We were tramping now through the district of Terek. Shakro was indescribably ragged and dishevelled. He was surly as the devil, though he had plenty of food now, for it was easy to find work in these parts. He himself was not good at any kind of work.
Once he got a small job on a thrashing machine; his duty was to push aside the straw, as it left the machine; but after working half a day he left off, as the palms of his hands were blistered and sore. Another time he started off with me and some other workmen to root up trees, but he grazed his neck with a mattock.
We got on with our journey very slowly; we worked two days, and walked on the third day. Shakro ate all he could get hold of, and his gluttony prevented me from saving enough money to buy him new clothes. His ragged clothes were patched in the most fantastic way with pieces of various colors and sizes. I tried to persuade him to keep away from the beer houses in the villages, and to give up drinking his favorite wines; but he paid no heed to my words.
With great difficulty I had, unknown to him, saved up five roubles, to buy him some new clothes. One day, when we were stopping in some village, he stole the money from my knapsack, and came in the evening, in a tipsy state, to the garden where I was working. He brought with him a fat country wench, who greeted me with the following words: "Good-day, you damned heretic!"
Astonished at this epithet, I asked her why she called me a heretic. She answered boldly: "Because you forbid a young man to love women, you devil. How can you forbid what is allowed by law? Damn you, you devil!"
Shakro stood beside her, nodding his head approvingly. He was very tipsy, and he rocked backward and forward unsteadily on his legs. His lower lip drooped helplessly. His dim eyes stared at me with vacant obstinacy.
"Come, what are you looking at us for? Give him his money?" shouted the undaunted woman.
"What money?" I exclaimed, astonished.
"Give it back at once; or I'll take you before the ataman! Return the hundred and fifty roubles, which you borrowed from him in Odessa!"
What was I to do? The drunken creature might really go and complain to the Ataman; the Atamans were always very severe on any kind of tramp, and he might arrest us. Heaven only knew what trouble my arrest might inflict, not only on myself, but on Shakro! There was nothing for it but to try and outwit the woman, which was not, of course, a difficult matter.
She was pacified after she had disposed of three bottles of vodka. She sank heavily to the ground, on a bed of melons, and fell asleep. Then I put Shakro to sleep also. Early next morning we turned our backs on the village, leaving the woman sound asleep among the melons.
After his bout of drunkenness, Shakro, looking far from well, and with a swollen, blotchy face, walked slowly along, every now and then spitting on one side, and sighing deeply. I tried to begin a conversation with him, but he did not respond. He shook his unkempt head, as does a tired horse.
It was a hot day; the air was full of heavy vapors, rising from the damp soil, where the thick, lush grass grew abundantly— almost as high as our heads. Around us, on all sides, stretched a motionless sea of velvety green grass.
The hot air was steeped in strong sappy perfumes, which made one's head swim.
To shorten our way, we took a narrow path, where numbers of small red snakes glided about, coiling up under our feet. On the horizon to our right, were ranges of cloudy summits flashing silvery in the sun. It was the mountain chain of the Daguestan Hills.
The stillness that reigned made one feel drowsy, and plunged one into a sort of dreamy state. Dark, heavy clouds, rolling up behind us, swept slowly across the heavens. They gathered at our backs, and the sky there grew dark, while in front of us it still showed clear, except for a few fleecy cloudlets, racing merrily across the open. But the gathering clouds grew darker and swifter. In the distance could be heard the rattle of thunder, and its angry rumbling came every moment nearer. Large drops of rain fell, pattering on the grass, with a sound like the clang of metal. There was no place where we could take shelter. It had grown dark. The patter of the rain on the grass was louder still, but it lad a frightened, timid sound. There was a clap of thunder, and the clouds shuddered in a blue flash of lightning. Again it was dark and the silvery chain of distant mountains was lost in the gloom. The rain now was falling in torrents, and one after another peals of thunder rumbled menacingly and incessantly over the vast steppe. The grass, beaten down by the wind and rain, lay flat on the ground, rustling faintly. Everything seemed quivering and troubled. Flashes of blinding lightning tore the storm clouds asunder.
The silvery, cold chain of the distant mountains sprang up in the blue flash and gleamed with blue light. When the lightning died away, the mountains vanished, as though flung back into an abyss of darkness. The air was filled with rumblings and vibrations, with sounds and echoes. The lowering, angry sky seemed purifying itself by fire, from the dust and the foulness which had risen toward it from the earth, and the earth, it seemed, was quaking in terror at its wrath. Shakro was shaking and whimpering like a scared dog. But I felt elated and lifted above commonplace life as I watched the mighty, gloomy spectacle of the storm on the steppe. This unearthly chaos enchanted me and exalted me to an heroic mood, filling my soul with its wild, fierce harmony.
And I longed to take part in it, and to express, in some way or other, the rapture that filled my heart to overflowing, in the presence of the mysterious force which scatters gloom, and gathering clouds. The blue light which lit up the sky seemed to gleam in my soul too; and how was I to express my passion and my ecstasy at the grandeur of nature? I sang aloud, at the top of my voice. The thunder roared, the lightning flashed, the grass whispered, while I sang and felt myself in close kinship with nature's music. I was delirious, and it was pardonable, for it harmed no one but myself. I was filled with the desire to absorb, as much as possible, the mighty, living beauty and force that was raging on the steppe; and to get closer to it. A tempest at sea, and a thunderstorm on the steppes! I know nothing grander in nature. And so I shouted to my heart's content, in the absolute belief that I troubled no one, nor placed any one in a position to criticize my action. But suddenly, I felt my legs seized, and I fell helpless into a pool of water.
Shakro was looking into my face with serious and wrathful eyes.
"Are you mad? Aren't you? No? Well, then, be quiet! Don't shout! I'll cut your throat! Do you understand?"
I was amazed, and I asked him first what harm I was doing him?
"Why, you're frightening me! It's thundering; God is speaking, and you bawl. What are you thinking about?"
I replied that I had a right to sing whenever I chose. Just as he had.
"But I don't want to!" he said.
"Well, don't sing then!" I assented.
"And don't you sing!" insisted Shakro.
"Yes, I mean to sing!"
"Stop! What are you thinking about?" he went on angrily. "Who are you? You have neither home nor father, nor mother; you have no relations, no land! Who are you? Are you anybody, do you suppose? It's I am somebody in the world! I have everything!"
He slapped his chest vehemently.
"I'm a prince, and you—you're nobody—nothing! You say—you're this and that! Who else says so? All Koutais and Tiflies know me! You shall not contradict me! Do you hear? Are you not my servant? I'll pay ten times over for all you have done for me. You shall obey me! You said yourself that God taught us to serve each other without seeking for a reward; but I'll reward you.
"Why will you annoy me, preaching to me, and frightening me? Do you want me to be like you? That's too bad!
You can't make me like yourself! Foo! Foo!"
He talked, smacked his lips, snuffled, and sighed. I stood staring at him, open-mouthed with astonishment. He was evidently pouring out now all the discontent, displeasure and disgust, which had been gathering up during the whole of our journey. To convince me more thoroughly, he poked me in the chest from time to time with his forefinger, and shook me by the shoulder. During the most impressive parts of his speech he pushed up against me with his whole massive body. The rain was pouring down on us, the thunder never ceased its muttering, and to make me hear, Shakro shouted at the top of his voice. The tragic comedy of my position struck me more vividly than ever, and I burst into a wild fit of laughter. Shakro turned away and spat./p>