
famished peasants roamed about the country in groups, from
three to twenty or more together. Some carried babies in their
arms; some had young children dragging by the hand. The
children looked almost transparent, with a bluish skin, under
which flowed, instead of pure blood, some sort of thick
unwholesome fluid. The way their small sharp bones projected
from under the wasted flesh spoke more eloquently than could
any words. The sight of them made one's heart ache, while a
constant intolerable pain seemed to gnaw one's very soul.
198 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
These hungry, naked, worn-out children did not even cry. But
they looked about them with sharp eyes that flashed greedily
whenever they saw a garden, or a field, from which the corn
had not yet been carried. Then they would glance sadly at
their elders, as if asking "Why was I brought into this world?"
Sometimes they had a cart driven by a dried-up skeleton of an
old woman, and full of children, whose little heads peeped out,
gazing with mournful eyes in expressive silence at the new land
into which they had been brought. The rough, bony horse
dragged itself along, shaking its head and its tumbled mane
wearily from side to side.
Following the cart, or clustering round it, came the grown-up
people, with heads sunk low on their breasts, and arms hanging
helplessly at their sides. Their dim, vacant eyes had not even
the feverish glitter of hunger, but were full of an
indescribable, impressive mournfulness. Cast out of their
homes by misfortune, these processions of peasants moved
silently, slowly, stealthily through the strange land, as if
afraid that their presence might disturb the peace of the more
fortunate inhabitants. Many and many a time we came across
these processions, and every time they reminded me of a funeral
without the corpse.
Sometimes, when they overtook us, or when we passed them, they
would timidly and quietly ask us: "Is it much farther to the
village?" And when we answered, they would sigh, and gaze
dumbly at us. My travelling companion hated these irrepressible
rivals for charity.
199 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
In spite of all the difficulties of the journey, and the
scantiness of our food, Shakro, with his rich vitality, could
not acquire the lean, hungry look, of which the starving
peasants could boast in its fullest perfection. Whenever he
caught sight, in the distance, of these latter, he would
exclaim: "Pouh! pouh! pouh. Here they are again! What are
they roaming about for? They seem to be always on the move!
Is Russia too small for them? I can't understand what they
want! Russians are a stupid sort of people!"
When I had explained to him the reason of the "stupid" Russians
coming to the Crimea, he shook his head incredulously, and
remarked: "I don't understand! It's nonsense! We never have
such 'stupid' things happening in Georgia!"
We arrived in Kertch, as I have said, exhausted and hungry.
It was late. We had to spend the night under a bridge, which
joined the harbor to the mainland. We thought it better to
conceal ourselves, as we had been told that just before our
arrival all the tramps had been driven out of the town. This
made us feel anxious, lest we might fall into the hands of
the police; besides Shakro had only a false passport, and if
that fact became known, it might lead to serious complications
in our future.
All night long the spray from the sea splashed over us. At
dawn we left our hiding place, wet to the skin and bitterly
cold. All day we wandered about the shore. All we succeeded
in earning was a silver piece of the value of ten kopecks,
which was given me by the wife of a priest, in return for
helping her to carry home a bag of melons from the bazaar.
200 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
A narrow belt of water divided us from Taman, where we meant
to go, but not one boatman would consent to carry us over in
his boat, in spite of my pleadings. Everyone here was up in
arms against the tramps, who, shortly before our arrival, had
performed a series of heroic exploits; and we were looked upon,
with good reason, as belonging to their set.
Evening came on. I felt angry with the whole world, for my
lack of success; and I planned a somewhat risky scheme, which
I put into execution as soon as night came on.
CHAPTER VI.
Toward evening, Shakro and I stole quietly up toward the boats
of the custom house guardship. There were three of them,
chained to iron rings, which rings were firmly screwed into the
stone wall of the quay. It was pitch dark. A strong wind
dashed the boats one against the other. The iron chains
clanked noisily. In the darkness and the noise, it was easy
for me to unscrew the ring from the stone wall.
Just above our heads the sentinel walked to and fro, whistling
through his teeth a tune. Whenever he approached I stopped my
work, though, as a matter of fact, this was a useless
precaution; he could not even have suspected that a person
would sit up to his neck in the water, at a spot where the
backwash of a wave might at any moment carry him off his feet.
Besides, the chains never ceased clanking, as the wind swung
them backward and forward.
201 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Shakro was already lying full length along the bottom of the
boat, muttering something, which the noise of the waves
prevented me from hearing. At last the ring was in my hand.
At the same moment a wave caught our boat, and dashed it
suddenly some ten yards away from the side of the quay. I
bad to swim for a few seconds by the side of the boat,
holding the chain in my hand. At last I managed to scramble
in. We tore up two boards from the bottom, and using these
as oars, I paddled away as fast as I could.
Clouds sailed rapidly over our heads; around, and underneath
the boat, waves splashed furiously. Shakro sat aft. Every
now and then I lost sight of him as the whole stern of the
boat slipped into some deep watery gulf; the next moment he
would rise high above my head, shouting desperately, and
almost falling forward into my arms. I told him not to
shout, but to fasten his feet to the seat of the boat, as I
had already fastened mine. I feared his shouts might give
the alarm. He obeyed, and grew so silent that I only knew
he was in the boat by the white spot opposite to me, which I
knew must be his face. The whole time he held the rudder in
his hand; we could not change places, we dared not move.
From time to time I called out instructions as to the
handling of the boat, and he understood me so quickly, and
did everything so cleverly, that one might have thought he
had been born a sailor. The boards I was using in the place
of oars were of little use; they only blistered my hands.
The furious gusts of wind served to carry the boat forward.
202 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
I cared little for the direction, my only thought was to get
the boat across to the other side. It was not difficult to
steer, for the lights in Kertch were still visible, and
served as a beacon. The waves splashed over our boat with
angry hissings. The farther across we got, the more furious
and the wilder became the waves. Already we could hear a sort
of roar that held mind and soul as with a spell. Faster and
faster our boat flew on before the wind, till it became almost
impossible to steer a course. Every now and then we would
sink into a gulf, and the next moment we would rise high on
the summit of some enormous watery hill. The darkness was
increasing, the clouds were sinking lower and lower. The
lights of the town had disappeared.
Our state was growing desperate. It seemed as if the expanse
of angry rollers was boundless and limitless. We could see
nothing but these immense waves, that came rolling, one after
another, out of the gloom, straight on to our boat. With an
angry crash a board was torn from my hand, forcing me to throw
the other into the boat, and to hold on tight with both hands
to the gunwale. Every time the boat was thrown upward, Shakro
shrieked wildly. As for me, I felt wretched and helpless, in
the darkness, surrounded with angry waves, whose noise deafened
me. I stared about me in dull and chilly terror, and saw the
awful monotony around us. Waves, nothing but waves, with
whitish crests, that broke in showers of salt spray; above us,
the thick ragged edged clouds were like waves too.
203 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
I became conscious only of one thing: I felt that all that was
going on around me might be immeasurably more majestic and more
terrible, but that it did not deign to be, and was restraining
its strength; and that I resented. Death is inevitable. But
that impartial law, reducing all to the same commonplace level,
seems to need something beautiful to compensate for its
coarseness and cruelty. If I were asked to choose between a
death by burning, or being suffocated in a dirty bog, I should
choose the former; it is any way, a more seemly death.
"Let us rig up a sail," exclaimed Shakro.
"Where am I to find one?"
"Use my overcoat."
"Chuck it over to me then; but mind you don't drop the rudder
into the water!"
Shakro quietly threw it to me. "Here! Catch hold!"
Crawling along the bottom of the boat, I succeeded in pulling
up another board, one end of which I fixed into one of the
sleeves of the coat. I then fixed the board against the seat,
and held it there with my feet. I was just going to take hold
of the other sleeve, when an unexpected thing happened. The
boat was tossed suddenly upward, and then overturned. I felt
myself in the water, holding the overcoat in one hand, and a
rope, that was fastened to the boat, in the other hand. The
waves swirled noisily over my head, and I swallowed a mouthful
of bitter salt water. My nose, my mouth, and my ears, were
full of it.
With all my might I clutched the rope, as the waves threw me
backward and forward. Several times I sank, each time, as I
rose again, bumping my head against the sides of the boat.
204 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
At last I succeeded in throwing the coat over the bottom of
the boat, and tried to clamber on it myself. After a dozen
efforts I scrambled up and I sat astride it. Then I caught
sight of Shakro in the water on the opposite side of the boat,
holding with both hands to the same rope of which I had just
let go. The boat was apparently encircled by a rope, threaded
through iron rings, driven into the outer planks.
"Alive!" I shouted.
At that moment Shakro was flung high into the air, and he, too,
got on to the boat. I clutched him, and there we remained
sitting face to face, astride on the capsized boat! I sat on
it as though it were a horse, making use of the rope as if it
had been stirrups; but our position there was anything but safe
--a wave might easily have knocked us out of our saddle.
Shakro held tightly by my knees, and dropped his head on my
breast. He shivered, and I could hear his teeth chattering.
Something had to be done. The bottom of the upturned boat was
slippery, as though it had been greased with butter. I told
Shakro to get into the water again, and hold by the ropes on
one side of the boat, while I would do the same on the other
side.
By way of reply, Shakro began to butt his head violently
against my chest. The waves swept, in their wild dance, every
now and then over us. We could hardly bold our seats; the rope
was cutting my leg desperately. As far as one could see there
was nothing but immense waves, rising mountains high, only to
disappear again noisily.
205 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
I repeated my advice to Shakro in a tone of command. He fell
to butting me more violently than ever. There was no time to
be lost. Slowly and with difficulty I tore his hands from me,
and began to push him into the water, trying to make his hands
take hold of the rope. Then something happened that dismayed
me more than anything in that terrible night.
"Are you drowning me?" he muttered, gazing at me.
This was really horrible! The question itself was a dreadful
one, but the tone in which it was uttered more so. In it
there was a timid submission to fate, and an entreaty for
mercy, and the last sigh of one who had lost all hope of
escaping from a frightful death. But more terrible still were
the eyes that stared at me out of the wet, livid, death-like
face.
"Hold on tighter!" I shouted to him, at the same time getting
into the water myself, and taking hold of the rope. As I did
so, I struck my foot against something, and for a moment I
could not think for the pain. Then I understood. Suddenly a
burning thought flashed through my mind. I felt delirious and
stronger than ever.
"Land!" I shouted.
Great explorers may have shouted the word with more feeling on
discovering new lands, but I doubt if any can have shouted
more loudly. Shakro howled with delight, and we both rushed
on in the water. But soon we both lost heart, for we were up
to our chests in the waves, and still there seemed no sign of
dry land. The waves were neither so strong nor so high, but
they rolled slowly over our heads. Fortunately I had not let
go of the boat, but still held on by the rope, which had
already helped us when struggling in the water.
206 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Shakro and I moved carefully forward, towing the boat, which
we had now righted, behind us.
Shakro was muttering and laughing. I glanced anxiously around.
It was still dark. Behind us, and to our right, the roaring
of the waves seemed to be increasing, whereas to our left and
in front of us it was evidently growing less. We moved toward
the left. The bottom was hard and sandy, but full of holes;
sometimes we could not touch the bottom, and we had to take
hold of the boat with one hand, while with the other hand, and
our legs, we propelled it forward. At times again the water
was no higher than our knees. When we came to the deep places
Shakro howled, and I trembled with fear. Suddenly we saw
ahead of us a light--we were safe!
Shakro shouted with all his might, but I could not forget that
the boat was not ours, and promptly reminded him of the fact.
He was silent, but a few minutes later I heard him sobbing. I
could not quiet him--it was hopeless. But the water was
gradually growing shallower, it reached our knees, then our
ankles; and at last we felt dry land! We had dragged the boat
so far, but our strength failed us, and we left it. A black
log of wood lay across our path; we jumped over it, and stepped
with our bare feet on to some prickly grass. It seemed unkind
of the land to give us such a cruel welcome, but we did not
heed it, and ran toward the fire. It was about a mile away;
but it shone cheerily through the hovering gloom of the night,
and seemed to smile a welcome to us.
207 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
CHAPTER VII.
Three enormous shaggy dogs leaped up out of the darkness and
ran toward us. Shakro, who had been sobbing all the way, now
shrieked, and threw himself on the ground. I flung the wet
overcoat at the dogs, and stooped down to find a stick or a
stone. I could feel nothing but coarse, prickly grass, which
hurt my hands. The dogs continued their attack. I put my
fingers into my mouth, and whistled as loud as I could. They
rushed back, and at the same time we heard the sound of
approaching steps and voices.
A few minutes later, and we were comfortably seated around a
fire in the company of four shepherds, dressed in "touloups"
or long sheepskin overcoats.
They scrutinized us keenly and rather suspiciously, and
remained silent all the time I was telling them our story.
Two of the shepherds were seated on the ground, smoking, and
puffing from their mouths clouds of smoke. The third was a
tall man with a thick black beard, wearing a high fur cap.
He stood behind us, leaning on a huge knotted stick. The
fourth man was younger, and fair haired; he was helping the
sobbing Shakro to get off his wet clothes. An enormous stick,
the size of which alone inspired fear, lay beside each of the
seated shepherds.
Ten yards away from us all the steppe seemed covered with
something gray and undulating, which had the appearance of
snow in spring time, just when it is beginning to thaw.
208 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
It was only after a close inspection that one could discern
that this gray waving mass was composed of many thousands of
sheep, huddled closely together, asleep, forming in the dark
night one compact mass. Sometimes they bleated piteously and
timidly.
I dried the overcoat by the fire, and told the shepherds all
our story truthfully; even describing the way in which we
became possessed of the boat.
"Where is that boat now?" inquired the severe-looking elder
man, who kept his eyes fixed on me.
I told him.
"Go, Michael, and look for it."
Michael, the shepherd with the black beard, went off with his
stick over his shoulder, toward the sea-shore.
The overcoat was dry. Shakro was about to put it on his naked
body, when the old man said: "Go and have a run first to warm
yourself. Run quickly around the fire. Come!"
At first, Shakro did not understand. Then suddenly he rose
from his place, and began dancing some wild dance of his own,
first flying like a ball across the fire, then whirling round
and round in one place, then stamping his feet on the ground,
while he swung his arms, and shouted at the top of his voice.
It was a ludicrous spectacle. Two of the shepherds were
rolling on the ground, convulsed with laughter, while the older
man, with a serious, immovable face, tried to clap his hands in
time to the dancing, but could not succeed in doing so. He
watched attentively every movement of the dancing Shakro, while
he nodded his head, and exclaimed in a deep bass voice:
209 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
"He! He'! That's right! He'! He'!"
The light fell full on Shakro, showing the variety of his
movements, as at one moment he would coil himself up like a
snake, and the next would dance round on one leg; then would
plunge into a succession of rapid steps, difficult to follow
with the eye. His naked body shone in the fire light, while
the large beads of sweat, as they rolled off it, looked, in
the red light of the fire, like drops of blood..
By now, all three of the shepherds were clapping their hands;
while I, shivering with cold, dried myself by the fire, and
thought that our adventures would gratify the taste of admirers
of Cooper or of Jules Vernes; there was shipwreck, then came
hospitable aborigines, and a savage dance round the fire. And
while I reflected thus, I felt very uneasy as to the chief point
in every adventure--the end of it.
When Shakro had finished dancing, he also sat down by the fire,
wrapped up in the overcoat. He was already eating, while he
stared at me with his black eyes, which had a gleam in them of
something I did not like. His clothes, stretched on sticks,
driven into the ground, were drying before the fire. The
shepherds had given me, also, some bread and bacon.
Michael returned, and sat down without a word beside the old
man, who remarked in an inquiring voice: "Well?"
"I have found the boat," was the brief reply.
"It won't be washed away?"
"No."
210 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
The shepherds were silent, once more scrutinizing us.
"Well," said Michael, at last, addressing no one in particular.
"Shall we take them to the ataman, or straight to the custom
house officers?"
"So that's to be the end!" I thought to myself.
Nobody replied to Michael's question. Shakro went on quietly
with his eating, and said nothing.
"We could take them to the ataman--or we could take them to the
custom house. One plan's as good as the other," remarked the
old man, after a short silence.
"They have stolen the custom house boat, so they ought to be
taught a lesson for the future."
"Wait a bit, old man," I began.
"Certainly, they ought not to have stolen the boat. If they
are not punished now, they will probably do something worse
next time." The old man interrupted me, without paying any
heed to my protestations.
The old man spoke with revolting indifference. When he had
finished speaking, his comrades nodded their heads in token
of assent.
"Yes, if a man steals, he has to bear the consequences, when
he's caught---- Michael! what about the boat? Is it there?"
"Oh, it's there all right!"
"Are you sure the waves won't wash it away?"
"Quite sure."
"Well, that's all right. Then let it stay there. Tomorrow
the boatmen will be going over to Kertch, and they can take
it with them. They will not mind taking an empty boat along
with them, will they? Well--so you mean to say you were not
frightened, you vagabonds? Weren't you indeed? La! la! la!
211 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Half a mile farther out, and you would have been by this time
at the bottom of the sea! What would you have done if the
waves had cast you back into the sea? Ay, sure enough, you
would have sunk to the bottom like a couple of axes. And that
would have been the end of you both!"
As the old man finished speaking, he looked at me with an
ironical smile on his lips.
"Well, why don't you speak, lad?" he inquired.
I was vexed by his reflections, which I misinterpreted as
sneering at us. So I only answered rather sharply:
"I was listening to you."
"Well-and what do you say?" inquired the old man.
"Nothing."
"Why are you rude to me? Is it the right thing to be rude to
a man older than yourself?"
I was silent, acknowledging in my heart that it really was
not the right thing.
"Won't you have something more to eat?" continued the old
shepherd.
"No, I can't eat any more."
"Well, don't have any, if you don't want it. Perhaps you'll
take a bit of bread with you to eat on the road?"
I trembled with joy, but would not betray my feelings.
"Oh, yes. I should like to take some with me for the road,"
I answered, quietly.
"I say, lads! give these fellows some bread and a piece of
bacon each. If you can find something else, give it to them
too."
"Are we to let them go, then?" asked Michael.
212 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
The other two shepherds looked up at the old man.
"What can they do here?"
"Did we not intend to take them either to the ataman or to the
custom house?" asked Michael, in a disappointed tone.
Shakro stirred uneasily in his seat near the fire, and poked
out his head inquiringly from beneath the overcoat. He was
quite serene.
"What would they do at the ataman's? I should think there is
nothing to do there just now. Perhaps later on they might
like to go there?"
"But how about the boat?" insisted Michael.
"What about the boat?" inquired the old man again. "Did you
not say the boat was all right where it was?"
"Yes, it's all right there," Michael replied.
"Well, let it stay there. In the morning John can row it round
into the harbor. From there, someone will get it over to Kertch.
That's all we can do with the boat."
I watched attentively the old man's countenance, but failed to
discover any emotion on his phlegmatic, sun-burned, weatherbeaten
face, over the features of which the flicker from the
flames played merrily.
'If only we don't get into trouble." Michael began to give way.
"There will be no trouble if you don't let your tongue wag.
If the ataman should hear of it, we might get into a scrape,
and they also. We have our work to do, and they have to be
getting on. Is it far you have to go?" asked the old man
again, though I had told him once before I was bound for Tiflis.
213 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
"That's a long way yet. The ataman might detain them; then,
when would they get to Tiflis? So let them be getting on
their way. Eh?"
"Yes, let them go," all the shepherds agreed, as the old man,
when he had finished speaking, closed his lips tightly, and
cast an inquiring glance around him, as he fingered his gray
beard.
"Well, my good fellows, be off, and God bless you!" he
exclaimed with a gesture of dismissal. "We will see that the
boat goes back, so don't trouble about that!"
"Many, many thanks, grandfather!" I said taking off my cap.
"What are you thanking me for?"
"Thank you; thank you!" I repeated fervently.
"What are you thanking me for? That's queer! I say, God
bless you, and he thanks me! Were you afraid I'd send you to
the devil, eh?"
"I'd done wrong and I was afraid," I answered.
"Oh!" and the old man lifted his eyebrows. "Why should I
drive a man farther along the wrong path? I'd do better by
helping one along the way I'm going myself. Maybe, we shall
meet again, and then we'll meet as friends. We ought to help
one another where we can. Good-bye!"
He took off his large shaggy sheepskin cap, and bowed low to
us. His comrades bowed too.
We inquired our way to Anapa, and started off. Shakro was
laughing at something or other.
CHAPTER VIII.
214 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
"Why are you laughing?" I asked.
The old shepherd and his ethics of life had charmed and
delighted me. I felt refreshed by the pure air of early
morning, blowing straight into my face. I rejoiced, as I
watched the sky gradually clearing, and felt that daylight
was not far off. Before long the morning sun would rise in
a clear sky, and we could look forward to a brilliantly fine
day.
Shakro winked slyly at me, and burst out into a fresh fit of
laughter. The hearty, buoyant ring in his laugh made me
smile also. The few hours rest we had taken by the side of
the shepherd's fire, and their excellent bread and bacon, had
helped us to forget our exhausting voyage. Our bones still
ached a little, but that would pass off with walking.
"Well, what are you laughing at? Are you glad that you are
alive? Alive and not even hungry?"
Shakro shook his head, nudged me in the ribs, made a grimace,
burst out laughing again, and at last said in his broken
Russian: "You don't see what it is that makes me laugh? Well,
I'll tell you in a minute. Do you know what I should have
done if we had been taken before the ataman? You don't know?
I'd have told him that you had tried to drown me, and I should
have begun to cry. Then they would have been sorry for me,
and wouldn't have put me in prison! Do you see?"
At first I tried to make myself believe that it was a joke;
but, alas! he succeeded in convincing me he meant it seriously.
So clearly and completely did he convince me of it, that,
instead of being furious with him for such naive cynicism, I
was filled with deep pity for him and incidentally for myself
as well.
215 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
What else but pity can one feel for a man who tells one in all
sincerity, with the brightest of smiles, of his intention to
murder one? What is to be done with him if he looks upon such
an action as a clever and delightful joke?
I began to argue warmly with him, trying to show him all the
immorality of his scheme. He retorted very candidly that I
did not see where his interests lay, and had forgotten he had
a false passport and might get into trouble in consequence.
Suddenly a cruel thought flashed through my mind.
"Stay," said I, "do you really believe that I wanted to drown
you?"
"No! When you were pushing me into the water I did think so;
but when you got in as well, then I didn't!"
"Thank God!" I exclaimed. "Well, thanks for that, anyway!"
"Oh! no, you needn't say thank you. I am the one to say thank
you. Were we not both cold when we were sitting round the
fire? The overcoat was yours, but you didn't take it yourself.
You dried it, and gave it to me. And took nothing for yourself.
Thank you for that! You are a good fellow; I can see that. When
we get to Tiflis, I will reward you. I shall take you to my
father. I shall say to him: 'Here is a man whom you must feed
and care for, while I deserve only to be kept in the stable with
the mules.' You shall live with us, and be our gardener, and we
will give you wine in plenty, and anything you like to eat. Ah!
you will have a capital time! You will share my wine and food!"
216 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
He continued for some time, describing in detail the attractions
of the new life he was going to arrange for me in his home in
Tiflis.
And as he talked, I mused on the great unhappiness of men
equipped with new morality and new aspirations--they tread the
paths of life lonely and astray; and the fellow-travelers they
meet on the way are aliens to them, unable to understand them.
Life is a heavy burden for these lonely souls. Helplessly they
drift hither and thither. They are like the good seed, wafted
in the air, and dropping but rarely onto fruitful soil.
Daylight had broken. The sea far away shone with rosy gold.
"I am sleepy," said Shakro.
We halted. He lay down in a trench, which the fierce gusts of
wind had dug out in the dry sand, near the shore. He wrapped
himself, head and all, in the overcoat, and was soon sound
asleep. I sat beside him, gazing dreamily over the sea.
It was living its vast life, full of mighty movement.
The flocks of waves broke noisily on the shore and rippled
over the sand, that faintly hissed as it soaked up the water.
The foremost waves, crested with white foam, flung themselves
with a loud boom on the shore, and retreated, driven back to
meet the waves that were pushing forward to support them.
Intermingling in the foam and spray, they rolled once more
toward the shore, and beat upon it, struggling to enlarge the
bounds of their realm. From the horizon to the shore, across
the whole expanse of waters, these supple, mighty waves rose
up, moving, ever moving, in a compact mass, bound together by
the oneness of their aim.
217 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
The sun shone more and more brightly on the crests of the
breakers, which, in the distance on the horizon, looked bloodred.
Not a drop went astray in the titanic heavings of the
watery mass, impelled, it seemed, by some conscious aim, which
it would soon attain by its vast rhythmic blows. Enchanting
was the bold beauty of the foremost waves, as they dashed
stubbornly upon the silent shore, and fine it was to see the
whole sea, calm and united, the mighty sea, pressing on and
ever on. The sea glittered now with all the colors of the
rainbow, and seemed to take a proud, conscious delight in its
own power and beauty.
A large steamer glided quietly round a point of land, cleaving
the waters. Swaying majestically over the troubled sea, it
dashed aside the threatening crests of the waves. At any other
time this splendid, strong, flashing steamer would have set me
thinking of the creative genius of man, who could thus enslave
the elements. But now, beside me lay an untamed element in the
shape of a man.
CHAPTER IX.
We were tramping now through the district of Terek. Shakro
was indescribably ragged and dishevelled. He was surly as the
devil, though he had plenty of food now, for it was easy to
find work in these parts. He himself was not good at any kind
of work.
218 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Once he got a small job on a thrashing machine; his duty was
to push aside the straw, as it left the machine; but after
working half a day he left off, as the palms of his hands were
blistered and sore. Another time he started off with me and
some other workmen to root up trees, but he grazed his neck
with a mattock.
We got on with our journey very slowly; we worked two days,
and walked on the third day. Shakro ate all he could get hold
of, and his gluttony prevented me from saving enough money to
buy him new clothes. His ragged clothes were patched in the
most fantastic way with pieces of various colors and sizes. I
tried to persuade him to keep away from the beer houses in the
villages, and to give up drinking his favorite wines; but he
paid no heed to my words.
With great difficulty I had, unknown to him, saved up five
roubles, to buy him some new clothes. One day, when we were
stopping in some village, he stole the money from my knapsack,
and came in the evening, in a tipsy state, to the garden where
I was working. He brought with him a fat country wench, who
greeted me with the following words: "Good-day, you damned
heretic!"
Astonished at this epithet, I asked her why she called me a
heretic. She answered boldly: "Because you forbid a young
man to love women, you devil. How can you forbid what is
allowed by law? Damn you, you devil!"
Shakro stood beside her, nodding his head approvingly. He was
very tipsy, and he rocked backward and forward unsteadily on
his legs. His lower lip drooped helplessly. His dim eyes
stared at me with vacant obstinacy.
219 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
"Come, what are you looking at us for? Give him his money?"
shouted the undaunted woman.
"What money?" I exclaimed, astonished.
"Give it back at once; or I'll take you before the ataman!
Return the hundred and fifty roubles, which you borrowed from
him in Odessa!"
What was I to do? The drunken creature might really go and
complain to the Ataman; the Atamans were always very severe
on any kind of tramp, and he might arrest us. Heaven only
knew what trouble my arrest might inflict, not only on myself,
but on Shakro! There was nothing for it but to try and outwit
the woman, which was not, of course, a difficult matter.
She was pacified after she had disposed of three bottles of
vodka. She sank heavily to the ground, on a bed of melons,
and fell asleep. Then I put Shakro to sleep also.
Early next morning we turned our backs on the village, leaving
the woman sound asleep among the melons.
After his bout of drunkenness, Shakro, looking far from well,
and with a swollen, blotchy face, walked slowly along, every
now and then spitting on one side, and sighing deeply. I tried
to begin a conversation with him, but he did not respond. He
shook his unkempt head, as does a tired horse.
It was a hot day; the air was full of heavy vapors, rising from
the damp soil, where the thick, lush grass grew abundantly--
almost as high as our heads. Around us, on all sides,
stretched a motionless sea of velvety green grass.
220 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
The hot air was steeped in strong sappy perfumes, which made
one's head swim.
To shorten our way, we took a narrow path, where numbers of
small red snakes glided about, coiling up under our feet. On
the horizon to our right, were ranges of cloudy summits
flashing silvery in the sun. It was the mountain chain of the
Daguestan Hills.
The stillness that reigned made one feel drowsy, and plunged
one into a sort of dreamy state. Dark, heavy clouds, rolling
up behind us, swept slowly across the heavens. They gathered
at our backs, and the sky there grew dark, while in front of
us it still showed clear, except for a few fleecy cloudlets,
racing merrily across the open. But the gathering clouds grew
darker and swifter. In the distance could be heard the rattle
of thunder, and its angry rumbling came every moment nearer.
Large drops of rain fell, pattering on the grass, with a sound
like the clang of metal. There was no place where we could
take shelter. It had grown dark. The patter of the rain on
the grass was louder still, but it lad a frightened, timid
sound. There was a clap of thunder, and the clouds shuddered
in a blue flash of lightning. Again it was dark and the
silvery chain of distant mountains was lost in the gloom. The
rain now was falling in torrents, and one after another peals
of thunder rumbled menacingly and incessantly over the vast
steppe. The grass, beaten down by the wind and rain, lay flat
on the ground, rustling faintly. Everything seemed quivering
and troubled. Flashes of blinding lightning tore the storm
clouds asunder.
221 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
The silvery, cold chain of the distant
mountains sprang up in the blue flash and gleamed with blue
light. When the lightning died away, the mountains vanished,
as though flung back into an abyss of darkness. The air was
filled with rumblings and vibrations, with sounds and echoes.
The lowering, angry sky seemed purifying itself by fire, from
the dust and the foulness which had risen toward it from the
earth, and the earth, it seemed, was quaking in terror at its
wrath. Shakro was shaking and whimpering like a scared dog.
But I felt elated and lifted above commonplace life as I
watched the mighty, gloomy spectacle of the storm on the
steppe. This unearthly chaos enchanted me and exalted me to
an heroic mood, filling my soul with its wild, fierce harmony.
And I longed to take part in it, and to express, in some way
or other, the rapture that filled my heart to overflowing, in
the presence of the mysterious force which scatters gloom,
and gathering clouds. The blue light which lit up the sky
seemed to gleam in my soul too; and how was I to express my
passion and my ecstasy at the grandeur of nature? I sang
aloud, at the top of my voice. The thunder roared, the
lightning flashed, the grass whispered, while I sang and felt
myself in close kinship with nature's music. I was delirious,
and it was pardonable, for it harmed no one but myself. I was
filled with the desire to absorb, as much as possible, the
mighty, living beauty and force that was raging on the steppe;
and to get closer to it. A tempest at sea, and a thunderstorm
on the steppes! I know nothing grander in nature. And so I
shouted to my heart's content, in the absolute belief that I
troubled no one, nor placed any one in a position to criticize
my action. But suddenly, I felt my legs seized, and I fell
helpless into a pool of water.
222 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Shakro was looking into my face with serious and wrathful eyes.
"Are you mad? Aren't you? No? Well, then, be quiet! Don't
shout! I'll cut your throat! Do you understand?"
I was amazed, and I asked him first what harm I was doing him?
"Why, you're frightening me! It's thundering; God is speaking,
and you bawl. What are you thinking about?"
I replied that I had a right to sing whenever I chose. Just as
he had.
"But I don't want to!" he said.
"Well, don't sing then!" I assented.
"And don't you sing!" insisted Shakro.
"Yes, I mean to sing!"
"Stop! What are you thinking about?" he went on angrily. "Who
are you? You have neither home nor father, nor mother; you
have no relations, no land! Who are you? Are you anybody, do
you suppose? It's I am somebody in the world! I have
everything!"
He slapped his chest vehemently.
"I'm a prince, and you--you're nobody--nothing! You say--
you're this and that! Who else says so? All Koutais and
Tiflies know me! You shall not contradict me! Do you hear?
Are you not my servant? I'll pay ten times over for all you
have done for me. You shall obey me! You said yourself that
God taught us to serve each other without seeking for a reward;
but I'll reward you.
223 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
"Why will you annoy me, preaching to me, and frightening me?
Do you want me to be like you? That's too bad! You can't
make me like yourself! Foo! Foo!"
He talked, smacked his lips, snuffled, and sighed. I stood
staring at him, open-mouthed with astonishment. He was
evidently pouring out now all the discontent, displeasure and
disgust, which had been gathering up during the whole of our
journey. To convince me more thoroughly, he poked me in the
chest from time to time with his forefinger, and shook me by
the shoulder. During the most impressive parts of his speech
he pushed up against me with his whole massive body. The rain
was pouring down on us, the thunder never ceased its muttering,
and to make me hear, Shakro shouted at the top of his voice.
The tragic comedy of my position struck me more vividly than
ever, and I burst into a wild fit of laughter. Shakro turned
away and spat.
CHAPTER X
The nearer we draw to Tiflis, the gloomier and the surlier grew
Shakro. His thinner, but still stolid face wore a new
expression. Just before we reached Vladikavkas we passed
through a Circassian village, where we obtained work in some
maize fields.
The Circassians spoke very little Russian, and as they
constantly laughed at us, and scolded us in their own language,
we resolved to leave the village two days after our arrival;
their increasing enmity had begun to alarm us.
224 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
We had left the village about ten miles behind, when Shakro
produced from his shirt a roll of home-spun muslin, and handing
it to me, exclaimed triumphantly:
"You need not work any more now. We can sell this, and buy all
we want till we get to Tiflis! Do you see?"
I was moved to fury, and tearing the bundle from his hands, I
flung it away, glancing back.
The Circassians are not to be trifled with! Only a short time
before, the Cossacks had told us the following story:
A tramp, who had been working for some time in a Circassian
village, stole an iron spoon, and carried it away with him. The
Circassians followed him, searched him, and found the iron
spoon. They ripped open his body with a dagger, and after
pushing the iron spoon into the wound, went off quietly,
leaving him to his fate on the steppes. He was found by some
Cossacks at the point of death. He told them this story, and
died on the way to their village. The Cossacks had more than
once warned us against the Circassians, relating many other
edifying tales of the same sort. I had no reason to doubt the
accuracy of these stories. I reminded Shakro of these facts.
For some time he listened in silence to what I was saying;
then, suddenly, showing his teeth and screwing up his eyes,
he flew at me like a wild cat. We struggled for five minutes
or so, till Shakro exclaimed angrily: "Enough! Enough!"
225 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
Exhausted with the struggle, we sat in silence for some time,
facing each other. Shakro glanced covetously toward the spot,
where I had flung the red muslin, and said:
"What were we fighting about? Fa--Fa--Fa! It's very stupid.
I did not steal it from you did I? Why should you care? I
was sorry for you that is why I took the linen. You have to
work so hard, and I cannot help you in that way, so I thought
I would help you by stealing. Tse'! Tse'!
I made an attempt to explain to him how wrong it was to steal.
"Hold your tongue, please! You're a blockhead!" he exclaimed
contemptuously; then added: "When one is dying of hunger,
there is nothing for it but to steal; what sort of a life is
this?"
I was silent, afraid of rousing his anger again. This was the
second time he had committed a theft. Some time before, when
we were tramping along the shores of the Black Sea, he stole
a watch belonging to a fisherman. We had nearly come to blows
then.
"Well, come along," he said; when, after a short rest, we had
once more grown quiet and friendly.
So we trudged on. Each day made him grow more gloomy, and he
looked at me strangely, from under his brows.
As we walked over the Darial Pass, he remarked: "Another day
or two will bring us to Tiflis. Tse'! Tse'!"
He clicked his tongue, and his face beamed with delight.
226 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
"When I get home, they will ask me where I have been? I shall
tell them I have been travelling. The first thing I shall do
will be to take a nice bath. I shall eat a lot. Oh! what a
lot. I have only to tell my mother 'I am hungry!' My father
will forgive when I tell him how much trouble and sorrow I have
undergone. Tramps are a good sort of people! Whenever I meet
a tramp, I shall always give him a rouble, and take him to the
beer-house, and treat him to some wine. I shall tell him I was
a tramp myself once. I shall tell my father all about you. I
shall say: 'This man--he was like an elder brother to me. He
lectured me, and beat me, the dog! He fed me, and now, I shall
say, you must feed him.' I shall tell him to feed you for a
whole year. Do you hear that, Maxime?"
I liked to hear him talk in this strain; at those times he
seemed so simple, so child-like. His words were all the more
pleasant because I had not a single friend in all Tiflis.
Winter was approaching. We had already been caught in a
snowstorm in the Goudaour hills. I reckoned somewhat on
Shakro's promises. We walked on rapidly till we reached
Mesket, the ancient capital of Iberia. The next day we hoped
to be in Tiflis.
I caught sight of the capital of the Caucasus in the distance,
as it lay some five versts farther on, nestling between two
high hills. The end of our journey was fast approaching! I
was rejoicing, but Shakro was indifferent. With a vacant look
he fixed his eyes on the distance, and began spitting on one
side; while he kept rubbing his stomach with a grimace of pain.
The pain in his stomach was caused by his having eaten too
many raw carrots, which he had pulled up by the wayside.
227 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
"Do you think I, a nobleman of Georgia, will show myself in
my native town, torn and dirty as I am now? No, indeed, that
I never could! We must wait outside till night. Let us rest
here."
We twisted up a couple of cigarettes from our last bit of
tobacco, and, shivering with cold, we sat down under the walls
of a deserted building to have a smoke. The piercing cold
wind seemed to cut through our bodies. Shakro sat humming a
melancholy song; while I fell to picturing to myself a warm
room, and other advantages of a settled life over a wandering
existence.
"Let us move on now!" said Shakro resolutely.
It had now become dark. The lights were twinkling down below
in the town. It was a pretty sight to watch them flashing one
after the other, out of the mist of the valley, where the town
lay hidden.
"Look here, you give me your bashleek,* I want to cover my
face up with it. My friends might recognize me."
I gave him my bashleek. We were already in Olga Street, and
Shakro was whistling boldly.
"Maxime, do you see that bridge over yonder? The train stops
there. Go and wait for me there, please. I want first to go
and ask a friend, who lives close by, about my father and
mother."
"You won't be long, will you?"
"Only a minute. Not more!"
* A kind of hood worn by men to keep their ears warm.
228 MY FELLOW-TRAVELLER
He plunged rapidly down the nearest dark, narrow lane, and
disappeared--disappeared for ever.
I never met him again--the man who was my fellow-traveller
for nearly four long months; but I often think of him with
a good-humored feeling, and light-hearted laughter.
He taught me much that one does not find in the thick
volumes of wise philosophers, for the wisdom of life is
always deeper and wider than the wisdom of men.
229
ON A RAFT
Heavy clouds drift slowly across the sleepy river and hang
every moment lower and thicker. In the distance their ragged
gray edges seem almost to touch the surface of the rapid and
muddy waters, swollen by the floods of spring, and there,
where they touch, an impenetrable wall rises to the skies,
barring the flow of the river and the passage of the raft.
The stream, swirling against this wall--washing vainly against
it with a wistful wailing swish--seems to be thrown back on
itself, and then to hasten away on either side, where lies the
moist fog of a dark spring night.
The raft floats onward, and the distance opens out before it
into heavy cloud--massed space. The banks of the rivers are
invisible; darkness covers them, and the lapping waves of a
spring flood seem to have washed them into space.
The river below has spread into a sea; while the heavens
above, swatched in cloud masses, hang heavy, humid, and
leaden.*
230 ON A RAFT
There is no atmosphere, no color in this gray blurred picture.
The raft glides down swiftly and noiselessly, while out of
the darkness appears, suddenly bearing down on it, a steamer,
pouring from its funnels a merry crowd of sparks, and churning
up the water with the paddles of its great revolving wheels.
The two red forward lights gleam every moment larger and
brighter, and the mast-head lantern sways slowly from side to
side, as if winking mysteriously at the night. The distance
is filled with the noise of the troubled water, and the heavy
thud-thud of the engines.
"Look ahead!" is heard from the raft. The voice is that of a
deep-chested man.
* The river is the volga, and the passage of strings of rafts
down its stream in early spring is being described by the
author. The allusion later on to the Brotherhood living in
the Caucasus, refers to the persecuted Doukhobori, who have
since been driven from their homes by the Russian authorities
and have taken refuge in Canada.
In order to enter into the sociology of this story of Gorkv's
it must be explained that among ancient Russian folk-customs,
as the young peasants were married at a very early age, the
father of the bridegroom considered he had rights over his
daughter-in-law. In later times, this custom although
occasionally continued, was held in disrepute among the
peasantry; but that it has not entirely died out is proved
by the little drama sketched in by the hand of a genius in
"On a Raft."
231 ON A RAFT
Two men are standing aft, grasping each a long pole, which
propel the raft and act as rudders; Mitia, the son of the
owner, a fair, weak, melancholy-looking lad of twenty-two;
and Sergei, a peasant, hired to help in the work on board the
raft, a bluff, healthy, red-bearded fellow, whose upper lip,
raised with a mocking sneer, discloses a mouth filled with
large, strong teeth.
"Starboard!" A second cry vibrates through the darkness ahead
of the rafts.
"What are you shouting for; we know our business !" Sergei
growls raspingly; pressing his expanded chest against the pole.
"Ouch! Pull harder, Mitia!" Mitia pushes with his feet against
the damp planks that form the raft, and with his thin hands
draws toward him the heavy steering pole, coughing hoarsely the
while.
"Harder, to starboard! You cursed loafers!" The master cries
again, anger and anxiety in his voice.
"Shout away!" mutters Sergei. "Here's your miserable devil of
a son, who couldn't break a straw across his knee, and you put
him to steer a raft; and then you yell so that all the river
hears you. You were mean enough not to take a second
steersman; so now you may tear your throat to pieces shouting!"
These last words were growled out loud enough to be heard
forward, and as if Sergei wished they should be heard.
The steamer passed rapidly alongside the raft sweeping the
frothing water from under her paddle wheels. The planks tossed
up and down in the wash, and the osier branches fastening them
together, groaned and scraped with a moist, plaintive sound.
The lit-up portholes of the steamer seem for a moment to rake
the raft and the river with fiery eyes, reflected in the
seething water, like luminous trembling spots. Then all
disappears.
232 ON A RAFT
The wash of the steamer sweeps backward and forward, over the
raft; the planks dance up and down. Mitia, swaying with the
movements of the water, clutches convulsively the steering
pole to save himself from falling.
"Well, well," says Sergei, laughing. "So you're beginning to
dance! Your father will start yelling again. Or he'll
perhaps come and give you one or two in the ribs; then you'll
dance to another tune! Port side now! Ouch!"
And with his muscles strung like steel springs, Sergei gives
a powerful push to his pole, forcing it deep down into the
water. Energetic, tall, mocking and rather malicious, he
stands bare-footed, rigid, as if a part of the planks; looking
straight ahead, ready at any moment to change the direction of
the raft.
"Just look there at your father kissing Marka! Aren't they a
pair of devils? No shame, and no conscience. Why don't you
get away from them, Mitia--away from these Pagan pigs? Why?
Do you hear?"
"I hear," answered Mitia in a stifled voice, without looking
toward the spot which Sergei pointed to through the darkness,
where the form of Mitia's father could be seen.
"I hear," mocked Sergei, laughing ironically.
"You poor half-baked creature! A pleasant state of things
indeed!" he continued, encouraged by the apathy of Mitia.
"And what a devil that old man is! He finds a wife for his
son; he takes the son's wife away from him; and all's well!
The old brute!"
233 ON A RAFT
Mitia is silent, and looks astern up the river, where another
wall of mist is formed. Now the clouds close in all round,
and the raft hardly appears to move, but to be standing still
in the thick, dark water, crushed down by the heavy gray-black
vaporous masses, which drift across the heavens, and bar the
way.
The whole river seems like a fathomless, hidden whirlpool,
surrounded by immense mountains, rising toward heaven, and
capped with shrouding mists.
The stillness suffocates, and the water seems spellbound with
expectation, as it beats softly against the raft. A great
sadness, and a timid questioning is heard in that faint sound
--the only voice of the night--accentuating still more the
silence. "We want a little wind now," says Sergei. "No it's
not exactly wind we want that would bring rain," he replies to
himself, as he begins to fill his pipe. A match strikes, and
the bubbling sound of a pipe being lighted is heard. A red
gleam appears, throwing a glow over the big face of Sergei;
and then, as the light dies down he is lost in the darkness.
"Mitia!" he cries. His voice is now less brutal and more
mocking.
"What is it?" replies Mitia, without moving his gaze from the
distance, where be seems with his big sad eyes to be searching
for something.
"How did it happen, mate? How did it happen?"
"What?" answers Mitia, displeased.
"How did you come to marry? What a queer set out! How was
it? You brought your wife home!--and then? Ha! ha! ha!"
234 ON A RAFT
"What are you cackling about? Look out there!" came
threateningly across the river.
"Damned beast!" ejaculates with delight Sergei; and returns
to the theme that interests him. "Come, Mitia; tell me; tell
me at once--why not?"
"Leave me alone, Sergei," Mitia murmurs entreatingly; "I told
you once."
But knowing by experience that Sergei will not leave him in
peace, he begins hurriedly: "Well, I brought her home--and I
told her: 'I can't be your husband, Marka; you are a strong
girl, and I am a feeble, sick man. I didn't wish at all to
marry you, but my father would force me to marry.' He was
always saying to me, 'Get married! Get married!' I don't
like women, I said: and you especially, you are too bold.
Yes--and I can't have anything to do--with it. Do you
understand? For me, it disgusts me, and it is a sin. And
children--one is answerable to God for one's children."
"Disgusts," yells Sergei and laughs. "Well! and what did Marka
reply? What?"
"She said, 'What shall I do now?' and then she began to cry.
'What have you got against me? Am I so dreadfully ugly?' She
is shameless, Sergei, and wicked! 'With all this health and
strength of mine, must I go to my father-in-law?' And I
answered: 'If you like--go where you wish, but I can't act
against my soul. If I had love for you, well and good; but
being as it is, how is it possible? Father Ivan says it's
the deadliest sin. We are not beasts, are we?' She went on
crying: 'You have ruined my chances in life!' And I pitied her
very much. 'It's nothing,' I said; 'things will come all right.
Or,' I continued, 'you can go into a convent.' And she began
to insult me. 'You are a stupid fool, Mitia! a coward!'"
235 ON A RAFT
"Well, I'm blest!" exclaims Sergei, in a delighted whisper.
"So you told her straight to go into a convent?"
"Yes, I told her to go," answers Mitia simply.
"And she told you you were a fool?" queried Sergei, raising
his voice.
"Yes, she insulted me."
"And she was right, my friend; yes, indeed, she was right!
You deserve a proper hammering." And Sergei, changing
suddenly his tone, continued with severity and authority:
"Have you any right to go against the law? But you did go
against it! Things are arranged in a certain way, and it's
no use going against them! You mustn't even discuss them.
But what did you do? You got some maggot into your head. A
convent, indeed! Silly fool! What did the girl want? Did
she want your convent? What a set of muddle-headed fools
there seems to be now! Just think what's happened! You,
you're neither fish nor fowl, nor good red-herring. And the
girl's done for! She's living with an old man! And you drove
the old man into sin! How many laws have you broken? You
clever head!"
"Law, Sergei, is in the soul. There is one law for everyone.
Don't do things that are against your soul, and you will do
no evil on the earth," answered Mitia, in a slow, conciliatory
tone, and nodding his head.
236 ON A RAFT
"But you did do evil," answered Sergei, energetically. "In
the soul! A fine idea! There are many things in the soul.
Certain things must be forbidden. The soul, the soul! You
must first understand it, my friend, and then----"
"No, it's not so, Sergei," replied Mitia with warmth, and he
seemed to be inspired. "The soul, my friend, is always as
clear as dew. It's true, its voice lies deep down within us,
and is difficult to hear; but if we listen, we can never be
mistaken. If we act according to what is in our soul, we
shall always act according to the will of God. God is in the
soul, and, therefore, the law must be in it. The soul was
created by God, and breathed by God into man. We have only
to learn to look into it--and we must look into it without
sparing our own feelings."
"You sleepy devils! Look ahead there!" The voice thundered
from the forward part of the raft, and swept back down the
river. In the strength of the sound one could recognize that
the owner of the voice was healthy, energetic, and pleased
with himself. A man with large and conscious vitality. He
shouted, not because he had to give a necessary order to the
steersmen, but because his soul was full of life and strength,
and this life and strength wanted to find free expression, so
it rushed forth in that thunderous and forceful sound.
"Listen to the old blackguard shouting," continued Sergei with
delight, looking ahead with a piercing glance, and smiling.
"Look at them billing and cooing like a pair of doves! Don't
you ever envy them, Mitia?"
237 ON A RAFT
Mitia watched with indifference the working of the two forward
oars, held by two figures who moved backward and forward,
forming sometimes as they touched each other one compact and
dark mass.
"So you say you don't envy them?" repeated Sergei.
"What is it to me? It's their sin, and they must answer for
it," replied Mitia quietly.
"Hm!" ironically interjected Sergei, while he filled his pipe.
Once more the small red patch of light glowed in the darkness;
and the night grew thicker, and the gray clouds sank lower
toward the swollen river.
"Where did you get hold of that fine stuff, or does it come to
you naturally? But you don't take after your father, my lad!
Your father's a fine old chap. Look at him! He's fifty-two
now, and see what a strapping wench he's carrying on with!
She's as fine a woman as ever wore shoe-leather. And she loves
him; it's no use denying it! She loves him, my lad! One can't
help admiring him, he's such a trump, your father--he's the
king of trumps! When he's at work, it's worth while watching
him. And then, he's rich! And then, look how he's respected!
And his head's screwed on the right way. Yes. And you?
You're not a bit like either your father or your mother? What
would your father have done, Mitia, do you think, if old Anfisa
had lived? That would have been a good joke! I should have
liked to have seen how she's have settled him! She was the
right sort of woman, your mother! a real plucky one, she was!
They were well matched!"
Mitia remained silent, leaning on the pole, and staring at the
water.
238 ON A RAFT
Sergei ceased talking. Forward on the raft was heard a woman's
shrill laugh, followed by the deeper laugh of a man. Their
figures, blurred by the mist, were nearly invisible to Sergei,
who, however, watched them curiously. The man appeared as a
tall figure, standing with legs wide apart, holding a pole, and
half turned toward a shorter woman's figure, leaning on another
pole, and standing a few paces away. She shook her forefinger
at the man, and giggled provokingly.
Sergei turned away his head with a sigh, and after a few
moment's silence began to speak again.
"Confound it all, but how jolly they seem together; it's good
to see! Why can't I have something like that? I, a waif and
a stray! I'd never leave such a woman! I'd always have my
arms round her, and there'd be no mistake about my loving the
little devil! I've never had any luck with women! They don't
like ginger hair--women don't. No. She's a woman with fancies,
she is! She's a sly little devil! She wants to see life! Are
you asleep, Mitia?"
"No," answered Mitia quietly.
"Well, how are you going to live? To tell the truth, you're
as solitary as a post! That seems pretty hard! Where can you
go? You can't earn your living among strangers. You're too
absurd! What's the use of a man who can't stand up for
himself? A man's got to have teeth and claws in this world!
They'll all have a go at you. Can you stick up for yourself?
How would you set about it? Damn it all; where the devil could
you go?"
239 ON A RAFT
"I," said Mitia, suddenly arousing herself; "I shall go away.
I shall go in the autumn to the Caucasian Mountains, and that
will be the end of it all. My God! If only I could get away
from you all! Soulless, godless men! To get away from you,
that's my only hope! What do you live for? Where is your God?
He's nothing but a name! Do you live in Christ? You are
wolves; that's what you are! But over there live other men,
whose souls live in Christ. Their hearts contain love, and
they are athirst for the salvation of the world. But you--you
are beasts, spewing out filth. But other men there are; I have
seen them; they called me, and I must go to them. They gave me
the book of Holy Writ, and they said: 'Read, man of God, our
beloved brother, read the word of truth!' And I read, and my
soul was renewed by the word of God. I shall go away. I shall
leave all you ravening wolves. You are rending each other's
flesh! Accursed be ye!"
Mitia spoke in a passionate whisper, as if overpowered by the
intensity of his contemplative rapture, his anger with the
ravening wolves, and his desire to be with those other men,
whose souls aspired toward the salvation of the world. Sergei
was taken aback. He remained quiet for some time, open-mouthed,
holding his pipe in his hand. After a few moments' thought he
glanced round, and said in a deep, rough voice: "Damn it all!
Why you're turned a bad 'un all at once! Why did you read that
book? It was very likely an evil one. Well, be off, be off!
If not, there'll be an end of you! Be off with you before you
become a regular beast yourself! And who are these fellows in
the Caucasus? Monks? Or what?"
240 ON A RAFT
But the fire of Mitia's spirit died down as quickly as it had
been kindled to a flame; he gasped with the exertion as he
worked the pole, and muttered to himself below his breath.
Sergei waited some time for the answer which did not come. His
simple, hardy nature was quelled by the grim and death-like
stillness of the night. He wanted to recall the fullness of
life, to wake the solitude with sound, to disturb and trouble
the hidden meditative silence of the leaden mass of water,
flowing slowly to the sea; and of the dull, threatening clouds
hanging motionless in the air. At the other end of the raft
there was life, and it called on him to live.
Forward, he could hear every now and then bursts of contented
laughter, exclamations, sounds that seemed to stand out against
the silence of this night, laden with the breath of spring, and
provoking such passionate life desires.
"Hold hard, Mitia! you'll catch it again from the old man!
Look out there!" said Sergei, who could not stand the silence
any longer; and watching Mitia, who aimlessly moved his pole
backward and forward in the water.
Mitia, wiping his moist brow, stood quietly leaning with his
breast against the pole, and panting.
"There are few steamers to-night," continued Sergei; "we've
only passed one these many hours." Seeing that Mitia had no
intention of answering, Sergei replied quietly to himself:
"It's because its too early in the season. It's only just
beginning. We shall soon be at Kazan. The Volga pulls hard.
She has a mighty strong back, that can carry all. Why are
you standing still like that? Are you angry? Hi, there,
Mitia!"
241 ON A RAFT
"What's the matter?" Mitia cried in a vexed tone.
"Nothing, you strange fellow; but why can't you talk? You
are always thinking. Leave it alone! Thinking is bad for a
man. A wise sort of fellow you are! You think and think, and
all the time you can't understand that you're a fool at bottom.
Ha! Ha!"
And Sergei, very well satisfied with his own superiority,
cleared his throat, remained quiet for a moment, whistled a
note, and then continued to develop his theme.
"Thinking? Is that an occupation for a working man? Look at
your father; he doesn't think much; he lives. He loves your
wife, and they laugh at you together; you wise fool! That's
about it! Just listen to them! Blast them! I believe
Marka's already with child. Never fear, the child won't
feature you. He'll be a fine, lusty lad, like Silan himself!
But he'll be your child! Ha! Ha! Ha! He'll call you
father! And you won't be his father, but his brother; and his
real father will be his grandfather! That's a nice state of
things! What a filthy family! But they're a strapping pair!
Isn't that true, Mitia?"
"Sergei!" In a passionate, sobbing whisper. "In the name of
Christ I entreat you don't tear my soul to pieces, don't brand
me with fire. Leave me alone. Do be quiet! In the name of
God and of Christ, I beg you not to speak to me! Don't
disturb me! Don't drain my heart's blood! I'll throw myself
in the river, and yours will be the sin, and a great sin it will
be! I should lose my soul; don't force me to it! For God's
sake, I entreat you!"
242 ON A RAFT
The silence of the night was troubled with shrill, unnatural
sobbing; and Mitia fell on the deck of the raft, as if a blast
from the overhanging clouds had struck him down.
"Come, come!" growled Sergei, anxiously watching his mate
writhing on the deck, as if scorched with fire. "What a
strange man! He ought to have told me if it was not--if it
was not quite--"
"You've been torturing me all the way. Why? Am I your enemy?"
Mitia sobbed again.
"You're a strange lad! a rum un!" murmured Sergei, confused and
offended. "How could I know? I couldn't tell you'd take on
like that!"
"Understand, then, that I want to forget! To forget for ever!
My shame, my terrible torture. You're a cruel lot! I shall go
away, and stay away for ever! I can't stand it any more!"
"Yes, be off with you!" cried Sergei across the raft,
accentuating his exclamation with a loud and cynical curse.
Then he seemed to shrink together, as if himself afraid of the
terrible drama which was unfolding itself before him; drama,
which he was now compelled to understand. . . .
"Hullo! There! I'm calling you! Are you deaf?" sounded up
the river the voice of Silan. "What are you about there? What
are you bawling about? Ahoy! Ahoy!"
243 ON A RAFT
It seemed as if Silan enjoyed shouting, and breaking the heavy
silence of the river with his deep voice, full of strength and
health. The cries succeeded each other, thrilling the warm,
moist air, and seeming to crush down on Mitia's feeble form.
He rose, and once more pressed his body against the steering
pole. Sergei shouted in reply to the master with all his
strength, and cursed him at the same time under his breath.
The two voices broke through and filled the silence of the
night. Then they seemed to meet in one deep note like the
sound of a great horn. Once more rising to shrillness, they
floated in the air, gradually sank away--and were lost.
Silence reigned once more.
Through the cleft clouds, on the dark water the yellow splashes
of moonlight fell, and after glittering a moment disappeared,
swept away in the moist gloom.
The raft continued on its way down stream amid silence and
darkness.
CHAPTER II
Near one of the forward poles stood Silan Petroff in a red
shirt, open at the neck, showing his powerful throat and hairy
chest, hard as an anvil. A thatch of gray hair fell over his
forehead, under which laughed great black, warm eyes. His
sleeves, turned up to the elbow, showed the veins standing out
on his arms as they held the pole. Silan was leaning slightly
forward, and looking watchfully ahead. Marka stood a few paces
from him, glancing with a satisfied smile at the strong form of
her lover. They were both silent and busy with their several
thoughts. He was peering into the distance, and she followed
the movements of his virile, bearded face.
244 ON A RAFT
"That must be a fisherman's fire," said he, turning toward her.
"It's all right; we're keeping on our course, Ouch!" And he
puffed out a full, hot breath, and gave a powerful shove with
his pole.
"Don't tire yourself Mashourka," he continued, watching her,
as with her pole she made a skilful movement.
She was round and plump, with black, bright eyes and ruddy
cheeks; barefooted, dressed only in a damp petticoat, which
clung to her body, and showed the outline of her figure. She
turned her face to Silan and, smiling pleasantly, said: "You
take too much care of me; I'm all right!"
"I kiss you, but I don't take care of you," answered Silan,
moving his shoulders.
"That's not good enough!" she replied, provokingly; and they
both were silent, looking at each other with desiring eyes.
Under the rafts, the water gurgled musically. On the right
bank, very far off, a cock crew. Swaying lightly under their
feet, the raft floated on toward a point where the darkness
dissolved into lighter tones, and the clouds took on themselves
clearer shapes and less sombre hues.
"Silan Petrovitch, do you know what they were shouting about
there? I know. I bet you I know. It was Mitia who was
complaining about us to Sergei; and it was he who cried out
with trouble, and Sergei was cursing us!"
245 ON A RAFT
Marka questioned anxiously Silan's face, which, after her words,
became grim and coldly stubborn.
"Well!" shortly.
"Well, that's all!"
"If that's all, there was nothing to say."
"Don't get angry."
"Angry with you? I should like to be angry with you, but I
can't."
"You love Marsha?" she whispered, coaxingly leaning toward him.
"You bet!" answered Silan, with emphasis, stretching out toward
her his powerful arms. "Come now, don't tease me!"
She twisted her body with the movements of a cat, and once more
leaned toward him.
"We shall upset the steering again," whispered he, kissing her
face which burned under his lips.
"Shut up now! They can see us at the other end;" and motioning
aft with her head, she struggled to free herself, but he held
her more tightly still with one arm, and managed the pole with
the other hand.
"They can see us? Let them see us. I spit on them all! I'm
sinning, that's true; I know it; and shall have to answer for
it to God; but still you never were his wife; you were free;
you belonged to yourself. He's suffering, I know. And what
about me? Is my position a pleasant one? It is true that you
were not his wife; but all the same, with my position, how must
I feel now? Is it not a dreadful sin before God? It is a sin!
I know it all, and I've gone through everything! Because it's
a thing worth doing!
246 ON A RAFT
We love only once, and we may die any day. Oh! Marka! If I'd
only waited a month before marrying you to Mitia, nothing of
this would have happened. Directly after the death of Anfisa
I would have sent my friends to propose for you, and all would
have been right! Right before the law; without sin, without
shame. That was my mistake, and this mistake will take away
from me five or ten years of my life. Such a mistake as that
makes an old man of one before one's time."
Silan Petroff spoke with decision, but quietly, while, an
expression of inflexible determination flashed from his face,
giving him the appearance of a man who was ready then and there
to fight and struggle for the right to love.
"Well, it's all right now; don't trouble yourself any more. We
have talked about it more than once already," whispered Marka,
freeing herself gently from his arms, and returning to her oar.
He began working his pole backward and forward, rapidly and
energetically, as if he wished to get rid of the load that
weighed on his breast, and cast a shadow over his fine face.
Day broke gradually.
The clouds, losing their density, crept slowly away on every
side, as if reluctantly giving place to the sunlight. The
surface of the river grew lighter, and took on it the cold
gleam of polished steel.
247 ON A RAFT
"Not long ago he talked with me about it. 'Father,' he said,
'is it not a deadly shame for you, and for me? Give her up!'
He meant you," explained Silan, and smiled. "'Give her up,'
he said; 'return to the right path!' 'My dear son,' I said,
'go away if you want to save your skin! I shall tear you to
pieces like a rotten rag! There will be nothing left of your
great virtue! It's a sorrow to me to think that I'm your
father! You puny wretch!' He trembled. 'Father,' he said, 'am
I in the wrong?' You are,' I said, 'you whining cur, because
you are in my way! You are,' I said, 'because you can't stand
up for yourself! You lifeless, rotten carrion! If only,'
I said, 'you were strong, one could kill you; but even that
isn't possible! One pities you, poor, wretched creature!'
He only wept. Oh, Marka! This sort of thing makes one good
for nothing. Any one else would--would get their heads out
of this noose as soon as possible, but we are in it, and we
shall perhaps tighten it round each other's necks!"
"What do you mean?" said Marka, looking at him fearfully, as
he stood there grim, strong and cold.
"Nothing! If he were to die! That's all. If he were to die
--what a good thing it would be! Everything would be straight
then! I would give all my land to your family, to make them
shut their mouths; and we two might go to Siberia, or
somewhere far away. They would ask, 'Who is she?' 'My wife!
Do you understand?'
"We could get some sort of paper or document. We could open
a shop somewhere in a village, and live. And we could expiate
our sin before God. We could help other people to live, and
they would help us to appease our consciences. Isn't that so,
Marsha?"
"Yes," said she, with a deep sigh, closing her eyes as if in
thought.
248 ON A RAFT
They remained silent for a while; the water murmured.
"He is sickly. He will, perhaps, die soon," said Silan after
a time.
"Please God it may be soon!" said Marka, as if in prayer, and
making the sign of the cross.
The rays of the spring sun broke through the clouds, and
touched the water with rainbow and golden tints. At the breath
of the wind all nature thrilled, quickened, and smiled. The
blue sky between the clouds smiled back at the sun-warmed
waters. The raft, moving on, left the clouds astern.
Gathering in a thick and heavy mass, they hung motionless, and
dreaming over the bright river, as if seeking a way to escape
from the ardent spring sun, which, rich in color and in joy,
seemed the enemy of these symbols of winter tempests.
Ahead, the sky grew clearer and brighter, and the morning sun,
powerless to warm, but dazzling bright as it glitters in early
spring, rose stately and beautiful from the purple-gold waves
of the river, and mounted higher and ever higher into the blue
limpid sky. On the right showed the brown, high banks of the
river, surmounted by green woods; on the left emerald green
fields glittered with dew diamonds. In the air, floated the
smell of the earth, of fresh springing grass, blended with the
aromatic scent of a fir wood.
Sergei and Mitia stood as if rooted to their oars, but the
expression on their faces could not be distinguished by those
on the forward part of the raft.
Silan glanced at Marka.
249 ON A RAFT
She was cold. She leaned forward on her pole in a doubled-up
attitude. She was looking ahead with dreaming eyes; and a
mysterious, charming smile prayed on her lips--such a smile as
makes even an ugly woman charming and desirable.
"Look ahead, lads! Ahoy! Ahoy!" hailed Silan, with all the
force of his lungs, feeling a powerful pulse of energy and
strength in his strong breast.
And all around seemed to tremble with his cry.
The echo resounded long from the high banks on either side.

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