HOWEVER, I did run away in the spring. One morning when I went to the shop for bread the shopkeeper, continuing in my presence a quarrel with his wife, struck her on the forehead with a weight. She ran into the street, and there fell down. People began to gather round at once. The woman was laid on a stretcher and carried to the hospital, and I ran behind the cab which took her there without noticing where I was going till I found myself on the banks of the Volga, with two gr evens in my hand.
The spring sun shone caressingly, the broad expanse of the Volga flowed before me, the earth was full of sound and spacious, and I had been living like a mouse in a trap. So I made up my mind that I would not return to my master, nor would I go to grandmother at Kunavin; for as I had not kept my word to her, I was ashamed to go and see her, and grandfather would only gloat over my misfortunes.
For two or three days I wandered by the river-side, being fed by kind-hearted porters, and sleeping with them in their shelters. At length one of them said to me:
“It is no use for you to hang about here, my boy. I can see that. Go over to the boat which is called The Good. They want a washer-up.”
I went. The tall, bearded steward in a black silk skullcap looked at me through his glasses with his dim eyes, and said quietly:
“Two rubles a month. Your passport?”
I had no passport. The steward pondered and then said:
“Bring your mother to see me.”
I rushed to grandmother. She approved the course I had taken, told grandfather to go to the workman’s court and get me a passport, and she herself accompanied me to the boat.
“Good!” said the steward, looking at us. “Come along.”
He then took me to the stern of the boat, where sat at a small table, drinking tea and smoking a fat cigar at the same time, an enormous cook in white overalls and a white cap. The steward pushed me toward him.
Then he went away, and the cook, snorting, and with his black mustache bristling, called after him:
“‘You engage any sort of devil as long as he is cheap.”
Angrily tossing his head of closely cropped hair, he opened his dark eyes very wide, stretched himself, puffed, and cried shrilly:
“And who may you be?”
I did not like the appearance of this man at all. Although he was all in white, he looked dirty. There was a sort of wool growing on his fingers, and hairs stuck out of his great ears.
“I am hungry,” was my reply to him.
He blinked, and suddenly his ferocious countenance was transformed by a broad smile. His fat, brick-red cheeks widened to his very ears; he displayed his large, equine teeth; his mustache drooped, and all at once he had assumed the appearance of a kind, fat woman.
Throwing the tea overboard out of his glass, he poured out a fresh lot for me, and pushed a French roll and a large piece of sausage toward me.
“Peg away! Are your parents living? Can you steal? You needn’t be afraid; they are all thieves here. You will soon learn.”
He talked as if he were barking. His enormous, blue, clean-shaven face was covered all round the nose with red veins closely set together, his swollen, purple nose hung over his mustache. His lower lip was disiiguringly pendulous. In the corner of his mouth was stuck a smoking cigarette. Apparently he had only just come from the bath. He smelt of birch twigs, and a profuse sweat glistened on his temples and neck.
After I had drunk my tea, he gave me a ruble-note.
“Run along and buy yourself two aprons with this. Wait! I will buy them for you myself.”
He set his cap straight and came with me, swaying ponderously, his feet pattering on the deck like those of a bear.
At night the moon shone brightly as it glided away from the boat to the meadows on the left. The old red boat, with its streaked funnel, did not hurry, and her propeller splashed unevenly in the silvery water. The dark shore gently floated to meet her, casting its shadow. on the water, and beyond, the windows of the peasant huts gleamed charmingly. They were singing in the village. The girls were merry-making and singing — and when they sang “Aie Ludi,” it sounded like “Alleluia.”
In the wake of the steamer a large barge, also red, was being towed by a long rope. The deck was railed in like an iron cage, and in this cage were convicts condemned to deportation or prison. On the prow of the barge the bayonet of a sentry shone like a candle. It was quiet on the barge itself. The moon bathed it in a rich light while behind the black iron grating could be seen dimly gray patches. These were the convicts looking out on the Volga. The water sobbed, now weeping, now laughing timidly. It was as quiet here as in church, and there was the same smell of oil.
As I looked at the barge I remembered my early childhood; the journey from Astrakhan to Nijni, the iron faces of mother and grandmother, the person who had introduced me to this interesting, though hard, life, in the world. And when I thought of grandmother, all that I found so bad and repulsive in life seemed to leave me; everything was transformed and became more interesting, pleasanter; people seemed to be better and nicer altogether.
The beauty of the nights moved me almost to tears, and especially the barge, which looked so like a coffin, and so solitary on the broad expanse of the flowing river in the pensive quietness of the warm night. The uneven lines of the shore, now rising, now falling, stirred the imagination pleasantly. I longed to be good, and to be of use to others.
The people on our steamboat had a peculiar stamp. They seemed to me to be all alike, young and old, men and women. The boat traveled slowly. The busy folk traveled by fast boat, and all the lazy rascals came on our boat. They sang and ate, and soiled any amount of cups and plates, knives and forks and spoons from morning to night. My work was to wash up and clean the knives and forks, and I was busy with this work from six in the morning till close on midnight. During the day, from two till six o’clock, and in the evening, from ten till midnight, I had less work to do; for at those times the passengers took a rest from eating, and only drank, tea, beer, and vodka. All the buffet attendants, my chiefs, were free at that time, too. The cook, Smouri, drank tea at a table near the hatchway with his assistant, Jaakov Ivanich; the kitchen-man, Maxim; and Sergei, the saloon steward, a humpback with high cheek-bones, a face pitted with smallpox, and oily eyes. Jaakov told all sorts of nasty stories, bursting out into sobbing laughs and showing his long, discolored teeth. Sergei stretched his frog-like mouth to his ears. Frowning Maxim was silent, gazing at them with stern, colorless eyes.
“Asiatic! Mordovan!” said the old cook now and again in his deep voice.
I did not like these people. Fat, bald Jaakov Ivanich spoke of nothing but women, and that always filth — ily. He had a vacant-looking face covered with bluish pimples., On one cheek he had a mole with a tuft of red hair growing from it. He used to pull out these hairs by twisting them round a needle. Whenever an amiable, sprightly passenger of the female sex appeared on the boat, he waited upon her in a peculiar, timid manner like a beggar. He spoke to her sweetly and plaintively, he licked her, as it were, with the swift movements of his tongue. For some reason I used to think that such great fat creatures ought to be hangmen.
“One should know how to get round women,” he would teach Sergei and Maxim, who would listen to him much impressed, pouting their lips and turning red.
“Asiatics!” Smouri would roar in accents of disgust, and standing up heavily, he gave the order, “Pyeshkov, march!”
In his cabin he would hand me a little book bound in leather, and lie down in his hammock by the wall of the ice-house.
“Read!” he would say.
I sat on a box and read conscientiously:
“ The umbra projected by the stars means that one is on good terms with heaven and free from profanity and vice.’ ”
Smouri, smoking a cigarette, puffed out the smoke and growled:
“Camels! They wrote — ”
“ ‘Baring the left bosom means innocence of heart.’ ”
“It does not say.”
“A woman’s, it means. Eh, and a loose woman.”
He closed his eyes and lay with his arms behind his head. His cigarette, hardly alight, stuck in the corner of his mouth. He set it straight with his tongue, stretched so that something whistled in his chest, and his enormous face was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. Sometimes I thought he had fallen asleep and I left off reading to examine the accursed book, which bored me to nauseation. But he said hoarsely:
“Go on reading!”
“The venerable one answered, “Look! My dear brother Suvyerin — “ ‘ ”
“Syevyeverin — ”
“It is written Suvyerin.”
“Well, that’s witchcraft. There is some poetry at the end. Run on from there.”
I ran on.
“Profane ones, curious to know our business, Never will your weak eyes spy it out, Nor will you learn how the fairies sing.”
“Wait!” said Smouri. “That is not poetry. Give me the book.”
He angrily turned over the thick, blue leaves, and then put the book under the mattress.
“Get me another one.”
To my grief there were many books in his black trunk clamped with iron. There were “Precepts of Peace,” “Memories of the Artillery,” “Letters of Lord Sydanhall,” “Concerning Noxious Insects and their Extinction, with Advice against the Pest,” books which seemed to have no beginning and no end. Sometimes the cook set me to turn over all his books and read out their titles to him, but as soon as I had begun he called out angrily:
“What is it all about? Why do you speak through your teeth? It is impossible to understand you. What the devil has Gervase to do with me? Gervase! Umbra indeed!”
Terrible words, incomprehensible names were wearily remembered, and they tickled my tongue. I had an incessant desire to repeat them, thinking that perhaps by pronouncing them I might discover their meaning. And outside the porthole the water unweariedly sang and splashed. It would have been pleasant to go to the stern, where the sailors and stokers were gathered together among the chests, where the passengers played cards, sang songs, and told interesting stories. It would have been pleasant to sit among them and listen to simple, intelligible conversation, to gaze on the banks of the Kama, at the fir-trees drawn out like brass wires, at the meadows, wherein small lakes remained from the floods, looking like pieces of broken glass as they reflected the sun.
Our steamer was traveling at some distance from the shore, yet the sound of invisible bells came to us, reminding us of the villages and people. The barks of the fishermen floated on the waves like crusts of bread. There, on the bank a little village appeared, here a crowd of small boys bathed in the river, men in red blouses could be seen passing along a narrow strip of sand. Seen from a distance, from the river, it was a very pleasing sight; everything looked like tiny toys of many colors.
I felt a desire to call out some kind, tender words to the shore and the barge. The latter interested me greatly; I could look at it for an hour at a time as it dipped its blunt nose in the turbid water. The boat dragged it along as if it were a pig: the tow-rope, slackening, lashed the water, then once more drew taut and pulled the barge along by the nose. I wanted very much to see the faces of those people who were kept like wild animals in an iron cage. At Perm, where they were landed, I made my way to the gangway, and past me came, in batches of ten, gray people, trampling dully, rattling their fetters, bowed down by their heavy knapsacks. There were all sorts, young and old, handsome and ugly, all exactly like ordinary people except that they were differently dressed and were disfiguringly close-shaven. No doubt these were robbers, but grandmother had told me much that was good about robbers. Smouri looked much more like a fierce robber than they as he glanced loweringly at the barge and said loudly:
“Save me, God, from such a fate!”
Once I asked him:
“Why do you say that? You cook, while those others kill and steal.”
“I don’t cook; I only prepare. The women cook,” he said, bursting out laughing; but after thinking a moment he added: “The difference between one person and another lies in stupidity. One man is clever, another not so clever, and a third may be quite a fool. To become clever one must read the right books — black magic and what not. One must read all kinds of books and then one will find the right ones.”
He was continually impressing upon me:
“Read! When you don’t understand a book, read it again and again, as many as seven times; and if you do not understand it then, read it a dozen times.”
To every one on the boat, not excluding the taciturn steward, Smouri spoke roughly. Sticking out his lower lip as if he were disgusted, and, stroking his mustache, he pelted them with words as if they were stones. To me he always showed kindness and interest, but there was something about his interest which rather frightened me. Sometimes I thought he was crazy, like grandmother’s sister. At times he said to me:
“Leave off reading.”
And he would lie for a long time with closed eyes, breathing stertorously, his great stomach shaking. His hairy fingers, folded corpse-like on his chest, moved, knitting invisible socks with invisible needles. Suddenly he would begin growling:
“Here are you! You have your intelligence. Go and live! But intelligence is given sparingly, and not to all alike. If all were on the same level intellectually — but they are not. One understands, another docs not, and there are some people who do not even wish to understand!”
Stumbling over his words, he related stories of his life as a soldier, the drift of which I could never manage to catch. They seemed very uninteresting to me. Besides, he did not tell them from the beginning, but as he recollected them.
“The commander of the regiment called this soldier to him and asked: ‘What did the lieutenant say to you?’ So he told everything just as it had happened — a soldier is bound to tell the truth — but the lieutenant looked at him as if he had been a wall, and then turned away, hanging his head. Yes — ”
He became indignant, puffed out clouds of smoke, and growled:
“How was I to know what I could say and what I ought not to say? Then the lieutenant was condemned to be shut up in a fortress, and his mother said — ah, my God! I am not learned in anything.”
It was hot. Everything seemed to be quivering and tinkling. The water splashed against the iron walls of the cabin, and the wheel of the boat rose and fell. The river flowed in a broad stream between the rows of lights. In the distance could be seen the line of the meadowed bank. The trees drooped. When one’s hearing had become accustomed to all the sounds, it seemed as if all was quiet, although the soldiers in the stem of the boat howled dismally, “Se-e-even! Se-e-ven!”
I had no desire to take part in anything. I wanted neither to listen nor to work, but only to sit somewhere in the shadows, where there was no greasy, hot smell of cooking; to sit and gaze, half asleep, at the quiet, sluggish life as it slipped away on the water.
“Read!” the cook commanded harshly.
Even the head steward was afraid of him, and that mild man of few words, the dining-room steward, who looked like a sandre, was evidently afraid of Smouri too.
“Ei! You swine!” he would cry to this man. “Come here! Thief! Asiatic!”
The sailors and stokers were very respectful to him, and expectant of favors. He gave them the meat from which soup had been made, and inquired after their homes and their families. The oily and smoke-dried White Russian stokers were counted the lowest people on the boat. They were all called by one name. Yaks, and they were teased, “Like a Yak, I amble along the shore.”
When Smouri heard this, he bristled up, his face became suffused with blood, and he roared at the stokers:
“Why do you allow them to laugh at you, you mugs? Throw some sauce in their faces.”
Once the boatswain, a handsome, but ill-natured, man, said to him:
“They are the same as Little Russians; they hold the same faith.”
The cook seized him by the collar and belt, lifted him up in the air, and said, shaking him:
“Shall I knock you to smithereens?”
They quarreled often, these two. Sometimes it even came to a fight, but Smouri was never beaten. He was possessed of superhuman strength, and besides this, the captain’s wife, with a masculine face and smooth hair like a boy’s, was on his side.
He drank a terrible amount of vodka, but never became drunk. He began to drink the first thing in the morning, consuming a whole bottle in four gulps, and after that he sipped beer till close on evening. His face gradually grew brown, his eyes widened.
Sometimes in the evening he sat for hours in the hatchway, looking large and white, without breaking his silence, and his eyes were fixed gloomily on the distant horizon. At those times they were all more afraid of him than ever, but I was sorry for him. Jaakov Ivanich would come out from the kitchen, perspiring and glowing with the heat. Scratching his bald skull and waving his arm, he would take cover or say from a distance:
“The fish has gone off.”
“Well, there is the salted cabbage.”
“But if they ask for fish-soup or boiled fish?”
“It is ready. They can begin gobbling.”
Sometimes I plucked up courage to go to him. He looked at me heavily.
“What do you want?”
On one of these occasions, however, I asked him:
“Why is every one afraid of you? For you are good.”
Contrary to my expectations, he did not get angry.
“I am only good to you.”
But he added distinctly, simply, and thoughtfully:
“Yes, it is true that I am good to every one, only I do not show it. It does not do to show that to people, or they will be all over you. They will crawl over those who are kind as if they were mounds in a morass, and trample on them. Go and get me some beer.”
Having drunk the bottle, he sucked his mustache and said:
“If you were older, my bird, I could teach you a lot. I have something to say to a man. I am no fool. But you must read books. In them you will find all you need. They are not rubbish — books. Would you like some beer?”
“I don’t care for it.”
“Good boy! And you do well not to drink it. Drunkenness is a misfortune. Vodka is the devil’s own business. If I were rich, I would spur you on to study. An uninstructed man is an ox, fit for nothing but the yoke or to serve as meat. All he can do is to wave his tail.”
The captain’s wife gave him a volume of Gogol. I read “The Terrible Vengeance” and was delighted with it, but Smouri cried angrily:
“Rubbish! A fairy-tale! I know. There are other books.”
He took the book away from me, obtained another one from the captain’s wife, and ordered me harshly:
“Read Tarass’ — what do you call it? Find it! She says it is good; good for whom? It may be good for her, but not for me, eh? She cuts her hair short. It is a pity her ears were not cut off too.”
When Tarass called upon Ostap to fight, the cook laughed loudly.
“That’s the way! Of course! You have learning, but I have strength. What do they say about it? Camels!”
He listened with great attention, but often grumbled:
“Rubbish! You couldn’t cut a man in half from his shoulders to his haunches; it can’t be done. And you can’t thrust a pike upward; it would break it. I have been a soldier myself.”
Andrei’s treachery aroused his disgust.
“There’s a mean creature, eh? Like women! Tfoor
But when Tarass killed his son, the cook let his feet slip from the hammock, bent himself double, and wept. The tears trickled down his cheeks, splashed upon the deck as he breathed stertorously and muttered:
“Oh, my God! my God!”
And suddenly he shouted to me:
“Go on reading, you bone of the devil!”
Again he wept, with even more violence and bitterness, when I read how Ostaf cried out before his death, “Father, dost thou hear?’
“Ruined utterly!” exclaimed Smouri. “Utterly! Is that the end? EM/ What an accursed business! He was a man, that Tarass. What do you think? Yes, he was a man.”
He took the book out of my hands and looked at it with attention, letting his tears fall on its binding.
“It is a fine book, a regular treat.”
After this we read “Ivanhoe.” Smouri was very pleased with Richard Plantagenet.
“That was a real king,’ he said impressively.
To me the book had appeared dry. In fact, our tastes did not agree at all. I had a great liking for “The Story of Thomas Jones,” an old translation of “The History of Tom Jones, Foundling,” but Smouri grumbled:
“Rubbish! What do I care about your Thomas? Of what use is he to me? There must be some other books.”
One day I told him that I knew that there were other books, forbidden books. One could read them only at night, in underground rooms. He opened his eyes wide.
“Wha-a-t’s that? Why do you tell me these lies?”
“I am not telling lies. The priest asked me about them when I went to confession, and, for that matter,
I myself have seen people reading them and crying over them.”
The cook looked sternly in my face and asked:
“Who was crying?”
“The lady who was listening, and the other actually ran away because she was frightened.”
“You were asleep. You were dreaming,” said Smouri, slowly covering his eyes, and after a silence he muttered: “But of course there must be something hidden from me somewhere. I am not so old as all that, and with my character — well, however that may be —”
He spoke to me eloquently for a whole hour.
Imperceptibly I acquired the habit of reading, and took up a book with pleasure. What I read therein was pleasantly different from life, which was becoming harder and harder for me.
Smouri also recreated himself by reading, and often took me from my work.
“Pyeshkov, come and read.”
“I have a lot of washing up to do.”
“Let Maxim wash up.”
He coarsely ordered the senior kitchen-helper to do my work, and this man would break the glasses out of spite, while the chief steward told me quietly:
“I shall have you put off the boat.”
One day Maxim on purpose placed several glasses in a bowl of dirty water and tea-leaves. I emptied the water overboard, and the glasses went flying with it.
“It is my fault,” said Smouri to the head steward. “Put it down to my account.”
The dining-room attendants began to look at me with lowering brows, and they used to say:
“Eil you bookworm! What are you paid for?”
And they used to try and make as much work as they could for me, soiling plates needlessly. I was sure that this would end badly for me, and I was not mistaken.
One evening, in a little shelter on the boat, there sat a red-faced woman with a girl in a yellow coat and a new pink blouse. Both had been drinking. The woman smiled, bowed to every one, and said on the note O, like a church clerk:
“Forgive me, my friends; I have had a little too much to drink. I have been tried and acquitted, and I have been drinking for joy.”
The girl laughed, too, gazing at the other passengers with glazed eyes. Pushing the woman away, she said:
“But you, you plaguy creature — we know you.”
They had berths in the second-class cabin, opposite the cabin in which Jaakov Ivanich and Sergei slept.
The woman soon disappeared somewhere or other, and Sergei took her place near the girl, greedily stretching his frog-like mouth.
That night, when I had finished my work and had laid myself down to sleep on the table, Sergei came to me, and seizing me by the arm, said:
“Come along! We are going to marry you.”
He was drunk. I tried to tear my arm away from him, but he struck me.
Maxim came running in, also drunk, and the two dragged me along the deck to their cabin, past the sleeping passengers. But by the door of the cabin stood Smouri, and in the doorway, holding on to the jamb, Jaakov Ivanich. The girl stuck her elbow in his back, and cried in a drunken voice:
Smouri got me out of the hands of Sergei and Maxim, seized them by the hair, and, knocking their heads together, moved away. They both fell down.
“Asiatic!” he said to Jaakov, slamming the door on him. Then he roared as he pushed me along:
“Get out of this!”
I ran to the stern. The night was cloudy, the river black. In the wake of the boat seethed two gray lines of water leading to the invisible shore; between these two lines the barge dragged on its way. Now on the right, now on the left appeared red patches of light, without illuminating anything. They disappeared, hidden by the sudden winding of the shore. After this it became still darker and more gruesome.
The cook came and sat beside me, sighed deeply, and pulled at his cigarette.
“So they were taking you to that creature? Ekh! Dirty beasts! I heard them trying.”
“Did you take her away from them?”
“Her?” He abused the girl coarsely, and continued in a sad tone:
“It is all nastiness here. This boat is worse than a village. Have you ever lived in a village?”
“In a village there is nothing but misery, especially in the winter.”
Throwing his cigarette overboard, he was silent. Then he spoke again.
“You have fallen among a herd of swine, and I am sorry for you, my little one. I am sorry for all of them, too. Another time I do not know what I should have done. Gone on my knees and prayed. What are you doing, sons of? What are you doing, blind creatures? Camels!”
The steamer gave a long-drawn-out hoot, the tow-rope splashed in the water, the lights of lanterns jumped up and down, showing where the harbor was. Out of the darkness more lights appeared.
“Pyani Bor [a certain pine forest]. Drunk,” growled the cook. “And there is a river called Pyanaia, and there was a captain called Pyenkov, and a writer called Zapivokhin, and yet another captain called Nepeipivo.3 I am going on shore.”
3 Pyanaia means “drunk,” and the other names mentioned come from the same root. Nepeipivo means, “Do not drink beer.”
The coarse-grained women and girls of Kamska dragged logs of wood from the shore in long trucks. Bending under their load-straps, with pliable tread, they arrived in pairs at the stoker’s hold, and, emptying their sooty loads into the black hole, cried ringingly:
When they brought the wood the sailors would take hold of them by the breasts or the legs. The women squealed, spat at the men, turned back, and defended themselves against pinches and blows with their trucks. I saw this a hundred times, on every voyage and at every land-stage where they took in wood, and it was always the same thing.
I felt as if I were old, as if I had lived on that boat for many years, and knew what would happen in a week’s time, in the autumn, in a year.
It was daylight now. On a sandy promontory above the harbor stood out a forest of fir-trees. On the hills and through the forests women went laughing and singing. They looked like soldiers as they pushed their long trucks.
I wanted to weep. The tears seethed in my breast; my heart was overflowing with them. It was painful. But it would be shameful to cry, and I went to help the sailor Blyakhin wash the deck.
Blyakhin was an insignificant-looking man. He had a withered, faded look about him, and always stowed himself away in corners, whence his small, bright eyes shone.
“My proper surname is not Blyakhin, but because, you see, my mother was a loose woman. I have a sister, and she also. That happened to be their destiny. Destiny, my brother, is an anchor for all of us. You want to go in one direction, but wait!”
And now, as he swabbed the deck, he said softly to me:
“You see what a lot of harm women do! There it is. Damp wood smolders for a long time and then bursts into flame. I don’t care for that sort of thing myself; it does not interest me. And if I had been born a woman, I should have drowned myself in a black pool. I should have been safe then with Holy Christ, and could do no one any harm. But while one is here there is always the chance of kindling a fire. Eunuchs are no fools, I assure you. They are clever people, they are good at divination, they put aside all small things and serve God alone — cleanly.”
The captain’s wife passed us, holding her skirts high as she came through the pools of water. Tall and well built, she had a simple, bright face. I wanted to run after her and beg her from my heart:
“Say something to me! Say something!”
The boat drew slowly away from the pier. Blyakhin crossed himself and said:
“We are off!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55