AT Sarapulia, Maxim left the boat. He went away in silence, saying farewell to no one, serious and calm. Behind him, laughing, came the gay woman, and, following her, the girl, looking disheveled, with swollen eyes. Sergei was on his knees a long time before the captain’s cabin, kissing the panel of the door, knocking his forehead against it, and crying:
“Forgive me! It was not my fault, but Maxim’s.”
The sailors, the stewards, and even some of the passengers knew that he was lying, yet they advised:
“Come, forgive him!”
But the captain drove him away, and even kicked him with such force that he fell over. Notwithstanding, he forgave him, and Sergei at once rushed on deck, carrying a tray of tea-things, looking with inquiring, dog-like expression into the eyes of the passengers.
In Maxim’s place came a soldier from Viatski, a bony man, with a small head and brownish red eyes. The assistant cook sent him first to kill some fowls. He killed a pair, but let the rest escape on deck. The passengers tried to catch them, but three hens flew over — board. Then the soldier sat on some wood near the fowl-house, and cried bitterly.
“What’s the matter, you fool?” asked Smouri, angrily. “Fancy a soldier crying!”
“I belong to the Home Defense Corps,” said the soldier in a low voice.
That was his ruin. In half an hour every one on the boat was laughing at him. They would come quite close to him, fix their eyes on his face, and ask:
“Is this the one?”
And then they would go off into harsh, insulting, absurd laughter.
At first the soldier did not see these people or hear their laughter; he was drying his tears with the sleeve of his old shirt, exactly as if he were hiding them up his sleeve. But soon his brown eyes flashed with ragt, and he said in the quick speech of Viatski:
“What are you staring at me for? Oi, may you be torn to bits!”
But this only amused the passengers the more, and they began to snap their fingers at him, to pluck at his shirt, his apron, to play with him as if he had been a goat, baiting him cruelly until dinner-time. At dinner some one put a piece of squeezed lemon on the handle of a wooden spoon, and tied it behind his back by the strings of his apron. As he moved, the spoon waggled behind him, and every one laughed, but he was in a fluster, like an entrapped mouse, ignorant of what had aroused their laughter.
Smouri sat behind him in silence. His face had become like a woman’s. I felt sorry for the soldier, and asked:
“May I tell him about the spoon?”
He nodded his head without speaking.
When I explained to the soldier what they were laughing at, he hastily seized the spoon, tore it off, threw it on the floor, crushed it with his foot, and took hold of my hair with both hands. We began to fight, to the great satisfaction of the passengers, who made a ring round us at once.
Smouri pushed the spectators aside, separated us, and, after boxing my ear, seized the soldier by the ear. When the passengers saw how the little man danced under the hand of the cook they roared with excitement, whistled, stamped their feet, split their sides with laughter.
“Hurrah! Garrison! Butt the cook in the stomach!”
This wild joy on the part of others made me feel that I wanted to throw myself upon them and hit their dirty heads with a lump of wood.
Smouri let the soldier go, and with his hands behind his back turned upon the passengers like a wild boar, bristling, and showing his teeth terrifyingly.
“To your places! March! March!”
The soldier threw himself upon me again, but Smouri seized him round the body with one hand and carried him to the hatchway, where he began to pump water on his head, turning his frail body about as if he were a rag-doll.
The sailors came running on the scene, with the boatswain and the captain’s mate. The passengers crowded about again. A head above the others stood the head-steward, quiet, dumb, as always.
The soldier, sitting on some wood near the kitchen door, took off his boots and began to wring out his leggings, though they were not wet. But the water dripped from his greasy hair, which again amused the passengers.
“All the same,” said the soldier, “I am going to kill that boy.”
Taking me by the shoulder, Smouri said something to the captain’s mate. The sailors sent the passengers away, and when they had all dispersed, he asked the soldier:
“What is to be done with you?”
The latter was silent, looking at me with wild eyes, and all the while putting a strange restraint upon himself.
“Be quiet, you devilskin!” said Smouri.
“As you are not the piper, you can’t call the tune,” answered the soldier.
I saw that the cook was confused. His blown-out cheeks became flabby; he spat, and went away, taking me with him. I walked after him, feeling foolish, with backward glances at the soldier. But Smouri muttered in a worried tone:
“There’s a wild creature for you! What? What do you think of him?”
Sergei overtook us and said in a whisper:
“He is going to kill himself.”
“Where is he?” cried Smouri, and he ran.
The soldier was standing at the door of the steward’s cabin with a large knife in his hand. It was the knife which was used for cutting off the heads of fowls and for cutting up sticks for the stoves. It was blunt, and notched like a saw. In front of the cabin the passengers were assembled, looking at the funny little man with the wet head. His snub-nosed face shook like a jelly; his mouth hung wearily open; his lips twitched. He roared:
Jumping up on something, I looked over the heads of people into their faces. They were smiling, giggling, and saying to one another:
When he pushed his crumpled shirt down into his trousers with his skinny, childish hand, a good-looking man near me said:
“He is getting ready to die, and he takes the trouble to hitch up his trousers.”
The passengers all laughed loudly. It was perfectly plain that they did not think it probable that the soldier would really kill himself, nor did I think so; but Smouri, after one glance at him, pushed the people aside with his stomach, saying:
“Get away, you fools!”
He called them fools over and over again, and approaching one little knot of people, said:
“To your place, fool!”
This was funny; but, however, it seemed to be true, for they had all been acting like one big fool from the first thing in the morning. When he had driven the passengers, off, he approached the soldier, and, holding out his hand, said:
“Give me that knife.”
“I don’t care,” said the soldier, holding out the handle of the knife.
The cook gave the knife to me, and pushed the soldier into the cabin.
“Lie down and go to sleep. What is the matter with you, eh?”
The soldier sat on a hammock in silence.
“He shall bring you something to eat and some vodka. Do you drink vodka?”
“A little sometimes.”
“But, look you, don’t you touch him. It was not he who made fun of you, do you hear? I tell you that it was not he.”
“But why did they torment me?” asked the soldier, softly.
Smouri answered gruffly after a pause:
“How should I know?”
As he came with me to the kitchen he muttered:
“Well, they have fastened upon a poor wretch this time, and no mistake! You see what he is? There you are! My lad, people can be sent out of their minds; they can really. Stick to them like bugs, and the thing is done. In fact, there are some people here like bugs — worse than bugs!”
When I took bread, meat, and vodka to the soldier he was still sitting in the hammock, rocking himself and crying softly, sobbing like a woman.
I placed the plate on the table, saying:
“Shut the door.”
“That will make it dark.”
“Shut it, or they will come crawling in here.”
I went away. The sight of the soldier was unpleasant to me. He aroused my commiseration and pity and made me feel uncomfortable. Times without number grandmother had told me:
“One must have pity on people. We are all unhappy. Life is hard for all of us.”
“Did you take it to him?” asked the cook. “Well, how is he — the soldier?”
“I feel sorry for him.”
“Well, what’s the matter now, eh?’
“One can’t help being sorry for people.”
Smouri took me by the arm, drew me to him, and said:
“You do not pity in vain, but it is waste of time to chatter about it. When you are not accustomed to mix jellies, you must teach yourself the way.”
And pushing me away from him, he added gruffly:
“This is no place for you. Here, smoke.”
I was deeply distressed, quite crushed by the behavior of the passengers. There was something in expressibly insulting and oppressive in the way they had worried the soldier and had laughed with glee when
Smouri had him by the ear. What pleasure could they find in such a disgusting, pitiful affair? What was there to cause them to laugh so joyfully?
There they were again, sitting or lying under the awning, drinking, making a buzz of talk, playing cards, conversing seriously and sensibly, looking at the river, just as if they had never whistled and hooted an hour ago. They were all as quiet and lazy as usual. From morning to night they sauntered about the boat like pieces of fluff or specks of dust in the sunbeams. In groups of ten they would stroll to the hatchway, cross themselves, and leave the boat at the landing-stage from which the same kind of people embarked as they landed, bending their backs under the same heavy wallets and trunks and dressed in the same fashion.
This continual change of passengers did not alter the life on the boat one bit. The new passengers spoke of the same things as those who had left: the land, labor, God, women, and in the same words. “It is ordained by the Lord God that we should suffer; all we can do is to be patient. There is nothing else to be done. It is fate.”
It was depressing to hear such words, and they exasperated me. I could not endure dirt, and I did not wish to endure evil, unjust, and insulting behavior toward myself. I was sure that I did not deserve such treatment. And the soldier had not deserved it, either. Perhaps he had meant to be funny.
Maxim, a serious, good-hearted fellow, had been dismissed from the ship, and Sergei, a mean fellow, was left. And why did these people, capable of goading a man almost to madness, always submit humbly to the furious shouts of the sailors, and listen to their abuse without taking offense?
“What are you rolling about on the deck for?” cried the boatswain, blinking his handsome, though malevolent, eyes. “If the boat heeled, it would be the end of you, you devils.”
The “devils” went peaceably enough to the other deck, but they chased them away from there, too, as if they had been sheep.
“Ah, accursed ones!”
On hot nights, under the iron awning, which had been made red-hot by the sun during the day, it was suffocating. The passengers crawled over the deck like beetles, and lay where they happened to fall. The sailors awoke them at the landing-stages by prodding them with marlinespikes.
“What are you sprawling in the way for? Go away to your proper place!”
They would stand up, and move sleepily in the direction whither they were pushed. The sailors were of the same class as themselves, only they were dressed differently; but they ordered them about as if they were policemen. The first thing which I noticed about these people was that they were so quiet, so timid, so sadly meek. It was terrible when through that crust of meekness burst the cruel, thoughtless spirit of mischief, which had very little fun in it. It seemed to me that they did not know where they were being taken; it was a matter of indifference to them where they were landed from the boat. Wherever they went on shore they stayed for a short time, and then they embarked again on our boat or another, starting on a fresh journey. They all seemed to have strayed, to have no relatives, as if all the earth were strange to them. And every single one of them was senselessly cowardly.
Once, shortly after midnight, something burst in the machinery and exploded like a report from a cannon. The deck was at once enveloped in a cloud of steam, which rose thickly from the engine-room and crept through every crevice. An invisible person shouted deafeningly:
“Gavrilov, some red lead — and some felt!”
I slept near the engine-room, on the table on which the dishes were washed up, and the explosion and shaking awoke me. It was quiet on deck. The engine uttered a hot, steamy whisper; a hammer sounded repeatedly. But in the course of a few minutes all the saloon passengers howled, roared with one voice, and suddenly a distressing scene was in progress.
In a white fog which swiftly rarefied, women with their hair loose, disheveled men with round eyes like fishes’ eyes, rushed about, trampling one another, carrying bundles, bags, boxes, stumbling, falling, call — ing upon God and St. Nicholas, striking one another. It was very terrible, but at the same time it was interesting. I ran after them to see what they would do next.
This was my first experience of a night alarm, yet
I understood at once that the passengers had made a mistake. The boat had not slowed down. On the right hand, quite near, gleamed the life-belts. The night was light, the full moon stood high. But the passengers rushed wildly about the deck, and now those traveling in the other classes had come up, too. Some one jumped overboard. He was followed by another, and yet a third. Two peasants and a monk with heavy pieces of wood broke off a bench which was screwed to the desk. A large cage of fowls was thrown into the water from the stern. In the center of the deck, near the steps leading to the captain’s bridge, knelt a peasant who prostrated himself before the people as they rushed past him, and howled like a wolf:
“I am Orthodox and a sinner — ”
“To the boats, you devils!” cried a fat gentleman who wore only trousers and no shirt, and he beat his breast with his fist.
The sailors came running, seized people by the collars, knocked their heads together, and threw them on the deck. Smouri approached heavily, wearing his overcoat over his night-clothes, addressed them all in a resounding voice:
“Yes, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. What are you making all this fuss for? Has the steamer stopped, eh? Are we going slower? There is the shore. Those fools who jumped into the water have caught the life-belts, they have had to drag them out. There they are. Do you see? Two boats — ”
He struck the third-class passengers on the head with his fist, and they sank like sacks to the deck.
The confusion was not yet hushed when a lady in a cloak flew to Smouri with a tablespoon in her hand, and, flourishing it in his face, cried:
“How dare you?”
A wet gentleman, restraining her, sucked his mustache and said irritably:
“Let him alone, you imbecile!”
Smouri, spreading out his hands, blinked with embarrassment, and asked me:
“What’s the matter, eh? What does she want with me? This is nice, I must say! Why, I never saw her before in my life!”
And a peasant, with his nose bleeding, cried:
“Human beings, you call them? Robbers!”
Before the summer I had seen two panics on board the steamboat, and on both occasions they were caused not by real danger, but by the mere possibility of it. On a third occasion the passengers caught two thieves, one of them was dressed like a foreigner, beat them for almost an hour, unknown to the sailors, and when the latter took their victims away from them, the passengers abused them.
“Thieves shield thieves. That is plain. You are rogues yourselves, and you sympathize with rogues.”
The thieves had been beaten into unconsciousness. They could not stand when they were handed over to the police at the next stopping-place.
There were many other occasions on which my feelings were aroused to a high pitch, and I could not make up my mind as to whether people were bad or good, peaceful or mischief-making, and why they were so peculiarly cruel, lusting to work malevolence, and ashamed of being kind.
I asked the cook about this, but he enveloped his face in a cloud of smoke, and said briefly in a tone of vexation:
“What are you chattering about now? Human creatures are human creatures. Some are clever, some are fools. Read, and don’t talk so much. In books, if they are the right sort, you will find all you want to know.”
I wanted to please him by giving him a present of some books.
In Kazan I bought, for five copecks, “The Story of how a Soldier Saved Peter the Great”; but at that time the cook was drinking and was very cross, so I began to read it myself. I was delighted with it, it was so simple, easy to understand, interesting, and short. I felt that this book would give great pleasure to my teacher; but when I took it to him he silently crushed it in his hand into a round ball and threw it overboard.
“That for your book, you fool!” he said harshly. “I teach you like a dog, and all you want to do is to gobble up idle tales, eh?” He stamped and roared. “What kind of book is that? Do I read nonsense? Is what is written there true? Well, speak!”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I do know. If a man’s head were cut off, his body would fall down the staircase, and the other man would not have climbed on the haystack. Soldiers are not fools. He would have set fire to the hay, and that would have been the end. Do you understand?”
“That’s right. I know all about Czar Peter, and that never happened to him. Run along.”
I realized that the cook was right, but nevertheless the book pleased me. I bought the “Story” again and read it a second time. To my amazement, I discovered that it was really a bad book. This puzzled me, and I began to regard the cook with even more respect, while he said to me more frequently and more crossly than ever:
“Oh, what a lot you need to be taught! This is no place for you.”
I also felt that it was no place for me. Sergei behaved disgustingly to me, and several times I observed him stealing pieces of the tea-service, and giving them to the passengers on the sly. I knew that this was theft. Smouri had warned me more than once:
“Take care. Do not give the attendants any of the cups and plates from your table.”
This made life still harder for me, and I often longed to run away from the boat into the forest; but Smouri held me back. He was more tender to me every day, and the incessant movement on the boat held a terrible fascination for me. I did not like it when we stayed in port, and I was always expecting something to happen, and that we should sail from Kama to Byela, as far as Viatka, and so up the Volga, and I should see new places, towns, and people. But this did not happen. My life on the steamer came to an abrupt end. One evening when we were going from Kazan to Nijni the steward called me to him. I went. He shut the door behind me, and said to Smouri, who sat grimly on a small stool:
“Here he is.”
Smouri asked me roughly:
“Have you been giving Serejka any of the dinner- and tea-services?”
“He helps himself when I am not looking.”
The steward said softly:
“He does not look, yet he knows.”
Smouri struck his knee with his fist; then he scratched his knee as he said:
“Wait; take time.”
I pondered. I looked at the steward. He looked at me, and there seemed to be no eyes behind his glasses.
He lived without making a noise. He went about softly, spoke in low tones. Sometimes his faded beard and vacant eyes peeped out from some corner and instantly vanished. Before going to bed he knelt for a long time in the buffet before the icon with the ever-burning lamp. I could see him through the chink of the door, looking like a black bundle; but I had never succeeded in learning how the steward prayed, for he simply knelt and looked at the icon, stroking his beard and sighing.
, After a silence Smouri asked:
“Has Sergei ever given you any money?”
“He does not tell lies,” said Smouri to the steward, who answered at once in his low voice:
“It comes to the same thing, please — ”
“Come!” cried the cook to me, and he came to my table, and rapped my crown lightly with his fingers.
“Fool! And I am a fool, too. I ought to have looked after you.”
At Nijni the steward dismissed me. I received nearly eight rubles, the first large money earned by me.
When Smouri took farewell of me he said roughly:
“Well, here you are. Now keep your eyes open, — do you understand? You mustn’t go about with your mouth open.”
He put a tobacco-pouch of colored beads into my hand.
“There you are! That is good handwork. My godchild made it for me. Well, good-by. Read books; that is the best thing you can do.”
He took me under the arms, lifted me up, kissed me, and placed me firmly on the jetty. I was sorry for him and for myself. I could hardly keep from crying when I saw him returning to the steamer, pushing aside the porters, looking so large, heavy, solitary. So many times since then I have met people like him, kind, lonely, cut off from the lives of other people.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55