Part 5 out of 7
"Oh, yes, I will. But where the devil are you?"
"And a taste of melon as well?"
"Yes, certainly. Hullo! Who is this?"
From the woman from Riazan comes a cry of pain.
"Mind how you step, wretch!" she exclaims.
"All right, but you needn't make so much noise about it. You see
how dark it is, and I--"
"You ought to have struck a match, then."
"I possess but a quarter of a match, for matches are not over-
plentiful, and even if I did catch hold of you no great harm can
have been done. For instance, when your husband used to beat you
he must have hurt you far worse than I. By the way, DID he beat
"What business is that of yours?"
"None; only, I am curious to know. Surely a woman like you--"
"See here. Do not dare to touch me, or I--"
"Or you what?"
There ensues a prolonged altercation amid which I can hear
epithets of increasing acerbity and opprobrium being applied;
until the woman from Riazan exclaims hoarsely:
"Oh, you coward of a man, take that!"
Whereupon follows a scrimmage amid which I can distinguish
slappings, gross chuckles from Konev, and a muffled cry from the
younger woman of:
"Oh, do not so behave, you wretch!"
Striking a match, I approach the spot, and pull Konev away. He is
in no way abashed, but merely cooled in his ardour as, seated on
the floor at my feet, and panting and expectorating, he says
reprovingly to the woman:
"When folk wish merely to have a game with you, you ought not to
let yourself lose your temper. Fie, fie!"
"Are you hurt?" the woman inquires quietly.
"What do you suppose? You have cut my lip, but that is the worst
"Then if you come here again I will lay the whole of your face
"Vixen! What bumpkinish stupidity!"
Konev turns to myself.
"And as for you, you go catching at the first thing you find,
and have torn my coat."
"Then do not insult people."
"INSULT people, fool? The idea of anyone insulting a woman like
Whereafter, with a mean chuckle, the fellow goes on to discourse
upon the ease with which peasant women err, and upon their love
of deceiving their husbands.
"The impudent rascal!" comments the woman from Penza sleepily.
After a while the young fellow springs to his feet, and grates
his teeth. Then, reseating himself, and clutching at his head, he
"I intend to leave here tomorrow, and go home. I do not care
WHAT becomes of me."
With which he subsides on to the floor as though exhausted.
"The blockhead!" is Konev's remark.
Amid the darkness a black shape rises. It does so as soundlessly
as a fish in a pond, glides to the door, and disappears.
"That was she," remarks Konev. "What a strong woman! However, if
you had not pulled me away, I should have got the better of her.
By God I should!"
"Then follow her, and make another attempt."
"No," after a moment's reflection he rejoins. "Out there she
might get hold of a stick, or a brick, or some such thing.
However, I'LL get even with her. As a matter of fact, you wasted
your time in stopping me, for she detests me like the very
And he renews his wearisome boastings of his conquests; until
suddenly, he stops as though he has swallowed his tongue.
All becomes quiet; everything seems to have come to a halt, and
to be pressing close in sleep to the motionless earth. I too grow
drowsy, and have a vision amid which my mind returns to the
donations which I have received that day, and sees them swell and
multiply and increase in weight until I feel their bulk pressing
upon me like a tumulus of the steppes. Next, the coppery notes of
a bell jar in my ears, and, struck at random intervals, go
floating away into the darkness.
It is the hour of midnight.
Soon, scattered drops of rain begin to patter down upon the dry
thatch of the hut and the dust in the street outside, while a
cricket continues chirping as though it were hurriedly relating
a tale. Also, I hear filtering forth into the darkness a softly
gulped, eager whispering.
"Think," says one of the voices, " what it must mean to have to
go tramping about without work, or only with work for another to
The young fellow who has been so soundly thrashed replies in a
"I know nothing of you."
"More softly, more softly!" urges the woman.
"What is it you want?"
"I want NOTHING. It is merely that I am sorry for you as a man
yet young and strong. You see--well, I have not lived with my eyes
shut. That is why I say, come with me."
"But come whither?"
"To the coast, where I know there to be beautiful plots of land
for the asking. You yourself can see how good the land hereabout
is. Well, there land better still is to be obtained."
"More softly, more softly!" again urges the woman. "Moreover,
I am not bad-looking, and can manage things well, and do any sort
of work. Hence you and I might live quite peacefully and happily,
and come, eventually, to have a place of our own. Yes, and I
could bear and rear you a child. Only see how fit I am. Only feel
this breast of mine."
The young fellow snorts, and I begin to find the situation
oppressive, and to long to let the couple know that I am not
asleep. Curiosity, however, prevents me, and I continue listening
to the strange, arresting dialogue.
"Wait a little," whispers the woman with a gasp. "Do not play
with me, for I am not that sort of woman. Yes, I mean what I say.
Rudely, roughly the young fellow replies:
"Then don't run after me. A woman who runs after a man, and
plays the whore with him, is--"
"Less noise, please--less noise, I beg of you, or we shall be
heard, and I shall be put to shame!"
"Doesn't it put you to shame to be offering yourself to me like
A silence ensues, save that the young fellow goes on snorting and
fidgeting, and the raindrops continue to fall with the same
reluctance, the same indolence, as ever. Then once more the
woman's voice is heard through the pattering.
"Perhaps," says the voice, "you have guessed that I am seeking
a husband? Yes, I AM seeking one--a good, steady muzhik."
"But I am NOT a good, steady muzhik."
"What?" he sniggers. "A husband for you? The impudence of you!
A 'husband'! Go along!"
"Listen to me. I am tired of tramping."
"Then go home."
This time there ensues a long pause. Then the woman says very
"I have neither home nor kindred."
"A lie!" ejaculates the young fellow.
"No, by God it is not a lie! The Mother of God forget me if it
In these last words I can detect the note of tears. By this time
the situation has become intolerable, for I am yearning to rise
and kick the young fellow out of the hut, and then to have a long
and earnest talk with his companion. "Oh that I could take her
to my arms," I reflect, "and cherish her as I would a poor lost
After a while the sounds of a new struggle between the pair are
"Don't put me off like that!" growls the young fellow.
"And don't you make any attempt upon me! I am not the sort of
woman to be forced."
The next moment there arises a cry of pain and astonishment.
"What was that for? What was that for?" the woman wails.
With an answering exclamation I spring to my feet, for my
feelings have become those of a wild beast.
At once everything grows quiet again, save that someone, crawls
over the floor and, in leaving the hut, jars the latch of the
crazy, single-hinged portal.
"It was not my fault," grumbles the young fellow. "It all came
of that stinking woman offering herself to me. Besides, the place
is full of bugs, and I cannot sleep."
"Beast!" pants someone in the vicinity.
"Hold your tongue, bitch!" is the fellow's retort.
By now the rain has ceased, and such air as filters through the
window seems increasedly stifling. Momentarily the hush grows
deeper, until the breast feels filled with a sense of oppression,
and the face and eyes as though they were glued over with a web.
Even when I step into the yard I find the place to be like a
cellar on a summer's day, when the very ice has melted in the
dark retreat, and the latter's black cavity is charged with hot,
Somewhere near me a woman is gulping out sobs. For a moment or
two I listen; then I approach her, and come upon her seated in a
corner with her head in her hands, and her body rocking to and
fro as though she were doing me obeisance.
Yet I feel angry, somehow, and remain standing before her without
speaking-- until at length I ask:
"Are you mad?"
"Go away," is, after a pause, her only reply.
"I heard all that you said to that young fellow."
"Oh, did you? Then what business is it of yours? Are you my
Yet she speaks the words absent-mindedly rather than angrily.
Around us the dim, blurred walls are peering in our direction
with sightless eyes, while in the vicinity a bullock is drawing
I seat myself by her side.
"Should you remain much longer in that position," I remark, "you
will have a headache."
There follows no reply.
"Am I disturbing you? " I continue.
"Oh no; not at all." And, lowering her hands, she looks at me.
"Whence do you come?"
"From Nizhni Novgorod."
"Oh, from a long way off!"
"Do you care for that young fellow?"
Not for a moment or two does she answer; and when she does so she
answers as though the words have been rehearsed.
"Not particularly. It is that he is a strong young fellow who
has lost his way, and is too much of a fool (as you too must have
seen) to find it again. So I am very sorry for him. A good muzhik
ought to be well placed."
On the bell of the church there strikes the hour of two. Without
interrupting herself, the woman crosses her breast at each
"Always," she continues, "I feel sorry when I see a fine young
fellow going to the dogs. If I were able, I would take all such
young men, and restore them to the right road."
"Then you are not sorry FOR YOURSELF? "
"Not for myself? Oh yes, for myself as well."
"Then why flaunt yourself before this booby, as you have been
"Because I might reform him. Do you not think so? Ah, you do not
A sigh escapes her.
"He hit you, I think?" I venture.
"No, he did not. And in any case you are not to touch him."
"Yet you cried out?"
Suddenly she leans towards me, and says:
"Yes, he did strike me--he struck me on the breast, and would
have overpowered me had it not been that I cannot, I will not, do
things heartlessly, like a cat. Oh, the brutes that men can be!"
Here the conversation undergoes an interruption through the fact
that someone has come out to the hut door, and is whistling
softly, as for a dog.
"There he is!" whispers the woman.
"Then had I not best send him about his business?"
"No, no!" she exclaims, catching at my knees. "No need is
there for that, no need is there for that!"
Then with a low moan she adds:
"Oh Lord, how I pity our folk and their lives! Oh God our Father!"
Her shoulders heave, and presently she bursts into tears, with a
whisper, between the pitiful sobs, of:
"How, on such a night as this, one remembers all that one has
ever seen, and the folk that ever one has known! And oh, how
wearisome, wearisome it all is! And how I should like to cry
throughout the world--But to cry what? I know not--I have no
message to deliver."
That feeling I can understand as well as she, for all too often
has it seemed to crush my soul with voiceless longing.
Then, as I stroke her bowed head and quivering shoulder, I ask
her who she is; and presently, on growing a little calmer, she
tells me the history of her life.
She is, it appears, the daughter of a carpenter and bee-keeper.
On her mother's death, this man married a young woman, and
allowed her, as stepmother, to persuade him to place the
narrator, Tatiana, in a convent, where she (Tatiana) lived from
the age of nine till adolescence, and, meanwhile, was taught her
letters, and also a certain amount of manual labour; until,
later, her father married her off to a friend of his, a well-to-
do ex-soldier, who was acting as forester on the convent's estate.
As the woman relates this, I feel vexed that I cannot see her
face--only a dim, round blur amid which there looms what appears
to be a pair of closed eyes. Also, so complete is the stillness,
that she can narrate her story in a barely audible whisper; and I
gain the impression that the pair of us are sitting plunged in a
void of darkness where life does not exist, yet where we are
destined to begin life.
"However, the man was a libertine and a drunkard, and many a
riotous night did he spend with his cronies in the porter's lodge
of the convent. Also, he tried to arouse a similar taste in
myself; and though for a time I resisted the tendency, I at
length, on his taking to beating me, yielded. Only for one man,
however, had I really a liking; and with him it was, and not with
my husband, that I first learnt the meaning of spousehood. . . .
Unfortunately, my lover himself was married; and in time his wife
came to hear of me, and procured my husband's dismissal. The
chief reason was that the lady, a person of great wealth, was
herself handsome, albeit stout, and did not care to see her place
assumed by a nobody. Next, my husband died of drink; and as my
father had long been dead, and I found myself alone, I went to
see and consult my stepmother. All that she said, however, was:
'Why come to me? Go and think things out for yourself.' And I too
then reflected: 'Yes, why should I have gone to her? ' and
repaired to the convent. Yet even there there seemed to be no
place left for me, and eventually old Mother Taisia, who had once
been my governess, said: 'Tatiana, do you return to the world,
for there, and only there, will you have a chance of happiness.
So to the world I returned --and still am roaming it."
"Your quest of happiness is not following an easy road!"
"It is following the road that it best can."
By now the darkness has ceased to keep spread over us, as it
were, the stretched web of a heavy curtain, but has grown thinner
and more transparent with the tension, save that, in places (for
instance, in the window of the hut), it still lies in thick folds
or clots as it peers at us with its sightless eyes.
Over the hummock-like roofs of the huts rise the church's steeple
and the poplar trees; while hither and thither on the wall of the
hut, the cracks and holes in the crumbling plaster have caused the
wall to resemble the map of an unknown country.
Glancing at the woman's dark eyes, I perceive them to be shining
as pensively, innocently as the eyes of a young maiden.
"You are indeed a curious woman!" I remark.
"Perhaps I am," she replies as she moistens her lips with a
slender, almost feline tongue.
"What are you really seeking?"
"I have considered the matter, and know, at last, my mind. It is
this: I hope some day to fall in with a good muzhik with whom to
go in search of land. Probably land of the kind, I mean, is to be
found in the neighbourhood of New Athos, [A monastery in the
Caucasus, built on the reputed site of a cave tenanted by Simeon
the Canaanite] for I have been there already, and know of a
likely spot for the purpose. And there we shall set our place in
order, and lay out a garden and an orchard, and prepare as much
plough land as we may need for our working."
Her words are now firmer, more assured.
"And when we have put everything in order, other folk may join
us; and then, as the oldest settlers in the place, we shall hold
the position of honour. And thus things will continue until a new
village, really a fine settlement, will have become formed--a
settlement of which my husband will be selected the warden until
such time as I shall have made of him a barin [Gentleman or
squire] outright. Also, children may one day play in that
garden, and a summer-house be built there. Ah, how delightful
such a life appears!"
In fact, she has planned out the future so thoroughly that
already she can describe the new establishment in as much detail
as though she has long been a resident in it.
"Yes, I yearn indeed for a nice home!" she continues. "Oh that
such a home could fall to my lot! But the first requisite, of
course, is a muzhik."
Her gentle face and eyes peer into the waning night as though
they aspire to caress everything upon which they may light.
And all the while I am feeling sorry for her--sorry almost to
tears. To conceal the fact I murmur:
"Should I myself suit you?"
She gives a faint laugh.
"Because the ideas in your mind are different from mine."
"How do you know what my ideas are?"
She edges away from me a little,then says drily:
"Because I can see them in your eyes. To be plain, I could never
With a finger tapping upon the mouldy, gnarled old oaken stump on
which we are sitting, she adds:
"The Cossacks, for instance, live comfortably enough; yet I do
not like them."
"What in them is it that displeases you?"
"Somehow they repel me. True, much of everything is theirs; yet
also they have ways which alienate me."
Unable any longer to conceal from her my pity, I say gently:
"Never, I fear, will you discover what you are seeking."
She shakes her head protestingly.
"And never ought a woman to be discouraged," she retorts.
"Woman's proper round is to wish for a child, and to nurse it,
and, when it has been weaned, to get herself ready to have
another one. That is how woman should live. She should live as
pass spring and summer, autumn and winter."
I find it a pleasure to watch the play of the woman's
intellectual features; and though, also, I long to take her in my
arms, I feel that my better plan will be to seek once more the
quiet, empty steppe, and, bearing in me the recollection of this
woman, to resume my lonely journey towards the region where the
silver wall of the mountains merges with the sky, and the dark
ravines gape at the steppe with their chilly jaws. At the moment,
however, I cannot so do, for the Cossacks have temporarily
deprived me of my passport.
"What are you yourself seeking?" she asks suddenly as again she
edges towards me.
"Simply nothing. My one desire is to observe how folk live."
"And are you travelling alone?"
"Even as am I. Oh God, how many lonely people there are in the
By this time the cattle are awakening from slumber, and, with
their soft lowings, reminding one of a pipe which I used to hear
played by a certain blind old man. Next, four times, with
unsteady touch, the drowsy watchman strikes his gong--twice
softly, once with a vigour that clangs the metal again, and a
fourth time with a mere tap of the iron hammer against the copper
"What sort of lives do the majority of folk lead?"
"Yes, that is what I too have found."
A pause follows. Then the woman says quietly:
"See, dawn is breaking, yet never this night have my eyes
closed. Often I am like that; often I keep thinking and thinking
until I seem to be the only human being in the world, and the
only human being destined to re-order it."
"Many folk live unworthy lives. They live them amid discord,
abasement, and wrongs innumerable, wrongs born of want and
And as the words leave my lips my mind loses itself in
recollections of all the dark and harrowing and shameful scenes
that I have beheld.
"Listen," I say. "You may approach a man with nothing but good
in your heart, and be prepared to surrender both your freedom and
your strength; yet still he may fail to understand you aright.
And how shall he be blamed for this, seeing that never may he
have been shown what is good?"
She lays a hand upon my shoulder, and looks straight into my eyes
as she parts her comely lips.
"True," she rejoins--"But, dear friend, it is also true that
goodness never bargains."
Together she and I seem to be drifting towards a vista which is
coming to look, as it sloughs the shadow of night, ever clearer
and clearer. It is a vista of white huts, silvery trees, a red
church, and dew-bespangled earth. And as the sun rises he reveals
to us clustered, transparent clouds which, like thousands of
snow-white birds, go gliding over our heads.
"Yes," she whispers again as gently she gives me a nudge. "As one
pursues one's lonely way one thinks and thinks--but of
what? Dear friend, you have said that no one really cares what is
the matter. Ah, HOW true that is! "
Here she springs to her feet, and, pulling me up with her, glues
herself to my breast with a vehemence which causes me momentarily
to push her away. Upon this, bursting into tears, she tends
towards me again, and kisses me with lips so dry as almost to cut
me--she kisses me in a way which penetrates to my very soul.
"You have been oh, so good!" she whispers softly. As she speaks,
the earth seems to be sinking under my feet.
Then she tears herself away, glances around the courtyard, and
darts to a corner where, under a fence, a clump of herbage is
"Go now," she adds in a whisper. "Yes, go."
Then, with a confused smile, as, crouching among the herbage as
though it had been a small cave, she rearranges her hair, she
"It has befallen so. Ah, me! May God grant unto me His pardon!"
Astonished, feeling that I must be dreaming, I gaze at her with
gratitude, for I sense an extraordinary lightness to be present
in my breast, a radiant void through which joyous, intangible
words and thoughts keep flying as swallows wheel across the
"Amid a great sorrow," she adds, "even a small joy becomes a
Yet as I glance at the woman's bosom, whereon moist beads are
standing like dewdrops on the outer earth; as I glance at that
bosom, whereon the sun's rays are finding a roseate reflection,
as though the blood were oozing through the skin, my rapture dies
away, and turns to sorrow, heartache, and tears. For in me there
is a presentiment that before the living juice within that bosom
shall have borne fruit, it will have become dried up.
Presently, in a tone almost of self-excuse, and one wherein the
words sound a little sadly, she continues:
"Times there are when something comes pouring into my soul which
makes my breasts ache with the pain of it. What is there for me
to do at such moments save reveal my thoughts to the moon, or, in
the daytime, to a river? Oh God in Heaven! And afterwards I feel
as ashamed of myself! . . . Do not look at me like that. Why
stare at me with those eyes, eyes so like the eyes of a child?"
"YOUR face, rather, is like a child's," I remark.
"What? Is it so stupid?"
"Something like that."
As she fastens up her bodice she continues:
"Soon the time will be five o'clock, when the bell will ring for
Mass. To Mass I must go today, for I have a prayer to offer to
the Mother of God. . . Shall you be leaving here soon?"
"Yes--as soon, that is to say, as I have received back my
"And for what destination?"
"For Alatyr. And you?"
She straightens her attire, and rises. As she does so I perceive
that her hips are narrower than her shoulders, and that
throughout she is well-proportioned and symmetrical.
"I? As yet I do not know. True, I had thought of proceeding to
Naltchik, but now, perhaps, I shall not do so, for all my future
Upon that she extends to me a pair of strong, capable arms, and
proposes with a blush:
"Shall we kiss once more before we part?"
She clasps me with the one arm, and with the other makes the sign
of the cross, adding:
"Good-bye, dear friend, and may Christ requite you for all your
words, for all your sympathy!"
"Then shall we travel together?"
At the words she frees herself, and says firmly, nay, sternly:
"Not so. Never would I consent to such a plan. Of course, had
you been a muzhik--but no. Even then what would have been the use
of it, seeing that life is to be measured, not by a single hour,
but by years?"
And, quietly smiling me a farewell, she moves away towards the
hut, whilst I, remaining seated, lose myself in thoughts of her.
Will she ever overtake her quest in life? Shall I ever behold her
The bell for early Mass begins, though for some time past the
hamlet has been astir, and humming in a sedate and non-festive
I enter the hut to fetch my wallet, and find the place empty.
Evidently the whole party has left by the gap in the broken-down
I repair, next, to the Ataman's office, where I receive back my
passport before setting out to look for my companions in the
In similar fashion to yesterday those "folk from Russia " are
lolling alongside the churchyard wall, and also have seated among
them, leaning his back against a log, the fat-jowled youth from
Penza, with his bruised face looking even larger and uglier than
before, for the reason that his eyes are sunken amid purple
Presently there arrives a newcomer in the shape of an old man
with a grey head adorned with a faded velvet skull-cap, a pointed
beard, a lean, withered frame, prominent cheekbones, a red,
porous-looking, cunningly hooked nose, and the eyes of a thief.
Him a flaxen-haired youth from Orel joins with a similar youth in
"Why are YOU tramping?" inquires the former.
"And why are YOU? " the old man retorts in nasal tones as,
looking at no one, he proceeds to mend the handle of a battered
metal teapot with a piece of wire.
"We are travelling in search of work, and therefore living as we
have been commanded to live."
"By WHOM commanded?"
"By God. Have you forgotten?"
Carelessly, but succinctly, the old man retorts:
"Take heed lest upon you, some day, God vomit all the dust and
litter which you are raising by tramping His earth!"
"How?" cries one of the youths, a long-eared stripling.
"Were not Christ and His Apostles also tramps?"
"Yes, CHRIST," is the old man's meaning reply as he raises his
sharp eyes to those of his opponent. "But what are you talking
of, you fools? With whom are you daring to compare yourselves?
Take care lest I report you to the Cossacks!"
I have listened to many such arguments, and always found them
distasteful, even as I have done discussions regarding the soul.
Hence I feel inclined to depart.
At this moment, however, Konev makes his appearance. His mien is
dejected, and his body perspiring, while his eyes keep blinking
"Has any one seen Tanka--that woman from Riazan?" he inquires.
"No? Then the bitch must have bolted during the night. The fact is
that, overnight, someone gave me a drop or two to drink, a mere
dram, but enough to lay me as fast asleep as a bear in winter-
time. And in the meantime, she must have run away with that Penza
"No, HE is here," I remark.
"Oh, he is, is he? Well, as what has the company registered
itself? As a set of ikon-painters, I should think!"
Again he begins to look anxiously about him.
"Where can she have got to? " he queries.
"To Mass, maybe."
"0F course! Well, I am greatly smitten with her. Yes, my word I
Nevertheless, when Mass comes to an end, and, to the sound of a
merry peal of bells, the well-dressed local Cossacks file out of
church, and distribute themselves in gaudy streams about the
hamlet, no Tatiana makes her appearance.
"Then she IS gone," says Konev ruefully. "But I'll find her
yet! I'LL come up with her!"
That this will happen I do not feel confident. Nor do I desire
that it should.
Five years later I am pacing the courtyard of the Metechski
Prison in Tiflis, and, as I do so, trying to imagine for what
particular offence I have been incarcerated in that place of
Picturesquely grim without, the institution is, inwardly, peopled
with a set of cheerful, but clumsy, humourists. That is to say,
it would seem as though, " by order of the authorities," the
inmates are presenting a stage spectacle in which they are
playing, willingly and zealously, but with a complete lack of
experience, imperfectly comprehended roles as prisoners, warders,
For instance, today, when a warder and a gendarme came to my
cell to escort me to exercise, and I said to them, " May I be
excused exercise today? I am not very well, and do not feel like,
etcetera, etcetera," the gendarme, a tall, handsome man with a
red beard, held up to me a warning finger.
"NO ONE," he said, "has given you permission to feel, or not to
feel, like doing things."
To which the warder, a man as dark as a chimney-sweep, with large
blue "whites" to his eyes, added stutteringly:
"To no one here has permission been given to feel, or not to
feel, like doing things. You hear that?"
So to exercise I went.
In this stone-paved yard the air is as hot as in an oven, for
overhead there lours only a small, flat patch of dull, drab-
tinted sky, and on three sides of the yard rise high grey walls,
with, on the fourth, the entrance-gates, topped by a sort of
Over the roof of the building there comes floating the dull roar
of the turbulent river Kura, mingled with shouts from the
hucksters of the Avlabar Bazaar (the town's Asiatic quarter) and
as a cross motif thrown into these sounds, the sighing of the
wind and the cooing of doves. In fact, to be here is like being
in a drum which a myriad drumsticks are beating.
Through the bars of the double line of windows on the second and
the third stories peer the murky faces and towsled heads of some
of the inmates. One of the latter spits his furthest into the
yard--evidently with the intention of hitting myself: but all his
efforts prove vain. Another one shouts with a mordant expletive:
"Hi, you! Why do you keep tramping up and down like an old hen?
Hold up your head!"
Meanwhile the inmates continue to intone in concert a strange
chant which is as tangled as a skein of wool after serving as a
plaything for a kitten's prolonged game of sport. Sadly the chant
meanders, wavers, to a high, wailing note. Then, as it were, it
soars yet higher towards the dull, murky sky, breaks suddenly
into a snarl, and, growling like a wild beast in terror, dies
away to give place to a refrain which coils, trickles forth from
between the bars of the windows until it has permeated the free,
As I listen to that refrain, long familiar to me, it seems to
voice something intelligible, and agitates my soul almost to a
sense of agony. . . .
Presently, while pacing up and down in the shadow of the
building, I happen to glance towards the line of windows. Glued
to the framework of one of the iron window-squares, I can discern
a blue-eyed face. Overgrown with an untidy sable beard it is, as
well as stamped with a look of perpetually grieved surprise.
"That must be Konev," I say to myself aloud.
Konev it is--Konev of the well-remembered eyes. Even at this
moment they are regarding me with puckered attention.
I throw around me a hasty glance. My own warder is dozing on a
shady bench near the entrance. Two more warders are engaged in
throwing dice. A fourth is superintending the pumping of water by
two convicts, and superciliously marking time for their lever
with the formula, "Mashkam, dashkam! Dashkam, mashkam!"
I move towards the wall.
"Is that you, Konev?" is my inquiry.
"It is," he mutters as he thrusts his head a little further
through the grating. "Yes, Konev I am, but who you are I have
not a notion."
"What are you here for?"
"For a matter of base coin, though, to be truthful, I am here
accidentally, without genuine cause."
The warder rouses himself, and, with his keys jingling like a set
of fetters, utters drowsily the command:
"Do not stand still. Also, move further from the wall. To
approach it is forbidden."
"But it is so hot in the middle of the yard, sir!"
"Everywhere it is hot," retorts the man reprovingly, and his
head subsides again. From above comes the whispered query:
"Who ARE you?"
"Well, do you remember Tatiana, the woman from Riazan?"
"DO I remember her?" Konev's voice has in it a touch of subdued
resentment. "DO I remember her? Why, I was tried in court
together with her!"
"Together with HER? Was she too sentenced for the passing of
"Yes. Why should she not have been? She was merely the victim of
an accident, even as I was."
As I resume my walk in the stifling shade I detect that, from the
windows of the basement there is issuing a smell of, in equal
parts, rotten leather, mouldy grain, and dampness. To my mind
there recur Tatiana's words: "Amid a great sorrow even a small
joy becomes a great felicity," and, "I should like to build a
village on some land of my own, and create for myself a new and
And to my recollection there recur also Tatiana's face and
yearning, hungry breast. As I stand thinking of these things,
there come dropping on to my head from above the low-spoken,
"The chief conspirator in the matter was her lover, the son of a
priest. He it was who engineered the plot. He has been sentenced
to ten years penal servitude."
"And she? "
"Tatiana Vasilievna? To the same, and I also. I leave for Siberia
the day after tomorrow. The trial was held at Kutair. In Russia
I should have got off with a lighter sentence than here, for the
folk in these parts are, one and all, evil, barbaric scoundrels."
"And Tatiana, has she any children?"
"How could she have while living such a rough life as this? Of
course not! Besides, the priest's son is a consumptive."
"Indeed sorry for her am I!"
"So I expect." And in Konev's tone there would seem to be a
touch of meaning. "The woman was a fool--of that there can be no
doubt; but also she was comely, as well as a person out of the
common in her pity for folk."
"Was it then that you found her again?"
"On that Feast of the Assumption?"
"Oh no. It was only during the following winter that I came up
with her. At the time she was serving as governess to the
children of an old officer in Batum whose wife had left him."
Something snaps behind me--something sounding like the hammer of a
revolver. However, it is only the warder closing the lid of his
huge watch before restoring the watch to his pocket, giving
himself a stretch, and yawning to the utmost extent of his jaws.
"You see, she had money, and, but for her restlessness, might
have lived a comfortable life enough. As it was, her
"Time for exercise is up!" shouts the warder.
"Who are you?" adds Konev hastily. "Somehow I seem to remember
your face; but 1 cannot place it."
Yet so stung am I with what I have heard that I move away in
silence: save that just as I reach the top of the steps I turn to
"Goodbye, mate, and give her my greeting."
"What are you bawling for? " blusters the warder. . . .
The corridor is dim, and filled with an oppressive odour. The
warder swings his keys with a dry, thin clash, and I, to dull the
pain in my heart, strive to imitate him. But the attempt proves
futile; and as the warder opens the door of my cell he says
"In with you, ten-years man!"
Entering, I move towards the window. Between some grey spikes on
a wall I can just discern the boisterous current of the Kura,
with sakli [warehouses] and houses glued to the opposite bank,
and the figures of some workmen on the roof of a tanning shed.
Below, with his cap pushed to the back of his head,a sentry is pacing
backwards and forwards.
Wearily my mind recalls the many scores of Russian folk whom it
has seen perish to no purpose. And as it does so it feels
crushed, as in a vice, beneath the burden of great and inexorable
sorrow with which all life is dowered.
IN A MOUNTAIN DEFILE
In a mountain defile near a little tributary of the Sunzha, there
was being built a workman's barraque-- a low, long edifice which
reminded one of a large coffin lid.
The building was approaching completion, and, meanwhile, a score
of carpenters were employed in fashioning thin planks into doors
of equal thinness, knocking together benches and tables, and
fitting window-frames into the small window-squares.
Also, to assist these carpenters in the task of protecting the
barraque from tribesmen's nocturnal raids, the shrill-voiced
young student of civil engineering who had been set in charge of
the work had sent to the place, as watchman, an ex-soldier named
Paul Ivanovitch, a man of the Cossack type, and myself.
Yet whereas we were out-at-elbows, the carpenters were sleek,
respectable, monied, well-clad fellows. Also, there was something
dour and irritating about them, since, for one thing, they had
failed to respond to our greeting on our first appearance, and
eyed us with nothing but dislike and suspicion. Hence, hurt by
their chilly attitude, we had withdrawn from their immediate
neighbourhood, constructed a causeway of stepping stones to the
eastern bank of the rivulet, and taken up our abode beneath the
chaotic grey mists which enveloped the mountain side in that
Also, over the carpenters there was a foreman--a man whose bony
frame, clad in a white shirt and a pair of white trousers, looked
always as though it were ready-attired for death. Moreover, he
wore no cap to conceal the yellow patch of baldness which covered
most of his head, and, in addition, his nose was squat and grey,
his neck and face had over them skin of a porous, pumice-like
consistency, his eyes were green and dim, and upon his features
there was stamped a dead and disagreeable expression. To be
candid, however, behind the dark lips lay a set of fine, close
teeth, while the hairs of the grey beard (a beard trimmed after
the Tartar fashion) were thick and, seemingly, soft.
Never did this man put a hand actually to the work; always he
kept roaming about with the large, rigid-looking fingers of his
hands tucked into his belt, and his fixed and expressionless eyes
scanning the barraque, the men, and the work as his lips vented
some such lines as:
Oh God our Father, bound hast Thou
A crown of thorns upon my brow!
Listen to my humble prayer!
Lighten the burden which I bear!
"What on earth can be in the man's mind?" once remarked the ex-
soldier, with a frowning glance at the singer.
As for our duties, my mates and I had nothing to do, and soon
began to find the time tedious. For his part, the man with the
Cossack physiognomy scaled the mountain side; whence he could be
heard whistling and snapping twigs with his heavy feet, while the
ex-soldier selected a space between two rocks for a shelter of
ace-rose boughs, and, stretching himself on his stomach, fell to
smoking strong mountain tobacco in his large meerschaum pipe as
dimly, dreamily he contemplated the play of the mountain torrent.
Lastly, I myself selected a seat on a rock which overhung the
brook, dipped my feet in the coolness of the water, and proceeded
to mend my shirt.
At intervals, the defile would convey to our ears a dull echo of
sounds so wholly at variance with the locality as muffled hammer-
blows, a screeching of saws, a rasping of planes, and a confused
murmur of human voices.
Also, a moist breeze blew constantly from the dark-blue depths of
the defile, and caused the stiff, upright larches on the knoll
behind the barraque to rustle their boughs, and distilled from
the rank soil the voluptuous scents of ace-rose and pitch-pine,
and evoked in the trees' quiet gloom a soft, crooning, somnolent
About a sazhen [Fathom] below the level of the barraque there
coursed noisily over its bed of stones a rivulet white with foam.
Yet though of other sounds in the vicinity there were but few,
the general effect was to suggest that everything in the
neighbourhood was speaking or singing a tale of such sort as to
shame the human species into silence.
On our own side of the valley the ground lay bathed in sunshine--
lay scorched to the point of seeming to have spread over it a
tissue-cloth. Old gold in colour, while from every side arose the
sweet perfume of dried grasses, and in dark clefts there could be
seen sprouting the long, straight spears and fiery, reddish,
cone-shaped blossoms of that bold, hardy plant which is known to
us as saxifrage--the plant of which the contemplation makes one
long to burst into music, and fills one's whole body with
Laced with palpitating, snow-white foam, the beautiful rivulet
pursued its sportive way over tessellated stones which flashed
through the eddies of the glassy, sunlit, amber-coloured water
with the silken sheen of a patchwork carpet or costly shawl of
Through the mouth of the defile one could reach the valley of the
Sunzha, whence, since men were ther, building a railway to
Petrovsk on the Caspian Sea, there kept issuing and breaking
against the crags a dull rumble of explosions, of iron rasped
against stone, of whistles of works locomotives, and of animated
From the barraque the distance to the point where the defile
debouched upon the valley was about a hundred paces, and as one
issued thence one could see, away to the left, the level steppes
of the Cis-Caucasus, with a boundary wall of blue hills, topped
by the silver-hewn saddle of Mount Elburz behind it. True, for
the most part the steppes had a dry, yellow, sandy look, with
merely here and there dark patches of gardens or black poplar
clumps which rendered the golden glare more glaring still; yet
also there could be discerned on the expanse farm buildings
shaped like lumps of sugar or butter, with, in their vicinity,
toylike human beings and diminutive cattle -- the whole shimmering
and melting in a mirage born of the heat. And at the mere sight
of those steppes, with their embroidery of silk under the blue of
the zenith, one's muscles tightened, and one felt inspired with a
longing to spring to one's feet, close one's eyes, and walk for
ever with the soft, mournful song of the waste crooning in one's
To the right also of the defile lay the winding valley of the
Sunzha, with more hills; and above those hills hung the blue sky,
and in their flanks were clefts which, full of grey mist, kept
emitting a ceaseless din of labour, a sound of dull explosions, as
a great puissant force attained release.
Yet almost at the same moment would that hurly-burly so merge
with the echo of our defile, so become buried in the defile's
verdure and rock crevices, that once more the place would seem to
be singing only its own gentle, gracious song.
And, should one turn to glance up the defile, it could be seen to
grow narrower and narrower as it ascended towards the mists, and
the latter to grow thicker and thicker until the whole defile was
swathed in a dark blue pall. Higher yet there could be discerned
the brilliant gleam of blue sky. Higher yet one could distinguish
the ice-capped peak of Kara Dagh, floating and dissolving amid
the ( from here) invisible sunlight. Highest of all again brooded
the serene, steadfast peace of heaven.
Also, everything was bathed in a strange tint of bluish grey: to
which circumstance must have been due the fact that always one's
soul felt filled with restlessness, one's heart stirred to
disquietude, and fired as with intoxication, charged with
incomprehensible thoughts, and conscious as of a summons to set
forth for some unknown destination.
The foreman of the carpenters shaded his eyes to gaze in our
direction; and as he did so, he drawled and rasped out in tedious
"Some shall to the left be sent,
And in the pit of Hell lie pent.
While others, holding palm in hand,
Shall on God's right take up their stand."
"DID you hear that?" the ex-soldier growled through clenched
teeth. "'Palm in hand' indeed! Why, the fellow must be a
Mennonite or a Molokan, though the two, really, are one, and
absolutely indistinguishable, as well as equally foolish. Yes,
'palm in hand' indeed!"
Similarly could I understand the ex-soldier's indignation, for,
like him, I felt that such dreary, monotonous singing was
altogether out of place in a spot where everything could troll a
song so delightful as to lead one to wish to hear nothing more,
to hear only the whispering of the forest and the babbling of the
stream. And especially out of place did the terms "palm" and
Yet I had no great love for the ex-soldier. Somehow he jarred
upon me. Middle-aged, squat, square, and bleached with the sun,
he had faded eyes, flattened-out features, and an expression of
restless moroseness. Never could I make out what he really
wanted, what he was really seeking. For instance, once, after
reviewing the Caucasus from Khassav-Urt to Novorossisk, and from
Batum to Derbent, and, during the review, crossing the mountain
range by three different routes at least, he remarked with a
"I suppose the Lord God made the country."
"You do not like it, then? How should I? Good for nothing is
what I call it."
Then, with a further glance at me, and a twist of his sinewy
neck, he added:
"However, not bad altogether are its forests."
A native of Kaluga, he had served in Tashkend, and, in fighting
with the Chechintzes of that region,had been wounded in the head
with a stone. Yet as he told me the story of this incident, he
smiled shamefacedly, and, throughout, kept his glassy eyes fixed
upon the ground.
"Though I am ashamed to confess it," he said, "once a woman
chipped a piece out of me. You see, the women of that region are
shrieking devils--there is no other word for it; and when we
captured a village called Akhal-Tiapa a number of them had to be
cut up, so that they lay about in heaps, and their blood made
walking slippery. Just as our company of the reserve entered the
street, something caught me on the head. Afterwards, I learnt that
a woman on a roof had thrown a stone, and, like the rest, had had
to be put out of the way."
Here, knitting his brows, the ex-soldier went on in more serious
"Yet all that folk used to say about those women, about their
having beards to shave, turned out to be so much gossip, as I
ascertained for myself. I did so by lifting the woman's skirt on
the point of my bayonet, when I perceived that, though she was
lean, and smelt like a goat, she was quite as regular as, as--"
"Things must have been indeed terrible on that expedition!" I
"I do not know for certain, since, though men who took an actual
part in the expedition's engagements have said that they were so
(the Chechintze is a vicious brute, and never gives in), I myself
know but little of the affair, since I spent my whole time in the
reserve, and never once did my company advance to the assault.
No, it merely lay about on the sand, and fired at long range. In
fact, nothing but sand was to be seen thereabouts; nor did we
ever succeed in finding out what the fighting was for. True, if a
piece of country be good, it is in our interest to take it; but
in the present case the country was poor and bare, with never a
river in sight, and a climate so hot that all one thought of was
one's mortal need of a drink. In fact, some of our fellows died
of thirst outright. Moreover, in those parts there grows a sort
of millet called dzhugar -- millet which not only has a horrible
taste, but proves absolutely delusive, since the more one eats of
it, the less one feels filled."
As the ex-soldier told me the tale colourlessly and reluctantly,
with frequent pauses between the sentences (as though either he
found it difficult to recall the experience or he were thinking
of something else), he never once looked me straight in the face,
but kept his eyes shamefacedly fixed upon the ground.
Unwieldily and unhealthily stout, he always conveyed to me the
impression of being charged with a vague discontent, a sort of
"Absolutely unfit for settlement is this country " he continued as
he glanced around him. "It is fit only to do nothing in. For
that matter, one doesn't WANT to do anything in it, save to live
with one's eyes bulging like a drunkard's-- for the climate is too
hot, and the place smells like a chemist's shop or a hospital."
Nevertheless, for the past eight years had he been roaming this
"too hot" country, as though fascinated!
"Why not return to Riazan?" I suggested.
"Nothing would there be there for me to do," he replied through
his teeth, and with an odd division of his words.
My first encounter with him had been at the railway station at
Armavir, where, purple in the face with excitement, he had been
stamping like a horse, and, with distended eyes, hissing, or,
rather, snarling, at a couple of Greeks:
"I'll tear the flesh from your bones!"
Meanwhile the two lean, withered, ragged, identically similar
denizens of Hellas had been baring their sharp white teeth at
intervals, and saying apologetically:
"What has angered you, sir?"
Finally, regardless of the Greeks' words, the ex-soldier had beat
his breast like a drum, and shouted in accents of increased
"Now, where are you living? In Russia, do you say? Then who is
supporting you there? Aha-a-a! Russia, it is said, is a good
foster-mother. I expect you say the same."
And, lastly, he had approached a fat, grey-headed, bemedalled
gendarme, and complained to him:
"Everyone curses us born Russians, yet everyone comes to live
with us--Greeks, Germans, Songs, and the lot. And while they get
their livelihood here, and cat and drink their fill, they
continue to curse us. A scandal, is it not?"
The third member of our party was a man of about thirty who wore
a Cossack cap over his left ear, and had a Cossack forelock,
rounded features, a large nose, a dark moustache, and a retrousse
lip. When the volatile young engineering student first brought
him to us and said, "Here is another man for you," the newcomer
glanced at me through the lashes of his elusive eyes--then plunged
his hands into the pockets of his Turkish overalls. Just as we
were departing, however, he withdrew one hand from the left
trouser pocket, passed it slowly over the dark bristles of his
unshaven chin, and asked in musical tones:
"Do you come from Russia?"
"Whence else, I should like to know?" snapped the ex-soldier
Upon this the newcomer twisted his right-hand moustache then
replaced his hand in his pocket. Broad-shouldered, sturdy, and
well-built throughout, he walked with the stride of a man who is
accustomed to cover long distances. Yet with him he had brought
neither wallet nor gripsack, and somehow his supercilious,
retrousse upper lip and thickly fringed eyes irritated me, and
inclined me to be suspicious of, and even actively to dislike,
Suddenly, while we were proceeding along the causeway by the side
of the rivulet, he turned to us, and said, as he nodded towards
the sportively coursing water:
"Look at the matchmaker!"
The ex-soldier hoisted his bleached eyebrows, and gazed around
him for a moment in bewilderment. Then he whispered:
But, for my own part, I considered that what the man had said was
apposite; that the rugged, boisterous little river did indeed
resemble some fussy, light-hearted old lady who loved to arrange
affaires du coeur both for her own private amusement and for the
purpose of enabling other folk to realise the joys of affection
amid which she was living, and of which she would never grow
weary, and to which she desired to introduce the rest of the
world as speedily as possible.
Similarly, when we arrived at the barraque this man with the
Cossack face glanced at the rivulet, and then at the mountains
and the sky, and, finally, appraised the scene in one pregnant,
comprehensive exclamation of " Slavno! " [How splendid!]
The ex-soldier, who was engaged in ridding himself of his
knapsack, straightened himself, and asked with his arms set
"WHAT is it that is so splendid?"
For a moment or two the newcomer merely eyed the squat figure of
his questioner--a figure upon which hung drab shreds as lichen
hangs upon a stone. Then he said with a smile:
"Cannot you see for yourself? Take that mountain there, and that
cleft in the mountain-- are they not good to look at?"
And as he moved away, the ex-soldier gaped after him with a
repeated whisper of:
To which presently he added in a louder, as well as a mysterious,
"I have heard that occasionally they send fever patients hither
for their health."
The same evening saw two sturdy women arrive with supper for the
carpenters; whereupon the clatter of labour ceased, and therefore
the rustling of the forest and the murmuring of the rivulet
became the more distinct.
Next, deliberately, and with many coughs, the ex-soldier set to
work to collect some twigs and chips for the purpose of lighting
a fire. After which, having arranged a kettle over the flames, he
said to me suggestively:
"You too should collect some firewood, for in these parts the
nights are dark and chilly."
I set forth in search of chips among the stones which lay around
the barraque, and, in so doing, stumbled across the newcomer, who
was lying with his body resting on an elbow, and his head on his
hand, as he conned a manuscript spread out before him. As he
raised his eyes to gaze vaguely, inquiringly into my face, I saw
that one of his eyes was larger than the other.
Evidently he divined that he interested me, for he smiled. Yet so
taken aback by this was I, that I passed on my way without
Meanwhile the carpenters, disposed in two circles around the
barraque (a circle to each woman), partook of a silent supper.
Deeper and deeper grew the shadow of night over the defile.
Warmer and warmer, denser and denser, grew the air, until the
twilight caused the slopes of the mountains to soften in outline,
and the rocks to seem to swell and merge with the bluish-
blackness which overhung the bed of the defile, and the
superimposed heights to form a single apparent whole, and the
scene in general to resolve itself into, become united into, one
Quietly then did tints hitherto red extinguish their tremulous
glow--softly there flared up, dusted purple in the sunset's sheen,
the peak of Kara Dagh. Vice versa, the foam of the rivulet now
blushed to red, and, seemingly, assuaged its vehemence--flowed
with a deeper, a more pensive, note; while similarly the forest
hushed its voice, and appeared to stoop towards the water while
emitting ever more powerful, intoxicating odours to mingle with
the resinous, cloyingly sweet perfume of our wood fire.
The ex-soldier squatted down before the little blaze, and
rearranged some fuel under the kettle.
"Where is the other man?" said he. "Go and fetch him."
I departed for the purpose, and, on my way, heard one of the
carpenters in the neighbourhood of the barraque say in a thick,
unctuous, sing-song voice.
"A great work is it indeed!"
Whereafter I heard the two women fall to drawling in low, hungry
"With the flesh I'll conquer pain;
The spirit shall my lust restrain;
All-supreme the soul shall reign;
And carnal vices lure in vain."
True, the women pronounced their words distinctly enough; yet
always they prolonged the final "u" sound of the stanza's first
and third lines until, as the melody floated away into the
darkness, and, as it were, sank to earth, it came to resemble the
long-drawn howl of a wolf.
In answer to my invitation to come to supper, the newcomer sprang
to his feet, folded up his manuscript, stuffed it into one of the
pockets of his ragged coat, and said with a smile:
"I had just been going to resort to the carpenters, for they
would have given us some bread, I suppose? Long is it since I
The same words he repeated on our approaching the ex-soldier;
much as though he took a pleasure in their phraseology.
"You suppose that they would have given us bread?" echoed the ex-
soldier as he unfastened his wallet. "Not they! No love is lost
between them and ourselves."
"Whom do you mean by 'ourselves'?"
"Us here--you and myself--all Russian folk who may happen to be in
these parts. From the way in which those fellows keep singing
about palms, I should judge them to be sectarians of the sort
"Or Molokans, rather?" the other man suggested as he seated
himself in front of the fire.
"Yes, or Molokans. Molokans or Mennonites-- they're all one. It is
a German faith and though such fellows love a Teuton, they do not
exactly welcome US."
Upon this the man with the Cossack forelock took a slice of bread
which the ex-soldier cut from a loaf, with an onion and a pinch
of salt. Then, as he regarded us with a pair of good-humoured
eyes, he said, balancing his food on the palms of his hands:
"There is a spot on the Sunzha, near here, where those fellows
have a colony of their own. Yes, I myself have visited it. True,
those fellows are hard enough, but at the same time to speak
plainly, NO ONE in these parts has any regard for us since only
too many of the sort of Russian folk who come here in search of
work are not overly-desirable."
"Where do you yourself come from?" The ex-soldier's tone was
"From Kursk, we might say."
"From Russia, then?"
"Yes, I suppose so. But I have no great opinion even of myself."
The ex-soldier glanced distrustfully at the newcomer. Then he
"What you say is cant, sheer Jesuitism. It is fellows like
THOSE, rather, that ought to have a poor opinion of themselves."
To this the other made no reply--merely he put a piece of bread
into his mouth. For a moment or two the ex-soldier eyed him
frowningly. Then he continued:
"You seem to me to be a native of the Don country? "
"Yes, I have lived on the Don as well."
"And also served in the army?"
"No. I was an only son."
"Of a miestchanin? " [A member of the small commercial class.]
"No, of a merchant."
"And your name--?"
The last reply came only after a pause, and reluctantly;
wherefore, perceiving that the Kurskan had no particular desire
to discuss his own affairs, the ex-soldier said no more on the
subject, but lifted the kettle from the fire.
The Molokans also had kindled a blaze behind the corner of the
barraque, and now its glow was licking the yellow boards of the
structure until they seemed almost to be liquescent, to be about
to dissolve and flow over the ground in a golden stream.
Presently, as their fervour increased, the carpenters, invisible
amid the obscurity, fell to singing hymns--the basses intoning
monotonously, " Sing, thou Holy Angel! " and voices of higher
pitch responding, coldly and formally.
Sing glory unto Christ, thou Angel of Holiness!
Our singing will we add unto Thine,
Thou Angel of Holiness!"
And though the chorus failed altogether to dull the splashing of
the rivulet and the babbling of the by-cut over a bed of stones,
it seemed out of place in this particular spot;it aroused
resentment against men who could not think of a lay more atune
with the particular living, breathing objects around us.
Gradually darkness enveloped the defile until only over the mouth
of the pass, over the spot where, gleaming a brilliant blue, the
rivulet escaped into a cleft that was overhung with a mist of a
deeper shade, was there not yet suspended the curtain of the
Presently, the gloom caused one of the rocks in our vicinity to
assume the guise of a monk who, kneeling in prayer, had his head
adorned with a pointed skull-cap, and his face buried in his
hands. Similarly, the stems of the trees stirred in the firelight
until they developed the semblance of a file of friars entering,
for early Mass, the porch of their chapel-of-ease.
To my mind there then recurred a certain occasion when, on just
such a dark and sultry night as this, I had been seated tale-
telling under the boundary-wall of a row of monastic cells in the
Don country. Suddenly I had heard a window above my head open,
and someone exclaim in a kindly, youthful voice:
"The Mother of God be blessed for all this goodly world of ours!"
And though the window had closed again before I had had time to
discern the speaker, I had known that there was resident in the
monastery a friar who had large eyes, and a limp, and just such a
face as had Vasili here; wherefore, in all probability it had been
he who had breathed the benediction upon mankind
at large, for the reason that moments there are when all humanity
seems to be one's own body, and in oneself there seems to beat
the heart of all humanity. . . .
Vasili consumed his food deliberately as, breaking off morsels
from his slice, and neatly parting his moustache, he placed the
morsels in his mouth with a curious stirring of two globules
which underlay the skin near the ears.
The ex-soldier, however, merely nibbled at his food--he ate but
little, and that lazily. Then he extracted a pipe from his breast
pocket, filled it with tobacco, lit it with a faggot taken from
the fire, and said as he set himself to listen to the singing of
"They are filled full, and have started bleating. Always folk
like them seek to be on the right side of the Almighty."
"Does that hurt you in any way?" Vasili asked with a smile.
"No, but I do not respect them--they are less saints than
humbugs, than prevaricators whose first word is God, and second
"How do you know that?" cried Vasili amusedly. "And even if
their first word IS God, and their second word rouble, we had
best not be too hard upon them, since if they chose to be hard
upon US, where should WE be? Yes, we have only to open our mouths
to speak a word or two for ourselves, and we should find every
fist at our teeth."
" Quite so," the ex-soldier agreed as, taking up a square of
scantling, he examined it attentively.
"Whom DO you respect?" Vasili continued after a pause.
"I respect," the ex-soldier said with some emphasis, "only the
Russian people, the true Russian people, the folk who labour on
land whereon labour is hard. Yet who are the folk whom you find
HERE? In this part of the world the business of living is an easy
one. Much of every sort of natural produce is to be had, and the
soil is generous and light--you need but to scratch it for it to
bear, and for yourself to reap. Yes, it is indulgent to a fault.
Rather, it is like a maiden. Do but touch her, and a child will
"Agreed," was Vasili's remark as he drank tea from a tin mug.
"Yet to this very part of the world is it that I should like to
transport every soul in Russia."
"Because here they could earn a living."
"Then is not that possible in Russia? "
"Well, why are you yourself here?"
"Because I am a man lacking ties."
"And why are you lacking ties?"
"Because it has been so ordered--it is, so to speak, my lot."
"Then had you not better consider WHY it is your lot?"
The ex-soldier took his pipe from his mouth, let fall the hand
which held it, and smoothed his plain features in silent
amazement. Then he exclaimed in uncouth, querulous tones:
"Had I not better consider WHY it is my lot, and so forth? Why,
damn it, the causes are many. For one thing, if one has
neighbours who neither live nor see things as oneself does, but
are uncongenial, what does one do? One just leaves them, and
clears out--more especially if one be neither a priest nor a
magistrate. Yet YOU say that I had better consider why this is my
lot. Do you think that YOU are the only man able to consider
things, possessed of a brain? "
And in an access of fury the speaker replaced his pipe, and sat
frowning in silence. Vasili eyed his interlocutor's features as
the firelight played red upon them, and, finally, said in an
"Yes, it is always so. We fail to get on with our neighbours,
yet lack a charter of our own, so, having no roots to hold us,
just fall to wandering, troubling other folk, and earning
"The dislike of whom?" gruffly queried the ex-soldier.
"The dislike of everyone, as you yourself have said!"
In answer the ex-soldier merely emitted a cloud of smoke which
completely concealed his form. Yet Vasili's voice had in it an
agreeable note, and was flexible and ingratiating, while
enunciating its words roundly and distinctly.
A mountain owl, one of those splendid brown creatures which have
the crafty physiognomy of a cat, and the sharp grey ears of a
mouse, made the forest echo with its obtrusive cry. A bird of
this species I once encountered among the defile's crags, and as
the creature sailed over my head it startled me with the glassy
eyes which, as round as buttons, seemed to be lit from within
with menacing fire. Indeed, for a moment or two I stood half-
stupefied with terror, for I could not conceive what the creature
"Whence did you get that splendid pipe?" next asked Vasili as
he rolled himself a cigarette. "Surely it is a pipe of old
"You need not fear that I stole it," the ex-soldier responded as
he removed it from his lips and regarded it proudly. "It was
given me by a woman."
To which, with a whimsical wink, he added a sigh.
"Tell me how it happened," said Vasili softly. Then he flung up
his arms, and stretched himself with a despondent cry of:
"Ah, these nights here! Never again may God send me such bad
ones! Try to sleep as one may, one never succeeds. Far easier,
indeed, is it to sleep during the daytime, provided that one can
find a shady spot. During such nights I go almost mad with
thinking, and my heart swells and murmurs."
The ex-soldier, who had listened with mouth agape and eyebrows
raised even higher than usual, responded to this:
"It is the same with me. If one could only--What did you say?"
This last was addressed to myself, who had been about to remark,
"The same with me also," but on seeing the pair exchanging a
strange glance (as though involuntarily they had surprised one
another), had left the words unspoken. My companions then set
themselves to a mutually eager questioning with respect to their
respective identities, past experiences, places of origin, and
destinations, even as though they had been two kinsmen who,
meeting unexpectedly, had discovered for the first time their
bond of relationship.
Meanwhile the black, fringed boughs of the pine trees hung
stretched over the flames of the Molokans' fire as though they
would catch some of the fire's glow and warmth, or seize it
altogether, and put it out. And when, at times, their red tongues
projected beyond the corner of the barraque, they made the
building look as though it had caught alight, and extended their
glow even to the rivulet. Constantly the night was growing denser
and more stifling; constantly it seemed to embrace the body more
and more caressingly, until one bathed in it as in an ocean.
Also, much as a wave removes dirt from the skin, so the softly
vocal darkness seemed to refresh and cleanse the soul. For it is
on such nights as that that the soul dons its finest raiment, and
trembles like a bride at the expectation of something glorious.
"You say that she had a squint?" presently I heard Vasili
continue in an undertone, and the ex-soldier slowly reply:
"Yes, she had one from childhood upwards--she had one from the
day when a fall from a cart caused her to injure her eyes. Yet,
if she had not always gone about with one of her eyes shaded, you
would never have guessed the fact. Also, she was so neat and
practical! And her kindness--well, it was kindness as
inexhaustible as the water of that rivulet there; it was kindness
of the sort that wished well to all the world, and to all
animals, and to every beggar, and even to myself! So at last
there gripped my heart the thought, 'Why should I not try a
soldier's luck? She is the master's favourite--true; yet none the
less the attempt shall be made by me.' However, this way or that,
always the reply was 'No'; always she put out at me an elbow, and
cut me short."
Vasili, lying prone upon his back, twitched his moustache, and
chewed a stalk of grass. His eyes were fully open, and for the
second time I perceived that one of them was larger than the
other. The ex-soldier, seated near Vasili's shoulder, stirred the
fire with a bit of charred stick, and sent sparks of gold flying
to join the midges which were gliding to and fro over the blaze.
Ever and anon night-moths subsided into the flames with a plop,
crackled, and became changed into lumps of black. For my own
part, I constructed a couch on a pile of pine boughs, and there
lay down. And as I listened to the ex-soldier's familiar story, I
recalled persons whom I had on one and another occasion
remembered, and speeches which on one and another occasion had
made an impression upon me.
"But at last," the ex-soldier continued, "I took heart of
grace, and caught her in a barn. Pressing her into a corner, I
said: 'Now let it be yes or no. Of, course it shall be as you
wish, but remember that I am a soldier with a small stock of
patience.' Upon that she began to struggle and exclaim: 'What do
you want? What do you want?' until, bursting into tears like a
girl, she said through her sobs: 'Do not touch me. I am not the
sort of woman for you. Besides, I love another--not our master,
but another, a workman, a former lodger of ours. Before he
departed he said to me: "Wait for me until I have found you a
nice home, and returned to fetch you"; and though it is
seventeen years since I heard speech or whisper of him, and maybe
he has since forgotten me, or fallen in love with someone else,
or come to grief, or been murdered, you, who are a map, will
understand that I must bide a little while longer.' True, this
offended me (for in what respect was I any worse than the other
man?); yet also I felt sorry for her, and grieved that I should
have wronged her by thinking her frivolous, when all the time
there had been THIS at her heart. I drew back, therefore--I could
not lay a finger upon her, though she was in my power. And at
last I said: 'Good-bye! I am going away.' 'Go,' she replied.
'Yes, go for the love of Christ!' . . . Wherefore, on the
following evening I settled accounts with our master, and at dawn
of a Sunday morning packed my wallet, took with me this pipe, and
departed. 'Yes, take the pipe, Paul Ivanovitch,' she said before
my departure. 'Perhaps it will serve to keep you in remembrance
of me--you whom henceforth I shall regard as a brother, and whom I
thank.' . . . As I walked away I was very nigh to tears, so keen
was the pain in my heart. Aye, keen it was indeed! "
"You did right," Vasili remarked softly after a pause.
"Things must always so befall. Always must it be a case either
of 'Yes?' 'Yes,' and of folk coming together, or of 'No' 'No,'
and of folk parting. And invariably the one person in the case
grieves the other. Why should that be?"
Emitting a cloud of grey smoke, the ex-soldier replied
"Yes, I know I did right; but that right was done only at a
"And always that too is the case," Vasili agreed. Then he added:
"Generally such fortune falls to the lot of people who have
tender consciences. He who values himself also values his
fellows; but, unfortunately a man all too seldom values even
"To whom are you referring? To you and myself?"
"To our Russian folk in general."
"Then you cannot have very much respect for Russia." The ex-
soldier's tone had taken on a curious note. He seemed to be
feeling both astonished at and grieved for his companion.
The other, however, did not reply; and after a few moments the
ex-soldier softly concluded:
"So now you have heard my story."
By this time the carpenters had ceased singing around the
barraque, and let their fire die down until quivering on the wall
of the edifice there was only a fiery-red patch, a patch barely
sufficient to render visible the shadows of the rocks; while
beside the fire there was seated only a tall figure with a black
beard which had, grasped in its hands, a heavy cudgel, and, lying
near its right foot, an axe. The figure was that of a watchman
set by the carpenters to keep an eye upon ourselves, the
appointed watchmen; though the fact in no way offended us.
Over the defile, in a ragged strip of sky, there were gleaming
stars, while the rivulet was bubbling and purling, and from the
obscurity of the forest there kept coming to our ears, now the
cautious, rustling tread of some night animal, and now the
mournful cry of an owl, until all nature seemed to be instinct
with a secret vitality the sweet breath of which kept moving the
heart to hunger insatiably for the beautiful.
Also, as I lay listening to the voice of the ex-soldier, a voice
reminiscent of a distant tambourine, and to Vasili's pensive
questions, I conceived a liking for the men, and began to detect
that in their relations there was dawning something good and
human. At the same time, the effect of some of Vasili's dicta on
Russia was to arouse in me mingled feelings which impelled me at
once to argue with him and to induce him to speak at greater
length, with more clarity, on the subject of our mutual
fatherland. Hence always I have loved that night for the visions
which it brought to me--visions which still come back to me like a
dear, familiar tale.
I thought of a student of Kazan whom I had known in the days of
the past, of a young fellow from Viatka who, pale-browed, and
sententious of diction, might almost have been brother to the ex-
soldier himself. And once again I heard him declare that "before
all things must I learn whether or not there exists a God; pre-
eminently must I make a beginning there."
And I thought, too, of a certain accoucheuse named Velikova who
had been a comely, but reputedly gay, woman. And I remembered a
certain occasion when, on a hill overlooking the river Kazan and
the Arski Plain, she had stood contemplating the marshes below,
and the far blue line of the Volga; until suddenly turning pale,
she had, with tears of joy sparkling in her fine eyes, cried
under her breath, but sufficiently loudly for all present to hear
"Ah, friends, how gracious and how fair is this land of ours!
Come, let us salute that land for having deemed us worthy of
Whereupon all present, including a deacon-student from the
Ecclesiastical School, a Morduine from the Foreign College, a
student of veterinary science, and two of our tutors, had done
obeisance. At the same time I recalled the fact that subsequently
one of the party had gone mad, and committed suicide.
Again, I recalled how once, on the Piani Bor [Liquor Wharf] by
the river Kama, a tall, sandy young fellow with intelligent eyes
and the face of a ne'er-do-well had caught my attention. The day
had been a hot, languorous Sunday on which all things had seemed
to be exhibiting their better side, and telling the sun that it
was not in vain that he was pouring out his brilliant potency,
and diffusing his living gold; while the man of whom I speak had,
dressed in a new suit of blue serge, a new cap cocked awry, and a
pair of brilliantly polished boots, been standing at the edge of
the wharf, and gazing at the brown waters of the Kama, the
emerald expanse beyond them and the silver-scaled pools left
behind by the tide. Until, as the sun had begun to sink towards
the marshes on the other side of the river, and to become
dissolved into streaks, the man had smiled with increasing
rapture, and his face had glowed with creasing eagerness and
delight; until finally he had snatched the cap from his head,
flung it, with a powerful throw far out into the russet waters,
and shouted: "Kama, O my mother, I love you, and never will
And the last, and also the best, recollection of things seen
before the night of which I speak was the recollection of an
occasion when, one late autumn, I had been crossing the Caspian
Sea on an old two-masted schooner laden with dried apricots,
plums, and peaches. Sailing on her also she had had some hundred
fishermen from the Bozhi Factory, men who, originally forest
peasants of the Upper Volga, had been well-built, bearded,
healthy, goodhumoured, animal-spirited young fellows, youngsters
tanned with the wind, and salted with the sea water; youngsters
who, after working hard at their trade, had been rejoicing at the
prospect of returning home. And careering about the deck like
youthful bears as ever and anon lofty, sharp-pointed waves had
seized and tossed aloft the schooner, and the yards had cracked,
and the taut-run rigging had whistled, and the sails had bellied
into globes, and the howling wind had shaved off the white crests
of billows, and partially submerged the vessel in clouds of foam.
And seated on the deck with his broad back resting against the
mainmast there had been one young giant in particular. Clad in a
white linen shirt and a pair of blue serge trousers, and innocent
alike of beard and moustache, this young fellow had had full, red
lips, blue, boyish, and exceedingly translucent eyes, and a face
intoxicated in excelsis with the happiness of youth; while
leaning across his knees as they had rested sprawling over the
deck there had been a young female trimmer of fish, a wench as
massive and tall as the young man himself, and a wench whose face
had become tanned to roughness with the sun and wind, eyebrows
dark, full, and as large as the wings of a swallow, breasts as
firm as stone, and teats around which, as they projected from the
folds of a red bodice, there had lain a pattern of blue veins.
The broad, iron-black palm of the young fellow's long, knotted
hand had been resting on the woman's left breast, with the arm
bare to the elbow; while in his right hand, as he had sat gazing
pensively at the woman's robust figure, there had been grasped a
tin mug from which some of the red liquor had scattered stains
over the front of his linen shirt.
Meanwhile, around the pair there had been hovering some of the
youngster's comrades, who, with coats buttoned to the throat, and
caps gripped to prevent their being blown away by the wind, had
employed themselves with scanning the woman's figure with envious
eyes, and viewing her from either side. Nay, the shaggy green
waves themselves had been stealing occasional glimpses at the
picture as clouds had swirled across the sky, gulls had uttered
their insatiable scream, and the sun, dancing on the foam-flecked
waters, had vested the billows, now in tints of blue, now in
natural tints as of flaming jewels.
In short, all the passengers on the schooner had been shouting
and laughing and singing, while the great bearded peasants had
also been paying assiduous court to a large leathern bottle which
had lain ensconced on a heap of peach-sacks, with the result that
the scene had come to have about it something of the antique,
legendary air of the return of Stepan Razin from his Persian
At length the buffeting of the wind had caused an old man with a
crooked nose set on a hairy, faun-like face to stumble over one
of the woman's feet; whereupon he had halted, thrown up his head
with nonsenile vigour, and exclaimed:
"May the devil fly away with you, you shameless hussy! Why lie
sprawling about the deck like this? See, too, how exposed you
The woman had not stirred at the words--she had not even opened an
eye; only over her lips there had passed a faint tremor. Whereas
the young fellow had straightened himself, deposited his tin mug
upon the deck, and cried loudly as he laid his disengaged hand
upon the woman's breast.
"Ah, you envy me, do you, Yakim Petrov? Never mind, though you
have done no great harm. But run no risks; do not look for
needless trouble, for your day for sucking sugarplums is past."
Whereafter, raising both his hands, the young fellow had softly
let them sink again upon the woman's bosom as he added
"These breasts could feed all Russia! "
Then, and only then, had the woman smiled a long, slow smile. And
as she had done so everything in the vicinity had seemed to smile
in unison, and to rise and fall in harmony with her bosom--yes,
the whole vessel, and the vessel's freight. And at the moment
when a particularly large wave had struck the bulwarks, and
besprinkled all on board with spray, the woman had opened her
dark eyes, looked kindly at the old man, and at the young fellow,
and at the scene in general--then set herself to recover her
"Nay," the young fellow had cried as he interposed to remove her
hands. "There is no need for that, there is no need for that.
Let them ALL look."
Such the memories that came back to my recollection that night.
Gladly I would have recounted them to my companions, but,
unfortunately, these had, by now, succumbed to slumber. The ex-
soldier, resting in a sitting posture, and snoring loudly, had
his back prised against his wallet, his head sloped sideways, and
his hands clasped upon his knees, while Vasili was lying on his
back with his face turned upwards, his hands clasped behind his
head, his dark, finely moulded brows raised a little, and his
moustache erect. Also, he was weeping in his sleep--tears were
coursing down his brown, sunburnt cheeks; tears which, in the
moonlight, had in them something of the greenish tint of a
chrysolite or sea water, and which, on such a manly face, looked
Still the rivulet was purling as it flowed, and the fire
crackling; while bathed in the red glow of the flames there was
sitting, bent forward, the dark, stonelike figure of the
Molokans' watchman, with the axe at his feet reflecting the
radiant gleam of the moon in the sky above us.
All the earth seemed to be sleeping as ever the waning stars
seemed to draw nearer and nearer. . . .
The slow length of the next day was dragged along amid an inertia
born of the moist heat, the song of the river, and the
intoxicating scents of forest and flowers. In short, one felt