In a mountain defile near a little tributary of the Sunzha, there was being built a workman’s barraque — a low, long edifice which reminded one of a large coffin lid.
The building was approaching completion, and, meanwhile, a score of carpenters were employed in fashioning thin planks into doors of equal thinness, knocking together benches and tables, and fitting window-frames into the small window-squares.
Also, to assist these carpenters in the task of protecting the barraque from tribesmen’s nocturnal raids, the shrill-voiced young student of civil engineering who had been set in charge of the work had sent to the place, as watchman, an ex-soldier named Paul Ivanovitch, a man of the Cossack type, and myself.
Yet whereas we were out-at-elbows, the carpenters were sleek, respectable, monied, well-clad fellows. Also, there was something dour and irritating about them, since, for one thing, they had failed to respond to our greeting on our first appearance, and eyed us with nothing but dislike and suspicion. Hence, hurt by their chilly attitude, we had withdrawn from their immediate neighbourhood, constructed a causeway of stepping stones to the eastern bank of the rivulet, and taken up our abode beneath the chaotic grey mists which enveloped the mountain side in that direction.
Also, over the carpenters there was a foreman — a man whose bony frame, clad in a white shirt and a pair of white trousers, looked always as though it were ready-attired for death. Moreover, he wore no cap to conceal the yellow patch of baldness which covered most of his head, and, in addition, his nose was squat and grey, his neck and face had over them skin of a porous, pumice-like consistency, his eyes were green and dim, and upon his features there was stamped a dead and disagreeable expression. To be candid, however, behind the dark lips lay a set of fine, close teeth, while the hairs of the grey beard (a beard trimmed after the Tartar fashion) were thick and, seemingly, soft.
Never did this man put a hand actually to the work; always he kept roaming about with the large, rigid-looking fingers of his hands tucked into his belt, and his fixed and expressionless eyes scanning the barraque, the men, and the work as his lips vented some such lines as:
Oh God our Father, bound hast Thou A crown of thorns upon my brow! Listen to my humble prayer! Lighten the burden which I bear!
“What on earth can be in the man’s mind?” once remarked the ex- soldier, with a frowning glance at the singer.
As for our duties, my mates and I had nothing to do, and soon began to find the time tedious. For his part, the man with the Cossack physiognomy scaled the mountain side; whence he could be heard whistling and snapping twigs with his heavy feet, while the ex-soldier selected a space between two rocks for a shelter of ace-rose boughs, and, stretching himself on his stomach, fell to smoking strong mountain tobacco in his large meerschaum pipe as dimly, dreamily he contemplated the play of the mountain torrent. Lastly, I myself selected a seat on a rock which overhung the brook, dipped my feet in the coolness of the water, and proceeded to mend my shirt.
At intervals, the defile would convey to our ears a dull echo of sounds so wholly at variance with the locality as muffled hammer- blows, a screeching of saws, a rasping of planes, and a confused murmur of human voices.
Also, a moist breeze blew constantly from the dark-blue depths of the defile, and caused the stiff, upright larches on the knoll behind the barraque to rustle their boughs, and distilled from the rank soil the voluptuous scents of ace-rose and pitch-pine, and evoked in the trees’ quiet gloom a soft, crooning, somnolent lullaby.
About a sazhen [Fathom] below the level of the barraque there coursed noisily over its bed of stones a rivulet white with foam. Yet though of other sounds in the vicinity there were but few, the general effect was to suggest that everything in the neighbourhood was speaking or singing a tale of such sort as to shame the human species into silence.
On our own side of the valley the ground lay bathed in sunshine — lay scorched to the point of seeming to have spread over it a tissue-cloth. Old gold in colour, while from every side arose the sweet perfume of dried grasses, and in dark clefts there could be seen sprouting the long, straight spears and fiery, reddish, cone-shaped blossoms of that bold, hardy plant which is known to us as saxifrage — the plant of which the contemplation makes one long to burst into music, and fills one’s whole body with sensuous languor.
Laced with palpitating, snow-white foam, the beautiful rivulet pursued its sportive way over tessellated stones which flashed through the eddies of the glassy, sunlit, amber-coloured water with the silken sheen of a patchwork carpet or costly shawl of Cashmir.
Through the mouth of the defile one could reach the valley of the Sunzha, whence, since men were ther, building a railway to Petrovsk on the Caspian Sea, there kept issuing and breaking against the crags a dull rumble of explosions, of iron rasped against stone, of whistles of works locomotives, and of animated human voices.
From the barraque the distance to the point where the defile debouched upon the valley was about a hundred paces, and as one issued thence one could see, away to the left, the level steppes of the Cis-Caucasus, with a boundary wall of blue hills, topped by the silver-hewn saddle of Mount Elburz behind it. True, for the most part the steppes had a dry, yellow, sandy look, with merely here and there dark patches of gardens or black poplar clumps which rendered the golden glare more glaring still; yet also there could be discerned on the expanse farm buildings shaped like lumps of sugar or butter, with, in their vicinity, toylike human beings and diminutive cattle — the whole shimmering and melting in a mirage born of the heat. And at the mere sight of those steppes, with their embroidery of silk under the blue of the zenith, one’s muscles tightened, and one felt inspired with a longing to spring to one’s feet, close one’s eyes, and walk for ever with the soft, mournful song of the waste crooning in one’s ears.
To the right also of the defile lay the winding valley of the Sunzha, with more hills; and above those hills hung the blue sky, and in their flanks were clefts which, full of grey mist, kept emitting a ceaseless din of labour, a sound of dull explosions, as a great puissant force attained release.
Yet almost at the same moment would that hurly-burly so merge with the echo of our defile, so become buried in the defile’s verdure and rock crevices, that once more the place would seem to be singing only its own gentle, gracious song.
And, should one turn to glance up the defile, it could be seen to grow narrower and narrower as it ascended towards the mists, and the latter to grow thicker and thicker until the whole defile was swathed in a dark blue pall. Higher yet there could be discerned the brilliant gleam of blue sky. Higher yet one could distinguish the ice-capped peak of Kara Dagh, floating and dissolving amid the ( from here) invisible sunlight. Highest of all again brooded the serene, steadfast peace of heaven.
Also, everything was bathed in a strange tint of bluish grey: to which circumstance must have been due the fact that always one’s soul felt filled with restlessness, one’s heart stirred to disquietude, and fired as with intoxication, charged with incomprehensible thoughts, and conscious as of a summons to set forth for some unknown destination.
The foreman of the carpenters shaded his eyes to gaze in our direction; and as he did so, he drawled and rasped out in tedious fashion:
“Some shall to the left be sent, And in the pit of Hell lie pent. While others, holding palm in hand, Shall on God’s right take up their stand.”
“DID you hear that?” the ex-soldier growled through clenched teeth. “‘Palm in hand’ indeed! Why, the fellow must be a Mennonite or a Molokan, though the two, really, are one, and absolutely indistinguishable, as well as equally foolish. Yes, ‘palm in hand’ indeed!”
Similarly could I understand the ex-soldier’s indignation, for, like him, I felt that such dreary, monotonous singing was altogether out of place in a spot where everything could troll a song so delightful as to lead one to wish to hear nothing more, to hear only the whispering of the forest and the babbling of the stream. And especially out of place did the terms “palm” and “Mennonite” appear.
Yet I had no great love for the ex-soldier. Somehow he jarred upon me. Middle-aged, squat, square, and bleached with the sun, he had faded eyes, flattened-out features, and an expression of restless moroseness. Never could I make out what he really wanted, what he was really seeking. For instance, once, after reviewing the Caucasus from Khassav-Urt to Novorossisk, and from Batum to Derbent, and, during the review, crossing the mountain range by three different routes at least, he remarked with a disparaging smile:
“I suppose the Lord God made the country.”
“You do not like it, then? How should I? Good for nothing is what I call it.”
Then, with a further glance at me, and a twist of his sinewy neck, he added:
“However, not bad altogether are its forests.”
A native of Kaluga, he had served in Tashkend, and, in fighting with the Chechintzes of that region,had been wounded in the head with a stone. Yet as he told me the story of this incident, he smiled shamefacedly, and, throughout, kept his glassy eyes fixed upon the ground.
“Though I am ashamed to confess it,” he said, “once a woman chipped a piece out of me. You see, the women of that region are shrieking devils — there is no other word for it; and when we captured a village called Akhal-Tiapa a number of them had to be cut up, so that they lay about in heaps, and their blood made walking slippery. Just as our company of the reserve entered the street, something caught me on the head. Afterwards, I learnt that a woman on a roof had thrown a stone, and, like the rest, had had to be put out of the way.”
Here, knitting his brows, the ex-soldier went on in more serious vein:
“Yet all that folk used to say about those women, about their having beards to shave, turned out to be so much gossip, as I ascertained for myself. I did so by lifting the woman’s skirt on the point of my bayonet, when I perceived that, though she was lean, and smelt like a goat, she was quite as regular as, as —”
“Things must have been indeed terrible on that expedition!” I interposed.
“I do not know for certain, since, though men who took an actual part in the expedition’s engagements have said that they were so (the Chechintze is a vicious brute, and never gives in), I myself know but little of the affair, since I spent my whole time in the reserve, and never once did my company advance to the assault. No, it merely lay about on the sand, and fired at long range. In fact, nothing but sand was to be seen thereabouts; nor did we ever succeed in finding out what the fighting was for. True, if a piece of country be good, it is in our interest to take it; but in the present case the country was poor and bare, with never a river in sight, and a climate so hot that all one thought of was one’s mortal need of a drink. In fact, some of our fellows died of thirst outright. Moreover, in those parts there grows a sort of millet called dzhugar — millet which not only has a horrible taste, but proves absolutely delusive, since the more one eats of it, the less one feels filled.”
As the ex-soldier told me the tale colourlessly and reluctantly, with frequent pauses between the sentences (as though either he found it difficult to recall the experience or he were thinking of something else), he never once looked me straight in the face, but kept his eyes shamefacedly fixed upon the ground.
Unwieldily and unhealthily stout, he always conveyed to me the impression of being charged with a vague discontent, a sort of captious inertia.
“Absolutely unfit for settlement is this country “ he continued as he glanced around him. “It is fit only to do nothing in. For that matter, one doesn’t WANT to do anything in it, save to live with one’s eyes bulging like a drunkard’s — for the climate is too hot, and the place smells like a chemist’s shop or a hospital.”
Nevertheless, for the past eight years had he been roaming this “too hot” country, as though fascinated!
“Why not return to Riazan?” I suggested.
“Nothing would there be there for me to do,” he replied through his teeth, and with an odd division of his words.
My first encounter with him had been at the railway station at Armavir, where, purple in the face with excitement, he had been stamping like a horse, and, with distended eyes, hissing, or, rather, snarling, at a couple of Greeks:
“I’ll tear the flesh from your bones!”
Meanwhile the two lean, withered, ragged, identically similar denizens of Hellas had been baring their sharp white teeth at intervals, and saying apologetically:
“What has angered you, sir?”
Finally, regardless of the Greeks’ words, the ex-soldier had beat his breast like a drum, and shouted in accents of increased venom:
“Now, where are you living? In Russia, do you say? Then who is supporting you there? Aha-a-a! Russia, it is said, is a good foster-mother. I expect you say the same.”
And, lastly, he had approached a fat, grey-headed, bemedalled gendarme, and complained to him:
“Everyone curses us born Russians, yet everyone comes to live with us — Greeks, Germans, Songs, and the lot. And while they get their livelihood here, and cat and drink their fill, they continue to curse us. A scandal, is it not?”
The third member of our party was a man of about thirty who wore a Cossack cap over his left ear, and had a Cossack forelock, rounded features, a large nose, a dark moustache, and a retrousse lip. When the volatile young engineering student first brought him to us and said, “Here is another man for you,” the newcomer glanced at me through the lashes of his elusive eyes — then plunged his hands into the pockets of his Turkish overalls. Just as we were departing, however, he withdrew one hand from the left trouser pocket, passed it slowly over the dark bristles of his unshaven chin, and asked in musical tones:
“Do you come from Russia?”
“Whence else, I should like to know?” snapped the ex-soldier gruffly.
Upon this the newcomer twisted his right-hand moustache then replaced his hand in his pocket. Broad-shouldered, sturdy, and well-built throughout, he walked with the stride of a man who is accustomed to cover long distances. Yet with him he had brought neither wallet nor gripsack, and somehow his supercilious, retrousse upper lip and thickly fringed eyes irritated me, and inclined me to be suspicious of, and even actively to dislike, the man.
Suddenly, while we were proceeding along the causeway by the side of the rivulet, he turned to us, and said, as he nodded towards the sportively coursing water:
“Look at the matchmaker!”
The ex-soldier hoisted his bleached eyebrows, and gazed around him for a moment in bewilderment. Then he whispered:
But, for my own part, I considered that what the man had said was apposite; that the rugged, boisterous little river did indeed resemble some fussy, light-hearted old lady who loved to arrange affaires du coeur both for her own private amusement and for the purpose of enabling other folk to realise the joys of affection amid which she was living, and of which she would never grow weary, and to which she desired to introduce the rest of the world as speedily as possible.
Similarly, when we arrived at the barraque this man with the Cossack face glanced at the rivulet, and then at the mountains and the sky, and, finally, appraised the scene in one pregnant, comprehensive exclamation of “ Slavno! “ [How splendid!]
The ex-soldier, who was engaged in ridding himself of his knapsack, straightened himself, and asked with his arms set akimbo:
“WHAT is it that is so splendid?”
For a moment or two the newcomer merely eyed the squat figure of his questioner — a figure upon which hung drab shreds as lichen hangs upon a stone. Then he said with a smile:
“Cannot you see for yourself? Take that mountain there, and that cleft in the mountain — are they not good to look at?”
And as he moved away, the ex-soldier gaped after him with a repeated whisper of:
To which presently he added in a louder, as well as a mysterious, tone:
“I have heard that occasionally they send fever patients hither for their health.”
The same evening saw two sturdy women arrive with supper for the carpenters; whereupon the clatter of labour ceased, and therefore the rustling of the forest and the murmuring of the rivulet became the more distinct.
Next, deliberately, and with many coughs, the ex-soldier set to work to collect some twigs and chips for the purpose of lighting a fire. After which, having arranged a kettle over the flames, he said to me suggestively:
“You too should collect some firewood, for in these parts the nights are dark and chilly.”
I set forth in search of chips among the stones which lay around the barraque, and, in so doing, stumbled across the newcomer, who was lying with his body resting on an elbow, and his head on his hand, as he conned a manuscript spread out before him. As he raised his eyes to gaze vaguely, inquiringly into my face, I saw that one of his eyes was larger than the other.
Evidently he divined that he interested me, for he smiled. Yet so taken aback by this was I, that I passed on my way without speaking.
Meanwhile the carpenters, disposed in two circles around the barraque (a circle to each woman), partook of a silent supper.
Deeper and deeper grew the shadow of night over the defile. Warmer and warmer, denser and denser, grew the air, until the twilight caused the slopes of the mountains to soften in outline, and the rocks to seem to swell and merge with the bluish- blackness which overhung the bed of the defile, and the superimposed heights to form a single apparent whole, and the scene in general to resolve itself into, become united into, one compact bulk.
Quietly then did tints hitherto red extinguish their tremulous glow — softly there flared up, dusted purple in the sunset’s sheen, the peak of Kara Dagh. Vice versa, the foam of the rivulet now blushed to red, and, seemingly, assuaged its vehemence — flowed with a deeper, a more pensive, note; while similarly the forest hushed its voice, and appeared to stoop towards the water while emitting ever more powerful, intoxicating odours to mingle with the resinous, cloyingly sweet perfume of our wood fire.
The ex-soldier squatted down before the little blaze, and rearranged some fuel under the kettle.
“Where is the other man?” said he. “Go and fetch him.”
I departed for the purpose, and, on my way, heard one of the carpenters in the neighbourhood of the barraque say in a thick, unctuous, sing-song voice.
“A great work is it indeed!”
Whereafter I heard the two women fall to drawling in low, hungry accents:
“With the flesh I’ll conquer pain; The spirit shall my lust restrain; All-supreme the soul shall reign; And carnal vices lure in vain.”
True, the women pronounced their words distinctly enough; yet always they prolonged the final “u” sound of the stanza’s first and third lines until, as the melody floated away into the darkness, and, as it were, sank to earth, it came to resemble the long-drawn howl of a wolf.
In answer to my invitation to come to supper, the newcomer sprang to his feet, folded up his manuscript, stuffed it into one of the pockets of his ragged coat, and said with a smile:
“I had just been going to resort to the carpenters, for they would have given us some bread, I suppose? Long is it since I tasted anything.”
The same words he repeated on our approaching the ex-soldier; much as though he took a pleasure in their phraseology.
“You suppose that they would have given us bread?” echoed the ex- soldier as he unfastened his wallet. “Not they! No love is lost between them and ourselves.”
“Whom do you mean by ‘ourselves’?”
“Us here — you and myself — all Russian folk who may happen to be in these parts. From the way in which those fellows keep singing about palms, I should judge them to be sectarians of the sort called Mennonites.”
“Or Molokans, rather?” the other man suggested as he seated himself in front of the fire.
“Yes, or Molokans. Molokans or Mennonites — they’re all one. It is a German faith and though such fellows love a Teuton, they do not exactly welcome US.”
Upon this the man with the Cossack forelock took a slice of bread which the ex-soldier cut from a loaf, with an onion and a pinch of salt. Then, as he regarded us with a pair of good-humoured eyes, he said, balancing his food on the palms of his hands:
“There is a spot on the Sunzha, near here, where those fellows have a colony of their own. Yes, I myself have visited it. True, those fellows are hard enough, but at the same time to speak plainly, NO ONE in these parts has any regard for us since only too many of the sort of Russian folk who come here in search of work are not overly-desirable.”
“Where do you yourself come from?” The ex-soldier’s tone was severe.
“From Kursk, we might say.”
“From Russia, then?”
“Yes, I suppose so. But I have no great opinion even of myself.”
The ex-soldier glanced distrustfully at the newcomer. Then he remarked:
“What you say is cant, sheer Jesuitism. It is fellows like THOSE, rather, that ought to have a poor opinion of themselves.”
To this the other made no reply — merely he put a piece of bread into his mouth. For a moment or two the ex-soldier eyed him frowningly. Then he continued:
“You seem to me to be a native of the Don country? ”
“Yes, I have lived on the Don as well.”
“And also served in the army?”
“No. I was an only son.”
“Of a miestchanin? “ [A member of the small commercial class.]
“No, of a merchant.”
“And your name —?”
The last reply came only after a pause, and reluctantly; wherefore, perceiving that the Kurskan had no particular desire to discuss his own affairs, the ex-soldier said no more on the subject, but lifted the kettle from the fire.
The Molokans also had kindled a blaze behind the corner of the barraque, and now its glow was licking the yellow boards of the structure until they seemed almost to be liquescent, to be about to dissolve and flow over the ground in a golden stream.
Presently, as their fervour increased, the carpenters, invisible amid the obscurity, fell to singing hymns — the basses intoning monotonously, “ Sing, thou Holy Angel! “ and voices of higher pitch responding, coldly and formally.
“Sing ye! Sing glory unto Christ, thou Angel of Holiness! Sing ye! Our singing will we add unto Thine, Thou Angel of Holiness!”
And though the chorus failed altogether to dull the splashing of the rivulet and the babbling of the by-cut over a bed of stones, it seemed out of place in this particular spot;it aroused resentment against men who could not think of a lay more atune with the particular living, breathing objects around us.
Gradually darkness enveloped the defile until only over the mouth of the pass, over the spot where, gleaming a brilliant blue, the rivulet escaped into a cleft that was overhung with a mist of a deeper shade, was there not yet suspended the curtain of the Southern night.
Presently, the gloom caused one of the rocks in our vicinity to assume the guise of a monk who, kneeling in prayer, had his head adorned with a pointed skull-cap, and his face buried in his hands. Similarly, the stems of the trees stirred in the firelight until they developed the semblance of a file of friars entering, for early Mass, the porch of their chapel-of-ease.
To my mind there then recurred a certain occasion when, on just such a dark and sultry night as this, I had been seated tale- telling under the boundary-wall of a row of monastic cells in the Don country. Suddenly I had heard a window above my head open, and someone exclaim in a kindly, youthful voice:
“The Mother of God be blessed for all this goodly world of ours!”
And though the window had closed again before I had had time to discern the speaker, I had known that there was resident in the monastery a friar who had large eyes, and a limp, and just such a face as had Vasili here; wherefore, in all probability it had been he who had breathed the benediction upon mankind at large, for the reason that moments there are when all humanity seems to be one’s own body, and in oneself there seems to beat the heart of all humanity . . . .
Vasili consumed his food deliberately as, breaking off morsels from his slice, and neatly parting his moustache, he placed the morsels in his mouth with a curious stirring of two globules which underlay the skin near the ears.
The ex-soldier, however, merely nibbled at his food — he ate but little, and that lazily. Then he extracted a pipe from his breast pocket, filled it with tobacco, lit it with a faggot taken from the fire, and said as he set himself to listen to the singing of the Molokans:
“They are filled full, and have started bleating. Always folk like them seek to be on the right side of the Almighty.”
“Does that hurt you in any way?” Vasili asked with a smile.
“No, but I do not respect them — they are less saints than humbugs, than prevaricators whose first word is God, and second word rouble.”
“How do you know that?” cried Vasili amusedly. “And even if their first word IS God, and their second word rouble, we had best not be too hard upon them, since if they chose to be hard upon US, where should WE be? Yes, we have only to open our mouths to speak a word or two for ourselves, and we should find every fist at our teeth.”
“ Quite so,” the ex-soldier agreed as, taking up a square of scantling, he examined it attentively.
“Whom DO you respect?” Vasili continued after a pause.
“I respect,” the ex-soldier said with some emphasis, “only the Russian people, the true Russian people, the folk who labour on land whereon labour is hard. Yet who are the folk whom you find HERE? In this part of the world the business of living is an easy one. Much of every sort of natural produce is to be had, and the soil is generous and light — you need but to scratch it for it to bear, and for yourself to reap. Yes, it is indulgent to a fault. Rather, it is like a maiden. Do but touch her, and a child will arrive.”
“Agreed,” was Vasili’s remark as he drank tea from a tin mug. “Yet to this very part of the world is it that I should like to transport every soul in Russia.”
“Because here they could earn a living.”
“Then is not that possible in Russia? ”
“Well, why are you yourself here?”
“Because I am a man lacking ties.”
“And why are you lacking ties?”
“Because it has been so ordered — it is, so to speak, my lot.”
“Then had you not better consider WHY it is your lot?”
The ex-soldier took his pipe from his mouth, let fall the hand which held it, and smoothed his plain features in silent amazement. Then he exclaimed in uncouth, querulous tones:
“Had I not better consider WHY it is my lot, and so forth? Why, damn it, the causes are many. For one thing, if one has neighbours who neither live nor see things as oneself does, but are uncongenial, what does one do? One just leaves them, and clears out — more especially if one be neither a priest nor a magistrate. Yet YOU say that I had better consider why this is my lot. Do you think that YOU are the only man able to consider things, possessed of a brain? ”
And in an access of fury the speaker replaced his pipe, and sat frowning in silence. Vasili eyed his interlocutor’s features as the firelight played red upon them, and, finally, said in an undertone:
“Yes, it is always so. We fail to get on with our neighbours, yet lack a charter of our own, so, having no roots to hold us, just fall to wandering, troubling other folk, and earning dislike!”
“The dislike of whom?” gruffly queried the ex-soldier.
“The dislike of everyone, as you yourself have said!”
In answer the ex-soldier merely emitted a cloud of smoke which completely concealed his form. Yet Vasili’s voice had in it an agreeable note, and was flexible and ingratiating, while enunciating its words roundly and distinctly.
A mountain owl, one of those splendid brown creatures which have the crafty physiognomy of a cat, and the sharp grey ears of a mouse, made the forest echo with its obtrusive cry. A bird of this species I once encountered among the defile’s crags, and as the creature sailed over my head it startled me with the glassy eyes which, as round as buttons, seemed to be lit from within with menacing fire. Indeed, for a moment or two I stood half- stupefied with terror, for I could not conceive what the creature was.
“Whence did you get that splendid pipe?” next asked Vasili as he rolled himself a cigarette. “Surely it is a pipe of old German make?”
“You need not fear that I stole it,” the ex-soldier responded as he removed it from his lips and regarded it proudly. “It was given me by a woman.”
To which, with a whimsical wink, he added a sigh.
“Tell me how it happened,” said Vasili softly. Then he flung up his arms, and stretched himself with a despondent cry of:
“Ah, these nights here! Never again may God send me such bad ones! Try to sleep as one may, one never succeeds. Far easier, indeed, is it to sleep during the daytime, provided that one can find a shady spot. During such nights I go almost mad with thinking, and my heart swells and murmurs.”
The ex-soldier, who had listened with mouth agape and eyebrows raised even higher than usual, responded to this:
“It is the same with me. If one could only — What did you say?”
This last was addressed to myself, who had been about to remark, “The same with me also,” but on seeing the pair exchanging a strange glance (as though involuntarily they had surprised one another), had left the words unspoken. My companions then set themselves to a mutually eager questioning with respect to their respective identities, past experiences, places of origin, and destinations, even as though they had been two kinsmen who, meeting unexpectedly, had discovered for the first time their bond of relationship.
Meanwhile the black, fringed boughs of the pine trees hung stretched over the flames of the Molokans’ fire as though they would catch some of the fire’s glow and warmth, or seize it altogether, and put it out. And when, at times, their red tongues projected beyond the corner of the barraque, they made the building look as though it had caught alight, and extended their glow even to the rivulet. Constantly the night was growing denser and more stifling; constantly it seemed to embrace the body more and more caressingly, until one bathed in it as in an ocean. Also, much as a wave removes dirt from the skin, so the softly vocal darkness seemed to refresh and cleanse the soul. For it is on such nights as that that the soul dons its finest raiment, and trembles like a bride at the expectation of something glorious.
“You say that she had a squint?” presently I heard Vasili continue in an undertone, and the ex-soldier slowly reply:
“Yes, she had one from childhood upwards — she had one from the day when a fall from a cart caused her to injure her eyes. Yet, if she had not always gone about with one of her eyes shaded, you would never have guessed the fact. Also, she was so neat and practical! And her kindness — well, it was kindness as inexhaustible as the water of that rivulet there; it was kindness of the sort that wished well to all the world, and to all animals, and to every beggar, and even to myself! So at last there gripped my heart the thought, ‘Why should I not try a soldier’s luck? She is the master’s favourite — true; yet none the less the attempt shall be made by me.’ However, this way or that, always the reply was ‘No’; always she put out at me an elbow, and cut me short.”
Vasili, lying prone upon his back, twitched his moustache, and chewed a stalk of grass. His eyes were fully open, and for the second time I perceived that one of them was larger than the other. The ex-soldier, seated near Vasili’s shoulder, stirred the fire with a bit of charred stick, and sent sparks of gold flying to join the midges which were gliding to and fro over the blaze. Ever and anon night-moths subsided into the flames with a plop, crackled, and became changed into lumps of black. For my own part, I constructed a couch on a pile of pine boughs, and there lay down. And as I listened to the ex-soldier’s familiar story, I recalled persons whom I had on one and another occasion remembered, and speeches which on one and another occasion had made an impression upon me.
“But at last,” the ex-soldier continued, “I took heart of grace, and caught her in a barn. Pressing her into a corner, I said: ‘Now let it be yes or no. Of, course it shall be as you wish, but remember that I am a soldier with a small stock of patience.’ Upon that she began to struggle and exclaim: ‘What do you want? What do you want?’ until, bursting into tears like a girl, she said through her sobs: ‘Do not touch me. I am not the sort of woman for you. Besides, I love another — not our master, but another, a workman, a former lodger of ours. Before he departed he said to me: “Wait for me until I have found you a nice home, and returned to fetch you”; and though it is seventeen years since I heard speech or whisper of him, and maybe he has since forgotten me, or fallen in love with someone else, or come to grief, or been murdered, you, who are a map, will understand that I must bide a little while longer.’ True, this offended me (for in what respect was I any worse than the other man?); yet also I felt sorry for her, and grieved that I should have wronged her by thinking her frivolous, when all the time there had been THIS at her heart. I drew back, therefore — I could not lay a finger upon her, though she was in my power. And at last I said: ‘Good-bye! I am going away.’ ‘Go,’ she replied. ‘Yes, go for the love of Christ!’ . . . Wherefore, on the following evening I settled accounts with our master, and at dawn of a Sunday morning packed my wallet, took with me this pipe, and departed. ‘Yes, take the pipe, Paul Ivanovitch,’ she said before my departure. ‘Perhaps it will serve to keep you in remembrance of me — you whom henceforth I shall regard as a brother, and whom I thank.’ . . . As I walked away I was very nigh to tears, so keen was the pain in my heart. Aye, keen it was indeed! ”
“You did right,” Vasili remarked softly after a pause.
“Things must always so befall. Always must it be a case either of ‘Yes?’ ‘Yes,’ and of folk coming together, or of ‘No’ ‘No,’ and of folk parting. And invariably the one person in the case grieves the other. Why should that be?”
Emitting a cloud of grey smoke, the ex-soldier replied thoughtfully:
“Yes, I know I did right; but that right was done only at a great cost.”
“And always that too is the case,” Vasili agreed. Then he added:
“Generally such fortune falls to the lot of people who have tender consciences. He who values himself also values his fellows; but, unfortunately a man all too seldom values even himself.”
“To whom are you referring? To you and myself?”
“To our Russian folk in general.”
“Then you cannot have very much respect for Russia.” The ex- soldier’s tone had taken on a curious note. He seemed to be feeling both astonished at and grieved for his companion.
The other, however, did not reply; and after a few moments the ex-soldier softly concluded:
“So now you have heard my story.”
By this time the carpenters had ceased singing around the barraque, and let their fire die down until quivering on the wall of the edifice there was only a fiery-red patch, a patch barely sufficient to render visible the shadows of the rocks; while beside the fire there was seated only a tall figure with a black beard which had, grasped in its hands, a heavy cudgel, and, lying near its right foot, an axe. The figure was that of a watchman set by the carpenters to keep an eye upon ourselves, the appointed watchmen; though the fact in no way offended us.
Over the defile, in a ragged strip of sky, there were gleaming stars, while the rivulet was bubbling and purling, and from the obscurity of the forest there kept coming to our ears, now the cautious, rustling tread of some night animal, and now the mournful cry of an owl, until all nature seemed to be instinct with a secret vitality the sweet breath of which kept moving the heart to hunger insatiably for the beautiful.
Also, as I lay listening to the voice of the ex-soldier, a voice reminiscent of a distant tambourine, and to Vasili’s pensive questions, I conceived a liking for the men, and began to detect that in their relations there was dawning something good and human. At the same time, the effect of some of Vasili’s dicta on Russia was to arouse in me mingled feelings which impelled me at once to argue with him and to induce him to speak at greater length, with more clarity, on the subject of our mutual fatherland. Hence always I have loved that night for the visions which it brought to me — visions which still come back to me like a dear, familiar tale.
I thought of a student of Kazan whom I had known in the days of the past, of a young fellow from Viatka who, pale-browed, and sententious of diction, might almost have been brother to the ex- soldier himself. And once again I heard him declare that “before all things must I learn whether or not there exists a God; pre- eminently must I make a beginning there.”
And I thought, too, of a certain accoucheuse named Velikova who had been a comely, but reputedly gay, woman. And I remembered a certain occasion when, on a hill overlooking the river Kazan and the Arski Plain, she had stood contemplating the marshes below, and the far blue line of the Volga; until suddenly turning pale, she had, with tears of joy sparkling in her fine eyes, cried under her breath, but sufficiently loudly for all present to hear her:
“Ah, friends, how gracious and how fair is this land of ours! Come, let us salute that land for having deemed us worthy of residence therein!”
Whereupon all present, including a deacon-student from the Ecclesiastical School, a Morduine from the Foreign College, a student of veterinary science, and two of our tutors, had done obeisance. At the same time I recalled the fact that subsequently one of the party had gone mad, and committed suicide.
Again, I recalled how once, on the Piani Bor [Liquor Wharf] by the river Kama, a tall, sandy young fellow with intelligent eyes and the face of a ne’er-do-well had caught my attention. The day had been a hot, languorous Sunday on which all things had seemed to be exhibiting their better side, and telling the sun that it was not in vain that he was pouring out his brilliant potency, and diffusing his living gold; while the man of whom I speak had, dressed in a new suit of blue serge, a new cap cocked awry, and a pair of brilliantly polished boots, been standing at the edge of the wharf, and gazing at the brown waters of the Kama, the emerald expanse beyond them and the silver-scaled pools left behind by the tide. Until, as the sun had begun to sink towards the marshes on the other side of the river, and to become dissolved into streaks, the man had smiled with increasing rapture, and his face had glowed with creasing eagerness and delight; until finally he had snatched the cap from his head, flung it, with a powerful throw far out into the russet waters, and shouted: “Kama, O my mother, I love you, and never will desert you!”
And the last, and also the best, recollection of things seen before the night of which I speak was the recollection of an occasion when, one late autumn, I had been crossing the Caspian Sea on an old two-masted schooner laden with dried apricots, plums, and peaches. Sailing on her also she had had some hundred fishermen from the Bozhi Factory, men who, originally forest peasants of the Upper Volga, had been well-built, bearded, healthy, goodhumoured, animal-spirited young fellows, youngsters tanned with the wind, and salted with the sea water; youngsters who, after working hard at their trade, had been rejoicing at the prospect of returning home. And careering about the deck like youthful bears as ever and anon lofty, sharp-pointed waves had seized and tossed aloft the schooner, and the yards had cracked, and the taut-run rigging had whistled, and the sails had bellied into globes, and the howling wind had shaved off the white crests of billows, and partially submerged the vessel in clouds of foam.
And seated on the deck with his broad back resting against the mainmast there had been one young giant in particular. Clad in a white linen shirt and a pair of blue serge trousers, and innocent alike of beard and moustache, this young fellow had had full, red lips, blue, boyish, and exceedingly translucent eyes, and a face intoxicated in excelsis with the happiness of youth; while leaning across his knees as they had rested sprawling over the deck there had been a young female trimmer of fish, a wench as massive and tall as the young man himself, and a wench whose face had become tanned to roughness with the sun and wind, eyebrows dark, full, and as large as the wings of a swallow, breasts as firm as stone, and teats around which, as they projected from the folds of a red bodice, there had lain a pattern of blue veins.
The broad, iron-black palm of the young fellow’s long, knotted hand had been resting on the woman’s left breast, with the arm bare to the elbow; while in his right hand, as he had sat gazing pensively at the woman’s robust figure, there had been grasped a tin mug from which some of the red liquor had scattered stains over the front of his linen shirt.
Meanwhile, around the pair there had been hovering some of the youngster’s comrades, who, with coats buttoned to the throat, and caps gripped to prevent their being blown away by the wind, had employed themselves with scanning the woman’s figure with envious eyes, and viewing her from either side. Nay, the shaggy green waves themselves had been stealing occasional glimpses at the picture as clouds had swirled across the sky, gulls had uttered their insatiable scream, and the sun, dancing on the foam-flecked waters, had vested the billows, now in tints of blue, now in natural tints as of flaming jewels.
In short, all the passengers on the schooner had been shouting and laughing and singing, while the great bearded peasants had also been paying assiduous court to a large leathern bottle which had lain ensconced on a heap of peach-sacks, with the result that the scene had come to have about it something of the antique, legendary air of the return of Stepan Razin from his Persian campaign.
At length the buffeting of the wind had caused an old man with a crooked nose set on a hairy, faun-like face to stumble over one of the woman’s feet; whereupon he had halted, thrown up his head with nonsenile vigour, and exclaimed:
“May the devil fly away with you, you shameless hussy! Why lie sprawling about the deck like this? See, too, how exposed you are!”
The woman had not stirred at the words — she had not even opened an eye; only over her lips there had passed a faint tremor. Whereas the young fellow had straightened himself, deposited his tin mug upon the deck, and cried loudly as he laid his disengaged hand upon the woman’s breast.
“Ah, you envy me, do you, Yakim Petrov? Never mind, though you have done no great harm. But run no risks; do not look for needless trouble, for your day for sucking sugarplums is past.”
Whereafter, raising both his hands, the young fellow had softly let them sink again upon the woman’s bosom as he added triumphantly:
“These breasts could feed all Russia! ”
Then, and only then, had the woman smiled a long, slow smile. And as she had done so everything in the vicinity had seemed to smile in unison, and to rise and fall in harmony with her bosom — yes, the whole vessel, and the vessel’s freight. And at the moment when a particularly large wave had struck the bulwarks, and besprinkled all on board with spray, the woman had opened her dark eyes, looked kindly at the old man, and at the young fellow, and at the scene in general — then set herself to recover her bosom.
“Nay,” the young fellow had cried as he interposed to remove her hands. “There is no need for that, there is no need for that. Let them ALL look.”
Such the memories that came back to my recollection that night. Gladly I would have recounted them to my companions, but, unfortunately, these had, by now, succumbed to slumber. The ex- soldier, resting in a sitting posture, and snoring loudly, had his back prised against his wallet, his head sloped sideways, and his hands clasped upon his knees, while Vasili was lying on his back with his face turned upwards, his hands clasped behind his head, his dark, finely moulded brows raised a little, and his moustache erect. Also, he was weeping in his sleep — tears were coursing down his brown, sunburnt cheeks; tears which, in the moonlight, had in them something of the greenish tint of a chrysolite or sea water, and which, on such a manly face, looked strange indeed!
Still the rivulet was purling as it flowed, and the fire crackling; while bathed in the red glow of the flames there was sitting, bent forward, the dark, stonelike figure of the Molokans’ watchman, with the axe at his feet reflecting the radiant gleam of the moon in the sky above us.
All the earth seemed to be sleeping as ever the waning stars seemed to draw nearer and nearer . . . .
The slow length of the next day was dragged along amid an inertia born of the moist heat, the song of the river, and the intoxicating scents of forest and flowers. In short, one felt inclined to do nothing, from morn till night, save roam the defile without the exchanging of a word, the conceiving of a desire, or the formulating of a thought.
At sunset, when we were engaged in drinking tea by the fire, the ex-soldier remarked:
“I hope that life in the next world will exactly resemble life in this spot, and be just as quiet and peaceful and immune from work. Here one needs but to sit and melt like butter and suffer neither from wrong nor anxiety.”
Then, as carefully he withdrew his pipe from his lips, and sighed, he added:
“Aye! If I could but feel sure that life in the next world will be like life here, I would pray to God: ‘For Christ’s sake take my soul at the earliest conceivable moment.’”
“What might suit YOU would not suit ME,” Vasili thoughtfully observed. “I would not always live such a life as this. I might do so for a time, but not in perpetuity.”
“Ah, but never have you worked hard,” grunted the ex-soldier.
In every way the evening resembled the previous one; there were to be observed the same luscious flooding of the defile with dove-coloured mist, the same flashing of the silver crags in the roseate twilight, the same rocking of the dense, warm forest’s soft, leafy tree-tops, the same softening of the rocks’ outlines in the gloom, the same gradual uplift of shadows, the same chanting of the “matchmaking” river, the same routine on the part of the big, sleek carpenters around the barraque — a routine as slow and ponderous in its course as the movements of a drove of wild boars.
More than once during the off hours of the day had we sought to make the carpenters’ acquaintance, to start a conversation with them, but always their answers had been given reluctantly, in monosyllables, and never had a discussion seemed likely to get under way without the whiteheaded foreman shouting to the particular member of the gang concerned: “ Hi, you, Pavlushka! Get back to work, there! “ Indeed, he, the foreman, had outdone all in his manifestations of dislike for our friendship, and as monotonously as though he had been minded to rival the rivulet as a songster, he had hummed his pious ditties, or else raised his snuffling voice to sing them with an ever-importunate measure of insistence, so that all day long those ditties had been coursing their way in a murky, melancholy-compelling flood. Indeed, as the foreman had stepped cautiously on thin legs from stone to stone during his ceaseless inspection of the work of his men, he had come to seem to have for his object the describing of an invisible, circular path, as a means of segregating us more securely than ever from the society of the carpenters.
Personally, however, I had no desire to converse with him, for his frozen eyes chilled and repelled me and from the moment when I had approached him, and seen him fold his hands behind him, and recoil a step as he inquired with suppressed sternness, “What do you want?” there had fallen away from me all further ambition to learn the nature of the songs which he sang.
The ex-soldier gazed at him resentfully, then said with an oath:
“The old wizard and pilferer! Take my word for it that a lump of piety like that has got a pretty store put away somewhere.”
Whereafter, as he lit his pipe and squinted in the direction of the carpenters, he added with stifled wrath:
“The airs that the ‘elect’ give themselves — the sons of bitches! ”
“It is always so,” commented Vasili with a resentment equal to the last speaker’s. “Yes, no sooner, with us, does a man accumulate a little money than he sticks his nose in the air, and falls to thinking himself a real barin.”
“Why is it that you always say ‘With us,’ and ‘Among us,’ and so on?”
“Among us Russians, then, if you like it better.”
“I do like it better. For you are not a German, are you, nor a Tartar?”
“No. It is merely that I can see the faults in our Russian folk.”
Upon that (not for the first time) the pair plunged into a discussion which had come so to weary them that now they spoke only indifferently, without effort.
“The word ‘faults’ is, I consider, an insult,” began the ex- soldier as he puffed at his pipe. “Besides, you don’t speak consistently. Only this moment I observed a change in your terms.”
“To the term ‘Russians.’”
“What should you prefer?”
A new sound floated into the defile as from some point on the steppe the sound of a bell summoning folk to the usual Saturday vigil service. Removing his pipe from his mouth, the ex-soldier listened for a moment or two. Then, at the third and last stroke of the bell, he doffed his cap, crossed himself with punctilious piety, and said:
“There are not very many churches in these parts.”
Whereafter he threw a glance across the river, and added venomously:
“Those devils THERE don’t cross themselves, the accursed Serbs!”
Vasili looked at him, twisted a left-hand moustache, smoothed it again, regarded for a moment the sky and the defile, and sank his head.
“The trouble with me,” he remarked in an undertone, “is that I can never remain very long in one place — always I keep fancying that I shall meet with better things elsewhere, always I keep hearing a bird singing in my heart, ‘Do you go further, do you go further.’”
“That bird sings in the heart of EVERY man,” the ex-soldier growled sulkily.
With a glance at us both, Vasili laughed a subdued laugh.
“‘In the heart of every man’? “ he repeated. “Why, such a statement is absurd. For it means, does it not, that every one of us is an idler, every one of us is constantly waiting for something to turn up — that, in fact, no one of us is any better than, or able to do any better than, the folk whose sole utterance is ‘Give unto us, pray give unto us’? Yes, if that be the case, it is an unfortunate case indeed!”
And again he laughed. Yet his eyes were sorrowful, and as the fingers of his right hand lay upon his knee they twitched as though they were longing to grasp something unseen.
The ex-soldier frowned and snorted. For my own part, however, I felt troubled for, and sorry for, Vasili. Presently he rose, broke into a soft whistle, and moved away by the side of the stream.
“His head is not quite right,” muttered the ex-soldier as he winked in the direction of the retreating figure. “Yes, I tell you that straight, for from the first it was clear to me. Otherwise, what could his words in depredation of Russia mean, when of Russia nothing the least hard or definite can be said? Who really knows her? What is she in reality, seeing that each of her provinces is a soul to itself, and no one could state which of the two Holy Mothers stands nearest to God — the Holy Mother of Smolensk, or the Holy Mother of Kazan? ”
For a while the speaker sat scraping greasy deposit from the bottom and sides of the kettle; and all that while he grumbled as though he had a grudge against someone. At length, however, he assumed an attitude of attention, with his neck stretched out as though to listen to some sound.
“Hist!” was his exclamation.
What then followed, followed as unexpectedly as when, like an evil bird, a summer whirlwind suddenly sweeps up from the horizon, and discharges a bluish-black cloud in torrents of rain and hail, until everything is overwhelmed and battered to mud.
That is to say, with much din of whistling and other sounds there now came pouring into the defile, and began to ascend the trail beside the stream, a straggling procession of some thirty workmen with, gleaming dully in the hands of their leading files, flagons of vodka, and, suspended on the backs and shoulders of others, wallets and bags of bread and other comestibles, and, in two instances, poised on the heads of yet other processionists, large black cauldrons the effect of which was to make their bearers look like mushrooms.
“A vedro [2 3/4 gallons] and a half to the cauldron!” whispered the ex-soldier with a computative grunt as he gained his feet.
“Yes, a vedro and a half,” he repeated. As he spoke the tip of his tongue protruded until it rested on the under-lip of his half-opened mouth. In his face there was a curiously thirsty, gross expression, and his attitude, as he stood there, was that of one who had just received a blow, and was about to cry out in consequence.
Meanwhile the defile rumbled like a barrel into which heavy weights are being dropped, for one of the newcomers was beating an empty tin pail, and another one whistling in a manner the tossed echoes of which drowned even the rivulet’s murmur as nearer and nearer came the mob of men, a mob clad variously in black, grey, or russet, with sleeves rolled up, and heads, in many cases, bare save for their own towsled, dishevelled locks, and bodies bent with fatigue, or carried stumblingly along on legs bowed outwards. Meanwhile, as the dull, polyphonous roar of voices swept through the neck of the defile, a man shouted in broken, but truculent, accents:
“I say no! Fiddlesticks! Not a man is there who could drink more than a vedro of ‘blood-and-sweat’ in a day.”
“A man could drink a lake of it.”
“No, a vedro and a half. That is the proper reckoning.”
“Aye, a vedro and a half.” And the ex-soldier, as he repeated the words, spoke both as though he were an expert in the matter and as though he felt for the matter a touch of respect. Then, lurching forward like a man pushed by the scruff of the neck, he crossed the rivulet, intercepted the crowd, and became swallowed up in its midst.
Around the barraque the carpenters (the foreman ever glimmering among them) were hurriedly collecting tools. Presently Vasili returned — his right hand thrust into his pocket, and his left holding his cap.
“Before long those fellows will be properly drunk! “ he said with a frown. “Ah, that vodka of ours! It is a perfect curse!” Then to me: “Do YOU drink?”
“No,” I replied.
“Thank God for that! If one does not drink one will never really get into trouble.”
For a moment he gazed gloomily in the direction of the newcomers. Then he said without moving, without even looking at me:
“You have remarkable eyes, young fellow. Also, they seem familiar to me — I have seen them somewhere before. Possibly that happened in a dream, though I cannot be sure. Where do you come from?”
I answered, but, after scanning me perplexedly, he shook his head.
“No,” he remarked. “I have never visited that part of the country, or indeed, been so far from home.”
“But this place is further still?”
“Yes — from Kursk.”
“I must tell you the truth,” he said. “I am not a Kurskan at all, but a Pskovian. The reason why I told the ex-soldier that I was from Kursk was that I neither liked him nor cared to tell him the whole truth-he was not worth the trouble. And as for my real name, it is Paul, not Vasili — Paul Nikolaev Silantiev — and is so marked on my passport (for a passport, and a passport quite in order, I have got).”
“And why are you on your travels? ”
“For the reason that I am so — I can say no more. I look back from a given place, and wave my hand, and am gone again as a feather floats before the wind.”
“Silence!” a threatening voice near the barraque broke in. “I am the foreman here.”
The voice of the ex-soldier replied:
“What workmen are these of yours? They are mere sectarians, fellows who are for ever singing hymns.”
To which someone else added:
“Besides, old devil that you are, aren’t you bound to finish all building work before the beginning of a Sunday?”
“Let us throw their tools into the stream.”
“Yes, and start a riot,” was Silantiev’s comment as he squatted before the embers of the fire.
Around the barraque, picked out against the yellow of its framework, a number of dark figures were surging to and fro as around a conflagration. Presently we heard something smashed to pieces — at all events, we heard the cracking and scraping of wood against stone, and then the strident, hilarious command:
“Hold on there! I’LL soon put things to rights! Carpenters, just hand over the saw!”
Apparently there were three men in charge of the proceedings: the one a red-bearded muzhik in a seaman’s blouse; the second a tall man with hunched shoulders, thin legs, and long arms who kept grasping the foreman by the collar, shaking him, and bawling, “Where are your lathes? Bring them out!” (while noticeable also was a broad-shouldered young fellow in a ragged red shirt who kept thrusting pieces of scantling through the windows of the barraque, and shouting, “Catch hold of these! Lay them out in a row!”); and the third the ex-soldier himself. The last-named, as he jostled his way among the crowd, kept vociferating, viciously, virulently, and with a curious system of division of his syllables:
“Aha-a, ra-abble, secta-arians. Yo-ou would have nothing to say to me, you Se-erbs! Yet I say to YOU: Go along, my chickens, for the re-est of us are ti-ired of you, and come to sa-ay so!”
“What does he want?” asked Silantiev quietly as he lit a cigarette. “Vodka? Oh, THEY’LL give him vodka! . . . Yet are you not sorry for fellows of that stamp?”
Through the blue tobacco-smoke he gazed into the glowing embers; until at last he took a charred stick, and collected the embers into a heap glowing red-gold like a bouquet of fiery poppies; and as he did so, his handsome eyes gleamed with just such a reverent affection, such a prayerful kindliness, as must have lurked in the eyes of primeval, nomadic man in the presence of the dancing, beneficent source of light and heat.
“At least I am sorry for such fellows,” Vasili continued. “Aye, the very thought of the many, many folk who have come to nothing! The very thought of it! Terrible, terrible!”
A touch of daylight was still lingering on the tops of the mountains, but in the defile itself night was beginning to loom, and to lull all things to sleep — to incline one neither to speak oneself nor to listen to the dull clamour of those others on the opposite bank, where even to the murmur of the rivulet the distasteful din seemed to communicate a note of anger.
There the crowd had lit a huge bonfire, and then added to it a second one which, crackling, hissing, and emitting coils of bluish-tinted smoke, had fallen to vying with its fellow in lacing the foam of the rivulet with muslin-like patterns in red. As the mass of dark figures surged between the two flares an hilarious voice shouted to us the invitation:
“Come over here, you! Don’t be backward! Come over here, I say!”
Upon which followed a clatter as of the smashing of a drinking- vessel, while from the red-bearded muzhik came a thick, raucous shout of:
“These fellows needed to be taught a lesson!”
Almost at the same moment the foreman of the carpenters broke his way clear of the crowd, and, carefully crossing the rivulet by the stepping-stones which we had constructed, squatted down upon his heels by the margin, and with much puffing and blowing fell to rinsing his face, a face which in the murky firelight looked flushed and red.
“I think that someone has given him a blow,” hazarded Silantiev sotto voce.
And when the foreman rose to approach us this proved to be the case, for then we saw that dripping from his nose, and meandering over his moustache and soaked white beard, there was a stream of dark blood which had spotted and streaked his shirt-front.
“Peace to this gathering!” he said gravely as, pressing his left hand to his stomach, he bowed.
“And we pray your indulgence,” was Silantiev’s response, though he did not raise his eyes as he spoke. “Pray be seated.”
Small, withered, and, for all but his blood-stained shirt, scrupulously clean, the old man reminded me of certain pictures of old-time hermits, and the more so since either pain or shame or the gleam of the firelight had caused his hitherto dead eyes to gather life and grow brighter — aye, and sterner. Somehow, as I looked at him, I felt awkward and abashed.
A cough twisted his broad nose. Then he wiped his beard on the palm of his hand, and his hand on his knee; whereafter, as he stretched forth the pair of senile, dark-coloured hands, and held them over the embers, he said:
“How cold the water of the rivulet is! It is absolutely icy.”
With a glance from under his brows Silantiev inquired:
“Are you very badly hurt?”
“No. Merely a man caught me a blow on the bridge of the nose, where the blood flows readily. Yet, as God knows, he will gain nothing by his act, whereas the suffering which he has caused me will go to swell my account with the Holy Spirit.”
As the man spoke he glanced across the rivulet. On the opposite bank two men were staggering along, and drunkenly bawling the tipsy refrain:
“In the du-u-uok let me die, In the au-autumn time!”
“Aye, long is it since I received a blow,” the old man continued, scanning the two revellers from under his hand. “Twenty years it must be since last I did so. And now the blow was struck for nothing, for no real fault.. You see, I have been allowed no nails for the doing of the work, and have been obliged to make use of wooden clamps for most of it, while battens also have not been forthcoming; and, this being so, it was through no remissness of mine that the work could not be finished by sunset tonight. I suspect, too, that, to eke out its wages, that rabble has been thieving, with the eldest leading the rest. And that, again, is not a thing for which I can be held responsible. True, this is a Government job, and some of those fellows are young, and young, hungry fellows such as they will (may they be forgiven!) steal, since everyone hankers to get something in return for a very little. But, once more, how is that my fault? Yes, that rabble must be a regular set of rascals! Just now they deprived my eldest son of a saw, of a brand-new saw; and thereafter they spilt my blood, the blood of a greybeard!”
Here his small, grey face contracted into wrinkles, and, closing his eyes, he sobbed a dry, grating sob.
Silantiev fidgeted — then sighed. Presently the old man looked at him, blew his nose, wiped his hand upon his trousers, and said quietly:
“Somewhere, I think, I have seen you before.”
“That is so. You saw me one evening when I visited your settlement for the mending of a thresher.”
“Yes, yes. That is where I DID see you. It was you, was it not? Well, do you still disagree with me? ”
To which the old man added with a nod and a smile:
“See how well I remember your words! You are, I imagine, still of the same opinion?”
“How should I not be?” responded Silantiev dourly.
“Ah, well! Ah, well!”
And the old man stretched his hands over the fire once more, discoloured hands the thumbs of which were curiously bent outwards and splayed, and, seemingly, unable to move in harmony with the fingers.
The ex-soldier shouted across the river:
“The land here is easy to work, and makes the people lazy. Who would care to live in such a region? Who would care to come to it? Much rather would I go and earn a living on difficult land.”
The old man paid no heed, but said to Silantiev — said to him with an austere, derisive smile:
“Do you STILL think it necessary to struggle against what has been ordained of God? Do you STILL think that long-suffering is bad, and resistance good? Young man, your soul is weak indeed: and remember that it is only the soul that can overcome Satan.”
In response Silantiev rose to his feet, shook his fist at the old man, and shouted in a rough, angry voice, a voice that was not his own:
“All that I have heard before, and from others besides yourself. The truth is that I hold all you father-confessors in abhorrence. “Moreover,” (this last was added with a violent oath) “it is not Satan that needs to be resisted, but such devil’s ravens, such devil’s vampires, as YOU.”
Which said, he kicked a stone away from the fire, thrust his hands into his pockets, and turned slowly on his heel, with his elbows pressed close to his sides. Nevertheless the old man, still smiling, said to me in an undertone:
“He is proud, but that will not last for long.”
“Because I know in advance that —”
Breaking off short, he turned his head upon his shoulder, and sat listening to some shouting that was going on across the river. Everyone in that quarter was drunk, and, in particular, someone could be heard bawling in a tone of challenge:
“Oh? I, you say? A-a-ah! Then take that!”
Silantiev, stepping lightly from stone to stone, crossed the river. Then he mingled — a conspicuous figure (owing to his apparent handlessness)— with the crowd. Somehow, on his departure, I felt ill at ease.
Twitching his fingers as though performing a conjuring trick, the old man continued to sit with his hands stretched over the embers. By this time his nose had swollen over the bridge, and bruises risen under his eyes which tended to obscure his vision. Indeed, as he sat there, sat mouthing with dark, bestreaked lips under a covering of hoary beard and moustache, I found that his bloodstained, disfigured, wrinkled, as it were “antique” face reminded me more than ever of those of great sinners of ancient times who abandoned this world for the forest and the desert.
“I have seen many proud folk,” he continued with a shake of his hatless head and its sparse hairs. “A fire may burn up quickly, and continue to burn fiercely, yet, like these embers, become turned to ashes, and. so lie smouldering till dawn. Young man, there you have something to think of. Nor are they merely my words. They are the words of the Holy Gospel itself.”
Ever descending, ever weighing more heavily upon us, the night was as black and hot and stifling as the previous one had been, albeit as kindly as a mother. Still the two fires on the opposite bank of the rivulet were aflame, and sending hot blasts of vapour across a seeming brook of gold.
Folding his arms upon his breast, the old man tucked the palms of his hands into his armpits, and settled himself more comfortably. Nevertheless, when I made as though to add more twigs and shavings to the embers he exclaimed imperiously:
“There is no need for that.”
“Why is there not? ”
“Because that would cause the fire to be seen, and bring some of those men over here.”
Again, as he kicked away some boughs which I had just broken up, he repeated:
“There is no need for that, I tell you.”
Presently, there approached us through the shimmering fire light on the opposite bank two carpenters with boxes on their backs, and axes in their hands.
“Are all the rest of our men gone?” inquired the foreman of the newcomers.
“Yes,” replied one of them, a tall man with a drooping moustache and no beard.
“Well, ‘shun evil, and good will result.’”
“Aye, and we likewise wish to depart.”
“But a task ought not to be left unfinished. At dinner-time I sent Olesha to say that none of those fellows had better be released from work; but released they have been, and now the result is apparent! Presently, when they have drunk a little more of their poison, they will fire the barraque.”
Every time that the first of the two carpenters inhaled the smoke of my cigarette he spat into the embers, while the other man, a young fellow as plump as a female baker, sank his towsled head upon his breast as soon as he sat down, and fell asleep.
Next, the clamour across the rivulet subsided for awhile. But suddenly I heard the ex-soldier exclaim in drunken, singsong accents which came from the very centre of the tumult:
“Hi, do you answer me! How comes it that you have no respect for Russia? Is not Riazan a part of Russia? What is Russia, then, I should like to know? ”
“A tavern,” the foreman commented quietly; whereafter, turning to me, he added more loudly:
“I say this of such fellows — that a tavern . . . But what a noise those roisterers are making, to be sure!”
The young fellow in the red shirt had just shouted:
“Hi, there, soldier! Seize him by the throat! Seize him, seize him!”
While from Silantiev had come the gruff retort:
“What? Do you suppose that you are hunting a pack of hounds?”
“Here, answer me!” was the next shouted utterance — it came from the ex-soldier — whereupon the old man remarked to me in an undertone:
“It would seem that a fight is brewing.”
Rising, I moved in the direction of the uproar. As I did so, I heard the old man say softly to his companions:
“He too is gone, thank God!”
Suddenly there surged towards me from the opposite bank a crowd of men. Belching, hiccuping, and grunting, they seemed to be carrying or dragging in their midst some heavy weight. Presently a woman’s voice screamed, “Ya-av-sha!” and other voices raised mingled shouts of “Throw him in! Give him a thrashing!” and “Drag him along!”
The next moment we saw Silantiev break out of the crowd, straighten himself, swing his right fist in the air, and hurl himself at the crowd again. As he did so the young fellow in the red shirt raised a gigantic arm, and there followed the sound of a muffled, grisly blow. Staggering backwards, Silantiev slid silently into the water, and lay there at my feet.
“That’s right!” was the comment of someone.
For a moment or two the clamour subsided a little, and during that moment or two one’s ears once more became laved with the sweet singsong of the river. Shortly afterwards someone threw into the water a huge stone, and someone else laughed in a dull way.
As I was bending to look at Silantiev some of the men jostled me. Nevertheless, I continued to struggle to raise him from the spot where, half in and half out of the water, he lay with his head and breast resting against the stepping-stones.
“You have killed him!” next I shouted — not because I believed the statement to be true, but because I had a mind to frighten into sobriety the men who were impeding me.
Upon this someone exclaimed in a faltering, sobered tone:
As for the young fellow in the red shirt, he passed me by with a braggart, resentful shout of:
“Well? He had no right to insult me. Why should he have said that I was a nuisance to the whole country?”
And someone else shouted:
“Where is the ex-soldier? Who is the watchman here?”
“Bring a light,” was the cry of a third.
Yet all these voices were more sober, more subdued, more restrained than they had been, and presently a little muzhik whose poll was swathed in a red handkerchief stooped and raised Silantiev’s head. But almost as instantly he let it fall again, and, dipping his hands into the water, said gravely:
“You have killed him. He is dead.”
At the moment I did not believe the words; but presently, as I stood watching how the water coursed between Silantiev’s legs, and turned them this way and that, and made them stir as though they were striving to divest themselves of the shabby old boots, I realised with all my being that the hands which were resting in mine were the hands of a corpse. And, true enough, when I released them they slapped down upon the surface like wet dish- cloths.
Until now, about a dozen men had been standing on the bank to observe what was toward, but as soon as the little muzhik’s words rang out these men recoiled, and, with jostlings, began to vent, in subdued, uneasy tones, cries of:
“Who was it first struck him?”
“This will lose us our jobs.”
“It was the soldier that first started the racket.”
“Yes, that is true.”
“Let us go and denounce him.”
As for the young fellow in the red shirt, he cried:
“I swear on my honour, mates, that the affair was only a quarrel.”
“To hit a man with a bludgeon is more than a quarrel.”
“It was a stone that was used, not a bludgeon.”
“The soldier ought to —”
A woman’s high-pitched voice broke in with a plaintive cry of:
“Good Lord! Always something happens to us! ”
As for myself, I felt stunned and hurt as I seated myself upon the stepping-stones; and though everything was plain to my sight, nothing was plain to my understanding, while in my breast a strange emptiness was present, save that the clamour of the bystanders aroused me to a certain longing to outshout them all, to send forth my voice into the night like the voice of a brazen trumpet.
Presently two other men approached us. In the hand of the first was a torch which he kept waving to and fro to prevent its being extinguished, and whence, therefore, he kept strewing showers of golden sparks. A fair-headed little fellow, he had a body as thin as a pike when standing on its tail, a grey, stonelike countenance that was deeply sunken between the shoulders, a mouth perpetually half-agape, and round, owlish-looking eyes.
As he approached the corpse he bent forward with one hand upon his knee to throw the more light upon Silantiev’s bruised head and body. That head was resting turned upon the shoulder, and no longer could I recognise the once handsome Cossack face, so buried was the jaunty forelock under a clot of black-red mud, and concealed by a swelling which had made its appearance above the left ear. Also, since the mouth and moustache had been bashed aside the teeth lay bared in a twisted, truly horrible smile, while, as the most horrible point of all, the left eye was hanging from its socket, and, become hideously large, gazing, seemingly, at the inner pocket of the flap of Silantiev’s pea- jacket, whence there was protruding a white edging of paper.
Slowly the torch holder described a circle of fire in the air, and thereby sprinkled a further shower of sparks over the poor mutilated face, with its streaks of shining blood. Then he muttered with a smack of the lips:
“You can see for yourselves who the man is.”
As he spoke a few more sparks descended upon Silantiev’s scalp and wet cheeks, and went out, while the flare’s reflection so played in the ball of Silantiev’s eye as to communicate to it an added appearance of death.
Finally the torch holder straightened his back, threw his torch into the river, expectorated after it, and said to his companion as he smoothed a flaxen poll which, in the darkness, looked almost greenish:
“Do you go to the barraque, and tell them that a man has been done to death.”
“No; I should be afraid to go alone.”
“Come, come! Nothing is there to be afraid of. Go, I tell you.”
“But I would much rather not.”
“Don’t be such a fool!”
Suddenly there sounded over my head the quiet voice of the foreman.
“I will accompany you,” he said. Then he added disgustedly as he scraped his foot against a stone:
“How horrible the blood smells! It would seem that my very foot is smeared with it.”
With a frown the fair-headed muzhik eyed him, while the foreman returned the muzhik’s gaze with a scrutiny that never wavered. Finally the elder man commented with cold severity:
“All the mischief has come of vodka and tobacco, the devil’s drugs.”
Not only were the pair strangely alike, but both of them strangely resembled wizards, in that both were short of stature, as sharp-finished as gimlets, and as green-tinted by the darkness as tufts of lichen.
“Let us go, brother,” the foreman said. “Go we with the Holy Spirit.”
And, omitting even to inquire who had been killed, or even to glance at the corpse, or even to pay it the last salute demanded of custom, the foreman departed down the stream, while in his wake followed the messenger, a man who kept stumbling as he picked his way from stone to stone. Amid the gloom the pair moved as silently as ghosts.
The narrow-chested, fair-headed little muzhik then raked me with his eyes; whereafter he produced a cigarette from a tin box, snapped-to the lid of the box, struck a match (illuminating once more the face of the dead man), and applied the flame to the cigarette. Lastly he said:
“This is the sixth murder which I have seen one thing and another commit.”
“One thing and another commit?” I queried.
The reply came only after a pause; when the little muzhik asked: “ What did you say? I did not quite catch it.”
I explained that human beings, not inanimate entities, murdered human beings.
“Well, be they human beings or machinery or lightning or anything else, they are all one. One of my mates was caught in some machinery at Bakhmakh. Another one had his throat cut in a brawl. Another one was crushed against the bucket in a coal mine. Another one was —”
Carefully though the man counted, he ended by erring in his reckoning to the extent of making his total “five.” Accordingly he re-computed the list — and this time succeeded in making the total amount to “seven.”
“Never mind,” he remarked with a sigh as he blew his cigarette into a red glow which illuminated the whole of his face. “The truth is that I cannot always repeat the list correctly, just as I should like. Were I older than I am, I too should contrive to get finished off; for old-age is a far from desirable thing. Yes, indeed! But, as things are, I am still alive, nor, thank the Lord, does anything matter very much.”
Presently, with a nod towards Silantiev, he continued:
“Even now HIS kinsfolk or his wife may be looking for news of him, or a letter from him. Well, never again will he write, and as likely as not his kinsfolk will end by saying to themselves: ‘He has taken to bad ways, and forgotten his family.’ Yes, good sir.”
By this time the clamour around the barraque had ceased, and the two fires had burnt themselves out, and most of the men dispersed. From the smooth yellow walls of the barraque dark, round, knot-holes were gazing at the rivulet like eyes. Only in a single window without a frame was there visible a faint light, while at intervals there issued thence fragmentary, angry exclamations such as:
“Look sharp there, and deal! Clubs will be the winners.”
“Ah! Here is a trump!”
“Indeed? What luck, damn it!”
The fair-headed muzhik blew the ashes from his cigarette, and observed:
“No such thing is there at cards as luck — only skill.”
At this juncture we saw approaching us softly from across the rivulet a young carpenter who wore a moustache. He halted beside us, and drew a deep breath.
“Well, mate?” the fair-headed muzhik inquired.
“Would you mind giving me something to smoke?” the carpenter asked. The obscurity caused him to look large and shapeless, though his manner of speaking was bashful and subdued.
“Certainly. Here is a cigarette.”
“Christ reward you! Today my wife forgot to bring my tobacco, and my grandfather has strict ideas on the subject of smoking.”
“Was it he who departed just now? It was.”
As the carpenter inhaled a whiff he continued:
“I suppose that man was beaten to death?”
“He was — to death.”
For a while the pair smoked in silence. The hour was past midnight.
Over the defile the jagged strip of sky which roofed it looked like a river of blue flowing at an immense height above the night-enveloped earth, and bearing the brilliant stars on its smooth current.
Quieter and quieter was everything growing; more and more was everything becoming part of the night. . . .
One might have thought that nothing particular had happened.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09