ONCE more I became a washer-up on a steamboat, the Perm, a boat as white as a swan, spacious, and swift. This time I was a “black” washer-up, or a “kitchen man.” I received seven rubles a month, and my duties were to help the cook.
The steward, stout and bloated, was as bald as a billiard-ball. He walked heavily up and down the deck all day long with his hands clasped behind his back, like a boar looking for a shady corner on a sultry day. His wife flaunted herself in the buffet. She was a woman of about forty, handsome, but faded, and so thickly powdered that her colored dress was covered with the white, sticky dust that fell from her cheeks.
The kitchen was ruled over by an expensive cook, Ivan Ivanovich, whose surname was Medvyejenok. He was a small, stout man, with an aquiline nose and mocking eyes. He was a coxcomb, wore starched collars, and shaved every day. His cheeks were dark blue, and his dark mustaches curled upward. He spent all his spare moments in the arrangement of these mustaches, pulling at them with fingers stained by his work at the stove, and looking at them in a small hand-glass.
The most interesting person on the boat was the stoker, Yaakov Shumov, a broad-chested, square man. His snub-nosed face was as smooth as a spade; his coffee-colored eyes were hidden under thick eyebrows; his cheeks were covered with small, bristling hairs, like the moss which is found in marshes; and the same sort of hair, through which he could hardly pass his crooked fingers, formed a close-fitting cap for his head.
He was skilful in games of cards for money, and his greed was amazing. He was always hanging about the kitchen like a hungry dog, asking for pieces of meat and bones. In the evenings he used to take his tea with Medvyejenok and relate amazing stories about himself. In his youth he had been assistant to the town shepherd of Riazin. Then a passing monk lured him into a monastery, where he served for four years.
“And I should have become a monk, a black star of God,” he said in his quick, comical way, “if a pilgrim had not come to our cloister from Penza. She was very entertaining, and she upset me. ‘Eh, you ‘re a fine strong fellow,’ says she, ‘and I am a respectable widow and lonely. You shall come to me,’ she says. ‘I have my own house, and I deal in eider-down and feathers.’ That suited me, and I went to her. I became her lover, and lived with her as comfortably as warm bread in a oven, for three years.”
“You lie hardily,” Medvyejenok interrupted him, anxiously examining a pimple on his nose. “If lies could make money, you would be worth thousands.”
Yaakov hummed. The blue, bristling hairs moved on his impassive face, and his shaggy mustaches quivered. After he had heard the cook’s remark he con tinued as calmly and quickly as before:
“She was older than I, and she began to bore me. Then I must go and take up with her niece, and she found it out, and turned me out by the scruff of the neck.”
“And served you right, you did not deserve anything better,” said the cook as easily and smoothly as Yaakov himself.
The stoker went on, with a lump of sugar in his check:
“I was at a loose end till I came across an old Volodimerzian peddler. Together we wandered all over the world. We went to the Balkan Hills to Turkey itself, to Rumania, and to Greece, to different parts of Austria. We visited every nation. Wherever there were likely to be buyers, there we went, and sold our goods.”
“And stole others?” asked the cook, gravely.
“No! no!” the old man said to me. “You must act honestly in a strange land, for they are so strict here, it is said, that they will cut off your head for a mere nothing.’ It is true that I did try to steal, but the result was not at all consoling. I managed to get a horse away from the yard of a certain merchant, but I had done no more than that when they caught me, knocked me about, and dragged me to the police station. There were two of us. The other was a real horse-stealer, but I did it only for the fun of the thing. But I had been working at the merchant’s house, putting in a new stove for his bath, and the merchant fell ill, and had bad dreams about me, which alarmed him, so that he begged the magistrate, ‘Let him go,’ — that was me, you know, — ‘let him go; for I have had dreams about him, and if you don’t let him off, you will never be well. It is plain that he is a wizard.’ That was me, if you please — a wizard! However, the merchant was a person of influence, and they let me go.”
“I should not have let you go. I should have let you lie in water for three days to wash the foolery out of you,” said the cook.
Yaakov instantly seized upon his words.
“True, there is a lot of folly about me, and that is the fact — enough folly for a whole village.”
Thrusting his fingers into his tight collar, the cook angrily dragged it up, and complained in a tone of vexation:
“Fiddlesticks! How a villain like you can live, gorge himself, drink, and stroll about the world, beats me. I should like to know what use you are.”
Munching, the stoker, answered:
“I don’t know myself. I live, and that is all I •can say about it. One man lies down, and another walks about. A chinovnik leads a sedentary life, but every one must eat.”
The cook was more incensed than ever.
“You are such a swine that you are absolutely unbearable. Really, pigs’ food — ”
“What are you in such a rage about?” asked Yaakov, surprised. “All men are acorns from the same oak. But don’t you abuse me. It won’t make me any better, you know.”
This man attracted me and held me at once. I gazed at him with unbounded astonishment, and listened to him with open mouth. I had an idea that he possessed a deep knowledge of life. He said “thou” to every one, looked at every one from under his bushy brows with the same straight and independent glance, and treated every one — the captain, the steward, and the first-class passengers, who were very haughty — as if they were the equals of himself, the sailors, the waiters, and the deck passengers.
Sometimes he stood before the captain or the chief engineer, with his ape-like hands clasped behind his back, and listened while they scolded him for laziness, or for having unscrupulously won money at cards. He listened, but it was evident that scolding made not the slightest impression upon him, and that the threats to put him off the boat at the first stopping-place did not frighten him. There was something alien about him, as there had been about “Good Business.” Evidently he was aware of his own peculiari — ties and of the fact that people could not understand him.
I never once knew this man to be offended, and, when I think of it, do not remember that he was ever silent for long. From his rough mouth and, as it were, despite himself, a stream of words always flowed. When he was being scolded or when he was listening to some interesting story, his lips moved just as if he were repeating what he heard to himself or simply continued speaking quietly to himself. Every day, when he had finished his watch, he climbed out of the stoke-hole, barefooted, sweating, smeared with naphtha, in a wet shirt without a belt, showing his bare chest covered with thick, curly hair, and that very minute his even, monotonous, deep voice could be heard across the deck. His words followed one another like drops of rain.
“Good morning. Mother! Where are you going? To Chistopol? I know it; I have been there. I lived in the house of a rich Tatar workman; his name was Usan Gubaildulin. The old man had three wives. A robust man he was, with a red face, and one of his wives was young. An amu-u-sing little Tatar girl she was.”
He had been everywhere, and apparently had committed sin with all the women who had crossed his path. He spoke of every one without malice, calmly, as he had never in his life been hurt or scolded. In a few minutes his voice would be heard in the stem.
“Good people, who will have a game of cards? Just a little flutter, ei? Cards are a consolation. You can make money sitting down, a profitable undertaking.”
I noticed that he hardly ever said that anything was good, bad, or abominable, but always that it was amusing, consoling, or curious. A beautiful woman was to him an amusing little female. A fine sunny day was a consoling little day. But more often than anything else he said:
“I spit upon it!”
He was looked upon as lazy, but it seemed to me that he performed his laborious task in that infernal, suffocating, and fetid heat as conscientiously as any of the others. I never remember that he complained of weariness or heat, as the other stokers did.
One day some one stole a purse containing money from one of the old women passengers. It was a clear, quiet evening; every one was amiable and peaceably inclined. The captain gave the old woman five rubles. The passengers also collected a small sum among themselves. When the old woman was given the money, she crossed herself, and bowed low, saying:
“Kind friends, you have given me three graven too much.”
Some one cried gayly:
“Take it all, my good woman, — all that your eyes fall upon. Why do you talk nonsense? No bne can have too much.”
But Yaakov went to the old woman and said quite seriously:
“Give me what you don’t want; I will play cards with it.”
The people around laughed, thinking that the stoker was joking, but he went on urging the confused woman perseveringly :
“Come, give it to me, woman! What do you want the money for? Tomorrow you will be in the churchyard.”
They drove him away with abuse, but he said to me, shaking his head, and greatly surprised:
“How funny people are! Why do they interfere in what does not concern them? She said herself that she had more than she wanted. And three greven would have been very consoling to me.”
The very sight of money evidently pleased him. While he was talking he loved to clean the silver and brass on his breeches, and would polish coins till they shone. Moving his eyebrows up and down, he would gaze at them, holding them in his crooked fingers before his snub-nosed face. But he was not avaricious.
One day he asked me to play with him, but I could not.
“You don’t know how?” he cried. “How is that? And you call yourself educated! You must learn. We will play for lumps of sugar.”
He won from me half a pound of the best sugar, and hid every lump in his furry cheek. As soon as he found that I knew how to play he said:
“Now we will play seriously for money. Have you any money?”
“I have five rubles.”
“And I have two.”
As may be imagined, he soon won from mc. Desiring to have my revenge, I staked my jacket, worth five rubles, and lost. Then I staked my new boots, and lost again. Yaakov said to me, unwillingly, almost crossly:
“No, you don’t know how to play yet; you get too hot about it. You must go and stake everything, even your boots. I don’t care for that sort of thing. Come, take back your clothes and your money, — four rubles, — and I will keep a ruble for teaching you. Agreed?’
I was very grateful to him.
“It is a thing to spit upon,” he said in answer to my thanks. “A game is a game, just an amusement, you know; but you would turn it into a quarrel. And even in a quarrel it doesn’t do to get too warm. You want to calculate the force of your blows. What have you to get in a stew about? You are young; you must learn to hold yourself in. The first time you don’t succeed; five times you don’t succeed; the seventh time — spit! Go away, get yourself cool, and have another go! That is playing the game.”
He delighted me more and more, and yet he jarred on me. Sometimes his stories reminded me of grandmother. There was a lot in him which attracted me, but his lifelong habit of dull indifference repelled me violently.
Once at sunset a drunken second-class passenger, a corpulent merchant of Perm, fell overboard, and was carried away, struggling on the red-gold water-way. The engineers hastily shut off steam, and the boat came to a standstill, sending off a cloud of foam from the wheel, which the red beams of the sun made look like blood. In that blood-red, seething, caldron a dark body struggled, already far away from the stern of the boat. Wild cries were heard from the river; one’s heart shook. The passengers also screamed, and jostled one another, rolling about the deck, crowding into the stern. The friend of the drowning man, also drunk, red, and bald, hit out with his fists and roared:
“Get out of the way! I will soon get him!”
Two sailors had already thrown themselves into the water, and were swimming toward the drowning man. The boats were let down. Amid the shouts of the commander and the shrieks of the women Yaakov’s deep voice rang out calmly and evenly:
“He will be drowned; he will certainly be drowned, because he has his clothes on. Fully dressed as he is, he must certainly drown. Look at women for example. Why do they always drown sooner than men? Because of their petticoats. A woman, when she falls into the water, goes straight to the bottom, like a pound weight. You will see that he will be drowned. I do not speak at random.”
As a matter of fact, the merchant was drowned. They sought for him for two hours, and failed to find him. His companion, sobered, sat on the deck, and, panting heavily, muttered plaintively:
“We are almost there. What will happen when we arrive, eh? What will his family say? He had a family.”
Yaakov stood in front of him, with his hands behind his back, and began to console him.
“There is nothing to worry about. No one knows when he is destined to die. One man will eat mushrooms, fall ill and die, while thousands of people can eat mushrooms and be all the better for them. Yet one will die. And what are mushrooms?”
Broad and strong, he stood like a rock in front of the merchant, and poured his words over him like bran. At first the merchant wept silently, wiping the tears from his beard with his broad palms, but when he had heard him out, he roared:
“What do you mean by torturing me like this? Fellow–Christians, take him away, or there will be murder!”
Yaakov went away, calmly saying:
“How funny people are! You go to them out of kindness, and all they do is to abuse you!”
Sometimes I thought the stoker a fool, but more often I thought that he purposely pretended to be stupid. I asked him straight out about his youth and his wanderings around the world. The result was not what I meant it to be. Throwing his head back, almost closing his dark, copper-colored eyes, he stroked his mossy face with his hand and drawled:
“People everywhere. Brother, — everywhere, — are simple as ants! And where there are people, there is always trouble, I tell you! The greater number, of course, are peasants. The earth is absolutely strewn with muzhiks — like autumn leaves, as we say. I have seen the Bulgars, and Greeks, too, and those — what do you call them? — Serbians; Rumanians also, and all kinds of Gipsies. Are there many different sorts? What sort of people? What do you mean by that? In the towns they are townspeople, and in the country — why, they are just like the country people among us. They resemble them in many ways. Some of them even speak our tongue, though badly, as, for instance, the Tatars and the Mordovans. The Greeks cannot speak our language. They chatter whatever comes into their heads, and it sounds like words; but what they say or about what it is impossible to understand. You have to talk on your fingers to them. But my old man managed to talk so that even the Greeks understood him. He muttered something, and they knew what he meant. An artful old man he was. He knew how to work upon them. Again you want to know what sort of people? You funny fellow! What should people be like? They were black, of course; and the Rumanians, too, were of the same faith. The Bulgars are also black, but they hold the same religion as ourselves. As for the Greeks, they are of the same race as the Turks.”
It seemed to me that he was not telling me all he knew; that there was something which he did not wish to tell. From illustrations in the magazines I knew that the capital of Greece was Athens, an ancient and most beautiful town. But Yaakov shook his head doubtfully as he rejected the idea.
“They have been telling you lies, my friend. There is no place called Athens, but there is a place called Athon; only it is not a town, but a hill with a monastery on it, and that is all. It is called the Holy Hill of Athon. There are pictures of it; the old man used to sell them. There is a town called Byelgorod, which stands on the Dounai River, built in the style of Yaroslav or Nijni. Their towns are nothing out of the ordinary, but their villages, that is another matter. Their women, too — well, they are absolutely killingly pleasant. I very nearly stayed there altogether for the sake of one. What the deuce was her name?’
He rubbed his perspiring face hard with the palms of his hands, and his coarse hair clicked softly. In his throat, somewhere deep down, rumbled his laugh, like the rattle of a drum.
“How forgetful a man can be! And yet, you know, we were — When she said good-by to me — she cried, and I cried, too. Good — go-o — “ Calmly and with an entire absence of reticence, he began to instruct me in the way to behave to women.
We were sitting on the deck. The warm moon-light night swam to meet us; the meadow-land of the shore was hardly visible beyond the silver water. In the heavens twinkled yellow lights; these were certain stars which had been captivated by the earth. All around there was movement, sleeplessly palpitating, quiet; but real life was going on. Into this pleas — ant, melancholy silence fell the hoarse words:
“And so we let go of each other’s hands and parted.” Yaakov’s stories were immodest, but not repulsive, for they were neither boastful nor cruel, and there was a ring of artlessness and sorrow in them. The moon in the sky was also shamelessly naked, and moved me in the same way, setting me fretting for I knew not what. I remembered only what was good, the very best thing in my life — Queen Margot and the verses, unforgettable in their truth:
Only a song has need of beauty, While beauty has no need of songs.
Shaking off this dreamy mood as if it had been a light doze, I again asked the stoker about his life and what he had seen.
“You ‘re a funny fellow,” he said. “What am I to tell ycu? I have seen everything. You ask have I seen a monastery? I have. Traktirs? I have seen them also. I have seen the life of a gentleman and the life of a peasant. I have lived well-fed, and I have lived hungry.”
Slowly, as if he were crossing a deep stream by a shaky, dangerous bridge, he recalled the past.
“For instance, I was sitting in the police station after the horse-stealing affair. ‘They will send me to Siberia,’ I was thinking when the constable began to rage because the stove in his new house smoked.
I said to him, ‘This is a business which I can set right for you, your Honor.’ He shut me up. ‘It is a thing,’ he grumbled, ‘which the cleverest workman could not manage.’ Then I said to him, ‘Sometimes a shepherd is cleverer than a general.’ I felt very brave toward every one just then. Nothing mattered now, with Siberia before me. ‘All right; try,’ he said, ‘but if it smokes worse afterwards I will break all your bones for you.’ In two days I had finished the work. The constable was astonished. ‘AchP he cried, ‘you fool, you blockhead! Why, you are a skilled workman, and you steal horses! How is it? I said to him, ‘That was simply a piece of foolery, your Honor.’ ‘That’s true,’ he said, ‘it was foolery. I am sorry for you.’ ‘Yes, I am sorry,’ he repeated. Do you see”? A man in the police force, carrying out his duties without remorse, and yet he was sorry for me.”
“Well, what happened then?” I asked him.
“Nothing. He was sorry for me. What else should happen?”
“What was the use of pitying you? You are like a stone.”
Yaakov laughed good-naturedly.
“Funny fellow! A stone, you say? Well, one may feel for stones. A stone also serves in its proper place; streets are paved with stones. One ought to pity all kinds of materials; nothing is in its place by chance. What is soil? Yet little blades of grass grow in it/’
When the stoker spoke like this, it was quite clear to me that he knew something more than I could grasp.
“What do you think of the cook?” I asked him.
“Of Medvyejenok?” said Yaakov, calmly. “What do I think of him? There is nothing to think about him at all.”
That was true. Ivan Ivanovich was so strictly correct and smooth that one’s thoughts could get no grip on him. There was only one interesting thing about him: he loved the stoker, was always scolding him, and yet always invited him to tea.
One day he said to him:
“If you had been my serf and I had been your master, I would have flogged you seven times each week, you sluggard!”
Yaakov replied in a serious tone:
“Seven times? That’s rather a lot!”
Although he abused the stoker, the cook for some reason or other fed him with all kinds of things. He would throw a morsel to him roughly and say:
“There. Gobble it up!”
Yaakov would devour it without any haste, saying:
“I am accumulating a reserve of strength through you, Ivan Ivanovich.”
“And what is the use of strength to you, lazy-bones?”
“What is the use? Why, I shall live all the longer for it.’
“Why should you live, useless one?”
“But useless people go on living. Besides, you know, it is very amusing to be alive, isn’t it? Living, Ivan Ivanovich, is a very comforting business.”
“What an idiot!”
“Why do you say that?”
“There’s a way of speaking!” said Yaakov in amazement, and Medvyejenok said to me:
“Just think of it! We dry up our blood and roast the marrow out of our bones in that infernal heat at the stoves while he guzzles like a boar!”
“Every one must work out his own fate,” said the stoker, masticating.
I knew that to stoke the furnaces was heavier and hotter work than to stand at the stove, for I had tried several times at night to stoke with Yaakov, and it seemed strange to me that he did not enlighten the cook with regard to the heaviness of his labors. Yes, this man certainly had a peculiar knowledge of his own.
They all scolded him, — the captain, the engineer, the first mate, all of those who must have known he was not lazy. I thought it very strange. Why did they not appraise him rightly? The stokers behaved considerably better to him than the rest al — though they made fun of his incessant chatter and his love of cards.
I asked them: “What do you think of Yaakov? Is he a good man?”
“Yaakov? He’s all right. You can’t upset him whatever you do, even if you were to put hot coals in his chest.”
What with his heavy labor at the boilers, and his appetite of a horse, the stoker slept but little. Often, when the watches were changed, without changing his clothes, sweating and dirty, he stayed the whole night on deck, talking with the passengers, and playing cards.
In my eyes he was like a locked trunk in which something was hidden which I simply must have, and I obstinately sought the key by which I might open it.
“What you are driving at, little brother, I cannot, for the life of me, understand,” he would say, looking at me with his eyes almost hidden under his eyebrows. “It is a fact that I have traveled about the world a lot. What about it? Funny fellow! You had far better listen to a story I have to tell you about what happened to me once ”
And he told me how there had lived, somewhere in one of the towns he had passed through, a young consumptive lawyer who had a German wife — a fine, healthy woman, without children. And this German woman was in love with a dry-goods merchant. The merchant was married, and his wife was beautiful and had three children. When he discovered that the German woman was in love with him, he planned to play a practical joke on her. He told ‘her to meet him in the garden at night, and invited two of his friends to come with him, hiding them in the garden among the bushes.
“Wonderful! When the German woman came, he said, ‘Here she is, all there!’ And to her, he said, ‘I am no use to you, lady; I am married. But I have brought two of my friends to you. One of them is a widower, and the other a bachelor.’ The German woman — ach! she gave him such a slap on the face that he fell over the garden bench, and then she trampled his ugly mug and his thick head with her heel I I had brought her there, for I was dvornik at the lawyer’s house. I looked through a chink in the fence, and saw how the soup was boiling. Then the friends sprang out upon her, and seized her by the hair, and I dashed over the fence, and beat them off. ‘You must not do this, Mr. Merchants!’ I said. The lady had come trustfully, and he had imagined that she had evil intentions. I took her away, and they threw a brick at me, and bruised my head. She was overcome with grief, and almost beside herself. She said to me, as we crossed the yard: ‘I shall go back to my own people, the Germans, as soon as my husband dies!’ I said to her, ‘Of course you must go back to them.’ And when the lawyer died, she went away. She was very kind, and so clever, tool And the lawyer was kind, too, — God rest his soul!”
Not being quite sure that I had understood the meaning of this story, I was silent. I was conscious of something familiar, something which had happened before, something pitiless and blind about it. But what could I say?
“Do you think that is a good story?” asked Yaakov.
I said something, making some confused objections, but he explained calmly:
“People who have more than is necessary are easily amused, but sometimes, when they want to play a trick on some one, it turns out not to be fun at all. It doesn’t come off as they expected. Merchants are brainy people, of course. Commerce demands no little cleverness, and the life of clever persons is very dull, you see, so they like to amuse themselves.”
Beyond the prow, all in a foam, the river rushed swiftly. The seething, running water was audible, the dark shore gliding slowly along with it. On the deck lay snoring passengers. Among the benches, among the sleeping bodies, a tall faded woman in a black frock, with uncovered gray head, moved quietly, coming towards us. The stoker, nudging me, said softly:
“Look — she is in trouble!”
And it seemed to me that other people’s griefs were amusing to him. He told me many stories, and I listened greedily. I remember his stories perfectly, but I do not remember one of them that was happy. He spoke more calmly than books. In books, I was often conscious of the feelings of the writer, — of his rage, his joy, his grief, his mockery; but the stoker never mocked, never judged. Nothing excited either his disgust or his pleasure to any extent. He spoke like an impartial witness at a trial, like a man who was a stranger alike to accuser, accused, and judge. This equanimity aroused in me an ever-increasing sense of irritated sorrow, a feeling of angry dislike for Yaakov.
Life burned before his eyes like the flame of the stove beneath the boilers. He stood in front of the stove with a wooden mallet in his pock-marked, coffee-colored hands, and softly struck the edge of the regu — lator, diminishing or increasing the heat.
“Hasn’t all this done you harm?”
“Who would harm me? I am strong. You see what blows I can give!”
“I am not speaking of blows, but has not your soul been injured?”
“The soul cannot be hurt. The soul does not receive injuries,” he said. “Souls are not affected by any human agency, by anything external.”
The deck passengers, the sailors, every one, in fact, used to speak of the soul as often and as much as they spoke of the land, of their work, of food and women. “Soul” is the tenth word in the speech of simple people, a word expressive of life and movement.
I did not like to hear this word so habitually on people’s slippery tongues, and when the peasants used foul language, defiling their souls, it struck me to the heart.
I remember so well how carefully grandmother used to speak of the soul, — that secret receptacle of love, beauty, and joy. I believed that, after the death of a good person, white angels carried his soul to the good God of my grandmother, and He greeted it with tenderness.
“Well, my dear one, my pure one, thou hast suffered and languished below.”
And He would give the soul the wings of seraphim — six white wings. Yaakov Shumov spoke of the soul as carefully, as reluctantly, and as seldom as grandmother. When he was abused, he never blasphemed, and when others discussed the soul he said nothing, bowing his red, bull-like neck. When I asked him what the soul was like, he replied:
“The soul is the breath of God.”
This did not enlighten me much, and I asked for more; upon which the stoker, inclining his head, said:
“Even priests do not know much about the soul, little brother; that is hidden from us.”
He held my thoughts continually, in a stubborn effort to understand him, but it was an unsuccessful effort. I saw nothing else but him. He shut out everything else with his broad figure.
The stewardess bore herself towards me with suspicious kindness. In the morning, I was deputed to take hot water for washing to her, although this was the duty of the second-class chambermaid, Lusha, a fresh, merry girl. When I stood in the narrow cabin, near the stewardess, who was stripped to the waist, and looked upon her yellow body, flabby as half-baked pastry, I thought of the lissom, swarthy body of “Queen Margot,” and felt disgusted. And the stewardess talked all the time, now complainingly and scolding, now crossly and mockingly.
I did not grasp the meaning of her speech, although I dimly guessed at it — at its pitiful, low, shameful meaning. But I was not disturbed by it. I lived far away from the stewardess, and from all that went on in the boat. I lived behind a great rugged rock, which hid from me all that world. All that went on during those days and nights flowed aVay into space.
“Our Gavrilovna is quite in love with you.” I heard the laughing words of Lusha as in a dream. “Open your mouth, and take your happiness.”
And not only did she make fun of me, but all the dining-room attendants knew of the weakness of their mistress. The cook said, with a frown:
“The woman has tasted everything, and now she has a fancy for pastry! People like that 1 You look, Pyeshkov, before you leap.”
And Yaakov also gave me paternal advice.
“Of course, if you were a year or two older, I should give you different advice, but at your age, it is better for you to keep yourself to yourself. However, you must do as you like.”
“Shut up!” said I. “The whole thing is disgusting.”
“Of course it is.”
But almost immediately after this, trying to make the limp hair on his head stand up with his fingers, he said tersely, in well-rounded periods:
“Well, one must look at it from her point of view, too. She has a miserable, comfortless job. Even a dog likes to be stroked, and how much more a human being. A female lives by caresses, as a mushroom by moisture. She ought to be ashamed of herself, but what is she to do?”
I asked, looking intently into his elusive eyes:
“Do you begrudge her that, then?”
“What is she to me? Is she my mother? And if she were But you are a funny fellow!”
He laughed in a low voice, like the beating of a drum.
Sometimes when I looked at him, I seemed to be falling into silent space, into a bottomless pit full of twilight.
“Every one is married but you, Yaakov. Why haven’t you ever married?”
“Why? I have always been a favorite with the women, thank God, but it’s like this. When one is married, one has to live in one place, settle down on the land. My land is very poor, a very small piece, and my uncle has taken even that from me. When my young brother came back from being a soldier, he fell out with our uncle, and was brought before the court for punching his head. There was blood shed over the matter, in fact. And for that they sent him to prison for a year and a half. When you come out of prison, son, there is only one road for you; and that leads back to prison again. His wife was such a pleasant young woman — but what is the use of talking about it? When one is married, one ought to be master of one’s own stable. But a soldier is not even master of his own life.”
“Do you say your prayers?”
“You fun — n — y — y fellow, of course I do!”
“All kinds of ways.”
“What prayers do you say?”
“I know the night prayers. I say quite simply, my brother: ‘Lord Jesus, while I live, have mercy on me, and when I am dead give me rest. Save me. Lord, from sickness.’ and one or two other things I say.”
“Several things. Even what you don’t say, gets to Him.”
His manner to me was kind, but full of curiosity, as it might have been to a clever kitten which could perform amusing tricks. Sometimes, when I was sitting with him at night, when he smelt of naphtha, burning oil, and onions, for he loved onions and used to gnaw them raw, like apples, he would suddenly ask:
“Now, Olekha, lad, let’s have some poetry.”
I knew a lot of verse by heart, besides which I had a large notebook in which I had copied my favorites. I read “Rousslan” to him — and he listened without moving, like a deaf and dumb man, holding his wheezy breath. Then he said to me in a low voice:
“That’s a pleasant, harmonious, little story. Did you make it up yourself? There is a gentleman called Mukhin Pushkin. I have seen him.”
“But this man was killed ever so long ago.”
I told him the story in short words, as “Queen Margot” had told it to me. Yaakov listened, and then said calmly:
“Lots of people are ruined by women.”
I often told him similar stories which I had read in books. They were all mixed up, effervescing in my mind into one long story of disturbed, beautiful lives, interspersed with flames of passion. They were full of senseless deeds of heroism, blue-blooded nobility, legendary feats, duels and deaths, noble words and mean actions. Rokambol was confused with the knightly forms of Lya–Molya and Annibal Kokonna, Ludovic XI took the form of the Pere Grandet, the Cornet Otletaev was mixed up with Henry IV. This story, in which I changed the character of the people and altered events according to my inspiration, became a whole world to me. I lived in it, free as grandfather’s God, Who also played with every one as it pleased Him. While not hindering me from seeing the reality, such as it was, nor cooling my desire to understand living people, nevertheless this bookish chaos hid me by a transparent but impenetrable cloud from much of the infectious obscenity, the venomous poison of life. Books rendered many evils innocuous for me. Knowing how people loved and suffered, I could never enter a house of ill fame. Cheap depravity only roused a feeling of repulsion and pity for those to whom it was sweet. Rokambol taught me to be a Stoic, and not be conquered by circumstances. The hero of Dumas inspired me with the desire to give myself for some great cause. My favorite hero was the gay monarch, Henry IV, and it seemed to me that the glorious songs of Beranger were written about him.
He relieved the peasants of their taxes,
And himself he loved to drink.
Yes, and if the whole nation is happy,,
Why should the king not drink?
Henry IV was described in novels as a kind man, in touch with his people. Bright as the sun, he gave me the idea that France — the most beautiful country in the whole world, the country of the knights — was equally great, whether represented by the mantle of a king or the dress of a peasant. Ange Piutou was just as much a knight as D’Artagnan. When I read how Henry was murdered, I cried bitterly, and ground my teeth with hatred of Ravaillac. This king was nearly always the hero of the stories I told the stoker, and it seemed to me that Yaakov also loved France and Khenrik.
“He was a good man was King ‘Khenrik,’ whether he was punishing rebels, or whatever he was doing,” he said.
He never exclaimed, never interrupted my stories with questions, but listened in silence, with lowered brows and immobile face, like an old stone covered with fungus growth. But if, for some reason, I broke off my speech, he at once asked:
“Is that the end??’
“Don’t leave off, then!”
Of the French nation he said, sighing:
“They had a very easy time of it!”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you and I have to live in the heat. We have to labor, while they lived at ease. They had nothing to do but to sing and walk about — a very consoling life!”
“They worked, too!”
“It doesn’t say so in your stories,” observed the stoker with truth, and I suddenly realized clearly that the greater number of the books which I had read hardly ever spoke of the heroes working, or of the hardships they had to encounter.
“Now I am going to sleep for a short time,” said Yaakov, and falling back where he lay, he was soon snoring peacefully.
In the autumn, when the shores of the Kama were turning red, the leaves were taking a golden tinge, and the crosswise beams of the sun grew pallid, Yaakov unexpectedly left the boat. The day before, he had said to me:
“The day after tomorrow, you and I, my lad, will be in Perm. We will go to the bath, steam ourselves to our hearts’ content, and when we have finished will go together to a Traktir. There is music and it is very pleasant. I like to see them playing on those machines.”
But at Sarapulia there came on the boat a stout man with a flabby, womanish face. He was beardless and whiskerless. His long warm cloak, his cap with car flaps of fox fur, increased his resemblance to a woman. He at once engaged a small table near the kitchen, where it was warmest, asked for tea to be served to him, and began to drink the yellow boiling liquid. As he neither unfastened his coat nor removed his cap, he perspired profusely.
A fine rain fell unweariedly from the autumn mist. It seemed to me that when this man wiped the sweat from his face with his checked handkerchief, the rain fell less, and in proportion as he began to sweat again, it began to rain harder.
Very soon Yaakov appeared, and they began to look at a map together. The passenger drew his finger across it, but Yaakov said:
“What’s that”? Nothing! I spit upon it!”
“All right,” said the passenger, putting away the map in a leather bag which lay on his knees. Talking softly together, they began to drink tea.
Before Yaakov went to his watch, I asked him what sort of a man this was. He replied, with a laugh:
“To see him, he might be a dove. He is a eunuch, that’s what he is. He comes from Siberia — a long way off! He is amusing; he lives on a settlement.”
Setting his black strong heels on the deck, like hoofs, once again he stopped, and scratched his side.
“I have hired myself to him as a workman. So when we get to Perm, I shall leave the boat, and it will be good-by to you, lad! We shall travel by rail, then by river, and after that by horses. For five weeks we shall have to travel, to get to where the man has his colony.”
“Did you know him before?” I asked, amazed at his sudden decision.
“How should I know him”? I have never seen him before. I have never lived anywhere near him.”
In the morning Yaakov, dressed in a short, greasy fur-coat, with sandals on his bare feet, wearing Medvyejenok’s tattered, brimless straw hat, took hold of my arm with his iron grasp, and said:
“Why don’t you come with me, eh? He will take you as well, that dove, if you only tell him you want to go. Would you like to? Shall I tell him? They will take away from you something which you will not need, and give you money. They make a festival of it when they mutilate a man, and they reward him for it.”
The eunuch 6 stood on board, with a white bundle under his arm, and looked stubbornly at Yaakov with his dull eyes, which were heavy and swollen, like those of a drowned person. I abused him in a low voice, and the stoker once more took hold of my arm.
6 Skoptsi, or eunuchs, form a sect in Russia, or rather part of the schism known as the Old Believers. Sexual purity being enjoined on its members, and the practice of it being found to be lax, mutilation was resorted to.
“Let him alone! There’s no harm in him. Every one has his own way of praying. What business is it of ours? Well, good-by. Good luck, to you!”
And Yaakov Shumov went away, rolling from side to side like a bear, leaving in my heart an uneasy, perplexed feeling. I was sorry to lose the stoker, and angry with him. I was, I remember, a little jealous and I thought fearfully, “Fancy a man going away like that, without knowing where he is going!”
And what sort of a man was he — Yaakov Shumov?
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09