“ARE all here?” asked Ilya Yefimovich Kononov, standing on the bow of his new steamer, and surveying the crowd of guests with beaming eyes.
“It seems to be all!”
And raising upward his stout, red, happy-looking face, he shouted to the captain, who was already standing on the bridge, beside the speaking-tube:
“Cast off, Petrukha!”
The captain bared his huge, bald head, made the sign of the cross, glancing up at the sky, passed his hand over his wide, black beard, cleared his throat, and gave the command:
The guests watched the movements of the captain silently and attentively, and, emulating his example, they also began to cross themselves, at which performance their caps and high hats flashed through the air like a flock of black birds.
Give us Thy blessing, 0h Lord!” exclaimed Kononov with emotion.
“Let go astern! Forward!” ordered the captain. The massive “Ilya Murometz,” heaving a mighty sigh, emitted a thick column of white steam toward the side of the landing-bridge, and started upstream easily, like a swan.
“How it started off,” enthusiastically exclaimed commercial counsellor Lup Grigoryev Reznikov, a tall, thin, good-looking man. “Without a quiver! Like a lady in the dance!”
“It’s not a ship, it’s a Leviathan!” remarked with a devout sigh the pock-marked and stooping Trofim Zubov, cathedral-warden and principal usurer in town.
It was a gray day. The sky, overcast with autumn clouds, was reflected in the water of the river, thus giving it a cold leaden colouring. Flashing in the freshness of its paint the steamer sailed along the monotonous background of the river like a huge bright spot, and the black smoke of its breath hung in the air like a heavy cloud. All white, with pink paddle-boxes and bright red blades, the steamer easily cut through the cold water with its bow and drove it apart toward the shores, and the round window-panes on the sides of the steamer and the cabin glittered brilliantly, as though smiling a self-satisfied, triumphant smile.
“Gentlemen of this honourable company!” exclaimed Kononov, removing his hat, and making a low bow to the guests. “As we have now rendered unto God, so to say, what is due to God, would you permit that the musicians render now unto the Emperor what is due to the Emperor?”
And, without waiting for an answer from his guests, he placed his fist to his mouth, and shouted:
“Musicians! Play ‘Be Glorious!’”
The military orchestra, behind the engine, thundered out the march.
And Makar Bobrov, the director and founder of the local commercial bank, began to hum in a pleasant basso, beating time with his fingers on his enormous paunch:
“Be glorious, be glorious, our Russian Czar — tra-rata! Boom!”
“I invite you to the table, gentlemen! Please! Take pot-luck, he, he! I entreat you humbly,” said Kononov, pushing himself through the dense group of guests.
There were about thirty of them, all sedate men, the cream of the local merchants. The older men among them, bald-headed and gray, wore old-fashioned frock-coats, caps and tall boots. But there were only few of these; high silk hats, shoes and stylish coats reigned supreme. They were all crowded on the bow of the steamer, and little by little, yielding to Kononov’s requests, moved towards the stern covered with sailcloth, where stood tables spread with lunch. Lup Reznikov walked arm in arm with Yakov Mayakin, and, bending over to his ear, whispered something to him, while the latter listened and smiled. Foma, who had been brought to the festival by his godfather, after long admonitions, found no companion for himself among these people who were repulsive to him, and, pale and gloomy, held himself apart from them. During the past two days he had been drinking heavily with Yozhov, and now he had a terrible headache. He felt ill at ease in the sedate and yet jolly company; the humming of the voices, the thundering of the music and the clamour of the steamer, all these irritated him.
He felt a pressing need to doze off, and he could find no rest from the thought as to why his godfather was so kind to him today, and why he brought him hither into the company of the foremost merchants of the town. Why had he urged so persuasively, and even entreated him to attend Kononov’s mass and banquet?
“Don’t be foolish, come!” Foma recalled his godfather’s admonitions. “Why do you fight shy of people? Man gets his character from nature, and in riches you are lower than very few. You must keep yourself on an equal footing with the others. Come!”
“But when are you going to speak seriously with me, papa?” Foma had asked, watching the play of his godfather’s face and green eyes.
“You mean about setting you free from the business? Ha, ha! We’ll talk it over, we’ll talk it over, my friend! What a queer fellow you are. Well? Will you enter a monastery when you have thrown away your wealth? After the example of the saints? Eh?”
“I’ll see then!” Foma had answered.
“So. Well, and meanwhile, before you go to the monastery, come along with me! Get ready quickly. Rub your phiz with something wet, for it is very much swollen. Sprinkle yourself with cologne, get it from Lubov, to drive away the smell of the kabak. Go ahead!”
Arriving on the steamer while the mass was in progress, Foma took up a place on the side and watched the merchants during the whole service.
They stood in solemn silence; their faces had an expression of devout concentration; they prayed with fervour, deeply sighing, bowing low, devoutly lifting their eyes heavenward. And Foma looked now at one, now at another, and recalled what he knew about them.
There was Lup Reznikov; he had begun his career as a brothel- keeper, and had become rich all of a sudden. They said he had strangled one of his guests, a rich Siberian. Zubov’s business in his youth had been to purchase thread from the peasants. He had failed twice. Kononov had been tried twenty years ago for arson, and even now he was indicted for the seduction of a minor. Together with him, for the second time already, on a similar charge, Zakhar Kirillov Robustov had been dragged to court. Robustov was a stout, short merchant with a round face and cheerful blue eyes. Among these people there was hardly one about whom Foma did not know something disgraceful.
And he knew that they were all surely envying the successful Kononov, who was constantly increasing the number of his steamers from year to year. Many of those people were at daggers’ points with one another, none of them would show mercy to the others in the battlefield of business, and all knew wicked and dishonest things about one another. But now, when they gathered around Kononov, who was triumphant and happy, they blended in one dense, dark mass, and stood and breathed as one man, concentrated and silent, surrounded by something invisible yet firm, by something which repulsed Foma from them, and which inspired him with fear of them.
“Impostors!” thought he, thus encouraging himself.
And they coughed gently, sighed, crossed themselves, bowed, and, surrounding the clergy in a thick wall, stood immovable and firm, like big, black rocks.
“They are pretending!” Foma exclaimed to himself. Beside him stood the hump-backed, one-eyed Pavlin Gushchin — he who, not long before, had turned the children of his half-witted brother into the street as beggars — he stood there and whispered penetratingly as he looked at the gloomy sky with his single eye:
“0h Lord! Do not convict me in Thy wrath, nor chastise me in Thy indignation.”
And Foma felt that that man was addressing the Lord with the most profound and firm faith in His mercy.
“0h Lord, God of our fathers, who hadst commanded Noah, Thy servant, to build an ark for the preservation of the world,” said the priest in his deep bass voice, lifting his eyes and outstretching his hands skyward, “protect also this vessel and give unto it a guarding angel of good and peace. Guard those that will sail upon it.”
The merchants in unison made the sign of the cross, with wide swings of their arms, and all their faces bore the expression of one sentiment — faith in the power of prayer. All these pictures took root in Foma’s memory and awakened in him perplexity as to these people, who, being able to believe firmly in the mercy of God, were, nevertheless, so cruel unto man. He watched them persistently, wishing to detect their fraud, to convince himself of their falsehood.
Their grave firmness angered him, their unanimous self- confidence, their triumphant faces, their loud voices, their laughter. They were already seated by the tables, covered with luncheon, and were hungrily admiring the huge sturgeon, almost three yards in length, nicely sprinkled over with greens and large crabs. Trofim Zubov, tying a napkin around his neck, looked at the monster fish with happy, sweetly half-shut eyes, and said to his neighbour, the flour merchant, Yona Yushkov:
“Yona Nikiforich! Look, it’s a regular whale! It’s big enough to serve as a casket for your person, eh? Ha, ha! You could creep into it as a foot into a boot, eh? Ha, ha!”
The small-bodied and plump Yona carefully stretched out his short little hand toward the silver pail filled with fresh caviar, smacked his lips greedily, and squinted at the bottles before him, fearing lest he might overturn them.
Opposite Kononov, on a trestle, stood a half-vedro barrel of old vodka, imported from Poland; in a huge silver-mounted shell lay oysters, and a certain particoloured cake, in the shape of a tower, stood out above all the viands.
“Gentlemen! I entreat you! Help yourselves to whatever you please!” cried Kononov. “I have here everything at once to suit the taste of everyone. There is our own, Russian stuff, and there is foreign, all at once! That’s the best way! Who wishes anything? Does anybody want snails, or these crabs, eh? They’re from India, I am told.”
And Zubov said to his neighbour, Mayakin:
“The prayer ‘At the Building of a Vessel’ is not suitable for steam-tugs and river steamers, that is, not that it is not suitable, it isn’t enough alone. A river steamer is a place of permanent residence for the crew, and therefore it ought to be considered as a house. Consequently it is necessary to make the prayer ‘At the Building of a House,’ in addition to that for the vessel. But what will you drink?”
“I am not much of a wine fiend. Pour me out some cumin vodka,” replied Yakov Tarasovich.
Foma, seated at the end of the table among some timid and modest men who were unfamiliar to him, now and again felt on himself the sharp glances of the old man.
“He’s afraid I’ll make a scandal,” thought Foma. “Brethren!” roared the monstrously stout ship builder Yashchurov, in a hoarse voice,” I can’t do without herring! I must necessarily begin with herring, that’s my nature.”
“Musicians! strike up ‘The Persian March!”
“Hold on! Better ‘How Glorious!’”
“Strike up ‘How Glorious.”’
The puffing of the engine and the clatter of the steamer’s wheels, mingling with the sounds of the music, produced in the air something which sounded like the wild song of a snow-storm. The whistle of the flute, the shrill singing of the clarionets, the heavy roaring of the basses, the ruffling of the little drum and the drones of the blows on the big one, all this fell on the monotonous and dull sounds of the wheels, as they cut the water apart, smote the air rebelliously, drowned the noise of the human voices and hovered after the steamer, like a hurricane, causing the people to shout at the top of their voices. At times an angry hissing of steam rang out within the engine, and there was something irritable and contemptuous in this sound as it burst unexpectedly upon the chaos of the drones and roars and shouts.
“I shall never forget, even unto my grave, that you refused to discount the note for me,” cried some one in a fierce voice.
“That will do! Is this a place for accounts?” rang out Bobrov’s bass.
“Brethren! Let us have some speeches!”
“Come up to the bank and I’ll explain to you why I didn’t discount it.”
“A speech! Silence!”
“Musicians, cease playing!”
“Strike up ‘In the Meadows.’”
“No! Yakov Tarasovich, we beg of you!”
“That’s called Strassburg pastry.”
“We beg of you! We beg of you!”
“Pastry? It doesn’t look like it, but I’ll taste it all the same.”
“Brethren! It is jolly! By God.”
“And in ‘La Belle Helene’ she used to come out almost naked, my dear,” suddenly Robustov’s shrill and emotional voice broke through the noise.
“Look out! Jacob cheated Esau? Aha!”
“I can’t! My tongue is not a hammer, and I am no longer young.
“Yasha! We all implore you!”
“Do us the honour!”
“We’ll elect you mayor!”
“Tarasovich! don’t be capricious!”
“Sh! Silence! Gentlemen! Yakov Tarasovich will say a few words!”
And just at the moment the noise subsided some one’s loud, indignant whisper was heard:
“How she pinched me, the carrion.”
And Bobrov inquired in his deep basso:
“Where did she pinch you?”
All burst into ringing laughter, but soon fell silent, for Yakov Tarasovich Mayakin, rising to his feet, cleared his throat, and, stroking his bald crown, surveyed the merchants with a serious look expecting attention.
“Well, brethren, open your ears!” shouted Kononov, with satisfaction.
“Gentlemen of the merchant class!” began Mayakin with a smile. “There is a certain foreign word in the language of intelligent and learned people, and that word is ‘culture.’ So now I am going to talk to you about that word in all the simplicity of my soul.”
“So, that’s where he is aiming to!” some ones satisfied exclamation was heard.
“Dear gentlemen!” said Mayakin, raising his voice, “in the newspapers they keep writing about us merchants, that we are not acquainted with this ‘culture,’ that we do not want it, and do not understand it. And they call us savage, uncultured people. What is culture? It pains me, old man as I am, to hear such words, and one day I made it my business to look up that word, to see what it really contains.” Mayakin became silent, surveyed the audience with his eyes, and went on distinctly, with a triumphant smile:
“It proved, upon my researches, that this word means worship, that is, love, great love for business and order in life. ‘That’s right!’ I thought, ‘that’s right!’ That means that he is a cultured man who loves business and order, who, in general, loves to arrange life, loves to live, knows the value of himself and of life. Good!” Yakov Tarasovich trembled, his wrinkles spread over his face like beams, from his smiling eyes to his lips, and his bald head looked like some dark star.
The merchants stared silently and attentively at his mouth, and all faces bespoke intense attention. The people seemed petrified in the attitudes in which Mayakin’s speech had overtaken them.
“But if that word is to be interpreted precisely thus, and not otherwise, if such is the case — then the people who call us uncultured and savage, slander and blaspheme us! For they love only the word, but not its meaning; while we love the very root of the word, we love its real essence, we love activity. We have within us the real cult toward life, that is, the worship of life; we, not they! They love reasoning’ we love action. And here, gentlemen of the merchant class, here is an example of our culture, of our love for action. Take the Volga! Here she is, our dear own mother! With each and every drop of her water she can corroborate our honour and refute the empty blasphemy spattered on us. Only one hundred years have elapsed, my dear sirs, since Emperor Peter the Great launched decked barks on this river, and now thousands of steamships sail up and down the river. Who has built them? The Russian peasant, an utterly unlettered man! All these enormous steamers, barges — whose are they? Ours! Who has invented them? We! Everything here is ours, everything here is the fruit of our minds, of our Russian shrewdness, and our great love for action! Nobody has assisted us in anything! We ourselves exterminated piracy on the Volga; at our own expense we hired troops; we exterminated piracy and sent out on the Volga thousands of steamers and various vessels over all the thousands of miles of her course. Which is the best town on the Volga? The one that has the most merchants. Whose are the best houses in town? The merchants! Who takes the most care of the poor? The merchant! He collects groshes and copecks, and donates hundreds of thousands of roubles. Who has erected the churches? We! Who contributes the most money to the government? The merchants! Gentlemen! to us alone is the work dear for its own sake, for the sake of our love for the arrangement of life, and we alone love order and life! And he who talks about us merely talks, and that’s all! Let him talk! When the wind blows the willow rustles; when the wind subsides the willow is silent; and neither a cart-shaft, nor a broom can be made out of the willow; it is a useless tree! And from this uselessness comes the noise. What have they, our judges, accomplished; how have they adorned life? We do not know it. While our work is clearly evident! Gentlemen of the merchant class! Seeing in you the foremost men in life, most industrious and loving your labours, seeing in you the men who can accomplish and have accomplished everything, I now heartily, with respect and love for you, lift my brimming goblet, to the glorious, strong-souled, industrious Russian merchant class. Long may you live! May you succeed for the glory of Mother Russia! Hurrah!”
The shrill, jarring shout of Mayakin called forth a deafening, triumphant roar from the merchants. All these big, fleshy bodies, aroused by wine and by the old man’s words, stirred and uttered from their chests such a unanimous, massive shout that everything around them seemed to tremble and to quake.
“Yakov! you are the trumpet of the Lord!” cried Zubov, holding out his goblet toward Mayakin.
Overturning the chairs, jostling the tables, thus causing the dishes and the bottles to rattle and fall, the merchants, agitated, delighted, some with tears in their eyes, rushed toward Mayakin with goblets in their hands.
“Ah! Do you understand what has been said here?” asked Kononov, grasping Robustov by the shoulder and shaking him. “Understand it! That was a great speech!”
“Yakov Tarasovich! Come, let me embrace you!”
“Let’s toss, Mayakin!
“Strike up the band.”
“Sound a flourish! A march. ‘The Persian March.”’
“We don’t want any music! The devil take it!”
“Here is the music! Eh, Yakov Tarasovich! What a mind!”
“I was small among my brethren, but I was favoured with understanding.”
“You lie, Trofim!”
“Yakov! you’ll die soon. Oh, what a pity! Words can’t express how sorry we are!”
“But what a funeral that is going to be!”
“Gentlemen! Let us establish a Mayakin fund! I put up a thousand!”
“Silence! Hold on!”
“Gentlemen!” Yakov Tarasovich began to speak again, quivering in every limb. “And, furthermore, we are the foremost men in life and the real masters in our fatherland because we are — peasants!’
“That’s right! Dear mother! That’s an old man for you!”
“Hold on! Let him finish.”
“We are primitive Russian people, and everything that comes from us is truly Russian! Consequently it is the most genuine, the most useful and obligatory.”
“As true as two and two make four!”
“It’s so simple.”
“He is as wise as a serpent!”
“And as meek as a —”
“As a hawk. Ha, ha, ha!”
The merchants encircled their orator in a close ring, they looked at him with their oily eyes, and were so agitated that they could no longer listen to his words calmly. Around him a tumult of voices smote the air, and mingling with the noise of the engine, and the beating of the wheels upon the water, it formed a whirlwind of sounds which drowned the jarring voice of the old man. The excitement of the merchants was growing more and more intense; all faces were radiant with triumph; hands holding out goblets were outstretched toward Mayakin; the merchants clapped him on the shoulder, jostled him, kissed him, gazed with emotion into his face. And some screamed ecstatically:
“The kamarinsky. The national dance!”
“We have accomplished all that!” cried Yakov Tarasovich, pointing at the river. “It is all ours! We have built up life!”
Suddenly rang out a loud exclamation which drowned all sounds:
“Ah! So you have done it? Ah, you.”
And immediately after this, a vulgar oath resounded through the air, pronounced distinctly with great rancour, in a dull but powerful voice. Everyone heard it and became silent for a moment, searching with their eyes the man who had abused them. At this moment nothing was heard save the deep sighs of the engines and the clanking of the rudder chains.
“Who’s snarling there?” asked Kononov with a frown.
“We can’t get along without scandals!” said Reznikov, with a contrite sigh.
“Who was swearing here at random?”
The faces of the merchants mirrored alarm, curiosity, astonishment, reproach, and all the people began to bustle about stupidly. Only Yakov Tarasovich alone was calm and seemed even satisfied with what had occurred. Rising on tiptoe, with his neck outstretched, he stared somewhere toward the end of the table, and his eyes flashed strangely, as though he saw there something which was pleasing to him.
“Gordyeeff” said Yona Yushkov, softly.
And all heads were turned toward the direction in which Yakov Tarasovich was staring.
There, with his hands resting on the table, stood Foma. His face distorted with wrath, his teeth firmly set together, he silently surveyed the merchants with his burning, wide-open eyes. His lower jaw was trembling, his shoulders were quivering, and the fingers of his hands, firmly clutching the edge of the table, were nervously scratching the tablecloth. At the sight of his wolf- like, angry face and his wrathful pose, the merchants again became silent for a moment.
“What are you gaping at?” asked Foma, and again accompanied his question with a violent oath.
“He’s drunk!” said Bobrov, with a shake of the head.
“And why was he invited?” whispered Reznikov, softly.
“Foma Ignatyevich!” said Kononov, sedately, “you mustn’t create any scandals. If your head is reeling — go, my dear boy, quietly and peacefully into the cabin and lie down! Lie down, and —”
“Silence, you!” roared Foma, and turned his eye at him. “Do not dare to speak to me! I am not drunk. I am soberer than any one of you here! Do you understand?”
“But wait awhile, my boy. Who invited you here?” asked Kononov, reddening with offence.
“I brought him!” rang out Mayakin’s voice.
“Ah! Well, then, of course. Excuse me, Foma Ignatyevich. But as you brought him, Yakov, you ought to subdue him. Otherwise it’s no good.”
Foma maintained silence and smiled. And the merchants, too, were silent, as they looked at him.
“Eh, Fomka!” began Mayakin. “Again you disgrace my old age.”
“Godfather!” said Foma, showing his teeth, “I have not done anything as yet, so it is rather early to read me a lecture. I am not drunk, I have drunk nothing, but I have heard everything. Gentlemen merchants! Permit me to make a speech! My godfather, whom you respect so much, has spoken. Now listen to his godson.”
“What — speeches?” said Reznikov. “Why have any discourses? We have come together to enjoy ourselves.”
“Come, you had better drop that, Foma Ignatyevich.”
“Better drink something.”
“Let’s have a drink! Ah, Foma, you’re the son of a fine father!”
Foma recoiled from the table, straightened himself and continuously smiling, listened to the kind, admonitory words. Among all those sedate people he was the youngest and the handsomest. His well-shaped figure, in a tight-fitting frock coat, stood out, to his advantage, among the mass of stout bodies with prominent paunches. His swarthy face with large eyes was more regularly featured, more full of life than the shrivelled or red faces of those who stood before him with astonishment and expectancy. He threw his chest forward, set his teeth together, and flinging the skirts of his frock coat apart, thrust his hands into his pockets.
“You can’t stop up my mouth now with flattery and caresses!” said he, firmly and threateningly, “Whether you will listen or not, I am going to speak all the same. You cannot drive me away from here.”
He shook his head, and, raising his shoulders, announced calmly:
“But if any one of you dare to touch me, even with a finger, I’ll kill him! I swear it by the Lord. I’ll kill as many as I can!”
The crowd of people that stood opposite him swayed back, even as bushes rocked by the wind. They began to talk in agitated whispers. Foma’s face grew darker, his eyes became round.
“Well, it has been said here that you have built up life, and that you have done the most genuine and proper things.”
Foma heaved a deep sigh, and with inexpressible aversion scrutinized his listeners’ faces, which suddenly became strangely puffed up, as though they were swollen. The merchants were silent, pressing closer and closer to one another. Some one in the back rows muttered:
“What is he talking about? Ah! From a paper, or by heart?”
“Oh, you rascals!” exclaimed Gordyeeff, shaking his head. “What have you made? It is not life that you have made, but a prison. It is not order that you have established, you have forged fetters on man. It is suffocating, it is narrow, there is no room for a living soul to turn. Man is perishing! You are murderers! Do you understand that you exist today only through the patience of mankind?”
“What does this mean?” exclaimed Reznikov, clasping his hands in rage and indignation. “Ilya Yefimov, what’s this? I can’t bear to hear such words.”
“Gordyeeff!” cried Bobrov. “Look out, you speak improper words.”
“For such words you’ll get — oi, oi, oi! “ said Zubov, insinuatingly.
“Silence!” roared Foma, with blood-shot eyes. “Now they’re grunting.”
“Gentlemen!” rang out Mayakin’s calm, malicious voice, like the screech of a smooth-file on iron. “Don’t touch him! I entreat you earnestly, do not hinder him. Let him snarl. Let him amuse himself. His words cannot harm you.”
“Well, no, I humbly thank you! “cried Yushkov. And close at Foma’s side stood Smolin and whispered in his ear:
“Stop, my dear boy! What’s the matter with you? Are you out of your wits? They’ll do you —!”
“Get away!” said Foma, firmly, flashing his angry eyes at him. “You go to Mayakin and flatter him, perhaps something will come your way!”
Smolin whistled through his teeth and stepped aside. And the merchants began to disperse on the steamer, one by one. This irritated Foma still more he wished he could chain them to the spot by his words, but he could not find such powerful words.
“You have built up life!” he shouted. “Who are you? Swindlers, robbers.”
A few men turned toward Foma, as if he had called them.
“Kononov! are they soon going to try you for that little girl? They’ll convict you to the galleys. Goodbye, Ilya! You are building your steamers in vain. They’ll transport you to Siberia on a government vessel.”
Kononov sank into a chair; his blood leaped to his face, and he shook his fist in silence. Foma said hoarsely:
“Very well. Good. I shall not forget it.”
Foma saw his distorted face with its trembling lips, and understood with what weapons he could deal these men the most forcible blows.
“Ha, ha, ha! Builders of life! Gushchin, do you give alms to your little nephews and nieces? Give them at least a copeck a day. You have stolen sixty-seven thousand roubles from them. Bobrov! why did you lie about that mistress of yours, saying that she had robbed you, and then send her to prison? If you had grown tired of her, you might have given her over to your son. Anyway he has started an intrigue with that other mistress of yours. Didn’t you know it? Eh, you fat pig, ha, ha! And you, Lup, open again a brothel, and fleece your guests there as before. And then the devil will fleece you, ha, ha! It is good to be a rascal with a pious face like yours! Whom did you kill then, Lup?”
Foma spoke, interrupting his speech with loud, malevolent laughter, and saw that his words were producing an impression on these people. Before, when he had spoken to all of them they turned away from him, stepping aside, forming groups, and looking at their accuser from afar with anger and contempt. He saw smiles on their faces, he felt in their every movement something scornful, and understood that while his words angered them they did not sting as deep as he wished them to. All this had chilled his wrath, and within him there was already arising the bitter consciousness of the failure of his attack on them. But as soon as he began to speak of each one separately, there was a swift and striking change in the relation of his hearers toward him.
When Kononov sank heavily in the chair, as though he were unable to withstand the weight of Foma’s harsh words, Foma noticed that bitter and malicious smiles crossed the faces of some of the merchants. He heard some one’s whisper of astonishment and approval:
“That’s well aimed!”
This whisper gave strength to Foma, and he confidently and passionately began to hurl reproaches, jeers and abuses at those who met his eyes. He growled joyously, seeing that his words were taking effect. He was listened to silently, attentively; several men moved closer toward him.
Exclamations of protest were heard, but these were brief, not loud, and each time Foma shouted some one’s name, all became silent, listening, casting furtive, malicious glances in the direction of their accused comrade.
Bobrov laughed perplexedly, but his small eyes bored into Foma as gimlets. And Lup Reznikov, waving his hands, hopped about awkwardly and, short of breath, said:
“Be my witnesses. What’s this! No-o! I will not forgive this! I’ll go to court. What’s that?” and suddenly he screamed in a shrill voice, out-stretching his hand toward Foma:
Foma was laughing.
“You cannot bind the truth, you can’t do it! Even bound, truth will not grow dumb!”
“Go-o-od!” drawled out Kononov in a dull, broken voice.
“See here, gentlemen of the merchant class!” rang out Mayakin’s voice. “I ask! you to admire him, that’s the kind of a fellow he is!”
One after another the merchants moved toward Foma, and on their faces he saw wrath, curiosity, a malicious feeling of satisfaction, fear. Some one of those modest people among whom Foma was sitting, whispered to him:
“Give it to them. God bless you. Go ahead! That will be to your credit.”
“Robustov!” cried Foma. “What are you laughing at? What makes you glad? You will also go to the galleys.”
“Put him ashore!” suddenly roared Robustov, springing to his feet.
And Kononov shouted to the captain:
“Back! To the town! To the Governor.”
And someone insinuatingly, in a voice trembling with feeling:
“That’s a collusive agreement. That was done on purpose. He was instigated, and made drunk to give him courage.”
“No, it’s a revolt!”
“Bind him! Just bind him!”
Foma grasped a champagne bottle and swung it in the air.
“Come on now! No, it seems that you will have to listen to me.”
With renewed fury, frantic with joy at seeing these people shrinking and quailing under the blows of his words, Foma again started to shout names and vulgar oaths, and the exasperated tumult was hushed once more. The men, whom Foma did not know, gazed at him with eager curiosity, with approval, while some looked at him even with joyous surprise. One of them, a gray- haired little old man with rosy cheeks and small mouse eyes, suddenly turned toward the merchants, who had been abused by Foma, and said in a sweet voice:
“These are words from the conscience! That’s nothing! You must endure it. That’s a prophetic accusation. We are sinful. To tell the truth we are very —”
He was hissed, and Zubov even jostled him on the shoulder. He made a low bow and disappeared in the crowd.
“Zubov!” cried Foma. “How many people have you fleeced and turned to beggars? Do you ever dream of Ivan Petrov Myakinnikov, who strangled himself because of you? Is it true that you steal at every mass ten roubles out of the church box?”
Zubov had not expected the attack, and he remained as petrified, with his hand uplifted. But he immediately began to scream in a shrill voice, as he jumped up quickly:
“Ah! You turn against me also? Against me, too?
And suddenly he puffed up his cheeks and furiously began to shake his fist at Foma, as he screamed in a shrill voice:
“The fool says in his heart there is no God! I’ll go to the bishop! Infidel! You’ll get the galleys!”
The tumult on the steamer grew, and at the sight of these enraged, perplexed and insulted people, Foma felt himself a fairy-tale giant, slaying monsters. They bustled about, waving their arms, talking to one another — some red with anger, others pale, yet all equally powerless to check the flow of his jeers at them.
“Send the sailors over here!” cried Reznikov, tugging Kononov by the shoulder. “What’s the matter with you, Ilya? Ah? Have you invited us to be ridiculed?”
“Against one puppy,” screamed Zubov.
A crowd had gathered around Yakov Tarasovitch Mayakin, and listened to his quiet speech with anger, and nodded their heads affirmatively.
“Act, Yakov!” said Robustov, loudly. “We are all witnesses. Go ahead!”
And above the general tumult of voices rang out Foma’s loud, accusing voice:
“It was not life that you have built — you have made a cesspool! You have bred filth and putrefaction by your deeds! Have you a conscience? Do you remember God? Money — that’s your God! And your conscience you have driven away. Whither have you driven it away? Blood-suckers! You live on the strength of others. You work with other people’s hands! You shall pay for all this! When you perish, you will be called to account for everything! For everything, even to a teardrop. How many people have wept blood at those great deeds of yours? And according to your deserts, even hell is too good a place for you, rascals. Not in fire, but in boiling mud you shall be scorched. Your sufferings shall last for centuries. The devils will hurl you into a boiler and will pour into it — ha, ha, ha! they’ll pour into it — ha, ha, ha! Honourable merchant class! Builders of Life. Oh, you devils!”
Foma burst into ringing laughter, and, holding his sides, staggered, tossing his head up high.
At that moment several men quickly exchanged glances, simultaneously rushed on Foma and downed him with their weight. A racket ensued.
“Now you’re caught!” ejaculated some one in a suffocating voice.
“Ah! Is that the way you’re doing it?” cried Foma, hoarsely.
For about a half a minute a whole heap of black bodies bustled about on one spot, heavily stamping their feet, and dull exclamations were heard:
“Throw him to the ground!”
“Hold his hand, his hand! Oh!”
“By the beard?”
“Get napkins, bind him with napkins.”
“You’ll bite, will you?”
“So! Well, how’s it? Aha!”
“Don’t strike! Don’t dare to strike.”
“How strong he is!”
“Let’s carry him over there toward the side.”
“Out in the fresh air, ha, ha!”
They dragged Foma away to one side, and having placed him against the wall of the captain’s cabin, walked away from him, adjusting their costumes, and mopping their sweat-covered brows. Fatigued by the struggle, and exhausted by the disgrace of his defeat, Foma lay there in silence, tattered, soiled with something, firmly bound, hand and foot, with napkins and towels. With round, blood-shot eyes he gazed at the sky; they were dull and lustreless, as those of an idiot, and his chest heaved unevenly and with difficulty.
Now came their turn to mock him. Zubov began. He walked up to him, kicked him in the side and asked in a soft voice, all trembling with the pleasure of revenge:
“Well, thunder-like prophet, how is it? Now you can taste the sweetness of Babylonian captivity, he, he, he!”
“Wait,” said Foma, hoarsely, without looking at him. “Wait until I’m rested. You have not tied up my tongue.”
But saying this, Foma understood that he could no longer do anything, nor say anything. And that not because they had bound him, but because something had burned out within him, and his soul had become dark and empty.
Zubov was soon joined by Reznikov. Then one after another the others began to draw near. Bobrov, Kononov and several others preceded by Yakov Mayakin went to the cabin, anxiously discussing something in low tones.
The steamer was sailing toward the town at full speed. The bottles on the tables trembled and rattled from the vibration of the steamer, and Foma heard this jarring, plaintive sound above everything else. Near him stood a throng of people, saying malicious, offensive things.
But Foma saw them as though through a fog, and their words did not touch him to the quick. A vast, bitter feeling was now springing up within him, from the depth of his soul; he followed its growth and though he did not yet understand it, he already experienced something melancholy and degrading.
“Just think, you charlatan! What have you done to yourself?” said Reznikov. “What sort of a life is now possible to you? Do you know that now no one of us would care even as much as to spit on you?”
“What have I done?” Foma tried to understand. The merchants stood around him in a dense, dark mass.
“Well,” said Yashchurov, “now, Fomka, your work is done.”
“Wait, we’ll see,” bellowed Zubov in a low voice.
“Let me free!” said Foma.
“Well, no! we thank you humbly!”
“It’s all right! You can lie that way as well.”
“Call up my godfather.”
But Yakov Tarasovich came up at this moment. He came up, stopped near Foma, sternly surveyed with his eyes the outstretched figure of his godson, and heaved a deep sigh.
“Well, Foma,” he began.
“Order them to unbind me,” entreated Foma, softly, in a mournful voice.
“So you can be turbulent again? No, no, you’d better lie this way,” his godfather replied.
“I won’t say another word. I swear it by God! Unbind me. I am ashamed! For Christ’s sake. You see I am not drunk. Well, you needn’t untie my hands.”
“You swear that you’ll not be troublesome?” asked Mayakin.
“0h Lord! I will not, I will not,” moaned Foma.
They untied his feet, but left his hands bound. When he rose, he looked at them all, and said softly with a pitiful smile:
“We always shall!” replied his godfather, smiling sternly.
Foma bent, with his hands tied behind his back, advanced toward the table silently, without lifting his eyes to anyone. He seemed shorter in stature and thinner. His dishevelled hair fell on his forehead and temples; the torn and crumpled bosom of his shirt protruding from under his vest, and the collar covered his lips. He turned his head to push the collar down under his chin, and was unable to do it. Then the gray-headed little old man walked up to him, adjusted what was necessary, looked into his eyes with a smile and said:
“You must endure it.”
Now, in Mayakin’s presence, those who had mocked Foma were silent, looking at the old man questioningly, with curiosity and expectancy. He was calm but his eyes gleamed in a way not at all becoming to the occasion, contentedly and brightly.
“Give me some vodka,” begged Foma, seating himself at the table, and leaning his chest against its edge. His bent figure look piteous and helpless. Around they were talking in whispers, passing this way and that cautiously. And everyone looked now at him, now at Mayakin, who had seated himself opposite him. The old man did not give Foma the vodka at once. First he surveyed him fixedly, then he slowly poured out a wine glassful, and finally, without saying a word, raised it to Foma’s lips. Foma drank the vodka, and asked:
“That’s enough!” replied Mayakin.
And immediately after this there fell a minute of perfect, painful silence. People were coming up to the table noiselessly, on tiptoe, and when they were near they stretched their necks to see Foma.
“Well, Fomka, do you understand now what you have done?” asked Mayakin. He spoke softly, but all heard his question.
Foma nodded his head and maintained silence.
“There’s no forgiveness for you!” Mayakin went on firmly, and raising his voice. “Though we are all Christians, yet you will receive no forgiveness at our hands. Just know this.”
Foma lifted his head and said pensively:
“I have quite forgotten about you, godfather. You have not heard anything from me.”
“There you have it!” exclaimed Mayakin, bitterly, pointing at his godson. “You see?”
A dull grumble of protest burst forth.
“Well, it’s all the same!” resumed Foma with a sigh. “It’s all the same! Nothing — no good came out of it anyway.”
And again he bent over the table.
“What did you want?” asked Mayakin, sternly.
“What I wanted?” Foma raised his head, looked at the merchants and smiled. “I wanted —”
“Drunkard! Nasty scamp!”
“I am not drunk!” retorted Foma, morosely. “I have drank only two glasses. I was perfectly sober.”
“Consequently,” said Bobrov, “you are right, Yakov Tarasovich, he is insane.”
“I?” exclaimed Foma.
But they paid no attention to him. Reznikov, Zubov and Bobrov leaned over to Mayakin and began to talk in low tones.
“Guardianship!” Foma’s ears caught this one word. “I am in my right mind!” he said, leaning back in his chair and staring at the merchants with troubled eyes. “I understand what I wanted. I wanted to speak the truth. I wanted to accuse you.”
He was again seized with emotion, and he suddenly jerked his hands in an effort to free them.
“Eh! Hold on!” exclaimed Bobrov, seizing him by the shoulders. “Hold him.”
“Well, hold me!” said Foma with sadness and bitterness. “Hold me- -what do you need me for?”
“Sit still!” cried his godfather, sternly.
Foma became silent. He now understood that what he had done was of no avail, that his words had not staggered the merchants. Here they stood, surrounding him in a dense throng, and he could not see anything for them. They were calm, firm, treating him as a drunkard and a turbulent fellow, and were plotting something against him. He felt himself pitiful, insignificant, crushed by that dark mass of strong-souled, clever and sedate people. It seemed to him that a long time had passed since he had abused them, so long a time that he himself seemed as a stranger, incapable of comprehending what he had done to these people, and why he had done it. He even experienced in himself a certain feeling of offence, which resembled shame at himself in his own eyes. There was a tickling sensation in his throat, and he felt there was something foreign in his breast, as though some dust or ashes were strewn upon his heart, and it throbbed unevenly and with difficulty. Wishing to explain to himself his act, he said slowly and thoughtfully, without looking at anyone:
“I wanted to speak the truth. Is this life?”
“Fool!” said Mayakin, contemptuously. “What truth can you speak? What do you understand?”
“My heart is wounded, that I understand! What justification have you all in the eyes of God? To what purpose do you live? Yes, I feel — I felt the truth!”
“He is repenting!” said Reznikov, with a sarcastic smile.
“Let him!” replied Bobrov, with contempt.
Some one added:
“It is evident, from his words, that he is out of his wits.”
“To speak the truth, that’s not given to everyone!” said Yakov Tarasovich, sternly and instructively, lifting his hand upward. “It is not the heart that grasps truth; it is the mind; do you understand that? And as to your feeling, that’s nonsense! A cow also feels when they twist her tail. But you must understand, understand everything! Understand also your enemy. Guess what he thinks even in his dreams, and then go ahead!”
According to his wont, Mayakin was carried away by the exposition of his practical philosophy, but he realised in time that a conquered man is not to be taught how to fight, and he stopped short. Foma cast at him a dull glance, and shook his head strangely.
“Lamb!” said Mayakin.
“Leave me alone!” entreated Foma, plaintively. “It’s all yours! Well, what else do you want? Well, you crushed me, bruised me, that serves me right! Who am I? 0 Lord!”
All listened attentively to his words, and in that attention there was something prejudiced, something malicious.
“I have lived,” said Foma in a heavy voice. “I have observed. I have thought; my heart has become wounded with thoughts! And here — the abscess burst. Now I am utterly powerless! As though all my blood had gushed out. I have lived until this day, and still thought that now I will speak the truth. Well, I have spoken it.”
He talked monotonously, colourlessly, and his speech resembled that of one in delirium.
“I have spoken it, and I have only emptied myself, that’s all. Not a trace have my words left behind them. Everything is uninjured. And within me something blazed up; it has burned out, and there’s nothing more there. What have I to hope for now? And everything remains as it was.”
Yakov Tarasovich burst into bitter laughter.
“What then, did you think to lick away a mountain with your tongue? You armed yourself with malice enough to fight a bedbug, and you started out after a bear, is that it? Madman! If your father were to see you now. Eh!”
“And yet,” said Foma, suddenly, loudly, with assurance, and his eyes again flared up, “and yet it is all your fault! You have spoiled life! You have made everything narrow. We are suffocating because of you! And though my truth against you is weak, it is truth, nevertheless! You are godless wretches! May you all be cursed!”
He moved about in his chair, attempting to free his hands, and cried out, flashing his eyes with fury:
“Unbind my hands!”
They came closer to him; the faces of the merchants became more severe, and Reznikov said to him impressively:
“Don’t make a noise, don’t be bothersome! We’ll soon be in town. Don’t disgrace yourself, and don’t disgrace us either. We are not going to take you direct from the wharf to the insane asylum.”
“So!” exclaimed Foma. “So you are going to put me into an insane asylum?”
No one replied. He looked at their faces and hung his head.
“Behave peacefully! We’ll unbind you!” said someone.
“It’s not necessary!” said Foma in a low voice. “It’s all the same. I spit on it! Nothing will happen.”
And his speech again assumed the nature of a delirium.
“I am lost, I know it! Only not because of your power, but rather because of my weakness. Yes! You, too, are only worms in the eyes of God. And, wait! You shall choke. I am lost through blindness. I saw much and I became blind, like an owl. As a boy, I remember, I chased an owl in a ravine; it flew about and struck against something. The sun blinded it. It was all bruised and it disappeared, and my father said to me then: ‘It is the same with man; some man bustles about to and fro, bruises himself, exhausts himself, and then throws himself anywhere, just to rest.’ Hey I unbind my hands.”
His face turned pale, his eyes closed, his shoulders quivered. Tattered and crumpled he rocked about in the chair, striking his chest against the edge of the table, and began to whisper something.
The merchants exchanged significant glances. Some, nudging one another in the sides, shook their heads at Foma in silence. Yakov Mayakin’s face was dark and immobile as though hewn out of stone.
“Shall we perhaps unbind him?” whispered Bobrov.
“When we get a little nearer.”
“No, it’s not necessary,” said Mayakin in an undertone — “We’ll leave him here. Let someone send for a carriage. We’ll take him straight to the asylum.”
“And where am I to rest?” Foma muttered again. “Whither shall I fling myself?” And he remained as though petrified in a broken, uncomfortable attitude, all distorted, with an expression of pain on his face.
Mayakin rose from his seat and went to the cabin, saying softly:
“Keep an eye on him, he might fling himself overboard.”
“I am sorry for the fellow,” said Bobrov, looking at Yakov Tarasovich as he departed.
“No one is to blame for his madness,” replied Reznikov, morosely.
“And Yakov,” whispered Zubov, nodding his head in the direction of Mayakin.
“What about Yakov? He loses nothing through it.”
“Yes, now he’ll, ha, ha!”
“He’ll be his guardian, ha, ha, ha!”
Their quiet laughter and whisper mingled with the groaning of the engine did not seem to reach Foma’s ear. Motionlessly he stared into the distance before him with a dim look, and only his lips were slightly quivering.
“His son has returned,” whispered Bobrov.
“I know his son,” said Yashchurov. “I met him in Perm.”
“What sort of a man is he?”
“A business-like, clever fellow.”
“Is that so?”
“He manages a big business in Oosolye.”
“Consequently Yakov does not need this one. Yes. So that’s it.”
“Look, he’s weeping!”
Foma was sitting leaning against the back of the chair, and drooping his head on the shoulder. His eyes were shut, and from under his eyelids tears were trickling one after another. They coursed down his cheeks into his moustache. Foma’s lips quivered convulsively, and the tears fell from his moustache upon his breast. He was silent and motionless, only his chest heaved unevenly, and with difficulty. The merchants looked at his pale, tear-stained face, grown lean with suffering, with the corners of his lips lowered downward, and walked away from him quietly and mutely.
And then Foma remained alone, with his hands tied behind his back, sitting at the table which was covered with dirty dishes and different remains of the feast. At times he slowly opened his heavy, swollen eyelids, and his eyes, through tears, looked dimly and mournfully at the table where everything was dirty, upset, ruined.
.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Three years have passed.
About a year ago Yakov Tarasovich Mayakin died. He died in full consciousness, and remained true to himself; a few hours before his death he said to his son, daughter and son-in-law:
“Well, children, live in richness! Yakov has tasted everything, so now it is time for Yakov to go. You see, I am dying, yet I am not despondent; and the Lord will set that down to my credit. I have bothered Him, the Most Gracious One, with jests only, but never with moans and complaints! 0h Lord! I am glad that I have lived with understanding through Thy mercy! Farewell, my children. Live in harmony, and don’t philosophize too much. Know this, not he is holy who hides himself from sin and lies calm. With cowardice you cannot defend yourself against sin, thus also says the parable of the talents. But he who wants to attain his goal in life fears not sin. God will pardon him an error. God has appointed man as the builder of life, but has not endowed him with too much wisdom. Consequently, He will not call in his outstanding debts severely. For He is holy and most merciful.”
He died after a short but very painful agony.
Yozhov was for some reason or other banished from the town soon after the occurrence on the steamer.
A great commercial house sprang up in the town under the firm- name of “Taras Mayakin & African Smolin.”
Nothing had been heard of Foma during these three years. It was rumoured that upon his discharge from the asylum Mayakin had sent him away to some relatives of his mother in the Ural.
Not long ago Foma appeared in the streets of the town. He is worn out, shabby and half-witted. Almost always intoxicated, he appears now gloomy, with knitted brow, and with head bent down on his breast, now smiling the pitiful and melancholy smile of a silly fanatic. Sometimes he is turbulent, but that happens rarely. He lives with his foster-sister in a little wing in the yard. His acquaintances among the merchants and citizens often ridicule him. As Foma walks along the street, suddenly someone shouts to him:
“Eh, you prophet, come here!”
Yet he rarely goes to those who call him; he shuns people and does not care to speak with them. But when he does approach them they say to him:
“Well, tell us something about doomsday, won’t you? Ha, ha, ha! Prophet!”
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55