Heavy clouds drift slowly across the sleepy river and hang every moment lower and thicker. In the distance their ragged gray edges seem almost to touch the surface of the rapid and muddy waters, swollen by the floods of spring, and there, where they touch, an impenetrable wall rises to the skies, barring the flow of the river and the passage of the raft.
The stream, swirling against this wall—washing vainly against it with a wistful wailing swish—seems to be thrown back on itself, and then to hasten away on either side, where lies the moist fog of a dark spring night.
The raft floats onward, and the distance opens out before it into heavy cloud—massed space. The banks of the rivers are invisible; darkness covers them, and the lapping waves of a spring flood seem to have washed them into space.
The river below has spread into a sea; while the heavens above, swatched in cloud masses, hang heavy, humid, and leaden.*
There is no atmosphere, no color in this gray blurred picture.
The raft glides down swiftly and noiselessly, while out of the darkness appears, suddenly bearing down on it, a steamer, pouring from its funnels a merry crowd of sparks, and churning up the water with the paddles of its great revolving wheels.
The two red forward lights gleam every moment larger and brighter, and the mast-head lantern sways slowly from side to side, as if winking mysteriously at the night. The distance is filled with the noise of the troubled water, and the heavy thud-thud of the engines.
"Look ahead!" is heard from the raft. The voice is that of a deep-chested man.
* The river is the volga, and the passage of strings of rafts down its stream in early spring is being described by the author. The allusion later on to the Brotherhood living in the Caucasus, refers to the persecuted Doukhobori, who have since been driven from their homes by the Russian authorities and have taken refuge in Canada.
In order to enter into the sociology of this story of Gorkv's it must be explained that among ancient Russian folk-customs, as the young peasants were married at a very early age, the father of the bridegroom considered he had rights over his daughter-in-law. In later times, this custom although occasionally continued, was held in disrepute among the peasantry; but that it has not entirely died out is proved by the little drama sketched in by the hand of a genius in "On a Raft."
Two men are standing aft, grasping each a long pole, which propel the raft and act as rudders; Mitia, the son of the owner, a fair, weak, melancholy-looking lad of twenty-two; and Sergei, a peasant, hired to help in the work on board the raft, a bluff, healthy, red-bearded fellow, whose upper lip, raised with a mocking sneer, discloses a mouth filled with large, strong teeth.
"Starboard!" A second cry vibrates through the darkness ahead of the rafts.
"What are you shouting for; we know our business!" Sergei growls raspingly; pressing his expanded chest against the pole. "Ouch! Pull harder, Mitia!" Mitia pushes with his feet against the damp planks that form the raft, and with his thin hands draws toward him the heavy steering pole, coughing hoarsely the while.
"Harder, to starboard! You cursed loafers!" The master cries again, anger and anxiety in his voice.
"Shout away!" mutters Sergei. "Here's your miserable devil of a son, who couldn't break a straw across his knee, and you put him to steer a raft; and then you yell so that all the river hears you. You were mean enough not to take a second steersman; so now you may tear your throat to pieces shouting!"
These last words were growled out loud enough to be heard forward, and as if Sergei wished they should be heard.
The steamer passed rapidly alongside the raft sweeping the frothing water from under her paddle wheels. The planks tossed up and down in the wash, and the osier branches fastening them together, groaned and scraped with a moist, plaintive sound.
The lit-up portholes of the steamer seem for a moment to rake the raft and the river with fiery eyes, reflected in the seething water, like luminous trembling spots. Then all disappears.
The wash of the steamer sweeps backward and forward, over the raft; the planks dance up and down. Mitia, swaying with the movements of the water, clutches convulsively the steering pole to save himself from falling.
"Well, well," says Sergei, laughing. "So you're beginning to dance! Your father will start yelling again. Or he'll perhaps come and give you one or two in the ribs; then you'll dance to another tune! Port side now! Ouch!"
And with his muscles strung like steel springs, Sergei gives a powerful push to his pole, forcing it deep down into the water. Energetic, tall, mocking and rather malicious, he stands bare-footed, rigid, as if a part of the planks; looking straight ahead, ready at any moment to change the direction of the raft.
"Just look there at your father kissing Marka! Aren't they a pair of devils? No shame, and no conscience. Why don't you get away from them, Mitia—away from these Pagan pigs? Why? Do you hear?"
"I hear," answered Mitia in a stifled voice, without looking toward the spot which Sergei pointed to through the darkness, where the form of Mitia's father could be seen.
"I hear," mocked Sergei, laughing ironically.
"You poor half-baked creature! A pleasant state of things indeed!" he continued, encouraged by the apathy of Mitia. "And what a devil that old man is! He finds a wife for his son; he takes the son's wife away from him; and all's well! The old brute!"
Mitia is silent, and looks astern up the river, where another wall of mist is formed. Now the clouds close in all round, and the raft hardly appears to move, but to be standing still in the thick, dark water, crushed down by the heavy gray-black vaporous masses, which drift across the heavens, and bar the way.
The whole river seems like a fathomless, hidden whirlpool, surrounded by immense mountains, rising toward heaven, and capped with shrouding mists.
The stillness suffocates, and the water seems spellbound with expectation, as it beats softly against the raft. A great sadness, and a timid questioning is heard in that faint sound—the only voice of the night—accentuating still more the silence. "We want a little wind now," says Sergei. "No it's not exactly wind we want that would bring rain," he replies to himself, as he begins to fill his pipe. A match strikes, and the bubbling sound of a pipe being lighted is heard. A red gleam appears, throwing a glow over the big face of Sergei; and then, as the light dies down he is lost in the darkness.
"Mitia!" he cries. His voice is now less brutal and more mocking.
"What is it?" replies Mitia, without moving his gaze from the distance, where be seems with his big sad eyes to be searching for something.
"How did it happen, mate? How did it happen?"
"What?" answers Mitia, displeased.
"How did you come to marry? What a queer set out! How was it? You brought your wife home!—and then? Ha! ha! ha!" "What are you cackling about? Look out there!" came threateningly across the river.
"Damned beast!" ejaculates with delight Sergei; and returns to the theme that interests him. "Come, Mitia; tell me; tell me at once—why not?"
"Leave me alone, Sergei," Mitia murmurs entreatingly; "I told you once."
But knowing by experience that Sergei will not leave him in peace, he begins hurriedly: "Well, I brought her home—and I told her: 'I can't be your husband, Marka; you are a strong girl, and I am a feeble, sick man. I didn't wish at all to marry you, but my father would force me to marry.' He was always saying to me, 'Get married! Get married!' I don't like women, I said: and you especially, you are too bold. Yes—and I can't have anything to do—with it. Do you understand? For me, it disgusts me, and it is a sin. And children—one is answerable to God for one's children."
"Disgusts," yells Sergei and laughs. "Well! and what did Marka reply? What?"
"She said, 'What shall I do now?' and then she began to cry. 'What have you got against me? Am I so dreadfully ugly?' She is shameless, Sergei, and wicked! 'With all this health and strength of mine, must I go to my father-in-law?' And I answered: 'If you like—go where you wish, but I can't act against my soul. If I had love for you, well and good; but being as it is, how is it possible? Father Ivan says it's the deadliest sin. We are not beasts, are we?' She went on crying: 'You have ruined my chances in life!' And I pitied her very much. 'It's nothing,' I said; 'things will come all right. Or,' I continued, 'you can go into a convent.' And she began to insult me. 'You are a stupid fool, Mitia! a coward!'" "Well, I'm blest!" exclaims Sergei, in a delighted whisper. "So you told her straight to go into a convent?" "Yes, I told her to go," answers Mitia simply.
"And she told you you were a fool?" queried Sergei, raising his voice.
"Yes, she insulted me."
"And she was right, my friend; yes, indeed, she was right! You deserve a proper hammering." And Sergei, changing suddenly his tone, continued with severity and authority: "Have you any right to go against the law? But you did go against it! Things are arranged in a certain way, and it's no use going against them! You mustn't even discuss them. But what did you do? You got some maggot into your head. A convent, indeed! Silly fool! What did the girl want? Did she want your convent? What a set of muddle-headed fools there seems to be now! Just think what's happened! You, you're neither fish nor fowl, nor good red-herring. And the girl's done for! She's living with an old man! And you drove the old man into sin! How many laws have you broken? You clever head!"
"Law, Sergei, is in the soul. There is one law for everyone. Don't do things that are against your soul, and you will do no evil on the earth," answered Mitia, in a slow, conciliatory tone, and nodding his head.
"But you did do evil," answered Sergei, energetically. "In the soul! A fine idea! There are many things in the soul. Certain things must be forbidden. The soul, the soul! You must first understand it, my friend, and then——"
"No, it's not so, Sergei," replied Mitia with warmth, and he seemed to be inspired. "The soul, my friend, is always as clear as dew. It's true, its voice lies deep down within us, and is difficult to hear; but if we listen, we can never be mistaken. If we act according to what is in our soul, we shall always act according to the will of God. God is in the soul, and, therefore, the law must be in it. The soul was created by God, and breathed by God into man. We have only to learn to look into it—and we must look into it without sparing our own feelings."
"You sleepy devils! Look ahead there!" The voice thundered from the forward part of the raft, and swept back down the river. In the strength of the sound one could recognize that the owner of the voice was healthy, energetic, and pleased with himself. A man with large and conscious vitality. He shouted, not because he had to give a necessary order to the steersmen, but because his soul was full of life and strength, and this life and strength wanted to find free expression, so it rushed forth in that thunderous and forceful sound.
"Listen to the old blackguard shouting," continued Sergei with delight, looking ahead with a piercing glance, and smiling. "Look at them billing and cooing like a pair of doves! Don't you ever envy them, Mitia?"
Mitia watched with indifference the working of the two forward oars, held by two figures who moved backward and forward, forming sometimes as they touched each other one compact and dark mass.
"So you say you don't envy them?" repeated Sergei.
"What is it to me? It's their sin, and they must answer for it," replied Mitia quietly.
"Hm!" ironically interjected Sergei, while he filled his pipe.
Once more the small red patch of light glowed in the darkness; and the night grew thicker, and the gray clouds sank lower toward the swollen river.
"Where did you get hold of that fine stuff, or does it come to you naturally? But you don't take after your father, my lad! Your father's a fine old chap. Look at him! He's fifty-two now, and see what a strapping wench he's carrying on with! She's as fine a woman as ever wore shoe-leather. And she loves him; it's no use denying it! She loves him, my lad! One can't help admiring him, he's such a trump, your father—he's the king of trumps! When he's at work, it's worth while watching him. And then, he's rich! And then, look how he's respected! And his head's screwed on the right way. Yes. And you? You're not a bit like either your father or your mother? What would your father have done, Mitia, do you think, if old Anfisa had lived? That would have been a good joke! I should have liked to have seen how she's have settled him! She was the right sort of woman, your mother! a real plucky one, she was! They were well matched!"
Mitia remained silent, leaning on the pole, and staring at the water.
Sergei ceased talking. Forward on the raft was heard a woman's shrill laugh, followed by the deeper laugh of a man. Their figures, blurred by the mist, were nearly invisible to Sergei, who, however, watched them curiously. The man appeared as a tall figure, standing with legs wide apart, holding a pole, and half turned toward a shorter woman's figure, leaning on another pole, and standing a few paces away. She shook her forefinger at the man, and giggled provokingly.
Sergei turned away his head with a sigh, and after a few moment's silence began to speak again.
"Confound it all, but how jolly they seem together; it's good to see! Why can't I have something like that? I, a waif and a stray! I'd never leave such a woman! I'd always have my arms round her, and there'd be no mistake about my loving the little devil! I've never had any luck with women! They don't like ginger hair— women don't. No. She's a woman with fancies, she is! She's a sly little devil! She wants to see life! Are you asleep, Mitia?"
"No," answered Mitia quietly.
"Well, how are you going to live? To tell the truth, you're as solitary as a post! That seems pretty hard! Where can you go? You can't earn your living among strangers. You're too absurd! What's the use of a man who can't stand up for himself? A man's got to have teeth and claws in this world! They'll all have a go at you. Can you stick up for yourself? How would you set about it? Damn it all; where the devil could you go?"
"I," said Mitia, suddenly arousing herself; "I shall go away. I shall go in the autumn to the Caucasian Mountains, and that will be the end of it all. My God! If only I could get away from you all! Soulless, godless men! To get away from you, that's my only hope! What do you live for? Where is your God? He's nothing but a name! Do you live in Christ? You are wolves; that's what you are! But over there live other men, whose souls live in Christ. Their hearts contain love, and they are athirst for the salvation of the world. But you—you are beasts, spewing out filth. But other men there are; I have seen them; they called me, and I must go to them. They gave me the book of Holy Writ, and they said: 'Read, man of God, our beloved brother, read the word of truth!' And I read, and my soul was renewed by the word of God. I shall go away. I shall leave all you ravening wolves. You are rending each other's flesh! Accursed be ye!"
Mitia spoke in a passionate whisper, as if overpowered by the intensity of his contemplative rapture, his anger with the ravening wolves, and his desire to be with those other men, whose souls aspired toward the salvation of the world. Sergei was taken aback. He remained quiet for some time, open-mouthed, holding his pipe in his hand. After a few moments' thought he glanced round, and said in a deep, rough voice: "Damn it all! Why you're turned a bad 'un all at once! Why did you read that book? It was very likely an evil one. Well, be off, be off! If not, there'll be an end of you! Be off with you before you become a regular beast yourself! And who are these fellows in the Caucasus? Monks? Or what?"
But the fire of Mitia's spirit died down as quickly as it had been kindled to a flame; he gasped with the exertion as he worked the pole, and muttered to himself below his breath.
Sergei waited some time for the answer which did not come. His simple, hardy nature was quelled by the grim and death-like stillness of the night. He wanted to recall the fullness of life, to wake the solitude with sound, to disturb and trouble the hidden meditative silence of the leaden mass of water, flowing slowly to the sea; and of the dull, threatening clouds hanging motionless in the air. At the other end of the raft there was life, and it called on him to live.
Forward, he could hear every now and then bursts of contented laughter, exclamations, sounds that seemed to stand out against the silence of this night, laden with the breath of spring, and provoking such passionate life desires.
"Hold hard, Mitia! you'll catch it again from the old man! Look out there!" said Sergei, who could not stand the silence any longer; and watching Mitia, who aimlessly moved his pole backward and forward in the water.
Mitia, wiping his moist brow, stood quietly leaning with his breast against the pole, and panting.
"There are few steamers to-night," continued Sergei; "we've only passed one these many hours." Seeing that Mitia had no intention of answering, Sergei replied quietly to himself: "It's because its too early in the season. It's only just beginning. We shall soon be at Kazan. The Volga pulls hard. She has a mighty strong back, that can carry all. Why are you standing still like that? Are you angry? Hi, there, Mitia!"
"What's the matter?" Mitia cried in a vexed tone.
"Nothing, you strange fellow; but why can't you talk? You are always thinking. Leave it alone! Thinking is bad for a man. A wise sort of fellow you are! You think and think, and all the time you can't understand that you're a fool at bottom. Ha! Ha!" And Sergei, very well satisfied with his own superiority, cleared his throat, remained quiet for a moment, whistled a note, and then continued to develop his theme.
"Thinking? Is that an occupation for a working man? Look at your father; he doesn't think much; he lives. He loves your wife, and they laugh at you together; you wise fool! That's about it! Just listen to them! Blast them! I believe Marka's already with child. Never fear, the child won't feature you. He'll be a fine, lusty lad, like Silan himself! But he'll be your child! Ha! Ha! Ha! He'll call you father! And you won't be his father, but his brother; and his real father will be his grandfather! That's a nice state of things! What a filthy family! But they're a strapping pair! Isn't that true, Mitia?"
"Sergei!" In a passionate, sobbing whisper. "In the name of Christ I entreat you don't tear my soul to pieces, don't brand me with fire. Leave me alone. Do be quiet! In the name of God and of Christ, I beg you not to speak to me! Don't disturb me! Don't drain my heart's blood! I'll throw myself in the river, and yours will be the sin, and a great sin it will be! I should lose my soul; don't force me to it! For God's sake, I entreat you!"
The silence of the night was troubled with shrill, unnatural sobbing; and Mitia fell on the deck of the raft, as if a blast from the overhanging clouds had struck him down.
"Come, come!" growled Sergei, anxiously watching his mate writhing on the deck, as if scorched with fire. "What a strange man! He ought to have told me if it was not—if it was not quite—"
"You've been torturing me all the way. Why? Am I your enemy?" Mitia sobbed again.
"You're a strange lad! a rum un!" murmured Sergei, confused and offended. "How could I know? I couldn't tell you'd take on like that!" "Understand, then, that I want to forget! To forget for ever! My shame, my terrible torture. You're a cruel lot! I shall go away, and stay away for ever! I can't stand it any more!"
"Yes, be off with you!" cried Sergei across the raft, accentuating his exclamation with a loud and cynical curse. Then he seemed to shrink together, as if himself afraid of the terrible drama which was unfolding itself before him; drama, which he was now compelled to understand. . . .
"Hullo! There! I'm calling you! Are you deaf?" sounded up the river the voice of Silan. "What are you about there? What are you bawling about? Ahoy! Ahoy!"
It seemed as if Silan enjoyed shouting, and breaking the heavy silence of the river with his deep voice, full of strength and health. The cries succeeded each other, thrilling the warm, moist air, and seeming to crush down on Mitia's feeble form. He rose, and once more pressed his body against the steering pole. Sergei shouted in reply to the master with all his strength, and cursed him at the same time under his breath.
The two voices broke through and filled the silence of the night. Then they seemed to meet in one deep note like the sound of a great horn. Once more rising to shrillness, they floated in the air, gradually sank away—and were lost. Silence reigned once more.
Through the cleft clouds, on the dark water the yellow splashes of moonlight fell, and after glittering a moment disappeared, swept away in the moist gloom.
The raft continued on its way down stream amid silence and darkness.
CHAPTER II Near one of the forward poles stood Silan Petroff in a red shirt, open at the neck, showing his powerful throat and hairy chest, hard as an anvil. A thatch of gray hair fell over his forehead, under which laughed great black, warm eyes. His sleeves, turned up to the elbow, showed the veins standing out on his arms as they held the pole. Silan was leaning slightly forward, and looking watchfully ahead. Marka stood a few paces from him, glancing with a satisfied smile at the strong form of her lover. They were both silent and busy with their several thoughts. He was peering into the distance, and she followed the movements of his virile, bearded face.
"That must be a fisherman's fire," said he, turning toward her.
"It's all right; we're keeping on our course, Ouch!" And he puffed out a full, hot breath, and gave a powerful shove with his pole.
"Don't tire yourself Mashourka," he continued, watching her, as with her pole she made a skilful movement.
She was round and plump, with black, bright eyes and ruddy cheeks; barefooted, dressed only in a damp petticoat, which clung to her body, and showed the outline of her figure. She turned her face to Silan and, smiling pleasantly, said: "You take too much care of me; I'm all right!"
"I kiss you, but I don't take care of you," answered Silan, moving his shoulders.
"That's not good enough!" she replied, provokingly; and they both were silent, looking at each other with desiring eyes.
Under the rafts, the water gurgled musically. On the right bank, very far off, a cock crew. Swaying lightly under their feet, the raft floated on toward a point where the darkness dissolved into lighter tones, and the clouds took on themselves clearer shapes and less sombre hues.
"Silan Petrovitch, do you know what they were shouting about there? I know. I bet you I know. It was Mitia who was complaining about us to Sergei; and it was he who cried out with trouble, and Sergei was cursing us!"
Marka questioned anxiously Silan's face, which, after her words, became grim and coldly stubborn.
"Well, that's all!"
"If that's all, there was nothing to say."
"Don't get angry."
"Angry with you? I should like to be angry with you, but I can't."
"You love Marsha?" she whispered, coaxingly leaning toward him.
"You bet!" answered Silan, with emphasis, stretching out toward her his powerful arms. "Come now, don't tease me!"
She twisted her body with the movements of a cat, and once more leaned toward him.
"We shall upset the steering again," whispered he, kissing her face which burned under his lips.
"Shut up now! They can see us at the other end;" and motioning aft with her head, she struggled to free herself, but he held her more tightly still with one arm, and managed the pole with the other hand.
"They can see us? Let them see us. I spit on them all! I'm sinning, that's true; I know it; and shall have to answer for it to God; but still you never were his wife; you were free; you belonged to yourself. He's suffering, I know. And what about me? Is my position a pleasant one? It is true that you were not his wife; but all the same, with my position, how must I feel now? Is it not a dreadful sin before God? It is a sin! I know it all, and I've gone through everything! Because it's a thing worth doing!
"We love only once, and we may die any day. Oh! Marka! If I'd only waited a month before marrying you to Mitia, nothing of this would have happened. Directly after the death of Anfisa I would have sent my friends to propose for you, and all would have been right! Right before the law; without sin, without shame. That was my mistake, and this mistake will take away from me five or ten years of my life. Such a mistake as that makes an old man of one before one's time."
Silan Petroff spoke with decision, but quietly, while, an expression of inflexible determination flashed from his face, giving him the appearance of a man who was ready then and there to fight and struggle for the right to love.
"Well, it's all right now; don't trouble yourself any more. We have talked about it more than once already," whispered Marka, freeing herself gently from his arms, and returning to her oar.
He began working his pole backward and forward, rapidly and energetically, as if he wished to get rid of the load that weighed on his breast, and cast a shadow over his fine face.
Day broke gradually.
The clouds, losing their density, crept slowly away on every side, as if reluctantly giving place to the sunlight. The surface of the river grew lighter, and took on it the cold gleam of polished steel.
"Not long ago he talked with me about it. 'Father,' he said, 'is it not a deadly shame for you, and for me? Give her up!' He meant you," explained Silan, and smiled. "'Give her up,' he said; 'return to the right path!' 'My dear son,' I said, 'go away if you want to save your skin! I shall tear you to pieces like a rotten rag! There will be nothing left of your great virtue! It's a sorrow to me to think that I'm your father! You puny wretch!' He trembled. 'Father,' he said, 'am I in the wrong?' You are,' I said, 'you whining cur, because you are in my way! You are,' I said, 'because you can't stand up for yourself! You lifeless, rotten carrion! If only,' I said, 'you were strong, one could kill you; but even that isn't possible! One pities you, poor, wretched creature!' He only wept. Oh, Marka! This sort of thing makes one good for nothing. Any one else would—would get their heads out of this noose as soon as possible, but we are in it, and we shall perhaps tighten it round each other's necks!"
"What do you mean?" said Marka, looking at him fearfully, as he stood there grim, strong and cold.
"Nothing! If he were to die! That's all. If he were to die— what a good thing it would be! Everything would be straight then! I would give all my land to your family, to make them shut their mouths; and we two might go to Siberia, or somewhere far away. They would ask, 'Who is she?' 'My wife! Do you understand?'
"We could get some sort of paper or document. We could open a shop somewhere in a village, and live. And we could expiate our sin before God. We could help other people to live, and they would help us to appease our consciences. Isn't that so, Marsha?"
"Yes," said she, with a deep sigh, closing her eyes as if in thought.
They remained silent for a while; the water murmured.
"He is sickly. He will, perhaps, die soon," said Silan after a time.
"Please God it may be soon!" said Marka, as if in prayer, and making the sign of the cross.
The rays of the spring sun broke through the clouds, and touched the water with rainbow and golden tints. At the breath of the wind all nature thrilled, quickened, and smiled. The blue sky between the clouds smiled back at the sun-warmed waters. The raft, moving on, left the clouds astern.
Gathering in a thick and heavy mass, they hung motionless, and dreaming over the bright river, as if seeking a way to escape from the ardent spring sun, which, rich in color and in joy, seemed the enemy of these symbols of winter tempests.
Ahead, the sky grew clearer and brighter, and the morning sun, powerless to warm, but dazzling bright as it glitters in early spring, rose stately and beautiful from the purple-gold waves of the river, and mounted higher and ever higher into the blue limpid sky. On the right showed the brown, high banks of the river, surmounted by green woods; on the left emerald green fields glittered with dew diamonds. In the air, floated the smell of the earth, of fresh springing grass, blended with the aromatic scent of a fir wood.
Sergei and Mitia stood as if rooted to their oars, but the expression on their faces could not be distinguished by those on the forward part of the raft.
Silan glanced at Marka.
She was cold. She leaned forward on her pole in a doubled-up attitude. She was looking ahead with dreaming eyes; and a mysterious, charming smile prayed on her lips—such a smile as makes even an ugly woman charming and desirable.
"Look ahead, lads! Ahoy! Ahoy!" hailed Silan, with all the force of his lungs, feeling a powerful pulse of energy and strength in his strong breast.
And all around seemed to tremble with his cry. The echo resounded long from the high banks on either side.
Return to the Maxim Gorky library , or . . . Read the next short story; On A River Steamer