MAYAKIN lived in an enormous two-story house near a big palisade, where sturdy, old spreading linden trees were growing magnificently. The rank branches covered the windows with a dense, dark embroidery, and the sun in broken rays peeped into the small rooms, which were closely crowded with miscellaneous furniture and big trunks, wherefore a stern and melancholy semi- darkness always reigned there supreme. The family was devout — the odour of wax, of rock-rose and of image-lamp oil filled the house, and penitent sighs and prayers soared about in the air. Religious ceremonials were performed infallibly, with pleasure, absorbing all the free power of the souls of the dwellers of the house. Feminine figures almost noiselessly moved about the rooms in the half-dark, stifling, heavy atmosphere. They were dressed in black, wore soft slippers on their feet, and always had a penitent look on their faces.
The family of Yakov Tarazovich Mayakin consisted of himself, his wife, a daughter and five kinswomen, the youngest of whom was thirty-four years old. These were alike devout and impersonal, and subordinate to Antonina Ivanovna, the mistress of the house. She was a tall, thin woman, with a dark face and with stern gray eyes, which had an imperious and intelligent expression. Mayakin also had a son Taras, but his name was never mentioned in the house; acquaintances knew that since the nineteen-year-old Taras had gone to study in Moscow — he married there three years later, against his father’s will — Yakov disowned him. Taras disappeared without leaving any trace. It was rumoured that he had been sent to Siberia for something.
Yakov Mayakin was very queerly built. Short, thin, lively, with a little red beard, sly greenish eyes, he looked as though he said to each and every one:
“Never mind, sir, don’t be uneasy. Even though I know you for what you are, if you don’t annoy me I will not give you away.”
His beard resembled an egg in shape and was monstrously big. His high forehead, covered with wrinkles, joined his bald crown, and it seemed as though he really had two faces — one an open, penetrating and intellectual face, with a long gristle nose, and above this face another one, eyeless and mouthless, covered with wrinkles, behind which Mayakin seemed to hide his eyes and his lips until a certain time; and when that time had arrived, he would look at the world with different eyes and smile a different smile.
He was the owner of a rope-yard and kept a store in town near the harbour. In this store, filled up to the ceiling with rope, twine, hemp and tow, he had a small room with a creaking glass door. In this room stood a big, old, dilapidated table, and near it a deep armchair, covered with oilcloth, in which Mayakin sat all day long, sipping tea and always reading the same “Moskovskiya Vedomosty,” to which he subscribed, year in and year out, all his life. Among merchants he enjoyed the respect and reputation of a “brainy” man, and he was very fond of boasting of the antiquity of his race, saying in a hoarse voice:
“We, the Mayakins, were merchants during the reign of ‘Mother’ Catherine, consequently I am a pure-blooded man.”
In this family Ignat Gordyeeff’s son lived for six years. By the time he was seven years old Foma was a big-headed, broad- shouldered boy, seemingly older that his years, both in his size and in the serious look of his dark, almond-shaped eyes. Quiet, silent and persistent in his childish desires, he spent all his days over his playthings, with Mayakin’s daughter, Luba, quietly looked after by one of the kinswomen, a stout, pock-marked old maid, who was, for some reason or other, nicknamed “Buzya.” She was a dull, somewhat timid creature; and even to the children she spoke in a low voice, in words of monosyllables. Having devoted her time to learning prayers, she had no stories to tell Foma.
Foma was on friendly terms with the little girl, but when she angered or teased him he turned pale, his nostrils became distended, his eyes stared comically and he beat her audaciously. She cried, ran to her mother and complained to her, but Antonina loved Foma and she paid but little attention to her daughter’s complaints, which strengthened the friendship between the children still more. Foma’s day was long and uniform. Getting out of bed and washing himself, he used to place himself before the image, and under the whispering of the pock-marked Buzya he recited long prayers. Then they drank tea and ate many biscuits, cakes and pies. After tea — during the summer — the children went to the big palisade, which ran down to a ravine, whose bottom always looked dark and damp, filling them with terror. The children were not allowed to go even to the edge of the ravine, and this inspired in them a fear of it. In winter, from tea time to dinner, they played in the house when it was very cold outside, or went out in the yard to slide down the big ice hill.
They had dinner at noon, “in Russian style,” as Mayakin said. At first a big bowl of fat, sour cabbage soup was served with rye biscuits in, but without meat, then the same soup was eaten with meat cut into small pieces; then they ate roast meat — pork, goose, veal or rennet, with gruel — then again a bowl of soup with vermicelli, and all this was usually followed by dessert. They drank kvass made of red bilberries, juniper-berries, or of bread — Antonina Ivanovna always carried a stock of different kinds of kvass. They ate in silence, only now and then uttering a sigh of fatigue; the children each ate out of a separate bowl, the adults eating out of one bowl. Stupefied by such a dinner, they went to sleep; and for two or three hours Mayakin’s house was filled with snoring and with drowsy sighs.
Awaking from sleep, they drank tea and talked about local news, the choristers, the deacons, weddings, or the dishonourable conduct of this or that merchant. After tea Mayakin used to say to his wife:
“Well, mother, hand me the Bible.”
Yakov Tarasovich used to read the Book of Job more often than anything else. Putting his heavy, silver-framed spectacles on his big, ravenous nose, he looked around at his listeners to see whether all were in their places.
They were all seated where he was accustomed to see them and on their faces was a familiar, dull and timid expression of piety.
“There was a man in the land of Uz,” began Mayakin, in a hoarse voice, and Foma, sitting beside Luba on the lounge in the corner of the room, knew beforehand that soon his godfather would become silent and pat his bald head with his hand. He sat and, listening, pictured to himself this man from the land of Uz. The man was tall and bare, his eyes were enormously large, like those of the image of the Saviour, and his voice was like a big brass trumpet on which the soldiers played in the camps. The man was constantly growing bigger and bigger; and, reaching the sky, he thrust his dark hands into the clouds, and, tearing them asunder, cried out in a terrible voice:
“Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?”
Dread fell on Foma, and he trembled, slumber fled from his eyes, he heard the voice of his godfather, who said, with a light smile, now and then pinching his beard:
“See how audacious he was!”
The boy knew that his godfather spoke of the man from the land of Uz, and the godfather’s smile soothed the child. So the man would not break the sky; he would not rend it asunder with his terrible arms. And then Foma sees the man again — he sits on the ground, “his flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust, his skin is broken.” But now he is small and wretched, he is like a beggar at the church porch.
Here he says:
“What is man, that he should be clean? And he which is born of woman, that he should be righteous?” [These words attributed by Mayakin to Job are from Eliphaz the Temanite’s reply — Translator’s Note.]
“He says this to God,” explained Mayakin, inspired. “How, says he, can I be righteous, since I am made of flesh? That’s a question asked of God. How is that?”
And the reader, triumphantly and interrogatively looks around at his listeners.
“He merited it, the righteous man,” they replied with a sigh.
Yakov Mayakin eyes them with a smile, and says:
“Fools! You better put the children to sleep.”
Ignat visited the Mayakins every day, brought playthings for his son, caught him up into his arms and hugged him, but sometimes dissatisfied he said to him with ill-concealed uneasiness:
“Why are you such a bugbear? Oh! Why do you laugh so little?”
And he would complain to the lad’s godfather:
“I am afraid that he may turn out to be like his mother. His eyes are cheerless.”
“You disturb yourself rather too soon,” Mayakin smilingly replied.
He, too, loved his godson, and when Ignat announced to him one day that he would take Foma to his own house, Mayakin was very much grieved.
“Leave him here,” he begged. “See, the child is used to us; there! he’s crying.”
“He’ll cease crying. I did not beget him for you. The air of the place is disagreeable. It is as tedious here as in an old believer’s hermitage. This is harmful to the child. And without him I am lonesome. I come home — it is empty. I can see nothing there. It would not do for me to remove to your house for his sake. I am not for him, he is for me. So. And now that my sister has come to my house there will be somebody to look after him.”
And the boy was brought to his father’s house.
There he was met by a comical old woman, with a long, hook-like nose and with a mouth devoid of teeth. Tall, stooping, dressed in gray, with gray hair, covered by a black silk cap, she did not please the boy at first; she even frightened him. But when he noticed on the wrinkled face her black eyes, which beamed so tenderly on him, he at once pressed his head close to her knees in confidence.
“My sickly little orphan!” she said in a velvet-like voice that trembled from the fulness of sound, and quietly patted his face with her hand, “stay close to me, my dear child!”
There was something particularly sweet and soft in her caresses, something altogether new to Foma, and he stared into the old woman’s eyes with curiosity and expectation on his face. This old woman led him into a new world, hitherto unknown to him. The very first day, having put him to bed, she seated herself by his side, and, bending over the child, asked him:
“Shall I tell you a story, Fomushka?”
And after that Foma always fell asleep amid the velvet-like sounds of the old woman’s voice, which painted before him a magic life. Giants defeating monsters, wise princesses, fools who turned out to be wise — troops of new and wonderful people were passing before the boy’s bewitched imagination, and his soul was nourished by the wholesome beauty of the national creative power. Inexhaustible were the treasures of the memory and the fantasy of this old woman, who oftentimes, in slumber, appeared to the boy — now like the witch of the fairy-tales — only a kind and amiable old witch — now like the beautiful, all-wise Vasilisa. His eyes wide open, holding his breath, the boy looked into the darkness that filled his chamber and watched it as it slowly trembled in the light of the little lamp that was burning before the image. And Foma filled this darkness with wonderful pictures of fairy- tale life. Silent, yet living shadows, were creeping over the walls and across the floor; it was both pleasant and terrible to him to watch their life; to deal out unto them forms and colours, and, having endowed them with life, instantly to destroy them all with a single twinkle of the eyelashes. Something new appeared in his dark eyes, something more childish and naive, less grave; the loneliness and the darkness, awaking in him a painful feeling of expectation, stirred his curiosity, compelled him to go out to the dark corner and see what was hidden there beyond the thick veils of darkness. He went and found nothing, but he lost no hope of finding it out.
He feared his father and respected him. Ignat’s enormous size, his harsh, trumpet-like voice, his bearded face, his gray-haired head, his powerful, long arms and his flashing eyes — all these gave to Ignat the resemblance of the fairy-tale robbers.
Foma shuddered whenever he heard his voice or his heavy, firm steps; but when the father, smiling kind-heartedly, and talking playfully in a loud voice, took him upon his knees or threw him high up in the air with his big hands the boy’s fear vanished.
Once, when the boy was about eight years old, he asked his father, who had returned from a long journey:
“Papa, where were you?”
“On the Volga.”
“Were you robbing there?” asked Foma, softly.
“Wha-at?” Ignat drawled out, and his eyebrows contracted.
“Aren’t you a robber, papa? I know it,” said Foma, winking his eyes slyly, satisfied that he had already read the secret of his father’s life.
“I am a merchant!” said Ignat, sternly, but after a moment’s thought he smiled kind-heartedly and added: “And you are a little fool! I deal in corn, I run a line of steamers. Have you seen the ‘Yermak’? Well, that is my steamer. And yours, too.”
“It is a very big one,” said Foma with a sigh.
“Well, I’ll buy you a small one while you are small yourself. Shall I?”
“Very well,” Foma assented, but after a thoughtful silence he again drawled out regretfully: “But I thought you were a robber or a giant.”
“I tell you I am a merchant!” repeated Ignat, insinuatingly, and there was something discontented and almost timorous in his glance at the disenchanted face of his son.
“Like Grandpa Fedor, the Kalatch baker?” asked Foma, having thought awhile.
“Well, yes, like him. Only I am richer than he. I have more money than Fedor.”
“Have you much money?”
Well, some people have still more.”
“How many barrels do you have?”
“Of money, I mean.”
“Fool! Is money counted by the barrel?”
“How else?” exclaimed Foma, enthusiastically, and, turning his face toward his father, began to tell him quickly: “Maksimka, the robber, came once to a certain town and filled up twelve barrels with money belonging to some rich man there. And he took different silverware and robbed a church. And cut up a man with his sword and threw him down the steeple because he tried to sound an alarm.”
“Did your aunt tell you that?” asked Ignat admiring his son’s enthusiasm.
“Nothing!” said Ignat, laughing. “So you thought your father was a robber.”
“And perhaps you were a robber long ago?”
Foma again returned to his theme, and it was evident on his face that he would be very glad to hear an affirmative answer.
“I was never a robber. Let that end it.”
“I tell you I was not! What a queer little boy you are! Is it good to be a robber? They are all sinners, the robbers. They don’t believe in God — they rob churches. They are all cursed in the churches. Yes. Look here, my son, you’ll have to start to study soon. It is time; you’ll soon be nine years old. Start with the help of God. You’ll study during the winter and in spring I’ll take you along with me on the Volga.”
“Will I go to school?” asked Foma, timidly.
“First you’ll study at home with auntie.” Soon after the boy would sit down near the table in the morning and, fingering the Slavonic alphabet, repeat after his aunt:
“Az, Buky, Vedy.”
When they reached “bra, vra, gra, dra” for a long time the boy could not read these syllables without laughter. Foma succeeded easily in gaining knowledge, almost without any effort, and soon he was reading the first psalm of the first section of the psalter: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.”
“That’s it, my darling! So, Fomushka, that’s right!” chimed in his aunt with emotion, enraptured by his progress.
“You’re a fine fellow, Foma!” Ignat would approvingly say when informed of his son’s progress. “We’ll go to Astrakhan for fish in the spring, and toward autumn I’ll send you to school!”
The boy’s life rolled onward, like a ball downhill. Being his teacher, his aunt was his playmate as well. Luba Mayakin used to come, and when with them, the old woman readily became one of them.
They played at “hide and seek and “blind man’s buff;” the children were pleased and amused at seeing Anfisa, her eyes covered with a handkerchief, her arms outstretched, walking about the room carefully, and yet striking against chairs and tables, or looking for them in each and every commodious corner, saying:
“Eh, little rascals. Eh, rogues. Where have they hidden themselves? Eh?”
And the sun shone cheerfully and playfully upon the old worn-out body, which yet retained a youthful soul, and upon the old life, that was adorning, according to its strength and abilities, the life-path of two children.
Ignat used to go to the Exchange early in the morning and sometimes stayed away until evening; in the evening he used to go to the town council or visiting or elsewhere. Sometimes he returned home intoxicated. At first Foma, on such occasions, ran from him and hid himself, then he became accustomed to it, and learned that his father was better when drunk than sober: he was kinder and plainer and was somewhat comical. If it happened at night, the boy was usually awakened by his trumpet-like voice:
“Anfisa! Dear sister! Let me in to my son; let me in to my successor!”
And auntie answered him in a crying and reproachful voice:
“Go on. You better go to sleep, you cursed devil! Drunk again, eh? You are gray already?”
“Anfisa! May I see my son, with one eye?” Foma knew that Anfisa would not let him in, and he again fell asleep in spite of the noise of their voices. But when Ignat came home intoxicated during the day he immediately seized his son with his enormous paws and carried him about the rooms, asking him with an intoxicated, happy laughter:
“Fomka! What do you wish? Speak! Presents? Playthings? Ask! Because you must know there’s nothing in this world that I wouldn’t buy for you. I have a million! Ha, ha, ha! And I’ll have still more! Understand? All’s yours! Ha, ha!”
And suddenly his enthusiasm was extinguished like a candle put out by a violent puff of the wind. His flushed face began to shake, his eyes, burning red, filled with tears, and his lips expanded into a sad and frightened smile.
“Anfisa, in case he should die, what am I to do then?”
And immediately after these words he was seized with fury.
“I’d burn everything!” he roared, staring wildly into some dark corner of the room. “I’d destroy everything! I’d blow it up with dynamite!”
“Enough, you ugly brute! Do you wish to frighten the child? Or do you want him to take sick?” interposed Anfisa, and that was sufficient for Ignat to rush off hastily, muttering:
“Well, well, well! I am going, I am going, but don’t cry! Don’t make any noise. Don’t frighten him.”
And when Foma was somewhat sick, his father, casting everything aside, did not leave the house for a moment, but bothered his sister and his son with stupid questions and advice; gloomy, sighing, and with fear in his eyes, he walked about the house quite out of sorts.
“Why do you vex the Lord?” said Anfisa. “Beware, your grumblings will reach Him, and He will punish you for your complaints against His graces.”
“Eh, sister!” sighed Ignat. “And if it should happen? My entire life is crumbling away! Wherefore have I lived? No one knows.”
Similar scenes and the striking transitions of his father from one mood to another frightened the child at first, but he soon became accustomed to all this, and when he noticed through the window that his father, on coming home, was hardly able to get out of the sledge, Foma said indifferently:
“Auntie, papa came home drunk again.”
.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Spring came, and, fulfilling his promise, Ignat took his son along on one of his steamers, and here a new life, abounding in impressions, was opened before Foma’s eyes.
The beautiful and mighty “Yermak,” Gordyeeff’s steam tow-boat, was rapidly floating down the current, and on each side the shores of the powerful and beautiful Volga were slowly moving past him — the left side, all bathed in sunshine, stretching itself to the very end of the sky like a pompous carpet of verdure; the right shore, its high banks overgrown with woods, swung skyward, sinking in stern repose.
The broad-bosomed river stretched itself majestically between the shores; noiselessly, solemnly and slowly flowed its waters, conscious of their invincible power; the mountainous shore is reflected in the water in a black shadow, while on the left side it is adorned with gold and with verdant velvet by a border of sand and the wide meadows. Here and there villages appear on mountain and on meadow, the sun shines bright on the window-panes of the huts and on the yellow roofs of straw, the church crosses sparkle amid the verdure of the trees, gray wind-mill wings revolve lazily in the air, smoke from the factory chimney rises skyward in thick, black curling clouds. Crowds of children in blue, red or white shirts, standing on the banks, shouted loudly at the sight of the steamer, which had disturbed the quiet of the river, and from under the steamer’s wheels the cheerful waves are rushing toward the feet of the children and splash against the bank. Now a crowd of children, seated in a boat, rowed toward the middle of the river to rock there on the waves as in a cradle. Trees stood out above the water; sometimes many of them are drowned in the overflow of the banks, and these stand in the water like islands. From the shore a melancholy song is heard:
“Oh, o-o-o, once more!”
The steamer passes many rafts, splashing them with waves. The beams are in continual motion under the blows of the waves; the men on the rafts in blue shirts, staggering, look at the steamer and laugh and shout something. The big, beautiful vessel goes sidewise on the river; the yellow scantlings with which it is loaded sparkle like gold and are dimly reflected in the muddy, vernal water. A passenger steamer comes from the opposite side and whistles — the resounding echo of the whistle loses itself in the woods, in the gorges of the mountainous bank, and dies away there. In the middle of the river the waves stirred up by the two vessels strike against one another and splash against the steamers’ sides, and the vessels are rocked upon the water. On the slope of the mountainous bank are verdant carpets of winter corn, brown strips of fallow ground and black strips of ground tilled for spring corn. Birds, like little dots, soar over them, and are clearly seen in the blue canopy of the sky; nearby a flock is grazing; in the distance they look like children’s toys; the small figure of the shepherd stands leaning on a staff, and looks at the river.
The glare of the water — freedom and liberty are everywhere, the meadows are cheerfully verdant and the blue sky is tenderly clear; a restrained power is felt in the quiet motion of the water; above it the generous May sun is shining, the air is filled with the exquisite odour of fir trees and of fresh foliage. And the banks keep on meeting them, caressing the eyes and the soul with their beauty, as new pictures constantly unfold themselves.
Everything surrounding them bears the stamp of some kind of tardiness: all — nature as well as men — live there clumsily, lazily; but in that laziness there is an odd gracefulness, and it seems as though beyond the laziness a colossal power were concealed; an invincible power, but as yet deprived of consciousness, as yet without any definite desires and aims. And the absence of consciousness in this half-slumbering life throws shades of sadness over all the beautiful slope. Submissive patience, silent hope for something new and more inspiriting are heard even in the cry of the cuckoo, wafted to the river by the wind from the shore. The melancholy songs sound as though imploring someone for help. And at times there is in them a ring of despair. The river answers the songs with sighs. And the tree- tops shake, lost in meditation. Silence.
Foma spent all day long on the captain’s bridge beside his father. Without uttering a word, he stared wide-eyed at the endless panorama of the banks, and it seemed to him he was moving along a broad silver path in those wonderful kingdoms inhabited by the sorcerers and giants of his familiar fairy-tales. At times he would load his father with questions about everything that passed before them. Ignat answered him willingly and concisely, but the boy was not pleased with his answers; they contained nothing interesting and intelligible to him, and he did not hear what he longed to hear. Once he told his father with a sigh:
“Auntie Anfisa knows better than you.”
“What does she know?” asked Ignat, smiling.
“Everything,” replied the boy, convincedly.
No wonderful kingdom appeared before him. But often cities appeared on the banks of the river, just such cities as the one where Foma lived. Some of them were larger, some smaller, but the people, and the houses, and the churches — all were the same as in his own city. Foma examined them in company with his father, but was still unsatisfied and returned to the steamer gloomy and fatigued.
“Tomorrow we shall be in Astrakhan,” said Ignat one day.
“And is it just the same as the other cities?”
“Of course. How else should it be?”
“And what is beyond Astrakhan?”
“The sea. The Caspian Sea it is called.”
“And what is there?”
“Fishes, queer fellow! What else can there be in the water?”
“There’s the city Kitezh standing in the water.”
“That’s a different thing! That’s Kitezh. Only righteous people live there.”
“And are there no righteous cities on the sea?”
No,” said Ignat, and, after a moment’s silence, added: “The sea water is bitter and nobody can drink it.”
“And is there more land beyond the sea?”
“Certainly, the sea must have an end. It is like a cup.”
“And are there cities there too?”
“Again cities. Of course! Only that land is not ours, it belongs to Persia. Did you see the Persians selling pistachio-nuts and apricots in the market?”
“Yes, I saw them,” replied Foma, and became pensive.
One day he asked his father:
“Is there much more land left?”
“The earth is very big, my dear! If you should go on foot, you couldn’t go around it even in ten years.”
Ignat talked for a long time with his son about the size of the earth, and said at length:
“And yet no one knows for certain how big it really is, nor where it ends.”
“And is everything alike on earth?”
“What do you mean?”
“The cities and all?”
“Well, of course, the cities are like cities. There are houses, streets — and everything that is necessary.”
After many similar conversations the boy no longer stared so often into the distance with the interrogative look of his black eyes.
The crew of the steamer loved him, and he, too, loved those fine, sun-burnt and weather-beaten fellows, who laughingly played with him. They made fishing tackles for him, and little boats out of bark, played with him and rowed him about the anchoring place, when Ignat went to town on business. The boy often heard the men talking about his father, but he paid no attention to what they said, and never told his father what he heard about him. But one day, in Astrakhan, while the steamer was taking in a cargo of fuel, Foma heard the voice of Petrovich, the machinist:
“He ordered such a lot of wood to be taken in. What an absurd man! First he loads the steamer up to the very deck, and then he roars. ‘You break the machinery too often,’ he says. ‘You pour oil,’ he says, ‘at random.’”
The voice of the gray and stern pilot replied:
“It’s all his exorbitant greediness. Fuel is cheaper here, so he is taking all he can. He is greedy, the devil!”
“Oh, how greedy!”
This word, repeated many times in succession, fixed itself in Foma’s memory, and in the evening, at supper, he suddenly asked his father:
“Are you greedy?”
In reply to his father’s questions Foma told him of the conversation between the pilot and the machinist. Ignat’s face became gloomy, and his eyes began to flash angrily.
“That’s how it is,” ejaculated Ignat, shaking his head. “Well, you — don’t you listen to them. They are not your equals; don’t have so much to do with them. You are their master, they are your servants, understand that. If we choose to, we can put every one of them ashore. They are cheap and they can be found everywhere like dogs. Understand? They may say many bad things about me. But they say them, because I am their master. The whole thing arises because I am fortunate and rich, and the rich are always envied. A happy man is everybody’s enemy.”
About two days later there was a new pilot and another machinist on the steamer.
“And where is Yakov?” asked the boy.
“I discharged him. I ordered him away.”
“For that?” queried Foma.
“Yes, for that very thing.”
“And Petrovich, too?”
“Yes, I sent him the same way.”
Foma was pleased with the fact that his father was able to change the men so quickly. He smiled to his father, and, coming out on the deck, walked up to a sailor, who sat on the floor, untwisting a piece of rope and making a swab.
“We have a new pilot here,” announced Foma.
“I know. Good health to you, Foma Ignatich! How did you sleep?”
“And a new machinist, too.”
“And a new machinist. Are you sorry for Petrovich?”
“Really? And he was so good to you.”
“Well, why did he abuse my father?”
“Oh? Did he abuse him?”
“Of course he did. I heard it myself.”
“Mm — and your father heard it, too?”
“No, I told him.”
“You — so”— drawled the sailor and became silent, taking up his work again.
“And papa says to me: ‘You,’ he says, ‘you are master here — you can drive them all away if you wish.’”
“So,” said the sailor, gloomily looking at the boy, who was so enthusiastically boasting to him of his supreme power. From that day on Foma noticed that the crew did not regard him as before. Some became more obliging and kind, others did not care to speak to him, and when they did speak to him, it was done angrily, and not at all entertainingly, as before. Foma liked to watch while the deck was being washed: their trousers rolled up to their knees, or sometimes taken off altogether, the sailors, with swabs and brushes in their hands, cleverly ran about the deck, emptying pails of water on it, besprinkling one another, laughing, shouting, falling. Streams of water ran in every direction, and the lively noise of the men intermingled with the gray splash of the water. Before, the boy never bothered the sailors in this playful and light work; nay, he took an active part, besprinkling them with water and laughingly running away, when they threatened to pour water over him. But after Yakov and Petrovich had been discharged, he felt that he was in everybody’s way, that no one cared to play with him and that no one regarded him kindly. Surprised and melancholy, he left the deck, walked up to the wheel, sat down there, and, offended, he thoughtfully began to stare at the distant green bank and the dented strip of woods upon it. And below, on the deck, the water was splashing playfully, and the sailors were gaily laughing. He yearned to go down to them, but something held him back.
“Keep away from them as much as possible,” he recalled his father’s words; “you are their master.” Then he felt like shouting at the sailors — something harsh and authoritative, so his father would scold them. He thought a long time what to say, but could not think of anything. Another two, three days passed, and it became perfectly clear to him that the crew no longer liked him. He began to feel lonesome on the steamer, and amid the parti-coloured mist of new impressions, still more often there came up before Foma the image of his kind and gentle Aunt Anfisa, with her stories, and smiles, and soft, ringing laughter, which filled the boy’s soul with a joyous warmth. He still lived in the world of fairy-tales, but the invisible and pitiless hand of reality was already at work tearing the beautiful, fine web of the wonderful, through which the boy had looked at everything about him. The incident with the machinist and the pilot directed his attention to his surroundings; Foma’s eyes became more sharp- sighted. A conscious searchfulness appeared in them and in his questions to his father rang a yearning to understand which threads and springs were managing the deeds of men.
One day a scene took place before him: the sailors were carrying wood, and one of them, the young, curly-haired and gay Yefim, passing the deck of the ship with hand-barrows, said loudly and angrily:
“No, he has no conscience whatever! There was no agreement that I should carry wood. A sailor — well, one’s business is clear — but to carry wood into the bargain — thank you! That means for me to take off the skin I have not sold. He is without conscience! He thinks it is clever to sap the life out of us.”
The boy heard this grumbling and knew that it was concerning his father. He also noticed that although Yefim was grumbling, he carried more wood on his stretcher than the others, and walked faster than the others. None of the sailors replied to Yefim’s grumbling, and even the one who worked with him was silent, only now and then protesting against the earnestness with which Yefim piled up the wood on the stretchers.
“Enough!” he would say, morosely, “you are not loading a horse, are you?”
“And you had better keep quiet. You were put to the cart — cart it and don’t kick — and should your blood be sucked — keep quiet again. What can you say?”
Suddenly Ignat appeared, walked up to the sailor and, stopping in front of him, asked sternly:
“What were you talking about?”
“I am talking — I know,” replied Yefim, hesitating. “There was no agreement — that I must say nothing.”
“And who is going to suck blood?” asked Ignat, stroking his beard.
The sailor understood that he had been caught unawares, and seeing no way out of it, he let the log of wood fall from his hands, rubbed his palms against his pants, and, facing Ignat squarely, said rather boldly:
“And am I not right? Don’t you suck it?”
Foma saw that his father swung his hand. A loud blow resounded, and the sailor fell heavily on the wood. He arose immediately and worked on in silence. Blood was trickling from his bruised face on to the white bark of the birch wood; he wiped the blood off his face with the sleeve of his shirt, looked at his sleeve and, heaving a sigh, maintained silence, and when he went past Foma with the hand-harrows, two big, turbid tears were trembling on his face, near the bridge of his nose, and Foma noticed them.
At dinner Foma was pensive and now and then glanced at his father with fear in his eyes.
“Why do you frown?” asked his father, gently.
“Are you ill, perhaps? Be careful. If there is anything, tell me.”
“You are strong,” said Foma of a sudden musingly.
“I? That’s right. God has favoured me with strength.”
“How hard you struck him!” exclaimed the boy in a low voice, lowering his head.
Ignat was about to put a piece of bread with caviar into his mouth, but his hand stopped, held back by his son’s exclamation; he looked interrogatively at Foma’s drooping head and asked:
“You mean Yefim, don’t you?”
“Yes, he was bleeding. And how he walked afterward, how he cried,” said the boy in a low voice.
“Mm,” roared Ignat, chewing a bite. “Well, are you sorry for him?”
“It’s a pity!” said Foma, with tears in his voice.
“Yes. So that’s the kind of a fellow you are,” said Ignat.
Then, after a moment’s silence, he filled a wineglass with vodka, emptied it, and said sternly, in a slightly reprimanding tone:
“There is no reason why you should pity him. He brawled at random, and therefore got what he deserved. I know him: he is a good fellow, industrious, strong and not a bit foolish. But to argue is not his business; I may argue, because I am the master. It isn’t simple to be master. A punch wouldn’t kill him, but will make him wiser. That’s the way. Eh, Foma! You are an infant, and you do not understand these things. I must teach you how to live. It may be that my days on earth are numbered.”
Ignat was silent for awhile, drank some more vodka and went on instinctively:
“It is necessary to have pity on men. You are right in doing so. But you must pity them sensibly. First look at a man, find out what good there is in him, and what use may be made of him! And if you find him to be strong and capable — pity and assist him. And if he is weak and not inclined to work — spit upon him, pass him by. Just keep this in mind — the man who complains against everything, who sighs and moans all the time — that man is worth nothing; he merits no compassion and you will do him no good whatever, even if you help him. Pity for such people makes them more morose, spoils them the more. In your godfather’s house you saw various kinds of people — unfortunate travellers and hangers- on, and all sorts of rabble. Forget them. They are not men, they are just shells, and are good for nothing. They are like bugs, fleas and other unclean things. Nor do they live for God’s sake — they have no God. They call His name in vain, in order to move fools to pity, and, thus pitied, to fill their bellies with something. They live but for their bellies, and aside from eating, drinking, sleeping and moaning they can do nothing. And all they accomplish is the soul’s decay. They are in your way and you trip over them. A good man among them — like fresh apples among bad ones — may soon be spoilt, and no one will profit by it. You are young, that’s the trouble. You cannot comprehend my words. Help him who is firm in misery. He may not ask you for assistance, but think of it yourself, and assist him without his request. And if he should happen to be proud and thus feel offended at your aid, do not allow him to see that you are lending him a helping hand. That’s the way it should be done, according to common sense! Here, for example, two boards, let us say, fall into the mud — one of them is a rotten one, the other, a good sound board. What should you do? What good is there in the rotten board? You had better drop it, let it stay in the mud and step on it so as not to soil your feet. As to the sound board, lift it up and place it in the sun; if it can be of no use to you, someone else may avail himself of it. That’s the way it is, my son! Listen to me and remember. There is no reason why Yefim should be pitied. He is a capable fellow, he knows his value. You cannot knock his soul out with a box on the ear. I’ll just watch him for about a week, and then I’ll put him at the helm. And there, I am quite sure, he’ll be a good pilot. And if he should be promoted to captain, he wouldn’t lose courage — he would make a clever captain! That’s the way people grow. I have gone through this school myself, dear. I, too, received more than one box on the ear when I was of his age. Life, my son, is not a dear mother to all of us. It is our exacting mistress.”
Ignat talked with his son about two hours, telling him of his own youth, of his toils, of men; their terrible power, and of their weakness; of how they live, and sometimes pretend to be unfortunate in order to live on other people’s money; and then he told him of himself, and of how he rose from a plain working man to be proprietor of a large concern. The boy listened to his words, looked at him and felt as though his father were coming nearer and nearer to him. And though his father’s story did not contain the material of which Aunt Anfisa’s fairy-tales were brimful, there was something new in it, something clearer and more comprehensible than in her fairy-tales, and something just as interesting. Something powerful and warm began to throb within his little heart, and he was drawn toward his father. Ignat, evidently, surmised his son’s feelings by his eyes: he rose abruptly from his seat, seized him in his arms and pressed him firmly to his breast. And Foma embraced his neck, and, pressing his cheek to that of his father, was silent and breathed rapidly.
“My son,” whispered Ignat in a dull voice, “My darling! My joy! Learn while I am alive. Alas! it is hard to live.”
The child’s heart trembled at this whisper; he set his teeth together, and hot tears gushed from his eyes.
Until this day Ignat had never kindled any particular feeling in his son: the boy was used to him; he was tired of looking at his enormous figure, and feared him slightly, but was at the same time aware that his father would do anything for him that he wanted. Sometimes Ignat would stay away from home a day, two, a week, or possibly the entire summer. And yet Foma did not even notice his absence, so absorbed was he by his love for Aunt Anfisa. When Ignat returned the boy was glad, but he could hardly tell whether it was his father’s arrival that gladdened him or the playthings he brought with him. But now, at the sight of Ignat, the boy ran to meet him, grasped him by the hand, laughed, stared into his eyes and felt weary if he did not see him for two or three hours: His father became interesting to him, and, rousing his curiosity, he fairly developed love and respect for himself. Every time that they were together Foma begged his father:
“Papa, tell me about yourself.”
.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The steamer was now going up the Volga. One suffocating night in July, when the sky was overcast with thick black clouds, and everything on the Volga was somewhat ominously calm, they reached Kazan and anchored near Uslon at the end of an enormous fleet of vessels. The clinking of the anchor chains and the shouting of the crew awakened Foma; he looked out of the window and saw, far in the distance, small lights glimmering fantastically: the water about the boat black and thick, like oil — and nothing else could be seen. The boy’s heart trembled painfully and he began to listen attentively. A scarcely audible, melancholy song reached his ears — mournful and monotonous as a chant on the caravan the watchmen called to one another; the steamer hissed angrily getting up steam. And the black water of the river splashed sadly and quietly against the sides of the vessels. Staring fixedly into the darkness, until his eyes hurt, the boy discerned black piles and small lights dimly burning high above them. He knew that those were barges, but this knowledge did not calm him and his heart throbbed unevenly, and, in his imagination, terrifying dark images arose.
“O-o-o,” a drawling cry came from the distance and ended like a wail.
Someone crossed the deck and went up to the side of the steamer.
“O-o-o,” was heard again, but nearer this time.
“Yefim!” some one called in a low voice on the deck. “Yefimka!”
“Devil! Get up! Take the boat-hook.”
“O-o-o,” someone moaned near by, and Foma, shuddering, stepped back from the window.
The queer sound came nearer and nearer and grew in strength, sobbed and died out in the darkness. While on the deck they whispered with alarm:
“Yefimka! Get up! A guest is floating!”
“Where?” came a hasty question, then bare feet began to patter about the deck, a bustle was heard, and two boat-hooks slipped down past the boy’s face and almost noiselessly plunged into the water.
“A gue-e-est!” Some began to sob near by, and a quiet, but very queer splash resounded.
The boy trembled with fright at this mournful cry, but he could not tear his hands from the window nor his eyes from the water.
“Light the lantern. You can’t see anything.”
And then a spot of dim light fell over the water. Foma saw that the water was rocking calmly, that a ripple was passing over it, as though the water were afflicted, and trembled for pain.
“Look! Look!” they whispered on the deck with fright.
At the same time a big, terrible human face, with white teeth set together, appeared on the spot of light. It floated and rocked in the water, its teeth seemed to stare at Foma as though saying, with a smile:
“Eh, boy, boy, it is cold. Goodbye!”
The boat-hooks shook, were lifted in the air, were lowered again into the water and carefully began to push something there.
“Shove him! Shove! Look out, he may be thrown under the wheel.”
“Shove him yourself then.”
The boat-hooks glided over the side of the steamer, and, scratching against it, produced a noise like the grinding of teeth. Foma could not close his eyes for watching them. The noise of feet stamping on the deck, over his head, was gradually moving toward the stern. And then again that moaning cry for the dead was heard:
“Papa!” cried Foma in a ringing voice. “Papa!” His father jumped to his feet and rushed toward him.
“What is that? What are they doing there?” cried Foma.
Wildly roaring, Ignat jumped out of the cabin with huge bounds. He soon returned, sooner than Foma, staggering and looking around him, had time to reach his father’s bed.
“They frightened you? It’s nothing!” said Ignat, taking him up in his arms. “Lie down with me.”
“What is it?” asked Foma, quietly.
“It was nothing, my son. Only a drowned man. A man was drowned and he is floating. That’s nothing! Don’t be afraid, he has already floated clear of us.”
“Why did they push him?” interrogated the boy, firmly pressing close to his father, and shutting his eyes for fright.
“It was necessary to do so. The water might have thrown him under the wheel. Under ours, for instance. Tomorrow the police would notice it, there would be trouble, inquests, and we would be held here for examination. That’s why we shoved him along. What difference does it make to him? He is dead; it doesn’t pain him; it doesn’t offend him. And the living would be troubled on his account. Sleep, my son.
“So he will float on that way?”
“He will float. They’ll take him out somewhere and bury him.”
“And will a fish devour him?”
“Fish do not eat human bodies. Crabs eat them. They like them.”
Foma’s fright was melting, from the heat of his father’s body, but before his eyes the terrible sneering face was still rocking in the black water.
“And who is he?”
“God knows! Say to God about him: ‘0h Lord, rest his soul! ‘”
“Lord, rest his soul!” repeated Foma, in a whisper.
“That’s right. Sleep now, don’t fear. He is far away now! Floating on. See here, be careful as you go up to the side of the ship. You may fall overboard. God forbid! And —”
“Did he fall overboard?”
“Of course. Perhaps he was drunk, and that’s his end! And maybe he threw himself into the water. There are people who do that. They go and throw themselves into the water and are drowned. Life, my dear, is so arranged that death is sometimes a holiday for one, sometimes it is a blessing for all.”
“Sleep, sleep, dear.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50