Part 4 out of 7
"Half-seas over, HE is."
"'Tis his way," a pockmarked, eyebrow-less sailor responded.
Here the drunken man sneezed: with the result that a cloud of
flies were blown over the table. Looking at them, and sighing as
his companion had done, the boatswain thoughtfully observed:
"Why, he regularly sneezes flies, eh?"
The resting-place which I myself had selected was a stack of
firewood over the stokehole shoot; and as I lay upon it I could
see the hills gradually darkening the water with a mourning veil
as calmly they advanced to meet the steamer; while in the
meadows, a last lingering glow of the sunset's radiance was
reddening the stems of the birches, and making the newly mended
roof of a hut look as though it were cased in red fustian--
communicating to everything else in the vicinity a semblance of
floating amid fire-- and effacing all outline, and causing the
scene as a whole to dissolve into streaks of red and orange and
blue, save where, on a hill above the hut, a black grove of firs
stood thrown into tense, keen, and clear-cut relief.
Under a hill a party of fishermen had lit a wood fire, the
flames of which could be seen playing upon, and picking out, the
white hull of a boat-- the dark figure of a man therein, a
fishing net suspended from some stakes, and a woman in a yellow
bodice who was sitting beside the fire. Also, amid the golden
radiance there could be distinguished a quivering of the leaves
on the lower branches of the tree whereunder the woman sat
All the river was calm, and not a sound occurred to break the
stillness ashore, while the air under the awning of the
third-class portion of the vessel felt as stifling as during the
earlier part of the day. By this time the conversation of the
passengers, damped by the shadow of dusk, had merged into a
single sound which resembled the humming of bees; and amid it
one could not distinguish nor divine who was speaking, nor the
subject of discussion, since every word therein seemed
disconnected, even though all appeared to be talking amicably,
and in order, concerning a common topic. At one moment a
suppressed laugh from a young woman would reach the ear; in the
cabin, a party who had agreed to sing a song of general
acceptation were failing to hit upon one, and disputing the
point in low and dispassionate accents; and in each, such sound
there was something vespertinal, gently sad, softly prayer-like.
From behind the firewood near me a thick, rasping voice said in
"At first he was a useful young fellow enough, and clean and
spruce; but lately, he has become shabby and dirty, and is going
to the dogs."
Another voice, loud and gruff, replied:
"Aha! Avoid the ladies, or one is bound to go amiss."
"The saying has it that always a fish makes for deeper water."
"Besides, he is a fool, and that is worse still. By the way, he
is a relative of yours, isn't he?"
"Yes. He is my brother."
"Indeed? Then pray forgive me."
"Certainly; but, to speak plainly, he is a fool."
At this moment I saw the passenger in the buff pea-jacket
approach the sally-port, grasp with his left hand a stanchion,
and step on to the grating under which one of the paddle-wheels
was churning the water to foam. There he stood looking over the
bulwarks with a swinging motion akin to that of a bat when,
grappling some object or another with its wings, it hangs
suspended in the air. The fact that the man's cap was drawn
tightly over his ears caused the latter to stick out almost to
the point of absurdity.
Presently he turned and peered into the gloom under the awning,
though, seemingly, he failed to distinguish myself reposing on
the firewood. This enabled me to gain a clear view of a face
with a sharp nose, some tufts of light-coloured hair on cheeks
and chin, and a pair of small, muddy-looking eyes. He stood
there as though he were listening to something.
All of a sudden he stepped firmly to the sally-port, swiftly
unlashed from the iron top-rail a mop, and threw it overboard.
Then he set about unlashing a second article of the same species.
"Hi!" I shouted to him. "What are you doing there?"
With a start the man turned round, clapped a hand to his
forehead to discover my whereabouts, and replied softly and
rapidly, and with a stammer in his voice:
"How is that your business? Get away with you!"
Upon this I approached him, for I was astonished and amused at
"For what you have done the sailors will make you pay right
enough," I remarked.
He tucked up the sleeves of his pea-jacket as though he were
preparing for a fight. Then, stamping his foot upon the slippery
grating, he muttered:
"I perceived the mop to have come untied, and to be in danger
of falling into the water through the vibration. Upon that I
tried to secure it, and failed, for it slipped from my hands as
I was doing so."
"But," I remarked in amazement, "my belief is that you
WILLFULLY untied the mop, to throw it overboard!"
"Come, come!" he retorted. "Why should I have done that? What
an extraordinary thing it would have been to do! How could it
have been possible?"
Here he dodged me with a dexterous movement, and, rearranging
his sleeves, walked away. The length of the pea-jacket made his
legs look absurdly short, and caused me to notice that in his
gait there was a tendency to shuffle and hesitate.
Returning to my retreat, I stretched myself upon the firewood
once more, inhaled its resinous odour, and fell to listening to
the slow-moving dialogue of some of the passengers around me.
"Ah, good sir," a gruff, sarcastic voice began at my side-- but
instantly a yet gruffer voice intervened with:
"Oh, nothing, except that to ask a question is easy, and to
answer it may be difficult."
From the ravines a mist was spreading over the river.
At length night fell, and as folk relapsed into slumber the
babel of tongues became stilled. The car, as it grew used to the
boisterous roar of the engines and the measured rhythm of the
paddle-wheels, did not at first notice the new sound born of the
fact that into the sounds previously made familiar there began
to intrude the snores of slumberers, and the padding of soft
footsteps, and an excited whisper of:
"I said to him--yes, I said: 'Yasha, you must not, you shall
not, do this.'"
The banks had disappeared from view. Indeed, one continued to be
reminded of their existence only by the slow passage of the
scattered fires ashore, and the fact that the darkness lay
blacker and denser around those fires than elsewhere. Dimly
reflected in the river, the stars seemed to be absolutely
motionless, whereas the trailing, golden reproductions of the
steamer's lights never ceased to quiver, as though striving to
break adrift, and float away into the obscurity. Meanwhile, foam
like tissue paper was licking our dark hull, while at our stern,
and sometimes overtaking it, there trailed a barge with a couple
of lanterns in her prow, and a third on her mast, which at one
moment marked the reflections of the stars, and at another
became merged with the gleams of firelight on one or the other
On a bench under a lantern near the spot where I was lying a
stout woman was asleep. With one hand resting upon a small
bundle under her head, she had her bodice torn under the armpit,
so that the white flesh and a tuft of hair could be seen
protruding. Also, her face was large, dark of brow, and full of
jowl to a point that caused the cheeks to roll to her very ears.
Lastly, her thick lips were parted in an ungainly, corpselike
From my own position on a level higher than hers, I looked
dreamily down upon her, and reflected: "She is a little over
forty years of age, and (probably) a good woman. Also, she is
travelling to visit either her daughter and son-in-law, or her
son and daughter-in-law, and therefore is taking with her some
presents. Also, there is in her large heart much of the
excellent and maternal."
Suddenly something near me flashed as though a match had been
struck, and, opening my eyes, I perceived the passenger in the
curious pea-jacket to be standing near the woman spoken of, and
engaged in shielding a lighted match with his sleeve. Presently,
he extended his hand and cautiously applied the particle of
flame to the tuft of hair under the woman's armpit. There
followed a faint hiss, and a noxious smell of burning hair was
wafted to my nostrils.
I leapt up, seized the man by the collar, and shook him soundly.
"What are you at?" I exclaimed.
Turning in my grasp he whispered with a scarcely audible, but
exceedingly repulsive, giggle:
"Haven't I given her a good fright, eh?"
Then he added:
"Now, let me go! Let go, I say!"
"Have you lost your wits?" I retorted with a gasp.
For a moment or two his blinking eyes continued to glance at
something over my shoulder. Then they returned to me, while he
"Pray let me go. The truth is that, unable to sleep, I
conceived that I would play this woman a trick. Was there any
harm in that? See, now. She is still asleep."
As I thrust him away his short legs, legs which might almost
have been amputated, staggered under him. Meanwhile I reflected:
"No, I was NOT wrong. He DID of set purpose throw the mop
overboard. What a fellow! "
A bell sounded from the engine-room.
"Slow!" someone shouted with a cheerful hail.
Upon that, steam issued with such resounding shrillness that the
woman awoke with a jerk of her head; and as she put up her left
hand to feel her armpit, her crumpled features gathered
themselves into wrinkles. Then she glanced at the lamp, raised
herself to a sitting position, and, fingering the place where
the hair had been destroyed, said softly to herself:
"Oh, holy Mother of God!"
Presently the steamer drew to a wharf, and, with a loud
clattering, firewood was dragged forth and cast into the
stokehole with uncouth, warning cries of " Tru-us-sha! " [The
word means ship' s hold or stokehole, but here is, probably,
equivalent to the English " Heads below!"]
Over a little town which had its back pressed against a hill the
waning moon was rising and brightening all the black river,
causing it to gather life as the radiance laved, as it were, the
landscape in warm water.
Walking aft, I seated myself among some bales and contemplated
the town's frontage. Over one end of it rose, tapering like a
walking-stick, a factory chimney, while at the other end, as
well as in the middle, rose belfries, one of which had a gilded
steeple, and the other one a steeple either green or blue, but
looking black in the moonlight, and shaped like a ragged
Opposite the wharf there was stuck in the wide gable of a
two-storied building a lantern which, flickering, diffused but a
dull, anaemic light from its dirty panes, while over the long
strip of the broken signboard of the building there could be
seen straggling, and executed in large yellow letters, the
words, "Tavern and -" No more of the legend than this was
Lanterns were hanging in two or three other spots in the drowsy
little town; and wherever their murky stains of light hung
suspended in the air there stood out in relief a medley of
gables, drab-tinted trees, and false windows in white paint,
on walls of a dull slate colour.
Somehow I found contemplation of the scene depressing.
Meanwhile the vessel continued to emit steam as she rocked to
and fro with a creaking of wood, a slap-slapping of water,
and a scrubbing of her sides against the wharf. At length
someone ejaculated surlily:
"Fool, you must be asleep! The winch, you say? Why, the winch
is at the stern, damn you!"
"Off again, thank the Lord!" added the rasping voice already
heard from behind the bales, while to it an equally familiar
voice rejoined with a yawn:
"It's time we WERE off!"
Said a hoarse voice:
"Look here, young fellow. What was it he shouted?"
Hastily and inarticulately, with a great deal of smacking of the
lips and stuttering, someone replied:
"He shouted: 'Kinsmen, do not kill me! Have some mercy, for
Christ's sake, and I will make over to you everything--yes,
everything into your good hands for ever! Only let me go away,
and expiate my sins, and save my soul through prayer. Aye, I
will go on a pilgrimage, and remain hidden my life long, to the
very end. Never shall you hear of me again, nor see me.' Then
Uncle Peter caught him a blow on the head, and his blood
splashed out upon me. As he fell I--well, I ran away, and made
for the tavern, where I knocked at the door and shouted:
'Sister, they have killed our father!' Upon that, she put her
head out of the window, but only said: 'That merely means that
the rascal is making an excuse for vodka.' . . . Aye, a terrible
time it was--was that night! And how frightened I felt! At first,
I made for the garret, but presently thought to myself: 'No;
they would soon find me there, and put me to an end as well, for
I am the heir direct, and should be the first to succeed to the
property.' So I crawled on to the roof, and there lay hidden
behind the chimney-stack, holding on with arms and legs,
while unable to speak for sheer terror."
"What were you afraid of?" a brusque voice interrupted.
"What was I afraid of?"
"At all events, you joined your uncle in killing your father,
"In such an hour one has not time to think--one just kills a man
because one can't help oneself, or because it seems so easy to
"True," the hoarser voice commented in dull and ponderous
accents. "When once blood has flowed the fact leads to more
blood, and if a man has started out to kill, he cares nothing
for any reason--he finds good enough the reason which comes first
to his hand."
"But if this young fellow is speaking the truth, he had a
BUSINESS reason--though, properly speaking, even property ought
not to provoke quarrels."
"Similarly one ought not to kill just when one chooses. Folk
who commit such crimes should have justice meted out to them."
"Yes, but it is difficult always to obtain such justice. For
instance, this young fellow seems to have spent over a year in
prison for nothing."
"'For nothing'? Why, did he not entice his father into the
hut, and then shut the door upon him, and throw a coat over his
head? He has said so himself. 'For nothing,' indeed!"
Upon this the rapid stream of sobbed, disconnected words, which I
had heard before from some speaker poured forth anew. Somehow, I
guessed that it came from the man in the dirty boots, as once
more he recounted the story of the murder.
"I do not wish to justify myself," he said. "I say merely
that, inasmuch as I was promised a reprieve at the trial, I told
everything, and was therefore allowed to go free, while my uncle
and my brother were sentenced to penal servitude."
"But you KNEW that they had agreed to kill him?"
"Well, it is my idea that at first they intended only to give
him a good fright. Never did my father recognise me as his
son--always he called me a Jesuit."
The gruffer of the two voices pulled up the speaker.
"To think," it said, "that you can actually talk about it all!"
"Why shouldn't I? My father brought tears to the eyes of many
an innocent person."
"A fig for people's tears! If our causes of tears were one and
all to be murdered, what would the state of things become? Shed
tears, but never blood; for blood is not yours to shed. And even
if you should believe your own blood to be your own, know that
it is not so, that your blood does not belong to you, but to
"The point in question was my father's property. It all shows
how a man may live awhile, and earn his living, and then
suddenly go amiss, and lose his wits, and even conceive a grudge
against his own father. . . . Now I must get some sleep."
Behind the bales all grew quiet. Presently I rose to peer in
that direction. The passenger in the buff pea-jacket was sitting
huddled up against a coil of rope, with his hands thrust into
his sleeves, and his chin resting upon his arms. As the moon was
shining straight into his face, I could see that the latter was
as livid as that of a corpse, and had its brows drawn down over
its narrow, insignificant eyes.
Beside him, and close to my head, there was lying stretched on
the top of the coil of rope a broad-shouldered peasant in a
short smock and a pair of patched boots of white felt. The
ringlets of the wearer's curly beard were thrust upwards, and
his hands clasped behind his head, and with ox-like eyes he
stared at the zenith where a few stars were shining, and the moon
was beginning to sink.
At length, in a trumpet-like voice (though he seemed to do his
best to soften it) the peasant asked:
"Your uncle is on that barge, I suppose?"
"He is. And so is my brother."
"Yet you are here! How strange!"
The dark barge, towed against the steamer's blue-silver wash of
foam, was cleaving it like a plough, while under the moon the
lights of the barge showed white, and the hull and the
prisoners' cage stood raised high out of the water as to our
right the black, indentated bank glided past in sinuous
From the whole, soft, liquescent fluid scene, the impression which I derived was melancholy.
It evoked in my spirit a sense of instability, a lack of restfulness.
"Why are you travelling?"
"Because I wish to have a word with him."
"With your uncle?"
"About the property?"
"Then look here, my young fellow. Drop it all--both your uncle
and the property, and betake yourself to a monastery, and there
live and pray. For if you have shed blood, and especially if you
have shed the blood of a kinsman, you will stand for ever
estranged from all, while, moreover, bloodshed is a dangerous
thing--it may at any time come back upon you."
"But the property?" the young fellow asked with a lift of his
"Let it go," the peasant vouchsafed as he closed his eyes.
On the younger man's face the down twitched as though a wind had
stirred it. He yawned, and looked about him for a moment. Then,
descrying myself, he cried in a tone of resentment:
"What are you looking at? And why do you keep following me
Here the big peasant opened his eyes, and, with a glance first
at the man, and then at myself, growled:
"Less noise there, you mitten-face!"
As I retired to my nook and lay down, I reflected that what the
big peasant had said was apposite enough-that the young fellow's
face did in very truth resemble an old and shabby woollen mitten.
Presently I dreamt that I was painting a belfry, and that, as I
did so, huge, goggle-eyed jackdaws kept flying around the
belfry's gables, and flapping at me with their wings and
hindering my work: until, as I sought to beat them off, I missed
my footing, fell to earth, and awoke to find my breath choking
amid a dull, sick, painful feeling of lassitude and weakness,
and a kaleidoscopic mist quavering before my eyes till it
rendered me dizzy. From my head, behind the car, a thin stream
of blood was trickling.
Rising with some difficulty to my feet, I stepped aft to a pump,
washed my head under a jet of cold water, bound it with my
handkerchief, and, returning, inspected my resting-place in a
state of bewilderment as to what could have caused the accident
On the deck near the spot where I had been asleep, there was
standing stacked a pile of small logs prepared for the cook's
galley; while, in the precise spot where my head had rested there
was reposing a birch faggot of which the withy-tie had come
unfastened. As I raised the fallen faggot I perceived it to be
clean and composed of silky loppings of birch-bark which rustled
as I fingered them; and, consequently, I reflected that the
ceaseless vibration of the steamer must have caused the faggot
to become jerked on to my head.
Reassured by this plausible explanation of the unfortunate, but
absurd, occurrence of which I have spoken, I next returned to
the stern, where there were no oppressive odours to be
encountered, and whence a good view was obtainable.
The hour was the turn of the night, the hour of maximum tension
before dawn, the hour when all the world seems plunged in a
profundity of slumber whence there can be no awakening, and when
the completeness of the silence attunes the soul to special
sensibility, and when the stars seem to be hanging strangely
close to earth, and the morning star, in particular, to be
shining as brightly as a miniature sun. Yet already had the
heavens begun to grow coldly grey, to lose their nocturnal
softness and warmth, while the rays of the stars were drooping
like petals, and the moon, hitherto golden, had turned pale and
become dusted over with silver, and moved further from the earth
as intangibly the water of the river sloughed its thick, viscous
gleam, and swiftly emitted and withdrew, stray, pearly
reflections of the changes occurring in the heavenly tints.
In the east there was rising, and hanging suspended over the
black spears of the pine forest, a thin pink mist the sensuous
hue of which was glowing ever brighter, and assuming a density
ever greater, and standing forth more boldly and clearly, even
as a whisper of timid prayer merges into a song of exultant
thankfulness. Another moment, and the spiked tops of the pines
blazed into points of red fire resembling festival candles in a
Next, an unseen hand threw over the water, drew along its
surface, a transparent and many-coloured net of silk. This was
the morning breeze, herald of dawn, as with a coating of
tissue-like, silvery scales it rippled the river until the eye
grew weary of trying to follow the play of gold and
mother-of-pearl and purple and bluish-green reflected from the
Next, like a fan there unfolded themselves the first
sword-shaped beams of day, with their tips blindingly white;
while simultaneously one seemed to hear descending from an
iilimitable height a dense sound-wave of silver bells, a
sound-wave advancing triumphantly to greet the sun as his
roseate rim became visible over the forest like the rim of a cup
that, filled with the essence of life, was about to empty its
contents upon the earth, and to pour a bounteous flood of
creative puissance upon the marshes whence a reddish vapour as
of incense was arising. Meanwhile on the more precipitous of the
two banks some of the trees near the river's margin were
throwing soft green shadows over the water, while gilt-like dew
was sparkling. on the herbage, and birds were awakening, and as
a white gull skimmed the water's surface on level wings, the pale
shadow of those wings followed the bird over the tinted expanse,
while the sun, suspended in flame behind the forest, like the
Imperial bird of the fairy-tale, rose higher and higher into the
greenish-blue zenith, until silvery Venus, expiring, herself
looked like a bird.
Here and there on the yellow strip of sand by the river's margin,
long-legged snipe were scurrying about. Two fishermen were
rocking in a boat in the steamer's wash as they hauled their
tackle. Floating from the shore there began to reach us such
vocal sounds of morning as the crowing of cocks, the lowing of
cattle, and the persistent murmur of human voices.
Similarly the buff-coloured bales in the steamer's stem
gradually reddened, as did the grey tints in the beard of the
large peasant where, sprawling his ponderous form over the deck,
he was lying asleep with mouth open, nostrils distended with
stertorous snores, brows raised as though in astonishment, and
thick moustache intermittently twitching.
Someone amid the piles of bales was panting as he fidgeted, and
as I glanced in that direction I encountered the gaze of a pair
of small, narrow, inflamed eyes, and beheld before me the
ragged, mitten-like face, though now it looked even thinner and
greyer than it had done on the previous evening. Apparently its
owner was feeling cold, for he had hunched his chin between his
knees, and clasped his hirsute arms around his legs, as his eyes
stared gloomily, with a hunted air, in my direction. Then
wearily, lifelessly he said:
"Yes,you have found me. And now you can thrash me if you wish
to do so--you can give me a blow, for I gave you one, and,
consequently, it's your turn to do the hitting."
Stupefied with astonishment, I inquired in an undertone.
"It was you, then, that hit me?"
"It was so, but where are your witnesses?"
The words came in hoarse, croaked, suppressed accents, with a
separation of the hands, and an upthrow of the head and
projecting cars which had such a comical look of being crushed
beneath the weight of the battened-down cap. Next, thrusting his
hands into the pockets of his pea-jacket, the man repeated in a
tone of challenge:
"Where, I say, are your witnesses? You can go to the devil!"
I could discern in him something at once helpless and froglike
which evoked in me a strong feeling of repulsion; and since,
with that, I had no real wish to converse with him, or even to
revenge myself upon him for his cowardly blow, I turned away in
But a moment later I looked at him again, and saw that he was
seated in his former posture, with his arms embracing his knees,
his chin resting upon them, and his red, sleepless eyes gazing
lifelessly at the barge which the steamer was towing between
wide ribbons of foaming water--ribbons sparkling in the sunlight
like mash in a brewer's vat.
And those eyes, that dead, alienated expression, the gay
cheerfulness of the morning, and the clear radiance of the
heavens, and the kindly tints of the two banks, and the vocal
sounds of the June day, and the bracing freshness of the air,
and the whole scene around us served but to throw into the more
Just as the steamer was leaving Sundir the man threw himself
into the water;in the sight of everybody he sprang overboard.
Upon that all shouted, jostled their neighbours as they rushed
to the side, and fell to scanning the river where from bank to
bank it lay wrapped in blinding glitter.
The whistle sounded in fitful alarm, the sailors threw lifebelts
overboard, the deck rumbled like a drum under the crowd's
surging rush, steam hissed afflightedly, a woman vented an
hysterical cry, and the captain bawled from the bridge the
"Avast heaving lifebelts! By now the fool will have got one!
Damn you, calm the passengers!"
An unwashed, untidy priest with timid, staring eyes thrust back
his long, dishevelled hair, and fell to repeating, as his fat
shoulder jostled all and sundry, and his feet tripped people up.
"A muzhik, is it, or a woman? A muzhik, eh?"
By the time that I had made my way to the stern the man had
fallen far behind the stern of the barge, and his head looked as
small as a fly on the glassy surface of the water. However,
towards that fly a fishing-boat was already darting with the
swiftness of a water beetle, and causing its two oars to show
quiveringly red and grey, while from the marshier of the two
banks there began hastily to put out a second boat which leapt
in the steamer's wash with the gaiety of a young calf.
Suddenly there broke into the painful hubbub on the steamer's
deck a faint, heartrending cry of "A-a-ah!"
In answer to it a sharp-nosed, black-bearded, well-dressed
peasant muttered with a smack of his lips:
"Ah! That is him shouting. What a madman he must have been! And
an ugly customer too, wasn't he?"
The peasant with the curly beard rejoined in a tone of
conviction engulfing all other utterances:
"It is his conscience that is catching him. Think what you
like, but never can conscience be suppressed."
Therewith, constantly interrupting one another, the pair betook
themselves to a public recital of the tragic story of the
fair-haired young fellow, whom the fishermen had now lifted from
the water, and were conveying towards the steamer with oars that
oscillated at top speed.
The bearded peasant continued:
"As soon as it was seen that he was but running after the
"Besides," the other peasant interrupted, "the property was
not to be divided after the death of the father."
With which the bearded muzhik eagerly recounted the history of
the murder done by the brother, the nephew, and a son, while the
spruce, spare, well-dressed peasant interlarded the general buzz
of conversation with words and comments cheerfully and
stridently delivered, much as though he were driving in stakes
for the erection of a fence.
"Every man is drawn most in the direction whither he finds it
easiest to go."
"Then it will be the Devil that will be drawing him, since the
direction of Hell is always the easiest."
"Well, YOU will not be going that way, I suppose? You don't
altogether fancy it?"
"Why should I?"
"Because you have declared it to be the easiest way."
"Well, I am not a saint."
"No, ha-ha! you are not."
"And you mean that--?"
"I mean nothing. If a dog's chain be short, he is not to be
Whereupon, setting nose to nose, the pair plunged into a quarrel
still more heated as they expounded in simple, but often
curiously apposite, language opinions intelligible to themselves
alone. The one peasant, a lean fellow with lengthy limbs, cold,
sarcastic eyes, and a dark, bony countenance, spoke loudly and
sonorously, with frequent shrugs of the shoulders, while the
other peasant, a man stout and broad of build who until now had
seemed calm, self-assured of demeanour, and a man of settled
views, breathed heavily, while his oxlike eyes glowed with an
ardour causing his face to flush patchily, and his beard to
stick out from his chin.
"Look here, for instance," he growled as he gesticulated and
rolled his dull eyes about. "How can that be? Does not even God
know wherein a man ought to restrain himself?"
"If the Devil be one's master, God doesn't come into the
"Liar! For who was the first who raised his hand against his
"And the first man who repented of a sin? "
"Ah! You see!"
Here there broke into the dispute a shout of: "They are just
getting him aboard!" and the crowd, rushing away from the
stern, carried with it the two disputants--the sparer peasant;
lowering his shoulders, and buttoning up his jacket as he went;
while the bearded peasant, following at his heels, thrust his
head forward in a surly manner as he shifted his cap from the
one ear to the other.
With a ponderous beating of paddles against the current the
steamer heaved to, and the captain shouted through a
speaking-trumpet, with a view to preventing a collision between
the barge and the stem of the vessel:
"Put her over! Put her o-o-ove-r!"
Soon the fishing-boat came alongside, and the half-drowned man,
with a form as limp as a half-empty sack, and water exuding from
every stitch, and his hitherto haggard face grown smooth and
simple-looking, was hoisted on board.
Next, on the sailors laying him upon the hatchway of the baggage
hold, he sat up, leaned forward, smoothed his wet hair with the
palms of his hands, and asked dully, without looking at anyone:
"Have they also recovered my cap?"
Someone among the throng around him exclaimed reprovingly:
"It is not about your cap that you ought to be thinking, but
about your soul."
Upon this he hiccuped loudly and freely, like a camel, and
emitted a stream of turgid water from his mouth. Then, looking
at the crowd with lack-lustre eyes, he said in an apathetic tone:
"Let me be taken elsewhere."
In answer, the boatswain sternly bade him stretch himself out,
and this the young fellow did, with his hands clasped under his
head, and his eyes closed, while the boatswain added brusquely
to the onlookers:
"Move away, move away, good people. What is there to stare at?
This is not a show. . . . Hi, you muzhik! Why did you play us
such a trick, damn you?"
The crowd however, was not to be suppressed, but indulged in
"He murdered his father, didn't he?"
"What? THAT wretched creature?"
As for the boatswain, he squatted upon his heels, and proceeded
to subject the rescued man to a course of strict interrogation.
"What is the destination marked on your ticket?"
"Then you ought to leave the boat at Kazan. And what is your
"And your surname?"
"Bashkin--though we are known also as the Bukolov family."
"Your family has a DOUBLE surname, then?"
With the full power of his trumpet-like lungs the bearded
peasant (evidently he had lost his temper) broke in:
"Though his uncle and his brother have been sentenced to penal
servitude and are travelling together on that barge, he--well,
he has received his discharge! That is only a personal matter,
however. In spite of what judges may say, one ought never to
kill, since conscience cannot bear the thought of blood. Even
nearly to become a murderer is wrong."
By this time more and more passengers had collected as they awakened from sleep and emerged from the first- and
second-class cabins. Among them was the mate, a man with
a black moustache and rubicund features who inquired of
someone amid the confusion: "You are not a doctor, I suppose?"
and received the astonished, high-pitched reply: "No,
sir, nor ever have been one."
To this someone added with a drawl:
"Why is a doctor needed? Surely the man is a fellow of no
Over the river the radiance of the summer daylight had gathered
increased strength, and, since the date was a Sunday, bells were
sounding seductively from a hill, and a couple of women in gala
apparel who were following the margin of the river waved
handkerchiefs towards the steamer, and shouted some greeting.
Meanwhile the young fellow lay motionless, with his eyes closed.
Divested of his pea-jacket, and wrapped about with wet, clinging
underclothing, he looked more symmetrical than previously--his
chest seemed better developed, his body plumper, and his face
more rotund and less ugly.
Yet though the passengers gazed at him with compassion or
distaste or severity or fear, as the case might be, all did so
without ceremony, as though he had not been a
living man at all.
For instance, a gaunt gentleman in a grey frock-coat said to a
lady in a yellow straw hat adorned with a pink ribbon:
"At our place, in Riazan, when a certain master-watchmaker went
and hanged himself to a ventilator, he first of all stopped
every watch and clock in his shop. Now, the question is, why did
he stop them?"
"An abnormal case indeed!"
On the other hand, a dark-browed woman who had her hands hidden
beneath her shawl stood gazing at the rescued man in silence,
and with her side turned towards him. As she did so tears were
welling in her grey-blue eyes.
Presently two sailors appeared. One of them bent over the young
fellow, touched him on the shoulder, and said:
"Hi! You are to get up."
Whereupon the young fellow rose, and was removed elsewhither.
When, after an interval, he reappeared on deck, he was clean and
dry, and clad in a cook's white jumper and a sailor's blue serge
trousers. Clasping his hands behind his back, hunching his
shoulders, and bending his head forward, he walked swiftly to
the stern, with a throng of idlers--at first one by one, and then
in parties of from three to a dozen--following in his wake.
The man seated himself upon a coil of rope, and, craning his
neck in wolf-like fashion to eye the bystanders, frowned, let
fall his temples upon hands thrust into his flaxen hair, and
fixed his gaze upon the barge.
Standing or sitting about in the hot sunshine, people stared at
him without stint. Evidently they would have liked, but did not
dare, to engage him in conversation. Presently the big peasant
also arrived on the scene, and, after glancing at all present,
took off his hat, and wiped his perspiring face. Next, a
grey-headed old man with a red nose, a thin wisp of beard, and
watery eyes cleared his throat, and in honeyed tones took the
"Would you mind telling us how it all happened?" he began.
"Why should I do so?" retorted the young fellow without moving.
Taking a red handkerchief from his bosom, the old man shook it
out and applied it cautiously to his eyes. Then he said through
its folds in the quiet accents of a man who is determined to
"Why, you say? For the reason that the occasion is one when all
ought to know the tru--"
Lurching forward, the bearded peasant interposed with a rasp:
"Yes, do you tell us all about it, and things will become
easier for you. For a sin always needs to be made known."
While, like an echo, a voice said in bold and sarcastic accents:
"It would be better to seize him and tie him up."
Upon this the young fellow raised his brows a little, and
retorted in an undertone:
"Let me bide."
"The rascal!" the crowd commented, while the old man, neatly
folding and replacing his handkerchief, raised a hand as dry as
a cock's leg, and remarked with a sharp, knowing smile:
"Possibly it is not merely out of idle curiosity that folk are
making this request."
"Go and be damned to you!" the young fellow exclaimed with a
grim snap. Whereupon the big peasant bellowed out in a blustering fashion:
"What? Then you will not tell us at least your destination?"
Whereafter the same speaker continued to hold forth on humanity,
God, and the human conscience--staring wildly around him as he
did so, waving his arms about, and growing ever more
frantic, until really it was curious to watch him.
At length the crowd grew similarly excited, and took to
encouraging the speaker with cries of "True! That is so!"
As for the young fellow, he listened awhile in silence, without
moving. Then, straightening his back, he rose, thrust his hands
into the pockets of his trousers, and, swaying his body to and
fro, began to glare at the crowd with greenish eyes which were
manifestly lightening to a vicious gleam. At length, thrusting
forth his chest, he cried hoarsely:
"So you ask me whither I am bound? I am bound for the
brigands' lair, for the brigands' lair, where, unless you first
take and put me in fetters, I intend to cut the throat of every
man that I meet. Yes, a hundred murders will I commit, for all
folk will be the same to me, and not a soul will I spare. Aye,
the end of my tether is reached, so take and fetter me whilst
His breath was issuing with difficulty, and as he spoke his
shoulders heaved, and his legs trembled beneath him. Also, his
face had turned grey and become distorted with tremors.
Upon this, the crowd broke into a gruff, ugly, resentful roar,
and edged away from the man. Yet, in doing so, many of its
members looked curiously like the man himself in the way that
they lowered their heads, caught at their breath, and let their
eyes flash. Clearly the man was in imminent danger of being
Suddenly he recovered his subdued demeanour--he, as it were,
thawed in the sunlight: until, as suddenly, his legs gave way
beneath him, and, narrowly escaping injury to his face from the
corner of a bale, he fell forward upon his knees as though
felled with an axe. Thereafter, clutching at his throat, he
shouted in a strange voice, and crowding the words upon one
"Tell me what I am to do. Is all of it my fault? Long I lay in
prison before I was tried and told to go free... yet--"
Tearing at his ears and cheeks, he rocked his head to and fro as
though seeking to rend it from its socket. Then he continued:
"Yet I am NOT free. Nor is it in my power to say what will
become of me. For me there remains neither life nor death."
"Aha!" exclaimed the big peasant; and at the sound the crowd
drew back as in consternation, while some hastened to depart
altogether. As for the remainder (numbering a dozen or so), they
herded sullenly, nervously, involuntarily into a mass as the young
fellow continued in distracted tones and with a trembling head:
"Oh that I could sleep for the next ten years! For then could I
prove myself, and decide whether I am guilty or not. Last night
I struck a man with a faggot. As I was walking about I saw
asleep a man who had angered me, and thereupon thought, 'Come! I
should like to deal him a blow, but can I actually do it?' And
strike him I did. Was it my fault? Always I keep asking myself,
'Can I, or can I not, do a thing?' Aye, lost, lost am I!"
Apparently this outburst caused the man to reach the end of his
power, for presently he sank from knees to heels--then on to his
side, with hands clasping his head, and his tongue finally
uttering the words, "Better had you kill me!"
A hush fell, for all now stood confounded and silent, with,
about them, a greyer, a more subdued, look which made all more
resemble their fellows. In fact, to all had the atmosphere
become oppressive, as though everyone's breast had had clamped
into it a large, soft clod of humid, viscid earth. Until at last
someone said in a low, shamefaced, but friendly, tone:
"Good brother, we are not your judges."
To which someone else added with an equal measure of gentleness:
"Indeed, we may be no better than you."
"We pity you, but we must not judge you. Only pity is
As for the well-dressed peasant, his loud, triumphant utterance
"Let God judge him, but men suffer him. Of judging of one
another there has been enough."
And a fifth man remarked to a friend as he walked away:
"What are we to make of this? To judge by the book, the young
fellow is at once guilty and not guilty."
"Bygones ought to be bygones. Of all courses that is the best."
"Yes, for we are too quick. What good can that do?"
At length the dark-browed woman stepped forward. Letting her
shawl to her shoulders, straightening hair streaked with grey
under a bright blue scarf, and deftly putting aside a skirt she
so seated herself beside the young fellow as to screen from the
crowd with the height of her figure. Then, raising kindly face,
she said civilly, but authoritatively, to the bystanders:
"Do all of you go away."
Whereupon the crowd began to depart,the big peasant saying as he
"There! Just as I foretold has the matter turned out.
Conscience HAS asserted itself."
Yet the words were spoken without self-complacency, rather,
thoughtfully, and with a sense of awe.
As for the red-nosed old man who was walking like a shadow
behind the last speaker, he opened his snuff-box, peered therein
with his moist eyes, and drawled to no one in particular:
"How often does one see a man play with conscience, yes, even
though he be a rogue! He erects that conscience as a screen to
his knaveries and tricks and wiles, and masks the whole with a
cloud of words. Yes, we know how it is done, even though folk
may stare at him, and say to one another, 'How fervently his
soul is glowing!' Aye, all the time that he is holding his hand
to his heart he will be dipping the other hand into your pocket."
The lover of proverbs, for his part, unbuttoned his jacket,
thrust his hands under his coat-tails, and said in a loud voice:
"There is a saying that you can trust any wild beast, such as a
fox or a hedgehog or a toad, but not--"
"Quite so, dear sir. The common folk are exceedingly
"Well, they are not developing as they ought to do."
"No, they are over-cramped," was the big peasant's rasped-out
comment. "They have no room for GROWTH."
"Yes, they DO grow, but only as regards beard and moustache, as
a tree grows to branch and sap."
With a glance at the purveyor of proverbs the old man assented
by remarking: "Yes, true it is that the common folk are
cramped." Whereafter he thrust a pinch of snuff into his
nostrils, and threw back his head in anticipation of the sneeze
which failed to come. At length, drawing a deep breath through
his parted lips, he said as he measured the peasant again with
"My friend, you are of a sort calculated to last."
In answer the peasant nodded.
"SOME day," he remarked, "we shall get what we want."
In front of us now, was Kazan, with the pinnacles of its
churches and mosques piercing the blue sky, and looking like
garlands of exotic blooms. Around them lay the grey wall of the
Kremlin, and above them soared the grim Tower of Sumbek.
Here one and all were due to disembark.
I glanced towards the stern once more. The dark-browed woman was
breaking off morsels from a wheaten scone that was lying in her
lap, and saying as she did so:
"Presently we will have a cup of tea, and then keep together as
far as Christopol."
In response the young fellow edged nearer to her, and
thoughtfully eyed the large hands which, though inured to hard
work, could also be very gentle.
"I have been trodden upon," he said.
"Trodden upon by whom?"
"By all. And I am afraid of them."
"Because I am."
Breathing upon a morsel of the scone, the woman offered it him
with the quiet words:
"You have had much to bear. Now, shall I tell you my history,
or shall we first have tea? "
On the bank there was now to be seen the frontage of the gay,
wealthy suburb of Uslon, with its brightly-dressed,
rainbow-tinted women and girls tripping through the streets, and
the water of its foaming river sparkling hotly, yet dimly, in
It was a scene like a scene beheld in a vision.
The wind is scudding over the steppe, and beating upon the
rampart of the Caucasian heights until their backbone seems to be
bellying like a huge sail, and the earth to be whirling and
whizzing through unfathomable depths of blue, and leaving behind
it a rack of wind-torn clouds which, as their shadows glide over
the surface of the land, seem ever to be striving to keep in
touch with the onrush of the gale, and, failing to maintain the
effort, dissolving in tears and despondency.
The trees too are bending in the attitude of flight--their boughs
are brandishing their foliage as a dog worries a fleece, and
littering the black soil with leaves among which runs a constant
querulous hissing and rustling. Also, storks are uttering their
snapping cry, sleek rooks cawing, steppe grasshoppers maintaining
their tireless chirp, sturdy, well-grown husbandmen uttering
shouts like words of command, the threshing-floors of the
rolling steppe diffusing a rain of golden chaff, and eddying
whirlwinds catching up stray poultry feathers, dried-onion
strips, and leaves yellowed with the heat, to send them dancing
again over the trim square of the little Cossack hamlet.
Similarly does the sun keep appearing and disappearing as though
he were pursuing the fugitive earth, and ever and anon halting
through weariness before his decline into the dark, shadowy vista
where the snowclad peaks of the western mountains are rearing
their heads, and fast-reddening clouds are reminding one of the
surface of a ploughed field.
At times those clouds part their bulk to reveal in blinding
splendour the silvery saddle of Mount Elburz, and the crystal
fangs of other peaks--all, apparently, striving to catch and
detain the scudding vapours. And to such a point does one come to
realise the earth's flight through space that one can scarcely
draw one's breath for the tension, the rapture, of the thought
that with the rush of that dear and beautiful earth oneself is
keeping pace towards, and ever tending towards, the region where,
behind the eternal, snow-clad peaks, there lies a boundless ocean
of blue--an ocean beside which there may lie stretched yet other
proud and marvellous lands, a void of azure amid which one may
come to descry far-distant, many-tinted spheres of planets as yet
unknown, but sisters, all, to this earth of ours.
Meanwhile from the steppe slow, ponderous grey oxen with sharp
horns are drawing an endless succession of wagon-loads of
threshed grain through rich, black, sootlike dust. Patiently the
beasts' round eyes regard the earth, while on the top of each
load there lolls a Cossack who, with face sunburnt to the last
pitch of swarthiness, and eyes reddened with exposure to the
wind, and beard matted, seemingly solidified, with dust and
sweat, is clad in a shirt drab with grime, and has a shaggy
Persian cap thrust to the back of his head. Occasionally, also,
he may he seen riding on the pole in front of his team, and being
buffeted from behind by the wind which inflates his shirt. And as
sleek and comfortable as the carcasses of the bullocks are these
Cossacks' frames in proportion their eyes are sluggishly
intelligent, and in their every movement is the deliberate air of
men who know precisely what they have to do.
"Tsob, tsobe!" such fellows shout to their teams. This year
they are reaping a splendid harvest.
Yet though these folk, one and all, look fat and prosperous,
their mien is dour, and they speak reluctantly, and through their
teeth. Possibly this is because they are over-weary with toil.
However that may be, the full-fed country people of the region
laugh but little, and seldom sing.
In the centre of the hamlet soars the red brick church of the
place--an edifice which, with its five pinnacles, its belfry over
its porch, and its yellow plaster window-mouldings, looks like an
edifice that has been fashioned of meat, and cemented with
grease. Nay, its very shadow seems so richly heavy as to be the
shadow of a fane erected by men endowed with a plethora of this
world's goods to a god otiose in his grandeur. Ranged around the
building in ring fashion, the hamlet's squat white huts stand
girdled with belts of plaited wattle, shawled in the gorgeous
silken scarves of gardens, and crowned with a flowered
brocadework of reed-thatched roofs. In fact, they resemble a bevy
of buxom babi, [Peasant women] as over and about them wave
silver poplar trees, with quivering, lacelike leaves of acacias,
and dark-leaved chestnuts (the leaves of the latter like the
palms of human hands) which rock to and fro as though they would
fain seize, and detain the driving clouds. Also, from court to
court scurry Cossack women who, with skirt-tails tucked up to
reveal muscular legs bare to the knee, are preparing to array
themselves for the morrow's festival, and, meanwhile, chattering
to one another, or shouting to plump infants which may be seen
bathing in the dust like sparrows, or picking up handfuls of
sand, and tossing them into the air.
Sheltered from the wind by the churchyard wall, there may be seen
also, as they sprawl on the dry, faded herbage, a score of "
strollers for work "that is to say, of folk who, a community
apart, consist of "nowhere people," of dreamers who live
constantly in expectation of some stroke of luck, some kindly
smile from fortune, and of wastrels who, intoxicated with the
abundant bounty of the opulent region, have fallen passive
victims to the Russian craze for vagrancy. These folk tramp from
hamlet to hamlet in parties of two or three, and, while
purporting to seek employment, merely contemplate that employment
lethargically, express astonishment at the plenitude which it
produces, and then decline to put their hands to toil save when
dire necessity renders it no longer possible to satisfy hunger's
pangs through the expedients of mendicancy and theft. Dull, or
cowed, or timid, or furtive of eye, these folk have lost all
sense of the difference between that which constitutes honesty
and that which does not.
The morrow being the Feast of the Assumption, these people have,
in the present instance, gathered from every quarter of the
country, for the reason that they hope to be provided with food
and drink without first being made to earn their entertainment.
For the most part they are Russians from the central provinces,
vagabonds whose faces are blackened, and heads blanched with the
unaccustomed sunshine of the South, but whose bodies are clad
merely in rags tossed and tumbled by the wind. True, the wearers
of those rags declare themselves to be peaceful, respectable
citizens whom toil and life's buffetings have exhausted, and
compelled to seek temporary rest and prayer; yet never does a
creaking, groaning, ponderous grain wagon, with its Cossack
driver, pass them by without their according the latter a humble,
obsequious salute as, with straw in mouth, and omitting, always,
to raise his cap, the man glances at them askance and with
contempt, or, more frequently, does not even descry these
tattered, grimy hulks between whom and himself there is
absolutely nothing in common.
Lower even, and more noticeably, more pretentiously, than the
rest does a certain " needy " native of Tula named Konev salute
each Cossack. A hardbitten muzhik as sunburnt as a stick of
ergot, he has a black beard distributed irregularly over a lean
face, a fawning smile, and eyes deep-sunken in their sockets.
Most of these persons I have met for the first time today; but
Konev is an old acquaintance of mine, for he and I have more than
once encountered one another on the road between Kursk and the
province of Ter. An "artelni," that is to say, a member of a
workman's union, he cultivates his fellows' good graces for the
reason that he is also an arrant coward, and accustomed,
everywhere save in his own village (which lies buried among the
sands of Alexin), to assert that:
"Certainly, this countryside is rich, yet I cannot hit things
off with its inhabitants. In my own part of the country folk are
more spiritual, more truly Russian, by far than here--they are
folk with whom the natives of this region are not to be compared,
since in the one locality the population has a human soul,
whereas in the other locality it is a flint-stone."
And with a certain quiet reflectiveness, he loves also to recount
a marvellous example of unlooked-for enrichment. He will say to
"Maybe you do not believe in the virtue of horseshoes? Yet I
tell YOU that once, when a certain peasant of Efremov found a
horseshoe, the next three weeks saw it befall that that peasant's
uncle, a tradesman of Efremov, was burnt to death with all his
family, and the property devolved to the peasant. Did you ever
hear of such a thing? What is going to happen CANNOT be foretold,
for at any moment fortune may pity a man, and send him a
As Konev says this his dark, pointed eyebrows will go shooting up
his forehead, and his eyes come protruding out of their sockets,
as though he himself cannot believe what he has just related.
Again, should a Cossack pass him without returning his salute, he
will mutter as he follows the man with his eyes:
"An overfed fellow, that--a fellow who can't even look at a human
being! The souls of these folk, I tell you, are withered."
On the present occasion he has arrived on the scene in company
with two women. One of them, aged about twenty, is gentle-
looking, plump, and glassy of eye, with a mouth perpetually half-
open, so that the face looks like that of an imbecile, and though
the exposed teeth of its lower portion may seem to be set in a
smile, you will perceive, should you peer into the motionless
eyes under the overhanging brows, that she has recently been
weeping in the terrified, hysterical fashion of a person of weak
I have come here with that man and other strangers thus I heard
her narrate in low, querulous tones as with a stumpy finger she
rearranged the faded hair under her yellow and green scarf.
A fat-faced youth with high cheek-bones and the small eyes of a
Mongol here nudged her, and said carelessly:
"You mean, rather, that your own man has cast you off. Probably
he was the only man you ever saw."
"Aye," Konev drawled thoughtfully as he felt in his wallet.
Nowadays folk need think little of deserting a woman, since in
this year of grace women are no good at all."
Upon this the woman frowned--then blinked her eyes timidly, and
would have opened her lips to reply, but that her companion
interrupted her by saying in a brisk, incisive tone:
"Do not listen to those rascals!"
The woman's companion, some five or six years her senior, has a
face exceptional in the constant change and movement of its great
dark eyes as at one moment they withdraw themselves from the
street of the Cossack hamlet, to gaze fixedly and gravely towards
the steppe where it lies scoured with the scudding breeze, and at
another moment fall to scanning the faces of the persons around
her, and, at another, frown anxiously, or send a smile flitting
across her comely lips as she bends her head, until her features
are concealed. Next, the head is raised again, for the eyes have
taken on another phase, and become dilated with interest, while a
sharp furrow is forming between the slender eyebrows, and the
finely moulded lips and trim mouth have compressed themselves
together, and the thin nostrils of the straight nose are snuffing
the air like those of a horse.
In fact, in the woman there is something non-peasant in its
origin. For instance, let one but watch her sharply clicking feet
as, in walking, they peep from under her blue skirt, and one
will perceive that they are not the splayed feet of a villager,
but, rather, feet arched of instep, and at one time accustomed to
the wearing of boots. Or, as the woman sits engaged in
embroidering a blue bodice with a pattern of white peas, one will
perceive that she has long been accustomed to plying the needle
so dexterously; swiftly do the small, sunburnt hands fly in and
out under the tumbled material, eagerly though the wind may
strive to wrest it from her. Again, as she sits bending over her
work, one will descry through a rent in her bodice a small, firm
bosom which might almost have been that of a virgin, were it not
for the fact that a projecting teat proclaims that she is a woman
preparing to suckle an infant. In short, as she sits among her
companions she looks like a fragment of copper flung into the
midst of some rusty old scrap-iron.
Most of the people in whose society I wander neither rise to
great heights nor sink to great depths, but are as colourless as
dust, and wearisomely insignificant. Hence is it that whenever I
chance upon a person whose soul I can probe and explore for
thoughts unfamiliar to me and words not hitherto heard I
congratulate myself, seeing that though it is my desire to see
life grow more fair and exalted, and I yearn to bring about that
end, there constantly reveals itself to me merely a vista of
sharp angles and dark spaces and poor crushed, defrauded people.
Yes, never do I seek to project a spark of my own fire into the
darkness of my neighbour's soul but I see that spark disappear,
become lost, in a chaos of dumb vacuity.
Hence the woman of whom I have just spoken particularly excites
my fancy, and leads me to attempt divinations of her past, until
I find myself evolving a story which is not only of vast
complexity, but has got painted into it merely the colours of my
own hopes and aspirations. It is a story necessarily illusory,
necessarily bound to make life seem even worse than before. Yet
it is a grievous thing NEVER to distort actuality, NEVER to
envelop actuality in the wrappings of one's imagination . . . .
Closing his eyes, and picking his words with difficulty, a tall,
fair peasant drawls in thick, gluelike tones:
"'Very well,' I said: and off we set. On the way I said again:
'Gubin, though you may not like to be told so, you are no better
than a thief.'"
The o's uttered by this peasant are uniformly round and firm--they
roll forward as a cartwheel trundles along a hot, dusty country
The youth with the high cheek-bones fixes the whites of his
porcine eyes (eyes the pupils of which are as indeterminate as
the eyes of a blind man) upon the woman in the green scarf.
Then, having, like a calf, plucked and chewed some stalks of the
withered grass, he rolls up the sleeves of his shirt, bends one
fist into the crook of the elbow, and says to Konev with a glance
at the well-developed muscle:
"Should you care to hit me?"
"No, you can hit yourself. Hit yourself over the head. Then,
perhaps, you'll grow wiser."
Stolidly the young fellow looks at Konev, and inquires:
"How do you know me to be a fool? "
"Because your personality tells me so."
"Eh?" cries the young fellow truculently as he raises himself
to a kneeling posture. "How know you what I am?"
"I have been told what you are by the Governor of your
The young fellow opens his mouth, and stares at Konev. Then he
"To what province do I belong?"
"If you yourself have forgotten to what province you belong, you
had better try and loosen your wits."
"Look here. If I were to hit you, I--"
The woman who has been sewing drops her work to shrug one rounded
shoulder as though she were cold, and ask conciliatorily:
"Well, WHAT province do you belong to?"
"I? " the young fellow re-echoes as he subsides on to his heels.
"I belong to Penza. Why do you ask?"
"Oh never mind why."
Presently, with a strangely youthful laugh, the woman adds in a
"I ask because I too belong to that province."
"And to which canton?"
"To that of Penza." In the woman's tone is a touch of pride.
The young fellow squats down before her, as before a wood fire,
stretches out his hands, and says in an ingratiating voice:
"What a fine place is our cantonal town! What churches and shops
and stone houses there are in it! In fact, one shop sells a
machine on which you can play anything you like, any sort of a
"As well as, probably, the fool," comments Konev in an
undertone, though the young fellow is too enthralled with the
memory of the amenities of his cantonal capital to notice the
remark. Next, smacking his lips, and chewing his words, he
continues in a murmur:
"In those stone houses."
Here the woman drops her sewing a second time to inquire: "Is
there a convent there?"
And the young fellow pauses uncouthly to scratch his neck. Only
after a while does he answer:
"A convent? Well, I do not know, for only once, to tell the
truth, have I been in the town, and that was when some of us
famine folk were set to a job of roadmaking."
"Well, well!" gasps Konev, as he rises and takes his departure.
The vagabonds, huddled against the churchyard wall, look like
litter driven thither by the steppe wind, and as liable to be
whirled away again whenever the wind shall choose. Three of the
party are sleeping, and the remainder either mending their
clothing, or killing fleas, or lethargically munching bread
collected at the windows of the Cossacks' huts. I find the sight
of them weary me as much as does the young fellows fatuous
babble. Also, I find that whenever the elder of the two women
lifts her eyes from her work, and half smiles, the faint half-
smile in question vexes me intensely. Consequently, I end by
departing in Konev's wake.
Guarding the entrance of the churchyard, four poplar trees stand
erect, save when, as the wind harries them, they bow alternately
to the arid, dusty earth and towards the dim vista of tow-
coloured steppe and snowcapped mountain peaks. Yet, oh how that
steppe, bathed in golden sunshine, draws one to itself and its
smooth desolation of sweet, dry grasses as the parched, fragrant
expanse rustles under the soughing wind!
"You ask about that woman, eh? " queries Konev, whom I find
leaning against one of the poplar trunks, and embracing it with
"Yes. From where does she hail?"
"From Riazan, she says. Another story of hers is that her name
"Has she been with you long?"
"No. In fact, it was only this morning, some thirty versts from
here, that I overtook her and her companion. However, I have seen
her before, at Maikop-on-Laba, during the season of hay harvest,
when she had with her an elderly, smoothfaced muzhik who might
have been a soldier, and certainly was either her lover or an
uncle, as well as a bully and a drunkard of the type which,
before it has been two days in a place, starts about as many
brawls. At present, however, she is tramping with none but this
female companion, for, after that the 'uncle' had drunk away his
very belly-band and reins, he was clapped in gaol. The Cossack,
you know, is an awkward person to deal with."
Although Konev speaks without constraint, his eyes are fixed upon
the ground in a manner suggestive of some disturbing thought. And
as the breeze ruffles his dishevelled beard and ragged pea-jacket
it ends by robbing his head of his cap-- of the tattered, peakless
clout which, with rents in its lining, so closely resembles a
tchepchik [Woman's mob-cap], as to communicate to the
picturesque features of its wearer an appearance comically
"Ye-es," expectorating, and drawling the words between his
teeth, he continues: "She is a remarkable woman, a regular, so
to speak, highstepper. Yet it must have been the Devil himself
that blew this young oaf with the bloated jowl on to the scene.
Otherwise I should soon have fixed up matters with her. The cur
that he is!"
"But once you told me that you had a wife already?"
Darting at me an angry glance, he turns away with a mutter of:
"AM I to carry my wife about with me in my wallet? "
Here there comes limping across the square a moustachioed
Cossack. In one hand he is holding a bunch of keys, and in the
other hand a battered Cossack cap, peak in front. Behind him,
sobbing and applying his knuckles to his eyes, there is creeping
a curly-headed urchin of eight, while the rear is brought up by a
shaggy dog whose dejected countenance and lowered tail would seem
to show that he too is in disgrace. Each time that the boy
whimpers more loudly than usual the Cossack halts, awaits the
lad's coming in silence, cuffs him over the head with the peak of
the cap, and, resuming his way with the gait of a drunken man,
leaves the boy and the dog standing where they are--the boy
lamenting, and the dog wagging its tail as its old black muzzle
sniffs the air. Somehow I discern in the dog's mien of holding
itself prepared for anything that may turn up, a certain
resemblance to Konev's bearing, save that the dog is older in
appearance than is the vagabond.
"You mentioned my wife, I think?" presently he resumes with a
sigh. "Yes, I know, but not EVERY malady proves mortal, and I
have been married nineteen years! "
The rest is well-known to me, for all too frequently have I heard
it and similar tales. Unfortunately, I cannot now take the
trouble to stop him; so once more I am forced to let his
complaints come oozing tediously into my ears.
"The wench was plump," says Konev, "and panting for love; so we
just got married, and brats began to come tumbling from her like
bugs from a bunk."
Subsiding a little, the breeze takes, as it were, to whispering.
"In fact, I could scarcely turn round for them. Even now seven
of them are alive, though originally the stud numbered thirteen.
And what was the use of such a gang? For, consider: my wife is
forty-two, and I am forty-three. She is elderly, and I am what
you behold. True, hitherto I have contrived to keep up my
spirits; yet poverty is wearing me down, and when, last winter,
my old woman went to pieces I set forth (for what else could I
do?) to tour the towns. In fact, folk like you and myself have
only one job available--the job of licking one's chops, and
keeping one's eyes open. Yet, to tell you the truth, I no sooner
perceive myself to be growing superfluous in a place than I spit
upon that place, and clear out of it."
Never to this sturdy, inveterate rascal does it seem to occur to
insinuate that he has been doing work of any kind, or that he in
the least cares to do any; while at the same time all self-pity
is eschewed in his narrative, and he relates his experiences much
as though they are the experiences of another man, and not of
Presently, as the Cossack and the boy draw level with us, the
former, fingering his moustache, inquires thickly:
"Whence are you come?"
"All such folk come from there."
Thereafter, with a gesture of disdain, this man of the abnormally
broad nose, eyes floating in fat, and flaxen head shaped like a
flounder's, resumes his way towards the porch of the church. As
for the boy, he wipes his nose and follows him while the dog
sniffs at our legs, yawns, and stretches itself by the churchyard
"Did you see?" mutters Konev. "Oh yes, I tell you that the
folk here are far less amiable than our own folk in Russia. . .
But hark! What is that?"
To our ears there have come from behind the corner of the
churchyard wall a woman's scream and the sound of dull blows.
Rushing thither, we behold the fair-headed peasant seated on the
prostrate form of the young fellow from Penza, and methodically,
gruntingly delivering blow after blow upon the young fellow's
ears with his ponderous fists, while counting the blows as he
does so. Vainly, at the same time, the woman from Riazan is
prodding the assailant in the back, whilst her female companion
is shrieking, and the crowd at large has leapt to its feet, and,
collected into a knot, is shouting gleefully, "THAT'S the way!
THAT'S the way!"
"Five!" the fair-headed peasant counts.
"Why are you doing this?" the prostrate man protests.
"Oh dear!" ejaculates Konev, dancing with nervousness. "Oh
dear, oh dear!"
The smacking, smashing blows fall in regular cadence as, prone on
his face, the young fellow kicks, struggles and puffs up the
dust. Meanwhile a tall, dour man in a straw hat is rolling up a
shirt-sleeve, and alternately bending and stretching a long arm,
whilst a lithe, white-headed young stripling is hopping, sparrow-
like, from one onlooker to another, and exclaiming in suppressed,
"Stop it, pray stop it, or we shall be arrested for creating a
Presently the tall man strides towards the fair-headed peasant,
deals him a single blow which knocks him from the back of the
young fellow, and, turning to the crowd, says with an informing
"THAT'S how we do it in Tambov!"
"Brutes! Villains!" screams the woman from Riazan, as she bends
over the young fellow. Her cheeks are livid, and as she wipes the
flushed face of the beaten youth with the hem of her gown, her
dark eyes are flashing with dry wrath, and her lips quivering so
painfully as to disclose a set of fine, level teeth.
Konev, pecking up to her, says with an air of advice:
"You had better take him away, and give him some water."
Upon this the fair-headed muzhik, rising to his knees, stretches
a fist towards the man from Tambov, and exclaims:
"Why should he have gone and bragged of his strength, pray?"
"Was that a good reason for thrashing him?"
"And who are you?"
"Who am I?"
"Yes, who are YOU?"
"Never mind. See that I don't give you another swipe!"
Upon this the onlookers plunge into a heated debate as to who
was actually the beginner of the disturbance, while the lithe
young fellow continues to wring his hands, and cry imploringly:
"DON'T make so much noise about it! Remember that we are in a
strange land, and that the folk hereabouts are strict."
So queerly do his ears project from his head that he would seem
to be able, if he pleased, to fold them right over his eyes.
Suddenly from the roseate heavens comes the vibrant note of a
bell; whereupon, the hubbub ceases and at the same moment a young
Cossack with a face studded with freckles, and, in his hands, a
cudgel, makes his appearance among the crowd.
"What does all this mean?" he inquires not uncivilly.
"They have been beating a man," the woman from Riazan replies.
As she does so she looks comely in spite of her wrath.
The Cossack glances at her--then smiles.
"And where is the party going to sleep?" he inquires of the
"Here," someone ventures.
"Then you must not--someone might break into the church. Go,
rather, to the Ataman [Cossack headman or mayor], and you will
be billeted among the huts."
"It is a matter of no consequence," Konev remarks as he paces
beside me. "Yet--"
"They seem to be taking us for robbers," is my interruption.
"As is everywhere the way," he comments. "It is but one thing
more laid to our charge. Caution decides always that a stranger
is a thief."
In front of us walks the woman from Riazan, in company with the
young fellow of the bloated features. He is downcast of mien, and
at length mutters something which I cannot catch, but in answer
to which she tosses her head, and says in a distinct, maternal
"You are too young to associate with such brutes."
The bell of the church is slowly beating, and from the huts there
keep coming neat old men and women who make the hitherto deserted
street assume a brisk appearance, and the squat huts take on a
In a resonant, girlish voice there meets our ears:
"Ma-am! Ma-amka! Where is the key of the green box? I want my
While in answer to the bell's summons, the oxen low a deep echo.
The wind has fallen, but reddish clouds still are gliding over
the hamlet, and the mountain peaks blushing until they seem,
thawing, to be sending streams of golden, liquid fire on to the
steppes, where, as though cast in stone, a stork, standing on one
leg, is listening, seemingly, to the rustling of the heat-
In the forecourt of the Ataman's hut we are deprived of our
passports, while two of our number, found to be without such
documents, are led away to a night's lodging in a dark storehouse
in a corner of the premises. Everything is executed quietly
enough, and without the least fuss, purely as a matter of
routine; yet Konev mutters, as dejectedly he contemplates the
"What a surprising thing, to be sure!"
"A passport. Surely a decent, peaceable man ought to be able to
travel WITHOUT a passport? So long as he be harmless, let him--"
"You are not harmless," with angry emphasis the woman from
Konev closes his eyes with a smile, and says nothing more.
Almost until the vigil service is over are we kept kicking our
heels about that forecourt, like sheep in a slaughter-house. Then
Konev, myself, the two women, and the fat-faced young fellow are
led away towards the outskirts of the village, and allotted an
empty hut with broken-down walls and a cracked window.
"No going out will be permitted," says the Cossack who has
conducted us thither. "Else you will be arrested."
"Then give us a morsel of bread," Konev says with a stammer.
"Have you done any work here?" the Cossack inquires.
"No. It did not so happen."
"When it does so happen I will give you some bread."
And like a water-butt the fat kindly-looking man goes rolling out
of the yard.
"What else was to be expected?" grumbles Konev with his
eyebrows elevated to the middle of his forehead. "The folk
hereabouts are knaves. Ah, well!"
As for the women, they withdraw to the darkest corner of the hut,
and lie down, while the young fellow disappears after probing the
walls and floor, and returns with an armful of straw which he
strews upon the hard, beaten clay. Then he stretches himself
thereon with hands clasped behind his battered head.
"See the resourcefulness of that fellow from Penza!" comments
Konev enviously. "Hi, you women! There is, it would seem, some
To this comes from the women's corner the acid reply:
"Then go and fetch some."
"Yes, for us."
"Then I must, I suppose."
Nevertheless Konev merely remains sitting on the windowsill, and
discoursing on the subject of certain needy folk who do but
desire to go and say their prayers in church, yet are banded into
"Yes, and though you may say that folk, the world over, have a
soul in common, I tell you that this is not so--that, on the
contrary, we Russian strangers find it a hard matter here to get
looked upon as respectable."
With which he slips out quietly into the street, and disappears
The young fellow's sleep is restless--he keeps tossing about, with
his fat arms and legs sprawling over the floor, and grunting, and
snoring. Under him the straw makes a crackling sound, while the
two women whisper together in the darkness, and the reeds of the
dry thatch on the roof rustle (the wind is still drawing an
occasional breath), and ever and anon a twig brushes against an
outside wall. The scene is like a scene in a dream.
Out of doors the myriad tongues of the pitch-black, starless
night seem to be debating something in soft, sad, pitiful tones
which ever keep growing fainter; until, when the hour of ten has
been struck on the watchman's gong, and the metal ceases to
vibrate, the world grows quieter still, much as though all living
things, alarmed by the clang in the night, have concealed
themselves in the invisible earth or the equally invisible
I seat myself by the window, and watch how the earth keeps
exhaling darkness, and the darkness enveloping, drowning the
grey, blurred huts in black, tepid vapour, though the church
remains invisible--evidently something stands interposed between
it and my viewpoint. And it seems to me that the wind, the seraph
of many pinions which has spent three days in harrying the land,
must now have whirled the earth into a blackness, a denseness, in
which, exhausted, and panting, and scarcely moving, it is
helplessly striving to remain within the encompassing, all-
pervading obscurity where, helpless and weary in like degree, the
wind has sloughed its thousands of wing-feathers--feathers white
and blue and golden of tint, but also broken, and smeared with
dust and blood.
And as I think of our petty, grievous human life, as of a
drunkard's tune on a sorry musical instrument, or as of a
beautiful song spoilt by a witless, voiceless singer, there
begins to wail in my soul an insatiable longing to breathe forth
words of sympathy with all mankind, words of burning love for all
the world, words of appreciation of, for example, the sun's
beauty as, enfolding the earth in his beams, and caressing and
fertilising her, he bears her through the expanses of blue. Yes,
I yearn to recite to my fellow-men words which shall raise their
heads. And at length I find myself compounding the following
To our land we all are born
In happiness to dwell.
The sun has bred us to this land
Its fairness to excel.
In the temple of the sun
We high priests are, divine.
Then each of us should claim his life,
And cry, " This life is mine!"
Meanwhile from the women's corner there comes a soft,
intermittent whispering; and as it continues to filter through
the darkness, I strain my ears until I succeed in catching a few
of the words uttered, and can distinguish at least the voices of
The woman from Riazan mutters firmly, and with assurance:
"Never ought you to show that it hurts you."
And with a sniff, in a tone of dubious acquiescence, her
"Ye-es-so long as one can bear it."
"Ah, but never mind. PRETEND. That is to say, when he beats you,
make light of it, and treat it as a joke."
"But what if he beats me very much indeed?"
"Continue still to make light of it, still to smile at him
"Well, YOU can never have been beaten, for you do not seem to
know what it is like."
"Oh, but I have, my dear--I do know what it is like, for my
experience of it has been large. Do not be afraid, however. HE
won't beat you."
A dog yelps, pauses a moment to listen, and then barks more
angrily than ever. Upon that other dogs reply, and for a moment
or two I am annoyed to find that I cannot overhear the women's
conversation. In time, however, the dogs cease their uproar, for
want of breath, and the suppressed dialogue filters once more to
"Never forget, my dear, that a muzhik's life is a hard one. Yes,
for us plain folk life is hard. Hence, one ought to make nothing
of things, and let them come easy to one."
"Mother of God!"
"And particularly should a woman so face things; for upon her
everything depends. For one thing, let her take to herself, in
place of her mother, a husband or a sweetheart. Yes, try that,
and see. And though, at first, your husband may find fault with
you, he will afterwards take to boasting to other muzhiks that he
has a wife who can do everything, and remain ever as bright and
loving as the month of May. Never does she give in; never WOULD
she give in--no, not if you were to cut off her head!"
"Yes. And see if that will not come to be your opinion as much
Again, to my annoyance, the dialogue is interrupted--this time by
the sound of uncertain footsteps in the street without. Thus the
next words of the women's conversation escape me. Then I hear:
"Have you ever read 'The Vision of the Mother of God'?"
"N-no, I have not."
"Then you had better ask some older woman than myself to tell
you about it, for it is a good book to become acquainted with.
Can you read?"
"No, I cannot. But tell me, yourself, what the vision was?"
"Listen, and I will do so."
From outside the window Konev's voice softly inquires:
"Is that our lot in there? Yes? Thank God, then, for I had
nearly lost my way after stirring up a lot of dogs, and being
forced to use my fists upon them. Here, you! Catch hold!"
With which, handing me a large watermelon, he clambers through
the window with a great clattering and disturbance.
"I have managed also to gee a good supply of bread," he
continues. "Perhaps you believe that I stole it? But no. Indeed,
why should one steal when one can beg-a game at which I am
particularly an old hand, seeing that always, on any occasion, I
can make up to people? It happened like this. When I went out I
saw a fire glowing in a hut, and folk seated at supper. And
since, wherever many people are present, one of them at least has
a kind heart, I ate and drank my fill, and then managed to make
off with provender for you as well. Hi, you women!"
There follows no answer.
"I believe those daughters of whores must be asleep," he
comments. "Hi, women!"
"What is it?" drily inquires the woman from Riazan.
"Should you like a taste of water-melon?"
"I should, thank you."
Thereupon, Konev begins to make his way towards the voice.
"Yes, bread, soft wheaten bread such as you--"
Here the, other woman whines in beggar fashion:
"And give ME a taste, too."