Chums

by


Chums was retrieved from Tales from Gorky, third edition published in 1902.
An illustration for the story Chums by the author Maxim Gorky
Jean Duplessi-Bertaux, Old man with a wooden leg
An illustration for the story Chums by the author Maxim Gorky
Jean Duplessi-Bertaux, Old man with a wooden leg
An illustration for the story Chums by the author Maxim Gorky

I.

One of them was called Jig-Leg, and the other Hopeful, and they were thieves by profession.

They lived on the outskirts of the town, in the suburb that straggled strangely along the gully, in One of those crazy shanties compounded of clay and half-rotten wood—probably the rubbish sweepings chucked down the gully. The chums went a-thieving in the villages adjoining the town, for in the town itself it was difficult to thieve, and their neighbours in the suburb were not worth robbing.

Both of them were cautious, modest chaps—they were not above appropriating a piece of cloth, a peasant's coarse coat, or an axe, a bit of harness, a shirt, or a hen, and they always gave a very wide berth for a very long time to any village where they happened to "cop" anything. But despite such a sensible mode of procedure, the suburban muzhiks knew them very well, and occasionally threatened to beat them to death. But the muzhiks, so far, had never got their opportunity, and the bones of the two friends were still whole, though they had followed their profession and heard the threats of the muzhiks for quite six years.

Jig-Leg was a man of about forty years of age, tall, scraggy, haggard and muscular. He walked with his head bent earthwards, his long arms folded behind his back, with a leisurely but spacious stride, and, as he walked, he always glanced on every side of him with his restlessly keen and anxiously puckered-up eyes. The hair of his head he clipped short, his beard he shaved; his thick, dark-grey, military moustaches hid his mouth, giving to his face a sort of grim and savage expression. His left leg must have been twisted or broken, and had grown in such a way as to become longer than the right leg. When he raised it as he strode along, it used to leap into the air and make a sweep sideways, and to this peculiarity of his gait he owed his nickname.

Hopeful was five years younger than his comrade, not so tall, but broader in the shoulders. He frequently had a hollow cough, and his bony face, overgrown by a large black beard, streaked with grey, was a screen to his morbidly yellow complexion. His eyes were large and black, but they regarded everything amicably and deprecatingly. As he walked, he would press his thick lips together into the shape of a heart, and would softly whistle some song or other—a monotonous melancholy song, always one and the same. A short garment of parti-coloured rags, with some resemblance to a wadding pea-jacket, bobbed up and down on his shoulders; but Jig-Leg always went about in a long grey kaftan, girded with a belt.

Hopeful was a peasant's son, his companion the son of a sexton; he had been a lackey and a billiard-marker. They were always seen together, and the peasants used to say of them, "Here are the chums again ... look at them both. Ah, the devils! I wonder when they are going to croak."

The chums used to tramp along some village road, looking carefully about them, and avoiding any chance encounters. Hopeful would cough, and whistle his song; and the leg of his comrade would fling into the air, as if attempting to wrench itself loose, and bolt away from the dangerous path of its master. Or they would lie about somewhere on the outskirts of a wood, amongst the rye, or in a gully, and quietly discuss how to set about stealing in order that they might have something to eat.

II.

In winter even the wolves, who are far better adapted for the struggle for life than our two friends, even the wolves have a bad time of it. Empty, ravenous, and fierce, they even run about the high-ways, and though we kill them we fear them. They have claws and teeth for self-defence, and—the main thing—their hearts are softened by nothing. This last point is very important, for, in order to triumph in the struggle for existence, one ought to have much wisdom, or the heart of a beast.

In the winter the chums also fared ill. Often in the evening they both went out into the streets of the town and begged for alms, trying at the same time to escape the notice of the police. Very rarely did they succeed in stealing anything; it was inexpedient to go into the country because it was cold, and they left their traces in the snow; besides, it was fruitless to visit the villages when everything in them was closed and covered with snow. The comrades lost much strength in the winter in their struggle with hunger, and possibly there was nobody who awaited the spring as eagerly as they did.

And behold!—at last spring arrived. The comrades, sick and extenuated, emerged from their gully and looked joyously at the fields where the snow thawed more and more rapidly every day; dark-brown patches began to appear everywhere, the meadows sparkled like mirrors, and the streams fell a babbling. The sun poured down his unselfish favours upon the earth, and the two friends warmed themselves in his rays, calculating at the same time how soon the earth would get dry, and then they might go and take pot-shots at luck among the villages. Frequently Hopeful, who suffered from sleeplessness, would awake his friend in the early morning with a piece of joyous intelligence:

"Hie! get up! the rooks are flying by!"

"Flying by, eh?"

"Yes, listen to their cawing!"

Emerging from their wretched shanty, they watched the black heralds of the spring carefully building new nests or repairing old ones, and filling the air with their hoarse and anxious cawing.

"Now it will be the turn of the larks," said Hopeful, setting about mending his old and much worn bird-net.

And now the larks also appeared. Then the chums went into the fields, spread their nets on one of the brown thawed patches, and running about in the moist and muddy fields, drove into the nets the hungry birds, who, wearied by their long flight, were seeking their food on the grey earth which had only just freed itself from the snow. On catching the birds they sold them at a pyatachek[1] or a grivenik[2] per head. Then the nettles appeared, which they gathered and carried to the bazaar for the market-garden huckster women. Nearly every day of the spring gave them something fresh to do, some fresh if but trifling bit of work. They could turn everything to some use: osiers, sorrel, mushrooms, strawberries, fungi—nothing passed through their hands in vain. Sometimes the soldiers would come out for firing-practice. After the practice was over the chums would ferret about the earthworks and fish up the bullets, which they would sell subsequently at twenty kopecks the pound. All these occupations certainly prevented the chums from dying of hunger, but very rarely gave them the opportunity of eating their fill, rarely gave them the pleasant feeling of a full stomach working warmly away upon hastily swallowed food.

[1] A silver five kopeck piece.

[2] A ten kopeck piece.

III.

Once in April when the country-side had only just began to put forth its buds and shoots, when the woods were still wrapped in a dark blue gloom, and the grass had only just begun to appear on the fat fields basking in the sun—the chums were going along the high-road smoking makharka[1] cigars of their own manufacture, and conversing.

[1] Coarse tobacco smoked by the peasants.

"You are coughing worse than ever," said Jig-Leg to his comrade in a tone of mild reproach.

"A fig for that! Look ye, the dear little sun will soon warm me up—and I shall feel alive again."

"H'm! You may have to go into the hospital you know."

"What do I want with hospitals? If die I must, let me die!"

"Well, that's true enough."

They were passing a tract of land planted with birches, and the birches cast upon them the patterned shadows of their fine slender leaves. The sparrows were hopping along the road chirping merrily.

"You don't walk very well," remarked Jig-Leg after a moment's silence.

"That's because I have a choky feeling," exclaimed Hopeful. "The air is now thick and damp, it is a fat sort of air and I find it hard to swallow."

And stopping short, he fell a-coughing.

Jig-Leg stood beside him, smoked away, and never took his eyes off him. Hopeful, shaken by his attack of coughing, held his bosom with his hands and his face grew blue.

"It gives my lungs a good tearing any way!" said he, when he had ceased coughing.

And on they went again after scaring away the sparrows.

"Now we are coming to Mukhina," observed Jig-Leg, throwing away his cigarette, and spitting. "We must make a circuit round it at the back by the way of the outhouses, perhaps we may be able to pick up something. Then further on past the Sivtsova spinny to Kuznechikha.... From Kuznechikha we'll turn off towards Markvoka, and so home."

"That will be a walk of thirty versts," said Hopeful. "May it not be in vain!"

To the left of the road stood a wood uniformly dark and inhospitable, there was not a single patch of green amidst its naked branches to cheer the eye. On the outskirts of the wood a small, rough, shaggy little horse, with woefully fallen-in flanks was roaming, and its prominent ribs were as sharply denned as the hoops of a barrel. The chums stopped again and looked at it for a long time, watching how it slowly picked its way along, lowering its snout towards the ground, and cropping the herbage with its lips, carefully munching them with its worn-out yellow teeth.

"She's starved too!" observed Hopeful.

"Gee-gee!" cried Jig-Leg enticingly.

The horse looked at him, and shaking his head, negatively bent it earthwards again.

Hopeful explained the horse's wearisome movement: "He doesn't like you!" said he.

"Come! If we hand him over to the gipsies, they no doubt will give us seven roubles for her," observed Jig-Leg meditatively.

"No they won't! What could they do with her?"

"There's the hide!"

"The hide? Do you suppose they'll give as much as that for the hide? Look at it! What sort of a hide do you call that? Why it isn't equal to old shoe leather."

"Well, they'd give something any way."

"Yes, I suppose that's true enough."

Jig-Leg looked at his comrade, and after a pause, said:

"Well?"

"Awkward...." replied Hopeful doubtfully.

"How?"

"We should leave tracks. The ground is damp ... they could trace where we took it."

"We could put clouts on her feet."

"As you like."

"Come along! Let's drive her into the wood and pass the night in the gully. In the night we'll bring her out and drive her to the gipsies. It's not far—only three versts."

"Let's go then," said Hopeful, shaking his head. "A bird in the bush you know.... But suppose something comes of it?"

"Nothing will come of it," said Jig-Leg with conviction.

They quitted the road, and after glancing carefully around them, entered the wood. The horse looked at them, snorted, waved her tail, and again fell to munching the withered grass.

IV.

At the bottom of the deep sylvan hollow it was dark, damp, and still. The murmuring of the stream was borne through the silence, monotonous and melancholy, like a lament. From the steep sides of the gully above waved the naked branches of the hazels, dwarf-cherries, and maples; here and there the roots of the trees, saturated with the spring water, projected helplessly out of the ground. The forest was still dead; the gloom of evening magnified the lifeless monotony of its hues and the sad silence lurking within it which had something of the gloomy and triumphant repose of an old churchyard.

The chums had already been sitting a long time there in the damp and silent gloom, beneath a group of aspens clustered together in a huge clump of earth at the bottom of the ravine. A tiny fire burnt brightly in front of them, and as they warmed their hands over it, they cast into it, from time to time, dry twigs and branches, taking care that the flame should burn evenly all the time, and that the fire should not give forth smoke. Not very far off stood the horse. They had wrapped her mouth round with a sleeve torn from the rags of Hopeful, and had fastened her by her bridle to the trunk of a tree.

Hopeful, crouching down on his heels by the fire, was dreamily gazing at the flame and whistling his song; his comrade, cutting away at a bunch of osier-twigs, was making a basket out of them, and his occupation kept him silent.

The sad melody of the stream and the soft whistling of the unlucky man blended into one accord, and floated plaintively in the silence of the evening and the forest. Now and then some twigs on the fire would crackle, crackle and hiss, doubtless their way of sighing, as if they felt that life was more lingering than their death in the fire, and therefore more of a torment.

"What do you say? Shall we be going soon?" inquired Hopeful.

"It's early yet. Let it get quite dark and then we'll go," replied Jig-Leg, without raising his head from his work.

Hopeful sighed and began to cough.

"Frozen, eh?" inquired his companion after a long pause.

"N—n—no ... Something makes me miserable."

"Let's hear it!" and Jig-Leg shook his head.

"My heart is throbbing."

"Sick, eh?"

"I suppose so ... but it may be something else."

Jig-Leg was silent for a while and then he said:

"I say!... don't think!"

"Of what?"

"Of everything."

"Look here now"—Hopeful suddenly seemed to grow alive—"how can I help thinking? I look at her"—he waved his hand towards the horse—"I look at her and I understand—I had such a one also. She was a sorrel, and at all sorts of work—first-class. Once upon a time I even had a pair of them—I worked right well in those days."

"What are you driving at?" asked Jig-Leg curtly and coldly. "I don't like this sort of thing in you, you set up the bagpipes and begin to groan!—what's the good?"

Hopeful silently threw into the fire a handful of twigs broken up small, and watched the sparks fly upwards and disappear in the damp air. His eyes blinked frequently, and shadows ran swiftly across his face. Presently he turned his head in the direction of the horse and gazed at her for a long time.

The horse was standing motionless, as if rooted in the ground; her head, distorted out of recognition by the wrapping, was hanging down.

"We must take a single-minded view of things," said Jig-Leg, severely and emphatically, "our life—is a day and a night—twenty-four hours and that's all! If there's food—well and good; if there isn't—well squeak and squeak as much as you like, you'd better leave off, for it does no good. And the way you went on just now isn't nice to listen to. It's because you're sick, that's what it is."

"It must be because I'm sick, I suppose," agreed. Hopeful meekly, but, after a brief silence, he added, "But it may be owing to a weak heart."

"And that's because your heart is sick," declared Jig-Leg categorically.

He bit through the osier-twigs, waved them over his head, cut the air with a shrill whistle, and said severely:

"I'm right enough you see—there's nothing of that sort the matter with me."

The horse shifted from leg to leg; a branch cracked somewhere; some earth plumped into the stream, introducing some fresh notes into its quiet melody; then from somewhither two little birds started up and flew along the gully, screeching uneasily. Hopeful followed them with his eyes and remarked quietly:

"What birds are those? If they are starlings they have no business in this forest. They are mostly around dwelling-places. I suppose they are silk-tails[2] ... lots of 'em about."

"They may be cross-bills."[3]

[2] Bombycilla garrula.

[3] Loxia curvirostra.

"It's too early for cross-bills, and besides, what does a cross-bill want in a fir-wood? It has no business there. They can only be silk-tails."

"All right—drop 'em."

"Oh certainly!" agreed Hopeful, and he sighed heavily for some reason or other.

The work in the hands of Jig-Leg progressed rapidly, he had already woven the bottom of the basket, and was skilfully making the sides. He cut the osiers with his knife, bit them through with his teeth, bent and twined them, and snorted from time to time whenever he gave a tug at his bristling moustaches.

Hopeful looked sometimes at him, sometimes at the horse, which seemed to have petrified into its dejected pose, and sometimes at the sky, already almost nocturnal, but without stars.

"The muzhiks grab all the horses," he suddenly remarked in a strange voice—"and there are none left except here and there perhaps—so there are no more horses!"

And Hopeful waved his arms about. His face was dull, and his eyes blinked as frequently as if he was looking at something bright blazing up before them.

"What's that to do with you?" asked Jig-Leg severely.

"I was calling to mind a story...." said Hopeful guiltily.

"What story?"

"Yes!... Just as it might be here ... the same thing happened to my knowledge once ... they took away a horse ... from a neighbour of mine ... Michael his name was ... such a big muzhik he was ... and pock-marked...."

"Well?"

"Well, they took her away.... She was browsing on the winter pastures—and all at once she was gone. When Michael understood that he was nagless, down he plumped on the ground, and how he howled! Ah, my little friend, how he did bellow then, to be sure ... it was just as if he had broken his leg...."

"Well?"

"Well ... he was a long time like that."

"And how do you come in?"

At this sharp question from his comrade, Hopeful slunk away from him, and timidly answered:

"Oh ... I only remembered it, that's all. For without his horse the muzhik is in a hole."

"I tell you what it is," began Jig-Leg severely, looking Hopeful straight in the face, "chuck it, d'ye hear? There's no sense in what you say, do you understand? Michael, your neighbour, indeed! What's it got to do with you?"

"Anyhow, it's a pity," objected Hopeful, shrugging his shoulders.

"A pity! Good heavens! and is there anyone who ever takes pity on us?"

"What do you mean?"

"Shut up! it will soon be time to go."

"Soon?"

"Yes."

Hopeful moved a little towards the fire, poked it with his stick, and looking askance at Jig-Leg, who was once more immersed in his work, said softly and beseechingly:

"Hadn't we better let her[4] go?"

"It's your low nature that makes you talk like that!" exclaimed Jig-Leg angrily.

[4] The horse.

"Nay, but for God's sake listen!" persisted Hopeful softly, and with a tone of conviction, "Just think, there's danger in it! Here we shall have to drag her along for four versts.... And suppose the gipsies won't take her!—what then?"

"That's my affair."

"As you like! Only it would be better to let her go. Let her go and slope. Look what a knacker she is!"

Jig-Leg was silent, but his fingers moved more quickly than ever.

"How much would they give for her, I should like to know, in case they gave anything at all?" persisted Hopeful, quietly but stubbornly. "And now it's the best time. It will be dark immediately. If we go along the gully we shall come out at Dubenka. Let's keep our eyes open, and we may be able to prig something or other."

The monotonous speech of Hopeful, blending with the gurgling of the stream, floated down the gully, and enraged the industrious Jig-Leg.

He was silent, ground his teeth, and the osier-twigs broke beneath his fingers from sheer excitement.

"The women are bleaching their linen now."

The horse snorted loudly and became restive. Enwrapped by the mist, she now looked more monstrous and more wretched than ever. Jig-Leg looked at her and spat into the fire.

"The cattle, too, are now at large ... the geese are in the fields...."

"How long will it take you to spit it all out, you devil?" inquired Jig-Leg savagely.

"For heaven's sake, Stephen, don't be angry with me. Let her loose in the woods. It's the right thing to do."

"Have you eaten anything to-day?" shrieked Jig-Leg.

"No," replied Hopeful, confused and frightened by his comrade's shout.

"Then, deuce take you, you may starve for all I care. I spit upon you."

Hopeful looked at him in silence, Jig-Leg, collecting the osiers together, bound them into a bundle, and snorted angrily. The reflection of the fire fell upon his face, and his face, with the bristling moustaches, was red and angry.

Hopeful turned away and sighed heavily.

"I spit upon such sentiments. I say—do as you like," said Jig-Leg, hoarsely and viciously. "But let me tell you this," he went on, "if you go hedging like this any more, you are no company for me. To that I mean to stick. I know what you are, you...."

"You're an odd chap...."

"No more tall talk."

Hopeful squirmed and coughed; then after coughing his cough out, he sighed heavily.

"Do you know why I talk so much about it? Because it is dangerous."

"All right!" cried Jig-Leg angrily.

He picked up the osier-twigs, flung them over his shoulder, shoved the unfinished basket under his arm, and rose to his feet.

Hopeful also stood up, looked at his comrade, and softly approached the horse.

"Wo-ah! Christ be with thee! Fear not!" his hollow voice resounded through the gully.

"Wo-ah! Stand still! Well—go of your own accord—go along, then—there you are!"

Jig-Leg watched his comrade pottering about the horse and unwinding the clout from its mouth, and the moustaches of the surly thief twitched with excitement.

"Let's be off," said he, moving forwards.

"I'm coming," said Hopeful.

And forcing their way through the scrub, they went silently along the gully in the midst of the night darkness, which filled it to the very brim.

The horse, too, came after them.

Presently behind them they heard the splashing of water, which drowned the melody of the stream.

"Ah, thou fool! thou hast fallen into the water," said Hopeful.

Jig-Leg snorted angrily, but remained silent.

In the dark, amidst the gloomy silence of the ravine, resounded the gentle crackling of twigs; the sound came floating along from the place where the red cluster of the embers of the fire sparkled on the ground like some monstrous and maliciously-mirthful eye.

The moon arose.

Her transparent radiance filled the ravine with a mist-like gloom; the shadows fell on every side, making the forest all the denser, and the silence therein more complete and more austere The white stems of the birches, silvered over by the moon, stood out like wax-candles against the darker ground of the oaks, elms, and brushwood.

The chums walked along the bottom of the ravine in silence. It was hard going; sometimes their feet stumbled, sometimes they sank deep in the mire. Hopeful frequently panted, and a whistling, wheezing, rattling sound came from his breast, just as if a lot of large clocks that had not been cleaned for a long time were stowed away there. Jig-Leg went in front, the shadow of his lofty and erect figure fell upon Hopeful.

"Look now!" said he, petulantly and sulkily; "where are we going? What are we after? Eh?"

Hopeful groaned, and was silent.

"The night is now shorter than a sparrow's beak, by daylight we shall come to the village, and how shall we do? It is just as if we were gentlemen at large taking a stroll."

"I feel very bad, brother," said Hopeful quietly.

"Very bad!" exclaimed Jig-Leg ironically; "there you are, of course! How so?"

"I have great difficulty in breathing," replied the sick thief.

"In breathing? Why have you a great difficulty in breathing?"

"Because I am ill, I suppose."

"You lie! It is because you are stupid."

Jig-Leg stopped short, turned towards his comrade, and shaking his fingers beneath his nose, added:

"Yes—you cannot breathe because of your stupidity. Do you understand?"

Hopeful bowed his head low, and answered guiltily:

"Certainly!"

He would have said something more, but began to cough instead, leaning on to the trunk of a tree with trembling hands; and he coughed for a long time, trampling the ground without moving from the spot, shaking his head, and opening his mouth wide.

Jig-Leg continued looking at his face, which stood out haggard, earthy and greenish in the light of the moon.

"You'll awaken all the wood-sprites in the forest," he said at last, surlily.

And when Hopeful had coughed himself out, and throwing back his head, groaned freely, he made a proposition to him in a dictatorial tone.

"Rest a bit. Sit down."

And they sat down on the damp earth in the shadow of the bushes. Jig-Leg made a cigarette, began smoking it, looked at its glow, and began to speak very deliberately.

"If only we had a home somewhere or other to go to, we might possibly return home...."

"That's true," said Hopeful, wagging his head.

Jig-Leg looked askance at him, and continued: "But as we haven't got a home—we must go on."

"Yes—we must," groaned Hopeful.

"We've no place to go to, so there's no sense talking about it. And the chief cause of it is—we are fools! And what fools we are too!"

The dry voice of Jig-Leg cut through the air, and must have greatly disquieted Hopeful—for he flung himself prone on the ground, sighed, and gurgled oddly.

"And I want something to eat—I've a frightful longing that way," Jig-Leg concluded his drawling, reproachfully resonant speech.

Then Hopeful rose to his feet with an air of decision.

"What's the matter?" asked Jig-Leg.

"Let's be off!"

"Why so lively all at once?"

"Let's go!"

"Come along, then," and Jig-Leg also stood up, "only there's no sense in this...."

"I don't care what happens!" and Hopeful waved his hand.

"Plucked up your courage again, eh?"

"What? Here you've been tormenting me and tormenting me, and blackguarding me and blackguarding me ... Oh Lord!"

"Then why do you mess about so?"

"Mess about?"

"Yes."

"Well, look you, I felt so sorry."

"For whom? For what?"

"For whom? For that man, I suppose."

"For that—man?" drawled Jig-Leg. "Come now, take a pinch of snuff, and have done with it. Ah! you're a good soul, but you've no sense. What's the man to you? Can I make you understand that? Why, he'd collar you, and smash you like a flea beneath his nail! At the very time that you are pitying him I Then you'll go and declare your stupidity to him, and in return for your compassion, he'll plague you with all the seven plagues. Why, you carry your very guts in your hand for people to look at, and drag your very vitals out into the light of day. Pity indeed!—Ugh! I've no patience with you. For Heaven's sake, why don't you have pity on yourself, instead of knocking yourself to bits? A pretty fellow you are! Pity indeed!—pooh!"

Jig-Leg was quite outraged.

His voice, cutting and full of irony and contempt for his comrade, resounded through the wood, and the branches of the shrubs shook with a gentle rustle, as if agreeing with the rough truth of his words.

Hopeful, overwhelmed by these reproaches, paced along slowly on his trembling legs, drawing up his arms into the sleeves of his jacket, and drooping his head upon his breast.

"Wait!" said he at last. "What matters it? I'll put it all right. When we come to the village, I will go into it—all alone. I'll go—you need not come with me.... I'll prig the very first thing that falls within my reach—and so home! Come along, and I'll show you something! It will be hard for me—but don't say a word."

He spoke almost inaudibly, panting hard, with a rattling and a gurgling in his breast. Jig-Leg looked at him suspiciously, stopped short as if he were about to say something, waved his hand, and went on again without saying anything.

For a long time they went on slowly and in silence.

The cocks began to crow somewhere near, the dogs barked, presently the melancholy sound of the watch-bell was wafted to them from the distant village church, and was swallowed up in the sombre silence of the forest. A large bird, looking like a big black patch in the faint moonlight, rose into the air, and there was an ominous sound in the ravine of a flurried piping and the rustling of feathers.

"A crow—and a seed crow[5] too, if I'm not mistaken," observed Jig-Leg.

"Look here!" said Hopeful, sinking heavily on the ground, "go you, and I'll remain here ... I can do no more ... I'm choking ... and my head is going round."

"Well, there you are!" said Jig-Leg crossly. "What, can't you do a little more?"

"I can't."

"I congratulate you. Ugh!"

"I've not a bit of strength in me."

"I'm not surprised, we've tramped without a meal since yesterday."

"No, it's not that ... it's all up with me ... look how the blood trickles!"

And Hopeful raised his hand to Jig-Leg's face, all bespattered with something dark. The other looked askance at it, and then, lowering his voice, asked:

"What's to be done?"

"You go on ... I'll remain here ... I may rest a bit."

"Where shall I go? Suppose I go to the village and say there's a man in the forest taken bad?"

"No ... they'd kill me."

"If they get the chance."

Hopeful fell upon his back, coughed a hollow cough, and vomited a whole quantity of blood.

[5] A rook.

"How goes it?" inquired Jig-Leg, standing over him, but looking the other way.

"Very badly," said Hopeful, in an almost inaudible voice, and fell a-coughing again.

Jig-Leg cursed loudly and cynically.

"Suppose I call someone?"

"Whom?" said Hopeful, his voice was like a dismal echo.

"Or perhaps you may now be able to get up and go on for a little while?"

"No, no!"

Jig-Leg sat by the head of his comrade, and embracing his own knees with his arms gazed steadily at Hopeful's face. The breast of Hopeful was moving convulsively with a hollow rattling sound, his eyes were deep-sunken, his lips gaped strangely apart and seemed to cleave to his teeth. From the left corner of his mouth a dark living jet was trickling.

"Is it still flowing?" asked Jig-Leg quietly, and in the tone of his question there was something very near to respect.

The face of Hopeful shuddered.

"It is flowing," came a faint rattle.

Jig-Leg rested his head on his knees and was silent.

Over them hung the wall of the ravine furrowed by the deep cavities of the spring streams. From its summit a shaggy row of trees illuminated by the moon looked down into the abyss. The other side of the ravine, which had a gentler slope, was overgrown with shrubs; here and there the grey stems of the aspens stood out against its darker masses, and on their naked branches the nests of the rooks were visible.... And the ravine itself, lit up by the moon, was like a vision of slumber, like a weary dream, with nothing of the hues of life; and the quiet gurgling of the stream magnified its lifelessness still more and overshadowed its melancholy silence.

"I am dying," whispered Hopeful in a scarce audible voice, and immediately afterwards he repeated in a loud and clear voice, "I am dying, Stephen!"

Jig-Leg trembled all over, wriggled, snorted, and raising his head from his knees said, awkwardly, very gently, and as if fearing to disturb something:

"Oh, you've not come to that ... don't be afraid. Quite impossible! This is such a simple thing ... why it's nothing, my brother, God bless me!"

"Oh, Lord Jesus Christ!" sighed Hopeful heavily.

"It's nothing at all!" whispered Jig-Leg, bending over his comrade's face; "just you keep quiet for a bit ... maybe it will pass over!"

But Hopeful began to cough, and a new sound was audible in his breast, just as if a wet clout was being smacked against his ribs. Jig-Leg looked at him and twirled his moustaches in silence. Having coughed himself out, Hopeful began to pant loudly and uninterruptedly—just as if he were running away somewhere with all his might. For a long time he panted like this, then he said:

"Forgive me, Stephen ... if anything I ... that horse you know ... forgive me, little brother!"

"You forgive me!" interrupted Jig-Leg, and after a pause, he added:

"And I ... whither shall I go? And how will it be with me?"

"It doesn't matter. May the Lord give thee...."

He sighed without finishing his sentence and was silent.

Then he began to make a rattling sound ... then he stretched out his legs—one of them he jerked sideways.

Jig-Leg gazed at him without once removing his eyes. A few moments passed as long as hours.

Suddenly Hopeful raised his head, but immediately it fell helplessly back on to the ground.

"What, my brother?" said Jig-Leg, leaning over him. But he answered no more, but lay there quiet and motionless.

The sour-visaged Jig-Leg remained sitting by his chum a few minutes longer, then he arose, took off his hat, crossed himself, and slowly went on his way along the ravine. His face was peaked, his eyebrows and moustaches were bristling, and he walked as firmly as if he wanted to beat the earth with his feet and do her a mischief.

The day was already breaking. The sky was grey and cheerless; a savage silence prevailed in the ravine; only the stream, disturbing no one, uttered its monotonous melancholy speech.

But hark, there's a rustle—maybe a clump of earth has rolled down the side of the ravine.... The rook awakes, and, croaking uneasily, flies off elsewhere. Presently a titmouse utters her cry. In the damp cold air of the ravine sounds don't live long—they arise and immediately vanish.

THE END.


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