Darkened by the dust of the dock, the blue southern sky is murky; the burning sun looks duskily into the greenish sea, as though through a thin gray veil. It can find no reflection in the water, continually cut up by the strokes of oars, the screws of steamers, the deep, sharp keels of Turkish feluccas and other sailing vessels, that pass in all directions, ploughing up the crowded harbor, where the free waves of the sea, pent up within granite walls, and crushed under the vast weights that glide over its crests, beat upon the sides of the ships and on the bank; beat and complain, churned up into foam and fouled with all sorts of refuse.
The jingle of the anchor chains, the rattle of the links of the trucks that bring down the cargoes, the metallic clank of sheets of iron falling on the stone pavement, the dull thud of wood, the creaking of the carts plying for hire, the whistles of the steamers, piercingly shrill and hoarsely roaring, the shouts of dock laborers, sailors, and customs officers — all these sounds melt into the deafening symphony of the working day, that hovering uncertainty hangs over the harbor, as though afraid to float upward and be lost.
And fresh waves of sound continually rise up from the earth to join it; deep, grumbling, sullen reverberations setting all around quaking; shrill, menacing notes that pierce the ear and the dusty, sultry air.
The granite, the iron, the wood, the harbor pavement, the ships and the men — all swelled the mighty strains of this frenzied, impassioned hymn to Mercury. But the voices of men, scarcely audible in it, were weak and ludicrous. And the men, too, themselves, the first source of all that uproar, were ludicrous and pitiable: their little figures, dusty, tattered, nimble, bent under the weight of goods that lay on their backs, under the weight of cares that drove them hither and thither, in the clouds of dust, in the sea of sweltering heat and din, were so trivial and small in comparison with the colossal iron monsters, the mountains of bales, the thundering railway trucks and all that they had created. Their own creation had enslaved them, and stolen away their individual life.
As they lay letting off steam, the heavy giant steamers whistled or hissed, or seemed to heave deep sighs, and in every sound that came from them could be heard the mocking note of ironical contempt for the gray, dusty shapes of men, crawling about their decks and filling their deep holds with the fruits of their slavish toil. Ludicrous and pitiable were the long strings of dock laborers bearing on their backs thousands of tons of bread, and casting it into the iron bellies of the ships to gain a few pounds of that same bread to fill their own bellies — for their worse luck not made of iron, but alive to the pangs of hunger.
The men, tattered, drenched with sweat, made dull by weariness, and din and heat; and the mighty machines, created by those men, shining, well-fed, serene, in the sunshine; machines which in the last resort are, after all, not set in motion by steam, but by the muscles and blood of their creators — in this contrast was a whole poem of cruel and frigid irony.
The clamor oppressed the spirit, the dust fretted the nostrils and blinded the eyes, the sweltering heat baked and exhausted the body, and everything-buildings, men, pavement — seemed strained, breaking, ready to burst, losing patience, on the verge of exploding into some immense catastrophe, some outbreak, after which one would be able to breathe freely and easily in the air refreshed by it. On the earth there would be quietness; and that dusty uproar, deafening, fretting the nerves, driving one to melancholy frenzy, would vanish; and in town, and sea and sky, it would be still and clear and pleasant. But that was only seeming. It seemed so because man has not yet grown weary of hoping for better things, and the longing to feel free is not dead in him.
Twelve times there rang out the regular musical peal of the bell. When the last brazen clang had died away, the savage orchestra of toil had already lost half its volume. A minute later it had passed into a dull, repining grumble. Now the voices of men and the splash of the sea could be heard more clearly. The dinner-hour had come.
When the dock laborers, knocking off work, had scattered about the dock in noisy groups, buying various edibles from the women hawking food, and were settling themselves to dinner in shady corners on the pavement, there walked into their midst Grishka Chelkash, an old hunted wolf, well known to all the dock population as a hardened drunkard and a bold and dexterous thief. He was barefoot and bareheaded, clad in old, threadbare, shoddy breeches, in a dirty print shirt, with a torn collar that displayed his mobile, dry, angular bones tightly covered with brown skin. From the ruffled state of his black, slightly grizzled hair and the dazed look on his keen, predatory face, it was evident that he had only just waked up. There was a straw sticking in one brown mustache, another straw clung to the scrubby bristles of his shaved left cheek, and behind his ear he had stuck a little, freshly-picked twig of lime. Long, bony, rather stooping, he paced slowly over the flags, and turning his hooked, rapacious-looking nose from side to side, he cast sharp glances about him, his cold, gray eyes shining, as he scanned one after another among the dock laborers. His thick and long brown mustaches were continually twitching like a cat’s whiskers, while he rubbed his hands behind his back, nervously clenching the long, crooked, clutching fingers. Even here, among hundreds of striking-looking, tattered vagabonds like himself, he attracted attention at once from his resemblance to a vulture of the steppes, from his hungry-looking thinness, and from that peculiar gait of his, as though pouncing down on his prey, so smooth and easy in appearance, but inwardly intent and alert, like the flight of the keen, nervous bird he resembled.
As he reached one of the groups of ragged dockers, reclining in the shade of a stack of coal baskets, there rose to meet him a thick-set young man, with purple blotches on his dull face and scratches on his neck, unmistakable traces of a recent thrashing. He got up and walked beside Chelkash, saying, in an undertone:
“The dock officers have got wind of the two cases of goods. They’re on the look-out. D’ye hear, Grishka?”
“What then?” queried Chelkash, cooly measuring him with his eyes.
“How ‘what then?’ They’re on the look-out, I say. That’s all.”
“Did they ask for me to help them look?”
And with an acrid smile Chelkash looked toward the storehouse of the Volunteer Fleet.
“You go to the devil!”
His companion turned away.
“Ha, wait a bit! Who’s been decorating you like that? Why, what a sight they have made of your signboard! Have you seen Mishka here?”
“I’ve not seen him this long while!” the other shouted, and hastily went back to his companions.
Chelkash went on farther, greeted by everyone as a familiar figure. But he, usually so lively and sarcastic, was unmistakably out of humor to-day, and made short and abrupt replies to all inquiries.
From behind a pile of goods emerged a customs-house officer, a dark green, dusty figure, of military erectness. He barred the way for Chelkash, standing before him in a challenging attitude, his left hand clutching the hilt of his dirk, while with his right he tried to seize Chelkash by the collar.
“Stop! Where are you going?”
Chelkash drew back a step, raised his eyes, looked at the official, and smiled dryly.
The red, good-humoredly crafty face of the official, in its attempt to assume a menacing air, puffed and grew round and purple, while the brows scowled, the eyes rolled, and the effect was very comic.
“You’ve been told — don’t you dare come into the dock, or I’ll break your ribs! And you’re here again!” the man roared threateningly.
“How d’ye do, Semyonitch! It’s a long while since we’ve seen each other,” Chelkash greeted him calmly, holding out his hand.
“Thankful never to see you again! Get along, get along!”
But yet Semyonitch took the outstretched hand.
“You tell me this,” Chelkash went on, his gripping fingers still keeping their hold of Semyonitch’s hand, and shaking it with friendly familiarity, “haven’t you seen Mishka?”
“Mishka, indeed, who’s Mishka? I don’t know any Mishka. Get along, mate! or the inspector’ll see you, he’ll ——”
“The red-haired fellow that I worked with last time on the ‘Kostroma’?” Chelkash persisted.
“That you steal with, you’d better say. He’s been taken to the hospital, your Mishka; his foot was crushed by an iron bar. Go away, mate, while you’re asked to civilly, go away, or I’ll chuck you out by the scruff of your neck.”
“A-ha, that’s like you! And you say-you don’t know Mishka! But I say, why are you so cross, Semyonitch?”
“I tell you, Grishka, don’t give me any of your jaw. Go —-o!”
The official began to get angry and, looking from side to side, tried to pull his hand away from Chelkash’s firm grip. Chelkash looked calmly at him from under his thick eyebrows, smiled behind his mustache and not letting go of his hand, went on talking.
“Don’t hurry me. I’ll just have my chat out with you, and then I’ll go. Come, tell us how you’re getting on; wife and children quite well?” And with a spiteful gleam in his eyes, he added, showing his teeth in a mocking grin: “I’ve been meaning to pay you a call for ever so long, but I’ve not had the time, I’m always drinking, you see.”
“Now — now then-you drop that! You — none of your jokes, you bony devil. I’m in earnest, my man. So you mean you’re coming stealing in the houses and the streets?”
“What for? Why there’s goods enough here to last our time — for you and me. By God, there’s enough, Semyonitch! So you’ve been filching two cases of goods, eh? Mind, Semyonitch, you’d better look out? You’ll get caught one day!”
Enraged by Chelkash’s insolence, Semyonitch turned blue, and struggled, spluttering and trying to say something.
Chelkash let go of his hand, and with complete composure strode back to the dock gates. The customs-house officer followed him, swearing furiously. Chelkash grew more cheerful; he whistled shrilly through his teeth, and thrusting his hands in his breeches pockets, walked with the deliberate gait of a man of leisure, firing off to right and to left biting jeers and jests. He was followed by retorts in the same vein.
“I say, Grishka, what good care they do take of you! Made your inspection, eh?” shouted one out of a group of dockers, who had finished dinner and were lying on the ground, resting.
“I’m barefoot, so here’s Semyonitch watching that I shouldn’t graze my foot on anything,” answered Chelkash.
They reached the gates. Two soldiers felt Chelkash all over, and gave him a slight shove into the streets.
“Don’t let him go!” wailed Semyonitch, who had stayed behind in the dockyard.
Chelkash crossed the road and sat down on a stone post opposite the door of the inn. From the dock gates rolled rumbling an endless string of laden carts. To meet them, rattled empty carts, with their drivers jolting up and down in them. The dock vomited howling din and biting dust, and set the earth quaking.
Chelkash, accustomed to this frenzied uproar, and roused by his scene with Semyonitch, felt in excellent spirits. Before him lay the attractive prospect of a substantial haul, which would call for some little exertion and a great deal of dexterity; Chelkash was confident that he had plenty of the latter, and, half-closing his eyes, dreamed of how he would indulge to~morrow morning when the business would be over and the notes would be rustling in his pocket.
Then he thought of his comrade, Mishka, who would have been very useful that night, if he had not hurt his foot; Chelkash swore to himself, thinking that, all alone, without Mishka, maybe he’d hardly manage it all. What sort of night would it be? Chelkash looked at the sky, and along the street.
Half-a-dozen paces from him, on the flagged pavement, there sat, leaning against a stone post, a young fellow in a coarse blue linen shirt, and breeches of the same, in plaited bark shoes, and a torn, reddish cap. Near him lay a little bag, and a scythe without a handle, with a wisp of hay twisted round it and carefully tied with string. The youth was broad-shouldered, squarely built, flaxen headed, with a sunburnt and weather-beaten face, and big blue eyes that stared with confident simplicity at Chelkash.
Chelkash grinned at him, put out his tongue, and making a fearful face, stared persistently at him with wide-open eyes.
The young fellow at first blinked in bewilderment, but then, suddenly bursting into a guffaw, shouted through his laughter: “Oh! you funny chap!” and half getting up from the ground, rolled clumsily from his post to Chelkash’s, upsetting his bag into the dust, and knocking the heel of his scythe on the stone.
“Eh, mate, you’ve been on the spree, one can see!” he said to Chelkash, pulling at his trousers.
“That’s so, suckling, that’s so indeed!” Chelkash admitted frankly; he took at once to this healthy, simple-hearted youth, with his childish clear eyes. “Been off mowing, eh?”
“To be sure! You’ve to mow a verst to earn ten kopecks! It’s a poor business! Folks — in masses! Men had come tramping from the famine parts. They’ve knocked down the prices, go where you will. Sixty kopecks they paid in Kuban. And in years gone by, they do say, it was three, and four, and five roubles.”
“In years gone by! Why, in years gone by, for the mere sight of a Russian they paid three roubles out that way. Ten years ago I used to make a regular trade of it. One would go to a settlement —‘I’m a Russian,’ one said — and they’d come and gaze at you at once, touch you, wonder at you, and — you’d get three roubles. And they’d give you food and drink — stay as long as you like!”
As the youth listened to Chelkash, at first his mouth dropped open, his round face expressing bewildered rapture; then, grasping the fact that this tattered fellow was romancing, he closed his lips with a smack and guffawed. Chelkash kept a serious face, hiding a smile in his mustache.
“You funny chap, you chaff away as though it were the truth, and I listen as if it were a bit of news! No, upon my soul, in years gone by ——”
“Why, and didn’t I say so? To be sure, I’m telling you how in years gone by ——”
“Go on!” the lad waved his hand. “A cobbler, eh? or a tailor? or what are you?”
“I?” Chelkash queried, and after a moment’s thought he said: “I’m a fisherman.”
“A fisherman! Really? You catch fish?”
“Why fish? Fishermen about here don’t catch fish only. They fish more for drowned men, old anchors, sunk ships — everything! There are hooks on purpose for all that.”
“Go on! That sort of fishermen, maybe, that sing of themselves:
“We cast our nets
Over banks that are dry,
Over storerooms and pantries!”
“Why, have you seen any of that sort?” inquired Chelkash, looking scoffingly at him and thinking that this nice youth was very stupid.
“No, seen them I haven’t! I’ve heard tell.”
“Do you like them?”
“Like them? May be. They’re all right, fine bold chaps — free.”
“And what’s freedom to you? Do you care for freedom?”
“Well, I should think so! Be your own master, go where you please, do as you like. To be sure! If you know how to behave yourself, and you’ve nothing weighing upon you — it’s first rate. Enjoy yourself all you can, only be mindful of God.”
Chelkash spat contemptuously, and turning away from the youth, dropped the conversation.
“Here’s my case now,” the latter began, with sudden animation. “As my father’s dead, my bit of land’s small, my mother’s old, all the land’s sucked dry, what am I to do? I must live. And how? There’s no telling.
“Am I to marry into some well-to-do house? I’d be glad to, if only they’d let their daughter have her share apart.
“Not a bit of it, the devil of a father-in-law won’t consent to that. And so I shall have to slave for him — for ever so long — for years. A nice state of things, you know!
“But if I could earn a hundred or a hundred and fifty roubles, I could stand on my own feet, and look askance at old Antip, and tell him straight out! Will you give Marfa her share apart? No? all right, then! Thank God, she’s not the only girl in the village. And I should be, I mean, quite free and independent.
“Ah, yes!” the young man sighed. “But as ’tis, there’s nothing for it, but to marry and live at my father-in-law’s. I was thinking I’d go, d’ye see, to Kuban, and make some two hundred roubles-straight off! Be a gentleman! But there, it was no go! It didn’t come off. Well, I suppose I’ll have to work for my father-in-law! Be a day-laborer. For I’ll never manage on my own bit — not anyhow. Heigh-ho!”
The lad extremely disliked the idea of bondage to his future father-in-law. His face positively darkened and looked gloomy. He shifted clumsily on the ground and drew Chelkash out of the reverie into which he had sunk during his speech.
Chelkash felt that he had no inclination now to talk to him, yet he asked him another question: “Where are you going now?”
“Why, where should I go? Home, to be sure.”
“Well, mate, I couldn’t be sure of that, you might be on your way to Turkey.”
“To Th-urkey!” drawled the youth. “Why, what good Christian ever goes there! Well I never!”
“Oh, you fool!” sighed Chelkash, and again he turned away from his companion, conscious this time of a positive disinclination to waste another word on him. This stalwart village lad roused some feeling in him. It was a vague feeling of annoyance, that grew instinctively, stirred deep down in his heart, and hindered him from concentrating himself on the consideration of all that he had to do that night.
The lad he had thus reviled muttered something, casting occasionally a dubious glance at Chelkash. His cheeks were comically puffed out, his lips parted, and his eyes were screwed up and blinking with extreme rapidity. He had obviously not expected so rapid and insulting a termination to his conversation with this long-whiskered ragamuffin. The ragamuffin took no further notice of him. He whistled dreamily, sitting on the stone post, and beating time on it with his bare, dirty heel.
The young peasant wanted to be quits with him.
“Hi, you there, fisherman! Do you often get tipsy like this?” he was beginning, but at the same instant the fisherman turned quickly towards him, and asked:
“I say, suckling! Would you like a job to-night with me? Eh? Tell me quickly!”
“What sort of a job?” the lad asked him, distrustfully.
“What! What I set you. We’re going fishing. You’ll row the boat.”
“Well. Yes. All right. I don’t mind a job. Only there’s this. I don’t want to get into a mess with you. You’re so awfully deep. You’re rather shady.”
Chelkash felt a scalding sensation in his breast, and with cold anger he said in a low voice:
“And you’d better hold your tongue, whatever you think, or I’ll give you a tap on your nut that will make things light enough.”
He jumped up from his post, tugged at his moustache with his left hand, while his sinewy right hand was clenched into a fist, hard as iron, and his eyes gleamed.
The youth was frightened. He looked quickly round him, and blinking uneasily, he, too, jumped up from the ground. Measuring one another with their eyes, they paused.
“Well?” Chelkash queried, sullenly. He was boiling inwardly, and trembling at the affront dealt him by this young calf, whom he had despised while he talked to him, but now hated all at once because he had such clear blue eyes, such health, a sunburned face, and broad, strong hands; because he had somewhere a village, a home in it, because a well-to-do peasant wanted him for a son-in-law, because of all his life, past and future, and most of all, because he — this babe compared with Chelkash — dared to love freedom, which he could not appreciate, nor need. It is always unpleasant to see that a man one regards as baser or lower than oneself likes or hates the same things, and so puts himself on a level with oneself.
The young peasant looked at Chelkash and saw in him an employer.
“Well,” he began, “I don’t mind. I’m glad of it. Why, it’s work for, you or any other man. I only meant that you don’t look like a working man — a bit too-ragged. Oh, I know that may happen to anyone. Good Lord, as though I’ve never seen drunkards! Lots of them! and worse than you too.”
“All right, all right! Then you agree?” Chelkash said more amicably.
“I? Ye-es! With pleasure! Name your terms.”
“That’s according to the job. As the job turns out. According to the job. Five roubles you may get. Do you see?”
But now it was a question of money, and in that the peasant wished to be precise, and demanded the same exactness from his employer. His distrust and suspicion revived.
“That’s not my way of doing business, mate! A bird in the hand for me.”
Chelkash threw himself into his part.
“Don’t argue, wait a bit! Come into the restaurant.”
And they went down the street side by side, Chelkash with the dignified air of an employer, twisting his mustaches, the youth with an expression of absolute readiness to give way to him, but yet full of distrust and uneasiness.
“And what’s your name?” asked Chelkash.
“Gavrilo!” answered the youth.
When they had come into the dirty and smoky eating-house, and Chelkash going up to the counter, in the familiar tone of an habitual customer, ordered a bottle of vodka, cabbage soup, a cut from the joint, and tea, and reckoning up his order, flung the waiter a brief “put it all down!” to which the waiter nodded in silence — Gavrilo was at once filled with respect for this ragamuffin, his employer, who enjoyed here such an established and confident position.
“Well, now we’ll have a bit of lunch and talk things over. You sit still, I’ll be back in a minute.”
He went out. Gavrilo looked round. The restaurant was in an underground basement; it was damp and dark, and reeked with the stifling fumes of vodka, tobacco-smoke, tar, and some acrid odor. Facing Gavrilo at another table sat a drunken man in the dress of a sailor, with a red beard, all over coal-dust and tar. Hiccupping every minute, he was droning a song all made up of broken and incoherent words, strangely sibilant and guttural sounds. He was unmistakably not a Russian.
Behind him sat two Moldavian women, tattered, black-haired sunburned creatures, who were chanting some sort of song, too, with drunken voices.
And from the darkness beyond emerged other figures, all strangely dishevelled, all half-drunk, noisy and restless.
Gavrilo felt miserable here alone. He longed for his employer to come back quickly. And the din in the eating-house got louder and louder. Growing shriller every second, it all melted into one note, and it seemed like the roaring of some monstrous boast, with hundreds of different throats, vaguely enraged, trying to struggle out of this damp hole and unable to find a way out to freedom.
Gavrilo felt something intoxicating and oppressive creeping over him, over all his limbs, making his head reel, and his eyes grow dim, as they moved inquisitively about the eating-house.
Chelkash came in, and they began eating and drinking and talking. At the third glass Gavrilo was drunk. He became lively and wanted to say something pleasant to his employer, who — the good fellow! — though he had done nothing for him yet, was entertaining him so agreeably. But the words which flowed in perfect waves to his throat, for some reason would not come from his tongue.
Chelkash looked at him and smiled sarcastically, saying:
“You’re screwed! Ugh — milksop! — with five glasses! how will you work?”
“Dear fellow!” Gavrilo melted into a drunken, good-natured smile. “Never fear! I respect you! That is, look here! Let me kiss you! eh?”
“Come, come! A drop more!”
Gavrilo drank, and at last reached a condition when everything seemed waving up and down in regular undulations before his eyes. It was unpleasant and made him feel sick. His face wore an expression of childish bewilderment and foolish enthusiasm. Trying to say something, he smacked his lips absurdly and bellowed. Chelkash, watching him intently, twisted his mustaches, and as though recollecting something, still smiled to himself, but morosely now and maliciously.
The eating-house roared with drunken clamor. The red-headed sailor was asleep, with his elbows on the table.
“Come, let’s go then!” said Chelkash, getting up.
Gavrilo tried to get up, but could not, and with a vigorous oath, he laughed a meaningless, drunken laugh.
“Quite screwed!” said Chelkash, sitting down again opposite him.
Gavrilo still guffawed, staring with dull eyes at his new employer. And the latter gazed at him intently, vigilantly and thoughtfully. He saw before him a man whose life had fallen into his wolfish clutches. He, Chelkash, felt that he had the power to do with it as he pleased. He could rend it like a card, and he could help to set it on a firm footing in its peasant framework. He reveled in feeling himself master of another man, and thought that never would this peasant-lad drink of such a cup as destiny had given him, Chelkash, to drink. And he envied this young life and pitied it, sneered at it, and was even troubled over it, picturing to himself how it might again fall into such hands as his.
And all these feelings in the end melted in Chelkash into one — a fatherly sense of proprietorship in him. He felt sorry for the boy, and the boy was necessary to him. Then Chelkash took Gavrilo under the arms, and giving him a slight shove behind with his knee, got him out into the yard of the eating-house, where he put him on the ground in the shade of a stack of wood, then he sat down beside him and lighted his pipe.
Gavrilo shifted about a little, muttered, and dropped asleep.
“Come, ready?” Chelkash asked in a low voice of Gavrilo, who was busy doing something to the oars.
“In a minute! The rowlock here’s unsteady, can I just knock it in with the oar?”
“No — no! Not a sound! Push it down harder with your hand, it’ll go in of itself.”
They were both quietly getting out a boat, which was tied to the stern of one of a whole flotilla of oakladen barges, and big Turkish feluccas, half unloaded, hall still full of palm-oil, sandal wood, and thick trunks of cypress.
The night was dark, thick strata of ragged clouds were moving across the sky, and the sea was quiet, black, and thick as oil. It wafted a damp and salt aroma, and splashed caressingly on the sides of the vessels and the banks, setting Chelkash’s boat lightly rocking. There were boats all round them. At a long distance from the shore rose from the sea the dark outlines of vessels, thrusting up into the dark sky their pointed masts with various colored lights at their tops. The sea reflected the lights, and was spotted with masses of yellow, quivering patches. This was very beautiful on the velvety bosom of the soft, dull black water, so rhythmically, mightily breathing. The sea slept the sound, healthy sleep of a workman, wearied out by his day’s toil.
“We’re off!” said Gavrilo, dropping the oars into the water.
“Yes!” With a vigorous turn of the rudder Chelkash drove the boat into a strip of water between two barks, and they darted rapidly over the smooth surface, that kindled into bluish phosphorescent light under the strokes of the oars. Behind the boat’s stern lay a winding ribbon of this phosphorescence, broad and quivering.
“Well, how’s your head, aching?” asked Chelkash, smiling.
“Awfully! Like iron ringing. I’ll wet it with some water in a minute.”
“Why? You’d better wet your inside, that may get rid of it. You can do that at once.” He held out a bottle to Gavrilo.
“Eh? Lord bless you!”
There was a faint sound of swallowing.
“Aye! aye! like it? Enough!” Chelkash stopped him.
The boat darted on again, noiselessly and lightly threading its way among the vessels. All at once, they emerged from the labyrinth of ships, and the sea, boundless, mute, shining and rhythmically breathing, lay open before them, stretching far into the distance, where there rose out of its waters masses of storm clouds, some lilac-blue with fluffy yellow edges, and some greenish like the color of the seawater, or those dismal, leaden-colored clouds that cast such heavy, dreary shadows, oppressing mind and soul. They crawled slowly after one another, one melting into another, one overtaking another, and there was something weird in this slow procession of soulless masses.
It seemed as though there, at the sea’s rim, they were a countless multitude, that they would forever crawl thus sluggishly over the sky, striving with dull malignance to hinder it from peeping at the sleeping sea with its millions of golden eyes, the various colored, vivid stars, that shine so dreamily and stir high hopes in all who love their pure, holy light. Over the sea hovered the vague, soft sound of its drowsy breathing.
“The sea’s fine, eh?” asked Chelkash.
“It’s all right! Only I feel scared on it,” answered Gavrilo, pressing the oars vigorously and evenly through the water. The water faintly gurgled and splashed under the strokes of his long oars, splashed glittering with the warm, bluish, phosphorescent light.
“Scared! What a fool!” Chelkash muttered, discontentedly.
He, the thief and cynic, loved the sea. His effervescent, nervous nature, greedy after impressions, was never weary of gazing at that dark expanse, boundless, free, and mighty. And it hurt him to hear such an answer to his question about the beauty of what he loved. Sitting in the stern, he cleft the water with his oar, and looked on ahead quietly, filled with desire to glide far on this velvety surface, not soon to quit it.
On the sea there always rose up in him a broad, warm feeling, that took possession of his whole soul, and somewhat purified it from the sordidness of daily life. He valued this, and loved to feel himself better out here in the midst of the water and the air, where the cares of life, and life itself, always lose, the former their keenness, the latter its value.
“But where’s the tackle? Eh?” Gavrilo asked suspiciously all at once, peering into the boat.
“Tackle? I’ve got it in the stern.”
“Why, what sort of tackle is it?” Gavrilo inquired again with surprised suspicion in his tone.
“What sort? lines and —” But Chelkash felt ashamed to lie to this boy, to conceal his real plans, and he was sorry to lose what this peasant-lad had destroyed in his heart by this question. He flew into a rage. That scalding bitterness he knew so well rose in his breast and his throat, and impressively, cruelly, and malignantly he said to Gavrilo:
“You’re sitting here — and I tell you, you’d better sit quiet. And not poke your nose into what’s not your business. You’ve been hired to row, and you’d better row. But if you can’t keep your tongue from wagging, it will be a bad lookout for you. D’ye see?”
For a minute the boat quivered and stopped. The oars rested in the water, setting it foaming, and Gavrilo moved uneasily on his seat.
A sharp oath rang out in the air. Gavrilo swung the oars. The boat moved with rapid, irregular jerks, noisily cutting the water.
Chelkash got up from the stern, still holding the oars in his hands, and peering with his cold eyes into the pale and twitching face of Gavrilo. Crouching forward Chelkash was like a cat on the point of springing. There was the sound of angry gnashing of teeth.
“Who’s calling?” rang out a surly shout from the sea.
“Now, you devil, row! quietly with the oars! I’ll kill you, you cur. Come, row! One, two! There! you only make a sound! I’ll cut your throat!” hissed Chelkash.
“Mother of God — Holy Virgin —” muttered Gavrilo, shaking and numb with terror and exertion.
The boat turned smoothly and went back toward the harbor, where the lights gathered more closely into a group of many colors and the straight stems of masts could be seen.
“Hi! Who’s shouting?” floated across again. The voice was farther off this time. Chelkash grew calm again.
“It’s yourself, friend, that’s shouting!” he said in the direction of the shouts, and then he turned to Gavrilo, who was muttering a prayer.
“Well, mate, you’re in luck! If those devils had overtaken us, it would have been all over with you. D’you see? I’d have you over in a trice — to the fishes!”
Now, when Chelkash was speaking quietly and even good-humoredly, Gavrilo, still shaking with terror, besought him!
“Listen, forgive me! For Christ’s sake, I beg you, let me go! Put me on shore somewhere! Aie-aie-aie! I’m done for entirely! Come, think of God, let me go! What am I to you? I can’t do it! I’ve never been used to such things. It’s the first time. Lord! Why, I shall be lost! How did you get round me, mate? eh? It’s a shame of you! Why, you’re ruining a man’s life! Such doings.”
“What doings?” Chelkash asked grimly. “Eh? Well, what doings?”
He was amused by the youth’s terror, and he enjoyed it and the sense that he, Chelkash, was a terrible person.
“Shady doings, mate. Let me go, for God’s sake! What am I to you? eh? Good — dear —!”
“Hold your tongue, do! If you weren’t wanted, I shouldn’t have taken you. Do you understand? So, shut up!”
“Lord!” Gavrilo sighed, sobbing.
“Come, come! you’d better mind!” Chelkash cut him short.
But Gavrilo by now could not restrain himself, and quietly sobbing, he wept, sniffed, and writhed in his seat, yet rowed vigorously, desperately. The boat shot on like an arrow. Again dark hulks of ships rose up on their way and the boat was again lost among them, winding like a wolf in the narrow lanes of water between them.
“Here, you listen! If anyone asks you anything — hold your tongue, if you want to get off alive! Do you see?”
“Oh — oh!” Gavrilo sighed hopelessly in answer to the grim advice, and bitterly he added: “I’m a lost man!”
“Don’t howl!” Chelkash whispered impressively.
This whisper deprived Gavrilo of all power of grasping anything and transformed him into a senseless automaton, wholly absorbed in a chill presentiment of calamity.
Mechanically he lowered the oars into the water, threw himself back, drew them out and dropped them in again, all the while staring blankly at his plaited shoes. The waves splashed against the vessels with a sort of menace, a sort of warning in their drowsy sound that terrified him. The dock was reached. From its granite wall came the sound of men’s voices, the splash of water, singing, and shrill whistles.
“Stop!” whispered Chelkash. “Give over rowing! Push along with your hands on the wall! Quietly, you devil!”
Gavrilo, clutching at the slippery stone, pushed the boat alongside the wall. The boat moved without a sound, sliding alongside the green, shiny stone.
“Stop! Give me the oars! Give them here. Where’s your passport? In the bag? Give me the bag! Come, give it here quickly! That, my dear fellow, is so you shouldn’t run off. You won’t run away now. Without oars you might have got off somehow, but without a passport you’ll be afraid to. Wait here! But mind — if you squeak — to the bottom of the sea you go!”
And, all at once, clinging on to something with his hands, Chelkash rose in the air and vanished onto the wall.
Gavrilo shuddered. It had all happened so quickly. He felt as though the cursed weight and horror that had crushed him in the presence of this thin thief with his mustaches was loosened and rolling off him. Now to run! And breathing freely, he looked round him. On his left rose a black hulk, without masts, a sort of huge coffin, mute, untenanted, and desolate.
Every splash of the water on its sides awakened a hollow, resonant echo within it, like a heavy sigh.
On the right the damp stone wall of the quay trailed its length, winding like a heavy, chill serpent. Behind him, too, could be seen black blurs of some sort, while in front, in the opening between the wall and the side of that coffin, he could see the sea, a silent waste, with the storm-clouds crawling above it. Everything was cold, black, malignant. Gavrilo felt panic-stricken. This terror was worse than the terror inspired in him by Chelkash; it penetrated into Gavrilo’s bosom with icy keenness, huddled him into a cowering mass, and kept him nailed to his seat in the boat.
All around was silent. Not a sound but the sighs of the sea, and it seemed as though this silence would instantly be rent by something fearful, furiously loud, something that would shake the sea to its depths, tear apart these heavy flocks of clouds on the sky, and scatter all these black ships. The clouds were crawling over the sky as dismally as before; more of them still rose up out of the sea, and, gazing at the sky, one might believe that it, too, was a sea, but a sea in agitation, and grown petrified in its agitation, laid over that other sea beneath, that was so drowsy, serene, and smooth. The clouds were like waves, flinging themselves with curly gray crests down upon the earth and into the abysses of space, from which they were torn again by the wind, and tossed back upon the rising billows of cloud, that were not yet hidden under the greenish foam of their furious agitation.
Gavrilo felt crushed by this gloomy stillness and beauty, and felt that he longed to see his master come back quickly. And how was it that he lingered there so long? The time passed slowly, more slowly than those clouds crawled over the sky. And the stillness grew more malignant as time went on. From the wall of the quay came the sound of splashing, rustling, and something like whispering. It seemed to Gavrilo that he would die that moment.
“Hi! Asleep? Hold it! Carefully!” sounded the hollow voice of Chelkash.
From the wall something cubical and heavy was let down. Gavrilo took it into the boat. Something else like it followed. Then across the wall stretched Chelkash’s long figure, the oars appeared from somewhere, Gavrilo’s bag dropped at his feet, and Chelkash, breathing heavily, settled himself in the stern.
Gavrilo gazed at him with a glad and timid smile.
“Bound to be that, calf! Come now, row your best! Put your back into it! You’ve earned good wages, mate. Half the job’s done. Now we’ve only to slip under the devils’ noses, and then you can take your money and go off to your Mashka. You’ve got a Mashka, I suppose, eh, kiddy?”
“N— no!” Gavrilo strained himself to the utmost, working his chest like a pair of bellows, and his arms like steel springs. The water gurgled under the boat, and the blue streak behind the stern was broader now. Gavrilo was soaked through with sweat at once, but he still rowed on with all his might.
After living through such terror twice that night, he dreaded now having to go through it a third time, and longed for one thing only — to make an end quickly of this accursed task, to get on to land, and to run away from this man, before he really did kill him, or get him into prison. He resolved not to speak to him about anything, not to contradict him, to do all he told him, and, if he should succeed in getting successfully quit of him, to pay for a thanksgiving service to be said to-morrow to Nikolai the Wonder-worker. A passionate prayer was ready to burst out from his bosom. But he restrained himself, puffed like a steamer, and was silent, glancing from under his brows at Chelkash.
The latter, with his lean, long figure bent forward like a bird about to take flight, stared into the darkness ahead of the boat with his hawk eyes, and turning his rapacious, hooked nose from side to side, gripped with one hand the rudder handle, while with the other he twirled his mustache, that was continually quivering with smiles. Chelkash was pleased with his success, with himself, and with this youth, who had been so frightened of him and had been turned into his slave. He had a vision of unstinted dissipation to-morrow, while now he enjoyed the sense of his strength, which had enslaved this young, fresh lad. He watched how he was toiling, and felt sorry for him, wanted to encourage him.
“Eh!” he said softly, with a grin. “Were you awfully scared? eh?”
“Oh, no!” sighed Gavrilo, and he cleared his throat.
“But now you needn’t work so at the oars. Ease off! There’s only one place now to pass. Rest a bit.”
Gavrilo obediently paused, rubbed the sweat off his face with the sleeve of his shirt, and dropped the oars again into the water.
“Now, row more slowly, so that the water shouldn’t bubble. We’ve only the gates to pass. Softly, softly. For they’re serious people here, mate. They might take a pop at one in a minute. They’d give you such a bump on your forehead, you wouldn’t have time to call out.”
The boat now crept along over the water almost without a sound. Only from the oars dripped blue drops of water, and when they trickled into the sea, a blue patch of light was kindled for a minute where they fell. The night had become still warmer and more silent. The sky was no longer like a sea in turmoil, the clouds were spread out and covered it with a smooth, heavy canopy that hung low over the water and did not stir. And the sea was still more calm and black, and stronger than ever was the warm salt smell from it.
“Ah, if only it would rain!” whispered Chelkash. “We could get through then, behind a curtain as it were.”
On the right and the left of the boat, like houses rising out of the black water, stood barges, black, motionless, and gloomy. On one of them moved a light; some one was walking up and down with a lantern. The sea stroked their sides with a hollow sound of supplication, and they responded with an echo, cold and resonant, as though unwilling to yield anything.
“The coastguards!” Chelkash whispered hardly above a breath.
From the moment when he had bidden him row more slowly, Gavrilo had again been overcome by that intense agony of expectation. He craned forward into the darkness, and he felt as though he were growing bigger; his bones and sinews were strained with a dull ache, his head, filled with a single idea, ached, the skin on his back twitched, and his legs seemed pricked with sharp, chill little pins and needles. His eyes ached from the strain of gazing into the darkness, whence he expected every instant something would spring up and shout to them: “Stop, thieves!”
Now when Chelkash whispered: “The coastguards!” Gavrilo shuddered, and one intense, burning idea passed through him, and thrilled his overstrained nerves; he longed to cry out, to call men to his aid. He opened his mouth, and half rose from his seat, squared his chest, drew in a full draught of breath — and opened his mouth — but suddenly, struck down by a terror that smote him like a whip, he shut his eyes and rolled forward off his seat.
Far away on the horizon, ahead of the boat, there rose up out of the black water of the sea a huge fiery blue sword; it rose up, cleaving the darkness of night, its blade glided through the clouds in the sky, and lay, a broad blue streak on the bosom of the sea. It lay there, and in the streak of its light there sprang up out of the darkness ships unseen till then, black and mute, shrouded in the thick night mist.
It seemed as though they had lain long at the bottom of the sea, dragged down by the mighty hands of the tempest; and now behold they had been drawn up by the power and at the will of this blue fiery sword, born of the sea — had been drawn up to gaze upon the sky and all that was above the water. Their rigging wrapped about the masts and looked like clinging seaweeds, that had risen from the depths with these black giants caught in their snares. And it rose upward again from the sea, this strange blue sword — rose, cleft the night again, and again fell down in another direction. And again, where it lay, there rose up out of the dark the outlines of vessels, unseen before.
Chelkash’s boat stopped and rocked on the water, as though in uncertainty. Gavrilo lay at the bottom, his face hidden in his hands, until Chelkash poked him with an oar and whispered furiously, but softly:
“Fool, it’s the customs cruiser. That’s the electric light! Get up, blockhead! Why, they’ll turn the light on us in a minute! You’ll be the ruin of yourself and me! Come!”
And at last, when a blow from the sharp end of the oar struck Gavrilo’s head more violently, he jumped up, still afraid to open his eyes, sat down on the seat, and, fumbling for the oars, rowed the boat on.
“Quietly! I’ll kill you! Didn’t I tell you? There, quietly! Ah, you fool, damn you! What are you frightened of? Eh, pig face? A lantern and a reflector, that’s all it is. Softly with the oars! Mawkish devil! They turn the reflector this way and that way, and light up the sea, so as to see if there are folks like you and me afloat.
“To catch smugglers, they do it.They won’t get us, they’ve sailed too far off. Don’t be frightened, lad, they won’t catch us. Now we —” Chelkash looked triumphantly round. “It’s over, we’ve rowed out of reach! Foo — o! Come, you’re in luck.”
Gavrilo sat mute; he rowed, and breathing hard, looked askance where that fiery sword still rose and sank. He was utterly unable to believe Chelkash that it was only a lantern and a reflector. The cold, blue brilliance, that cut through the darkness and made the sea gleam with silver light, had something about it inexplicable, portentous, and Gavrilo now sank into a sort of hypnotized, miserable terror. Some vague presentiment weighed aching on his breast. He rowed automatically, with pale face, huddled up as though expecting a blow from above, and there was no thought, no desire in him now, he was empty and soulless. The emotions of that night had swallowed up at last all that was human in him.
But Chelkash was triumphant again; complete success! all anxiety at an end! His nerves, accustomed to strain, relaxed, returned to the normal. His mustaches twitched voluptuously, and there was an eager light in his eyes. He felt splendid, whistled through his teeth, drew in deep breaths of the damp sea air, looked about him in the darkness, and laughed good-naturedly when his eyes rested on Gavrilo.
The wind blew up and waked the sea into a sudden play of fine ripples. The clouds had become, as it were, finer and more transparent, but the sky was still covered with them.
The wind, though still light, blew freely over the sea, yet the clouds were motionless and seemed plunged in some gray, dreary dream.
“Come, mate, pull yourself together! it’s high time! Why, what a fellow you are; as though all the breath had been knocked out of your skin, and only a bag of bones was left! My dear fellow! It’s all over now! Hey!”
It was pleasant to Gavrilo to hear a human voice, even though Chelkash it was that spoke.
“I hear,” he said softly.
“Come, then, milksop. Come, you sit at the rudder and I’ll take the oars, you must be tired!”
Mechanically Gavrilo changed places. When Chelkash, as he changed places with him, glanced into his face, and noticed that he was staggering on his shaking legs, he felt still sorrier for the lad. He clapped him on the shoulder.
“Come, come, don’t be scared! You’ve earned a good sum for it. I’ll pay you richly, mate. Would you like twenty-five roubles, eh?”
“I— don’t want anything. Only to be on shore.”
Chelkash waved his hand, spat, and fell to rowing, flinging the oars far back with his long arms.
The sea had waked up. It frolicked in little waves, bringing them forth, decking them with a fringe of foam, flinging them on one another, and breaking them up into tiny eddies. The foam, melting, hissed and sighed, and everything was filled with the musical plash and cadence. The darkness seemed more alive.
“Come, tell me,” began Chelkash, “you’ll go home to the village, and you’ll marry and begin digging the earth and sowing corn, your wife will bear you children, food won’t be too plentiful, and so you’ll grind away all your life. Well? Is there such sweetness in that?”
“Sweetness!” Gavrilo answered, timid and trembling, “what, indeed?”
The wind tore a rent in the clouds and through the gap peeped blue bits of sky, with one or two stars. Reflected in the frolicking sea, these stars danced on the waves, vanishing and shining out again.
“More to the right!” said Chelkash. “Soon we shall be there. Well, well! It’s over. A haul that’s worth it! See here. One night, and I’ve made five hundred roubles! Eh? What do you say to that?”
“Five hundred?” Gavrilo, drawled, incredulously, but he was seared at once, and quickly asked, prodding the bundle in the boat with his foot. “Why, what sort of thing may this be?”
“That’s silk. A costly thing. All that, if one sold it for its value, would fetch a thousand. But I sell cheap. Is that smart business?”
“I sa — ay?” Gavrilo drawled dubiously. “If only I’d all that!” be sighed, recalling all at once the village, his poor little bit of land, his poverty, his mother, and all that was so far away and so near his heart; for the sake of which he bad gone to seek work, for the sake of which he had suffered such agonies that night. A flood of memories came back to him of his village, running down the steep slope to the river and losing itself in a whole forest of birch trees, willows, and mountain-ashes. These memories breathed something warm into him and cheered him up. “Ah, it would be grand!” he sighed mournfully.
“To be sure! I expect you’d bolt home by the railway! And wouldn’t the girls make love to you at home, aye, aye! You could choose which you liked! You’d build yourself a house. No, the money, maybe, would hardly be enough for a house.”
“That’s true — it wouldn’t do for a house. Wood’s dear down our way.”
“Well, never mind. You’d mend up the old one. How about a horse? Have you got one?”
“A horse? Yes, I have, but a wretched old thing it is.”
“Well, then, you’d have a horse. A first-rate horse! A cow — sheep — fowls of all sorts. Eh?”
“Don’t talk of it! If I only could! Oh, Lord! What a life I should have!”
“Aye, mate, your life would be first-rate. I know something about such things. I had a home of my own once. My father was one of the richest in the village.”
Chelkash rowed slowly. The boat danced on the waves that sportively splashed over its edge; it scarcely moved forward on the dark sea; which frolicked more and more gayly. The two men were dreaming, rocked on the water, and pensively looking around them. Chelkash had turned Gavrilo’s thoughts to his village with the aim of encouraging and reassuring him.
At first he had talked grinning sceptically to himself under his mustaches, but afterward, as he replied to his companion and reminded him of the joys of a peasant’s life, which he had so long ago wearied of, had forgotten, and only now recalled, he was gradually carried away, and, instead of questioning the peasant youth about his village and its doings, unconsciously he dropped into describing it himself:
“The great thing in the peasant’s life, mate, is its freedom! You’re your own master. You’ve your own home — worth a farthing, maybe — but it’s yours! You’ve your own land — only a handful the whole of it — but it’s yours! Hens of your own, eggs, apples of your own! You’re king on your own land! And then the regularity. You get up in the morning, you’ve work to do, in the spring one sort, in the summer another, in the autumn, in the winter — different again. Wherever you go, you’ve home to come back to! It’s snug! There’s peace! You’re a king! Aren’t you really?” Chelkash concluded enthusiastically his long reckoning of the peasant’s advantages and privileges, forgetting, somehow, his duties.
Gavrilo looked at him with curiosity, and he, too, warmed to the subject. During this conversation he had succeeded in forgetting with whom he had to deal, and he saw in his companion a peasant like himself — cemented to the soil for ever by the sweat of generations, and bound to it by the recollections of childhood — who had wilfully broken loose from it and from its cares, and was bearing the inevitable punishment for this abandonment.
“That’s true, brother! Ah, how true it is! Look at you, now, what you’ve become away from the land! Aha! The land, brother, is like a mother, you can’t forget it for long.”
Chelkash awaked from his reverie. He felt that scalding irritation in his chest, which always came as soon as his pride, the pride of the reckless vagrant, was touched by anyone, and especially by one who was of no value in his eyes.
“His tongue’s set wagging!” he said savagely, “you thought, maybe, I said all that in earnest. Never fear!”
“But, you strange fellow!”— Gavrilo began, overawed again — “Was I speaking of you? Why, there’s lots like you! Ah, what a lot of unlucky people among the people! Wanderers ——”
“Take the oars, you sea-calf!” Chelkash commanded briefly, for some reason holding back a whole torrent of furious abuse, which surged up into his throat.
They changed places again, and Chelkash, as he crept across the boat to the stern, felt an intense desire to give Gavrilo a kick that would send him flying into the water, and at the same time could not pluck up courage to look him in the face.
The brief conversation dropped, but now Gavrilo’s silence even was eloquent of the country to Chelkash. He recalled the past, and forgot to steer the boat, which was turned by the current and floated away out to sea. The waves seemed to understand that this boat had missed its way, and played lightly with it, tossing it higher and higher, and kindling their gay blue light under its oars. While before Chelkash’s eyes floated pictures of the past, the far past, separated from the present by the whole barrier of eleven years of vagrant life.
He saw himself a child, his village, his mother, a red-cheeked plump woman, with kindly gray eyes, his father, a red-bearded giant with a stern face. He saw himself betrothed, and saw his wife, black-eyed Anfisa, with her long hair, plump, mild, and good-humored; again himself a handsome soldier in the Guards; again his father, gray now and bent with toil, and his mother wrinkled and bowed to the ground; he saw, too, the picture of his welcome in the village when he returned from the service; saw how proud his father was before all the village of his Grigory, the mustached, stalwart soldier, so smart and handsome. Memory, the scourge of the unhappy, gives life to the very stones of the past, and even into the poison drunk in old days pours drops of honey, so as to confound a man with his mistakes and, by making him love the past, rob him of hope for the future.
Chelkash felt a rush of the softening, caressing air of home, bringing back to him the tender words of his mother and the weighty utterances of the venerable peasant, his father; many a forgotten sound and many a lush smell of mother-earth, freshly thawing, freshly ploughed, and freshly covered with the emerald silk of the corn. And he felt crushed, lost, pitiful, and solitary, torn up and cast out for ever from that life which had distilled the very blood that flowed in his veins.
“Hey! but where are we going?” Gavrilo asked suddenly.
Chelkash started and looked round with the uneasy look of a bird of prey.
“Ah, the devil’s taken the boat! No matter. Row a bit harder. We’ll be there directly.”
“You were dreaming?” Gavrilo inquired, smiling.
Chelkash looked searchingly at him. The youth had completely regained his composure; he was calm, cheerful and even seemed somehow triumphant. He was very young, all his life lay before him. And he knew nothing. That was bad. Maybe the earth would keep hold of him. As these thoughts flashed through his head, Chelkash felt still more mournful, and to Gavrilo he jerked out sullenly:
“I’m tired. And it rocks, too.”
“It does rock, that’s true. But now, I suppose, we shan’t get caught with this?” Gavrilo shoved the bale with his foot.
“No. You can be easy. I shall hand it over directly and get the money. Oh, yes!”
“Not less, I dare say.”
“I say — that’s a sum! If I, poor wretch, had that! Ah, I’d have a fine time with it.”
“On your land?”
“To be sure! Why, I’d be off ——”
And Gravilo floated off into day dreams. Chelkash seemed crushed. His mustaches drooped, his right side was soaked by the splashing of the waves, his eyes looked sunken and had lost their brightness. He was a pitiable and depressed figure. All that bird-of-prey look in his figure seemed somehow eclipsed under a humiliated moodiness, that showed itself in the very folds of his dirty shirt.
“I’m tired out, too — regularly done up.”
“We’ll be there directly. See over yonder.”
Chelkash turned the boat sharply, and steered it toward something black that stood up out of the water.
The sky was again all covered with clouds, and fine, warm rain had come on, pattering gayly on the crests of the waves.
“Stop! easy!” commanded Chelkash.
The boat’s nose knocked against the hull of the vessel. “Are they asleep, the devils?” grumbled Chelkash, catching with his boat-hook on to some ropes that hung over the ship’s side. “The ladder’s not down. And this rain, too. As if it couldn’t have come before! Hi, you spongeos. Hi! Hi!”
“Is that Selkash?” they heard a soft purring voice say overhead.
“Come, let down the ladder.”
“Let down the ladder, you smutty devil!” yelled Chelkash.
“Ah, what a rage he’s come in to-day. Ahoy!”
“Get up, Gavrilo!” Chelkash said to his companion.
In a moment they were on the deck, where three dark-bearded figures, eagerly chattering together, in a strange staccato tongue looked over the side into Chelkash’s boat. The fourth clad in a long gown, went up to him and pressed his hand without speaking, then looked suspiciously round at Gavrilo.
“Get the money ready for me by the morning,” Chelkash said to him shortly. “And now I’ll go to sleep. Gavrilo, come along! Are you hungry?”
“I’m sleepy,” answered Gavrilo, and five minutes later he was snoring in the dirty hold of the vessel, while Chelkash, sitting beside him, tried on somebody’s boots. Dreamily spitting on one side, he whistled angrily and mournfully between his teeth. Then he stretched himself out beside Gavrilo, and pulling the boots off his feet again and putting his arms under his head, he fell to gazing intently at the deck, and pulling his mustaches.
The vessel rocked softly on the frolicking water, there was a fretful creaking of wood somewhere, the rain pattered softly on the deck, and the waves splashed on the ship’s side. Everything was melancholy and sounded like the lullaby of a mother, who has no hope of her child’s happiness. And Chelkash fell asleep.
He was the first to wake, he looked round him uneasily, but at once regained his self-possession and stared at Gavrilo who was still asleep. He was sweetly snoring, and in his sleep smiled all over his childish, sun-burned healthy face. Chelkash sighed and climbed up the narrow rope-ladder. Through the port-hole he saw a leaden strip of sky. It was daylight, but a dreary autumn grayness.
Chelkash came back two hours later. His face was red, his mustaches were jauntily curled, a smile of good-humored gayety beamed on his lips. He was wearing a pair of stout high boots, a short jacket, and leather breeches, and he looked like a sportsman. His whole costume was worn, but strong and very becoming to him, making him look broader, covering up his angularity, and giving him a military air.
“Hi, little calf, get up!” He gave Gavrilo a kick.
Gavrilo started up, and, not recognizing him, stared at him in alarm with dull eyes. Chelkash chuckled.
“Well, you do look —” Gavrilo brought out with a broad grin at last. “You’re quite a gentleman!”
“We soon change. But, I say, you’re easily scared! aye! How many times were you ready to die last night? eh? tell me!”
“Well, but just think, it’s the first time I’ve ever been on such a job! Why one may lose one’s soul for all one’s life!”
“Well, would you go again? Eh?”
“Again? Well — that — how can I say? For what inducement? That’s the point!”
“Well, if it were for two rainbows?”
“Two hundred roubles, you mean? Well — I might.”
“But I say! What about your soul?”
“Oh, well — maybe one wouldn’t lose it!” Gavrilo smiled. “One mightn’t — and it would make a man of one for all one’s life.”
Chelkash laughed good-humoredly.
“All right! that’s enough joking. Let’s row to land. Get ready!”
“Why, I’ve nothing to do! I’m ready.”
And soon they were in the boat again, Chelkash at the rudder, Gavrilo at the oars. Above them the sky was gray, with clouds stretched evenly across it. The muddy green sea played with their boat, tossing it noisily on the waves that sportively flung bright salt drops into it. Far ahead from the boat’s prow could be seen the yellow streak of the sandy shore, while from the stern there stretched away into the distance the free, gambolling sea, all furrowed over with racing flocks of billows, decked here and there with a narrow fringe of foam.
Far away they could see numbers of vessels, rocking on the bosom of the sea, away on the left a whole forest of masts and the white fronts of the houses of the town. From that direction there floated across the sea a dull resounding roar, that mingled with the splash of the waves into a full rich music. And over all was flung a delicate veil of ash-colored mist, that made things seem far from one another.
“Ah, there’ll be a pretty dance by evening!” said Chelkash, nodding his head at the sea.
“A storm?” queried Gavrilo, working vigorously at the waves with his oars. He was already wet through from head to foot with the splashing the wind blew on him from the sea.
“Aye, aye!” Chelkash assented.
Gavrilo looked inquisitively at him, and his eyes expressed unmistakable expectation of something.
“Well, how much did they give you?” he asked, at last, seeing that Chelkash was not going to begin the conversation.
“Look!” said Chelkash, holding out to Gavrilo something he had pulled out of his pocket.
Gavrilo saw the rainbow-colored notes and everything danced in brilliant rainbow tints before his eyes.
“I say! Why, I thought you were bragging! That’s — how much?”
“Five hundred and forty! A smart job!”
“Smart, yes!” muttered Gavrilo, with greedy eyes, watching the five hundred and forty roubles as they were put back again in his pocket. “Well, I never! What a lot of money!” and he sighed dejectedly.
“We’ll have a jolly good spree, my lad!” Chelkash cried ecstatically. “Eh, we’ve enough to. Never fear, mate, I’ll give you your share. I’ll give you forty, eh? Satisfied? If you like, I’ll give it you now!”
“If — you don’t mind. Well? I wouldn’t say no!”
Gavrilo was trembling all over with suspense and some other acute feeling that dragged at his heart.
“Ha — ha — ha! Oh, you devil’s doll! ‘I’d not say no!’ Take it, mate, please! I beg you, indeed, take it! I don’t know what to do with such a lot of money! You must help me out, take some, there!”
Chelkash held out some red notes to Gavrilo. He took them with a shaking hand, let go the oars, and began stuffing them away in his bosom, greedily screwing up his eyes and drawing in his breath noisily, as though he had drunk something hot. Chelkash watched him with an ironical smile. Gavrilo took up the oars again and rowed nervously, hurriedly, keeping his eyes down as though he were afraid of something. His shoulders and his ears were twitching.
“You’re greedy. That’s bad. But, of course, you’re a peasant,” Chelkash said musingly.
“But see what one can do with money!” cried Gavrilo, suddenly breaking into passionate excitement, and jerkily, hurriedly, as though chasing his thoughts and catching his words as they flew, he began to speak of life in the village with money and without money. Respect, plenty, independence gladness!
Chelkash heard him attentively, with a serious face and eyes filled with some dreamy thought. At times he smiled a smile of content. “Here we are!” Chelkash cried at last, interrupting Gavrilo.
A wave caught up the boat and neatly drove it onto the sand.
“Come, mate, now it’s over. We must drag the boat up farther, so that it shouldn’t get washed away. They’ll come and fetch it. Well, we must say good-bye! It’s eight versts from here to the town. What are you going to do? Coming back to the town, eh?”
Chelkash’s face was radiant with a good-humoredly sly smile, and altogether he had the air of a man who had thought of something very pleasant for himself and a surprise to Gavrilo. Thrusting his hand into his pocket, he rustled the notes there.
“No — I— am not coming. I—-” Gavrilo gasped, and seemed choking with something. Within him there was raging a whole storm of desires, of words, of feelings, that swallowed up one another and scorched him as with fire.
Chelkash looked at him in perplexity.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked.
“Why ——” But Gavrilo’s face flushed, then turned gray, and he moved irresolutely, as though he were half longing to throw himself on Chelkash, or half torn by some desire, the attainment of which was hard for him.
Chelkash felt ill at ease at the sight of such excitement in this lad. He wondered what form it would take.
Gavrilo began laughing strangely, a laugh that was like a sob. His head was downcast, the expression of his face Chelkash could not see; Gavrilo’s ears only were dimly visible, and they turned red and then pale.
“Well, damn you!” Chelkash waved his hand, “Have you fallen in love with me, or what? One might think you were a girl! Or is parting from me so upsetting? Hey, suckling! Tell me, what’s wrong? or else I’m off!”
“You’re going!” Gavrilo cried aloud.
The sandy waste of the shore seemed to start at his cry, and the yellow ridges of sand washed by the sea-waves seemed quivering. Chelkash started too. All at once Gavrilo tore himself from where he stood, flung himself at Chelkash’s feet, threw his arms round them, and drew them toward him. Chelkash staggered; he sat heavily down on the sand, and grinding his teeth, brandished his long arm and clenched fist in the air. But before he had time to strike he was pulled up by Gavrilo’s shame-faced and supplicating whisper:
“Friend! Give me — that money! Give it me, for Christ’s sake! What is it to you? Why in one night — in only one night — while it would take me a year — Give it me — I will pray for you! Continually — in three churches — for the salvation of your soul! Why you’d cast it to the winds — while I’d put it into the land. O, give it me! Why, what does it mean to you? Did it cost you much? One night — and you’re rich! Do a deed of mercy! You’re a lost man, you see — you couldn’t make your way — while I— oh, give it to me!”
Chelkash, dismayed, amazed, and wrathful, sat on the sand, thrown backward with his hands supporting him; he sat there in silence, rolling his eyes frightfully at the young peasant, who, ducking his head down at his knees, whispered his prayer to him in gasps. He shoved him away at last, jumped up to his feet, and thrusting his hands into his pockets, flung the rainbow notes at Gavrilo.
“There, cur! Swallow them!” he roared, shaking with excitement, with intense pity and hatred of this greedy slave. And as he flung him the money, he felt himself a hero. There was a reckless gleam in his eyes, an heroic air about his whole person.
“I’d meant to give you more, of myself. I felt sorry for you yesterday. I thought of the village. I thought: come, I’ll help the lad. I was waiting to see what you’d do, whether you’d beg or not. While you! — Ah, you rag! you beggar! To be able to torment oneself so — for money! You fool. Greedy devils! They’re beside themselves — sell themselves for five kopecks! eh?”
“Dear friend! Christ have mercy on you! Why, what have I now! thousands!! I’m a rich man!” Gavrilo shrilled in ecstasy, all trembling, as he stowed away the notes in his bosom. “Ah, you good man! Never will I forget you! Never! And my wife and my children — I’ll bid them pray for you!”
Chelkash listened to his shrieks and wails of ecstasy, looked at his radiant face that was contorted by greedy joy, and felt that he, thief and rake as he was, cast out from everything in life, would never be so covetous, so base, would never so forget himself. Never would he be like that! And this thought and feeling, filling him with a sense of his own independence and reckless daring, kept him beside Gavrilo on the desolate sea shore.
“You’ve made me happy!” shrieked Gavrilo, and snatching Chelkash’s hand, he pressed it to his face.
Chelkash did not speak; he grinned like a wolf. Gavrilo still went on pouring out his heart:
“Do you know what I was thinking about? As we rowed here — I saw — the money — thinks I— I’ll give it him — you — with the oar — one blow! the money’s mine, and into the sea with him — you, that is — eh! Who’ll miss him? said I. And if they do find him, they won’t be inquisitive how — and who it was killed him. He’s not a man, thinks I, that there’d be much fuss about! He’s of no use in the world! Who’d stand up for him? No, indeed — eh?”
“Give the money here!” growled Chelkash, clutching Gavrilo by the throat.
Gavrilo struggled away once, twice. Chelkash’s other arm twisted like a snake about him — there was the sound of a shirt tearing — and Gavrilo lay on the sand, with his eyes staring wildly, his fingers clutching at the air and his legs waving. Chelkash, erect, frigid, rapacious — looking, grinned maliciously, laughed a broken, biting laugh, and his mustaches twitched nervously in his sharp, angular face.
Never in all his life had he been so cruelly wounded, and never had he felt so vindictive.
“Well, are you happy now?” he asked Gavrilo through his laughter, and turning his back on him he walked away in the direction of the town. But he had hardly taken two steps when Gavrilo, crouched like a cat on one knee, and with a wide sweep of his arm, flung a round stone at him, viciously, shouting:
Chelkash uttered a cry, clapped his hands to the nape of his neck, staggered forward, turned round to Gavrilo, and fell on his face on the sand. Gavrilo’s heart failed him as he watched him. He saw him stir one leg, try to lift his head, and then stretch out, quivering like a bowstring. Then Gavrilo rushed fleeing away into the distance, where a shaggy black cloud hung over the foggy steppe, and it was dark. The waves whispered, racing up the sand, melting into it and racing back. The foam hissed and the spray floated in the air.
It began to rain, at first slightly, but soon a steady, heavy downpour was falling in streams from the sky, weaving a regular network of fine threads of water that at once hid the steppe and the sea. Gavrilo vanished behind it. For a long while nothing was to be seen but the rain and the long figure of the man stretched on the sand by the sea. But suddenly Gavrilo ran back out of the rain. Like a bird he flew up to Chelkash, dropped down beside him, and began to turn him over on the ground. His hand dipped into a warm, red stickiness. He shuddered and staggered back with a face pale and distraught.
“Brother, get up!” he whispered through the patter of the lain into Chelkash’s ear.
Revived by the water on his face, Chelkash came to himself, and pushed Gavrilo away, saying hoarsely:
“Get — away!”
“Brother! Forgive me — it was the devil tempted me,” Gavrilo whispered, faltering, as he kissed Chelkash’s band.
“Go along. Get away!” he croaked.
“Take the sin from off my soul! Brother! Forgive me!”
“For — go away, do! Go to the devil!” Chelkash screamed suddenly, and he sat up on the sand. His face was pale and angry, his eyes were glazed, and kept closing, as though he were very sleepy. “What more — do you want? You’ve done — your job — and go away! Be off!” And he tried to kick Gavrilo away, as he knelt, overwhelmed, beside him, but he could not, and would have rolled over again if Gavrilo had not held him up, putting his arms round his shoulders. Chelkash’s face was now on a level with Gavrilo’s. Both were pale, piteous, and terrible-looking.
“Tfoo!” Chelkash spat into the wide, open eyes of his companion.
Meekly Gavrilo wiped his face with his sleeve, and murmured:
“Do as you will. I won’t say a word. For Christ’s sake, forgive me!”
“Snivelling idiot! Even stealing’s more than you can do!” Chelkash cried scornfully, tearing a piece of his shirt under his jacket, and without a word, clenching his teeth now and then, he began binding up his head. “Did you take the notes?” he filtered through his teeth.
“I didn’t touch them, brother! I didn’t want them! there’s ill-luck from them!”
Chelkash thrust his hand into his jacket pocket, drew out a bundle of notes, put one rainbow-colored note back in his pocket, and handed all the rest to Gavrilo.
“Take them and go!”
“I won’t take them, brother. I can’t! Forgive me!”
“T-take them, I say!” bellowed Chelkash, glaring horribly.
“Forgive me! Then I’ll take them,” said Gavrilo, timidly, and he fell at Chelkash’s feet on the damp sand, that was being liberally drenched by the rain.
“You lie, you’ll take them, sniveller!” Chelkash said with conviction, and with an effort, pulling Gavrilo’s head up by the hair, he thrust the notes in his face.
“Take them! take them! You didn’t do your job for nothing, I suppose. Take it, don’t be frightened! Don’t be ashamed of having nearly killed a man! For people like me, no one will make much inquiry. They’ll say thank you, indeed, when they know of it. There, take it! No one will ever know what you’ve done, and it deserves a reward. Come, now!”
Gavrilo saw that Chelkash was laughing, and he felt relieved. He crushed the notes up tight in his hand.
“Brother! You forgive me? Won’t you? Eh?” he asked tearfully.
“Brother of mine!” Chelkash mimicked him as he got, reeling, on to his legs. “What for? There’s nothing to forgive. To-day you do for me, to-morrow I’ll do for you.”
“Oh, brother, brother!” Gavrilo sighed mournfully, shaking his head.
Chelkash stood facing him, he smiled strangely, and the rag on his head, growing gradually redder, began to look like a Turkish fez.
The rain streamed in bucketsful. The sea moaned with a hollow sound, and the waves beat on the shore, lashing furiously and wrathfully against it.
The two men were silent.
“Come, good-bye!” Chelkash said, coldly and sarcastically.
He reeled, his legs shook, and he held his head queerly, as though he were afraid of losing it.
“Forgive me, brother!” Gavrilo besought him once more.
“All right!” Chelkash answered, coldly, setting off on his way.
He walked away, staggering, and still holding his head in his left hand, while he slowly tugged at his brown mustache with the right.
Gavrilo looked after him a long while, till the had disappeared in the rain, which still poured down in fine, countless streams, and wrapped everything in an impenetrable steel-gray mist.
Then Gavrilo took off his soaked cap, made the sign of the cross, looked at the notes crushed up in his hand, heaved a deep sigh of relief, thrust them into his bosom, and with long, firm strides went along the shore, in the opposite direction from that Chelkash had taken.
The sea howled, flinging heavy, breaking billows on the sand of the shore, and dashing them into spray, the rain lashed the water and the earth, the wind blustered. All the air was full of roaring, howling, moaning. Neither distance nor sky could be seen through the rain.
Soon the rain and the spray had washed away the red patch on the spot where Chelkash had lain, washed away the traces of Chelkash and the peasant lad on the sandy beach. And no trace was left on the seashore of the little drama that had been played out between two men.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09