In the Steppe

by


"Nobody is to blame for anything, for all of us alike are—beasts of the same kidney."
An illustration for the story In the Steppe by the author Maxim Gorky
Joseph Stalin and Maxim Gorky, Red Square, 1931
An illustration for the story In the Steppe by the author Maxim Gorky
Joseph Stalin and Maxim Gorky, Red Square, 1931
An illustration for the story In the Steppe by the author Maxim Gorky

We quitted Perekop in the vilest spirits—hungry as wolves and at war with all the world. In the course of a whole twelve hours we had unsuccessfully employed all our talents and capabilities to earn or steal something, and when we became convinced, at last, that success was impossible either way, we resolved to go further on. Whither? Simply—further on.

This resolution was unanimous, and by mutual agreement. Moreover, we were resolved to go further in every respect. The manner of life we lately had been leading was to be a mere starting-point, and although we did not so express ourselves aloud, it blazed forth plainly enough in the sullen glare of our hungry eyes.

There were three of us, and we had all quite recently made one another's acquaintance, having first rubbed shoulders together at Kherson, in a little tavern on the banks of the Dnieper.

One of us had been a soldier of the railway battalion, and after that a sort of upper road-mender on one of the Polish roads; he was a red-haired, muscular chap with cold grey eyes; he could speak German, and was very intimately acquainted with the minutiæ of prison life.

Our friend did not like to speak very much of his past for more or less well-founded reasons, and indeed we all of us took each other on trust, at least we ostensibly took each other on trust, for, privately, not one of us even trusted himself.

When our second comrade, a withered little mannikin with small teeth, always pressed together sceptically—when our second comrade, I say, speaking of himself, said that he had formerly been a student at the University of Moscow, I and the soldier accepted the statement as a fact. In reality it was all one to us whether he had been a student, a bailiff's man, or a thief. The only matter of any importance to us was that at the moment of our first acquaintance he stood on our level, in other words: he was starving, engaged the particular attention of the police in the towns, was an object of suspicion to the peasants in the villages, hated everyone with the hatred of an impotent, bated, and starving wild beast, and was intent on a universal vengeance—in a word, he was of precisely the same kidney as ourselves.

Misfortune is the most durable cement for the joining together of natures even diametrically opposed to each other, and we were all convinced of our right to account ourselves unfortunate.

I was the third. The modesty inherent in me from my earliest years forbids me to say a single word as to my merits, and, not wishing to seem naïve, I will be reticent as to my defects. But by way of supplying materials for an estimate of my character, I will add, if you like, that I had always accounted myself better than other people, and have successfully held to the same opinion down to this very day.

Thus we emerged from Perekop and went further on, our objective for that day being the Chabans,[1] from whom it is always possible to cadge a little bread, and who very rarely turn tramps away empty-handed.

I walked with the soldier, "the student" was slouching along behind us. On his shoulders hung something dimly reminiscent of a pea-jacket; on his head reposed a sharp, singular, and smoothly clipped fragment of a broad-brimmed hat; grey breeches, covered with variegated patches, fitted tightly round his thin little legs, and by way of foot gear he made use of the leg of a boot which he had picked up on the road, and attached to its proper place by means of little bandages ripped from the inner lining of his costume. This invention he called sandals, and he shambled along in silence, raising a great deal of dust, and blinking around with his tiny, greenish little eyes. The soldier wore a red woollen shirt, which, to use his own words, he had "gained with his own hands" at Kherson; over the shirt he wore a warm wadding vest; on his head was a military forage cap of indeterminate colour, worn, according to the service regulations, "with the flap of the upper segment over the left brow"; on his legs were broad baggy chumak trousers. He was barefooted.

[1] Shepherds of Southern Russia.

I also had clothes on and was barefooted.

On we went, and around us in every direction, in heroic proportions, stretched the steppe, covered by the blue sultry cupola of the cloudless summer sky, and lying before us like a huge round black platter. The grey dusty road intersected it like a broad ribbon and burnt our feet Here and there we fell in with bristly patches of trampled-down corn, having a strange resemblance to the long unshaven cheeks of the soldier.

The soldier marched along, singing in a hoarse bass:

"And thus, oh Holy Eastertide, Thy fame we sing and pr-r-raise." While under arms he had held some sort of office resembling that of clerk in the battalion church, and knew a countless number of liturgical snatches and fragments, the knowledge of which he constantly abused every time our conversation happened to flag.

In front of us on the horizon certain forms with soft outlines and pleasant shades of colour, from faint lilac to fresh pink, began to stand forth prominently.

"Evidently those are the Crimean mountains," said "the student" with a dry voice.

"Mountains?" cried the soldier, "it's jolly early yet to see mountains. They are clouds—simply clouds. Don't you see—just like cranberry vinegar with milk."

I observed that it would be in the highest degree acceptable if they were clouds and did indeed consist of cranberry vinegar. This suddenly awakened our hunger—the evil of our days.

"Deuce take it!" growled the soldier, spitting a bit; "if only we could fall in with a single living soul! There's nobody at all! We shall have to do as the bears do in winter-time and suck our own paws."

"I said we ought to have gone towards inhabited places," observed "the student" didactically.

"You said, did you!" the soldier fired up at once. "Talk—that's about all you students are up to! What sort of inhabited places are there here? The Devil knows where they are."

"The student" was silent, he only pressed his lips tightly together. The sun was setting, and the clouds on the horizon exhibited a play of colour of every shade that language fails to grasp. There was a smell of earth and of salt in the air, and this dry and tasty smell piqued our appetites still more.

There was a sucking sensation in our stomachs, a strange and unpleasant feeling. It seemed as if the juice was gradually trickling out of every muscle in our bodies—trickling away somewhither, and evaporating, and that our muscles were losing their vital elasticity. A feeling of prickly dryness filled the hollow of the mouth and throat, there was a dull sensation in our heads, and dark spots really arose and flashed before our eyes. Sometimes they took the form of steaming pieces of meat—nourishing beef. Memory provided these "visions of the past, dumb visions," with their own peculiar fragrance, and then it was just as if a knife were turning round in our stomachs.

We went along all the same, giving one another a description of our feelings, casting angry sidelong glances about us in case we might peradventure perceive a sheepfold, and listening for the sharp creak of a Tatar arba[2] carrying fruit to the Armenian bazaar.

But the steppe was desolate and voiceless.

On the eve of this hard day we three had eaten four pounds of rye bread and five melons, had walked about thirty-five miles—our income was scarcely equal to our expenditure!—and after going to sleep in the bazaar square at Perekop were awakened by hunger.

"The student" had very properly advised us not to lie down to sleep, but in the course of the night to occupy ourselves with ... but in orderly society it is not considered the right thing openly to speak of any project for infringing the rights of property, and I will therefore keep silence. I only want to be just and not rude to others even in my own interests. I know that people in our highly cultured days are becoming more and more soft hearted, and even when they take their neighbours by the throat with the obvious intention of throttling them—they try to do it with as much amiability as possible, and with the observance of all the consideration which the circumstances will admit of. The experience! of my own throat has caused me to observe this progress in morals, and I maintain, with a pleasant feeling of conviction, that everything in this world is developing towards perfection. In particular this remarkable process is solidly established every year by the growth of prisons, taverns, and tolerated houses.

[2] A two-wheeled cart used in the Crimea.

Thus, swallowing the spittle of hunger, and endeavouring by friendly conversation to blunt the pangs of our stomachs, we went along the desolate and silent steppe—went along in the beautiful rays of the setting sun, full of a dull hope of something or other turning up. In front of us the setting sun was silently vanishing in the midst of soft clouds liberally embellished by his rays, and behind us and on both sides of us a dove-coloured mist, rising from the steppe into the sky, fixed unalterably the disagreeable horizon surrounding us.

"My brothers, let us collect materials for a camp fire," said the soldier, picking up from the road a chump of wood; "we shall have to make a night of it in the steppe, and the dew is about to fall ... cow-dung, twigs—take anything!"

We dispersed on the road in various directions, and began to collect dry grass and everything that could possibly burn. Every time we chanced to bend down towards the ground a passionate desire seized upon our whole body to lie down upon the earth—lie there immovably and eat the fat black stuff—eat a lot of it, eat till we could eat no more, and then fall asleep. Only to eat!—if we slept for evermore afterwards—to chew and chew and feel the thick warm mash flow gradually from our mouths along our dried-up gullet and food passages into our famished, extenuated stomachs, burning with the desire to suck up some sort of nutriment.

"If only we could find some root or other!" sighed the soldier; "there are roots you can eat, you know."

But in the black furrowed earth there were no roots. The southern night came on quickly, and the last ray of the sun had scarce disappeared when the stars were twinkling in the dark blue sky, and around us, more and more solidly, were gathering the dark shadows, and a smooth blankness engulfed the whole steppe.

"My brothers," said "the student," "yonder to the left a man is lying."

"A man?"—the soldier's tone was dubious—"what should he be lying there for?"

"Go and ask. He must certainly have bread with him if he lies down in the steppe," explained "the student."

The soldier looked in the direction where the man lay, and spitting with decision, said:

"Let us go to him!"

Only the keen, green eyes of "the student" could have made out that the dark patch rising up some fifty fathoms to the left of the road was a man. We went towards him, quickly stepping over the ploughed-up hummocks of earth, and we felt the hope of food new-born within us put a fresh edge upon our hunger. We were already quite close—the man did not move.

"Perhaps it is not a man at all!"—the soldier had put into words the thought common to us all.

But our doubts were resolved that selfsame instant, for the heap on the ground suddenly began to move, grew in size, and we saw that it was a real living man, now on his knees and stretching towards us an arm.

And he said to us in a hollow, tremulous voice:

"Another step—and I fire!"

A short and dry click resounded through the murky air.

We stopped short, as if at the word of command, and were silent for some seconds, dumfounded by such an unpleasant encounter.

"What a beast!" growled the soldier expressively.

"Well, I never!" said "the student," reflectively, "to go about with a revolver. A well-plucked one evidently!"

"Aye!" cried the soldier, "pretty resolute too."

The man never changed his pose, but remained silent.

"Hie, you there! We won't touch you ... Only give us some bread—got any, eh? Give us some, my brother, for Christ's sake—be anathema accursed one!"

The last words of the soldier, naturally, were muttered between his teeth.

The man was silent.

"Do you hear?" cried the soldier again, with a spasm of rage and despair. "Give us bread, we pray you! We won't go near to you—throw it to us!"

"All right!" said the man curtly.

He might have said "my dear brethren!" and if he had poured into these three Christian words the holiest and purest feelings they would not have excited us, they would not have humanized us so much, as did that short and hollow: "All right!"

"Do not be afraid of us, good man!" began the soldier softly, and with a sweet smile on his face, although the man could not have seen his smile, for he was at least twenty paces distant from us.

"We are peaceful folks ... we are going from Russia into the Kuban. We have lost our money on the road, we have eaten all our provisions, and this is now the second four and twenty hours that we haven't tasted a morsel...."

"Catch!" said the good man, flinging out his arm A black morsel flashed towards us and fell on a hummock not very far from us. "The student" fell upon it.

"Catch again!—again! There is no more!"

When "the student" had picked up this original gift it appeared that we had four pounds of stale wheaten bread. It had been buried in the earth and was very stale. The first piece barely arrested our attention, the second piece pleased us very much. Stale bread is more satisfying than fresh bread, there is less moisture in it.

"So—and so—and so!" said the soldier, concentrating all his attention on the division of the morsels. "Stay! That's fair, I think! A little corner ought to be nibbled off your piece, student, for his"—he meant mine—"is too little."

"The student," without a murmur, submitted to the subtraction from his portion of about an ounce in weight. I snatched it, and popped it into my mouth.

I began to chew it, chew it gradually, scarce able to control the convulsive movement of my jaws, ready to pulverize a stone. It afforded me a keen delight to feel the jerky throbs of my gullet, and to be able, by little and little, to gratify it with little rivulets of nutriment. Mouthful after mouthful, warm and inexplicably, indescribably tasty, penetrated at last to my burning stomach, and seemed instantly to turn into blood and muscle. Delight, such a strange, calm, and vivifying delight, warmed my heart proportionately to the filling of my stomach, and my general condition was similar to that of someone half asleep. I forgot all about those accursed days of chronic hunger, and I forgot about my comrades engulfed in the rapture of those very feelings which I myself had just experienced.

But when I had cast from my palm into my mouth the last crumb of bread, I felt a mortal desire for more.

"He must have about him—anathemas smite him!—some tallow or a bit of meat," cried the soldier, sitting down on the ground opposite to me and rubbing his belly with his hands.

"Certainly, for the bread has a smell of meat.... Yes, and he has more bread, I'll be bound," said "the student," and he added very quietly, "if only he hadn't a revolver!"

"Who is he, I wonder?"

"A hound!" said the soldier decidedly.

We sat together in a close group and cast sidelong glances in the direction where sat our benefactor with his revolver. Not a sound, not a sign of life now proceeded from that quarter.

Night had assembled her dark forces all around us. Mortally still it was in the steppe there—we could hear each other's breath. Now and then from somewhither resounded the melancholy whistle of the suslik[3].... The stars, the bright flowers of heaven, shone down upon us ... We wanted more to eat.

[3] The earless marmot of the steppe.

With pride I say it—I was neither better nor worse than my casual comrades on this somewhat strange night. I persuaded them to get up and go towards this man. We need not touch him, but we would eat everything we found upon him. He would fire—let him! Out of three of us only one could fall, even if one fell at all, and even if one of us did fall, a mere revolver bullet would scarcely be the death of him.

"Let us go," said the soldier, leaping to his feet.

"The student" rose to his feet more slowly than the soldier.

And we went, we almost ran. "The student" kept well behind us.

"Comrade!" cried the soldier reproachfully.

There met us a dull report and the sharp sound of a snapping trigger. There was a flash and the dry report of a firearm.

"It is over!" yelled the soldier joyfully, and with a single bound he was level with the man. "Now, you devil, I am going to have it out with you."

"The student" flung himself on the knapsack.

"The devil" fell from his knees on to his back, and stretching out his arms gave forth a choking sound.

"What the deuce!" cried the astonished soldier in the very act of raising his foot to give the man a kick. "What is he groaning for like that? Hie! Hie you! What's the matter? Have you shot yourself or what?"

"There's meat and some pancakes and bread—a whole lot, my brothers!"—and the voice of "the student" crowed with delight.

"But what the deuce ails him?—he is at the last gasp! Come then, let us eat, my friends!" cried the soldier. I had taken the revolver out of the hand of the man who had ceased to groan, and now lay motionless. There was only a single cartridge in the cartridge-box.

Again we ate—ate in silence. The man also lay there in silence, not moving a limb. We paid no attention to him whatever.

"My brothers, I suppose you have done all this simply for the sake of bread?" suddenly exclaimed a hoarse and tremulous voice.

We all started. "The student" even swallowed a crumb, and bending low towards the ground fell a coughing.

The soldier in the midst of his chewing became abusive.

"You soul of a dog! Take care I don't hack you like a clod of wood! Or would you prefer us to flay you alive, eh?—It was ours because we wanted it Shut your foolish mouth, you unclean spirit! A pretty thing!—To go about armed and fire at folks! May you be anathema!"

He cursed while he ate, and for that reason his cursing lost all its expression and force.

"Wait till we have eaten our fill and then we'll settle accounts with you," remarked "the student" viciously.

And then through the silence of the night resounded a wailing cry which frightened us.

"My brothers ... how could I tell? I fired because I was frightened. I am going from New Athos ... to the Government of Smolensk ... Oh, Lord! The fever has caught me ... it burns me up like the sun ... woe is me! Even when I left Athos the fever was upon me ... I was doing some carpenter's work ... I am a carpenter by trade ... At home is my wife and two little girls ... for three or four years I have not seen them ... my brothers ... you know all!"

"We are eating, don't bother," said "the student."

"Lord God! if only I had known that you were quiet peaceable folks ... do you think I would have fired? And here in the steppe too, at night, my brothers, you cannot say I am guilty, surely?"

He spoke and he wept, or to speak more accurately, he uttered a sort of tremulous terrified howl.

"He's a miser!" said the soldier contemptuously.

"He must have money about him," observed "the student."

The soldier winked, looked at him, and smiled.

"How sharp you are ... I say, give us some of the firewood here, and we'll light up and go to sleep."

"And how about him?" inquired "the student."

"The deuce take him! He may roast himself with us if he likes—what?"

"He might follow us!" and "the student" shook his sharp head.

We went to fetch the materials we had collected, threw them down where the carpenter had brought us to a standstill with his threatening cry, set light to them, and soon were sitting round a bonfire. It burnt quietly in the windless night and lighted up the tiny space occupied by us. We ached to go to sleep, though for all that we should have liked a little more supper first.

"My brothers!" the carpenter called to us. He was lying three yards off, and sometimes it seemed to me that he was whispering something.

"Well!" said the soldier.

"May I come to you—to the fire? I am about to die ... all my bones are broken Oh, Lord! it is plain to me that I shall never live to get home."

"Crawl along then,"—it was "the student" who decided.

Very gradually, as if fearing to lose hand or foot, the carpenter moved along the ground towards the fire. He was a tall and frightfully wasted man, every part of him seemed to be quivering, and his large dim eyes expressed the pain that was consuming him. His shrivelled face was very bony, and had in the light of the fire a yellowish earthy cadaverous colour. He was still tremulous, and excited our contemptuous pity. Stretching his long thin hands towards the fire, he rubbed his bony fingers, and kneaded their joints slowly and wearily. At last it went against us to look at him.

"What do you cut such a figure for, and why do you go on foot?—to save expense, eh?" asked the soldier surlily.

"I was so advised ... don't go, said they, by water, but go by way of the Crimea, for the air, they said. And lo! I cannot go, I am dying, my brothers. I shall die alone in the steppe ... the birds will pick my bones and nobody will know about it ... My wife ... my little daughters will be waiting for me ... I wrote to them ... and my bones will be washed by the rains of the steppe ... Lord, Lord!"

He uttered the anguished howl of a wounded wolf.

"Oh, the devil!" cried the soldier, waxing wrath, and springing to his feet. "How you whine! Can't you leave folks in peace! You're dying, eh? Well, die then, and hold your tongue ... What use are you to anyone? Shut up!"

"Give him one on the chump!" suggested "the student."

"Lie down and sleep!" said I, "and if you want to be by the fire, don't howl, really, you know...."

"Now you have heard," said the soldier savagely, "pray understand. You fancy we shall pity you and pay attention to you because you flung bread to us and fired bullets at us, do you? You sour-faced devil you! Others would have... Ugh!"

The soldier ceased and stretched himself on the ground.

"The student" was already lying down I lay down too. The frightened carpenter huddled himself into a heap, and edging gradually towards the fire began to look at it in silence. I lay on his right, and heard how his teeth chattered. "The student" lay on his left, and appeared to have gone to sleep straight off after rolling himself into a ball. The soldier, placing his hands beneath his head, lay face upwards, and looked at the sky.

"What a night, eh?—what a lot of stars!—and warm, too!" said he, turning to me after a time. "What a sky—a bed-top, not a sky. Friend, I love this vagabond life. It is cold and hungry, but then it is as free as the air ... You have no superior over you ... you are the master of your own life ... Though you bite your own head off, nobody can say a word to you ... It is good ... I have been very hungry and very angry these last few days ... and now I am lying here as if nothing had happened and look at the sky ... The stars blink at me ... It is just as if they were saying: What matters it, Lakutin; go and know, and be subject to nobody on this earth ... There you are ... my heart is happy. And how is it with you, eh, carpenter? Don't be angry with me, and fear nothing. We ate up your food, I know, but it doesn't matter; you had food and we had none, so we ate up yours. And you are a savage fellow, you go about firing bullets. Are you not aware that bullets may do a man harm? I was very angry with you a little while ago, and if you had not fallen down I should have well trounced you, my brother, for your cheek. But as to the food—to-morrow you can go back to Perekop and buy some there ... you have money ... I know it ... How long is it since you caught the fever?"

For a long time the deep bass of the soldier and the tremulous voice of the sick carpenter hummed in my ears. The night was dark, almost black, obliterating everything here below, and a fresh sappy breeze streamed out of its bosom.

A uniform light and an enlivening warmth proceeded from the fire. One's eyes closed insensibly, and before them, as if seen through a vision, passed something soothing and purifying.


"Get up! awake! Let us go!"

I opened my eyes with a feeling of terror and quickly sprang to my feet, the soldier helping by pulling me violently from the ground by the arm.

"Come, look alive! March!"

His face was grim and anxious. I looked around me. The sun was rising, and his rosy rays already lay upon the immovable and dark blue face of the carpenter. His mouth was open, his eyes projected far out of their sockets, and stared with a glassy look expressive of horror. The clothes covering his bosom were all torn, and he lay in an unnatural, broken-up sort of pose. There was no sign of "the student."

"Well, have you looked your fill!... Come on, I say!" said the soldier excitedly, dragging at my sleeve.

"Is he dead?" I asked, shivering in the fresh morning air.

"Certainly. And he might have throttled you ... and you might have died," explained the soldier.

"He! Who? 'The Student'?" I exclaimed.

"Well, who else? It wasn't you, eh? And I suppose you won't say it was—me? Well, so much for your bookworms! He managed very cleverly with the man ... and has left his comrades in the lurch. Had I suspected it, I could have killed 'the student' yesterday evening. I could have killed him at a blow ... Smash with my fist on his forehead, and there would have been one blackguard the less in the world. See what he has done, and remember it! Now we must move on so that not a human eye may see us in the steppe. Do you understand? Recollect, we came upon the carpenter to-day, throttled and plundered. And we'll search for our brother ... find out in what direction he went, and where he passed the night. Well, suppose they seize us ... although we have nothing upon us ... except his revolver in my bosom!"

"Throw it away," I advised the soldier.

"Throw it away?" said he thoughtfully, "why it's a precious thing. And then, too, they may not seize us yet ... No, I'll not chuck it ... Who knows that the carpenter carried arms? I'll not chuck it ... It's worth three roubles ... And there's a bullet in it. How I should like to fire this selfsame bullet into the ear of our dear comrade! I wonder how much money he filched, the hound! May he be anathema!"

"And there are the carpenter's little daughters!" said I.

"Daughters? What?... Well, they'll grow up, and it's not for us to find them husbands; they don't concern us at all ... Let us go, my brother, quickly. Whither shall we go?"

"I don't know ... it's all one to me."

"And I don't know, and I know it is all one. Let us go to the right ... the sea must be there."

We went to the right.

I turned to look back. Far away from us in the steppe rose a dark little mound, and on it the sun was shining.

"Are you looking to see whether he will rise again? Don't be afraid, he won't rise up to pursue us. The scholar is evidently a chap up to a dodge or two, and dealt with the case thoroughly. Well, he has saddled us with it finely. And our comrade too! Ah, my brother! Folks are degenerating! From year to year they degenerate more and more," observed the soldier sadly.

The steppe, speechless and desolate, flooded by the bright morning sun, unfolded itself all around us, blending on the horizon with the sky, so bright and friendly and lavish of light, that any black and iniquitous deed seemed impossible in the midst of the grand spaciousness of that free expanse, covered by the blue cupola of heaven.

"Feel hungry, brother?" said the soldier, twisting himself a cigarette out of his makharka.[4]

"Where are we going to-day, and how?"

"That's the question!"

Here the narrator—my next neighbour in the hospital hammock—broke off his story and said to me:

"That's all. I became very friendly with this soldier, and accompanied him all the way to the Kars District. He was a good and very experienced little fellow, a typical barelegged vagrant. I respected him. We went together all the way to Asia Minor, and then we lost sight of each other."

[4] Peasant's tobacco.

"Did you think sometimes of the carpenter?" I asked.

"As you see—or as you hear."

"And there was nothing more?"

He smiled.

"What ought my feelings to have been in such a case—do you mean that? I was not to blame foe what happened to him, just as you are not to blame for what has happened to me. And nobody is to blame for anything, for all of us alike are—beasts of the same kidney."


5

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