The Man Who Was Afraid, by Maksim Gorky

Chapter VIII

ON the third day after the scene in the club, Foma found himself about seven versts from the town, on the timber-wharf of the merchant Zvantzev, in the company of the merchant’s son of Ookhtishchev — a sedate, bald-headed and red-nosed gentleman with side whiskers — and four ladies. The young Zvantzev wore eyeglasses, was thin and pale, and when he stood, the calves of his legs were forever trembling as though they were disgusted at supporting the feeble body, clad in a long, checked top-coat with a cape, in whose folds a small head in a jockey cap was comically shaking. The gentleman with the side whiskers called him Jean and pronounced this name as though he was suffering from an inveterate cold. Jean’s lady was a tall, stout woman with a showy bust. Her head was compressed on the sides, her low forehead receded, her long, sharp-pointed nose gave her face an expression somewhat bird-like. And this ugly face was perfectly motionless, and the eyes alone, small, round and cold, were forever smiling a penetrating and cunning smile. Ookhtishchev’s lady’s name was Vera; she was a tall, pale woman with red hair. She had so much hair, that it seemed as though the woman had put on her head an enormous cap which was coming down over her ears, her cheeks and her high forehead, from under which her large blue eyes looked forth calmly and lazily.

The gentleman with the side whiskers sat beside a young, plump, buxom girl, who constantly giggled in a ringing voice at something which he whispered in her ear as he leaned over her shoulder.

And Foma’s lady was a stately brunette, clad all in black. Dark- complexioned, with wavy locks, she kept her head so erect and high and looked at everything about her with such condescending haughtiness, that it was at once evident that she considered herself the most important person there.

The company were seated on the extreme link of the raft, extending far into the smooth expanse of the river. Boards were spread out on the raft and in the centre stood a crudely constructed table; empty bottles, provision baskets, candy- wrappers and orange peels were scattered about everywhere. In the corner of the raft was a pile of earth, upon which a bonfire was burning, and a peasant in a short fur coat, squatting, warmed his hands over the fire, and cast furtive glances at the people seated around the table. They had just finished eating their sturgeon soup, and now wines and fruits were before them on the table.

Fatigued with a two-days’ spree and with the dinner that had just been finished, the company was in a weary frame of mind. They all gazed at the river, chatting, but their conversation was now and again interrupted by long pauses.

The day was clear and bright and young, as in spring. The cold, clear sky stretched itself majestically over the turbid water of the gigantically-wide, overflowing river, which was as calm as the sky and as vast as the sea. The distant, mountainous shore was tenderly bathed in bluish mist. Through it, there, on the mountain tops, the crosses of churches were flashing like big stars. The river was animated at the mountainous shore; steamers were going hither and thither, and their noise came in deep moans toward the rafts and into the meadows, where the calm flow of the waves filled the air with soft and faint sounds. Gigantic barges stretched themselves one after another against the current, like huge pigs, tearing asunder the smooth expanse of the river. Black smoke came in ponderous puffs from the chimneys of the steamers, slowly melting in the fresh air, which was full of bright sunshine. At times a whistle resounded — it was like the roar of some huge, enraged animal, embittered by toil. And on the meadows near the rafts, all was calm and silent. Solitary trees that had been drowned by the flood, were now already covered with light- green spangles of foliage. Covering their roots and reflecting their tops, the water gave them the appearance of globes, and it seemed as though the slightest breeze would send them floating, fantastically beautiful, down the mirror-like bosom of the river.

The red-haired woman, pensively gazing into the distance, began to sing softly and sadly:

“Along the Volga river A little boat is flo-o-oating.”

The brunette, snapping her large, stern eyes with contempt, said, without looking at her: “We feel gloomy enough without this.”

“Don’t touch her. Let her sing!” entreated Foma, kindly, looking into his lady’s face. He was pale some spark seemed to flash up in his eyes now and then, and an indefinite, indolent smile played about his lips.

“Let us sing in chorus!” suggested the man with the side whiskers.

“No, let these two sing!” exclaimed Ookhtishchev with enthusiasm. “Vera, sing that song! You know, ‘I will go at dawn.’ How is it? Sing, Pavlinka!”

The giggling girl glanced at the brunette and asked her respectfully:

“Shall I sing, Sasha?”

“I shall sing myself,” announced Foma’s companion, and turning toward the lady with the birdlike face, she ordered:

“Vassa, sing with me!”

Vassa immediately broke off her conversation with Zvantzev, stroked her throat a little with her hand and fixed her round eyes on the face of her sister. Sasha rose to her feet, leaned her hand against the table, and her head lifted haughtily, began to declaim in a powerful, almost masculine voice:

“Life on earth is bright to him, Who knows no cares or woe, And whose heart is not consumed By passion’s ardent glow!”

Her sister nodded her head and slowly, plaintively began to moan in a deep contralto:

“Ah me! Of me the maiden fair.”

Flashing her eyes at her sister, Sasha exclaimed in her low- pitched notes:

“Like a blade of grass my heart has withered.”

The two voices mingled and floated over the water in melodious, full sounds, which quivered from excess of power. One of them was complaining of the unbearable pain in the heart, and intoxicated by the poison of its plaint, it sobbed with melancholy and impotent grief; sobbed, quenching with tears the fire of the suffering. The other — the lower, more masculine voice — rolled powerfully through the air, full of the feeling of bloody mortification and of readiness to avenge. Pronouncing the words distinctly, the voice came from her breast in a deep stream, and each word reeked with boiling blood, stirred up by outrage, poisoned by offence and mightily demanding vengeance.

“I will requite him,”

sang Vassa, plaintively, closing her eyes.

“I will inflame him, I’ll dry him up,”

Sasha promised sternly and confidently, wafting into the air strong, powerful tones, which sounded like blows. And suddenly, changing the tempo of the song and striking a higher pitch, she began to sing, as slowly as her sister, voluptuous and exultant threats:

“Drier than the raging wind, Drier than the mown-down grass, Oi, the mown and dried-up grass.”

Resting his elbows on the table, Foma bent his head, and with knitted brow, gazed into the face of the woman, into her black, half-shut eyes Staring fixedly into the distance, her eyes flashed so brightly and malignantly that, because of their light, the velvety voice, that burst from the woman’s chest, seemed to him also black and flashing, like her eyes. He recalled her caresses and thought:

“How does she come to be such as she is? It is even fearful to be with her.”

Ookhtishchev, sitting close to his lady, an expression of happiness on his face, listened to the song and was radiant with satisfaction. The gentleman with the side whiskers and Zvantzev were drinking wine, softly whispering something as they leaned toward each other. The red-headed woman was thoughtfully examining the palm of Ookhtishchev’s hand, holding it in her own, and the jolly girl became sad. She drooped her head low and listened to the song, motionless, as though bewitched by it. From the fire came the peasant. He stepped carefully over the boards, on tiptoe; his hands were clasped behind his back, and his broad, bearded face was now transformed into a smile of astonishment and of a naive delight.

“Eh! but feel, my kind, brave man!”

entreated Vassa, plaintively, nodding her head. And her sister, her chest bent forward, her hand still higher, wound up the song in powerful triumphant notes:

“The yearning and the pangs of love!”

When she finished singing, she looked haughtily about her, and seating herself by Foma’s side, clasped his neck with a firm and powerful hand.

“Well, was it a nice song?”

“It’s capital!” said Foma with a sigh, as he smiled at her.

The song filled his heart with thirst for tenderness and, still full of charming sounds, it quivered, but at the touch of her arm he felt awkward and ashamed before the other people.

“Bravo-o! Bravo, Aleksandra Sarelyevna!” shouted Ookhtishchev, and the others were clapping their hands. But she paid no attention to them, and embracing Foma authoritatively, said:

“Well, make me a present of something for the song.”

“Very well, I will,” Foma assented.

“What?”

“You tell me.”

“I’ll tell you when we come to town. And if you’ll give me what I like — Oh, how I will love you!”

“For the present?” asked Foma, smiling suspiciously. “You ought to love me anyway.”

She looked at him calmly and, after a moment’s thought, said resolutely:

“It’s too soon to love you anyway. I will not lie. Why should I lie to you? I am telling you frankly. I love you for money, for presents. Because aside from money, men have nothing. They cannot give anything more than money. Nothing of worth. I know it well already. One can love merely so. Yes, wait a little — I’ll know you better and then, perhaps, I may love you free of charge. And meanwhile, you mustn’t take me amiss. I need much money in my mode of life.”

Foma listened to her, smiled and now and then quivered from the nearness of her sound, well-shaped body. Zvantzev’s sour, cracked and boring voice was falling on his ears. “I don’t like it. I cannot understand the beauty of this renowned Russian song. What is it that sounds in it? Eh? The howl of a wolf. Something hungry, wild. Eh! it’s the groan of a sick dog — altogether something beastly. There’s nothing cheerful, there’s no chic to it; there are no live and vivifying sounds in it. No, you ought to hear what and how the French peasant sings. Ah! or the Italian.”

“Excuse me, Ivan Nikolayevich,” cried Ookhtishchev, agitated.

“I must agree with you, the Russian song is monotonous and gloomy. It has not, you know, that brilliancy of culture,” said the man with the side whiskers wearily, as he sipped some wine out of his glass.

“But nevertheless, there is always a warm heart in it,” put in the red-haired lady, as she peeled an orange.

The sun was setting. Sinking somewhere far beyond the forest, on the meadow shore, it painted the entire forest with purple tints and cast rosy and golden spots over the dark cold water. Foma gazed in that direction at this play of the sunbeams, watched how they quivered as they were transposed over the placid and vast expanse of waters, and catching fragments of conversation, he pictured to himself the words as a swarm of dark butterflies, busily fluttering in the air. Sasha, her head resting on his shoulder, was softly whispering into his ear something at which he blushed and was confused, for he felt that she was kindling in him the desire to embrace this woman and kiss her unceasingly. Aside from her, none of those assembled there interested him — while Zvantzev and the gentleman with the side whiskers were actually repulsive to him.

“What are you staring at? Eh?” he heard Ookhtishchev’s jestingly- stern voice.

The peasant, at whom Ookhtishchev shouted, drew the cap from his head, clapped it against his knee and answered, with a smile:

“I came over to listen to the lady’s song.”

“Well, does she sing well?”

“What a question! Of course,” said the peasant, looking at Sasha, with admiration in his eyes.

“That’s right!” exclaimed Ookhtishchev.

“There is a great power of voice in that lady’s breast,” said the peasant, nodding his head.

At his words, the ladies burst out laughing and the men made some double-meaning remarks about Sasha.

After she had calmly listened to these and said nothing in reply, Sasha asked the peasant:

“Do you sing?”

“We sing a little!” and he waved his hand, “What songs do you know?”

“All kinds. I love singing.” And he smiled apologetically.

“Come, let’s sing something together, you and I.”

“How can we? Am I a match for you?”

“Well, strike up!”

“May I sit down?”

“Come over here, to the table.”

“How lively this is!” exclaimed Zvantzev, wrinkling his face.

“If you find it tedious, go and drown yourself,” said Sasha, angrily flashing her eyes at him.

“No, the water is cold,” replied Zvantzev, shrinking at her glance.

“As you please!” The woman shrugged her shoulders. “But it is about time you did it, and then, there’s also plenty of water now, so that you wouldn’t spoil it all with your rotten body.”

“Fie, how witty!” hissed the youth, turning away from her, and added with contempt: “In Russia even the prostitutes are rude.”

He addressed himself to his neighbour, but the latter gave him only an intoxicated smile in return. Ookhtishchev was also drunk. Staring into the face of his companion, with his eyes grown dim, he muttered something and heard nothing. The lady with the bird- like face was pecking candy, holding the box under her very nose. Pavlinka went away to the edge of the raft and, standing there, threw orange peels into the water.

“I never before participated in such an absurd outing and — company,” said Zvantzev, to his neighbour, plaintively.

And Foma watched him with a smile, delighted that this feeble and ugly-looking man felt bored, and that Sasha had insulted him. Now and then he cast at her a kind glance of approval. He was pleased with the fact that she was so frank with everybody and that she bore herself proudly, like a real gentlewoman.

The peasant seated himself on the boards at her feet, clasped his knees in his hands, lifted his face to her and seriously listened to her words.

“You must raise your voice, when I lower mine, understand?”

“I understand; but, Madam, you ought to hand me some just to give me courage!”

“Foma, give him a glass of brandy!”

And when the peasant emptied it, cleared his throat with pleasure, licked his lips and said: “Now, I can do it,” she ordered, knitting her brow:

“Begin!”

The peasant made a wry mouth, lifted his eyes to her face, and started in a high-pitched tenor:

“I cannot drink, I cannot eat.”

Trembling in every limb, the woman sobbed out tremulously, with strange sadness:

“Wine cannot gladden my soul.”

The peasant smiled sweetly, tossed his head to and fro, and closing his eyes, poured out into the air a tremulous wave of high-pitched notes:

“Oh, time has come for me to bid goodbye!”

And the woman, shuddering and writhing, moaned and wailed:

“Oi, from my kindred I must part.”

Lowering his voice and swaying to and fro, the peasant declaimed in a sing-song with a remarkably intense expression of anguish:

“Alas, to foreign lands I must depart.”

When the two voices, yearning and sobbing, poured forth into the silence and freshness of the evening, everything about them seemed warmer and better; everything seemed to smile the sorrowful smile of sympathy on the anguish of the man whom an obscure power is tearing away from his native soil into some foreign place, where hard labour and degradation are in store for him. It seemed as though not the sounds, nor the song, but the burning tears of the human heart in which the plaint had surged up — it seemed as though these tears moistened the air. Wild grief and pain from the sores of body and soul, which were wearied in the struggle with stern life; intense sufferings from the wounds dealt to man by the iron hand of want — all this was invested in the simple, crude words and was tossed in ineffably melancholy sounds toward the distant, empty sky, which has no echo for anybody or anything.

Foma had stepped aside from the singers, and stared at them with a feeling akin to fright, and the song, in a huge wave, poured forth into his breast, and the wild power of grief, with which it had been invested, clutched his heart painfully. He felt that tears would soon gush from his breast, something was clogging his throat and his face was quivering. He dimly saw Sasha’s black eyes; immobile and flashing gloomily, they seemed to him enormous and still growing larger and larger. And it seemed to him that it was not two persons who were singing — that everything about him was singing and sobbing, quivering and palpitating in torrents of sorrow, madly striving somewhere, shedding burning tears, and all — and all things living seemed clasped in one powerful embrace of despair. And it seemed to him that he, too, was singing in unison with all of them — with the people, the river and the distant shore, whence came plaintive moans that mingled with the song.

Now the peasant went down on his knees, and gazing at Sasha, waved his hands, and she bent down toward him and shook her head, keeping time to the motions of his hands. Both were now singing without words, with sounds only, and Foma still could not believe that only two voices were pouring into the air these moans and sobs with such mighty power.

When they had finished singing, Foma, trembling with excitement, with a tear-stained face, gazed at them and smiled sadly.

“Well, did it move you?” asked Sasha. Pale with fatigue, she breathed quickly and heavily.

Foma glanced at the peasant. The latter was wiping the sweat off his brow and looking around him with such a wandering look as though he could not make out what had taken place.

All was silence. All were motionless and speechless.

“0h Lord!” sighed Foma, rising to his feet. “Eh, Sasha! Peasant! Who are you?” he almost shouted.

“I am — Stepan,” said the peasant, smiling confusedly, and also rose to his feet. “I’m Stepan. Of course!”

“How you sing! Ah!” Foma exclaimed in astonishment, uneasily shifting from foot to foot.

“Eh, your Honour!” sighed the peasant and added softly and convincingly: “Sorrow can compel an ox to sing like a nightingale. And what makes the lady sing like this, only God knows. And she sings, with all her veins — that is to say, so you might just lie down and die with sorrow! Well, that’s a lady.”

“That was sung very well!” said Ookhtishchev in a drunken voice.

No, the devil knows what this is!” Zvantzev suddenly shouted, almost crying, irritated as he jumped up from the table. “I’ve come out here for a good time. I want to enjoy myself, and here they perform a funeral service for me! What an outrage! I can’t stand this any longer. I’m going away!”

“Jean, I am also going. I’m weary, too,” announced the gentleman with the side whiskers.

“Vassa,” cried Zvantzev to his lady, “dress yourself!”

“Yes, it’s time to go,” said the red-haired lady to Ookhtishchev. “It is cold, and it will soon be dark.”

“Stepan! Clear everything away!” commanded Vassa.

All began to bustle about, all began to speak of something. Foma stared at them in suspense and shuddered. Staggering, the crowd walked along the rafts. Pale and fatigued, they said to one another stupid, disconnected things. Sasha jostled them unceremoniously, as she was getting her things together.

“Stepan! Call for the horses!”

“And I’ll drink some more cognac. Who wants some more cognac with me?” drawled the gentleman with the side whiskers in a beatific voice, holding a bottle in his hands.

Vassa was muffling Zvantzev’s neck with a scarf. He stood in front of her, frowning, dissatisfied, his lips curled capriciously, the calves of his legs shivering. Foma became disgusted as he looked at them, and he went off to the other raft. He was astonished that all these people behaved as though they had not heard the song at all. In his breast the song was alive and there it called to life a restless desire to do something, to say something. But he had no one there to speak to.

The sun had set and the distance was enveloped in blue mist. Foma glanced thither and turned away. He did not feel like going to town with these people, neither did he care to stay here with them. And they were still pacing the raft with uneven steps, shaking from side to side and muttering disconnected words. The women were not quite as drunk as the men, and only the red-haired one could not lift herself from the bench for a long time, and finally, when she rose, she declared:

“Well, I’m drunk.”

Foma sat down on a log of wood, and lifting the axe, with which the peasant had chopped wood for the fire, he began to play with it, tossing it up in the air and catching it.

“Oh, my God! How mean this is!” Zvantzev’s capricious voice was heard.

Foma began to feel that he hated it, and him, and everybody, except Sasha, who awakened in him a certain uneasy feeling, which contained at once admiration for her and a fear lest she might do something unexpected and terrible.

“Brute!” shouted Zvantzev in a shrill voice, and Foma noticed that he struck the peasant on the chest, after which the peasant removed his cap humbly and stepped aside.

“Fo-o-ol!” cried Zvantzev, walking after him and lifting his hand.

Foma jumped to his feet and said threateningly, in a loud voice:

“Eh, you! Don’t touch him!”

“Wha-a-at?” Zvantzev turned around toward him.

“Stepan, come over here,” called Foma.

“Peasant!” Zvantzev hurled with contempt, looking at Foma.

Foma shrugged his shoulders and made a step toward him; but suddenly a thought flashed vividly through his mind! He smiled maliciously and inquired of Stepan, softly:

“The string of rafts is moored in three places, isn’t it?

“In three, of course!”

“Cut the connections!”

“And they?”

“Keep quiet! Cut!”

“But —”

“Cut! Quietly, so they don’t notice it!”

The peasant took the axe in his hands, slowly walked up to the place where one link was well fastened to another link, struck a few times with his axe, and returned to Foma.

“I’m not responsible, your Honour,” he said.

“Don’t be afraid.”

“They’ve started off,” whispered the peasant with fright, and hastily made the sign of the cross. And Foma gazed, laughing softly, and experienced a painful sensation that keenly and sharply stung his heart with a certain strange, pleasant and sweet fear.

The people on the raft were still pacing to and fro, moving about slowly, jostling one another, assisting the ladies with their wraps, laughing and talking, and the raft was meanwhile turning slowly and irresolutely in the water.

“If the current carries them against the fleet,” whispered the peasant, “they’ll strike against the bows — and they’ll be smashed into splinters.”

“Keep quiet!”

“They’ll drown!”

“You’ll get a boat, and overtake them.”

“That’s it! Thank you. What then? They’re after all human beings. And we’ll be held responsible for them.” Satisfied now, laughing with delight, the peasant dashed in bounds across the rafts to the shore. And Foma stood by the water and felt a passionate desire to shout something, but he controlled himself, in order to give time for the raft to float off farther, so that those drunken people would not be able to jump across to the moored links. He experienced a pleasant caressing sensation as he saw the raft softly rocking upon the water and floating off farther and farther from him every moment.The heavy and dark feeling, with which his heart had been filled during this time, now seemed to float away together with the people on the raft. Calmly he inhaled the fresh air and with it something sound that cleared his brain. At the very edge of the floating raft stood Sasha, with her back toward Foma; he looked at her beautiful figure and involuntarily recalled Medinskaya. The latter was smaller in size. The recollection of her stung him, and he cried out in a loud, mocking voice:

“Eh, there! Good-bye! Ha! ha! ha!”

Suddenly the dark figures of the people moved toward him and crowded together in one group, in the centre of the raft. But by this time a clear strip of water, about three yards wide, was flashing between them and Foma.

There was a silence lasting for a few seconds.

Then suddenly a hurricane of shrill, repulsively pitiful sounds, which were full of animal fright, was hurled at Foma, and louder than all and more repulsive than all, Zvantzev’s shrill, jarring cry pierced the ear:

“He-e-elp!”

Some one — in all probability, the sedate gentleman with the side whiskers — roared in his basso:

“Drowning! They’re drowning people!”

“Are you people?” cried Foma, angrily, irritated by their screams which seemed to bite him. And the people ran about on the raft in the madness of fright; the raft rocked under their feet, floated faster on account of this, and the agitated water was loudly splashing against and under it. The screams rent the air, the people jumped about, waving their hands, and the stately figure of Sasha alone stood motionless and speechless on the edge of the raft.

“Give my regards to the crabs!” cried Foma. Foma felt more and more cheerful and relieved in proportion as the raft was floating away from him.

“Foma Ignatyevich!” said Ookhtishchev in a faint, but sober voice, “look out, this is a dangerous joke. I’ll make a complaint.”

“When you are drowned? You may complain!” answered Foma, cheerfully.

“You are a murderer!” exclaimed Zvantzev, sobbing. But at this time a ringing splash of water was heard as though it groaned with fright or with astonishment. Foma shuddered and became as though petrified. Then rang out the wild, deafening shrieks of the women, and the terror-stricken screams of men, and all the figures on the raft remained petrified in their places. And Foma, staring at the water, felt as though he really were petrified. In the water something black, surrounded with splashes, was floating toward him.

Rather instinctively than consciously, Foma threw himself with his chest on the beams of the raft, and stretched out his hands, his head hanging down over the water. Several incredibly long seconds passed. Cold, wet arms clasped his neck and dark eyes flashed before him. Then he understood that it was Sasha.

The dull horror, which had suddenly seized him, vanished, replaced now by wild, rebellious joy. Having dragged the woman out of the water, he grasped her by the waist, clasped her to his breast, and, not knowing what to say to her, he stared into her eyes with astonishment. She smiled at him caressingly.

“I am cold,” said Sasha, softly, and quivered in every limb.

Foma laughed gaily at the sound of her voice, lifted her into his arms and quickly, almost running, dashed across the rafts to the shore. She was wet and cold, but her breathing was hot, it burned Foma’s cheek and filled his breast with wild joy.

“You wanted to drown me?” said she, firmly, pressing close to him. “It was rather too early. Wait!”

“How well you have done it,” muttered Foma, as he ran.

“You’re a fine, brave fellow! And your device wasn’t bad, either, though you seem to be so peaceable.”

“And they are still roaring there, ha! ha!”

“The devil take them! If they are drowned, we’ll be sent to Siberia,” said the woman, as though she wanted to console and encourage him by this. She began to shiver, and the shudder of her body, felt by Foma, made him hasten his pace.

Sobs and cries for help followed them from the river. There, on the placid water, floated in the twilight a small island, withdrawing from the shore toward the stream of the main current of the river, and on that little island dark human figures were running about.

Night was closing down upon them.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37