"Well now, are you ready?" inquired Chelkash in a low voice of Gabriel, who was fumbling about with the oars.
"Wait a moment. The row-locks are all waggly. Can I ship oars for a bit?"
"No, no! Don't make a noise! Press down more firmly with your hands, and they'll fall into place of their own accord."
The pair of them were quietly making off with the skiff attached to the stern of one of a whole flotilla of sailing barques laden with batten rivets and large Turkish feluccas half unloaded and still half-filled with palm, sandal, and thick cypress-wood logs.
The night was dark, across the sky dense layers of ragged cloud were flitting, and the water was still, dark, and as thick as oil. It exhaled a moist, saline aroma, and murmured caressingly as it splashed against the sides of the ships and against the shore, and rocked the skiff of Chelkash to and fro. Stretching a long distance seawards from the shore, rose the dark hulls of many vessels, piercing the sky with their sharp masts which had variegated lanterns in their tops. The sea reflected the lights of these lanterns, and was covered with a mass of yellow patches. They twinkled prettily on its soft, faint-black, velvet bosom, heaving so calmly, so powerfully. The sea was sleeping the sleep of a strong and healthy labourer wearied to death by the day's work.
"Let's be off," said Gabriel, thrusting the oar into the water.
"Go!" Chelkash, with a powerful thrust of his hand, thrust the skiff right into the strip of water behind the barques. The skiff flew swiftly through the smooth water, and the water, beneath the stroke of the oars, burned with a bluish, phosphorescent radiance. A long ribbon of this radiance, faintly gleaming, tapered away from the keel of the skiff.
"Well, how's the head? Aching, eh?" inquired Chelkash jocosely.
"Frightfully. It hums like molten iron. I'll wash it with water presently."
"Why? What you want is something to go inside. Take a pull at that—that will soon put you all right," and he handed Gabriel a flask.
"Oh-ho! Lord bless you!"
A gentle gurgle was audible.
"How now? Feel glad, eh? Stop, that'll do!"
The skiff sped on again, lightly and noiselessly, turning and winding among the vessels. Suddenly it wrenched itself free from them, and the sea—the endless, mighty, glistening; sea—lay extended before them, receding into the blue distance, whence there arose out of its waters mountains of cloud of a dark lilac-blue, with yellowish downy fringes at the corners, and greenish clouds the colour of sea water, and those melancholy leaden clouds which cast abroad such heavy, oppressive shadows, crushing down mind and spirit. They crept so slowly away from one another, and now blending with, now pursuing one another, intermingled their shapes and colours, swallowing each other up and re-emerging in fresh shapes, magnificent and menacing.... And there was something mysterious in the gradual motion of these lifeless masses. There seemed to be an infinite host of them at the verge of the sea-shore, and it seemed as if they must always creep indifferently over the face of Heaven, with the sullen, evil aim of obliterating it, and never allowing it to shine down again upon the sleeping sea with its millions of golden eyes, the many-coloured living stars that sparkle so dreamily, awakening lofty desires in those to whom their pure and holy radiance is so precious.
"The sea's good, ain't it?" inquired Chelkash.
"Rubbish! it's horrible to me," replied Gabriel, as his oars struck the water vigorously and symmetrically. The water plashed and gurgled with a scarcely audible sound beneath the strokes of the long oars—splashing and splashing, and sparkling with its warm blue phosphorescent light.
"Horrible! do you say? Ugh, you fool!" exclaimed Chelkash contemptuously.
He, thief and cynic, loved the sea. His excitable, nervous nature, greedy of new impressions, was never tired of contemplating that dark expanse, limitless, free, and mighty. And it offended him to receive such an answer to his question as to the loveliness of the thing he loved. Sitting in the stern, he cut the water with his oar, and looked calmly in front of him, full of the desire to go long and far in that velvety smoothness.
On the sea there always arose within him a broad, warm feeling embracing his whole soul, and, for a time, purifying him from the filth of earthly life. This feeling he prized, and he loved to see himself better there, in the midst of the water and the air, where thoughts of life and life itself always lost first their keenness and then their value. At night on the sea can be heard the soft murmur of the sea's slumberous breathing, that incomprehensible sound which pours peace into the soul of man, and caressingly taming his evil impulses, awakes within him mighty musings....
"But where's the tackle, eh?" inquired Gabriel suddenly, looking uneasily about the boat.
Chelkash started violently.
"The tackle?—It is with me in the stern of the boat."
"What sort of tackle is that?" Gabriel again inquired, this time with suspicion in his voice.
"What tackle? Why, ground tackle and——"
But Chelkash felt ashamed to lie to this youngster while concealing his real project, and he regretted the thoughts and feelings which the question of this rustic had suddenly annihilated. He grew angry. A familiar, sharp, burning sensation in his breast and throat convulsed him, and he said to Gabriel with suppressed fury:
"Mind your own business, and don't thrust your nose into other folk's affairs. You are hired to row—so row. If your tongue wags again it will be the worse for you. Do you understand?"
For a moment the skiff rocked to and fro, and stood still. The oars remained in the water feathering it, and Gabriel moved uneasily on his bench.
Violent abuse shook the air. Gabriel grasped the oars. The skiff, as if terrified, fared along with quick, nervous jolts, noisily cutting through the water.
Chelkash rose a little from his seat in the stern, without letting go his oar, and fixed his cold eyes on the pale face and trembling lips of Gabriel. Bending forward with arched back he resembled a cat about to spring. Perfectly audible was the savage grinding of his teeth, and also a timorous clattering as if of bones.
"Who calls?" resounded a surly shout from the sea.
"Devil take it!—row, can't you? Quiet with the oars! I'll kill you, you hound! Row, I say! One, two! You dare to whisper, that's all!" whispered Chelkash.
"Mother of God! Holy Virgin!" whispered Gabriel, trembling and helpless with terror and over-exertion.
The skiff turned and went lightly back towards the haven, where the lights of the lanterns were jogging together in a parti-coloured group, and the shafts of the masts were visible.
"Hie! who was making that row?" the voice sounded again. This time it was further off than before. Chelkash felt easier.
"You're making all the row yourself, my friend!" he cried in the direction of the voice, and then he turned again to Gabriel, who was still muttering a prayer: "Well, my friend, you're in luck! If those devils had come after us there would have been an end of you! Do you hear? I'd have thrown you to the fishes in a twinkling!"
Now when Chelkash spoke calmly, and even good-naturedly, Gabriel trembled still more with terror and fell to beseeching.
"Listen! Let me go! For Christ's sake let me go! Land me somewhere—oh, oh, oh! I'm ruined altogether. Now, in the name of God, let me go! What am I to you? I'm not up to it. I'm not used to such things. It's the very first time. Oh, Lord! It's all up with me! How could you so deceive me, my friend? It is wilful of you. You have lost your soul. A pretty business."
"What business do you mean?" asked Chelkash surlily. "Ha! What business, eh?"
He was amused at the terror of the rustic, and he took a delight in Gabriel's terror, because it showed what a terrible fellow he, Chelkash, was.
"A dark business, my friend! Let me go, for God's sake. What harm have I done you?... Mercy...!"
"Silence! If you were of no use to me I would not have taken you. Do you understand?—And now be quiet!"
"Oh, Lord!" sighed the sobbing Gabriel.
"Come, come! Don't blubber!" Chelkash rounded on him sternly.
But Gabriel could no longer restrain himself, and sobbing softly, wept and snivelled and fidgeted on his seat, but rowed vigorously, desperately. The skiff sped along like a dart. Again the dark hulls of big vessels stood in their way, and the skiff lost itself among them, turning like a top in the narrow streaks of water between the vessels.
"Hie you! Listen! If anyone asks you anything, hold your tongue, if you want to remain alive! Do you understand?"
"Woe is me!" sighed Gabriel hopelessly in reply to the stern command, adding bitterly: "My accursed luck!"
"Now row!" said Chelkash in an intense curdling whisper.
At this whisper Gabriel lost all capacity for forming any ideas whatsoever, and became more dead than alive, benumbed by a cold presentiment of coming evil. He mechanically lowered his oars into the water, leaned back his uttermost, took a long pull, and set steadily to work again, gazing stolidly all the time at his bast shoes.
The sleepy murmur of the waves had now a sullen sound and became terrible. They were in the haven.... Behind its granite wall could be heard people's voices, the splashing of water, singing, and high-pitched whistling.
"Stop!" whispered Chelkash. "Ship oars! cling close to the wall! Hush, you devil!"
Gabriel, grasping the slippery stones with his hands, drew the skiff up alongside the wall. The skiff moved without any grating, its keel gliding noiselessly over the slimy seaweed growing on the stones.
"Stop! Give me the oars! Give them here! Where's your passport? In your knapsack? Hand over the knapsack! Come, look sharp! It will be a good hostage for your not bolting! You'll not bolt now, I know! Without the oars you might bolt somewhere, but without the passport you'd be afraid to. Wait, and look here, if you whine—to the bottom of the sea you go!"
And suddenly clinging to something with his hands, Chelkash rose in the air and disappeared over the wall.
Gabriel trembled.... It was done so smartly. He began to feel the cursed oppression and terror which he felt in the presence of that evil moustached thief, rolling, creeping off him. Now was the time to run!... With a sigh of relief he looked about him. To the left of him rose a black mastless hull, a sort of immense tomb, unpeopled and desolate. Every stroke of the billows against its side awoke within it a hollow, hollow echo, like a heavy sigh. To the right of him on the water, stretching right away, was the grey stony wall of the mole, like a cold and massive serpent. Behind, some black bodies were also visible, and in front, in the opening between the wall and the hull of the floating tomb, the sea was visible, dumb and dreary with black clouds all over it. Huge and heavy, they were moving slowly along, drawing their horror from the gloom and ready to stifle man beneath their heaviness. Everything was cold, black, and of evil omen. Gabriel felt terrified. This terror was worse than the terror inspired by Chelkash, it grasped the bosom of Gabriel in a strong embrace, made him collapse into a timid lump, and nailed him to the bench of the skiff.
And around him all was silent, not a sound save the sighing of the sea, and it seemed as if this silence were broken upon by something terrible, something insanely loud, by something which shook the sea to its very foundation, tore asunder the heavy flocks of clouds in the sky, and scattered over the wilderness of the sea all those heavy vessels. The clouds crept along the sky just as gradually and wearyingly as before; but more and more of them kept rising from the sea, and, looking at the sky, one might fancy that it also was a sea, but a sea in insurrection against and falling upon the other so slumberous, peaceful, and smooth. The clouds resembled billows pouring upon the earth with grey inwardly-curling crests; they resembled an abyss, from which these billows were torn forth by the wind; they resembled new-born breakers still covered with greenish foam of rage and frenzy.
Gabriel felt himself overwhelmed by this murky silence and beauty; he felt that he would like to see his master again soon. Why was he staying away there? The time passed slowly, more slowly even than the clouds crawling across the sky.... And the silence as time went on became more and more ominous. But now from behind the wall of the mole a splashing, a rustling, and something like a whispering became audible. It seemed to Gabriel as if he must die on the spot.
"Hie! Are you asleep? Catch hold!" sounded the hollow voice of Chelkash cautiously.
Something round and heavy was let down from the wall, Gabriel hauled it into the boat. Another similar thing was let down. Then across the wall stretched the long lean figure of Chelkash, then from somewhither appeared the oars, Gabriel's knapsack plumped down at his feet, and heavily breathing Chelkash was sitting in the stern.
Gabriel looked at him and smiled joyfully and timidly.
"Tired?" he asked.
"A bit, you calf! Come, take the oars and put your whole heart into it. A bit of work will do you no harm, my friend. The work's half done, now we've only got to swim a bit under their very noses, and then you shall have your money and go to your Polly. You have a Polly, haven't you? Eh, baby?"
Gabriel did his very utmost, working with a breast like shaggy fur and with arms like steel springs. The water foamed beneath the skiff, and the blue strip behind the stern now became broader. Gabriel was presently covered with sweat, but kept on rowing with all his might. Experiencing such terror twice in one night, he feared to experience it a third time, and only wished for one thing: to be quite out of this cursed work, land on terra firma, and run away from this man before he killed him downright, or got him locked up in jail. He resolved to hold no conversation with him, to contradict him in nothing, to do all he commanded, and if he were fortunate enough to break away from him, he vowed to offer up a prayer to St. Nicholas, the Wonder Worker, on the morrow. A passionate prayer was ready to pour from his breast.... But he controlled himself, panted like a steam-engine, and was silent, casting sidelong glances at Chelkash from time to time.
And Chelkash, long, lean, leaning forward and resembling a bird ready to take to flight, glared into the gloom in front of the boat with his vulture eyes, and moving his hooked beak from side to side, with one hand held the tiller firmly, while with the other he stroked his moustache, his features convulsed occasionally by the smiles that curled his thin lips. Chelkash was satisfied with his success, with himself, and with this rustic so terribly frightened by him, and now converted into his slave. He was enjoying in anticipation the spacious debauch of to-morrow, and now delighted in his power over this fresh young rustic impounded into his service. He saw how he was exerting himself, and he felt sorry for him, and wished to encourage him.
"Hie!" said he softly, with a smile, "got over your funk, eh?"
"It was nothing!" sighed Gabriel, squirming before him.
"You needn't lean so heavily on your oars now. Take it easy a bit We've only got one more place to pass. Rest a bit."
Gabriel stopped short obediently, wiped the sweat off his face with his shirt-sleeve, and again thrust the oars into the water.
"Row more gently. Don't let the water blab about you! We have only the gates to pass. Softly, softly! We've serious people to deal with here, my friend. They may take it into their heads to joke a bit with their rifles. They might saddle you with such a swelling on your forehead that you wouldn't even be able to sing out: oh!"
The skiff now crept along upon the water almost noiselessly. Only from the oars dripped blue drops and when they fell into the sea, tiny blue spots lingered for an instant on the place where they fell. The night grew even darker and stiller. The sky no longer resembled a sea in insurrection—the clouds had spread all over it and covered it with an even, heavy baldachin, drooping low and motionless over the sea. The sea grew still quieter, blacker, and exhaled a still stronger saline odour, nor did it seem so vast as heretofore.
"Ah! if only the rain would come!" whispered Chelkash, "it would be as good as a curtain for us."
Right and left of them some sort of edifice now rose out of the black water—barges, immovable, sinister, and as black as the water itself. On one of them a fire was twinkling, and someone was going about with a lantern. The sea, washing their sides, sounded supplicatory and muffled, and they responded in a shrill and cold echo, as if quarrelsome and refusing to concede anything to it.
"The cordons!" whispered Chelkash in a scarcely audible voice.
From the moment when he commanded Gabriel to row more gently, Gabriel was again dominated by a keen expectant tension. Onwards he kept, going through the gloom, and it seemed to him that he was growing—his bones and sinews were extending within him with a dull pain, his head, filled with a single thought, ached abominably, the skin on his back throbbed, and his feet were full of tiny, sharp, cold needles. His eyes were exhausted by gazing intently into the gloom, from which he expected to emerge every instant something which would cry to them with a hoarse voice: "Stop, thieves!"
Now, when Chelkash whispered, "The cordons!" Gabriel trembled, a keen burning thought ran through him, and settled upon his over-strained nerves—he wanted to shout and call to people to help him. He had already opened his mouth, and, rising a little in the skiff, stuck out his breast, drew in a large volume of air, and opened his mouth ... but suddenly, overcome by a feeling of terror which struck him like the lash of a whip, he closed his eyes and rolled off his bench.
In front of the skiff, far away on the horizon out of the black water, arose an enormous fiery-blue sword, cutting athwart the night, gliding edgewise over the clouds on the sky, and lying on the bosom of the sea in a broad blue strip. There it lay, and into the zone of its radiance there floated out of the dark the hitherto invisible black vessels, all silent and enshrouded in the thick night mists. It seemed as if they had lain for long at the bottom of the sea, drawn down thither by the mighty power of the tempest, and now behold! they had risen from thence at the command of the fiery sea-born sword, risen to look at the sky and at all above the water. Their tackle hugged the masts, and seemed to be ends of seaweed risen from the depths together with these black giants immeshed within them. And again this strange gleaming blue sword arose from the surface of the sea, again it cut the night in twain, and flung itself in another direction. And again where it lay the dark hulls of vessels, invisible before its manifestation, floated out of the darkness.
The skiff of Chelkash stood still and rocked to and fro on the water as if irresolute Gabriel lay at the bottom of it, covering his face with his hands, and Chelkash poked him with the oars and whispered furiously, but quietly:
"Fool! that's the custom-house cruiser. That is the electric lantern. Get up, you blockhead. The light will be thrown upon us in a moment. What the devil! you'll ruin me as well as yourself if you don't look out. Come!"
And at last when one of the blows with the sharp end of the oar caught Gabriel more violently than the others on the spine, he leaped up, still fearing to open his eyes, sat on the bench, blindly grasped the oars, and again set the boat in motion.
"Not so much noise! I'll kill you, I will! Not so much noise, I say. What a fool you are! Devil take you.... What are you afraid of? Now then, ugly! The lantern is a mirror—that's all! Softly with the oars, silly devil! They incline the mirror this way and that, and so light up the sea, in order that they may see whether folks like you and me, for instance, are sailing about anywhere. They do it to catch smugglers. They won't tackle us—they'll sail far away. Don't be afraid, clodhopper, they won't tackle us. Now we're clear...." Chelkash looked round triumphantly.... "At last we've sailed out of it! Phew! well you're lucky, blockhead!"
Gabriel kept silence, rowed and breathed heavily, still gazing furtively in the direction where that fiery sword kept on rising and falling. He could by no means believe Chelkash that it was only a lamp with a reflector. The cold blue gleam, cutting the darkness asunder and making the sea shine with a silvery radiance, had something incomprehensible in it, and Gabriel again fell into the hypnosis of anxious terror. And again a foreboding weighed heavily on his breast. He rowed like a machine, all huddled up, as if he expected a blow to come from above him; and not a desire, not a single feeling remained in him—he was empty and spiritless. The agitation of this night had at last gnawed out of him everything human.
But Chelkash triumphed once more, the whole thing was a complete success. His nerves, accustomed to excitement, were already placid again. His moustaches quivered with rapture, and a hungry little flame was burning in his eyes. He felt magnificent, whistled between his teeth, drew a deep inspiration of the moist air of the sea, glanced around, and smiled good-naturedly when his eyes rested on Gabriel.
A breeze arose and awoke the sea, which suddenly began heaving sportively. The clouds seemed to make themselves thinner and more transparent, but the whole sky was obscured by them. Despite the fact that the wind, though but a light breeze, played over the sea, the clouds remained motionless, as if lost in some grey, grizzling meditation.
"Come, friend, wake up! It's high time. Why, you look as if your soul had evaporated through your skin, and only a bag of bones remained. Dear friend, I say! We're pretty well at the end of this job, eh?"
It was pleasant to Gabriel, at any rate, to hear a human voice, even if the speaker were Chelkash.
"I hear," he said softly.
"Very well, thick-head. Come now, take the rudder, and I'll have a go at the oars. You seem tired. Come!"
Gabriel mechanically changed places. When Chelkash, in changing places with him, looked him in the face and observed that his tottering legs trembled beneath him, he was still sorrier for the lad. He patted him on the shoulder.
"Well, well, don't be frightened. You have worked right well. I'll richly reward you, my friend. What say you to a fiver, eh?"
"I want nothing. Put me ashore, that's all."
Chelkash waved his hand, spat a bit, and began rowing, flinging the oars far back with his long arms.
The sea was waking. It was playing with tiny billows, producing them, adorning them with a fringe of foam, bumping them together, and beating them into fine dust. The foam, in dissolving, hissed and spluttered—and everything around was full of a musical hubbub and splashing. The gloom seemed to have more life in it.
"Now, tell me," said Chelkash, "I suppose you'll be off to your village, marry, plough up the soil, and sow corn, your wife will bear you children, and there won't be food enough. Now, tell me, do you mean to go on working your heart out all your life long? Say! There's not very much fun in that now, is there?"
"Fun indeed!" said Gabriel timidly and tremulously.
Here and there the wind had penetrated the clouds, and between the gaps peeped forth little patches of blue sky, with one or two little stars in them. Reflected by the sportive sea, these little stars leaped up and down on the waters, now vanishing and now shining forth again.
"Move to the right," said Chelkash; "we shall soon be there now, I hope. It's over now. An important little job, too. Look now—it's like this, d'ye hear? In one single night I've grabbed half a thousand. What do you think of that, eh?"
"Half a thousand!" gasped Gabriel incredulously, but then terror again seized him, and kicking the bundle in the skiff, he asked quickly, "What sort of goods is this?"
"It's silk. Precious wares. If you sold all that at a fair price you would get a full thousand. But I'm not a shark! Smart, eh?"
"Ye-es!" gasped Gabriel. "If only it had been me," he sighed, all at once thinking of his village, and his poor household, his necessities, his mother, and everything belonging to his home so far away, for the sake of which he had gone to seek work—for the sake of which he had endured such torments this very night. A wave of reminiscence overwhelmed him, and he bethought him of his little village running down the steep slope of the hill, down to the stream hidden among the birches, silver willows, mountain-ashes, and wild cherry-trees. These reminiscences suffused him with a warm sort of feeling, and put some heart into him. "Ah! it's valuable, no doubt," he sighed.
"Well, it seems to me you'll very soon be by your iron pot at home. How the girls at home will cotton to you! You may pick and choose. No doubt your house is crazy enough just now.... well, I suppose we want a little money to build it up again, just a little, eh...?"
"That's true enough ... the house is in sore need—wood is so dear with us."
"Come now, how much? Old shanty wants repairing, eh? How about a horse? Got one?"
"A horse? Oh, yes, there is one ... but damned old."
"Well, you must have a horse, of course.... A jolly good 'un.... And a cow, I suppose ... some sheep ... fowls of different sorts, eh?"
"Don't speak of it! Ah! if it could be so! Ah! Lord! Lord! then life would be something like."
"Well, friend, life's a poor thing in itself.... I know something about it myself. I have my own little nest somewhere or other. My father was one of the richest in the village Chelkash rowed slowly. The skiff rocked upon the waves saucily splashing against her sides, scarcely moving upon the dark sea, and the sea sported ever more and more saucily. Two people were dreaming as they rocked upon the water, glancing pensively around them. Chelkash guided Gabriel's thoughts to his village, wishing to encourage him a little and soothe him. At first he spoke, smiling sceptically to himself all the time; but, presently, suggesting replies to his neighbour, and reminding him of the joys of a rustic life, as to which he himself had long been disillusioned, he forgot all about them, and remembered only the actual present, and wandered far away from his intention, so that instead of questioning the rustic about his village and its affairs, he insensibly fell to laying down the law to him on the subject.
"The chief thing in the life of the peasant, my friend, is liberty. You are your own master. You have your house—not worth a farthing, perhaps—but still it is your own. You have your land—a mere handful, no doubt—still it is yours. You have your own hives, your own eggs, your own apples. You are king on your own land! And then the regularity of it. Work calls you up in the morning—in spring one sort of work, in summer another sort of work, in autumn and in winter work again, but again of a different sort. Wherever you go, it is to your house that you always return—to warmth and quiet. You're a king, you see. Ain't it so?" concluded Chelkash enthusiastically, thus totting up the long category of rustic rights and privileges with the accompanying suggestion of corresponding obligations.
Gabriel looked at him curiously, and also felt enthusiastic. During this conversation he had managed to forget whom he was having dealings with, and saw before him just such a peasant-farmer as himself, chained for ages to the soil through many generations, bound to it by the recollections of childhood, voluntarily separated from it and from its cares, and bearing the just punishment of this separation.
"Ah, brother! true! Ah, how true! Look at yourself now. What are you now without the land? Ah! the land, my friend, is like a mother; not for long do you forget her."
Chelkash fell a musing. He began to feel once more that irritating, burning sensation in his breast, that sensation which arose whenever his pride—the pride of the tireless adventurer—was wounded by something, especially by something which had no value in his eyes.
"Silence!" he cried savagely, "no doubt you thought I meant all that seriously. Open your pouch a little wider."
"You're a funny sort of man," said Gabriel, suddenly grown timid again, "as if I were speaking of you. I suppose there are lots like you. Alas! what a lot of unhappy people there are in the world!... vagabonds who...."
"Sit down, blockhead, and row," commanded Chelkash curtly, bottling up within him, somehow or other, a whole stream of burning abuse gushing into his throat.
Again they changed places, and as they did so Chelkash, as he crawled into the stern across the packages, felt a burning desire to give Gabriel a kick that would send him flying into the water, and at the same time could not muster up sufficient strength to look him in the face.
The short dialogue broke off; but now a breath of rusticity was wafted to Chelkash from the very silence of Gabriel. He began to think of the past, forgot to steer the boat, which was turned to and fro by the surge, and drifted seawards. The waves seemed to understand that this skiff had lost its purpose, and pitching her higher and higher, began lightly playing with her, flashing their friendly blue fire beneath her oars. And visions of the past rose quickly before Chelkash—visions of the long distant past, separated from his present purpose by a whole barrier of eleven years of a vagabond life. He succeeded in recalling himself as a child; he saw before him his village, his mother, a red-cheeked, plump woman, with good grey eyes, his father, a red-bearded giant with a stern face. He saw himself a husband, he saw his wife, black-haired Anfisa, with a long pig-tail, full-bodied, gentle, merry ... again he beheld himself, a handsome beau, a soldier in the Guards; again he saw his father, grey-headed and crooked by labour, and his mother all wrinkled and inclining earthwards; he conjured up, too, a picture of the meeting in the village when he returned from service; he saw how proud of his Gregory his father was before the whole village, his broad-shouldered, vigorous, handsome soldier-son.... Memory, that scourge of the unlucky, revived the very stories of the past, and even distilled a few drops of honey into the proffered draught of venom—and all this, too, simply to crush a man with the consciousness of his mistakes, and make him love this past and deprive him of hope in the future.
Chelkash felt himself fanned by the peaceful, friendly breezes of his native air, conveying with them to his ear the friendly words of his mother and the solid speeches of his sturdy peasant-father, and many forgotten sounds, and the sappy smell of his mother-earth, now just thawed, now just ploughed up, and now covered by the emerald-green silk of the winter crops. And he felt himself cast aside, rejected, wretched, and lonely, plucked forth from and flung for ever away from that order of life in which the blood that flowed in his veins had worked its way upwards.
"Hie! whither are we going?" asked Gabriel suddenly.
Chelkash started, and looked around with the uneasy glance of a bird of prey.
"Ugh! The devil only knows! It doesn't matter ... come, a steadier stroke! We shall be ashore immediately."
"Meditating, eh?" inquired Gabriel with a smile.
Chelkash looked at him angrily. The youth had quite recovered himself; he was calm, merry, and, in a way, even triumphant. He was very young, he had the whole of life still before him. And he knew nothing. That was stupid. Perhaps it was the land that kept him back. When such thoughts flashed through the head of Chelkash, he became still surlier, and in reply to Gabriel's question he growled:
"I was tired ... and there was the rocking of the sea...."
"Yes, it does rock.... But now, suppose we are nabbed with that?" he asked, and he touched the parcels with his foot.
"No fear ... be easy! I'm going to hand them over immediately and get the money. Come!"
"Five hundred, eh?"
"Not much less, I should think."
"What a lot of money! If only it had come to a poor wretch like me! I'd have sung a pretty song with it."
"In clodhopper fashion, eh?"
"Nothing less. Why, I would straight off...."
And Gabriel was carried away on the wings of his imagination. Chelkash seemed depressed. His moustaches hung down, his right side, sprinkled by the waves, was wet, his eyes were sunken, and had lost their brilliance. He was very miserable and depressed. All that was predatory in his appearance seemed to have been steeped in a lowering melancholy, which even came to light in the folds of his dirty shirt.
"Tired, eh? and I'm so well.... You've over-done it...."
"We shall be there in a moment.... Look!... yonder!"
Chelkash turned the boat sharply round, and steered it in the direction of a black something emerging from the water.
The sky was once more all covered with clouds, and rain had begun to descend—a fine, warm rain pattering merrily down on the crests of the waves.
"Stop! slower!" commanded Chelkash.
The nose of the skiff bumped against the hull of a barque.
"Are the devils asleep," growled Chelkash, grasping with his boat-hook a rope dangling down the side of the ship.... "Why, the ladder's not let down! And it's raining, too! Why don't they look sharp! Hie! sluggards! hie!"
"Is that Chelkash?" murmured a friendly voice above them.
"Yes, let down the ladder."
"How goes it, Chelkash?"
"Let down the ladder, you devil!" roared Chelkash.
"Oh, he's waxy to-day, eh? There you are, then."
"Up you go, Gabriel," said Chelkash, turning to his companion.
In a moment they were on the deck, where three dark-bearded figures, jabbering vigorously together in a strange pricky sort of tongue, were looking over-board into Chelkash's skiff. The fourth, wrapped round in a long cloak, came to him and pressed his hand in silence, and then glanced suspiciously at Gabriel.
"Have the money ready by morning," said Chelkash curtly. "And now I'll have a little sleep. Come, Gabriel. Do you want anything to eat?"
"I should like to sleep," replied Gabriel, and in a few moments he was snoring in the dirty hold of the ship; but Chelkash, seated by his side, was fitting on some sort of boot to his foot, and meditatively spitting about him, fell to whistling angrily and moodily through his teeth. Then he stretched himself alongside Gabriel, and without taking off his boots, folded his arms beneath his head, and began concentrating his attention on the deck, twisting his moustaches the while.
The barque rocked slowly on the heaving water, now and then a plank gave forth a melancholy squeak, the rain fell softly on the deck, and the waves washed the sides of the vessel. It was all very mournful, and sounded like the cradle-song of a mother having no hope of the happiness of her son.
Chelkash, grinding his teeth, raised his head a little, looked around him ... and having whispered something, lay down again.... Stretching his legs wide, he resembled a large pair of shears.