I met him in the harbor of Odessa. For three successive days his square, strongly-built figure attracted my attention. His face — of a Caucasian type — was framed in a handsome beard. He haunted me. I saw him standing for hours together on the stone quay, with the handle of his walking stick in his mouth, staring down vacantly, with his black almond-shaped eyes into the muddy waters of the harbor. Ten times a day, he would pass me by with the gait of a careless lounger. Whom could he be? I began to watch him. As if anxious to excite my curiosity, he seemed to cross my path more and more often. In the end, his fashionably-cut light check suit, his black hat, like that of an artist, his indolent lounge, and even his listless, bored glance grew quite familiar to me. His presence was utterly unaccountable, here in the harbor, where the whistling of the steamers and engines, the clanking of chains, the shouting of workmen, all the hurried maddening bustle of a port, dominated one’s sensations, and deadened one’s nerves and brain. Everyone else about the port was enmeshed in its immense complex machinery, which demanded incessant vigilance and endless toil.
Everyone here was busy, loading and unloading either steamers or railway trucks. Everyone was tired and careworn. Everyone was hurrying to and fro, shouting or cursing, covered with dirt and sweat. In the midst of the toil and bustle this singular person, with his air of deadly boredom, strolled about deliberately, heedless of everything.
At last, on the fourth day, I came across him during the dinner hour, and I made up my mind to find out at any cost who he might be. I seated myself with my bread and water-melon not far from him, and began to eat, scrutinizing him and devising some suitable pretext for beginning a conversation with him.
There he stood, leaning against a pile of tea boxes, glancing aimlessly around, and drumming with his fingers on his walking stick, as if it were a flute. It was difficult for me, a man dressed like a tramp, with a porter’s knot over my shoulders, and grimy with coal dust, to open up a conversation with such a dandy. But to my astonishment I noticed that he never took his eyes off me, and that an unpleasant, greedy, animal light shone in those eyes. I came to the conclusion that the object of my curiosity must be hungry, and after glancing rapidly round, I asked him in a low voice: “Are you hungry?”
He started, and with a famished grin showed rows of strong sound teeth. And he, too, looked suspiciously round. We were quite unobserved. Then I handed him half my melon and a chunk of wheaten bread. He snatched it all from my hand, and disappeared, squatting behind a pile of goods. His head peeped out from time to time; his hat was pushed back from his forehead, showing his dark moist brow.
His face wore a broad smile, and for some unknown reason he kept winking at me, never for a moment ceasing to chew.
Making him a sign to wait a moment, I went away to buy meat, brought it, gave it to him, and stood by the boxes, thus completely shielding my poor dandy from outsiders’ eyes. He was still eating ravenously, and constantly looking round as if afraid someone might snatch his food away; but after I returned, he began to eat more calmly, though still so fast and so greedily that it caused me pain to watch this famished man. And I turned my back on him.
“Thanks! Many thanks indeed!” He patted my shoulder, snatched my hand, pressed it, and shook it heartily.
Five minutes later he was telling me who he was. He was a Georgian prince, by name Shakro Ptadze, and was the only son of a rich landowner of Kutais in the Caucasus. He had held a position as clerk at one of the railway stations in his own country, and during that time had lived with a friend. But one fine day the friend disappeared, carrying off all the prince’s money and valuables. Shakro determined to track and follow him, and having heard by chance that his late friend had taken a ticket to Batoum, he set off there. But in Batoum he found that his friend had gone on to Odessa. Then Prince Shakro borrowed a passport of another friend — a hair-dresser — of the same age as himself, though the features and distinguishing marks noted therein did not in the least resemble his own.
Arrived at Odessa, he informed the police of his loss, and they promised to investigate the matter. He had been waiting for a fortnight, had consumed all his money, and for the last four days had not eaten a morsel.
I listened to his story, plentifully embellished as it was with oaths. He gave me the impression of being sincere. I looked at him, I believed him, and felt sorry for the lad. He was nothing more — he was nineteen, but from his naivety one might have taken him for younger. Again and again, and with deep indignation, he returned to the thought of his close friendship for a man who had turned out to be a thief, and had stolen property of such value that Shakro’s stern old father would certainly stab his son with a dagger if the property were not recovered.
I thought that if I didn’t help this young fellow, the greedy town would suck him down. I knew through what trifling circumstances the army of tramps is recruited, and there seemed every possibility of Prince Shakro drifting into this respectable, but not respected class. I felt a wish to help him. My earnings were not sufficient to buy him a ticket to Batoum, so I visited some of the railway offices, and begged a free ticket for him. I produced weighty arguments in favor of assisting the young fellow, with the result of getting refusals just as weighty. I advised Shakro to apply to the Head of the Police of the town; this made him uneasy, and he declined to go there. Why not? He explained that he had not paid for his rooms at an hotel where he had been staying, and that when requested to do so, he had struck some one.
This made him anxious to conceal his identity, for he supposed, and with reason, that if the police found him out he would have to account for the fact of his not paying his bill, and for having struck the man. Besides, he could not remember exactly if he had struck one or two blows, or more.
The position was growing more complicated.
I resolved to work till I had earned a sum sufficient to carry him back to Batoum. But alas! I soon realized that my plan could not be carried out quickly — by no means quickly — for my half-starved prince ate as much as three men, and more. At that time there was a great influx of peasants into the Crimea from the famine-stricken northern parts of Russia, and this had caused a great reduction in the wages of the workers at the docks. I succeeded in earning only eighty kopecks a day, and our food cost us sixty kopecks.
I had no intention of staying much longer at Odessa, for I had meant, some time before I came across the prince, to go on to the Crimea. I therefore suggested to him the following plan: that we should travel together on foot to the Crimea, and there I would find him another companion, who would continue the journey with him as far as Tiflis; if I should fail in finding him a fellow-traveler, I promised to go with him myself.
The prince glanced sadly at his elegant boots, his hat, his trousers, while he smoothed and patted his coat. He thought a little time, sighed frequently, and at last agreed. So we started off from Odessa to Tiflis on foot.
By the time we had arrived at Kherson I knew something of my companion. He was a naively savage, exceedingly undeveloped young fellow; gay when he was well fed, dejected when he was hungry, like a strong, easy-tempered animal. On the road he gave me accounts of life in the Caucasus, and told me much about the landowners; about their amusements, and the way they treated the peasantry. His stories were interesting, and had a beauty of their own; but they produced on my mind a most unfavorable impression of the narrator himself.
To give one instance. There was at one time a rich prince, who had invited many friends to a feast. They partook freely of all kinds of Caucasian wines and meats, and after the feast the prince led his guests to his stables. They saddled the horses, the prince picked out the handsomest, and rode him into the fields. That was a fiery steed! The guests praised his form and paces. Once more the prince started to ride round the field, when at the same moment a peasant appeared, riding a splendid white horse, and overtook the prince — overtook him and laughed proudly! The prince was put to shame before his guests! He knit his brow, and beckoned the peasant to approach; then, with a blow of his dagger, he severed the man’s head from his body. Drawing his pistol, he shot the white horse in the ear. He then delivered himself up to justice, and was condemned to penal servitude.
Through the whole story there rang a note of pity for the prince. I endeavored to make Shakro understand that his pity was misplaced.
“There are not so many princes,” he remarked didactically, “as there are peasants. It cannot be just to condemn a prince for a peasant. What, after all is a peasant? he is no better than this!” He took up a handful of soil, and added: “A prince is a star!”
We had a dispute over this question and he got angry. When angry, he showed his teeth like a wolf, and his features seemed to grow sharp and set.
“Maxime, you know nothing about life in the Caucasus; so you had better hold your tongue!” he shouted.
All my arguments were powerless to shatter his naive convictions. What was clear to me seemed absurd to him. My arguments never reached his brain; but if ever I did succeed in showing him that my opinions were weightier and of more value than his own, he would simply say:
“Then go and live in the Caucasus, and you will see that I am right. What every one does must be right. Why am I to believe what you say? You are the only one who says such things are wrong; while thousands say they are right!”
Then I was silent, feeling that words were of no use in this case; only facts could confute a man, who believed that life, just as it is, is entirely just and lawful. I was silent, while he was triumphant, for he firmly believed that he knew life and considered his knowledge of it something unshakeable, stable and perfect. My silence seemed to him to give him a right to strike a fuller note in his stories of Caucasian life — a life full of so much wild beauty, so much fire and originality.
These stories, though full of interest and attraction for me, continued to provoke my indignation and disgust by their cruelty, by the worship of wealth and of strength which they displayed, and the absence of that morality which is said to be binding on all men alike.
Once I asked him if he knew what Christ had taught.
“Yes, of course I do!” he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
But after I had examined him on this point, it turned out that all he knew was, that there had once been a certain Christ, who protested against the laws of the Jews, and that for this protest he was crucified by the Jews. But being a God, he did not die on the cross, but ascended into heaven, and gave the world a new law.
“What law was that?” I inquired.
He glanced at me with ironical incredulity, and asked: “Are you a Christian? Well, so am I a Christian. Nearly all the people in the world are Christians. Well, why do you ask then? You know the way they all live; they follow the law of Christ!”
I grew excited, and began eagerly to tell him about Christ’s life. At first he listened attentively; but this attention did not last long, and he began to yawn.
I understood that it was useless appealing to his heart, and I once more addressed myself to his head, and talked to him of the advantages of mutual help and of knowledge, the benefits of obedience to the law, speaking of the policy of morality and nothing more.
“He who is strong is a law to himself! He has no need of learning; even blind, he’ll find his way,” Prince Shakro replied, languidly.
Yes, he was always true to himself. This made me feel a respect for him; but he was savage and cruel, and sometimes I felt a spark of hatred for Prince Shakro. Still, I had not lost all hope of finding some point of contact with him, some common ground on which we could meet, and understand one another.
I began to use simpler language with the prince, and tried to put myself mentally on a level with him. He noticed these attempts of mine, but evidently mistaking them for an acknowledgment on my part of his superiority, adopted a still more patronizing tone in talking to me. I suffered, as the conviction came home to me, that all my arguments were shattered against the stone wall of his conception of life.
Soon we had left Perekop behind us. We were approaching the Crimean mountains. For the last two days we bad seen them against the horizon. The mountains were pale blue, and looked like soft heaps of billowy clouds. I admired them in the distance, and I dreamed of the southern shore of the Crimea. The prince hummed his Georgian songs and was gloomy. We had spent all our money, and there was no chance of earning anything in these parts.
We bent our steps toward Feodosia, where a new harbor was in course of construction. The prince said that he would work, too, and that when we had earned enough money we would take a boat together to Batoum.
In Batoum, he said, he had many friends, and with their assistance he could easily get me a situation — as a house-porter or a watchman. He clapped me patronizingly on the back, and remarked, indulgently, with a peculiar click of his tongue:
“I’ll arrange it for you! You shall have such a life tse’, tse’! You will have plenty of wine, there will be as much mutton as you can eat. You can marry a fat Georgian girl; tse’, tse’, tse’! She will cook you Georgian dishes; give you children — many, many children! tse’, tse’, tse’!”
This constant repetition of “tse’, tse’, tse’!” surprised me at first; then it began to irritate me, and, at last, it reduced me to a melancholy frenzy. In Russia we use this sound to call pigs, but in the Caucasus it seems to be an expression of delight and of regret, of pleasure and of sadness.
Shakro’s smart suit already began to look shabby; his elegant boots had split in many places. His cane and hat had been sold in Kherson. To replace the hat he had bought an old uniform cap of a railway clerk. When he put this cap on for the first time, he cocked it on one side of his head, and asked: “Does it suit me? Do I look nice?”
At last we reached the Crimea. We had left Simpheropol behind us, and were moving towards Jalta.
I was walking along in silent ectasy, marvelling at the beauty of this strip of land, caressed on all sides by the sea.
The prince sighed, complained, and, casting dejected glances about him, tried filling his empty stomach with wild berries. His knowledge of their nutritive qualities was extremely limited, and his experiments were not always successful. Often he would remark, ill-humoredly:
“If I’m turned inside out with eating this stuff, how am I to go any farther? And what’s to be done then?”
We had no chance of earning anything, neither had we a penny left to buy a bit of bread. All we had to live on was fruit, and our hopes for the future.
The prince began to reproach me with want of enterprise and laziness — with “gaping about,” as he expressed it. Altogether, he was beginning to bore me; but what most tried my patience were his fabulous accounts of his appetite. According to these accounts, after a hearty breakfast at noon of roast lamb, and three bottles of wine, he could easily, at his two o’clock dinner, dispose of three plates of soup, a pot of pilave, a dish of shasleek, and various other Caucasian dishes, washed down abundantly with wine. For whole days he would talk of nothing but his gastronomic tastes and knowledge: and while thus talking, he would smack his lips, his eyes would glow, he would show his teeth, and grind them together; would suck in and swallow the saliva that came dripping from his eloquent lips. Watching him at these moments, I conceived for him a deep feeling of disgust, which I found difficult to conceal.
Near Jalta I obtained a job at clearing away the dead branches in an orchard. I was paid fifty kopecks in advance, and laid out the whole of this money on bread and meat. No sooner had I returned with my purchase, than the gardener called me away to my work. I had to leave my store of food with Shakro, who, under the pretext of a headache, had declined to work. When I returned in an hour’s time, I had to acknowledge that Shakro’s stories of his appetite were all too true. Not a crumb was left of all the food I had bought! His action was anything but a friendly one, but I let it pass. Later on I had to acknowledge to myself the mistake I then made.
My silence did not pass unnoticed by Shakro, who profited by it in his own fashion. His behavior toward me from that time grew more and more shameless. I worked, while he ate and drank and urged me on, refusing, on various pretexts, to do any work himself. I am no follower of Tolstoi. I felt amused and sad as I saw this strong healthy lad watching me with greedy eyes when I returned from a hard day’s labor, and found him waiting for me in some shady nook. But it was even more mortifying to see that he was sneering at me for working. He sneered at me because he had learned to beg, and because he looked on me as a lifeless dummy. When he first started begging, he was ashamed for me to see him, but he soon got over this; and as soon as we came to some Tartar village, he would openly prepare for business. Leaning heavily on his stick, he would drag one foot after him, as though he were lame. He knew quite well that the Tartars were mean, and never give alms to anyone who is strong and well.
I argued with him, and tried to convince him of the shamefulness of such a course of action. He only sneered.
“I cannot work,” was all he would reply.
He did not get much by his begging.
My health at that time began to give way. Every day the journey seemed to grow more trying. Every day our relations toward each other grew more strained. Shakro, now, had begun shamelessly to insist that I should provide him with food.
“It was you,” he would say, “who brought me out here, all this way; so you must look after me. I never walked so far in my life before. I should never have undertaken such a journey on foot. It may kill me! You are tormenting me; you are crushing the life out of me! Think what it would be if I were to die! My mother would weep; my father would weep; all my friends would weep! Just think of all the tears that would be shed!”
I listened to such speeches, but was not angered by them. A strange thought began to stir in my mind, a thought that made me bear with him patiently. Many a time as be lay asleep by my side I would watch his calm, quiet face, and think to myself, as though groping after some idea:
“He is my fellow-traveller — my fellow-traveller.”
At times, a dim thought would strike me, that after all Shakro was only right in claiming so freely, and with so much assurance, my help and my care. It proved that he possessed a strong will.
He was enslaving me, and I submitted, and studied his character; following each quivering movement of the muscles of his face, trying to foresee when and at what point he would stop in this process of exploiting another person’s individuality.
Shakro was in excellent spirits; he sang, and slept, and jeered at me, when he felt so disposed. Sometimes we separated for two or three days. I would leave him some bread and some money (if we had any), and would tell him where to meet me again. At parting, he would follow me with a suspicious, angry look in his eyes. But when we met again he welcomed me with gleeful triumph. He always said, laughing: “I thought you had run off alone, and left me! ha! ha! ha!” I brought him food, and told him of the beautiful places I had seen; and once even, speaking of Bakhtchesarai, I told him about our Russian poet Pushkin, and recited some of his verses. But this produced no effect on him.
“Oh, indeed; that is poetry, is it? Well, songs are better than poetry, I knew a Georgian once! He was the man to sing! He sang so loud — so loud — he would have thought his throat was being cut? He finished by murdering an inn-keeper, and was banished to Siberia.”
Every time I returned, I sank lower and lower in the opinion of Shakro, until he could not conceal his contempt for me. Our position was anything but pleasant. I was seldom lucky enough to earn more than a rouble or a rouble and a-half a week, and I need not say that was not nearly sufficient to feed us both.
The few bits of money that Shakro gained by begging made but little difference in the state of our affairs, for his belly was a bottomless pit, which swallowed everything that fell in its way; grapes, melons, salt fish, bread, or dried fruit; and as time went on he seemed to need ever more and more food.
Shakro began to urge me to hasten our departure from the Crimea, not unreasonably pointing out that autumn would soon be here and we had a long way still to go. I agreed with this view, and, besides, I had by then seen all that part of the Crimea. So we pushed on again toward Feodosia, hoping to earn something there. Once more our diet was reduced to fruit, and to hopes for the future.
Poor future! Such a load of hopes is cast on it by men, that it loses almost all its charms by the time it becomes the present!
When within some twenty versts of Aloushta we stopped, as usual, for our night’s rest. I had persuaded Shakro to keep to the sea coast; it was a longer way round, but I longed to breathe the fresh sea breezes. We made a fire, and lay down beside it. The night was a glorious one. The dark green sea splashed against the rocks below; above us spread the majestic calm of the blue heavens, and around us sweet-scented trees and bushes rustled softly. The moon was rising, and the delicate tracery of the shadows, thrown by the tall, green plane trees, crept over the stones. Somewhere near a bird sang; its note was clear and bold. Its silvery trill seemed to melt into the air that was full of the soft, caressing splash of the waves. The silence that followed was broken by the nervous chirp of a cricket
The fire burned bright, and its flames looked like a large bunch of red and yellow flowers. Flickering shadows danced gaily around us, as if exulting in their power of movement, in contrast with the creeping advance of the moon shadows. From time to time strange sounds floated through the air. The broad expanse of sea horizon seemed lost in immensity. In the sky overhead not a cloud was visible. I felt as if I were lying on the earth’s extreme edge, gazing into infinite space, that riddle that haunts the soul. The majestic beauty of the night intoxicated me, while my whole being seemed absorbed in the harmony of its colors, its sounds, and its scents.
A feeling of awe filled my soul, a feeling as if something great were very near to me. My heart throbbed with the joy of life.
Suddenly, Shakro burst into loud laughter, “Ha! ha! ha! How stupid your face does look! You’ve a regular sheep’s head! Ha! ha! ha!”
I started as though it were a sudden clap of thunder. But it was worse. It was laughable, yes, but oh, how mortifying it was!
He, Shakro, laughed till the tears came. I was ready to cry, too, but from quite a different reason. A lump rose in my throat, and I could not speak. I gazed at him with wild eyes, and this only increased his mirth. He rolled on the ground, holding his sides. As for me, I could not get over the insult — for a bitter insult it was. Those — few, I hope — who will understand it, from having had a similar experience in their lives, will recall all the bitterness it left in their souls.
“Leave off!” I shouted, furiously.
He was startled and frightened, but he could not at once restrain his laughter. His eyes rolled, and his cheeks swelled as if about to burst. All at once he went off into a guffaw again. Then I rose and left him.
For some time I wandered about, heedless and almost unconscious of all that surrounded me, my whole soul consumed with the bitter pang of loneliness and of humiliation. Mentally, I had been embracing all nature. Silently, with the passionate love any man must feel if he has a little of the poet in him, I was loving and adoring her. And now it was nature that, under the form of Shakro, was mocking me for my passion. I might have gone still further in my accusations against nature, against Shakro, and against the whole of life, had I not been stopped by approaching footsteps.
“Do not be angry,” said Shakro in a contrite voice, touching my shoulder lightly. “Were you praying?’ I didn’t know it, for I never pray myself.”
He spoke timidly, like a naughty child. In spite of my excitement, I could not help noticing his pitiful face ludicrously distorted by embarrassment and alarm.
“I will never interfere with you again. Truly! Never!” He shook his head emphatically. “I know you are a quiet fellow. You work hard, and do not force me to do the same. I used to wonder why; but, of course, it’s because you are foolish as a sheep!”
That was his way of consoling me! That was his idea of asking for forgiveness! After such consolation, and such excuses, what was there left for me to do but forgive, not only for the past, but for the future!
Half an hour later he was sound asleep, while I sat beside him, watching him. During sleep, every one, be he ever so strong, looks helpless and weak, but Shakro looked a pitiful creature. His thick, half-parted lips, and his arched eyebrows, gave to his face a childish look of timidity and of wonder. His breathing was quiet and regular, though at times he moved restlessly, and muttered rapidly in the Georgian language; the words seemed those of entreaty. All around us reigned that intense calm which always makes one somehow expectant, and which, were it to last long, might drive one mad by its absolute stillness and the absence of sound — the vivid shadow of motion, for sound and motion seem ever allied.
The soft splash of the waves did not reach us. We were resting in a hollow gorge that was overgrown with bushes, and looked like the shaggy mouth of some petrified monster. I still watched Shakro, and thought: “This is my fellow traveler. I might leave him here, but I could never get away from him, or the like of him; their name is legion. This is my life companion. He will leave me only at death’s door.”
At Feodosia we were sorely disappointed. All work there was already apportioned among Turks, Greeks, Georgians, tramps, and Russian peasants from Poltava and Smolensk, who had all arrived before us. Already, more than four hundred men had, like ourselves, come in the hopes of finding employment; and were also, like ourselves, destined to remain silent spectators of the busy work going on in the port.
In the town, and outside also, we met groups of famished peasants, gray and careworn, wandering miserably about. Of tramps there were also plenty, roving around like hungry wolves.
At first these tramps took us for famished peasants, and tried to make what they could out of us. They tore from Shakro’s back the overcoat which I had bought him, and they snatched my knapsack from my shoulders. After several discussions, they recognized our intellectual and social kinship with them; and they returned all our belongings. Tramps are men of honor, though they may be great rogues.
Seeing that there was no work for us, and that the construction of the harbor was going on very well without our help, we moved on resentfully toward Kertch.
My friend kept his word, and never again molested me; but he was terribly famished, his countenance was as black as thunder. He ground his teeth together, as does a wolf, whenever he saw someone else eating; and he terrified me by the marvellous accounts of the quantity of food he was prepared to consume. Of late he had begun to talk about women, at first only casually, with sighs of regret. But by degrees he came to talk more and more often on the subject, with the lascivious smile of “an Oriental.” At length his state became such, that he could not see any person of the other sex, whatever her age or appearance, without letting fall some obscene remark about her looks or her figure.
He spoke of women so freely, with so wide a knowledge of the sex; and his point of view, when discussing women, was so astoundingly direct, that his conversation filled me with disgust. Once I tried to prove to him that a woman was a being in no way inferior to him. I saw that he was not merely mortified by my words, but was on the point of violently resenting them as a personal insult. So I postponed my arguments till such time as Shakro should be well fed once more.
In order to shorten our road to Kertch we left the coast, and tramped across the steppes. There was nothing in my knapsack but a three-pound loaf of barley bread, which we had bought of a Tartar with our last five-kopeck piece. Owing to this painful circumstance, when, at last we reached Kertch, we could hardly move our legs, so seeking therefore work was out of the question. Shakro’s attempts to beg by the way had proved unsuccessful; everywhere he had received the curt refusal: “There are so many of you.”
This was only too true, for the number of people, who, during that bitter year, were in want of bread, was appalling. The famished peasants roamed about the country in groups, from three to twenty or more together. Some carried babies in their arms; some had young children dragging by the hand. The children looked almost transparent, with a bluish skin, under which flowed, instead of pure blood, some sort of thick unwholesome fluid. The way their small sharp bones projected from under the wasted flesh spoke more eloquently than could any words. The sight of them made one’s heart ache, while a constant intolerable pain seemed to gnaw one’s very soul.
These hungry, naked, worn-out children did not even cry. But they looked about them with sharp eyes that flashed greedily whenever they saw a garden, or a field, from which the corn had not yet been carried. Then they would glance sadly at their elders, as if asking “Why was I brought into this world?”
Sometimes they had a cart driven by a dried-up skeleton of an old woman, and full of children, whose little heads peeped out, gazing with mournful eyes in expressive silence at the new land into which they had been brought. The rough, bony horse dragged itself along, shaking its head and its tumbled mane wearily from side to side.
Following the cart, or clustering round it, came the grown-up people, with heads sunk low on their breasts, and arms hanging helplessly at their sides. Their dim, vacant eyes had not even the feverish glitter of hunger, but were full of an indescribable, impressive mournfulness. Cast out of their homes by misfortune, these processions of peasants moved silently, slowly, stealthily through the strange land, as if afraid that their presence might disturb the peace of the more fortunate inhabitants. Many and many a time we came across these processions, and every time they reminded me of a funeral without the corpse.
Sometimes, when they overtook us, or when we passed them, they would timidly and quietly ask us: “Is it much farther to the village?” And when we answered, they would sigh, and gaze dumbly at us. My travelling companion hated these irrepressible rivals for charity.
In spite of all the difficulties of the journey, and the scantiness of our food, Shakro, with his rich vitality, could not acquire the lean, hungry look, of which the starving peasants could boast in its fullest perfection. Whenever he caught sight, in the distance, of these latter, he would exclaim: “Pouh! pouh! pouh. Here they are again! What are they roaming about for? They seem to be always on the move! Is Russia too small for them? I can’t understand what they want! Russians are a stupid sort of people!”
When I had explained to him the reason of the “stupid” Russians coming to the Crimea, he shook his head incredulously, and remarked: “I don’t understand! It’s nonsense! We never have such ‘stupid’ things happening in Georgia!”
We arrived in Kertch, as I have said, exhausted and hungry. It was late. We had to spend the night under a bridge, which joined the harbor to the mainland. We thought it better to conceal ourselves, as we had been told that just before our arrival all the tramps had been driven out of the town. This made us feel anxious, lest we might fall into the hands of the police; besides Shakro had only a false passport, and if that fact became known, it might lead to serious complications in our future.
All night long the spray from the sea splashed over us. At dawn we left our hiding place, wet to the skin and bitterly cold. All day we wandered about the shore. All we succeeded in earning was a silver piece of the value of ten kopecks, which was given me by the wife of a priest, in return for helping her to carry home a bag of melons from the bazaar.
A narrow belt of water divided us from Taman, where we meant to go, but not one boatman would consent to carry us over in his boat, in spite of my pleadings. Everyone here was up in arms against the tramps, who, shortly before our arrival, had performed a series of heroic exploits; and we were looked upon, with good reason, as belonging to their set.
Evening came on. I felt angry with the whole world, for my lack of success; and I planned a somewhat risky scheme, which I put into execution as soon as night came on.
Toward evening, Shakro and I stole quietly up toward the boats of the custom house guardship. There were three of them, chained to iron rings, which rings were firmly screwed into the stone wall of the quay. It was pitch dark. A strong wind dashed the boats one against the other. The iron chains clanked noisily. In the darkness and the noise, it was easy for me to unscrew the ring from the stone wall.
Just above our heads the sentinel walked to and fro, whistling through his teeth a tune. Whenever he approached I stopped my work, though, as a matter of fact, this was a useless precaution; he could not even have suspected that a person would sit up to his neck in the water, at a spot where the backwash of a wave might at any moment carry him off his feet. Besides, the chains never ceased clanking, as the wind swung them backward and forward.
Shakro was already lying full length along the bottom of the boat, muttering something, which the noise of the waves prevented me from hearing. At last the ring was in my hand. At the same moment a wave caught our boat, and dashed it suddenly some ten yards away from the side of the quay. I bad to swim for a few seconds by the side of the boat, holding the chain in my hand. At last I managed to scramble in. We tore up two boards from the bottom, and using these as oars, I paddled away as fast as I could.
Clouds sailed rapidly over our heads; around, and underneath the boat, waves splashed furiously. Shakro sat aft. Every now and then I lost sight of him as the whole stern of the boat slipped into some deep watery gulf; the next moment he would rise high above my head, shouting desperately, and almost falling forward into my arms. I told him not to shout, but to fasten his feet to the seat of the boat, as I had already fastened mine. I feared his shouts might give the alarm. He obeyed, and grew so silent that I only knew he was in the boat by the white spot opposite to me, which I knew must be his face. The whole time he held the rudder in his hand; we could not change places, we dared not move.
From time to time I called out instructions as to the handling of the boat, and he understood me so quickly, and did everything so cleverly, that one might have thought he had been born a sailor. The boards I was using in the place of oars were of little use; they only blistered my hands. The furious gusts of wind served to carry the boat forward.
I cared little for the direction, my only thought was to get the boat across to the other side. It was not difficult to steer, for the lights in Kertch were still visible, and served as a beacon. The waves splashed over our boat with angry hissings. The farther across we got, the more furious and the wilder became the waves. Already we could hear a sort of roar that held mind and soul as with a spell. Faster and faster our boat flew on before the wind, till it became almost impossible to steer a course. Every now and then we would sink into a gulf, and the next moment we would rise high on the summit of some enormous watery hill. The darkness was increasing, the clouds were sinking lower and lower. The lights of the town had disappeared.
Our state was growing desperate. It seemed as if the expanse of angry rollers was boundless and limitless. We could see nothing but these immense waves, that came rolling, one after another, out of the gloom, straight on to our boat. With an angry crash a board was torn from my hand, forcing me to throw the other into the boat, and to hold on tight with both hands to the gunwale. Every time the boat was thrown upward, Shakro shrieked wildly. As for me, I felt wretched and helpless, in the darkness, surrounded with angry waves, whose noise deafened me. I stared about me in dull and chilly terror, and saw the awful monotony around us. Waves, nothing but waves, with whitish crests, that broke in showers of salt spray; above us, the thick ragged edged clouds were like waves too.
I became conscious only of one thing: I felt that all that was going on around me might be immeasurably more majestic and more terrible, but that it did not deign to be, and was restraining its strength; and that I resented. Death is inevitable. But that impartial law, reducing all to the same commonplace level, seems to need something beautiful to compensate for its coarseness and cruelty. If I were asked to choose between a death by burning, or being suffocated in a dirty bog, I should choose the former; it is any way, a more seemly death.
“Let us rig up a sail,” exclaimed Shakro.
“Where am I to find one?”
“Use my overcoat.”
“Chuck it over to me then; but mind you don’t drop the rudder into the water!”
Shakro quietly threw it to me. “Here! Catch hold!”
Crawling along the bottom of the boat, I succeeded in pulling up another board, one end of which I fixed into one of the sleeves of the coat. I then fixed the board against the seat, and held it there with my feet. I was just going to take hold of the other sleeve, when an unexpected thing happened. The boat was tossed suddenly upward, and then overturned. I felt myself in the water, holding the overcoat in one hand, and a rope, that was fastened to the boat, in the other hand. The waves swirled noisily over my head, and I swallowed a mouthful of bitter salt water. My nose, my mouth, and my ears, were full of it.
With all my might I clutched the rope, as the waves threw me backward and forward. Several times I sank, each time, as I rose again, bumping my head against the sides of the boat.
At last I succeeded in throwing the coat over the bottom of the boat, and tried to clamber on it myself. After a dozen efforts I scrambled up and I sat astride it. Then I caught sight of Shakro in the water on the opposite side of the boat, holding with both hands to the same rope of which I had just let go. The boat was apparently encircled by a rope, threaded through iron rings, driven into the outer planks.
“Alive!” I shouted.
At that moment Shakro was flung high into the air, and he, too, got on to the boat. I clutched him, and there we remained sitting face to face, astride on the capsized boat! I sat on it as though it were a horse, making use of the rope as if it had been stirrups; but our position there was anything but safe — a wave might easily have knocked us out of our saddle. Shakro held tightly by my knees, and dropped his head on my breast. He shivered, and I could hear his teeth chattering. Something had to be done. The bottom of the upturned boat was slippery, as though it had been greased with butter. I told Shakro to get into the water again, and hold by the ropes on one side of the boat, while I would do the same on the other side.
By way of reply, Shakro began to butt his head violently against my chest. The waves swept, in their wild dance, every now and then over us. We could hardly bold our seats; the rope was cutting my leg desperately. As far as one could see there was nothing but immense waves, rising mountains high, only to disappear again noisily.
I repeated my advice to Shakro in a tone of command. He fell to butting me more violently than ever. There was no time to be lost. Slowly and with difficulty I tore his hands from me, and began to push him into the water, trying to make his hands take hold of the rope. Then something happened that dismayed me more than anything in that terrible night.
“Are you drowning me?” he muttered, gazing at me.
This was really horrible! The question itself was a dreadful one, but the tone in which it was uttered more so. In it there was a timid submission to fate, and an entreaty for mercy, and the last sigh of one who had lost all hope of escaping from a frightful death. But more terrible still were the eyes that stared at me out of the wet, livid, death-like face.
“Hold on tighter!” I shouted to him, at the same time getting into the water myself, and taking hold of the rope. As I did so, I struck my foot against something, and for a moment I could not think for the pain. Then I understood. Suddenly a burning thought flashed through my mind. I felt delirious and stronger than ever.
“Land!” I shouted.
Great explorers may have shouted the word with more feeling on discovering new lands, but I doubt if any can have shouted more loudly. Shakro howled with delight, and we both rushed on in the water. But soon we both lost heart, for we were up to our chests in the waves, and still there seemed no sign of dry land. The waves were neither so strong nor so high, but they rolled slowly over our heads. Fortunately I had not let go of the boat, but still held on by the rope, which had already helped us when struggling in the water.
Shakro and I moved carefully forward, towing the boat, which we had now righted, behind us.
Shakro was muttering and laughing. I glanced anxiously around. It was still dark. Behind us, and to our right, the roaring of the waves seemed to be increasing, whereas to our left and in front of us it was evidently growing less. We moved toward the left. The bottom was hard and sandy, but full of holes; sometimes we could not touch the bottom, and we had to take hold of the boat with one hand, while with the other hand, and our legs, we propelled it forward. At times again the water was no higher than our knees. When we came to the deep places Shakro howled, and I trembled with fear. Suddenly we saw ahead of us a light — we were safe!
Shakro shouted with all his might, but I could not forget that the boat was not ours, and promptly reminded him of the fact. He was silent, but a few minutes later I heard him sobbing. I could not quiet him — it was hopeless. But the water was gradually growing shallower, it reached our knees, then our ankles; and at last we felt dry land! We had dragged the boat so far, but our strength failed us, and we left it. A black log of wood lay across our path; we jumped over it, and stepped with our bare feet on to some prickly grass. It seemed unkind of the land to give us such a cruel welcome, but we did not heed it, and ran toward the fire. It was about a mile away; but it shone cheerily through the hovering gloom of the night, and seemed to smile a welcome to us.
Three enormous shaggy dogs leaped up out of the darkness and ran toward us. Shakro, who had been sobbing all the way, now shrieked, and threw himself on the ground. I flung the wet overcoat at the dogs, and stooped down to find a stick or a stone. I could feel nothing but coarse, prickly grass, which hurt my hands. The dogs continued their attack. I put my fingers into my mouth, and whistled as loud as I could. They rushed back, and at the same time we heard the sound of approaching steps and voices.
A few minutes later, and we were comfortably seated around a fire in the company of four shepherds, dressed in “touloups” or long sheepskin overcoats.
They scrutinized us keenly and rather suspiciously, and remained silent all the time I was telling them our story.
Two of the shepherds were seated on the ground, smoking, and puffing from their mouths clouds of smoke. The third was a tall man with a thick black beard, wearing a high fur cap. He stood behind us, leaning on a huge knotted stick. The fourth man was younger, and fair haired; he was helping the sobbing Shakro to get off his wet clothes. An enormous stick, the size of which alone inspired fear, lay beside each of the seated shepherds.
Ten yards away from us all the steppe seemed covered with something gray and undulating, which had the appearance of snow in spring time, just when it is beginning to thaw.
It was only after a close inspection that one could discern that this gray waving mass was composed of many thousands of sheep, huddled closely together, asleep, forming in the dark night one compact mass. Sometimes they bleated piteously and timidly.
I dried the overcoat by the fire, and told the shepherds all our story truthfully; even describing the way in which we became possessed of the boat.
“Where is that boat now?” inquired the severe-looking elder man, who kept his eyes fixed on me.
I told him.
“Go, Michael, and look for it.”
Michael, the shepherd with the black beard, went off with his stick over his shoulder, toward the sea-shore.
The overcoat was dry. Shakro was about to put it on his naked body, when the old man said: “Go and have a run first to warm yourself. Run quickly around the fire. Come!”
At first, Shakro did not understand. Then suddenly he rose from his place, and began dancing some wild dance of his own, first flying like a ball across the fire, then whirling round and round in one place, then stamping his feet on the ground, while he swung his arms, and shouted at the top of his voice. It was a ludicrous spectacle. Two of the shepherds were rolling on the ground, convulsed with laughter, while the older man, with a serious, immovable face, tried to clap his hands in time to the dancing, but could not succeed in doing so. He watched attentively every movement of the dancing Shakro, while he nodded his head, and exclaimed in a deep bass voice:
“He! He’! That’s right! He’! He’!”
The light fell full on Shakro, showing the variety of his movements, as at one moment he would coil himself up like a snake, and the next would dance round on one leg; then would plunge into a succession of rapid steps, difficult to follow with the eye. His naked body shone in the fire light, while the large beads of sweat, as they rolled off it, looked, in the red light of the fire, like drops of blood..
By now, all three of the shepherds were clapping their hands; while I, shivering with cold, dried myself by the fire, and thought that our adventures would gratify the taste of admirers of Cooper or of Jules Vernes; there was shipwreck, then came hospitable aborigines, and a savage dance round the fire. And while I reflected thus, I felt very uneasy as to the chief point in every adventure — the end of it.
When Shakro had finished dancing, he also sat down by the fire, wrapped up in the overcoat. He was already eating, while he stared at me with his black eyes, which had a gleam in them of something I did not like. His clothes, stretched on sticks, driven into the ground, were drying before the fire. The shepherds had given me, also, some bread and bacon.
Michael returned, and sat down without a word beside the old man, who remarked in an inquiring voice: “Well?”
“I have found the boat,” was the brief reply.
“It won’t be washed away?”
The shepherds were silent, once more scrutinizing us.
“Well,” said Michael, at last, addressing no one in particular. “Shall we take them to the ataman, or straight to the custom house officers?”
“So that’s to be the end!” I thought to myself.
Nobody replied to Michael’s question. Shakro went on quietly with his eating, and said nothing.
“We could take them to the ataman — or we could take them to the custom house. One plan’s as good as the other,” remarked the old man, after a short silence.
“They have stolen the custom house boat, so they ought to be taught a lesson for the future.”
“Wait a bit, old man,” I began.
“Certainly, they ought not to have stolen the boat. If they are not punished now, they will probably do something worse next time.” The old man interrupted me, without paying any heed to my protestations.
The old man spoke with revolting indifference. When he had finished speaking, his comrades nodded their heads in token of assent.
“Yes, if a man steals, he has to bear the consequences, when he’s caught —— Michael! what about the boat? Is it there?”
“Oh, it’s there all right!”
“Are you sure the waves won’t wash it away?”
“Well, that’s all right. Then let it stay there. Tomorrow the boatmen will be going over to Kertch, and they can take it with them. They will not mind taking an empty boat along with them, will they? Well — so you mean to say you were not frightened, you vagabonds? Weren’t you indeed? La! la! la!
“Half a mile farther out, and you would have been by this time at the bottom of the sea! What would you have done if the waves had cast you back into the sea? Ay, sure enough, you would have sunk to the bottom like a couple of axes. And that would have been the end of you both!”
As the old man finished speaking, he looked at me with an ironical smile on his lips.
“Well, why don’t you speak, lad?” he inquired.
I was vexed by his reflections, which I misinterpreted as sneering at us. So I only answered rather sharply:
“I was listening to you.”
“Well-and what do you say?” inquired the old man.
“Why are you rude to me? Is it the right thing to be rude to a man older than yourself?”
I was silent, acknowledging in my heart that it really was not the right thing.
“Won’t you have something more to eat?” continued the old shepherd.
“No, I can’t eat any more.”
“Well, don’t have any, if you don’t want it. Perhaps you’ll take a bit of bread with you to eat on the road?”
I trembled with joy, but would not betray my feelings.
“Oh, yes. I should like to take some with me for the road,” I answered, quietly.
“I say, lads! give these fellows some bread and a piece of bacon each. If you can find something else, give it to them too.”
“Are we to let them go, then?” asked Michael.
The other two shepherds looked up at the old man.
“What can they do here?”
“Did we not intend to take them either to the ataman or to the custom house?” asked Michael, in a disappointed tone.
Shakro stirred uneasily in his seat near the fire, and poked out his head inquiringly from beneath the overcoat. He was quite serene.
“What would they do at the ataman’s? I should think there is nothing to do there just now. Perhaps later on they might like to go there?”
“But how about the boat?” insisted Michael.
“What about the boat?” inquired the old man again. “Did you not say the boat was all right where it was?”
“Yes, it’s all right there,” Michael replied.
“Well, let it stay there. In the morning John can row it round into the harbor. From there, someone will get it over to Kertch. That’s all we can do with the boat.”
I watched attentively the old man’s countenance, but failed to discover any emotion on his phlegmatic, sun-burned, weather-beaten face, over the features of which the flicker from the flames played merrily.
“If only we don’t get into trouble.” Michael began to give way.
“There will be no trouble if you don’t let your tongue wag. If the ataman should hear of it, we might get into a scrape, and they also. We have our work to do, and they have to be getting on. Is it far you have to go?” asked the old man again, though I had told him once before I was bound for Tiflis.
“That’s a long way yet. The ataman might detain them; then, when would they get to Tiflis? So let them be getting on their way. Eh?”
“Yes, let them go,” all the shepherds agreed, as the old man, when he had finished speaking, closed his lips tightly, and cast an inquiring glance around him, as he fingered his gray beard.
“Well, my good fellows, be off, and God bless you!” he exclaimed with a gesture of dismissal. “We will see that the boat goes back, so don’t trouble about that!”
“Many, many thanks, grandfather!” I said taking off my cap.
“What are you thanking me for?”
“Thank you; thank you!” I repeated fervently.
“What are you thanking me for? That’s queer! I say, God bless you, and he thanks me! Were you afraid I’d send you to the devil, eh?”
“I’d done wrong and I was afraid,” I answered.
“Oh!” and the old man lifted his eyebrows. “Why should I drive a man farther along the wrong path? I’d do better by helping one along the way I’m going myself. Maybe, we shall meet again, and then we’ll meet as friends. We ought to help one another where we can. Good-bye!”
He took off his large shaggy sheepskin cap, and bowed low to us. His comrades bowed too.
We inquired our way to Anapa, and started off. Shakro was laughing at something or other.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
The old shepherd and his ethics of life had charmed and delighted me. I felt refreshed by the pure air of early morning, blowing straight into my face. I rejoiced, as I watched the sky gradually clearing, and felt that daylight was not far off. Before long the morning sun would rise in a clear sky, and we could look forward to a brilliantly fine day.
Shakro winked slyly at me, and burst out into a fresh fit of laughter. The hearty, buoyant ring in his laugh made me smile also. The few hours rest we had taken by the side of the shepherd’s fire, and their excellent bread and bacon, had helped us to forget our exhausting voyage. Our bones still ached a little, but that would pass off with walking.
“Well, what are you laughing at? Are you glad that you are alive? Alive and not even hungry?”
Shakro shook his head, nudged me in the ribs, made a grimace, burst out laughing again, and at last said in his broken Russian: “You don’t see what it is that makes me laugh? Well, I’ll tell you in a minute. Do you know what I should have done if we had been taken before the ataman? You don’t know? I’d have told him that you had tried to drown me, and I should have begun to cry. Then they would have been sorry for me, and wouldn’t have put me in prison! Do you see?”
At first I tried to make myself believe that it was a joke; but, alas! he succeeded in convincing me he meant it seriously. So clearly and completely did he convince me of it, that, instead of being furious with him for such naive cynicism, I was filled with deep pity for him and incidentally for myself as well.
What else but pity can one feel for a man who tells one in all sincerity, with the brightest of smiles, of his intention to murder one? What is to be done with him if he looks upon such an action as a clever and delightful joke?
I began to argue warmly with him, trying to show him all the immorality of his scheme. He retorted very candidly that I did not see where his interests lay, and had forgotten he had a false passport and might get into trouble in consequence. Suddenly a cruel thought flashed through my mind.
“Stay,” said I, “do you really believe that I wanted to drown you?”
“No! When you were pushing me into the water I did think so; but when you got in as well, then I didn’t!”
“Thank God!” I exclaimed. “Well, thanks for that, anyway!”
“Oh! no, you needn’t say thank you. I am the one to say thank you. Were we not both cold when we were sitting round the fire? The overcoat was yours, but you didn’t take it yourself. You dried it, and gave it to me. And took nothing for yourself. Thank you for that! You are a good fellow; I can see that. When we get to Tiflis, I will reward you. I shall take you to my father. I shall say to him: ‘Here is a man whom you must feed and care for, while I deserve only to be kept in the stable with the mules.’ You shall live with us, and be our gardener, and we will give you wine in plenty, and anything you like to eat. Ah! you will have a capital time! You will share my wine and food!”
He continued for some time, describing in detail the attractions of the new life he was going to arrange for me in his home in Tiflis.
And as he talked, I mused on the great unhappiness of men equipped with new morality and new aspirations — they tread the paths of life lonely and astray; and the fellow-travelers they meet on the way are aliens to them, unable to understand them. Life is a heavy burden for these lonely souls. Helplessly they drift hither and thither. They are like the good seed, wafted in the air, and dropping but rarely onto fruitful soil.
Daylight had broken. The sea far away shone with rosy gold.
“I am sleepy,” said Shakro.
We halted. He lay down in a trench, which the fierce gusts of wind had dug out in the dry sand, near the shore. He wrapped himself, head and all, in the overcoat, and was soon sound asleep. I sat beside him, gazing dreamily over the sea.
It was living its vast life, full of mighty movement.
The flocks of waves broke noisily on the shore and rippled over the sand, that faintly hissed as it soaked up the water. The foremost waves, crested with white foam, flung themselves with a loud boom on the shore, and retreated, driven back to meet the waves that were pushing forward to support them. Intermingling in the foam and spray, they rolled once more toward the shore, and beat upon it, struggling to enlarge the bounds of their realm. From the horizon to the shore, across the whole expanse of waters, these supple, mighty waves rose up, moving, ever moving, in a compact mass, bound together by the oneness of their aim.
The sun shone more and more brightly on the crests of the breakers, which, in the distance on the horizon, looked blood-red. Not a drop went astray in the titanic heavings of the watery mass, impelled, it seemed, by some conscious aim, which it would soon attain by its vast rhythmic blows. Enchanting was the bold beauty of the foremost waves, as they dashed stubbornly upon the silent shore, and fine it was to see the whole sea, calm and united, the mighty sea, pressing on and ever on. The sea glittered now with all the colors of the rainbow, and seemed to take a proud, conscious delight in its own power and beauty.
A large steamer glided quietly round a point of land, cleaving the waters. Swaying majestically over the troubled sea, it dashed aside the threatening crests of the waves. At any other time this splendid, strong, flashing steamer would have set me thinking of the creative genius of man, who could thus enslave the elements. But now, beside me lay an untamed element in the shape of a man.
We were tramping now through the district of Terek. Shakro was indescribably ragged and dishevelled. He was surly as the devil, though he had plenty of food now, for it was easy to find work in these parts. He himself was not good at any kind of work.
Once he got a small job on a thrashing machine; his duty was to push aside the straw, as it left the machine; but after working half a day he left off, as the palms of his hands were blistered and sore. Another time he started off with me and some other workmen to root up trees, but he grazed his neck with a mattock.
We got on with our journey very slowly; we worked two days, and walked on the third day. Shakro ate all he could get hold of, and his gluttony prevented me from saving enough money to buy him new clothes. His ragged clothes were patched in the most fantastic way with pieces of various colors and sizes. I tried to persuade him to keep away from the beer houses in the villages, and to give up drinking his favorite wines; but he paid no heed to my words.
With great difficulty I had, unknown to him, saved up five roubles, to buy him some new clothes. One day, when we were stopping in some village, he stole the money from my knapsack, and came in the evening, in a tipsy state, to the garden where I was working. He brought with him a fat country wench, who greeted me with the following words: “Good-day, you damned heretic!”
Astonished at this epithet, I asked her why she called me a heretic. She answered boldly: “Because you forbid a young man to love women, you devil. How can you forbid what is allowed by law? Damn you, you devil!”
Shakro stood beside her, nodding his head approvingly. He was very tipsy, and he rocked backward and forward unsteadily on his legs. His lower lip drooped helplessly. His dim eyes stared at me with vacant obstinacy.
“Come, what are you looking at us for? Give him his money?” shouted the undaunted woman.
“What money?” I exclaimed, astonished.
“Give it back at once; or I’ll take you before the ataman! Return the hundred and fifty roubles, which you borrowed from him in Odessa!”
What was I to do? The drunken creature might really go and complain to the Ataman; the Atamans were always very severe on any kind of tramp, and he might arrest us. Heaven only knew what trouble my arrest might inflict, not only on myself, but on Shakro! There was nothing for it but to try and outwit the woman, which was not, of course, a difficult matter.
She was pacified after she had disposed of three bottles of vodka. She sank heavily to the ground, on a bed of melons, and fell asleep. Then I put Shakro to sleep also.
Early next morning we turned our backs on the village, leaving the woman sound asleep among the melons.
After his bout of drunkenness, Shakro, looking far from well, and with a swollen, blotchy face, walked slowly along, every now and then spitting on one side, and sighing deeply. I tried to begin a conversation with him, but he did not respond. He shook his unkempt head, as does a tired horse.
It was a hot day; the air was full of heavy vapors, rising from the damp soil, where the thick, lush grass grew abundantly — almost as high as our heads. Around us, on all sides, stretched a motionless sea of velvety green grass.
The hot air was steeped in strong sappy perfumes, which made one’s head swim.
To shorten our way, we took a narrow path, where numbers of small red snakes glided about, coiling up under our feet. On the horizon to our right, were ranges of cloudy summits flashing silvery in the sun. It was the mountain chain of the Daguestan Hills.
The stillness that reigned made one feel drowsy, and plunged one into a sort of dreamy state. Dark, heavy clouds, rolling up behind us, swept slowly across the heavens. They gathered at our backs, and the sky there grew dark, while in front of us it still showed clear, except for a few fleecy cloudlets, racing merrily across the open. But the gathering clouds grew darker and swifter. In the distance could be heard the rattle of thunder, and its angry rumbling came every moment nearer. Large drops of rain fell, pattering on the grass, with a sound like the clang of metal. There was no place where we could take shelter. It had grown dark. The patter of the rain on the grass was louder still, but it lad a frightened, timid sound. There was a clap of thunder, and the clouds shuddered in a blue flash of lightning. Again it was dark and the silvery chain of distant mountains was lost in the gloom. The rain now was falling in torrents, and one after another peals of thunder rumbled menacingly and incessantly over the vast steppe. The grass, beaten down by the wind and rain, lay flat on the ground, rustling faintly. Everything seemed quivering and troubled. Flashes of blinding lightning tore the storm clouds asunder.
The silvery, cold chain of the distant mountains sprang up in the blue flash and gleamed with blue light. When the lightning died away, the mountains vanished, as though flung back into an abyss of darkness. The air was filled with rumblings and vibrations, with sounds and echoes. The lowering, angry sky seemed purifying itself by fire, from the dust and the foulness which had risen toward it from the earth, and the earth, it seemed, was quaking in terror at its wrath. Shakro was shaking and whimpering like a scared dog. But I felt elated and lifted above commonplace life as I watched the mighty, gloomy spectacle of the storm on the steppe. This unearthly chaos enchanted me and exalted me to an heroic mood, filling my soul with its wild, fierce harmony.
And I longed to take part in it, and to express, in some way or other, the rapture that filled my heart to overflowing, in the presence of the mysterious force which scatters gloom, and gathering clouds. The blue light which lit up the sky seemed to gleam in my soul too; and how was I to express my passion and my ecstasy at the grandeur of nature? I sang aloud, at the top of my voice. The thunder roared, the lightning flashed, the grass whispered, while I sang and felt myself in close kinship with nature’s music. I was delirious, and it was pardonable, for it harmed no one but myself. I was filled with the desire to absorb, as much as possible, the mighty, living beauty and force that was raging on the steppe; and to get closer to it. A tempest at sea, and a thunderstorm on the steppes! I know nothing grander in nature. And so I shouted to my heart’s content, in the absolute belief that I troubled no one, nor placed any one in a position to criticize my action. But suddenly, I felt my legs seized, and I fell helpless into a pool of water.
Shakro was looking into my face with serious and wrathful eyes.
“Are you mad? Aren’t you? No? Well, then, be quiet! Don’t shout! I’ll cut your throat! Do you understand?”
I was amazed, and I asked him first what harm I was doing him?
“Why, you’re frightening me! It’s thundering; God is speaking, and you bawl. What are you thinking about?”
I replied that I had a right to sing whenever I chose. Just as he had.
“But I don’t want to!” he said.
“Well, don’t sing then!” I assented.
“And don’t you sing!” insisted Shakro.
“Yes, I mean to sing!”
“Stop! What are you thinking about?” he went on angrily. “Who are you? You have neither home nor father, nor mother; you have no relations, no land! Who are you? Are you anybody, do you suppose? It’s I am somebody in the world! I have everything!”
He slapped his chest vehemently.
“I’m a prince, and you — you’re nobody — nothing! You say — you’re this and that! Who else says so? All Koutais and Tiflies know me! You shall not contradict me! Do you hear? Are you not my servant? I’ll pay ten times over for all you have done for me. You shall obey me! You said yourself that God taught us to serve each other without seeking for a reward; but I’ll reward you.
“Why will you annoy me, preaching to me, and frightening me? Do you want me to be like you? That’s too bad! You can’t make me like yourself! Foo! Foo!”
He talked, smacked his lips, snuffled, and sighed. I stood staring at him, open-mouthed with astonishment. He was evidently pouring out now all the discontent, displeasure and disgust, which had been gathering up during the whole of our journey. To convince me more thoroughly, he poked me in the chest from time to time with his forefinger, and shook me by the shoulder. During the most impressive parts of his speech he pushed up against me with his whole massive body. The rain was pouring down on us, the thunder never ceased its muttering, and to make me hear, Shakro shouted at the top of his voice. The tragic comedy of my position struck me more vividly than ever, and I burst into a wild fit of laughter. Shakro turned away and spat.
The nearer we draw to Tiflis, the gloomier and the surlier grew Shakro. His thinner, but still stolid face wore a new expression. Just before we reached Vladikavkas we passed through a Circassian village, where we obtained work in some maize fields.
The Circassians spoke very little Russian, and as they constantly laughed at us, and scolded us in their own language, we resolved to leave the village two days after our arrival; their increasing enmity had begun to alarm us.
We had left the village about ten miles behind, when Shakro produced from his shirt a roll of home-spun muslin, and handing it to me, exclaimed triumphantly:
“You need not work any more now. We can sell this, and buy all we want till we get to Tiflis! Do you see?”
I was moved to fury, and tearing the bundle from his hands, I flung it away, glancing back.
The Circassians are not to be trifled with! Only a short time before, the Cossacks had told us the following story:
A tramp, who had been working for some time in a Circassian village, stole an iron spoon, and carried it away with him. The Circassians followed him, searched him, and found the iron spoon. They ripped open his body with a dagger, and after pushing the iron spoon into the wound, went off quietly, leaving him to his fate on the steppes. He was found by some Cossacks at the point of death. He told them this story, and died on the way to their village. The Cossacks had more than once warned us against the Circassians, relating many other edifying tales of the same sort. I had no reason to doubt the accuracy of these stories. I reminded Shakro of these facts. For some time he listened in silence to what I was saying; then, suddenly, showing his teeth and screwing up his eyes, he flew at me like a wild cat. We struggled for five minutes or so, till Shakro exclaimed angrily: “Enough! Enough!”
Exhausted with the struggle, we sat in silence for some time, facing each other. Shakro glanced covetously toward the spot, where I had flung the red muslin, and said:
“What were we fighting about? Fa — Fa — Fa! It’s very stupid. I did not steal it from you did I? Why should you care? I was sorry for you that is why I took the linen. You have to work so hard, and I cannot help you in that way, so I thought I would help you by stealing. Tse’! Tse’!
“I made an attempt to explain to him how wrong it was to steal.
“Hold your tongue, please! You’re a blockhead!” he exclaimed contemptuously; then added: “When one is dying of hunger, there is nothing for it but to steal; what sort of a life is this?”
I was silent, afraid of rousing his anger again. This was the second time he had committed a theft. Some time before, when we were tramping along the shores of the Black Sea, he stole a watch belonging to a fisherman. We had nearly come to blows then.
“Well, come along,” he said; when, after a short rest, we had once more grown quiet and friendly.
So we trudged on. Each day made him grow more gloomy, and he looked at me strangely, from under his brows.
As we walked over the Darial Pass, he remarked: “Another day or two will bring us to Tiflis. Tse’! Tse’!”
He clicked his tongue, and his face beamed with delight.
“When I get home, they will ask me where I have been? I shall tell them I have been travelling. The first thing I shall do will be to take a nice bath. I shall eat a lot. Oh! what a lot. I have only to tell my mother ‘I am hungry!’ My father will forgive when I tell him how much trouble and sorrow I have undergone. Tramps are a good sort of people! Whenever I meet a tramp, I shall always give him a rouble, and take him to the beer-house, and treat him to some wine. I shall tell him I was a tramp myself once. I shall tell my father all about you. I shall say: ‘This man — he was like an elder brother to me. He lectured me, and beat me, the dog! He fed me, and now, I shall say, you must feed him.’ I shall tell him to feed you for a whole year. Do you hear that, Maxime?”
I liked to hear him talk in this strain; at those times he seemed so simple, so child-like. His words were all the more pleasant because I had not a single friend in all Tiflis. Winter was approaching. We had already been caught in a snowstorm in the Goudaour hills. I reckoned somewhat on Shakro’s promises. We walked on rapidly till we reached Mesket, the ancient capital of Iberia. The next day we hoped to be in Tiflis.
I caught sight of the capital of the Caucasus in the distance, as it lay some five versts farther on, nestling between two high hills. The end of our journey was fast approaching! I was rejoicing, but Shakro was indifferent. With a vacant look he fixed his eyes on the distance, and began spitting on one side; while he kept rubbing his stomach with a grimace of pain. The pain in his stomach was caused by his having eaten too many raw carrots, which he had pulled up by the wayside.
“Do you think I, a nobleman of Georgia, will show myself in my native town, torn and dirty as I am now? No, indeed, that I never could! We must wait outside till night. Let us rest here.”
We twisted up a couple of cigarettes from our last bit of tobacco, and, shivering with cold, we sat down under the walls of a deserted building to have a smoke. The piercing cold wind seemed to cut through our bodies. Shakro sat humming a melancholy song; while I fell to picturing to myself a warm room, and other advantages of a settled life over a wandering existence.
“Let us move on now!” said Shakro resolutely.
It had now become dark. The lights were twinkling down below in the town. It was a pretty sight to watch them flashing one after the other, out of the mist of the valley, where the town lay hidden.
“Look here, you give me your bashleek,2 I want to cover my face up with it. My friends might recognize me.”
2 A kind of hood worn by men to keep their ears warm.
I gave him my bashleek. We were already in Olga Street, and Shakro was whistling boldly.
“Maxime, do you see that bridge over yonder? The train stops there. Go and wait for me there, please. I want first to go and ask a friend, who lives close by, about my father and mother.”
“You won’t be long, will you?”
“Only a minute. Not more!”
He plunged rapidly down the nearest dark, narrow lane, and disappeared — disappeared for ever.
I never met him again — the man who was my fellow-traveller for nearly four long months; but I often think of him with a good-humored feeling, and light-hearted laughter.
He taught me much that one does not find in the thick volumes of wise philosophers, for the wisdom of life is always deeper and wider than the wisdom of men.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55