Source: Fortnightly Review, December 1901, pp. 1083-1110;
Translated: from the French of Ivan Strannik by Katharine Wylde;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
A new author is like a new country, a field for wonder and admiration, for expectation and for hope.
Alexis Maximoviteh Pechkof – “Maxime Gorki,” which means “Maximus Bitter” – has been writing for a few years only, already his fame, loud voiced in his own country, is spreading across Europe. At once realist and romantic, self-taught, untrammelled by convention and tradition, he writes of the wild life he has known, without trying to soften its rudeness, to preach it sermons, to brand or to excuse it. He presents it there naked before our eyes, careful that we should note its every stain and spot, its deformities and tediousness; reminding us, too, with insistent repetition that, in a land of slavery, it has the boon of freedom and belongs to the sunlight and the open air and “the wind on the heath.”
Of the four novelettes in the volume before us, Malva is perhaps the purest poetry, Konovalof has the interest of autobiography, My Companion deals with a hero of a quite new type. We have selected Tchelkache as at once the most characteristic and the most compendious example of work, which is very un-English, yet which sounds that universal note able to draw together men of all races, brothers of every class and of every clime.
The story was first published under the advice of the well-known writer, Korolenko; and at once it made its young author famous. The plot is simple, the characters few, the background monotonous; the style is uneven, not innocent of repetition, of clumsiness, of the finger-mark of the amateur. But the finger-mark of genius is there also. The two heroes of the little tragedy live and move as substances, not as shadows; the boy grows older visibly; we watch almost with terror the gradual yet rapid disintegration of his character under the hands of the older, the more gifted, the less scrupulous vagabond, who has himself passed beyond all hope of repentance and reformation, yet not beyond the stings of memory, and who never fails to justify his own belief that Gavrilo from first to last is his inferior in soul, in mind, and even in body-though he can throw round stones with a deadly aim, and may, perhaps, die in the odour of sanctity. And the sea and the rain, the climbing clouds and the sand which tells no tales are no less realised, no less blown upon with the breath of life. Over all broods the same wild melancholy, the personal note of the author, which makes the whole a picture, not a photograph; not a history nor an essay, but a poem.
Disguised in the stiffness, the asperity, the inadequacy of an alien tongue, yet let Tchelkache speak for himself. In every land there must be wanderers such as he, who fear not God, neither regard man, yet who love the night wind and the sea; who are terrible and admirable like birds of prey; who can discover to us the charm of a life we have too little known and, perhaps, have been tempted to despise too much.
* * *
A troubled sky, darkened by endless dust rising from the wharf; a thinly-veiled, burning sun looking down on the greenish sea; reflectionless water stirred at every moment by the stroke of oars, by the screws of steamers, by the sharp keels of sailing boats and Turkish feluccas, which plough, across the narrow harbour in every direction. Foaming and discoloured, shut in by walls of granite and crushed down by enormous weights, the waves beat and murmur, beat and murmur, against the quays and against the broadsides of the ships, The grinding of chains, the rolling of waggons, the metallic groans of iron falling on the pavement, the creaking of wheels, the whistling and bellowing of steamers, the shouts of porters, sailors, custom-house officials – all these various noises are blended into one single music, the music of Work; and they vibrate and linger on the air as if loth to rise up and to die away. From the ground itself come endless new noises; dull thunder shaking all around, or piercing screams which rend the dust-permeated and sultry air.
Granite, iron, wood, ships, men, all breathe a passionate and furious hymn to the God of Traffic; but the human voices are scarcely audible and seem ridiculous in their weakness – the men themselves no less so, though the promoters of all this bustle. Ragged, dirty, doubled up under their burdens, they move about in the whirlwinds of dust, through an atmosphere of noise and heat; and are mean and tiny in contrast with the iron giants which surround them, the mountains of goods, the rattling carts, all the multitude of objects which they have themselves called into being; they are overwhelmed by their own work and denuded of their very personality, The huge vessels riding at anchor, scream and groan, and in their every utterance is ironical contempt for the men who creep along their decks and fill their sides with the fruits of the labour of slaves – long processions of porters quite tragically absurd staggering under immense loads of corn to feed the. maws of ships that they may get a few loaves of bread for their own famished bellies. Man, tattered, sweating, stupefied by toil and heat and noise-machines resplendent, powerful, passionless, made by these men’s hands, their force less than that of steam than of the blood and muscle of their makers – ah! cold and cruel irony! The noise deafens, the dust inflames the nostrils and the eyes, fatigue and heat consume the body; everything seems strained, overripe, desperate, ready to explode in some huge catastrophe; after which the air would again grow light and respirable, the earth forget this torturing din, this melancholy folly, and the town, the sea, the sky be first peaceful, presently beneficent, But that is an illusion; nourished by the eternal hope of men, and by their deathless and unreasoning pining after liberty.
Twelve sonorous measured strokes sounded from the great bell, As the last one died away, the savage music of Work was already hushed, after a minute it had sunk into a dull murmur, and then the voice of the sea was heard more plainly and the voices of the men, The dinner hour had come.
When the dockers had desisted from work and resolved themselves into loquacious groups, scattering over the wharf, buying victuals from the costermongers, and finding out shady corners for their meal, then Grichka Tchelkache made his appearance among them – an old marked wolf, game often hunted by the police, known to the whole port as a master-drinker, and as a bold and dexterous thief. His head and his feet were bare; he wore shabby velvet breeches, and a cotton smock torn at the neck and exposing his wiry frame, angular and spare, and covered with a strained brown skin. His dishevelled black locks streaked with grey, and his sharp, wrinkled, bird-of-prey countenance showed signs that he had only just got up; a straw stuck in his moustache, another in the bristles of his ill-shaved cheek; behind his ear he had a sprig of lime-blossom newly picked. Long, bony, a little bent, he moved slowly over the cobblestones; turning his scraggy neck and throwing sharp glances this way and that, he was apparently seeking for someone among the dockers, while his heavy brown moustachios bristled like those of a cat, and his hands rubbed each other behind his back, pinching their twisted and knotty fingers. Even here, among hundreds of his kind, he attracted attention; he was so like the sparrow-hawk of the steppes, so rapaciously lean, his air was so nonchalant and easy, apparently indifferent, really excited and attentive as is the flight of the bird he suggested.
When he had reached a barefoot group making the most of the shadow from the coal baskets, a loutish, stupid-looking youth with the traces of a fight on his face and throat, got up to meet him. He walked along beside Tchelkache and said in a low voice:
“Grichka, the Custom House wants two cases of goods. They’re on the look-out. Do you hear?”
“Well?” said Tchelkache, surveying him calmly. “Well? They’re looking out – that’s all.”
“Have they advertised for me to help them?” inquired Tchelkache, glancing at the surrounding warehouses with a sarcastic smile. “Go to the devil with you,” he said, contemptuously, and the youth retreated. “Hallo! Not so fast if you please. Who’s been knocking your face about? You’re torn all to pieces! Have you seen Michka here anywhere?”
“Not for ages,” cried the other, and went back to his mates. Tchelkache moved on, greeted by everyone as a friend. But, generally smart with his tongue, he was clearly out of temper, and answered all questions laconically. Behind a pile of merchandise stood a custom-house officer in dark green, very dusty and with soldierly stiffness. He barred the way, standing defiantly with his left hand on his sword, his right trying to seize Tchelkache by the collar.
“Hold still. Where are you going?”
Tchelkache took one step back, raised his eyes and smiled dryly. The officer’s red, cunning, but jolly face did its best to be formidable; it swelled visibly, grew purple, frowned, widened its eyes, and only succeeded in looking the more foolish.
“You’ve been warned already: don’t attempt to come here or I’ll smash your ribs!” cried the man, with great ferocity.
“Good morning, Semenitch – It’s a good while since I’ve seen you,” replied Tchelkache, holding out his hand.
“I can get along very well without seeing you. Be off out of this.”
Nevertheless Semenitch took the hand extended to him.
“Look here,” said Tchelkache, closing his claw-like fingers on those of Semenitch, “you’ve got to tell me something. Have you seen Michka?”
“Which Michka? I don’t know any Michka. Go along, brother, or the Inspector’ll be seeing you, and then – “
“I mean the red-haired chap I worked with on the Kostroma,” continued Tchelkache, unmoved.
“Stole with, you mean. They’ve sent your precious Michka into hospital; got his leg crushed under a bar. For goodness sake get away, brother, when I ask you, or I’ll have to kick you out.”
“Ah! So it seems you do know Michka. What’s the matter with you, Semenitch?”
“Never mind, Grichka. Have done, and get out.”
The officer was beginning to be angry, and looking right and left, was trying to free his hand from the firm grasp of Tchelkache. The latter surveyed him calmly from under his heavy brows, smiling into his moustache; and without releasing the hand, he went on talking.
“Don’t be in such a hurry. When I’ve done with you, I’ll go. Tell me how you’re getting on? Wife and children all right?” And with menacing eyes, showing his teeth in a mocking smile, he added, “I’m always intending to come and visit you, but I can never get time. I’m generally drunk – “
“That’ll do; that’ll do. Shut up. Don’t be making jokes, you bony devil, or else I – But you’re not seriously thinking of invading streets and houses?”
“Why should I? There’s plenty here for both of us. Good Lord, yes! Semenitch, you’ve sneaked two cases again. Take care Semenitch. Show a little prudence, or you’ll be getting nabbed some fine day.”
Disgusted no doubt by Tchelkache’s impudence, Semenitch trembled all over, and foamed in the vain effort to speak. Tchelkache dropped his hand, and quietly and slowly retraced his steps to the entrance of the dock. The other, cursing like a convict, followed him.
Tchelkache had recovered his spirits; he whistled gently between his teeth, and stuffing his hands into his pockets he sauntered along like a man of leisure, shooting hither and thither witticisms and bitter jokes which were answered in the same vein.
“Lucky Grichka! How your masters take care of you!” cried someone from the group of dockers who had finished their dinner, and were now resting, stretched out on the ground.
“I’ve no boots; Semenitch is afraid I may hurt my feet,” replied Tchelkache, as he reached the gate. Two soldiers searched him and gently pushed him outside.
“Detain him!” cried Semenitch, who had stopped within. Tchelkache, however, crossed the road and sat down on a post before the door of a tavern. From the wharf came, with the usual clatter, an interminable string of laden vans; empty ones were arriving from the opposite direction. The thunder, the dust, had recommenced. The sun glowed.
Used to this senseless coming and going, Tchelkache, who had been sharpened up by the scene with Semenitch, felt now at his ease. He saw a piece of solid fortune smiling at him in the near future, needing no great expense of energy or skill. Indeed, neither energy nor skill were wanting to him; and, screwing up his eyes, he dreamed of tomorrow when all would be satisfactorily concluded and he would have his bank-notes safe in his pocket. Then he remembered Michka, his friend, who would have been extremely useful to-night if he hadn’t broken his leg. And Tchelkache swore silently, reflecting that without Michka the enterprise might possibly fail of success. And what sort of a night was he going to have? he wondered, questioning the sky and examining the street.
Six paces from Tchelkache, lounging on the footpath his back against a post, was a young lad in a smock, blue breeches, bark shoes, and a red cap. By his side was a small bag and a scythe without a handle, rolled up in hay and carefully sewn. The boy was broad-shouldered and sturdy; fair, but tanned by the wind and sun. His big blue eyes watched Tchelkache with good humour and confidence.
Tchelkache grinned and put out his tongue in a hideous grimace, persistently meeting his gaze. The lad, greatly surprised, winked at him, then burst into a laugh and cried out:
“You’re a queer ‘un.”
Then, almost without rising from the ground, he dragged himself heavily from his post to Tchelkache’s, pulling his bag through the dust and grazing the stones with his scythe. Then plucking at Tchelkache’s breeches, he said:
“You seem to have been having a bad time of it, brother.”
“That’s about it, sonny,” replied Tchelkache, with much frankness. This robust, simple lad with the childish eyes had taken his fancy at once.
“Been at the haymaking?” he asked.
“I have; mowing a verst and making a copek! It’s no good. Too many hands. All the hungry lot came along and spoiled the price. At Koubagne they were giving sixty copeks and not a mite more. And they say it used to be three or four roubles – sometimes five!”
“Used to be. Oh, they used to give three roubles just for leave to look at a real Russian. Ten years ago I made something out of that. I went round the villages saying, ‘I’m a Russian, I am.’ And then they stared at me, and felt me, and were astounded, and put three roubles in my pocket. Yes, and food and drink too, and asked me to stay as long as I wanted to.”
The youth, listening to Tchelkache, had first opened his mouth very wide, expressing in his whole round face an admiring astonishment. Then, perceiving that this ragged personage was humbugging, he shut his lips with a snap and burst into a laugh. Tchelkache remained grave, hiding a smile in his moustache.
“Oh, I say! rum un! You talk as if it was the Gospel and took me in! But really, now, off there, in the old days – “
“That’s what I was saying. Off there, in the old days” –
“Get out!” said the boy, waving his hand. “Are you a shoe-maker? a tailor? or what?”
“I?” asked Tchelkache. Then, after a moment of thought, he replied, “I’m a fisherman.”
“A fisherman? Really? Do you catch fish?”
“Why should I? Anybody can do that. No, I go for drowned things, old anchors, old ships, anything. There’s bait for all that, you know.”
“Go on, yarn some more. Perhaps you’re the style of fisherman who sings:
“We cast our net
Where it won’t get wet,
Over the barns and stables.”
“Have you met any of those folk?” asked Tchelkache, looking at him sarcastically, and reflecting that this big boy was evidently very simple.
“No, I haven’t met them. But I’ve heard of them.”
“Why shouldn’t I? They’re afraid of nothing, and they have their liberty.”
“Liberty, pooh! Do you care about liberty?”
“Of course I do. To be your own master, go where you like, and do what you want – it stands to reason! If you can only get enough to eat and haven’t a stone round your neck – you can be as jolly as you want to. One must remember there’s a God, of course, and all that.”
Tchelkache spat contemptuously and turned away.
“Look at my case now,” continued the boy, with sudden animation. “When my father died he didn’t leave much. My mother’s old, the land is exhausted – what’s to become of me? One has got to live somehow; the question is, How? That’s what one doesn’t know. I shouldn’t mind being son-in-law in a good house, if they’d do their duty by the girl. But, if you please, the devil of a father-in-law won’t pay up, and expects me to slave for him – who knows for how long? – for years. That’s how it stands. Whereas, if I could only get together a hundred and fifty roubles, I should be master of the situation, and able to say to the old chap: ‘Are you going to give Marfa her money? No? Oh, very well; thank Heaven she’s not the only girl in the place.’ I should be quite free and my own master.” The lad sighed. “But as it is, I shall be forced to sell myself to the family. I had fancied that I could make two hundred roubles by going to Koubagne. Then I’d have been worth something. But not a bit of it. No good. Played out. I must go and be a slave in a family, because there’s no other way out of it. Bah!” The lad hated this notion of marrying a rich girl who would drag him into her family. His face became doleful and cross, and he stamped heavily on the ground, waking Tchelkaehe from the thoughts into which he had fallen; thoughts which had robbed him of all desire to carry the conversation further. Nevertheless, he said:
“And where are you off to now?”
“Where? Home, of course.”
“Why of course? You might go into Turkey.”
“Into Turkey?” repeated the boy. “That’s not a place for Christians. Where’d be the good of that?”
“What a fool you are!” sighed Tchelkache, and again he turned away, feeling this time that nothing could draw from him another word. This strong young peasant had excited in him some vague antipathy, which slowly ripened; a sort of profound contempt which troubled the very depths of his soul, and hindered him from pulling himself together and continuing the task of framing his plans for the night.
The boy, however, muttered something between his teeth, looking at him sideways. His cheeks were absurdly puffed, his lips pouted) his narrowed eyes blinked rapidly and ridiculously. Evidently he had not expected the talk with this moustachioed personage to end so abruptly nor in so humiliating a fashion. Tchelkache paid him no further attention. He whistled absently, sitting on his post and beating the devil’s tattoo with his naked and dirty feet. The boy thirsted for revenge.
“Well, fisherman, are you often drunk?” he began; but at that instant the fisherman turned sharply to him and said:
“Listen, sonny! Would you like to work with me to night? Eh? Make up your mind quick.”
“Work at what?” asked the boy, cautiously.
“At what I tell you. We’ll go fishing. You shall have the oars.”
“If that’s it – I don’t mind. All right. I can work hard enough; so long as your company doesn’t get me into trouble. I don’t care so very much for you and your mysteries.”
Tchelkache felt a sort of fire in his breast, and answered with dissembled rage:
“Don’t be talking of what you don’t understand. If you do, I’ll clear your ideas for you by a good punch on your head.”
And he jumped up from the post, pulling his moustache with his left hand, and clenching his right fist, which was streaked with knotted veins and hard as iron, his eyes sparkling dangerously.
The boy was alarmed. He glanced hastily around, and also sprang to his feet. They measured each other with their eyes, and kept silence.
“Well?” asked Tchelkache, sternly.
He was boiling and quivering under the insult he had received from this young calf, whom he had despised even while he talked with him, and whom now he began to hate on account of his innocent blue eyes, his sunburnt, healthy face, his sturdy arms, and because down there, somewhere or other in the country, he had his village and his home in the village, and because it was open to him to enter a rich family, and to marry the daughter; above all, because this creature, who was an infant in comparison with himself, had dared to be in love with Liberty, the price and the use of which it was impossible that he should know. Nothing is more irritating than to find a person whom we have set down as an inferior, liking or hating where we do, and by that very fact proving himself something of an equal.
The boy looked at Tchelkache, and felt in him a master.
“Oh,” he said, “I don’t mind, I’m looking for a job. I don’t care if I work for you or for anybody else. I only said what I did because you don’t look like a working man. You’re too seedy; though to be sure that may happen to anyone. I have seen men before now who drink. Good Lord, lots of them! and worse than you.”
“Very well, then you consent?” said Tchelkache, blandly.
“Oh all right. I’m ready. What you give?”
“What I give depends on the business. It’s according to what we do and to what we get. Perhaps you’ll have five roubles. That do?”
But now the money question had come up the peasant tried to insist upon a clear understanding; he relapsed into suspicion and mistrust’
“That’s not good enough, brother,” he said. “I must see those five roubles at once.”
Tchelkache temporised. “We’ll finish this presently,” he said. “Let’s go and get a drink.”
They walked along side by side, Tchelkache, with the air of a patron, twisting his moustache; the lad submissive but distrustful, and a little alarmed.
“What’s your name?” asked Tchelkache. “Gavrilo,” replied the boy.
When they had reached the dirty and smoke-poisoned tavern, Tchelkache went to the bar, and with the air of an habitué ordered a bottle of brandy, cabbage soup, roast meat, and tea; then, having given his commands, he flung after them a brief “To my credit”; and the waiter replied by a silent nod.
Then Gavrilo felt full of respect for his new master, who, in spite of looking like a pickpocket, seemed to be so well known and trusted.
“There! We’ll have a bit to eat and we’ll talk afterwards. Wait a minute till I come back.”
He disappeared, and Gavrilo inspected his surroundings. The tavern was below the ground, damp and dirty, impregnated with the smell of tobacco, of tar, and of general sourness. Opposite to the new comer, at another table, was a drunken sailor, clearly a foreigner, with a red beard almost black with coal dust and tar. He was humming a song with incessant hiccup, now whistling, now groaning, and always murdering the words. Behind him were two Moldavian women, very ragged, very dark, very sunburnt; also grunting out a song. Further off other figures detached themselves from the gloom; all strangely dishevelled, all half drunk, contorted, convulsed. Gavrilo felt afraid of being here alone, and he longed for his master’s return. The different noises of the place mingled themselves into one note which seemed the furious growling of some huge beast with a hundred throats, struggling blindly in this stone prison and finding no escape. Gavrilo felt his body to be imbibing something heavy, intoxicating, which made him giddy and confused his sight in spite of his wish to keep watch. Presently Tchelkache came back, and they set to work eating and drinking and talking. After the third glass Gavrilo was tipsy. He became very cheerful, and wanted to say something agreeable to his host, who, worthy man, having as yet taken nothing himself, was treating his guest so well. But the words which swelled in his breast suddenly thickened, and refused to roll off his tongue; and Tchelkache watched him with a cynical smile.
“Already? After five little glasses? How, pray, do you intend to work?”
“My dear fellow,” stuttered Gavrilo, “don’t be afraid. I’ll work for you. You never saw such work. Let me shake hands with you. Do!”
“That’s right. That’s right. Another glass?”
Gavrilo drank till everything swam before his eyes in equal waves. It was unpleasant, and he felt sick. His face wore a look of stupid inspiration. In his desire to speak he stuck out his lips and grunted. Tchelkache watched him fixedly as if remembering something, twisted his moustache and smiled uninterruptedly, but his smile was sinister and evil. The tavern was full of drunken riot, the red sailor slept, his arms on the table.
“Let’s get out of this,” said Tchelkache, getting up.
Gavrilo tried to rise but failed, swore violently, and burst into foolish laughter.
“You seem pretty tight,” said Tchelkache, sitting down again opposite to him. Gavrilo still laughed stupidly, staring at his master, who looked at him with easy penetration. He saw before him a man whose life he held in his wolf’s claws. He, Tchelkache, knew he had the power of doing with him whatever he chose. He could double him up like a piece of card, or help him to settle down into his respectable village existence. Feeling himself master and lord of another being, he enjoyed his position, and reflected that this youth would never drink of the cup which destiny had allowed himself to empty. And he envied and pitied this young life, mocked at it, and was moved by the thought that it could fall into such hands as his own. And all these sentiments melted at last into one half paternal, wholly tyrannical; he pitied the boy; nevertheless, at this moment the boy was a necessity to him. Presently Tchelkache took Gavrilo by the arm, led him gently out of the tavern and put him in the shelter of a woodstack. He sat down by his side and lit a pipe. Gavrilo, after a moment’s uneasiness, groaned and fell asleep.
“Well, are you ready?” whispered Tchelkache to Gavrilo, who was arranging the oars.
“In a minute. One of the tholes is loose. Can I hammer with an oar?”
“No, no. Don’t make a noise; lean your hands on it and it will go down into its place.”
The two paddled the boat furtively under the lea of a sailing-ship. Around them there was a whole flotilla of barges laden with the bark of oak, and feluccas still half filled with palms, sandalwood, and great trunks of cypress trees.
The night was dark; heavy layers of clouds were moving over the sky; the sea was quiet, black and thick as oil. It exhaled a damp and salt aroma, and murmured softly against the sides of the ships and against the shore, and rocked Tchelkache’s boat very gently. Far away the black silhouettes of ships rose out of the sea, their masts piercing the sky and carrying coloured lanterns. The sea reflected their fires and seemed all strewn with yellow spots, which trembled on a bosom of velvet, soft and even and black, rising and falling in mighty breathing. The sea was sleeping the deep and healthy sleep of a labourer wearied by his long day’s toil.
“Now!” said Gavrilo, dipping his oars. “Off!”
Tchelkache, with a powerful stroke, drove the boat into an empty space between two barges; it glided swiftly over the waves which, at the touch of the oars, kindled into blue phosphorescent fire. A long trail of wavering, gently sparkling light followed the boat.
“Head very bad?” asked Tchelkache, kindly.
“Horribly. It’s going like a bell clapper. I’ll wet it with some water!”
“What for? Better wet your inside: that’s the quickest remedy,” and he held out a bottle to Gavrilo,
“Is it? Well – with God’s blessing – “ A soft glou-glou was heard.
“You like that prescription? There – that’ll do,” said Tchelkache, stopping him. The boat again shot forward noiselessly, slipping in and out among the craft. Then it escaped from the crowd; and the infinite, the powerful, the shining sea unrolled itself, vanishing into the blue horizon, where rose great mountains of clouds into the heavens, purplish with fleecy yellow borderings, tinged with green like the sea, or slaty and sad-coloured, making heavy, weary shadows oppressive to soul and spirit. The clouds climbed slowly one over the other, and sometimes mingled together, sometimes scattered; they blended their colours and their forms, dissolved themselves, or reappeared in new shapes, always gloomy and majestic. There was something fateful in this slow moving of inanimate masses. It seemed as though down there at the confines of the sea they were innumerable, always apathetically climbing the sky with the malignant and stupid wish never again to let it light the sleeping sea with the million golden eyes of its stars, which, many-coloured, living and intelligent, awaken high desires in those beings who worship their pure and holy light.
“The sea – is it not beautiful?” asked Tchelkache.
“Not bad, only it frightens one a bit to be on it,” replied Gavrilo, rowing evenly and strongly. The water was scarcely heard as it dropped from the long oars, still blue and fiery with its phosphorescence.
“Frightens you, stupid?” echoed Tchelkache, ironically.
He, the thief, the cynic, loved the sea. His passionate soul, thirsty for all impressions, was never sated with the contemplation of this immensity, so free, indomitable, infinite. It annoyed him to get such a response to his question as to the beauty of the sea, his love, Seated at the helm, cleaving the water with his oar, he gazed steadily before him, filled with the longing to float on and on for many hours across this velvet plain. When he was on the sea always a burning emotion rose within him, overflowing his soul and purifying it a little from the stains of his life. He enjoyed this feeling and liked the taste of himself as a better man; here, among the waves and the breezes, where his criticism of life had lost its bitterness and life itself its value. At night – upon the sea – let the gentle sound of its sleeping breath, this infinite murmur, pour its peace into the soul! refrain all evil impulses! and bring to the birth all mighty dreams –
“But where have you got the nets?” suddenly interrupted Gavrilo, who had been observing the boat. Tchelkache started.
“The net’s here – by the rudder.”
“What sort of net do you call that?” asked Gavrilo, suspiciously.
“A sparrow-hawk: a – “
But he felt ashamed to lie to this young lad in concealment of his real design. He regretted also the ideas and the emotions which the boy had scattered by his question. He was angry; he felt in his breast the scorching flames which he knew well; something swelled in his throat, and he replied sternly.
“You keep in your place where I’ve put you, and don’t be intruding into other men’s business. You’re here to row; in the devils name, row, then. No good will come of it if you set your tongue wagging. Do you hear?”
For one moment the boat trembled and then stood still. The oars were motionless in the bubbling water, and Gavrilo shuffled uneasily on his bench.
“Row, I tell you.”
With an oath Gavrilo raised his oars. The boat, as if terrified, shot forward in rapid nervous jerks, noisily sundering the waves.
“Row better than that.”
Tchelkache had risen, and without dropping his oar he fixed his cold eyes on Gavrilo’s white and trembling face. Sinewy, leaning forward, he was like a cat ready to spring, grinding his teeth with a noise like the scraping of bones.
“Who’s there?” This imperious question was sung out across the sea.
“The devil! Can’t you row? Without noise, you dog, or I’ll kill you. Why don’t you row! One! Two! Utter a word and I’ll tear you to pieces,” hissed Tchelkache.
“Holy Virgin!” murmured Gavrilo, trembling and faint with fear and fatigue.
The boat tacked cunningly, and floated towards the harbour where the lights crowded in many-coloured groups and illuminated the forest of masts.
“Who’s that I hear?” demanded the voice again. But this time it was farther off, and Tchelkache was reassured.
“You hear yourself, my friend,” he said in the direction of the questioner. Then he turned to Gavrilo who was still ejaculating prayers. “You’re lucky, my lad; if those devils had followed us it would have been all up with you. Do you understand? I’d have despatched you pretty quick to the fishes.”
Now that Tchelkache spoke calmly, even jestingly, Gavrilo, who was still shaking with alarm, made supplication to him.
“For God’s sake let me go. In the name of Christ. Put me out anywhere. This is enough to ruin me! Think of your God and let me off. What’s the good of me? I can’t do that sort of job. I know nothing about it. Good Lord, it’s the first time. I’m a lost soul. Brother, what did you do to get round me? It’s an awful sin – It will lose you your salvation. Oh, this is a terrible business!”
“Come now, what business? I ask you, what business?” said Tchelkache. The lad’s terror amused him, and he enjoyed the sensation of power, that he, Tchelkache, could provoke such terror.
“A horrible business, brother; an awful business. Let me go, for the love of God. What use am I? Friend – “
“Hold your tongue. If I hadn’t needed you I shouldn’t have brought you. Do you hear what I say? Well, then, shut up.”
“Good Lord!” sighed Gavrilo, with a sob.
“That’s enough now.”
At this Gavrilo had to go on rowing. He panted lamentably, cried, snuffled, wriggled on his bench; nevertheless, he rowed on with the strength of despair. The boat darted forward like an arrow. Once more across the way rose the dark forms of ships, and the boat was lost among them, circling like a top round the narrow dividing channels.
“Listen to me now. If anyone asks us questions, hold your tongue. That is if you value a whole skin. Do you hear?”
“My God!” sighed Gavrilo, disconsolately, in response to this severe order; and he added, “I was born to be damned.”
“Hold your tongue,” said Tchelkache, in a fierce whisper.
These words robbed Gavrilo of all intellect, and he lost himself in the cold presentiment of disaster. Mechanically he went on, dipping his oars, pulling, drawing them out of the water, pulling again, and obstinately staring at his bark shoes.
Here they were at the dock. Behind the granite walls were heard human voices, the chopping of water, songs, whistles.
“Easy!” whispered Tchelkache. “Ship the oars; put your hands against the wall. Quietly, you young devil!”
Gavrilo, his hands against the slimy stone-work, brought the boat up against the wall. It slipped along without a sound, rubbing against the sticky sea-weed.
“Stop. Give me the oars. Here. And your passport, where’s that? In your bag? Give me the bag. Look sharp. There, my boy, that’s so you shan’t run away. Now I’ve got you tight. Without oars you might have made off, but you daren’t go without your passport. Wait here for me, and remember, if you say one word, I’ll be even with you, though it’s at the bottom of the sea.”
And in an instant, seizing hold of something with his hands, Tchelkache rose up into the air and disappeared over the top of the wall.
Gavrilo shuddered; it had happened so suddenly. He felt as if the heavy burden and the terror which he had experienced in the presence of this thin, bony, hirsute outcast, had loosed itself and rolled off him. Escape? Now? Breathing once more in his liberty he looked round. On the left rose a black vessel without masts, like an immense, empty and abandoned coffin. Each time its side was struck by a wave it gave forth a dull, gurgling echo, like a heavy sigh. The damp wall of the quay extended above on the right, like a cold and ponderous serpent. Behind there were black skeletons; in front, in the space which stretched between the wall and the coffin, was the sea, silent, solitary, brooded over by inky clouds. And these clouds came forward, slow, enormous, heavy; borrowing terror from the darkness, ready to crush humanity with their weight. Everything was cold and black, and ill-omened. Gavrilo was panic-struck; this new fear was greater than his fear of Tchelkache. It hugged his breast in a close embrace, pressing upon him till he was a mere mass of misery, glued to the bottom of the boat. And all around him there was silence, not a sound, save the sighing of the sea; it seemed as though this silence must presently be shattered by something awful, something furiously loud which should shake the sea to its depths, rend the heavy flocks of clouds, sombre across the sky, and hurl into the desert of the waves all these hulls of deadly blackness. The clouds climbed the heavens as slowly and with as weary an air as before; but, unendingly, others rose out of the sea, and looking at the sky you might have thought it a second ocean, disturbed and overturned above that other which slept at peace with the world and with itself. The clouds were like waves with foaming crests; like the depths hollowed by winds between the waves; like rising billows, not yet clothed by foam, ghastly with fear.
Gavrilo was overwhelmed by this dark tranquility and beauty; he longed for the return of his master. But Tehelkache did not seem to be returning. The time passed slowly, even more slowly than the clouds climbed the heavens; and the slowness of the time doubled the agony of the silence. But suddenly, behind the wall, a little troubling of the water was heard, then a rustling, and something like a whisper. Gavrilo thought the moment of his death had certainly come. “Here – are you asleep? Take it – quietly,” said the low voice of Tchelkache, and from the wall came down a heavy cubical object. Gavrilo put it in the boat; then another. Across the wall was stretched the man’s tall figure; the oars mysteriously reappeared, then Gavrilo’s bag fell at his feet, and presently Tchelkache, panting for breath, seated himself at the helm.
Gavrilo met him with a smile; relieved, but still fearful.
“Tired?” he asked.
“A bit tired, no doubt, kiddy. Now, row steady with all your might. You’ve got a good haul, brother. Half the job’s done; we’ve only got to slink past the eyes of those devils and then you can have your money and be off to your Machka. You said Machka, didn’t you, young ‘un?”
Gavrilo toiled on; his chest worked like bellows, and his arms like springs of steel. The water gurgled under the boat, and the blue track which followed the stern was wider. He was covered with sweat, but he rowed on with all his strength. After twice to-night having experienced such terrors, he now dreaded encountering new ones, and desired one thing only, to get through this cursed business as quickly as possible, to land, and escape from the man before being killed by him, or thrown into gaol for his sake. He resolved not to speak; to contradict Tchelkache in nothing, to obey all his commands; and if he succeeded in shaking him off without damage to have a Te Deum sung to St. Nicholas. Fervent prayers were ready to burst from his lips, but he kept them back; puffed like a steam-engine, and held his tongue, keeping his eye on his companion,
He, stretched out, bent forward, like a bird preparing for flight, fixed his hawk’s gaze on the darkness before the boat. Wrinkling his hooked and ferocious nose, he kept one hand on the rudder, and with the other he pulled his moustache, which at every moment betrayed the silent smile of his thin lips. He was pleased by his success, by himself, and by the boy who was so fearful of him and had become his slave. He tasted already the morrow’s debauch while he gloated now over his own power and the abject submission of this fresh young lad. Noting Gavrilo’s exhaustion, and really rather sorry for him, Tchelkache tried to administer a little encouragement.
“Well,” he said, “were you in an awful funk?”
“It’s no matter,” said Gavrilo, and coughed.
“You needn’t pull so hard. We’re through now – almost. There’s only one more bad spot. Take it easy.”
Gavrilo paused obediently, wiped his face with his sleeve, and rowed on.
“That’ll do. Don’t row so hard. We don’t want the water chattering. There’s a place to get by – quietly now, quietly! There are serious folk just about here, brother; they amuse themselves with guns, and could put such a smart kiss on your forehead that you, wouldn’t have time to say Hallo!”
The boat sped over the sea without a sound – only the blue drops dripped from the oars, and when they met the waves, at the place where they fell, a little spark, blue also, was kindled for a moment. The night grew ever darker and more silent. The sky no longer resembled a troubled sea, for the clouds had spread all over its face and covered it with a flat heavy curtain, dropped on the waters and motionless. The sea was still quieter and still blacker; its salt hot smell grew stronger; it seemed less vast than before.
“If it would only rain,” sighed Tchelkache, “then we’d get behind a fine screen.”
Right and left the ships, moveless, sombre, stood out of the sea as sombre as they. On one of them a single light stirred; someone with a lantern. The sea caressing their sides seemed asking something of them, and they replied with a cold hollow echo as if disputing and refusing consent.
“The Custom House,” whispered Tchelkache.
Since the moment when he had given Gavrilo the order to row softly the lad had been feeling anew the horror of excited suspense. He peered forward into the darkness, and felt himself growing longer. His bones and veins were stretched with a dull pain; his head ached, filled with a single thought; his back crept; his legs were pierced by sharp cold needles; his eyes were bursting from having stared too long into the obscurity, whence at every moment he expected a voice to come crying to him, “Stop, thief!”
Now, when Tchelkache spoke of the Custom House, Gavrilo started: a bitter, burning thought rushed through his whole being, and set all his nerves quivering. He wanted to yell; to call for rescue. Already he had opened his mouth and risen from his bench. His chest swelled, he breathed hard, his lips moved. But suddenly he shut his eyes and fell back upon his seat, struck down by a new terror, which smote across his being like a whip. For beyond the boat, far away towards the horizon, there had sprung out of the inky water an immense sword of flaming azure. It had risen up and cleft the darkness of the night; its blade gleamed against the clouds, and left on the bosom of the sea a wide shining track. And down this lane of light, vessels till then unseen came forth out of the darkness – mysterious, silent; made of the blackness of the shadow of night. One might have thought they had lain long at the bottom of the sea, dragged down by the might of some great tempest; and now, obedient to the goading of a fiery sword begotten by the sea, – their sails clinging to them like a web of seaweed, – they had uprisen to face the heaven and. everythmg which was above the waves.
Presently the strange blue sword was again lifted; then again it clove the night and descended in another direction; and again, where it fell, appeared the skeletons of ships till then invisible.
Tchelkache’s boat stopped, rocking on the waves as if stricken with doubt. Gavrilo lay in the bottom covering his face with his hands, and Tchelkache struck him with his oar, hissing furiously but quite low:
“You intolerable idiot! It’s the Custom House cruiser and their electric lamp. Get up, you blockhead. They’ll throw the light upon us, and you’ll destroy us, the devil you will! Me and yourself too.”
When once the insistent oar had struck Gavrilo’s back he rose, and without daring to open his eyes, he seated himself, blindly recovered his oars and sent the boat forward.
“Quietly, or I’ll kill you. Quietly I say! Damn you – fool! What are you afraid of? A lamp and a glass, that’s all. Gently with those oars, you beast! They turn the glass where they choose and light up the sea to try if they can’t catch gentry of our sort. Smugglers – that’s what they’re after. But we’re beyond their reach; they’re miles off already. Cheer up, lad, we’re saved. Now we – “
Tchelkache looked round triumphantly. “Yes, we’re right enough. Certainly you’re a lucky one, you rotten fool!”
Gavrilo rowed in silence, breathing heavily. He glanced sideways at the still flaming sword of light; he could not believe it only a lamp and a reflector. The cold blue rays scathing the darkness, awaked silver sparkles on the sea. It was something inexplicable, and Gavrilo fell back into the stupor of black panic. Again the presentiment of evil sat upon his breast, and he rowed like a machine, contracting his shoulders as if expecting a blow from above. He felt empty of every desire; empty and without a soul. The emotions of this night had devoured everything human about him.
Tchelkache, on the other hand, was triumphant. Oh, a complete success! His nerves, used to shocks, were already calm. His moustache curled voluptuously, and in his eyes sprang up a thirsty brilliance. He felt extremely well; whistled between his teeth and took deep draughts of the salt air; looking right and left and smiling good naturedly when his eyes fell on Gavrilo. The wind was blowing fresh now, and it awakened the sea which began to play in a thousand wavelets. The clouds grew thinner and more transparent though still covering the whole sky. The breeze flew lightly over the surface of the sea, but the clouds were still motionless and seemed to be still pondering on some grey and tiresome thought.
“Now, brother, pull yourself together. It’s about time. One would think you’d had your soul shaken out of your skin. You’re no more than a bag of loose bones, my dear boy! Come now, we’ve got through pretty well, haven’t we?”
Gavrilo was glad to hear a human voice, even though it was Tchelkache’s.
“I suppose so.”
“That’s right, my duck! Here, you take the rudder and I’ll have the sculls. You’re about used up.”
Gavrilo left his place mechanically, and Tchelkache, seeing that his legs shook, pitied him still more. He tapped his shoulder.
“Cheer up. You’ll get a pretty penny, you know. I pay well, brother. Twenty-five roubles, eh?”
“I don’t want anything. Just that we may get safe to land.” Tchelkache stretched his arms, spat, and began to row, his long arms sending the blades very far behind him.
The sea was awake now. It played with its little waves, giving them birth, dressing them in a fringe of foam, driving them one against the other, resolving them into nothingness. The foam sighed as it melted, and the whole air was filled with rippling music. The darkness had begun to live.
“Well, now let’s see,” began Tchelkache; “you’ll go back, I suppose, to your home; you’ll marry, you’ll plough, and you’ll sow. Your wife will have lots of children; you’ll be short of food and half-naked all your life. Will it be such very great pleasure?”
“Who said anything of pleasure?” growled Gavrilo; “there’s nothing else to be done.”
Here and. there the clouds were torn by the wind, and through the rents appeared the blue sky with a few stars. Reflected by the playful sea the stars danced upon the waves, sometimes vanishing, then reappearing.
“More to the left,” said Tchelkache, “we’re almost there. Yes, it’s about over now, and a good job done. You see – one night’s work and five hundred roubles in the pocket. Don’t you call it pretty good?”
“Five hundred roubles?” echoed Gavrilo, sceptically; then his alarm returned and he asked hastily, kicking the bales at the boat’s bottom, “What are these things?”
“Silk. An expensive article. If you sold it at its real price it would fetch a thousand roubles. But I sell cheap. Good business, eh?”
“Is it possible?” asked Gavrilo. “Well, I wish it was mine.”
He sighed, remembering his home, his prospects, his mother, and all those things far away and beloved, for the sake of which he had set out to look for work, for the sake of which he had gone through so much this very night. A wave of remembrance rolled over him. He saw his village on the slope of a hill, the river below, hidden by birch-trees and willows, mountain ash, wild cherry. This vision warmed and sustained him a little.
“Good God! what a boon it would be!” he sighed, covetously. “Yes, I can fancy how quickly you’d jump into the coach and goodbye to you! And how the girls in your village would love you! You could take your choice. You’d build a new isba.Perhaps, though, there’d be hardly enough for an isba.”
“You’re right there. An isba! I should think not, indeed! Wood’s an awful price with us.”
“Never mind. You could repair the one you have. Got a horse?”
“Yes, there’s a horse – a damned old one.”
“Then you’d buy a horse, a good horse. And a cow – some sheep – fowls – “
“What’s the good of talking? If only – Lord! that would be something like a life!”
“Yes, the life wouldn’t be bad. I know something about it. I also had my nest. My father was one of the richest peasants in his part.”
Tchelkache rowed slowly. The boat danced over the waves which tickled its sides; it scarcely advanced, for the dark sea ran ever stronger. The two men were dreaming, rocked upon the water, vaguely looking before them. Tchelkache had begun to speak of the country merely to quiet the lad after his agitation. He had talked, smiling cynically into his moustache. But presently, by dint of making replies and recalling rustic pleasures long over for him, forgotten till this moment, he became carried away; and instead of making the boy talk, he himself perorated unpremeditatingly:
“Brother, the great essential in the life of a peasant is liberty. You must be your own master. Your house may not have cost much, but it must be your own; your piece of ground – a single acre, perhaps – but your own. The hen your own, the eggs, the apples. You’re king on your own ground. Then you have everything in order. As soon as you get up in the morning you’re off to work; one thing in spring, another in summer, one in autumn, another in winter. Wherever you may go you’ll return to your home. Comfort – repose – I tell you it’s being a king.”
Tchelkache had excited himself by this long enumeration of the rights and privileges of a peasant, from which, however, he had omitted all allusion to his duties.
Gavrilo looked at him with curiosity, and began to be excited himself. In the course of the conversation he had forgotten with whom he was speaking; he saw only a peasant like himself, glued, bound to the land by labour, by many generations of labourers, by the reminiscences of childhood; but who of his own free will had deserted the land and its anxieties, and who was now suffering the penalty of his rashness.
“Yes, brother, that’s all true; very true. Look at your own case, for instance. Now you’re away from the land what are you? The land is like a mother – it takes one a long while to forget her.”
Tchelkache became himself again. He felt that burning torture in his breast which always consumed him when his self love, his careless audacity, was attacked by one whom he despised.
“Did you suppose I was speaking in earnest?” he cried, fiercely. “I’m not such a fool as you think.”
“But, you strange fish,” returned Gavrilo, again slightly intimidated “did you suppose I was speaking of you? there are lots like you, Good God, the number of miserable wretches – vagabonds there are in the world!”
“Take back the oars, walrus!” commanded TcheIkache shortly, keeping back a flood of oaths which swelled in his throat.
Again they changed places. Tchelkache climbing over the bales to get back to the helm felt a strong temptation to throw Gavrilo overboard, and at the same time he was ashamed to look him in the face. The short conversation had slain itself; but now even Gavrilo’s silence seemed to Tchelkache to bring a whiff of the country. His thoughts strayed to the past, and he forgot to steer his boat which was caught by the waves and began drifting towards the open sea. The waves fancied it aimless, and played with it gently, kindling ever their blue fires under the oars. And before Tchelkache there passed swift pictures of the past already so far away, cut off from the present by eleven years of wandering. He was a child again in the village; he saw his mother, rosy, fat, with good grey eyes; his father, a giant, tawny bearded, and severe of look; himself, a lover; Amphissa, his wife, with her black eyes and long plaits, plump, soft, merry. Then he had become a soldier of the guards, and he had another vision of his father already grey and bent with toil, his mother wrinkled and bowed to the earth. How they had feted him when he had come back from active service! How proud his father had been of him, his Gregori, the robust, moustachioed soldier, cock of the village! Memory, that scourge of the unhappy, can give life to the very stones of the past, and even to poison already drunk can add drops of honey; but all only to bring a man to ruin by the consciousness of his errors, and to destroy in his soul all hope for the future by making him too much in love with his past. Tchelkache felt the breath of his native air which carried to him the sweet words of his mother, the wise counsels of his stern peasant father, even the forgotten noises and the pleasant smell of the country when it had been unfrozen by the spring, when it was newly dug, or when it was covered with the springing corn. Then, indeed, he felt himself lost, fallen, solitary and pitiable; without ties, outcast from that life in which had been formed the blood which flowed in his veins.
“I say! where are we going?” asked Gavrilo, suddenly.
Tchelkache started, and turned with the quick apprehension of a wild animal.
“The devil! Well, never mind. Pull a bit harder and we’ll soon get back.”
“You were in your dreams?” smiled Gavrilo.
Tchelkache searched him with his eyes. The lad had completely recovered. He was at his ease, lively, almost triumphant. He was young and had all his life in his hands. Tchelkache was jealous. But probably the country life would retain him. At this thought Tchelkache felt sadder still, and he replied to Gavrilo’s question sulkily.
“I’m tired, and the current flows strong.”
“It does certainly. Well, then, we aren’t going to burn our fingers with this business?”
“Don’t be the least alarmed. I shall, of course, get rid of the stuff at once and secure the money.”
“Did you say five hundred?”
“Not less. Possibly – “
“It’s a fine sum. I’d sing songs if I, poor beggar, had it.”
“Of course. And at once.”
Now Gavrilo was carried off on the wings of imagination, while Tchelkache seemed quite crushed. His moustache drooped: his right side, splashed by the waves, was all wet; his eyes were sunken and had lost their fire. He was melancholy and pitiable; his bird-of-prey air had vanished, leaving only a humiliated dreamer with his character written in the very creases of his dirty shirt.
“I’m dead-beat,” he said, mournfully.
“Well, we’re just arriving, aren’t we?” returned Gavrilo. Tchelkache veered the boat suddenly, directing its course towards a great black thing which rose out of the water. The sky was completely covered by the clouds, and now a fine close rain was coming down and plashing on the crests of the joyous waves.
“Easy,” ordered Tchelkache, and the boat struck the fore part of the ship.
“They must be asleep, the lazy villains,” grumbled Tchelkache, catching with his hook at some ropes hanging from the deck, “the ladder isn’t down. And this rain into the bargain! Why the devil couldn’t it have rained earlier? Hallo! you sponges! hallo!”
“Selkache?” demanded a caressing voice from above. “Come, then! Where’s the ladder?”
“Good morning, Selkache.”
“Let down the ladder, you sooty devil,” growled Tchelkache.
“A bit cross, is he? There, then.”
“Climb up, Gavrilo,” commanded Tchelkache.
After a minute they were on the deck, where three dark and bearded personages, who talked excitedly in a strange and thorny tongue, were looking down into Tchelkache’s boat. A fourth, in a long robe, came towards him, took his hand silently, and glanced suspiciously at Gavrilo.
“Have the money ready early to-morrow,” said Tchelkache, shortly.
“Now I’m going to bed. Come along, Gavrilo. Are you hungry?”
“I’m sleepy,” replied Gavrilo.
In less than five minutes he was snoring on the dirty deck, and Tchelkache, seated beside him, was trying on a pair of ill-fitting boots. He spat and whistled ill-humouredly between his teeth. Then, with the boots still on, he stretched himself beside Gavrilo, put his hands behind his head, and examined the deck, his lips curling.
The rain fell softly on the boards; the waves struck the keel. Everything was melancholy and seemed like the lullaby of a mother who has lost all hope for her child’s happiness. Tchelkache, showing his teeth, raised his head, looked round him, and after muttering a few words lay down again. His attitude, with his legs extended, made him look like a huge pair of scissors.
He was the first to awaken, and after a moment’s uneasiness he recovered his calm and looked at Gavrilo who still slept, snoring peacefully, a smile passing over his round boyish face. Tchelkache sighed; then descended by a rope ladder through a trap door. The opening of the descent framed a piece of leaden sky; it was daylight, but the autumn morning was grey and doleful.
Tchelkache came back after two hours’ absence. His face was red, his moustache curled upwards, on his lips was a gay and good-natured smile. He wore strong high boots, a jacket and leather breeches like a huntsman’s. The costume, a little frayed but still in excellent condition and very picturesque, made him look fatter, less angular, more military.
“Come, kiddy, get up,” he said, giving Gavrilo a little kick, Gavrilo jumped to his feet, and not recognising his master at first, stared with expressionless eyes till Tchelkache burst into a laugh.
“What have you done to yourself?” said Gavrilo, with a slow smile, “you’ve turned into a gentleman!”
“With us that happens quick enough. But what a coward you are, young man! Come now, how many times did you prepare for death last night?”
“Don’t you see, it was my first job of the kind. It might lose a man his soul for the rest of his days!”
“Would you go again?”
“Again? Let’s see what the wages are first.”
“Two hundred? Yes, I’d go.”
“Wait a moment. How about your soul?”
“Oh, well, perhaps I shouldn’t lose it,” smiled Gavrilo, “and anyhow, it would make a man of one for the rest of one’s days.”
“You’ll do, I think. Now let’s be off. Get ready.”
“I am ready.”
They got into their boat, Tchelkache at the rudder, Gavrilo with the sculls. The whole grey sky was strewn with clouds, the sea of a dirty green.
The waves, still gentle, teazed the little bark, tossing it about and wetting it with clear salt drops. The yellow line of the sands was far away before the prow, behind it the free and joyous sea furrowed by flocks of racing waves already decked with their superb fringes of foam. Vessels rocked in the distance on the bosom of the sea; to the left rose a forest of masts and the white town houses. A low rumbling noise came from that quarter, and mingling with the voice of the waves made beautiful resounding music. Over everything stretched a thin veil of mist, interposing between the different objects and giving effects of distance.
“There’ll be a pretty dance to-night,” said Tchelkache, pointing to the sea.
“A storm?” asked Gavrilo, who was rowing vigorously. He was wet from head to foot with the drops chased by the wind.
“That’s it,” said Tchelkache. Gavrilo looked at him curiously.
“How much money did you get?” he asked at last, as Tchelkache seemed indisposed to talk.
“I got this,” he answered, holding out something he had taken from his pocket. Gavrilo saw many-coloured bank notes, which to his eyes wore the hues of the very rainbow.
“My word! And I had supposed you bragging! How much is it?”
“Five hundred and forty. Pretty well, isn’t it?”
“Rather!” And Gavrilo followed with an envious glance the disappearance of the five hundred and forty roubles into the man’s pocket. “If only they were mine!” and he sighed, greatly depressed.
“We’ll have a spree, young ‘un,’ cried Tchelkache. “Cheer up! I’ll pay you your due. Come now, I’ll give you forty roubles. What do you think of that? Have it at once?”
“If you really mean it – well – I won’t say no.”
Gavrilo trembled with expectation, and at a sudden idea which had pierced his breast.
“Oh, you accept do you, limb of the devil? Here then, brother, I beg, I implore you to take it. I don’t know money. Relieve my embarrassment. Here!”
Tchelkache held out a few ten-rouble notes. The other took them with a trembling hand, dropped the oars and hid his booty in his smock, squeezing up his eyes and breathing noisily as if he were drinking something hot. Tchelkache watched him with his cynical smile; then Gavrilo picked up his oars, pulling with nervous haste, his eyes downcast as if afraid of something, his shoulders and his ears twitching.
“You’re very greedy, my son; that’s not right, not at all right for a peasant.”
“The things one could do with money!” burst out Gavrilo, suddenly flaming with passion. And he began to talk hurriedly, disjointedly, as if pursuing an idea, and catching his words on the wing, – of the difference between country life with and without money. On the one hand ease, liberty, respect, mirth –
Tchelkache listened with serious mien, his eyes full of unspoken thought. Now and then he smiled.
“Here we are!” he said at last.
A wave lifted the boat and flung it cleverly on the sand.
“Finished. Now it’s all over. Pull the boat up further away from the sea, and I’ll send for it. And now, good-bye. The town is eight versts off. I suppose you’re going back to the town?”
Tchelkache’s face still shone with his seemingly kindly, cunning smile.
He looked as if he were preparing something agreeable to himself, unexpected by Gavrilo. His hand in his pocket rustled the bank notes.
“No, I’m not going. “I – “
Gavrilo felt suffocated. A storm of desires, words, thoughts, was devouring him. He burned all over like fire. Tchelkache looked at him in astonishment.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked.
But his face grew crimson, then ashy pale. He trampled the ground as if wishing to throw himself on Tchelkache, or as if torn by some impossible desire. Tchelkache became uneasy. He wondered in what form this excitement was going to explode.
Gavrilo laughed, a strange laugh, almost a sob, his head hanging so that Tchelkache could not read his expression.
“To the devil with you,” he said, impatiently, “have you fallen in love with me, or what is it? You’re grimacing like a woman! Is your heart broke at leaving me! For heaven’s sake speak, boy, or I’ll run away.”
“You’re not going?” cried Gavrilo, in a sonorous voice. The beach, sandy and deserted, trembled at this cry, and the waves of the sand, made by the waves of the sea, seemed to shudder. Tchelkache shuddered himself.
Suddenly Gavrilo started from his place and flung himself at Tchelkache’s feet, clasping his legs and drawing him to him. Tchelkache tottered and plumped heavily on the sand, grinding his teeth and cleaving the air with his long arm and closed fist. But before he could strike he was checked by the boy’s supplicating apology.
“Friend-give me-that money! Give it for the love of Christ! What can you want with it? One night – only one night! While I should need years. – Give it to me. I’ll pray for you – every day – in three churches – for the salvation of your soul. You will fling it all away to the winds; but I – I would put it into the land. Ah, give it to me! Think, what use have you for it? Do you really want it so much? One night – and there you are a rich man! Do a good action for once. You’re a lost soul. You can’t have any use for it, while I – Ah, give it to me!”
Tchelkache, alarmed, surprised, furious, overturned, sat on the sand, leaning on his two hands, and kept silence, his eyes starting from their sockets as he watched this lad who had laid his head on his knees and was whimpering and sobbing out his supplication. Presently Tchelkache pushed him away, sprang to his feet, and thrusting his hand into his pocket, threw the rainbow notes to Gavrilo. “There, dog! swallow,” he cried, shaking with fury, with pity, and with contempt for his greedy slave. Then, having given the money, he felt himself a hero: insolence shone out of his eyes, and from his whole person.
“I had an idea of giving you more. I really felt for you yesterday. I thought of your stupid village, and said to myself, ‘I’ll help this unlucky youth.’ But I waited to see what you were good for, whether you’d ask or not. Bah! you filthy beggar! Get into that stew for dirty lucre? Demean yourself like that? You fools! you greedy devils – where’s your self-respect? ready to sell yourselves for five copeks, are you?”
“Friend! May the Christ protect you! Look at me now! See what you have made me I – a millionaire!” gasped Gavrilo, shaking from head to foot in his ecstasy, and hiding the money in his smock. “You’re my good angel! I shall never forget you. Never! And I’ll make my wife and my children pray for you!”
Tchelkache listened to these cries of joy, and saw the lad’s face burning and distorted by this frenzy of greed. He reflected that he himself, the vagabond, the thief, outcast from mankind, would never become so rapacious, so vile, so lost. Never! Never!
This comfortable conviction, giving him a full sense of his independence and his virtue, made him linger by Gavrilo’s side on the lonely beach.
“You have given me happiness!” cried Gavrilo, and seized Tchelkache’s hand, rubbing it against his face. Tchelkache was speechless, showing his teeth like a wolf; but Gavrilo continued his rhapsody.
“I’d had a notion you know – We were skimming along – I’d seen the notes – I said to myself, ‘Suppose now I gave him a knock with the oar – just one – then that money’d be mine. I’d throw him into the sea – You, I meant. Who’d there be to miss you? And supposing they did find your body, no one would ask, Who? How? Why? You’re not the sort they make a noise about. You’re no good to the world. Who’d take your side?’ There! That’s what I was thinking!”
“Give back my money!” roared Tchelkache, seizing Gavrilo by the throat. Gavrilo struggled, but Tchelkache’s other arm wound round him like a serpent. There was a sound of the rending of linen. Then Gavrilo lay on the ground, his eyes wild, snatching at the air, his legs moving convulsively. Tchelkache upright, calm, showing his teeth wickedly like a wild beast, laughed a restrained, bitter laugh, his moustache jumping nervously against his angular countenance. Never in all his life had he received a blow so painful, and never had his wrath been so great.
“Well, are you happy now?” he asked, through his laughter, and turning his back on Gavrilo he set out in the direction of the town. However, before he had taken two steps, Gavrilo curling himself like a cat, and swinging his arm, threw a round stone after him, shouting furiously.
“One – !”
Tchelkache groaned, put his hand to the back of his neck, staggered forwards; then he returned to Gavrilo and fell with his face on the sand. He moved his legs, tried to raise his head, then stiffened vibrating like a strained cord.
At this Gavrilo fled; away there where the shadow of a torn cloud hung over the dark steppe. And the waves murmured, running on the sands, melting into them, running back; the foam hissed, drops of water flying through the air. The rain fell; sparse at first, it became closer, heavier, descending from the heavens in thin veils which presently crossed each other, making a great sheet and quickly hiding the distance of the steppe and of the sea.
For a long time there was nothing to be seen but the rain and the motionless figure lying on the sand by the waves.
But presently, out of the rain, Gavrilo reappeared, running, flying like a bird. He drew near, fell on his knees by Tchelkache and tried to turn him over. His hand plunged into something warm – scarlet. He trembled and started back, his face wild and white.
“Brother! Brother! Get up!” His voice sounded in Tchelkache’s ear through the plashing of the rain.
Tchelkache came to himself, and pushing Gavrilo from him, said hoarsely,
“Brother! Forgive! It was the devil tempted me,” continued Gavrilo, trembling and kissing Tchelkache’s hand.
“Get away,” groaned the other.
“Absolve me from the sin! Friend – forgive!”
“Go away! Go to the devil,” cried Tchelkache, suddenly sitting up. His face, though malignant, was ghastly, his eyes closed as if for sleep. “How much more do you want? You have done your work. Be off! Go!”
And he tried to kick him, but overcome with pain he failed, and would have fallen had Gavrilo not supported his shoulders. Their faces were on a level; both were white, anguished, terrible.
“Bah!” said Tchelkache, and spat directly into the eyes of his slave.
Gavrilo humbly rubbed them with his sleeve, and murmured:
“Do what you choose. I won’t say a word. Forgive me in the name of Christ.”
“Good-for-nothing! Not able even to steal!” cried Tchelkache, scornfully. He tore his shirt, and without saying more, only gnashing his teeth, he tried to bandage his head. “Have you taken the money?” he asked, presently.
“No, I haven’t taken it, brother. I don’t want it. It’s cursed.”
Tchelkache thrust his hand into his pouch, pulled out the bundle of notes, and retaining one, flung the rest to Gavrilo.
“Take it, and go.”
“I couldn’t take it. I can’t. Forgive!”
“Take it, I tell you!” roared Tchelkache, rolling his eyes hideously.
“Forgive me! If you’ll forgive me, then I’ll take it!” said Gavrilo, timidly, and he threw himself at Tchelkache’s feet on the wet sand.
“You’re lying, fool. You’ll take it at once,” said Tchelkache, with conviction; and dragging up the youth’s head by the hair, he thrust the money into his face. “Take it. Take it. You haven’t worked to no purpose. Don’t be ashamed of having killed a man. No one makes a noise about my sort. They’ll probably say, Thank you, when they know. Take it. No one will hear of what you’ve done and yet you deserve a reward. There!”
Finding Tchelkache so pleasant, Gavrilo felt relieved. He crushed the notes in his hand.
“Brother, you do forgive me, don’t you? Ah, tell me!” he implored with tears.
“Little brother!” said Tchelkache, mimicking him himself to his trembling legs, “what have I to forgive? To-day it’s your turn, to-morrow it will be mine!”
“Ah, brother! brother!” sighed Gavrilo, still dolorously, shaking his head. Tchelkache was now standing before him smiling strangely. The bandage round his head, gradually reddening, was getting like a Turkish cap.
The rain was falling in torrents; the sea growled; and the waves, beating against the beach were now furious and violent.
The two men kept silence.
“Good-bye,” said Tchelkache, with frigid irony.
He staggered; his legs shook, and he supported his head oddly as if fearing it would fall off.
“Forgive, brother!” said Gavrilo once more.
“It’s nothing,” replied Tchelkache drily; still holding his head with his left hand and gently pulling his moustache with the right.
Gavrilo watched him for a long time, till he had vanished into the rain, which fell incessantly from the clouds; close, fine rain, in thin veils, interminable, wrapping the steppe in an impenetrable fog, cold and grey as steel.
Then Gavrilo removed his wet cap, crossed himself, looked at the money in his palm, gave a profound sigh, hid his booty in his smock, and set off with firm step in the direction opposite to that by which Tchelkache had disappeared.
The sea growled, flinging the weight of huge waves upon the sand, shivering them into foam and spray. The rain lashed with blind fury both sea and land. The wind roared. The whole air was full of plaints, of cries, of deafening noise. The mist hid the sea and the sky.
Soon the rain and the sea together had cleansed the red spot where Tchelkache had been struck down, and washed away the traces of his steps and those of the lad. The sandy desert kept no memorial of the little drama which had been played there by those two men.