My Fellow-Traveller

by Maxim Gorky

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Chapter V

p>At Feodosia we were sorely disappointed. All work there was already apportioned among Turks, Greeks, Georgians, tramps, and Russian peasants from Poltava and Smolensk, who had all arrived before us. Already, more than four hundred men had, like ourselves, come in the hopes of finding employment; and were also, like ourselves, destined to remain silent spectators of the busy work going on in the port.

In the town, and outside also, we met groups of famished peasants, gray and careworn, wandering miserably about. Of tramps there were also plenty, roving around like hungry wolves.

At first these tramps took us for famished peasants, and tried to make what they could out of us. They tore from Shakro's back the overcoat which I had bought him, and they snatched my knapsack from my shoulders. After several discussions, they recognized our intellectual and social kinship with them; and they returned all our belongings. Tramps are men of honor, though they may be great rogues.

Seeing that there was no work for us, and that the construction of the harbor was going on very well without our help, we moved on resentfully toward Kertch.

My friend kept his word, and never again molested me; but he was terribly famished, his countenance was as black as thunder. He ground his teeth together, as does a wolf, whenever he saw someone else eating; and he terrified me by the marvellous accounts of the quantity of food he was prepared to consume. Of late he had begun to talk about women, at first only casually, with sighs of regret. But by degrees he came to talk more and more often on the subject, with the lascivious smile of "an Oriental." At length his state became such, that he could not see any person of the other sex, whatever her age or appearance, without letting fall some obscene remark about her looks or her figure.

He spoke of women so freely, with so wide a knowledge of the sex; and his point of view, when discussing women, was so astoundingly direct, that his conversation filled me with disgust. Once I tried to prove to him that a woman was a being in no way inferior to him. I saw that he was not merely mortified by my words, but was on the point of violently resenting them as a personal insult. So I postponed my arguments till such time as Shakro should be well fed once more.

In order to shorten our road to Kertch we left the coast, and tramped across the steppes. There was nothing in my knapsack but a three-pound loaf of barley bread, which we had bought of a Tartar with our last five-kopeck piece. Owing to this painful circumstance, when, at last we reached Kertch, we could hardly move our legs, so seeking therefore work was out of the question. Shakro's attempts to beg by the way had proved unsuccessful; everywhere he had received the curt refusal: "There are so many of you."

This was only too true, for the number of people, who, during that bitter year, were in want of bread, was appalling. The famished peasants roamed about the country in groups, from three to twenty or more together. Some carried babies in their arms; some had young children dragging by the hand. The children looked almost transparent, with a bluish skin, under which flowed, instead of pure blood, some sort of thick unwholesome fluid. The way their small sharp bones projected from under the wasted flesh spoke more eloquently than could any words. The sight of them made one's heart ache, while a constant intolerable pain seemed to gnaw one's very soul.

These hungry, naked, worn-out children did not even cry. But they looked about them with sharp eyes that flashed greedily whenever they saw a garden, or a field, from which the corn had not yet been carried. Then they would glance sadly at their elders, as if asking "Why was I brought into this world?"

Sometimes they had a cart driven by a dried-up skeleton of an old woman, and full of children, whose little heads peeped out, gazing with mournful eyes in expressive silence at the new land into which they had been brought. The rough, bony horse dragged itself along, shaking its head and its tumbled mane wearily from side to side.

Following the cart, or clustering round it, came the grown-up people, with heads sunk low on their breasts, and arms hanging helplessly at their sides. Their dim, vacant eyes had not even the feverish glitter of hunger, but were full of an indescribable, impressive mournfulness. Cast out of their homes by misfortune, these processions of peasants moved silently, slowly, stealthily through the strange land, as if afraid that their presence might disturb the peace of the more fortunate inhabitants. Many and many a time we came across these processions, and every time they reminded me of a funeral without the corpse.

Sometimes, when they overtook us, or when we passed them, they would timidly and quietly ask us: "Is it much farther to the village?" And when we answered, they would sigh, and gaze dumbly at us. My travelling companion hated these irrepressible rivals for charity.

In spite of all the difficulties of the journey, and the scantiness of our food, Shakro, with his rich vitality, could not acquire the lean, hungry look, of which the starving peasants could boast in its fullest perfection. Whenever he caught sight, in the distance, of these latter, he would exclaim: "Pouh! pouh! pouh. Here they are again! What are they roaming about for? They seem to be always on the move! Is Russia too small for them? I can't understand what they want! Russians are a stupid sort of people!"

When I had explained to him the reason of the "stupid" Russians coming to the Crimea, he shook his head incredulously, and remarked: "I don't understand! It's nonsense! We never have such 'stupid' things happening in Georgia!"

We arrived in Kertch, as I have said, exhausted and hungry. It was late. We had to spend the night under a bridge, which joined the harbor to the mainland. We thought it better to conceal ourselves, as we had been told that just before our arrival all the tramps had been driven out of the town. This made us feel anxious, lest we might fall into the hands of the police; besides Shakro had only a false passport, and if that fact became known, it might lead to serious complications in our future.

All night long the spray from the sea splashed over us. At dawn we left our hiding place, wet to the skin and bitterly cold. All day we wandered about the shore. All we succeeded in earning was a silver piece of the value of ten kopecks, which was given me by the wife of a priest, in return for helping her to carry home a bag of melons from the bazaar.

A narrow belt of water divided us from Taman, where we meant to go, but not one boatman would consent to carry us over in his boat, in spite of my pleadings. Everyone here was up in arms against the tramps, who, shortly before our arrival, had performed a series of heroic exploits; and we were looked upon, with good reason, as belonging to their set.

Evening came on. I felt angry with the whole world, for my lack of success; and I planned a somewhat risky scheme, which I put into execution as soon as night came on.


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