The water of the river was smooth, and dull silver of tint. Also, so barely perceptible was the current that it seemed to be almost stagnant under the mist of the noontide heat, and only by the changes in the aspect of the banks could one realise how quietly and evenly the river was carrying on its surface the old yellow-hulled steamer with the white-rimmed funnel, and also the clumsy barge which was being towed in her wake.
Dreamily did the floats of the paddle-wheels slap the water. Under the planks of the deck the engines toiled without ceasing. Steam hissed and panted. At intervals the engine-room bell jarred upon the car. At intervals, also, the tiller-chains slid to and fro with a dull, rattling sound. Yet, owing to the somnolent stillness settled upon the river, these sounds escaped, failed to catch one's attention.
Through the dryness of the summer the water was low. Periodically, in the steamer's bow, a deck hand like a king, a man with a lean,, yellow, black-avised face and a pair of languishing eyes, threw overboard a polished log as in tones of melting melancholy he chanted:
"Se-em, se-em, shest!"
["Seven, seven, six!"(the depth of water, reckoned in sazheni or fathoms)]
It was as though he were wailing:
"Seyem, seyem, a yest-NISHEVO"
[Let us eat, let us eat, but to eat there is--nothing]
Meanwhile, the steamer kept turning her stearlet-like [The stearlet is a fish of the salmon species] prow deliberately and alternately towards either bank as the barge yawed behind her, and the grey hawser kept tautening and quivering, and sending out showers of gold and silver sparkles. Ever and anon, too, the captain on the bridge kept shouting, hoarsely through a speaking-trumpet:
Under the stem of the barge a wave ran which, divided into a pair of white wings, serpentined away towards either bank.
In the meadowed distance peat seemed to be being burnt, and over the black forest there had gathered an opalescent cloud of smoke which also suffused the neighbouring marshes.
To the right, the bank of the river towered up into lofty, precipitous, clayey slopes intersected with ravines wherein aspens and birches found shelter.
Everything ashore had about it a restful, sultry, deserted look. Even in the dull blue, torrid sky there was nought save a white-hot sun.
In endless vista were meadows studded with trees--trees sleeping in lonely isolation, and, in places, surmounted with either the cross of a rural church which looked like a day star or the sails of a windmill; while further back from the banks lay the tissue cloths of ripening crops, with, here and there, a human habitation.
Throughout, the scene was indistinct. Everything in it was calm, touchingly simple, intimate, intelligible, grateful to the soul. So much so that as one contemplated the slowly-varying vistas presented by the loftier bank, the immutable stretches of meadowland, and the green, timbered dance-rings where the forest approached the river, to gaze at itself in the watery mirror, and recede again into the peaceful distance; as one gazed at all this one could not but reflect that nowhere else could a spot more simply, more kindly, more beautiful be found, than these peaceful shores of the great river.
Yet already a few shrubs by the river's margin were beginning to display yellow leaves, though the landscape as a whole was smiling the doubtful, meditative smile of a young bride who, about to bear her first child, is feeling at once nervous and delighted at the prospect.
The hour was past noon, and the third-class passengers, languid with fatigue induced by the heat, were engaged in drinking either tea or beer. Seated mostly on the bulwarks of the steamer, they silently scanned the banks, while the deck quivered, crockery clattered at the buffet, and the deck hand in the bows sighed soporifically:
Six! Six! Six-and-a-half!
From the engine-room a grimy stoker emerged. Rolling along, and scraping his bare feet audibly against the deck, he approached the boatswain's cabin, where the said boatswain, a fair-haired, fair-bearded man from Kostroma was standing in the doorway. The senior official contracted his rugged eyes quizzically, and inquired:
"Whither in such a hurry?"
"To pick a bone with Mitka."
With a wave of his black hand the stoker resumed his way, while the boatswain, yawning, fell to casting his eyes about him. On a locker near the companion of the engine-room a small man in a buff pea-jacket, a new cap, and a pair of boots on which there were clots of dried mud, was seated.
Through lack of diversion the boatswain began to feel inclined to hector somebody, so cried sternly to the man in question:
"Hi there, chawbacon!"
The man on the locker turned about--turned nervously, and much as a bullock turns. That is to say, he turned with his whole body.
"Why have you gone and put yourself THERE?" inquired the boatswain. "Though there is a notice to tell you NOT to sit there, it is there that you must go and sit! Can't you read?"
Rising, the passenger inspected not the notice, but the locker. Then he replied:
"Read? Yes, I CAN read."
"Then why sit there where you oughtn't to?"
"I cannot see any notice."
"Well, it's hot there anyway, and the smell of oil comes up from the engines. . . . Whence have you come?"
"Long from home?"
"Three weeks, about."
"Any rain at your place?"
"No. But why?"
"How come your boots are so muddy?"
The passenger lowered his head, extended cautiously first one foot, and then the other, scrutinised them both, and replied:
"You see, they are not my boots."
With a roar of laughter that caused his brilliant beard to project from his chin, the boatswain retorted:
"I think you must drink a bit."
The passenger said nothing more, but retreated quietly, and with short strides, to the stem. From the fact that the sleeves of his pea-jacket reached far below his wrists, it was clear that the garment had originated from the shoulders of another man.
As for the boatswain, on noting the circumspection and diffidence with which the passenger walked, he frowned, sucked at his beard, approached a sailor who was engaged in vigorously scrubbing the brass on the door of the captain's cabin with a naked palm, and said in an undertone:
"Did you happen to notice the gait of that little man there in the light pea-jacket and dirty boots? "
"Then see here. Do keep an eye upon him."
"But why? Is he a bad lot?"
"Something like it, I think."
"I will then."
At a table near the hatchway of the first-class cabin, a fat man in grey was drinking beer. Already he had reached a state of moderate fuddlement, for his eyes were protruding sightlessly and staring unwinkingly at the opposite wall. Meanwhile, a number of flies were swarming in the sticky puddles on the table, or else crawling over his greyish beard and the brick-red skin of his motionless features.
The boatswain winked in his direction, and remarked:
"Half-seas over, HE is."
"'Tis his way," a pockmarked, eyebrow-less sailor responded.
Here the drunken man sneezed: with the result that a cloud of flies were blown over the table. Looking at them, and sighing as his companion had done, the boatswain thoughtfully observed:
"Why, he regularly sneezes flies, eh?"
The resting-place which I myself had selected was a stack of firewood over the stokehole shoot; and as I lay upon it I could see the hills gradually darkening the water with a mourning veil as calmly they advanced to meet the steamer; while in the meadows, a last lingering glow of the sunset's radiance was reddening the stems of the birches, and making the newly mended roof of a hut look as though it were cased in red fustian-- communicating to everything else in the vicinity a semblance of floating amid fire-- and effacing all outline, and causing the scene as a whole to dissolve into streaks of red and orange and blue, save where, on a hill above the hut, a black grove of firs stood thrown into tense, keen, and clear-cut relief.
Under a hill a party of fishermen had lit a wood fire, the flames of which could be seen playing upon, and picking out, the white hull of a boat-- the dark figure of a man therein, a fishing net suspended from some stakes, and a woman in a yellow bodice who was sitting beside the fire. Also, amid the golden radiance there could be distinguished a quivering of the leaves on the lower branches of the tree whereunder the woman sat shaded.
All the river was calm, and not a sound occurred to break the stillness ashore, while the air under the awning of the third-class portion of the vessel felt as stifling as during the earlier part of the day. By this time the conversation of the passengers, damped by the shadow of dusk, had merged into a single sound which resembled the humming of bees; and amid it one could not distinguish nor divine who was speaking, nor the subject of discussion, since every word therein seemed disconnected, even though all appeared to be talking amicably, and in order, concerning a common topic. At one moment a suppressed laugh from a young woman would reach the ear; in the cabin, a party who had agreed to sing a song of general acceptation were failing to hit upon one, and disputing the point in low and dispassionate accents; and in each, such sound there was something vespertinal, gently sad, softly prayer-like.
From behind the firewood near me a thick, rasping voice said in deliberate tones:
"At first he was a useful young fellow enough, and clean and spruce; but lately, he has become shabby and dirty, and is going to the dogs."
Another voice, loud and gruff, replied:
"Aha! Avoid the ladies, or one is bound to go amiss."
"The saying has it that always a fish makes for deeper water."
"Besides, he is a fool, and that is worse still. By the way, he is a relative of yours, isn't he?"
"Yes. He is my brother."
"Indeed? Then pray forgive me."
"Certainly; but, to speak plainly, he is a fool."
At this moment I saw the passenger in the buff pea-jacket approach the sally-port, grasp with his left hand a stanchion, and step on to the grating under which one of the paddle-wheels was churning the water to foam. There he stood looking over the bulwarks with a swinging motion akin to that of a bat when, grappling some object or another with its wings, it hangs suspended in the air. The fact that the man's cap was drawn tightly over his ears caused the latter to stick out almost to the point of absurdity.
Presently he turned and peered into the gloom under the awning, though, seemingly, he failed to distinguish myself reposing on the firewood. This enabled me to gain a clear view of a face with a sharp nose, some tufts of light-coloured hair on cheeks and chin, and a pair of small, muddy-looking eyes. He stood there as though he were listening to something.
All of a sudden he stepped firmly to the sally-port, swiftly unlashed from the iron top-rail a mop, and threw it overboard. Then he set about unlashing a second article of the same species.
"Hi!" I shouted to him. "What are you doing there?"
With a start the man turned round, clapped a hand to his forehead to discover my whereabouts, and replied softly and rapidly, and with a stammer in his voice:
"How is that your business? Get away with you!"
Upon this I approached him, for I was astonished and amused at his impudence.
"For what you have done the sailors will make you pay right enough," I remarked.
He tucked up the sleeves of his pea-jacket as though he were preparing for a fight. Then, stamping his foot upon the slippery grating, he muttered:
"I perceived the mop to have come untied, and to be in danger of falling into the water through the vibration. Upon that I tried to secure it, and failed, for it slipped from my hands as I was doing so."
"But," I remarked in amazement, "my belief is that you WILLFULLY untied the mop, to throw it overboard!"
"Come, come!" he retorted. "Why should I have done that? What an extraordinary thing it would have been to do! How could it have been possible?"
Here he dodged me with a dexterous movement, and, rearranging his sleeves, walked away. The length of the pea-jacket made his legs look absurdly short, and caused me to notice that in his gait there was a tendency to shuffle and hesitate.
Returning to my retreat, I stretched myself upon the firewood once more, inhaled its resinous odour, and fell to listening to the slow-moving dialogue of some of the passengers around me.
"Ah, good sir," a gruff, sarcastic voice began at my side-- but instantly a yet gruffer voice intervened with:
"Oh, nothing, except that to ask a question is easy, and to answer it may be difficult."
From the ravines a mist was spreading over the river.
At length night fell, and as folk relapsed into slumber the babel of tongues became stilled. The car, as it grew used to the boisterous roar of the engines and the measured rhythm of the paddle-wheels, did not at first notice the new sound born of the fact that into the sounds previously made familiar there began to intrude the snores of slumberers, and the padding of soft footsteps, and an excited whisper of:
"I said to him--yes, I said: 'Yasha, you must not, you shall not, do this.'"
The banks had disappeared from view. Indeed, one continued to be reminded of their existence only by the slow passage of the scattered fires ashore, and the fact that the darkness lay blacker and denser around those fires than elsewhere. Dimly reflected in the river, the stars seemed to be absolutely motionless, whereas the trailing, golden reproductions of the steamer's lights never ceased to quiver, as though striving to break adrift, and float away into the obscurity. Meanwhile, foam like tissue paper was licking our dark hull, while at our stern, and sometimes overtaking it, there trailed a barge with a couple of lanterns in her prow, and a third on her mast, which at one moment marked the reflections of the stars, and at another became merged with the gleams of firelight on one or the other bank.
On a bench under a lantern near the spot where I was lying a stout woman was asleep. With one hand resting upon a small bundle under her head, she had her bodice torn under the armpit, so that the white flesh and a tuft of hair could be seen protruding. Also, her face was large, dark of brow, and full of jowl to a point that caused the cheeks to roll to her very ears. Lastly, her thick lips were parted in an ungainly, corpselike smile.
From my own position on a level higher than hers, I looked dreamily down upon her, and reflected: "She is a little over forty years of age, and (probably) a good woman. Also, she is travelling to visit either her daughter and son-in-law, or her son and daughter-in-law, and therefore is taking with her some presents. Also, there is in her large heart much of the excellent and maternal."
Suddenly something near me flashed as though a match had been struck, and, opening my eyes, I perceived the passenger in the curious pea-jacket to be standing near the woman spoken of, and engaged in shielding a lighted match with his sleeve. Presently, he extended his hand and cautiously applied the particle of flame to the tuft of hair under the woman's armpit. There followed a faint hiss, and a noxious smell of burning hair was wafted to my nostrils.
I leapt up, seized the man by the collar, and shook him soundly.
"What are you at?" I exclaimed.
Turning in my grasp he whispered with a scarcely audible, but exceedingly repulsive, giggle:
"Haven't I given her a good fright, eh?"
Then he added:
"Now, let me go! Let go, I say!"
"Have you lost your wits?" I retorted with a gasp.
For a moment or two his blinking eyes continued to glance at something over my shoulder. Then they returned to me, while he whispered:
"Pray let me go. The truth is that, unable to sleep, I conceived that I would play this woman a trick. Was there any harm in that? See, now. She is still asleep."
As I thrust him away his short legs, legs which might almost have been amputated, staggered under him. Meanwhile I reflected:
"No, I was NOT wrong. He DID of set purpose throw the mop overboard. What a fellow! "
A bell sounded from the engine-room.
"Slow!" someone shouted with a cheerful hail.
Upon that, steam issued with such resounding shrillness that the woman awoke with a jerk of her head; and as she put up her left hand to feel her armpit, her crumpled features gathered themselves into wrinkles. Then she glanced at the lamp, raised herself to a sitting position, and, fingering the place where the hair had been destroyed, said softly to herself:
"Oh, holy Mother of God!"
Presently the steamer drew to a wharf, and, with a loud clattering, firewood was dragged forth and cast into the stokehole with uncouth, warning cries of " Tru-us-sha! " [The word means ship' s hold or stokehole, but here is, probably, equivalent to the English " Heads below!"]
Over a little town which had its back pressed against a hill the waning moon was rising and brightening all the black river, causing it to gather life as the radiance laved, as it were, the landscape in warm water.
Walking aft, I seated myself among some bales and contemplated the town's frontage. Over one end of it rose, tapering like a walking-stick, a factory chimney, while at the other end, as well as in the middle, rose belfries, one of which had a gilded steeple, and the other one a steeple either green or blue, but looking black in the moonlight, and shaped like a ragged paint-brush.
Opposite the wharf there was stuck in the wide gable of a two-storied building a lantern which, flickering, diffused but a dull, anaemic light from its dirty panes, while over the long strip of the broken signboard of the building there could be seen straggling, and executed in large yellow letters, the words, "Tavern and -" No more of the legend than this was visible.
Lanterns were hanging in two or three other spots in the drowsy little town; and wherever their murky stains of light hung suspended in the air there stood out in relief a medley of gables, drab-tinted trees, and false windows in white paint, on walls of a dull slate colour.
Somehow I found contemplation of the scene depressing.
Meanwhile the vessel continued to emit steam as she rocked to and fro with a creaking of wood, a slap-slapping of water, and a scrubbing of her sides against the wharf. At length someone ejaculated surlily:
"Fool, you must be asleep! The winch, you say? Why, the winch is at the stern, damn you!"
"Off again, thank the Lord!" added the rasping voice already heard from behind the bales, while to it an equally familiar voice rejoined with a yawn:
"It's time we WERE off!"
Said a hoarse voice:
"Look here, young fellow. What was it he shouted?"
Hastily and inarticulately, with a great deal of smacking of the lips and stuttering, someone replied:
"He shouted: 'Kinsmen, do not kill me! Have some mercy, for Christ's sake, and I will make over to you everything--yes, everything into your good hands for ever! Only let me go away, and expiate my sins, and save my soul through prayer. Aye, I will go on a pilgrimage, and remain hidden my life long, to the very end. Never shall you hear of me again, nor see me.' Then Uncle Peter caught him a blow on the head, and his blood splashed out upon me. As he fell I--well, I ran away, and made for the tavern, where I knocked at the door and shouted: 'Sister, they have killed our father!' Upon that, she put her head out of the window, but only said: 'That merely means that the rascal is making an excuse for vodka.' . . . Aye, a terrible time it was--was that night! And how frightened I felt! At first, I made for the garret, but presently thought to myself: 'No; they would soon find me there, and put me to an end as well, for I am the heir direct, and should be the first to succeed to the property.' So I crawled on to the roof, and there lay hidden behind the chimney-stack, holding on with arms and legs, while unable to speak for sheer terror."
"What were you afraid of?" a brusque voice interrupted.
"What was I afraid of?"
"At all events, you joined your uncle in killing your father, didn't you?"
"In such an hour one has not time to think--one just kills a man because one can't help oneself, or because it seems so easy to kill."
"True," the hoarser voice commented in dull and ponderous accents. "When once blood has flowed the fact leads to more blood, and if a man has started out to kill, he cares nothing for any reason--he finds good enough the reason which comes first to his hand."
"But if this young fellow is speaking the truth, he had a BUSINESS reason--though, properly speaking, even property ought not to provoke quarrels."
"Similarly one ought not to kill just when one chooses. Folk who commit such crimes should have justice meted out to them."
"Yes, but it is difficult always to obtain such justice. For instance, this young fellow seems to have spent over a year in prison for nothing."
"'For nothing'? Why, did he not entice his father into the hut, and then shut the door upon him, and throw a coat over his head? He has said so himself. 'For nothing,' indeed!"
Upon this the rapid stream of sobbed, disconnected words, which I had heard before from some speaker poured forth anew. Somehow, I guessed that it came from the man in the dirty boots, as once more he recounted the story of the murder.
"I do not wish to justify myself," he said. "I say merely that, inasmuch as I was promised a reprieve at the trial, I told everything, and was therefore allowed to go free, while my uncle and my brother were sentenced to penal servitude."
"But you KNEW that they had agreed to kill him?"
"Well, it is my idea that at first they intended only to give him a good fright. Never did my father recognise me as his son--always he called me a Jesuit."
The gruffer of the two voices pulled up the speaker.
"To think," it said, "that you can actually talk about it all!"
"Why shouldn't I? My father brought tears to the eyes of many an innocent person."
"A fig for people's tears! If our causes of tears were one and all to be murdered, what would the state of things become? Shed tears, but never blood; for blood is not yours to shed. And even if you should believe your own blood to be your own, know that it is not so, that your blood does not belong to you, but to Someone Else."
"The point in question was my father's property. It all shows how a man may live awhile, and earn his living, and then suddenly go amiss, and lose his wits, and even conceive a grudge against his own father. . . . Now I must get some sleep."
Behind the bales all grew quiet. Presently I rose to peer in that direction. The passenger in the buff pea-jacket was sitting huddled up against a coil of rope, with his hands thrust into his sleeves, and his chin resting upon his arms. As the moon was shining straight into his face, I could see that the latter was as livid as that of a corpse, and had its brows drawn down over its narrow, insignificant eyes.
Beside him, and close to my head, there was lying stretched on the top of the coil of rope a broad-shouldered peasant in a short smock and a pair of patched boots of white felt. The ringlets of the wearer's curly beard were thrust upwards, and his hands clasped behind his head, and with ox-like eyes he stared at the zenith where a few stars were shining, and the moon was beginning to sink.
At length, in a trumpet-like voice (though he seemed to do his best to soften it) the peasant asked:
"Your uncle is on that barge, I suppose?"
"He is. And so is my brother."
"Yet you are here! How strange!"
The dark barge, towed against the steamer's blue-silver wash of foam, was cleaving it like a plough, while under the moon the lights of the barge showed white, and the hull and the
prisoners' cage stood raised high out of the water as to our right the black, indentated bank glided past in sinuous convolutions.
From the whole, soft, liquescent fluid scene, the impression which I derived was melancholy. It evoked in my spirit a sense of instability, a lack of restfulness.
"Why are you travelling?"
"Because I wish to have a word with him."
"With your uncle?"
"About the property?"
"Then look here, my young fellow. Drop it all--both your uncle and the property, and betake yourself to a monastery, and there live and pray. For if you have shed blood, and especially if you have shed the blood of a kinsman, you will stand for ever estranged from all, while, moreover, bloodshed is a dangerous thing--it may at any time come back upon you."
"But the property?" the young fellow asked with a lift of his head.
"Let it go," the peasant vouchsafed as he closed his eyes.
On the younger man's face the down twitched as though a wind had stirred it. He yawned, and looked about him for a moment. Then, descrying myself, he cried in a tone of resentment:
"What are you looking at? And why do you keep following me about?"
Here the big peasant opened his eyes, and, with a glance first at the man, and then at myself, growled:
"Less noise there, you mitten-face!"
As I retired to my nook and lay down, I reflected that what the big peasant had said was apposite enough-that the young fellow's face did in very truth resemble an old and shabby woollen mitten.
Presently I dreamt that I was painting a belfry, and that, as I did so, huge, goggle-eyed jackdaws kept flying around the belfry's gables, and flapping at me with their wings and hindering my work: until, as I sought to beat them off, I missed my footing, fell to earth, and awoke to find my breath choking amid a dull, sick, painful feeling of lassitude and weakness, and a kaleidoscopic mist quavering before my eyes till it rendered me dizzy. From my head, behind the car, a thin stream of blood was trickling.
Rising with some difficulty to my feet, I stepped aft to a pump, washed my head under a jet of cold water, bound it with my handkerchief, and, returning, inspected my resting-place in a state of bewilderment as to what could have caused the accident to happen.
On the deck near the spot where I had been asleep, there was standing stacked a pile of small logs prepared for the cook's galley; while, in the precise spot where my head had rested there was reposing a birch faggot of which the withy-tie had come unfastened. As I raised the fallen faggot I perceived it to be clean and composed of silky loppings of birch-bark which rustled as I fingered them; and, consequently, I reflected that the ceaseless vibration of the steamer must have caused the faggot to become jerked on to my head.
Reassured by this plausible explanation of the unfortunate, but absurd, occurrence of which I have spoken, I next returned to the stern, where there were no oppressive odours to be encountered, and whence a good view was obtainable.
The hour was the turn of the night, the hour of maximum tension before dawn, the hour when all the world seems plunged in a profundity of slumber whence there can be no awakening, and when the completeness of the silence attunes the soul to special sensibility, and when the stars seem to be hanging strangely close to earth, and the morning star, in particular, to be shining as brightly as a miniature sun. Yet already had the heavens begun to grow coldly grey, to lose their nocturnal softness and warmth, while the rays of the stars were drooping like petals, and the moon, hitherto golden, had turned pale and become dusted over with silver, and moved further from the earth as intangibly the water of the river sloughed its thick, viscous gleam, and swiftly emitted and withdrew, stray, pearly reflections of the changes occurring in the heavenly tints.
In the east there was rising, and hanging suspended over the black spears of the pine forest, a thin pink mist the sensuous hue of which was glowing ever brighter, and assuming a density ever greater, and standing forth more boldly and clearly, even as a whisper of timid prayer merges into a song of exultant thankfulness. Another moment, and the spiked tops of the pines blazed into points of red fire resembling festival candles in a sanctuary.
Next, an unseen hand threw over the water, drew along its surface, a transparent and many-coloured net of silk. This was the morning breeze, herald of dawn, as with a coating of tissue-like, silvery scales it rippled the river until the eye grew weary of trying to follow the play of gold and mother-of-pearl and purple and bluish-green reflected from the sun-renovated heavens.
Next, like a fan there unfolded themselves the first sword-shaped beams of day, with their tips blindingly white; while simultaneously one seemed to hear descending from an iilimitable height a dense sound-wave of silver bells, a sound-wave advancing triumphantly to greet the sun as his roseate rim became visible over the forest like the rim of a cup that, filled with the essence of life, was about to empty its contents upon the earth, and to pour a bounteous flood of creative puissance upon the marshes whence a reddish vapour as of incense was arising. Meanwhile on the more precipitous of the two banks some of the trees near the river's margin were throwing soft green shadows over the water, while gilt-like dew was sparkling. on the herbage, and birds were awakening, and as a white gull skimmed the water's surface on level wings, the pale shadow of those wings followed the bird over the tinted expanse, while the sun, suspended in flame behind the forest, like the Imperial bird of the fairy-tale, rose higher and higher into the greenish-blue zenith, until silvery Venus, expiring, herself looked like a bird.
Here and there on the yellow strip of sand by the river's margin, long-legged snipe were scurrying about. Two fishermen were rocking in a boat in the steamer's wash as they hauled their tackle. Floating from the shore there began to reach us such vocal sounds of morning as the crowing of cocks, the lowing of cattle, and the persistent murmur of human voices.
Similarly the buff-coloured bales in the steamer's stem gradually reddened, as did the grey tints in the beard of the large peasant where, sprawling his ponderous form over the deck, he was lying asleep with mouth open, nostrils distended with stertorous snores, brows raised as though in astonishment, and thick moustache intermittently twitching.
Someone amid the piles of bales was panting as he fidgeted, and as I glanced in that direction I encountered the gaze of a pair of small, narrow, inflamed eyes, and beheld before me the ragged, mitten-like face, though now it looked even thinner and greyer than it had done on the previous evening. Apparently its owner was feeling cold, for he had hunched his chin between his knees, and clasped his hirsute arms around his legs, as his eyes stared gloomily, with a hunted air, in my direction. Then wearily, lifelessly he said:
"Yes,you have found me. And now you can thrash me if you wish to do so--you can give me a blow, for I gave you one, and, consequently, it's your turn to do the hitting."
Stupefied with astonishment, I inquired in an undertone.
"It was you, then, that hit me?"
"It was so, but where are your witnesses?"
The words came in hoarse, croaked, suppressed accents, with a separation of the hands, and an upthrow of the head and projecting cars which had such a comical look of being crushed beneath the weight of the battened-down cap. Next, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his pea-jacket, the man repeated in a tone of challenge:
"Where, I say, are your witnesses? You can go to the devil!"
I could discern in him something at once helpless and froglike which evoked in me a strong feeling of repulsion; and since, with that, I had no real wish to converse with him, or even to revenge myself upon him for his cowardly blow, I turned away in silence.
But a moment later I looked at him again, and saw that he was seated in his former posture, with his arms embracing his knees, his chin resting upon them, and his red, sleepless eyes gazing lifelessly at the barge which the steamer was towing between wide ribbons of foaming water--ribbons sparkling in the sunlight like mash in a brewer's vat.
And those eyes, that dead, alienated expression, the gay cheerfulness of the morning, and the clear radiance of the heavens, and the kindly tints of the two banks, and the vocal sounds of the June day, and the bracing freshness of the air, and the whole scene around us served but to throw into the more tragic relief.
Just as the steamer was leaving Sundir the man threw himself into the water;in the sight of everybody he sprang overboard. Upon that all shouted, jostled their neighbours as they rushed to the side, and fell to scanning the river where from bank to bank it lay wrapped in blinding glitter.
The whistle sounded in fitful alarm, the sailors threw lifebelts overboard, the deck rumbled like a drum under the crowd's surging rush, steam hissed afflightedly, a woman vented an hysterical cry, and the captain bawled from the bridge the imperious command:
"Avast heaving lifebelts! By now the fool will have got one! Damn you, calm the passengers!"
An unwashed, untidy priest with timid, staring eyes thrust back his long, dishevelled hair, and fell to repeating, as his fat shoulder jostled all and sundry, and his feet tripped people up.
"A muzhik, is it, or a woman? A muzhik, eh?"
By the time that I had made my way to the stern the man had fallen far behind the stern of the barge, and his head looked as small as a fly on the glassy surface of the water. However, towards that fly a fishing-boat was already darting with the swiftness of a water beetle, and causing its two oars to show quiveringly red and grey, while from the marshier of the two banks there began hastily to put out a second boat which leapt in the steamer's wash with the gaiety of a young calf.
Suddenly there broke into the painful hubbub on the steamer's deck a faint, heartrending cry of "A-a-ah!"
In answer to it a sharp-nosed, black-bearded, well-dressed peasant muttered with a smack of his lips:
"Ah! That is him shouting. What a madman he must have been! And an ugly customer too, wasn't he?"
The peasant with the curly beard rejoined in a tone of conviction engulfing all other utterances:
"It is his conscience that is catching him. Think what you like, but never can conscience be suppressed."
Therewith, constantly interrupting one another, the pair betook themselves to a public recital of the tragic story of the fair-haired young fellow, whom the fishermen had now lifted from the water, and were conveying towards the steamer with oars that oscillated at top speed.
The bearded peasant continued:
"As soon as it was seen that he was but running after the soldier's wife."
"Besides," the other peasant interrupted, "the property was not to be divided after the death of the father."
With which the bearded muzhik eagerly recounted the history of the murder done by the brother, the nephew, and a son, while the spruce, spare, well-dressed peasant interlarded the general buzz of conversation with words and comments cheerfully and stridently delivered, much as though he were driving in stakes for the erection of a fence.
"Every man is drawn most in the direction whither he finds it easiest to go."
"Then it will be the Devil that will be drawing him, since the direction of Hell is always the easiest."
"Well, YOU will not be going that way, I suppose? You don't altogether fancy it?"
"Why should I?"
"Because you have declared it to be the easiest way."
"Well, I am not a saint."
"No, ha-ha! you are not."
"And you mean that--?"
"I mean nothing. If a dog's chain be short, he is not to be blamed."
Whereupon, setting nose to nose, the pair plunged into a quarrel still more heated as they expounded in simple, but often curiously apposite, language opinions intelligible to themselves alone. The one peasant, a lean fellow with lengthy limbs, cold, sarcastic eyes, and a dark, bony countenance, spoke loudly and sonorously, with frequent shrugs of the shoulders, while the other peasant, a man stout and broad of build who until now had seemed calm, self-assured of demeanour, and a man of settled views, breathed heavily, while his oxlike eyes glowed with an ardour causing his face to flush patchily, and his beard to stick out from his chin.
"Look here, for instance," he growled as he gesticulated and rolled his dull eyes about. "How can that be? Does not even God know wherein a man ought to restrain himself?"
"If the Devil be one's master, God doesn't come into the matter."
"Liar! For who was the first who raised his hand against his fellow?"
"And the first man who repented of a sin? "
"Ah! You see!"
Here there broke into the dispute a shout of: "They are just getting him aboard!" and the crowd, rushing away from the stern, carried with it the two disputants--the sparer peasant; lowering his shoulders, and buttoning up his jacket as he went; while the bearded peasant, following at his heels, thrust his head forward in a surly manner as he shifted his cap from the one ear to the other.
With a ponderous beating of paddles against the current the steamer heaved to, and the captain shouted through a speaking-trumpet, with a view to preventing a collision between the barge and the stem of the vessel:
"Put her over! Put her o-o-ove-r!"
Soon the fishing-boat came alongside, and the half-drowned man, with a form as limp as a half-empty sack, and water exuding from every stitch, and his hitherto haggard face grown smooth and simple-looking, was hoisted on board.
Next, on the sailors laying him upon the hatchway of the baggage hold, he sat up, leaned forward, smoothed his wet hair with the palms of his hands, and asked dully, without looking at anyone:
"Have they also recovered my cap?"
Someone among the throng around him exclaimed reprovingly:
"It is not about your cap that you ought to be thinking, but about your soul."
Upon this he hiccuped loudly and freely, like a camel, and emitted a stream of turgid water from his mouth. Then, looking at the crowd with lack-lustre eyes, he said in an apathetic tone:
"Let me be taken elsewhere."
In answer, the boatswain sternly bade him stretch himself out, and this the young fellow did, with his hands clasped under his head, and his eyes closed, while the boatswain added brusquely to the onlookers:
"Move away, move away, good people. What is there to stare at? This is not a show. . . . Hi, you muzhik! Why did you play us such a trick, damn you?"
The crowd however, was not to be suppressed, but indulged in comments.
"He murdered his father, didn't he?"
"What? THAT wretched creature?"
As for the boatswain, he squatted upon his heels, and proceeded to subject the rescued man to a course of strict interrogation.
"What is the destination marked on your ticket?"
"Then you ought to leave the boat at Kazan. And what is your name?"
"And your surname?"
"Bashkin--though we are known also as the Bukolov family."
"Your family has a DOUBLE surname, then?"
With the full power of his trumpet-like lungs the bearded peasant (evidently he had lost his temper) broke in:
"Though his uncle and his brother have been sentenced to penal servitude and are travelling together on that barge, he--well, he has received his discharge! That is only a personal matter, however. In spite of what judges may say, one ought never to kill, since conscience cannot bear the thought of blood. Even nearly to become a murderer is wrong."
By this time more and more passengers had collected as they awakened from sleep and emerged from the first- and second-class cabins. Among them was the mate, a man with a black moustache and rubicund features who inquired of someone amid the confusion: "You are not a doctor, I suppose?" and received the astonished, high-pitched reply: "No, sir, nor ever have been one."
To this someone added with a drawl:
"Why is a doctor needed? Surely the man is a fellow of no particular importance?"
Over the river the radiance of the summer daylight had gathered increased strength, and, since the date was a Sunday, bells were sounding seductively from a hill, and a couple of women in gala apparel who were following the margin of the river waved handkerchiefs towards the steamer, and shouted some greeting.
Meanwhile the young fellow lay motionless, with his eyes closed. Divested of his pea-jacket, and wrapped about with wet, clinging underclothing, he looked more symmetrical than previously--his chest seemed better developed, his body plumper, and his face more rotund and less ugly.
Yet though the passengers gazed at him with compassion or distaste or severity or fear, as the case might be, all did so without ceremony, as though he had not been a living man at all.
For instance, a gaunt gentleman in a grey frock-coat said to a lady in a yellow straw hat adorned with a pink ribbon:
"At our place, in Riazan, when a certain master-watchmaker went and hanged himself to a ventilator, he first of all stopped every watch and clock in his shop. Now, the question is, why did he stop them?"
"An abnormal case indeed!"
On the other hand, a dark-browed woman who had her hands hidden beneath her shawl stood gazing at the rescued man in silence, and with her side turned towards him. As she did so tears were welling in her grey-blue eyes.
Presently two sailors appeared. One of them bent over the young fellow, touched him on the shoulder, and said:
"Hi! You are to get up."
Whereupon the young fellow rose, and was removed elsewhither.
When, after an interval, he reappeared on deck, he was clean and dry, and clad in a cook's white jumper and a sailor's blue serge trousers. Clasping his hands behind his back, hunching his shoulders, and bending his head forward, he walked swiftly to the stern, with a throng of idlers--at first one by one, and then in parties of from three to a dozen--following in his wake.
The man seated himself upon a coil of rope, and, craning his neck in wolf-like fashion to eye the bystanders, frowned, let fall his temples upon hands thrust into his flaxen hair, and fixed his gaze upon the barge.
Standing or sitting about in the hot sunshine, people stared at him without stint. Evidently they would have liked, but did not dare, to engage him in conversation. Presently the big peasant also arrived on the scene, and, after glancing at all present, took off his hat, and wiped his perspiring face. Next, a grey-headed old man with a red nose, a thin wisp of beard, and watery eyes cleared his throat, and in honeyed tones took the initiative.
"Would you mind telling us how it all happened?" he began.
"Why should I do so?" retorted the young fellow without moving.
Taking a red handkerchief from his bosom, the old man shook it out and applied it cautiously to his eyes. Then he said through its folds in the quiet accents of a man who is determined to persevere:
"Why, you say? For the reason that the occasion is one when all ought to know the tru--"
Lurching forward, the bearded peasant interposed with a rasp:
"Yes, do you tell us all about it, and things will become easier for you. For a sin always needs to be made known."
While, like an echo, a voice said in bold and sarcastic accents:
"It would be better to seize him and tie him up."
Upon this the young fellow raised his brows a little, and retorted in an undertone:
"Let me bide."
"The rascal!" the crowd commented, while the old man, neatly folding and replacing his handkerchief, raised a hand as dry as a cock's leg, and remarked with a sharp, knowing smile:
"Possibly it is not merely out of idle curiosity that folk are making this request."
"Go and be damned to you!" the young fellow exclaimed with a grim snap. Whereupon the big peasant bellowed out in a blustering fashion:
"What? Then you will not tell us at least your destination?"
Whereafter the same speaker continued to hold forth on humanity, God, and the human conscience--staring wildly around him as he did so, waving his arms about, and growing ever more frantic, until really it was curious to watch him.
At length the crowd grew similarly excited, and took to encouraging the speaker with cries of "True! That is so!"
As for the young fellow, he listened awhile in silence, without moving. Then, straightening his back, he rose, thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers, and, swaying his body to and fro, began to glare at the crowd with greenish eyes which were manifestly lightening to a vicious gleam. At length, thrusting forth his chest, he cried hoarsely:
"So you ask me whither I am bound? I am bound for the brigands' lair, for the brigands' lair, where, unless you first take and put me in fetters, I intend to cut the throat of every man that I meet. Yes, a hundred murders will I commit, for all folk will be the same to me, and not a soul will I spare. Aye, the end of my tether is reached, so take and fetter me whilst you can."
His breath was issuing with difficulty, and as he spoke his shoulders heaved, and his legs trembled beneath him. Also, his face had turned grey and become distorted with tremors.
Upon this, the crowd broke into a gruff, ugly, resentful roar, and edged away from the man. Yet, in doing so, many of its members looked curiously like the man himself in the way that they lowered their heads, caught at their breath, and let their eyes flash. Clearly the man was in imminent danger of being assaulted.
Suddenly he recovered his subdued demeanour--he, as it were, thawed in the sunlight: until, as suddenly, his legs gave way beneath him, and, narrowly escaping injury to his face from the corner of a bale, he fell forward upon his knees as though felled with an axe. Thereafter, clutching at his throat, he shouted in a strange voice, and crowding the words upon one another:
"Tell me what I am to do. Is all of it my fault? Long I lay in prison before I was tried and told to go free... yet--"
Tearing at his ears and cheeks, he rocked his head to and fro as though seeking to rend it from its socket. Then he continued:
"Yet I am NOT free. Nor is it in my power to say what will become of me. For me there remains neither life nor death."
"Aha!" exclaimed the big peasant; and at the sound the crowd drew back as in consternation, while some hastened to depart altogether. As for the remainder (numbering a dozen or so), they herded sullenly, nervously, involuntarily into a mass as the young fellow continued in distracted tones and with a trembling head:
"Oh that I could sleep for the next ten years! For then could I prove myself, and decide whether I am guilty or not. Last night I struck a man with a faggot. As I was walking about I saw asleep a man who had angered me, and thereupon thought, 'Come! I should like to deal him a blow, but can I actually do it?' And strike him I did. Was it my fault? Always I keep asking myself, 'Can I, or can I not, do a thing?' Aye, lost, lost am I!"
Apparently this outburst caused the man to reach the end of his power, for presently he sank from knees to heels--then on to his side, with hands clasping his head, and his tongue finally uttering the words, "Better had you kill me!"
A hush fell, for all now stood confounded and silent, with, about them, a greyer, a more subdued, look which made all more resemble their fellows. In fact, to all had the atmosphere become oppressive, as though everyone's breast had had clamped into it a large, soft clod of humid, viscid earth. Until at last someone said in a low, shamefaced, but friendly, tone:
"Good brother, we are not your judges."
To which someone else added with an equal measure of gentleness:
"Indeed, we may be no better than you."
"We pity you, but we must not judge you. Only pity is permitted."
As for the well-dressed peasant, his loud, triumphant utterance was:
"Let God judge him, but men suffer him. Of judging of one another there has been enough."
And a fifth man remarked to a friend as he walked away:
"What are we to make of this? To judge by the book, the young fellow is at once guilty and not guilty."
"Bygones ought to be bygones. Of all courses that is the best."
"Yes, for we are too quick. What good can that do?"
At length the dark-browed woman stepped forward. Letting her shawl to her shoulders, straightening hair streaked with grey under a bright blue scarf, and deftly putting aside a skirt she so seated herself beside the young fellow as to screen from the crowd with the height of her figure. Then, raising kindly face, she said civilly, but authoritatively, to the bystanders:
"Do all of you go away."
Whereupon the crowd began to depart,the big peasant saying as he went:
"There! Just as I foretold has the matter turned out. Conscience HAS asserted itself."
Yet the words were spoken without self-complacency, rather, thoughtfully, and with a sense of awe.
As for the red-nosed old man who was walking like a shadow behind the last speaker, he opened his snuff-box, peered therein with his moist eyes, and drawled to no one in particular:
"How often does one see a man play with conscience, yes, even though he be a rogue! He erects that conscience as a screen to his knaveries and tricks and wiles, and masks the whole with a cloud of words. Yes, we know how it is done, even though folk may stare at him, and say to one another, 'How fervently his soul is glowing!' Aye, all the time that he is holding his hand to his heart he will be dipping the other hand into your pocket."
The lover of proverbs, for his part, unbuttoned his jacket, thrust his hands under his coat-tails, and said in a loud voice:
"There is a saying that you can trust any wild beast, such as a fox or a hedgehog or a toad, but not--"
"Quite so, dear sir. The common folk are exceedingly degenerate."
"Well, they are not developing as they ought to do."
"No, they are over-cramped," was the big peasant's rasped-out comment. "They have no room for GROWTH."
"Yes, they DO grow, but only as regards beard and moustache, as a tree grows to branch and sap."
With a glance at the purveyor of proverbs the old man assented by remarking: "Yes, true it is that the common folk are cramped." Whereafter he thrust a pinch of snuff into his nostrils, and threw back his head in anticipation of the sneeze which failed to come. At length, drawing a deep breath through his parted lips, he said as he measured the peasant again with his eyes:
"My friend, you are of a sort calculated to last."
In answer the peasant nodded.
"SOME day," he remarked, "we shall get what we want."
In front of us now, was Kazan, with the pinnacles of its churches and mosques piercing the blue sky, and looking like garlands of exotic blooms. Around them lay the grey wall of the Kremlin, and above them soared the grim Tower of Sumbek.
Here one and all were due to disembark.
I glanced towards the stern once more. The dark-browed woman was breaking off morsels from a wheaten scone that was lying in her lap, and saying as she did so:
"Presently we will have a cup of tea, and then keep together as far as Christopol."
In response the young fellow edged nearer to her, and thoughtfully eyed the large hands which, though inured to hard work, could also be very gentle.
"I have been trodden upon," he said.
"Trodden upon by whom?"
"By all. And I am afraid of them."
"Because I am."
Breathing upon a morsel of the scone, the woman offered it him with the quiet words:
"You have had much to bear. Now, shall I tell you my history, or shall we first have tea? "
On the bank there was now to be seen the frontage of the gay, wealthy suburb of Uslon, with its brightly-dressed, rainbow-tinted women and girls tripping through the streets, and the water of its foaming river sparkling hotly, yet dimly, in the sunlight.
It was a scene like a scene beheld in a vision.
Return to the Maxim Gorky library , or . . . Read the next short story; One Autumn Night