On a frozen river near a certain Russian town, a gang of seven carpenters were hastily repairing an icebreaker which the townsfolk had stripped for firewood.
That year spring happened to be late in arriving, and youthful March looked more like October, and only at noon, and that not on every day, did the pale, wintry sun show himself in the overcast heavens, or, glimmering in blue spaces between clouds, contemplate the earth with a squinting, malevolent eye.
The day in question was the Friday in Holy Week, and, as night drew on, drippings were becoming congealed into icicles half an arshin long, and in the snow-stripped ice of the river only the dun hue of the wintry clouds was reflected.
As the carpenters worked there kept mournfully, insistently echoing from the town the coppery note of bells; and at intervals heads would raise themselves, and blue eyes would gleam thoughtfully through the same grey fog in which the town lay enveloped, and an axe uplifted would hover a moment in the air as though fearing with its descent to cleave the luscious flood of sound.
Scattered over the spacious river-track were dark pine branches, projecting obliquely from the ice, to mark paths, open spaces, and cracks on the surface; and where they reared themselves aloft, these branches looked like the cramped, distorted arms of drowning men.
From the river came a whiff of gloom and depression. Covered over with sodden slush, it stretched with irksome rigidity towards the misty quarter whence blew a languid, sluggish, damp, cold wind.
Suddenly the foreman, one Ossip, a cleanly built, upright little peasant with a neatly curling, silvery beard, ruddy cheeks, and a flexible neck, a man everywhere and always in evidence, shouted:
“Look alive there, my hearties!”
Presently he turned his attention to myself, and smiled insinuatingly.
“Inspector,” he said, “what are you trying to poke out of the sky with that squat nose of yours? And why are you here at all? You come from the contractor, you say? — from Vasili Sergeitch? Well, well! Then your job is to hurry us up, to keep barking out,’ Mind what you are doing, such-and-such gang! ‘ Yet there you stand-blinking over your task like an object dried stiff! It’s not to blink that you’re here, but to play the watchdog upon us, and to keep an eye open, and your tongue on the wag. So issue your commands, young cockerel.”
Then he shouted to the workmen:
“Now, then! No shirking! Is the job going to be finished tonight, or is it not? ”
As a matter of fact, he himself was the worst shirker in the artel [Workman’s union]. True, he was also a first-rate hand at his trade, and a man who could work quickly and well and with skill and concentration; but, unfortunately, he hated putting himself out, and preferred to spend his time spinning arresting yarns. For instance, on the present occasion he chose the moment when work was proceeding with a swing, when everyone was busily and silently and wholeheartedly labouring with the object of running the job through to the end, to begin in his musical voice:
“Look here, lads. Once upon a time —”
And though for the first two or three minutes the men appeared not to hear him, and continued their planing and chopping as before, the moment came when the soft tenor accents caught and held the men’s attention, as they trickled and burbled forth. Then, screwing up his bright eyes with a humorous air, and twisting his curly beard between his fingers, Ossip gave a complacent click of his tongue, and continued measuredly, and with deliberation:
“So he seized hold of the tench, and thrust it back into the cave. And as he turned to proceed through the forest he thought to himself: ‘Now I must keep my eyes about me.’ And suddenly, from somewhere (no one could have said where), a woman’s voice shrieked: ‘Elesi-a-ah! Elesia-ah!’”
Here a tall, lanky Morduine named Leuka, with, as surname, Narodetz, a young fellow whose small eyes wore always an expression of astonishment, laid aside his axe, and stood gaping.
“And from the cave a deep bass voice replied: ‘Elesi-a-ah!’ while at the same moment the tench sprang from the cave, and, champing its jaws, wriggled and wriggled back to the slough.”
Here an old soldier named Saniavin, a morose man, a tippler, and a sufferer from asthma and an inexplicable grudge against life in general, croaked out:
“How could your tench have wriggled across dry land if it was a fish?”
“Can, for that matter, a fish speak?” was Ossip’s good-humoured retort.
All of which inspired Mokei Budirin, a grey-headed muzhik of a cast of countenance canine in the prominence of his jaws and the recession of his forehead, and taciturn withal, though not otherwise remarkable, to give slow, nasal utterance to his favourite formula.
“That is true enough,” he said.
For never could anything be spoken of that was grim or marvellous or lewd or malicious, but Budirin at once re-echoed softly, but in a tone of unshakable conviction: “That is true enough.”
Thereafter he would tap me on the breast with his hard and ponderous fist.
Presently work again underwent an interruption through the fact that Yakov Boev, a man who possessed both a stammer and a squint, became similarly filled with a desire to tell us something about a fish. Yet from the moment that he began his narrative everyone declined to believe it, and laughed at his broken verbiage as, frequently invoking the Deity, and cursing, and brandishing his awl, and viciously swallowing spittle, he shouted amid general ridicule:
“Once-once upon a time there lived a man. Yes, other folk before YOU have believed my tale. Indeed, it is no more than the truth that I’m going to tell you. Very well! Cackle away, and be damned!”
Here everyone without exception dropped his work to shout with merriment and clap his hands: with the result that, doffing his cap, and thereby disclosing a silvered, symmetrically shaped head with one bald spot amid its one dark portion, Ossip was forced to shout severely:
“Hi, you Budirin! You’ve had your say, and given us some fun, and there must be no more of it.”
“But I had only just begun what I want to say,” the old soldier grumbled, spitting upon the palms of his hands.
Next, Ossip turned to myself.
“Inspector,” he began . . .
It is my opinion that in thus hindering the men from work through his tale-telling, Ossip had some definite end in view. I could not say precisely what that end was, but it must have been the object either of cloaking his own laziness or of giving the men a rest. On the other hand, whenever the contractor was present he, Ossip, bore himself with humble obsequiousness, and continued to assume a guise of simplicity which none the less did not prevent him, on the advent of each Saturday, from inducing his employer to bestow a pourboire upon the artel.
And though this same Ossip was an artelui, and a director of the artel, his senior co-members bore him no affection, but, rather, looked upon him as a wag or trifler, and treated him as of no importance. And, similarly, the younger members of the artel liked well enough to listen to his tales, but declined to take him seriously, and, in some cases, regarded him with ill-concealed, or openly expressed, distrust.
Once the Morduine, a man of education with whom, on occasions, I held discussions on intimate subjects, replied to a question of mine on the subject of Ossip:
“I scarcely know. Goodness alone knows! No, I do not know anything about him.”
To which, after a pause, he added:
“Once a fellow named Mikhailo, a clever fellow who is now dead, insulted Ossip by saying to him: ‘Do you call yourself a man? Why, regarded as a workman, you’re as lifeless as a doornail, while, seeing that you weren’t born to be a master, you’ll all your life continue chattering in corners, like a plummet swinging at the end of a string!’ Yes, and that was true enough.”
Lastly. after another pause the Morduine concluded:
“No matter. He is not such a bad sort.”
My own position among these men was a position of some awkwardness, for, a young fellow of only fifteen, I had been appointed by the contractor, a distant relative of mine, to the task of superintending the expenditure of material. That is to say, I had to see to it that the carpenters did not make away with nails, or dispose of planks in return for drink. Yet all the time my presence was practically useless, seeing that the men stole nails as though I were not even in existence and strove to show me that among them I was a person too many, a sheer incubus, and seized every opportunity of giving me covert jogs with a beam, and similarly affronting me.
This, of course, made my relations with them highly difficult, embarrassing, and irksome; and though moments occurred when I longed to say something that might ingratiate me, and endeavoured to effect an advance in that direction, the words always failed me at the necessary juncture, and I found myself lying crushed as before under a burdensome sense of the superfluity of my existence.
Again, if ever I tried to make an entry as to some material which had been used, Ossip would approach me, and, for instance, say:
“Is it jotted down, eh? Then let me look at it.”
And, eyeing the notebook with a frown, he would add vaguely:
“What a nice hand you write!” (He himself could write only in printing fashion, in the large scriptory characters of the Ecclesiastical Rubric, not in those of the ordinary kind.)
“For example, that scoop there — what does IT say?”
“It is the word ‘Good.’”
“‘Good’? But what a slip-knot of a thing! And what are those words THERE, on THAT line?”
“They say, ‘Planks, 1 vershok by 9 arshini, 5.’”
“No, six was the number used.”
“Five? Why, the soldier broke one, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but never mind — at least it wasn’t a plank that was wanted.”
“Oh! Well, I may tell you that he took the two pieces to the tavern to get drink with.”
Then, glancing into my face with his cornflower-blue eyes and quiet, quizzical smile, he would say without the least confusion as he twisted the ringlets of his beard:
“Put down ‘6.’ And see here, young cockerel. The weather has turned wet and cold, and the work is hard, and sometimes folk need to have their spirits cheered and raised with a drop of liquor. So don’t you be too hard upon us, for God won’t think the more of you for being strict.”
And as he thus talked to me in his slow and kindly, but semi-affected, fashion — bespattering me, as it were, with wordy sawdust — I would suddenly grow blind of an eye and silently show him the corrected figure.
“That’s it — that’s right. And how fine the figure looks now, as it squats there like a merchant’s buxom, comely dame!”
Then he would be seen triumphantly telling his mates of his success; then, I would find myself feeling acutely conscious of the fact that everyone was despising me for my complacence Yes, grown sick beyond endurance with a yearning for some thing which it could not descry, my fifteen-year-old heart would dissolve in a flood of mortified tears, and there would pass through my brain the despondent, aching thought:
“Oh, what a sad, uncomfortable world is this! How should Ossip have known so well that I should not re-correct the 6 into a 5, or that I should not tell the contractor that the men have bartered a plank for liquor?”
Again, there befell an occasion when the men stole two pounds’ weight of five vershok mandrels and bolts.
“Look here,” I said to Ossip warningly. “I am going to report this.”
“All right,” he agreed with a twitch of his grey eyebrows. “Though what such a trifle can matter I fail to see. Yes, go and report every mother’s son of them.”
And to the men themselves he shouted:
“Hi, boobies! Each of you now stands docked for some mandrels and bolts.”
“Why?” was the old soldier’s grim inquiry.
“Because you DO so stand,” carelessly retorted the other.
With snarls thereafter, the men eyed me covertly, until I began to feel that very likely I should not do as I had threatened, and even that so to do might not be expedient.
“But look here,” said I to Ossip. “I am going to give the contractor notice, and let all of you go to the devil. For if I were to remain with you much longer I too should become a thief.”
Ossip stroked his beard awhile, and pondered. Then he seated himself beside me, and said in an undertone:
“That is true.”
“But things are always so. The truth is that it’s time you departed. What sort of a watchman, of a checker, are you? In jobs of this kind what a man needs to know is the meaning of property. He needs to have in him the spirit of a dog, so that he shall look after his master’s stuff as he would look after the skin which his mother has put on to his own body. But you, you young puppy, haven’t the slightest notion of what property means. In fact, were anyone to go and tell Vasili Sergeitch about the way in which you keep letting us off, he’d give it you in the neck. Yes, you’re no good to him at all, but just an expense: whereas when a man serves a master he ought, do you understand, to be PROFITABLE to that master.”
He rolled and handed me a cigarette.
“Smoke this,” said he, “and perhaps it’ll make your brain work easier. If only you had been of a less awkward, uncomfortable nature, I should have said to you, ‘Go and join the priests; but, as things are, you aren’t the right sort for that — you’re too stiff and unbending, and would never make headway even with an abbot. No, you’re not the sort to play cards with. A monk is like a jackdaw — he chatters without knowing what he is chattering about, and pays no heed to the root of things, so busy is he with stuffing himself full with the grain. I say this to you with absolute earnestness, for I perceive you to be strange to our ways — a cuckoo that has blundered into the wrong nest.”
And, doffing his cap, a gesture which he never failed to execute when he had something particularly important to say, he added humbly and sonorously as he glanced at the grey firmament:
“In the sight of the Lord our ways are the ways of thieves, and such as will never gain of Him salvation.”
“And that is true enough,” responded Mokei Budirin after the fashion of a clarionet.
From that time forth, Ossip of the curly, silvered head, bright eyes, and shadowy soul became an object of agreeable interest for me. Indeed, there grew up between us a species of friendship, even though I could see that a civil bearing towards me in public was a thing that it hurt him to maintain. At all events, in the presence of others he avoided my glance, and his eyes, clear, unsullied, and fight blue in tint, wavered unsteadily, and his lips twitched and assumed an artificially unpleasant expression, while he uttered some such speech as:
“Hi, you Makarei, see that you keep your eyes open, and cam your pay, or that pig of a soldier will be making away with more nails!”
But at other times, when we were alone together, he would speak to me kindly and instructively, while his eyes would dance and gleam with a faint, grave, knowing smile, and dart blue rays direct into mine, while for my part, as I listened to his words, I took every one of them to be absolutely true and balanced, despite their strange delivery.
“A man’s duty consists in being good,” I remarked on one occasion.
“Yes, of course,” assented Ossip, though the next moment he veiled his eyes with a smile, and added in an undertone: “But what do you understand by the term ‘good’? In my opinion, unless virtue be to their advantage, folk spit upon that ‘goodness,’ that ‘honourableness,’ of yours. Hence, the better plan is to pay folk court, and be civil to them, and flatter and cajole every mother’s son of them. Yes, do that, and your ‘goodness’ will have a chance of bringing you in some return. Not that I do not say that to be ‘good,’ to be able to look your own ugly jowl in the face in a mirror, is pleasant enough; but, as I see the matter, it is all one to other people whether you be a cardsharper or a priest so long as you’re polite, and let down your neighbours lightly. That’s what they want.”
For my part I never, at that period, grew weary of watching my fellows, for it was my constant idea that some day one of them would be able to raise me to a higher level, and to bring me to an understanding of this unintelligible and complicated existence of ours. Hence I kept asking myself the restless, the importunate question:
“What precisely is the human soul?
Certain souls, I thought, existed which seemed like balls of copper, for, solid and immovable, they reflected things from their own point of view alone, in a dull and irregular and distorted fashion. And souls, I thought, existed which seemed as flat as mirrors, and, for all intents and purposes, had no existence at all.
And in every case the human soul seemed formless, like a cloud, and as murkily mutable as an imitation opal, a thing which altered according to the colour of what adjoined it.
Only as regarded the soul of the intelligent Ossip was I absolutely at a loss, absolutely unable to reach a conclusion.
Pondering these and similar matters in my mind, I, on the day of which I speak, stood gazing at the river, and at the town under the hill, as I listened to the bells. Rearing themselves aloft like the organ pipes in my favourite Polish-Roman Catholic church, the steeples of the town had their crosses dimly sparkling as though the latter had been stars imprisoned in a murky sky. Yet it was as though those stars hoped eventually to ascend into the purer firmament above the wind-torn clouds that they sparkled; and as I stood watching the clouds glide onward, and momentarily efface with their shadows, the town’s multifarious hues, I marked the fact that although, whenever dark-blue cavities in their substance permitted the beams of the sun to illuminate the buildings below, those buildings’ roofs assumed tints of increased cheerfulness. The clouds seemed to glide the faster to veil the beams, while the humid shadows grew more opaque — and the scene darkened as though only for a moment had it assumed a semblance of joy.
The buildings of the town (looking like heaps of muddy snow), the black, naked earth around those buildings, the trees in the gardens, the hummocks of piled-up soil, the dull grey glimmer of the window panes of the houses — all these things reminded me of winter, even though the misty breath of the northern spring was beginning to steal over the whole.
Presently a young fellow with flaxen hair, a pendent underlip, and a tall, ungainly figure, by name Mishuk Diatlov, essayed to troll the stanza:
“That morn to him the maiden came, To find his soul had fled.”
Whereupon the old soldier shouted:
“Hi, you! Have you forgotten the day?”
And even Boev saw fit to take umbrage at the singing, and, threatening Diatlov with his fist, to rap out:
“Ah, sobatchnia dusha!” [“Soul of a dog.”]
“What a rude, rough, primitive lot we Russians are!” commented Ossip, seating himself atop of the icebreaker, and screwing up his eyes to measure its fall. “To speak plainly, we Russians are sheer barbarians. Once upon a time, I may tell you, an anchorite happened to be on his travels; and as the people came pressing around him, and kneeling to him, and tearfully beseeching him with the words, ‘Oh holy father, intercede for us with the wolves which are devouring our substance!’ he replied: ‘Ha! Are you, or are you not, Orthodox Christians? See that I assign you not to condign perdition!’ Yes, angry, in very truth he was. Nay, he even spat in the people’s faces. Yet in reality he was a kindly old man, for his eyes kept shedding tears equally with theirs.”
Twenty sazheni below the icebreaker was a gang of barefooted sailors, engaged in hacking out the floes from under their barges; and as they shattered the brittle, greyish-blue crust on the river, the mattocks rang out, and the sharp blades of the icecutters gleamed as they thrust the broken fragments under the surface. Meanwhile, there could be heard a bubbling of water, and the sound of rivulets trickling down to the sandy margin of the river. And similarly among our own gang was there audible a scraping of planes, and a screeching of saws, and a clattering of iron braces as they were driven into the smooth yellow wood, while through all the web of these sounds there ran the ceaseless song of the bells, a song so softened by distance as to thrill the soul, much as though dingy, burdensome labour were holding revel in honour of spring, and calling upon the latter to spread itself over the starved, naked surface of the gradually thawing ground.
At this point someone shouted hoarsely:
“Go and fetch the German. We have not got hands enough.”
And from the bank someone bawled in reply:
“Where IS he?”
“In the tavern. That is where you must go and look for him.”
And as they made themselves heard, the voices floated up turgidly into the sodden air, spread themselves over the river’s mournful void, and died away,
Meanwhile our men worked with industry and speed, but not without a fault or two, for their thoughts were fixed upon the town and its washhouses and churches. And particularly restless was Sashok Diatlov, a man whose hair, as flaxen as that of his brother, seemed to have been boiled in lye. At intervals, glancing up-river, this well-built, sturdy young fellow would say softly to his brother:
“It’s cracking now, eh?”
And, certainly, the ice had “moved” two nights ago, so that since yesterday morning the river watchmen had refused to permit horsed vehicles to cross, and only a few beadlike pedestrians now were making their way along the marked-out ice paths, while, as they proceeded, one could hear the water slapping against the planks as the latter bent under the travellers’ weight.
“Yes, it IS cracking,” at length Mishuk replied with a hoist of his ginger eyebrows.
Ossip too scanned the river from under his hand. Then he said to Mishuk:
“Pah! It is the dry squeak of the planes in your own hand that you keep hearing, so go on with your work, you son of a beldame. And as for you, Inspector, do you help me to speed up the men instead of burying your nose in your notebook.”
By this time there remained only two more hours for work, and the arch of the icebreaker had been wholly sheathed in butter-tinted scantlings, and nothing required to be added to it save the great iron braces. Unfortunately, Boev and Saniavin, the men who had been engaged upon the task of cutting out the sockets for the braces, had worked so amiss, and run their lines so straight, that, when it came to the point, the arms of the braces refused to sink properly into the wood.
“Oh, you cock-eyed fool of a Morduine!” shouted Ossip, smiting his fist against the side of his cap. “Do you call THAT sort of thing work?”
At this juncture there came from somewhere on the bank a seemingly exultant shout of:
“Ah! NOW it’s giving way!”
And almost at the same moment, there stole over the river a sort of rustle, a sort of quiet crunching which made the projecting pine branches quiver as though they were trying to catch at something, while, shouldering their mattocks, the barefooted sailors noisily hastened aboard their barges with the aid of rope ladders.
And then curious indeed was it to see how many people suddenly came into view on the river — to see how they appeared to issue from below the very ice itself, and, hurrying to and fro like jackdaws startled by the shot of a gun, to dart hither and thither, and to seize up planks and boathooks, and to throw them down again, and once more to seize them up.
“Put the tools together,” Ossip shouted. “And look alive there, and make for the bank.”
“Aye, and a fine Easter Day it will be for us on THAT bank!” growled Sashok.
Meanwhile, it was the river rather than the town that seemed to be motionless — the latter had begun, as it were, to quiver and reel, and, with the hill above it, to appear to be gliding slowly up stream, even as the grey, sandy bank some ten sazheni from us was beginning to grow tremulous, and to recede.
“Run, all of you!” shouted Ossip, giving me a violent push as he did so. Then to myself in particular he added: “Why stand gaping there?”
This caused a keen sense of danger to strike home in my heart, and to make my feet feel as though already the ice was escaping their tread. So, automatically picking themselves up, those feet started to bear my body in the direction of a spot on the sandy bank where the winter-stripped branches of a willow tree were writhing, and whither there were betaking themselves also Boev, the old soldier, Budirin, and the brothers Diatlov. Meanwhile the Morduine ran by my side, cursing vigorously as he did so, and Ossip followed us, walking backwards.
“No, no, Narodetz,” he said.
“But, my good Ossip —”
“Never mind. What has to be, has to be.”
“But, as likely as not, we may remain stuck here for two days!”
“Never mind even if we DO remain stuck here.”
“But what of the festival?”
“It will have, for this year at least, to be kept without you.”
Seating himself on the sand, the old soldier lit his pipe and growled:
“What cowards you all are! The bank was only fifteen sazheni from us, yet you ran as though possessed!”
“With you yourself as leader,” put in Mokei.
The old soldier took no notice, but added:
“What were you all afraid of? Once upon a time Christ Himself, Our Little Father, died.”
“And rose again,” muttered the Morduine with a tinge of resentment. Which led Boev to exclaim:
“Puppy, hold your tongue! What right have you to air your opinions?”
“Besides, this is Good Friday, not Easter Day,” the old soldier concluded with severe, didactical mien.
In a gap of blue between the clouds there was shining the March sun, and everywhere the ice was sparkling as though in derision of ourselves. Shading his eyes, Ossip gazed at the dissolving river, and said:
“Yes, it IS rising — but that will not last for long.”
“No, but long enough to make us miss the festival,” grumbled Sashok.
Upon this the smooth, beardless face of the youthful Morduine, a face dark and angular like the skin of an unpeeled potato, assumed a resentful frown, and, blinking his eyes, he muttered:
“Yes, here we may have to sit — here where there’s neither food nor money! Other folk will be enjoying themselves, but we shall have to remain hugging our hungry stomachs like a pack of dogs! ”
Meanwhile Ossip’s eyes had remained fixed upon the river, for evidently his thoughts were far away, and it was in absentminded fashion that he replied:
“Hunger cannot be considered where necessity impels. By the way, what use are our damned icebreakers? For the protection of barges and such? Why, the ice hasn’t the sense to care. It just goes sliding over a barge, and farewell is the word to THAT bit of property! ”
“Damn it, but none of us have a barge for property, have we?
“You had better go and talk to a fool.”
“The truth is that the icebreaker ought to have been taken in hand sooner.”
Finally, the old soldier made a queer grimace, and ejaculated:
From a barge a knot of sailors shouted something, and at the same moment the river sent forth a sort of whiff of cruel chilliness and brooding calm. The disposition of the pine boughs now had changed. Nay, everything in sight was beginning to assume a different air, as though everything were charged with tense expectancy.
One of the younger men asked diffidently, beneath his breath:
“Mate Ossip, what are we going to do?”
“What do you say?” Ossip queried absent-mindedly.
“I say, what are we going to do? Just to sit here?”
To this Boev responded, with loud, nasal derision in his tone:
“Yes, my lad, for the Lord has seen fit to prevent you from participating in His most holy festival.”
And the old soldier, in support of his mate, extended his pipe towards the river, and muttered with a grin:
“You want to cross to the town, do you? Well, be off with you, and though the ice may give way beneath your feet and drown you, at least you’ll be taken to the police station, and so get to your festival. For that’s what you want, I suppose?”
“True enough,” Mokei re-echoed.
Then the sun went in, and the river grew darker, while the town stood out more clearly. Ceaselessly, the younger men gazed towards the town with wistful, gloomy eyes, though silently they remained where they were.
Similarly, I myself was beginning to find things irksome and uncomfortable, as always happens when a number of companions are thinking different thoughts, and contain in themselves none of that unity of will which alone can join men into a direct, uniform force. Rather, I felt as though I could gladly leave my companions and start out upon the ice alone.
Suddenly Ossip recovered his faculties. Rising, then doffing his cap and making the sign of the cross in the direction of the town, he said with a quiet, simple, yet somehow authoritative, air:
“Very well, my mates. Go in peace, and may the Lord go with you!”
“But whither?” asked Sashok, leaping to his feet. “To the town? ”
The old soldier was the only one not to rise, and with conviction he remarked:
“It will result but in our getting drowned.”
“Then stay where you are.”
Ossip glanced around the party. Then he continued:
“Bestir yourselves! Look alive!”
Upon which all crowded together, and Boev, thrusting the tools into a hole in the bank, groaned:
“The order ‘go’ has been given, so go we MUST, well though a man in receipt of such an order might ask himself, ‘How is it going to be done?’”
Ossip seemed, in some way, to have grown younger and more active, while the habitually shy, though good-humoured, expression of his countenance was gone from his ruddy features, and his darkened eyes had assumed an air of stern activity. Nay, even his indolent, rolling gait had disappeared, and in his step there was more firmness, more assurance, than had ever before been the case.
“Let every man take a plank,” he said, “and hold it in front of him. Then, should anyone fall in (which God forbid!), the plank-ends will catch upon the ice to either side of him, and hold him up. Also, every man must avoid cracks in the ice. Yes, and is there a rope handy? Here, Narodetz! Reach me that spirit-level. Is everyone ready? I will walk first, and next there must come — well, which is the heaviest? — you, soldier, and then Mokei, and then the Morduine, and then Boev, and then Mishuk, and then Sashok, and then Makarei, the lightest of all. And do you all take off your caps before starting, and say a prayer to the Mother of God. Ha! Here is Old Father Sun coming out to greet us.”
Readily did the men bare their tousled grey or flaxen heads as momentarily the sun glanced through a bank of thin white vapour before again concealing himself, as though averse to arousing any false hopes.
“Now!” sharply commanded Ossip in his new-found voice. “And may God go with us! Watch my feet, and don’t crowd too much upon one another, but keep each at a sazhen’s distance or more — in fact, the more the better. Yes, come, mates!”
With which, stuffing his cap into his bosom, and grasping the spirit-level in his hands, Ossip set foot upon the ice with a sliding, cautious, shuffling gait. At the same moment, there came from the bank behind us a startled cry of:
“Where are you off to, you fools?”
“Never mind,” said Ossip to ourselves. “Come along with you, and don’t stand staring.”
“You blockheads!” the voice repeated. “You had far better return.”
“No, no! come on!” was Ossip’s counter-command. “And as you move think of God, or you’ll never find yourselves among the invited guests at His holy festival of Eastertide.”
Next Ossip sounded a police whistle, which act led the old soldier to exclaim:
“Oh, that’s the way, mate! Good! Yes, you know what to do. Now notice will have been given to the police on the further bank, and, if we’re not drowned, we shall find ourselves clapped in gaol when we get there. However, I’m not responsible.”
In spite of this remonstrance, Ossip’s sturdy voice drew his companions after him as though they had been tied to a rope.
“Watch your feet carefully,” once more he cried.
Our line of march was directed obliquely, and in the opposite direction to the current. Also, I, as the rearmost of the party, found it pleasant to note how the wary little Ossip of the silvery head went looping over the ice with the deftness of a hare, and practically no raising of the feet, while behind him there trailed, in wild-goose fashion, and as though tied to a single invisible string, six dark and undulating figures the shadows of which kept making themselves visible on the ice, from those figures’ feet to points indefinitely remote. And as we proceeded, all of us kept our heads lowered as though we had been descending from a mountain in momentary fear of a false step.
Also, though the shouting in our rear kept growing in volume, and we could tell that by this time a crowd had gathered, not a word could we distinguish, but only a sort of ugly din.
In time our cautious march became for me a mere, mechanical, wearisome task, for on ordinary occasions it was my custom to maintain a pace of greater rapidity. Thus, eventually I sank into the semiconscious condition amid which the soul turns to vacuity, and one no longer thinks of oneself, but, on the contrary issues from one’s personality, and begins to see objects with unwonted clarity, and to hear sounds with unwonted precision. Under my feet the seams in the blue-grey, leaden ice lay full of water, while as for the ice itself, it was blinding in its expansive glitter, even though in places it had come to be either cracked or bulbous, or had ground itself into powder with its own movement, or had become heaped into slushy hummocks of pumice-like sponginess and the consistency of broken glass. And everywhere around me I could discern the chilly, gaping smile of blue crevices which caught at my feet, and rendered the tread of my boot-soles unstable. And ever, as we marched, could the voices of Boev and the old soldier be heard speaking in antiphony, like two pipes being fluted by one and the same pair of lips.
“I won’t be responsible,” said the one voice.
“Nor I,” responded the other.
“The only reason why I have come is that I was told to do so. That’s all about it.”
“Yes, and the same with me.”
“One man gives an order, and another man, perhaps a man a thousand times more sensible than he, is forced to obey it.”
“Is any man, in these days, sensible, seeing what a racket we have to live among?”
By this time Ossip had tucked the skirts of his greatcoat into his belt, while beneath those skirts his legs (clad in grey cloth gaiters of a military pattern) were shuffling along as lightly and easily as springs, and in a manner that suggested that there was turning and twisting in front of him some person whom, though desirous of barring to him the direct course, the shortest route, Ossip successfully opposed and evaded by dint of dodges and deviations to right and left, and occasional turns about, and the execution of dance steps and loops and semicircles. Meanwhile in the tones of Ossip’s voice there was a soft, musical ring that struck agreeably upon the ear, and harmonised to admiration with the song of the bells just when we were approaching the middle of the river’s breadth of four hundred sazheni. There resounded over the surface of the ice a vicious rustle ‘ while a piece of ice slid from under my feet. Stumbling, and powerless to retain my footing, I blundered down upon my knees in helpless astonishment; and then, as I glanced upstream, fear gripped at my throat, deprived me of speech, and darkened all my vision. For the whole substance of the grey ice-core had come to life and begun to heave itself upwards! Yes, the hitherto level surface was thrusting forth sharp angular ridges, and the air seemed full of a strange sound like the trampling of some heavy being over broken glass.
With a quiet trickle there came a swirl of water around me, while an adjacent pine bough cracked and squeaked as though it too had come to life. My companions shouted, and collected into a knot; whereupon, at once dominating and quelling the tense, painful hubbub of sounds, there rang forth the voice of Ossip.
“Mother of God!” he shouted. “Scatter, lads! Get away from one another, and keep each to himself! Now! Courage!”
With that, springing towards us as though wasps had been after him, and grasping the spirit-level as though it had been a weapon, he jabbed it to every side, as though fighting invisible foes, while, just as the quivering town began, seemingly, to glide past us, and the ice at my feet gave a screech and crumbled to fragments beneath me, so that water bubbled to my knees. I leapt up from where I was, and rushed blindly in Ossip’s direction.
“Where are you coming to, fool?” was his shout as he brandished the spirit-level. “Stand still where you are!”
Indeed, Ossip seemed no longer to be Ossip at all, but a person curiously younger, a person in whom all that had been familiar in Ossip had become effaced. Yes, the once blue eyes had turned to grey, and the figure added half an arshin to its stature as, standing as erect as a newly made nail, and pressing both feet together, the foreman stretched himself to his full height, and shouted with his mouth open to its widest extent:
“Don’t shuffle about, nor crowd upon one another, or I’ll break your heads!”
Whereafter, of myself in particular, he inquired as he raised the spirit-level:
“What is the matter with YOU, pray?”
“I am feeling frightened,” I muttered in response.
“Feeling frightened of WHAT, indeed?”
“Of being drowned.”
“Pooh! Just you hold your tongue.”
Yet the next moment he glanced at me, and added in a gentler, quieter tone:
“None but a fool gets drowned. Pick yourself up and come along.”
Then once more he shouted full-throated words of encouragement to his men; and as he did so, his chest swelled and his head rocked with the effort.
Yet, crackling and cracking, the ice was breaking up; and soon it began slowly to bear us past the town. ’Twas as though some unknown force ashore had awakened, and was striving to tear the banks of the river in two, so much did the portion of the landscape downstream seem to be standing still while the portion level with us seemed to be receding in the opposite direction, and thus causing a break to take place in the middle of the picture.
And soon this movement, a movement agonisingly slow, deprived me of my sense of being connected with the rest of the world, until, as the whole receded, despair again gripped my heart and unnerved my limbs. Roseate clouds were gliding across the sky and causing stray fragments of the ice, which, seemingly, yearned to engulf me, to assume reflected tints of a similar hue. Yes, it was as though the birth of spring had reawakened the universe, and was causing it to stretch itself, and to emit deep, hurried, broken pants that cracked its bones as the river, embedded in the earth’s stout framework, revivified the whole with thick, turbulent, ebullient blood.
And this sense of littleness, of impotence amid the calm, assured movement of the earth’s vast bulk, weighed upon my soul, and evoked, and momentarily fanned to flame in me, the shameless human question: “What if I should stretch forth my hand and lay it upon the hill and the banks of the river, and say, ‘Halt until I come to you!’? ”
Meanwhile the bells continued the mournful moaning of their resonant, coppery notes; and that moaning led me to reflect that within two days (on the night of the morrow) they would be pealing a joyous welcome to the Resurrection Feast.
“Oh that all of us may live to hear that sound!” was my unspoken thought.
Before my vision there kept quavering seven dark figures — figures shuffling over the ice, and brandishing planks like oars. And, wriggling like a lamprey in front of them was a little old fellow, an old fellow resembling Saint Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, an old fellow who kept crying softly, but authoritatively:
“Do not stare about you!”
And ever the river was growing rougher and ruder; ever its backbone was beginning to puiver and flounder like a whale underfoot, with its liquescent body of cold, grey, murky water bursting with increasing frequency from its shell of ice, and lapping hungrily at our feet.
Yes, we were human beings traversing, as it were, a slender pole over a bottomless abyss; and as we walked, the water’s soft, cantabile splash set me in mind of the depths below, of the infinite time during which a body would continue sinking through dense, chilly bulk until sight faded and the heart stopped beating. Yes, before my mind’s eye there arose men drowned and devoured by crayfish, men with crumbling skulls and swollen features, and glassy, bulging eyes and puffy hands and outstretched fingers and palms of which the skin had rotted off with the damp.
The first to fall in was Mokei Budirin. He had been walking next ahead of the Morduine, and, as a man habitually silent and absorbed, proceeding on his way more quietly than the rest. Suddenly something had seemed to catch at his legs, and he had disappeared until only his head and his hands, as the latter clutched at his plank, had been left above-level.
“Run and help him, somebody!” was Ossip’s instant cry. “Yes, but not all of you — just one or two. Help him I say!”
The spluttering Mokei, however, said to the Morduine and myself:
“No; do you move away, mates, for I shall best help myself. Never you mind.”
And, sure enough, he did succeed in drawing himself out on to the ice without assistance. Whereafter he remarked as he shook himself:
“A nice pickle, this, to be in! I might as well have been drowned!”
And, in fact, at the moment he looked, with his chattering teeth and great tongue licking a dripping moustache, precisely like a large, good-natured dog.
Then I remembered how, a month earlier, he had accidentally driven the blade of his axe through the joint of his left thumb, and, merely picking up the white fragment of flesh with the nail turning blue, and scanning it with his unfathomable eyes, had remarked, as though it was he himself that had been at fault:
“How often before I have injured that thumb, I could not say. And when once I dislocated it, I went on working with it longer than was right. . . . Now I will go and bury it.”
With which, carefully wrapping up the fragment in some shavings, he had thrust the whole into his pocket, and bandaged the wounded hand,
Similarly, after that, did Boev, the man next in order behind Mokei, contrive to wrest himself from the grasp of the ice, though, on immersion, he started bawling, “Mates, I shall drown! I am dead already! Help me, help me!” and became so cramped with terror as to be extricated only with great difficulty, while amid the general confusion the Morduine too nearly slipped into the water.
“A narrow shave of saying Vespers tonight with the devils in Hell!” he remarked as he clambered back, and stood grinning with an even more angular and attenuated appearance than usual.
The next moment Boev achieved a second plunge, and screamed, as before, for help.
“Don’t shout, you goat of a Yashka!” Ossip exclaimed as he threatened him with the spirit-level. “Why scare people? I’ll give it you! Look here, lads. Let every man take off his belt and turn out his pockets. Then he’ll walk lighter.”
Toothed jaws gaped and crunched at us at every step, and vomited thick spittle; at every tenth step their keen blue fangs reached for our lives. Meanwhile, the soaked condition of our boots and clothes had rendered us as slimy as though smeared with paste. Also, it so weighed us down as to hinder any active movement, and to cause each step to be taken cautiously, slowly, silently, and with ponderous diffidence.
Yet, soaked though we were, Ossip might verily have known the number of cracks in advance, so smooth and harelike was his progress from floe to floe as at intervals he faced about, watched us, and cried sonorously:
“That’s the way to do it, eh?”
Yes, he absolutely played with the river, and though it kept catching at his diminutive form, he always evaded it, circumvented its movements, and avoided its snares. Nay, capable even of directing its trend did he seem, and of thrusting under our feet only the largest and firmest floes.
“Lads, there is no need to be downhearted,” he would cry at intervals.
“Ah, that brave Ossip!” the Morduine once ejaculated. “In very truth is he a man, and no mistake! Just look at him!”
The closer we approached the further shore, the thinner and the more brittle did the ice become, and the more liable we to break through it. By this time the town had nearly passed us, and we were bidding fair to be carried out into the Volga, where the ice would still be sound, and, as likely as not, draw us under itself.
“By your leave, we are going to be drowned,” the Morduine murmured as he glanced at the blue shadow of eventide on our left.
And simultaneously, as though compassionating our lot, a large floe grounded upon the bank, glided upwards with a cracking and a crashing, and there held fast!
“Run, all of you!” came a furious shout from Ossip. “Hurry up, now! Put your very best legs foremost!”
For myself, as I sprang upon the floe I lost my footing, and, falling headlong and remaining seated on the hither end of the floe amid a shower of spray, saw five of my seven comrades rush past, pushing and jostling, as they made for the shore. But presently the Morduine turned and halted beside me, with the intention of rendering Ossip assistance.
“Run, you young fools!” the latter exclaimed. “Come! Be off with you!”
Somehow in his face there was now a livid, uncertain air, while his eyes had lost their fire, and his mouth was curiously agape.
“No, mate. Do YOU get up,” was my counter-adjuration.
“Unfortunately, I have hurt my leg,” he replied with his head bent down. “In fact, I am not sure that I can get up.”
However, we contrived to raise him and carry him ashore with an arm of his resting on each of our necks. Meanwhile he growled with chattering teeth:
“Aha, you river devils! Drown me if you can! But I’ve not given you a chance, the Lord be thanked! Hi, look out! The ice won’t bear the three of us. Mind how you step, and choose places where the ice is bare of snow. There it’s firmer. No, a better plan still would be to leave me where I am.”
Next, with a frowning scrutiny of my face, he inquired:
“That notebook of our misdeeds — hasn’t it had a wetting and got done for?”
That very moment, as we stepped from the stranded floe (in grounding, it had crushed and shattered a small boat), such part of it as lay in the water gave a loud crack, and, swaying to and fro, and emitting a gurgling sound, floated clear of the rest.
“Ah!” was the Morduine’s quizzical comment. “YOU knew well enough what needed to be done.”
Wet, and chilled to the bone, though relieved in spirit, we stepped ashore to find a crowd of townspeople in conversation with Boev and the old soldier. And as we deposited our charge under the lea of a pile of logs he shouted cheerfully:
“Mates, Makarei’s notebook is done for, soaked through!” And since the notebook in question was weighing upon my breast like a brick, I pulled it out unseen, and hurled it far into the river with a plop like that of a frog.
As for the Diatlovs, they lost no time in setting out in search of vodka in the tavern on the hill, and slapped one another on the back as they ran, and could be heard shouting, “Hurrah, hurrah!”
Upon this, a tall old man with the beard of an apostle and the eyes of a brigand muttered:
“Infidels, why disturb peaceful folk like this? You ought to be thrashed!”
Whereupon Boev, who was changing his clothes, retorted:
“What do you mean by ‘disturb’?”
“Besides,” put in the old soldier, “ even though we are Christians like yourself, we might as well have been drowned for all that you did to help us.”
“What could we have done?”
Meanwhile Ossip had remained lying on the ground with one leg stretched out at full length, and tremulous hands fumbling at his greatcoat as under his breath he muttered:
“Holy Mother, how wet I am! My clothes, though I have only worn them a year, are ruined for ever!”
Moreover, he seemed now to have shrunken again in stature — to have become crumpled up like a man run over. Indeed, as he lay he seemed actually to be melting, so continuously was his bulk decreasing in size.
But suddenly he raised himself to a sitting posture, groaned, and exclaimed in high-pitched, wrathful accents:
“May the devil take you all! Be off with you to your washhouses and churches! Yes, be off, for it seems that, as God couldn’t keep His holy festival without you, I’ve had to stand within an ace of death and to spoil my clothes-yes, all that you fellows should be got out of your fix!”
Nevertheless, the men merely continued taking off their boots, and wringing out their clothes, and conversing with sundry gasps and grunts with the bystanders. So presently Ossip resumed:
“What are you thinking of, you fools? The washhouse is the best place for you, for if the police get you, they’ll soon find you a lodging, and no mistake!”
One of the townspeople put in officiously:
“Aye, aye. The police have been sent for.”
And this led Boev to exclaim to Ossip:
“Why pretend like that?”
“Yes — you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that it was you who egged us on to cross the river.”
“You say that it was I?”
“Aye,” put in Budirin quietly, but incisively. And him the Morduine supported by saying in a sullen undertone:
“It was you, mate. By God it was. It would seem that you have forgotten.”
“Yes, you started all this business,” the old soldier corroborated, in dour, ponderous accents.
“Forgotten, indeed? HE? “ was Boev’s heated exclamation.
“How can you say such a thing? Well, let him not try to shift the responsibility on to others — that’s all! WE’LL see, right enough, that he goes through with it!”
To this Ossip made no reply, but gazed frowningly at his dripping, half-clad men.
All at once, with a curious outburst of mingled smiles and tears (it would be hard to say which), he shrugged his shoulders, threw up his hands, and muttered:
“Yes, it IS true. If it please you, it was I that contrived the idea.”
“Of COURSE it was! “ the old soldier cried triumphantly.
Ossip turned his eyes again to where the river was seething like a bowl of porridge, and, letting his eyes fall with a frown, continued:
“In a moment of forgetfulness I did it. Yet how is it that we were not all drowned? Well, you wouldn’t understand even if I were to tell you. No, by God, you wouldn’t! . . . Don’t be angry with me, mates. Pardon me for the festival’s sake, for I am feeling uneasy of mind. Yes, I it was that egged you on to cross the river, the old fool that I was!”
“Aha!” exclaimed Boev. “But, had I been drowned, what should you have said THEN?”
In fact, by this time Ossip seemed conscious to the full of the futility and the senselessness of what he had done: and in his state of sliminess, as he sat nodding his head, picking at the sand, looking at no one, and emitting a torrent of remorseful words, he reminded me strongly of a new-born calf.
And as I watched him I thought to myself:
“Where now is the leader of men who could draw his fellows in his train with so much care and skill and authority?”
And into my soul there trickled an uneasy sense of something lacking. Seating myself beside Ossip (for I desired still to retain a measure of my late impression of him), I said to him in an undertone:
“Soon you will be all right again.”
With a sideways glance he muttered in reply, as he combed his beard:
“Well, you saw what happened just now. Always do things so happen.”
While for the benefit of the men he added:
“That was a good jest of mine, eh?”
The summit of the hill which lay crouching, like a great beast, on the brink of the river was standing out clearly against the fast darkening sky; while a clump of trees thereon had grown black, and everywhere blue shadows of the spring eventide were coming into view, and looming between the housetops where the houses lay pressed like scabs against the hill’s opaque surface, and peering from the moist, red jaws of the ravine which, gaping towards the river, seemed as though it were stretching forth for a draught of water.
Also, by now the rustling and crunching of the ice on the similarly darkening river was beginning to assume a deeper note, and at times a floe would thrust one of its extremities into the bank as a pig thrusts its snout into the earth, and there remain motionless before once more beginning to sway, tearing itself free, and floating away down the river as another such floe glided into its place.
And ever more and more swiftly was the water rising, and washing away soil from the bank, and spreading a thick sediment over the dark blue surface of the river. And as it did so, there resounded in the air a strange noise as of chewing and champing, a noise as though some huge wild animal were masticating, and licking itself with its great long tongue.
And still there continued to come from the town the melancholy, distance-softened, sweet-toned song of the bells.
Presently, the brothers Diatlov appeared descending from the hill with bottles in their hands, and sporting like a couple of joyous puppies, while to intercept them there could be seen advancing along the bank of the river a grey-coated police sergeant and two black-coated constables.
“Oh Lord!” groaned Ossip as he rubbed his knee.
As for the townsfolk, they had no love for the police, so hastened to withdraw to a little distance, where they silently awaited the officers’ approach. Before long the sergeant, a little, withered sort of a fellow with diminutive features and a sandy, stubby moustache, called out in gruff, stern, hoarse, laboured accents:
“So here you are, you rascals!”
Ossip prised himself up from the ground with his elbow, and said hurriedly:
“It was I that contrived the idea of the thing, your Excellency; but, pray let me off in honour of the festival.”
“What do you say, you —?” the sergeant began, but his bluster was lost amid the swift flow of Ossip’s further conciliatory words.
“We are folk of this town,” Ossip continued, “who tonight found ourselves stranded on the further bank, with nothing to buy bread with, even though the day after tomorrow will be Christ’s day, the day when Christians like ourselves wish to clean themselves up a little, and to go to church. So I said to my mates, ‘Be off with you, my good fellows, and may God send that no mishap befall you!’ And for this presumptuousness of mine I have been punished already, for, as you can see, have as good as broken my leg.”
“Yes,” ejaculated the sergeant grimly. “But if you had been drowned, what then?”
Ossip sighed wearily.
“What then, do you say, your Excellency? Why, then, nothing, with your permission.”
This led the officer to start railing at the culprit, while the crowd listened as silently and attentively as though he had been saying something worthy to be heard and heeded, rather than foully and cynically miscalling their mothers.
Lastly, our names having been noted, the police withdrew, while each of us drank a dram of vodka (and thereby gained a measure of warmth and comfort), and then began to make for our several homes. Ossip followed the police with derisive eyes; whereafter, he leapt to his feet with a nimble, adroit movement, and crossed himself with punctilious piety.
“That’s all about it, thank God!” he exclaimed.
“What?” sniggered Boev, now both disillusioned and astonished. “Do you really mean to say that that leg of yours is better already? Or do you mean that it never was injured at all? ”
“Ah! So you wish that it HAD been injured, eh?”
“The rascal of a Petrushka!” the other exclaimed.
“Now,” commanded Ossip, “do all of you be off, mates.” And with that he pulled his wet cap on to his head.
I accompanied him — walking a little behind the rest. As he limped along, he said in an undertone-said kindly — and as though he were communicating a secret known only to himself:
“Whatsoever one may do, and whithersoever one may turn, one will find that life cannot be lived without a measure of fraud and deceit. For that is what life IS, Makarei, the devil fly away with it! . . . I suppose you’re making for the hill? Well, I’ll keep you company.”
Darkness had fallen, but at a certain spot some red and yellow lamps, lamps the beams of which seemed to be saying, “Come up hither!” were shining through the obscurity.
Meanwhile, as we proceeded in the direction of the bells that were ringing on the hill, rivulets of water flowed with a murmur under our feet, and Ossip’s kindly voice kept mingling with their sound.
“See,” he continued, “how easily I befooled that sergeant! That is how things have to be done, Makarei — one has to keep folk from knowing one’s business, yet to make them think that they are the chief persons concerned, and the persons whose wit has put the cap on the whole.”
Yet as I listened to his speech, while supporting his steps, I could make little of it.
Nor did I care to make very much of it, for I was of a simple and easygoing nature. And though at the moment I could not have told whether I really liked Ossip, I would still have followed his lead in any direction — yes, even across the river again, though the ice had been giving way beneath me.
And as we proceeded, and the bells echoed and re-echoed, I thought to myself with a spasm of joy:
“Ah, many times may I thus walk to greet the spring!”
While Ossip said with a sigh:
“The human soul is a winged thing. Even in sleep it flies.”
A winged thing? Yes, and a thing of wonder.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55