By the time we had arrived at Kherson I knew something of my companion. He was a naively savage, exceedingly undeveloped young fellow; gay when he was well fed, dejected when he was hungry, like a strong, easy-tempered animal. On the road he gave me accounts of life in the Caucasus, and told me much about the landowners; about their amusements, and the way they treated the peasantry. His stories were interesting, and had a beauty of their own; but they produced on my mind a most unfavorable impression of the narrator himself.
To give one instance. There was at one time a rich prince, who had invited many friends to a feast. They partook freely of all kinds of Caucasian wines and meats, and after the feast the prince led his guests to his stables. They saddled the horses, the prince picked out the handsomest, and rode him into the fields. That was a fiery steed! The guests praised his form and paces. Once more the prince started to ride round the field, when at the same moment a peasant appeared, riding a splendid white horse, and overtook the prince—overtook him and laughed proudly! The prince was put to shame before his guests! He knit his brow, and beckoned the peasant to approach; then, with a blow of his dagger, he severed the man's head from his body. Drawing his pistol, he shot the white horse in the ear. He then delivered himself up to justice, and was condemned to penal servitude.
Through the whole story there rang a note of pity for the prince. I endeavored to make Shakro understand that his pity was misplaced. "There are not so many princes," he remarked didactically, "as there are peasants. It cannot be just to condemn a prince for a peasant. What, after all is a peasant? he is no better than this!" He took up a handful of soil, and added: "A prince is a star!"
We had a dispute over this question and he got angry. When angry, he showed his teeth like a wolf, and his features seemed to grow sharp and set.
"Maxime, you know nothing about life in the Caucasus; so you had better hold your tongue!" he shouted.
All my arguments were powerless to shatter his naive convictions. What was clear to me seemed absurd to him. My arguments never reached his brain; but if ever I did succeed in showing him that my opinions were weightier and of more value than his own, he would simply say:
"Then go and live in the Caucasus, and you will see that I am right. What every one does must be right. Why am I to believe what you say? You are the only one who says such things are wrong; while thousands say they are right!" Then I was silent, feeling that words were of no use in this case; only facts could confute a man, who believed that life, just as it is, is entirely just and lawful. I was silent, while he was triumphant, for he firmly believed that he knew life and considered his knowledge of it something unshakeable, stable and perfect. My silence seemed to him to give him a right to strike a fuller note in his stories of Caucasian life—a life full of so much wild beauty, so much fire and originality.
These stories, though full of interest and attraction for me, continued to provoke my indignation and disgust by their cruelty, by the worship of wealth and of strength which they displayed, and the absence of that morality which is said to be binding on all men alike.
Once I asked him if he knew what Christ had taught.
"Yes, of course I do!" he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
But after I had examined him on this point, it turned out that all he knew was, that there had once been a certain Christ, who protested against the laws of the Jews, and that for this protest he was crucified by the Jews. But being a God, he did not die on the cross, but ascended into heaven, and gave the world a new law.
"What law was that?" I inquired.
He glanced at me with ironical incredulity, and asked: "Are you a Christian? Well, so am I a Christian. Nearly all the people in the world are Christians. Well, why do you ask then? You know the way they all live; they follow the law of Christ!" I grew excited, and began eagerly to tell him about Christ's life. At first he listened attentively; but this attention did not last long, and he began to yawn.
I understood that it was useless appealing to his heart, and I once more addressed myself to his head, and talked to him of the advantages of mutual help and of knowledge, the benefits of obedience to the law, speaking of the policy of morality and nothing more.
"He who is strong is a law to himself! He has no need of learning; even blind, he'll find his way," Prince Shakro replied, languidly.
Yes, he was always true to himself. This made me feel a respect for him; but he was savage and cruel, and sometimes I felt a spark of hatred for Prince Shakro. Still, I had not lost all hope of finding some point of contact with him, some common ground on which we could meet, and understand one another.
I began to use simpler language with the prince, and tried to put myself mentally on a level with him. He noticed these attempts of mine, but evidently mistaking them for an acknowledgment on my part of his superiority, adopted a still more patronizing tone in talking to me. I suffered, as the conviction came home to me, that all my arguments were shattered against the stone wall of his conception of life.