by Maxim Gorky
The sky is clouded by the dark smoke rising from the harbor. The ardent sun gazes at the green sea through a thin veil. It is unable to see its reflection in the water so agitated is the latter by the oars, the steamer screws and the sharp keels of the Turkish feluccas, or sail boats, that plough the narrow harbor in every direction. The waves imprisoned by stone walls, crushed under the enormous weights that they carry, beat against the sides of the vessels and the quays; beat and murmur, foaming and muddy.
The noise of chains, the rolling of wagons laden with merchandise, the metallic groan of iron falling on the pavements, the creaking of windlasses, the whistling of steamboats, now in piercing shrieks, now in muffled roars, the cries of haulers, sailors and custom-house officers—all these diverse sounds blend in a single tone, that of work, and vibrate and linger in the air as though they feared to rise and disappear. And still the earth continues to give forth new sounds; heavy, rumbling, they set in motion everything about them, or, piercing, rend the hot and smoky air.
Stone, iron, wood, vessels and men, all, breathe forth a furious and passionate hymn to the god of Traffic. But the voices of the men, scarcely distinguishable, appear feeble and ridiculous, as do also the men, in the midst of all this tumult. Covered with grimy rags, bent under their burdens, they move through clouds of dust in the hot and noisy atmosphere, dwarfed to insignificance beside the colossal iron structures, mountains of merchandise, noisy wagons and all the other things that they have themselves created. Their own handiwork has reduced them to subjection and robbed them of their personality.
The giant vessels, at anchor, shriek, or sigh deeply, and in each sound there is, as it were, an ironical contempt for the men who crawl over their decks and fill their sides with the products of a slaved toil. The long files of ‘longshoremen are painfully absurd; they carry huge loads of corn on their shoulders and deposit them in the iron holds of the vessels so that they may earn a few pounds of bread to put in their famished stomachs. The men, in rags, covered with perspiration, are stupefied by fatigue, noise and heat; the machines, shining, strong and impassive, made by the hands of these men, are not, however, moved by steam, but by the muscles and blood of their creators—cold and cruel irony!
The noise weighs down, the dust irritates nostrils and eyes; the heat burns the body, the fatigue, everything seems strained to its utmost tension, and ready to break forth in a resounding explosion that will clear the air and bring peace and quiet to the earth again—when the town, sea and sky will be calm and beneficent. But it is only an illusion, preserved by the untiring hope of man and his imperishable and illogical desire for liberty.
Twelve strokes of a bell, sonorous and measured, rang out. When the last one had died away upon the air, the rude tones of labor were already half softened. At the end of a minute, they were transformed into a dull murmur. Then, the voices of men and sea were more distinct. The dinner hour had come.
* * * * *
When the longshoremen, leaving their work, were dispersed in noisy groups over the wharf, buying food from the open-air merchants, and settling themselves on the pavement, in shady corners, to eat, Grichka Tchelkache, an old jail-bird, appeared among them. He was game often hunted by the police, and the entire quay knew him for a hard drinker and a clever, daring thief. He was bare-headed and bare-footed, and wore a worn pair of velvet trousers and a percale blouse torn at the neck, showing his sharp and angular bones covered with brown skin. His touseled black hair, streaked with gray, and his sharp visage, resembling a bird of prey’s, all rumpled, indicated that he had just awakened. From his moustache hung a straw, another clung to his unshaved cheek, while behind his ear was a fresh linden leaf. Tall, bony, a little bent, he walked slowly over the stones, and, turning his hooked nose from side to side, cast piercing glances about him, appearing to be seeking someone among the ‘longshoremen. His long, thick, brown moustache trembled like a cat’s, and his hands, behind his back, rubbed each other, pressing closely together their twisted and knotty fingers. Even here, among hundreds of his own kind, he attracted attention by his resemblance to a sparrow-hawk of the steppes, by his rapacious leanness, his easy stride, outwardly calm but alert and watchful as the flight of the bird that he recalled.
When he reached a group of tatterdemalions, seated in the shade of some baskets of charcoal, a broad-shouldered and stupid looking boy rose to meet him. His face was streaked with red and his neck was scratched; he bore the traces of a recent fight. He walked along beside Tchelkache, and said under his breath:
“The custom-house officers can’t find two boxes of goods. They are looking for them. You understand, Grichka?”
“What of it?” asked Tchelkache, measuring him calmly with his eyes.
“What of it? They are looking, that’s all.”
“Have they inquired for me to help them in their search?”
Tchelkache gazed at the warehouses with a meaning smile.
“Go to the devil!”
The other turned on his heel.
“Hey! Wait!—Who has fixed you up in that fashion? Your face is all bruised—Have you seen Michka around here?”
“I haven’t seen him for a long time!” cried the other, rejoining the ‘longshoremen.
Tchelkache continued on his way, greeted in a friendly manner by all. But he, usually so ready with merry word or biting jest, was evidently out of sorts to-day, and answered all questions briefly.
Behind a bale of merchandise appeared a custom-house officer, standing in his dark-green, dusty uniform with military erectness. He barred Tchelkache’s way, placing himself before him in an offensive attitude, his left hand on his sword, and reached out his right hand to take Tchelkache by the collar.
“Stop, where are you going?”
Tchelkache fell back a step, looked at the officer and smiled drily.
The red, cunning and good-natured face of the custom-house officer was making an effort to appear terrible; with the result that swollen and purple, with wrinkling eyebrows and bulging eyes, it only succeeded in being funny.
“You’ve been warned before: don’t you dare to come upon the wharf, or I’ll break every rib in your body!” fiercely exclaimed the officer. “How do you do, Semenitch! I haven’t seen you for a long time,” quietly replied Tchelkache, extending his hand.
“I could get along without ever seeing you! Go about your business!”
However, Semenitch shook the hand that was extended to him.
“You’re just the one I want to see,” pursued Tchelkache, without loosening the hold of his hooked fingers on Semenitch’s hand, and shaking it familiarly. “Have you seen Michka?”
“What Michka? I don’t know any Michka! Get along with you, friend, or the inspector’ll see you; he—”
“The red-haired fellow who used to work with me on board the ‘Kostroma,'” continued Tchelkache, unmoved. “Who stole with you would be nearer the truth! Your Michka has been sent to the hospital: his leg was crushed under a bar of iron. Go on, friend, take my advice or else I shall have to beat you.”
“Ah!—And you were saying: I don’t know Michka! You see that you do know him. What’s put you out, Semenitch?”
“Enough, Grichka, say no more and off with you—”
The officer was getting angry and, darting apprehensive glances on either side, tried to free his hand from the firm grasp of Tchelkache. The last named looked at him calmly from under his heavy eyebrows, while a slight smile curved his lips, and without releasing his hold of the officer’s hand, continued talking.
“Don’t hurry me. When I’m through talking to you I’ll go. Tell me how you’re getting on. Are your wife and children well?”
Accompanying his words with a terrible glance, and showing his teeth in a mocking grin, he added:
“I’m always intending to make you a visit, but I never have the time: I’m always drunk—” “That’ll do, that’ll do, drop that—Stop joking, bony devil! If you don’t, comrade, I—Or do you really intend to rob houses and streets?”
“Why? There’s enough here for both of us. My God, yes!—Semenitch! You’ve stolen two boxes of goods again?—Look out, Semenitch, be careful! Or you’ll be caught one of these days!”
Semenitch trembled with anger at the impudence of Tchelkache; he spat upon the ground in a vain effort to speak. Tchelkache let go his hand and turned back quietly and deliberately at the entrance to the wharf. The officer, swearing like a trooper, followed him.
Tchelkache had recovered his spirits; he whistled softly between his teeth, and, thrusting his hands in his trousers’ pockets, walked slowly, like a man who has nothing to do, throwing to the right and left scathing remarks and jests. He received replies in kind.
“Happy Grichka, what good care the authorities take of him!” cried someone in a group of ‘longshoremen who had eaten their dinner and were lying, stretched out on the ground.
“I have no shoes; Semenitch is afraid that I may hurt my feet,” replied Tchelkache. They reached the gate. Two soldiers searched Tchelkache and pushed him gently aside.
“Don’t let him come back again!” cried Semenitch, who had remained inside.
Tchelkache crossed the road and seated himself on a stepping-block in front of the inn door. From the wharf emerged an interminable stream of loaded wagons. From the opposite direction arrived empty wagons at full speed, the drivers jolting up and down on the seats. The quay emitted a rumbling as of thunder; accompanied by an acrid dust. The ground seemed to shake.
Accustomed to this mad turmoil, stimulated by his scene with Semenitch, Tchelkache felt at peace with all the world. The future promised him substantial gain without great outlay of energy or skill on his part. He was sure that neither the one nor the other would fail him; screwing up his eyes, he thought of the next day’s merry-making when, his work accomplished, he should have a roll of bills in his pocket. Then his thoughts reverted to his friend Michka, who would have been of so much use to him that night, if he had not broken his leg. Tchelkache swore inwardly at the thought that for want of Michka he might perhaps fail in his enterprise. What was the night going to be?—He questioned the sky and inspected the street.
Six steps away, was a boy squatting in the road near the sidewalk, his back against a post; he was dressed in blue blouse and trousers, tan shoes, and a russet cap. Near him lay a little bag and a scythe, without a handle, wrapped in hay carefully bound with string. The boy was broad shouldered and fairhaired with a sun-burned and tanned face; his eyes were large and blue and gazed at Tchelkache confidingly and pleasantly.
Tchelkache showed his teeth, stuck out his tongue, and, making a horrible grimace, stared at him persistently.
The boy, surprised, winked, then suddenly burst out laughing and cried:
“O! how funny he is!”
Almost without rising from the ground, he rolled heavily along toward Tchelkache, dragging his bag in the dust and striking the stones with his scythe.
“Eh! say, friend, you’ve been on a good spree!” said he to Tchelkache, pulling his trousers.
“Just so, little one, just so!” frankly replied Tchelkache. This robust and artless lad pleased him from the first.
“Have you come from the hay-harvest?”
“Yes. I’ve mowed a verst and earned a kopek! Business is bad! There are so many hands! The starving folks have come—have spoiled the prices. They used to give sixty kopeks at Koubagne. As much as that! And formerly, they say, three, four, even five rubles.”
“Formerly!—Formerly, they gave three rubles just for the sight of a real Russian. Ten years ago, I made a business of that. I would go to a village, and I would say: ‘I am a Russian!’ At the words, everyone came flocking to look at me, feel of me, marvel at me—and I had three rubles in my pocket! In addition, they gave me food and drink and invited me to stay as long as I liked.”
The boy’s mouth had gradually opened wider and wider, as he listened to Tchelkache, and his round face expressed surprised admiration; then, comprehending that he was being ridiculed by this ragged man, be brought his jaws together suddenly and burst, out laughing. Tchelkache kept a serious face, concealing a smile under his moustache.
“What a funny fellow! . . . You said that as though it was true, and I believed you. But, truly, formerly, yonder. . . .”
“And what did I say? I said that formerly, yonder. . .”
“Get along with you!” said the boy, accompanying his words with a gesture. “Are you a shoemaker? or a tailor? Say?”
“I?” asked Tchelkache; then after a moment’s reflection, he added:
“I’m a fisherman.”
“A fisherman? Really! What do you catch, fish?”
“Why should I catch fish? Around here the fishermen catch other things besides that. Very often drowned men, old anchors, sunken boats—everything, in fact! There are lines for that. . .”
“Invent, keep on inventing! Perhaps you’re one of those fishermen who sing about themselves:
“We are those who throw our nets Upon dry banks, Upon barns and stables!” “Have you ever seen any of that kind?” asked Tchelkache, looking ironically at him, and thinking that this honest boy must be very stupid.
“No, I’ve never seen any; but I’ve heard them spoken of.”
“Do you like them?”
“Why not? They are fearless and free.”
“Do you feel the need of freedom? Do you like freedom?”
“How could I help liking it? One is his own master, goes where he likes, and does what he pleases. If he succeeds in supporting himself and has no weight dragging at his neck, what more can he ask? He can have as good a time as he likes provided he doesn’t forget God.”
Tchelkache spat contemptuously and interrupted the boy’s questions by turning his back to him.
“Look at me, for instance,” said the other, with sudden animation. “When my father died, he left little. My mother was old, the land worn out, what could I do? One must live. But how? I don’t know. A well-to-do family would take me in as a son-in-law, to be sure! If the daughter only received her share! But no! The devil of a father-in-law never wants to divide the property. So then, I must toil for him . . . a long time . . . years. Do you see how it stands? While if I could put by a hundred and fifty rubles, I should feel independent and be able to talk to the old man. ‘Will you give Marfa her share?’ No! ‘All right! She’s not the only girl in the village, thank God.’ And so I’d be perfectly free, my own master. Yes!” The lad sighed. “As it is, there’s nothing for it but to go into a family. I’ve thought that if I were to go to Koubagne, I’d easily make two hundred rubles. Then I should have a chance for myself. But no, nothing has come my way, I’ve failed in everything! So now it’s necessary to enter a family, be a slave, because I can’t get along with what I have—impossible! Ehe! . . .”
The lad detested the idea of becoming the husband of some rich girl who would remain at home. His face grew dull and sad. He moved restlessly about on the ground; this roused Tchelkache from the reflections in which his speech had plunged him.
Tchelkache felt that he had no more desire to talk, but he nevertheless asked:
“Where are you going, now?”
“Where am I going? Home, of course!”
“Why of course? . . . Perhaps you’d like to go to Turkey.”
“To Turkey?” drawled the boy. “Do Christians go there? What do you mean by that?”
“What an imbecile you are!” sighed Tchelkache, and he again turned his back on his interlocutor, thinking this time that he would not vouchsafe him another word. This robust peasant awakened something obscure within him.
A confused feeling was gradually growing up, a kind of vexation was stirring the depths of his being and preventing him from concentrating his thoughts upon what he had to do that night.
The lad whom he had just insulted muttered something under his breath and looked askance at him. His cheeks were comically puffed out, his lips pursed up, and he half closed his eyes in a laughable manner. Evidently he had not expected that his conversation with this moustached person would end so quickly and in a manner so humiliating for him.
Tchelkache paid no more attention to him. Sitting on the block, he whistled absent-mindedly and beat time with his bare and dirty heel.
The boy longed to be revenged.
“Hey! Fisherman! Are you often drunk?” he began; but at the same instant the fisherman turned quickly around and asked:
“Listen, youngster! Do you want to work with me to-night? Eh? Answer quick.”
“Work at what?” questioned the boy, distrustfully.
“At what I shall tell you. . . We’ll go fishing. You shall row. . .”
“If that’s it . . . why not? All right! I know how to work. . . Only suppose anything happens to me with you; you’re not reassuring, with your mysterious airs. . .”
Tchelkache felt a burning sensation in his breast and said with concentrated rage:
“Don’t talk about what yon can’t understand, or else, I’ll hit yon on the head so hard that your ideas will soon clear up.”
He jumped up, pulling his moustache with his left hand and doubling his right fist all furrowed with knotted veins and hard as iron; his eyes flashed.
The lad was afraid. He glanced quickly around him and, blinking timidly, also jumped up on his feet. They measured each other with their eyes in silence.
“Well?” sternly demanded Tchelkache.
He was boiling over with rage at being insulted by this young boy, whom he had despised even when talking with him, and whom he now began to hate on account of his pure blue eyes, his healthy and sun-burned face and his short, strong arms; because he had, somewhere yonder, a village and a home in that village; because it had been proposed to him to enter as son-in-law in a well-to-do family, and, above all, because this being, who was only a child in comparison with himself, should presume to like liberty, of which he did not know the worth and which was useless to him. It is always disagreeable to see a person whom we consider our inferior like, or dislike, the same things that we do and to be compelled to admit that in that respect they are our equals.
The lad gazed at Tchelkache and felt that he had found his master.
“Why . . .” said he; “I consent. I’m willing. It’s work that I’m looking for. It’s all the same to me whether I work with you or someone else. I only said that because you don’t seem like a man that works . . . you are far too ragged. However, I know very well that that may happen to anyone. Have I never seen a drunkard? Eh! How many I’ve seen, and much worse than you!”
“Good! Then you consent?” asked Tchelkache, somewhat mollified.
“I, why yes, with pleasure. Name your price.”
“My price depends upon the work. It’s according to what we do and take. You may perhaps receive five rubles. Do you understand?”
But now that it was a question of money, the peasant wanted a clear understanding and exacted perfect frankness on the part of his master. He again became distrustful and suspicious.
“That’s scarcely to my mind, friend. I must have those five rubles in my hand how.”
Tchelkache humored him.
“Enough said, wait a little. Let us go to the tavern.”
They walked side by side along the street; Tchelkache twisting his moustache with the important air of an employer, the lad submissively, but at the same time filled with distrust and fear.
“What’s your name?” asked Tchelkache.
“Gavrilo,” replied the lad.
When they had entered the dirty and smoky ale-house Tchelkache went up to the bar and ordered, in the familiar tone of a regular customer, a bottle of brandy, cabbage soup, roast beef and tea, and, after enumerating the order, said briefly: “to be charged!” To which the boy responded by a silent nod. At this, Gavrilo was filled with great respect for his master, who, despite his knavish exterior, was so well known and treated with so much confidence.
“There, let us eat a bite, and talk afterward. Wait for me an instant, I will be back directly.” He went out. Gavrilo looked around him. The ale-house was in a basement; it was damp and dark and reeking with tobacco smoke, tar and a musty odor. In front of Gavrilo, at another table, was a drunken sailor, with a red beard, all covered with charcoal and tar. He was humming, interrupted by frequent hiccoughs, a fragment of a song very much out of tune. He was evidently not a Russian.
Behind him were two ragged women from Moldavia, black-haired and sun-burned; they were also grinding out a song.
Further on, other faces started out from the darkness, all dishevelled, half drunk, writhing, restless. . .
Gavrilo was afraid to remain alone. He longed for his master’s return. The divers noises of the ale-house blended in one single note: it seemed like the roaring of some enormous animal with a hundred voices, struggling blindly and furiously in this stone box and finding no issue. Gavrilo felt himself growing heavy and dull as though his body had absorbed intoxication; his head swam and he could not see, in spite of his desire to satisfy his curiosity.
Tchelkache returned; he ate and drank while he talked. At the third glass Gavrilo was drunk. He grew lively; he wanted to say something nice to his host, who, worthy man that he was, was treating him so well, before he had availed himself of his services. But the words, which vaguely mounted to his throat, refused to leave his suddenly thick tongue.
Tchelkache looked at him. He said, smiling sarcastically.
“So you’re done for, already! . . . it isn’t possible! Just for five small glasses! How will you manage to work?”
“Friend,” stammered Gavrilo, “don’t be afraid! I will serve you. Ah, how I’ll serve you! Let me embrace you, come?”
“That’s right, that’s right! . . . One more glass?”
Gavrilo drank. Everything swam before his eyes in unequal waves. That was unpleasant and gave him nausea. His face had a stupid expression. In his efforts to speak, he protruded his lips comically and roared. Tchelkache looked at him fixedly as though he was recalling something, then without turning aside his gaze twisted his moustache and smiled, but this time, moodily and viciously.
The ale-house was filled with a drunken uproar. The red-haired sailor was asleep with his elbows on the table.
“Let us get out of here!” said Tchelkache rising.
Gavrilo tried to rise, but not succeeding, uttered a formidable oath and burst out into an idiotic, drunken laugh.
“See how fresh you are!” said Tchelkache, sitting down again. Gavrilo continued to laugh, stupidly contemplating his master. The other looked at him lucidly and penetratingly. He saw before him a man whose life he held in his hands. He knew that he had it in his power to do what he would with him. He could bend him like a piece of cardboard, or help him to develop amid his staid, village environments. Feeling himself the master and lord of another being, he enjoyed this thought and said to himself that this lad should never drink of the cup that destiny had made him, Tchelkache, empty. He at once envied and pitied this young existence, derided it and was moved to compassion at the thought that it might again fall into hands like his own. All these feelings were finally mingled in one—paternal and authoritative. He took Gavrilo by the arm, led and gently pushed him from the public house and deposited him in the shade of a pile of cut wood; he sat down beside him and lighted his pipe. Gavrilo stirred a little, muttered something and went to sleep.
* * * * *
“Well, is it ready?” asked Tchelkache in a low voice to Gavrilo who was looking after the oars.
“In a moment! one of the thole-pins is loose; may I pound it down with an oar?”
“No, no! No noise! Push it down with your hands, it will be firm.”
They noiselessly cut loose the boat fastened to the bow of a sailing vessel. There was here a whole fleet of sailing vessels, loaded with oak bark, and Turkish feluccas still half full of palma, sandal-wood and great cypress logs.
The night was dark; the sky was overspread with shreds of heavy clouds, and the sea was calm, black and thick as oil. It exhaled a humid and salt aroma, and softly murmured as it beat against the sides of the vessels and the shore and gently rocked Tchelkache’s boat. Far out at sea rose the black forms of ships; their sharp masts, surmounted with colored lanterns, were outlined against the sky. The sea reflected the lights and appeared to be sown with yellow spots, which trembled upon its soft velvety black bosom, rising and falling regularly. The sea was sleeping the healthy sound sleep of the laborer after his day’s work.
“We’re off!” said Gavrilo, dipping his oars.
“Let us pull!”
Tchelkache, with a strong stroke of the oar, drove the boat into an open space between two fishing-boats; he pulled rapidly over the shining water, which glowed, at the contact of the oars, with a blue phosphorescent fire. A long trail of softly scintillating light followed the boat windingly.
“Well! does your head ache very much?” asked Tchelkache, kindly.
“Horribly! It rings like a clock . . . I’m going to wet it with a little water.”
“What good will that do? Wet it rather inside; you’ll come to quicker.”
Tchelkache handed the bottle to Gavrilo.
“Do you think so? With the blessing of God! . . .” A soft gurgle was heard.
“Eh! you’re not sorry to have the chance? Enough!” cried Tchelkache, stopping him.
The boat shot on again, noiselessly; it moved easily between the ships. . . . All at once it cleared itself from the other craft, and the immense shining sea lay before them. It disappeared in the blue distance, where from its waters rose lilac-gray clouds to the sky; these were edged with down, now yellow, again green as the sea, or again slate-colored, casting those gloomy shadows that oppress soul and mind. The clouds slowly crept over one another, sometimes melting in one, sometimes dispersing each other; they mingled their forms and colors, dissolving or reappearing with new contours, majestic and mournful. This slow moving of inanimate masses had something fatal about it. It seemed as though yonder at the confines of the sea, there was an innumerable quantity of them always crawling indifferently over the sky, with the wicked and stupid intention of never allowing it to illumine the sleeping sea with the million golden eyes of its many-colored stars, which awaken the noble desires of beings in adoration before their holy and pure light.
“Isn’t the sea beautiful?” asked Tchelkache.
“Not bad! Only one is afraid on it,” replied Gavrilo, rowing evenly and strongly. The sea could scarcely be heard; it dripped from the long oars and still shone with its warm, blue phosphorescent lights.
“Afraid? Simpleton!” growled Tchelkache.
He, the cynical robber, loved the sea. His ardent temperament, greedy for impressions, never tired of contemplating its infinite, free and powerful immensity. It offended him to receive such a reply to his question concerning the beauty of the sea that he loved. Seated at the tiller, he cleaved the water with his oar and gazed tranquilly before him, filled with the desire to thus continue rowing forever over this velvet plain.
On the sea, warm and generous impulses rose within him, filled his soul and in a measure purified it of the defilements of life. He enjoyed this effect and liked to feel himself better, out here, amid the waves and air where the thoughts and occupations of life lose their interest and life itself sinks into insignificance. In the night, the sound of its soft breathing is wafted over the slumbering sea, and this infinite murmur fills the soul with peace, checks all unworthy impulses and brings forth mighty dreams.
“The nets, where are they, eh?” suddenly asked Gavrilo, inspecting the boat.
“There’s the net, at the rudder.”
“What kind of a net’s that?” asked Gavrilo, suspiciously.
“A sweep-net. . .”
But Tchelkache was ashamed to lie to this child to conceal his real purpose; he also regretted the thoughts and feelings that the lad had put to flight by his question. He became angry. He felt the sharp burning sensation that he knew so well, in his breast; his throat contracted. He said harshly to Gavrilo:
“You’re there; well, remain there! Don’t meddle with what doesn’t concern you. You’ve been brought to row, now row. And if you let your tongue wag, no good will come of it. Do you understand?”
For one minute, the boat wavered and stopped. The oars stood still in the foaming water around them, and Gavrilo moved uneasily on his seat.
A fierce oath broke the stillness. Gavrilo bent to the oars. The boat, as though frightened, leaped ahead rapidly and nervously, noisily cutting the water.
“Better than that!”
Tchelkache had risen from the helm and, without letting go his oar, he fixed his cold eyes upon the pale face and trembling lips of Gavrilo. Sinuous and bending forward, he resembled a cat ready to jump. A furious grinding of teeth and rattling of bones could be heard.
“Who goes there?”
This imperious demand resounded over the sea.
“The devil! Row, row! No noise! I’ll kill you, dog. Row, can’t you! One, two! Dare to cry out! I’ll tear you from limb to limb! . . .” hissed Tchelkache.
“Oh, Holy Virgin,” murmured Gavrilo, trembling and exhausted.
The boat turned, obedient to his touch; he pulled toward the harbor where the many-colored lanterns were grouped together and the tall masts were outlined against the sky.
“Hey! Who calls?” was again asked. This time the voice was further away; Tchelkache felt relieved.
“It’s you, yourself, friend, who calls!” said he, in the direction of the voice. Then, he turned to Gavrilo, who continued to murmur a prayer. “Yes, brother, you’re in luck. If those devils had pursued us, it would have been the end of you. Do you hear? I’d have soon sent you to the fishes.”
Now that Tchelkache again spoke quietly and even good-naturedly, Gavrilo, still trembling with fear, begged him: “Listen, let me go! In the name of Christ, let me go. Set me down somewhere. Oh dear! oh, dear! I’m lost! For God’s sake, let me go. What do you want of me? I can’t do this, I’ve never done anything like it. It’s the first time, Lord! I’m lost! How did you manage, comrade, to get around me like this? Say? It’s a sin, you make me lose my soul! . . . Ah! what a piece of business!”
“What business?” sternly questioned Tchelkache. “Speak, what business do you mean?”
The lad’s terror amused him; he also enjoyed the sensation of being able to provoke such fear.
“Dark transactions, brother. . . Let me go, for the love of Heaven. What am I to you? Friend . . .” “Be quiet! If I hadn’t needed you, I shouldn’t have brought you! Do you understand? Eh! Well, be quiet!”
“Oh, Lord!” sobbed Gavrilo.
Gavrilo could no longer control himself and his breath came in broken and painful gasps; he wept and moved restlessly about on his seat, but rowed hard, in despair. The boat sped ahead like an arrow. Again the black hulls of the ships arose before them, and the boat, turning like a top in the narrow channels that separated them, was soon lost among them.
“Hey! You, listen: If anyone speaks to us, keep still, if you value your skin. Do you understand?”
“Alas!” hopelessly sighed Gavrilo, in response to this stern command, and he added: “It was my lot to be lost!”
“Stop howling!” whispered Tchelkache.
These words completely robbed Gavrilo of all understanding and he remained crushed under the chill presentiment of some misfortune. He mechanically dipped his oars and sending them back and forth through the water in an even and steady stroke did not lift his eyes again.
The slumbering murmur of the waves was gloomy and fearsome. Here is the harbor. . . From behind its stone wall, comes the sound of human voices, the plashing of water, singing and shrill whistling.”
“Stop!” whispered Tchelkache.
“Drop the oars! Lean your hands against the wall! Softly, devil!”
Gavrilo caught hold of the slippery stone and guided the boat along the wall. He advanced noiselessly, just grazing the slimy moss of the stone.
“Stop, give me the oars! Give them here! And your passport, where have you put it? In your bag! Give me the bag! Quicker! . . . That, my friend, is so that you’ll not run away. . . Now I hold you. Without oars you could have made off just the same, but, without a passport you’ll not dare. Wait! And remember that if you so much as breathe a word I’ll catch you, even though at the bottom of the sea.”
Suddenly, catching hold of something, Tchelkache rose in the air; he disappeared over the wall.
Gavrilo shuddered. . . It had been so quickly done! He felt that the cursed weight and fear that he experienced in the presence of this moustached and lean bandit had, as it were, slipped off and rolled away from him. Could he escape, now? Breathing freely, he looked around him. On the left rose a black hull without masts, like an immense empty, deserted coffin. The waves beating against its sides awakened heavy echoes therein, resembling long-drawn sighs. On the right, stretched the damp wall of the quay, like a cold heavy serpent. Behind were visible black skeletons, and in front, in the space between the wall and the coffin, was the sea, silent and deserted, with black clouds hanging over it. These clouds were slowly advancing, their enormous, heavy masses, terrifying in the darkness, ready to crush man with their weight. All was cold, black and of evil omen. Gavrilo was afraid. This fear was greater than that imposed on him by Tchelkache; it clasped Gavrilo’s breast in a tight embrace, squeezed him to a helpless mass and riveted him to the boat’s bench.
Perfect silence reigned. Not a sound, save the sighs of the seas; it seemed as though this silence was about to be suddenly broken by some frightful, furious explosion of sound that would shake the sea to its depths, tear apart the dark masses of clouds floating over the sky and bury under the waves all those black craft. The clouds crawled over the sky as slowly and as wearily as before, but the sea gradually emerged from under them, and one might fancy, looking at the sky, that it was also a sea, but an angry sea overhanging a peaceful, sleeping one. The clouds resembled waves whose gray crests touched the earth; they resembled abysses hollowed by the wind between the waves and nascent billows not yet covered with the green foam of fury.
Gavrilo was oppressed by this dark calm and beauty; he realized that he desired his master’s return. But he did not come! The time passed slowly, more slowly than crawled the clouds up in the sky. . . And the length of time augmented the agony of the silence. But just now behind the wall, the plashing of water was heard, then a rustling, and something like a whisper. Gavrilo was half dead from fright.
“Hey, there! Are you asleep? Take this! Softly!” said Tchelkache’s hoarse voice.
From the wall descended a solid, square, heavy object. Gavrilo put it in the boat, then another one like it. Across the wall stretched Tchelkache’s long figure. The oars reappeared mysteriously, then Gavrilo’s bag fell at his feet and Tchelkache out of breath seated himself at the tiller.
Gavrilo looked at him with a timid and glad smile.
“Are you tired?” said he.
“A little, naturally, simpleton! Row firm, with all your might. You have a pretty profit, brother! The affair is half done, now there only remains to pass unseen under the eyes of those devils, and then you’ll receive your money and fly to your Machka. . . You have a Machka, say, little one?”
Gavrilo did not spare himself; his breast worked like a bellows and his arms like steel springs. The water foamed under the boat and the blue trail that followed in the wake of the stern had become wider. Gavrilo was bathed in perspiration, but he continued to row with all his strength. After twice experiencing the fright that he had on this night, he dreaded a repetition of it and had only one desire: to finish this accursed task as soon as possible, regain the land, and flee from this man before he should be killed by him or imprisoned on account of his misdeeds. He resolved not to speak to him, not to contradict him in anything, to execute all his commands and if he succeeded in freeing himself from him unmolested, to sing a Te Deum to Saint Nicholas. An earnest prayer was on his lips. But he controlled himself, puffed like a steamboat, and in silence cast furtive glances at Tchelkache.
The other, bending his long, lean body forward, like a bird poising for flight, gazed ahead into the darkness with his hawk’s eyes. Turning his fierce, aquiline nose from side to side, he held the tiller with one hand and with the other tugged at his moustache which by a constant trembling betrayed the quiet smile on the thin lips. Tchelkache was pleased with his success, with himself and with this lad, whom he had terrified into becoming his slave. He enjoyed in advance to-morrow’s feast and now he rejoiced in his strength and the subjection of this young, untried boy. He saw him toil; he took pity on him and tried to encourage him.
“Hey! Say there!” he asked softly. “Were you very much afraid?”
“It doesn’t matter!” sighed Gavrilo, coughing.
“You needn’t keep on rowing so hard. It’s ended, now. There’s only one more bad place to pass. . . Rest yourself.”
Gavrilo stopped docilely, wiped the perspiration from his face with the sleeve of his blouse and again dipped the oars in the water.
“That’s right, row more gently. So that the water tells no tales. There’s a channel to cross. Softly, softly. Here, brother, are serious people. They are quite capable of amusing themselves with a gun, They could raise a fine lump on your forehead before you’d have time to cry out.”
The boat glided over the water almost without sound. Blue drops fell from the oars and when they touched the sea there flamed up for an instant a little blue spot. The night was growing darker and more silent. The sky no longer resembled a rough sea; the clouds extended over its surface, forming a thick, even curtain, hanging motionless above the ocean. The sea was calmer and blacker, its warm and salty odor was stronger and it did not appear as vast as before.
“Oh! if it would only rain!” murmured Tchelkache; “we would be hidden by a curtain.”
On the right and left of the boat, the motionless, melancholy, black hulls of ships emerged from the equally black water. A light moved to and fro on one; someone was walking with a lantern. The sea, caressing their sides, seemed to dully implore them while they responded by a cold, rumbling echo, as though they were disputing and refusing to yield.
“The custom-house,” whispered Tchelkache.
From the moment that he had ordered Gavrilo to row slowly, the lad had again experienced a feeling of feverish expectation. He leaned forward, toward the darkness and it seemed to him that he was growing larger; his bones and veins stretched painfully; his head, filled with one thought, ached; the skin on his back shivered and in his legs were pricking sensations as though small sharp, cold needles were being thrust into them. His eyes smarted from having gazed too long into the darkness out of which he expected to see someone rise up and cry out: “Stop thieves!”
When Tchelkache murmured: “the custom-house!” Gavrilo started: he was consumed by a sharp, burning thought; his nerves were wrought up to the highest pitch; he wanted to cry out, to call for help, he had already opened his mouth and straightened himself up on the seat. He thrust forward his chest, drew a long breath, and again opened his mouth; but suddenly, overcome by sharp fear, he closed his eyes and fell from his seat.
Ahead of the boat, far off on the horizon, an immense, flaming blue sword sprang up from the black water. It rose, cleaved the darkness; its blade flashed across the clouds and illumined the surface of the sea with a broad blue hand. In this luminous ray stood out the black, silent ships, hitherto invisible. It seemed as though they had been waiting at the bottom of the sea, whither they had been dragged by an irresistible tempest, and that now they arose in obedience to the sword of fire to which the sea had given birth. They had ascended to contemplate the sky and all that was above the water. The rigging clinging to the mast seemed like seaweed that had left the water with these black giants, covering them with their meshes. Then the wonderful blue sword again arose in the air, cleaved the night and descended in a different place. Again, on the spot where it rested, appeared the skeletons of ships until then invisible.
Tchelkache’s boat stopped and rocked on the water as though hesitating. Gavrilo lay flat on the bottom of the boat, covering his face with his hands, and Tchelkache prodded him with his oar, hissing furiously, but quite low.
“Idiot, that’s the custom-house cruiser. The electric lantern! Get up, row with all your might! They’ll throw the light upon us! You’ll ruin us, devil, both of us!”
When the sharp edge of the oar had been brought down once more, harder this time, on Gavrilo’s back, he arose and, not daring to open his eyes, resumed his seat and feeling for the oars, sent the boat ahead.
“Softly, or I’ll kill you! Softly! Imbecile, may the devil take you! What are you afraid of? Say? A lantern and a mirror. That’s all! Softly with those oars, miserable wretch! They incline the mirror at will and light the sea to find out if any folks like us are roving over it. They’re on the watch for smugglers. We’re out of reach; they’re too far away, now. Don’t be afraid, boy, we’re safe! Now, we. . .”
Tchelkache looked around him triumphantly.
“Yes, we’re safe. Out! You were in luck, you worthless stick!”
Gavrilo rowed in silence; breathing heavily, he cast sidelong glances at the spot where still rose and fell the sword of fire. He could not believe that it was only, as Tchelkache said, a lantern with a reflector. The cold, blue light, cutting the darkness, awoke silver reflections upon the sea; there seemed something mysterious about it, and Gavrilo again felt his faculties benumbed with fear. The presentiment of some misfortune oppressed him a second time. He rowed like a machine, bent his shoulders as though expecting a blow to descend and felt himself void of every desire, and without soul. The emotions of that night had consumed all that was human in him.
Tchelkache was more triumphant than ever: his success was complete! His nerves, accustomed to shocks, were already calmed. His lips trembled and his eyes shone with an eager light. He felt strong and well, whistled softly, inhaled long breaths of the salt sea air, glanced about from right to left and smiled good-naturedly when his eyes fell upon Gavrilo.
A light breeze set a thousand little waves to dancing. The clouds became thinner and more transparent although still covering the sky. The wind swept lightly and freely over the entire surface of the sea, but the clouds remained motionless, and seemed to be plunged in a dull, gray reverie.
“Come, brother, wake up, it’s time! Your soul seems to have been shaken out of your skin; there’s nothing left but a bag of bones. My dear fellow! We have hold of the good end, eh?”
Gavrilo was glad to hear a human voice, even though it was that of Tchelkache. “I know it,” said he, very low.
“That’s right, little man! Take the tiller, I’ll row; You’re tired, aren’t you?”
Gavrilo mechanically changed places, and when Tchelkache saw that he staggered, he pitied him more still and patted him on the shoulder,
“Don’t be afraid! You’ve made a good thing out of it. I’ll pay you well. Would you like to have twenty-five rubles, eh?”
“I—I don’t need anything. All I ask is to reach land!”
Tchelkache removed his hand, spat and began to row; his long arms sent the oars far back of him.
The sea had awakened. It sported with its tiny waves, brought them forth, adorned them with a fringe of foam, tumbled them over each other and broke them into spray. The foam as it melted sighed and the air was filled with harmonious sounds and the plashing of water. The darkness seemed to be alive.
“Well! tell me . . .” began Tchelkache. “You’ll return to the village, you’ll marry, you’ll set to work to plough and sow, your wife’ll present you with many children, you’ll not have enough bread and you’ll just manage to keep soul and body together all your life! So . . . is it such a pleasant prospect?”
“What pleasure can there be in that?” timidly and shudderingly replied Gavrilo. “What can one do?” Here and there, the clouds were rent by the wind and, through the spaces, the cold sky studded with a few stars looked down. Reflected by the joyous sea, these stars leaped upon the waves, now disappearing, now shining brightly.
“More to the left!” said Tchelkache. “We shall soon be there, Yes! . . . it is ended. We’ve done a good stroke of work. In a single night, you understand—five hundred rubles gained! Isn’t that doing well, say?”
“Five hundred rubles!” repeated Gavrilo, distrustfully, but he was immediately seized with fright and quickly asked, kicking the bales at the bottom of the boat: “What are those things?”
“That’s silk. A very dear thing. If it were to be sold for its real value, it would bring a thousand rubles. But I don’t raise the price . . . clever that, eh?”
“Is it possible?” asked Gavrilo. “If I only had as much!”
He sighed at the thought of the country, of his miserable life, his toil, his mother and all those far-distant and dear things for which he had gone away to work, and for which he had suffered so much that night. A wave of memory swept over him: he saw his village on a hill-side with the river at the bottom, hidden by birches, willows, mountain-ash and wild cherry trees. The picture breathed some life in him and gave him a little strength.
“Oh, Lord, how much good it would do!” he sighed, sadly.
“Yes! I imagine that you’d very quickly board the train and—good-evening! Oh, how the girls would love you, yonder, in the village! You could have your pick. You could have a new house built. But for a new house, there might not be enough . . .”
“That’s true. A house, no; wood is very dear with us.”
“Never mind, you could have the one that you have repaired. Do you own a horse?”
“A horse? Yes, there’s one, but he’s very old!”
“Then a horse, a good horse! A cow . . . sheep . . . poultry . . . eh?”
“Why do you say that? If only! . . . Ah! Lord, how I might enjoy life.”
“Yes, brother, life under those circumstances would not be bad . . . I, too, I know a little about such things. I also have a nest belonging to me. My father was one of the richest peasants of his village.”
Tchelkache rowed slowly. The boat danced upon the waves which beat against its sides; it scarcely advanced over the somber sea, now disporting itself harder than ever. The two men dreamed, rocked upon the water and gazing vaguely around them. Tchelkache had spoken to Gavrilo of his village with the purpose of quieting him and helping him to recover from his emotion. He at first spoke with a sceptical smile hidden under his moustache, but as he talked and recalled the joys of country life, in regard to which he himself had long since been disabused, and that he had forgotten until this moment, he became carried away, and instead of talking to the lad, he began unconsciously to harangue:
“The essential part of the life of a peasant, brother, is liberty. You must be your own master. You own your house: it is not worth much, but it belongs to you. You possess a piece of ground, a little corner, perhaps, but it is yours. Your chickens, eggs, apples are yours. You are a king upon the earth. Then you must be methodical. . . As soon as you are up in the morning, you must go to work. In the spring it is one thing, in the summer another, in the autumn and winter still another. From wherever you may be you always return to your home. There is warmth, rest! . . . You are a king, are you not?”
Tchelkache had waxed enthusiastic over this long enumeration of the privileges and rights of the peasant, forgetting only to speak of his duties.
Gavrilo looked at him with curiosity, and was also aroused to enthusiasm. He had already had time in the course of this conversation to forget with whom he was dealing; he saw before him only a peasant like himself, attached to the earth by labor, by several generations of laborers, by memories of childhood, but who had voluntarily withdrawn from it and its cares and who was now suffering the punishment of his ill-advised act.
“Yes, comrade, that’s true! Oh! how true that is! See now, take your case, for instance: what are you now, without land? Ah! friend, the earth is like a mother: one doesn’t forget it long.”
Tchelkache came to himself. He felt within him that burning sensation that always seized upon him when his self-love as a dashing devil-may-care fellow was wounded, especially when the offender was of no account in his eyes.
“There he goes again!” he exclaimed fiercely. “You imagine, I suppose that I’m speaking seriously. I’m worth more than that, let me tell you!”
“Why, you funny fellow!” replied Gavrilo, again intimidated, “am I speaking of you? There are a great many like you! My God, how many unfortunate persons, vagabonds there are on the earth!”
“Take the oars again, dolt!” commanded Tchelkache shortly, restraining himself from pouring forth a string of fierce oaths that rose in his throat.
They again changed places. Tchelkache, while clambering over the bales to return to the helm, experienced a sharp desire to give Gavrilo a good blow that would send him overboard, and, at the same time, he could not muster strength to look him in the face.
The short conversation was ended; but now Gavrilo’s silence even savored to Tchelkache of the village. He was lost in thoughts of the past and forgot to steer his boat; the waves had turned it and it was now going out to sea. They seemed to understand that this boat had no aim, and they played with it and lightly tossed it, while their blue fires flamed up under the oars. Before Tchelkache’s inward vision, was rapidly unfolded a series of pictures of the past—that far distant past separated from the present by a wall of eleven years of vagrancy. He saw himself again a child, in the village, he saw his mother, red-cheeked, fat, with kind gray eyes,—his father, a giant with a tawny beard and stern countenance,—himself betrothed to Amphissa, black-eyed with a long braid down her back, plump, easy-going, gay. . . And then, himself, a handsome soldier of the guard; later, his father, gray and bent by work, and his mother, wrinkled and bowed. What a merry-making there was at the village when he had returned after the expiration of his service! How proud the father was of his Gregori, the moustached, broad-shouldered soldier, the cock of the village! Memory, that scourge of the unfortunate, brings to life even the stones of the past, and, even to the poison, drunk in former days, adds drops of honey; and all this only to kill man by the consciousness of his faults, and to destroy in his soul all faith in the future by causing him to love the past too well.
Tchelkache was enveloped in a peaceful whiff of natal air that was wafting toward him the sweet words of his mother, the sage counsel of his father, the stern peasant, and many forgotten sounds and savory odors of the earth, frozen as in the springtime, or freshly ploughed, or lastly, covered with young wheat, silky, and green as an emerald. . . Then he felt himself a pitiable, solitary being, gone astray, without attachments and an outcast from the life where the blood in his veins had been formed.
“Hey! Where are we going?” suddenly asked Gavrilo.
Tchelkache started and turned around with the uneasy glance of a wild beast.
“Oh! the devil! Never mind. . . Row more cautiously. . . We’re almost there.”
“Were you dreaming?” asked Gavrilo, smiling.
Tchelkache looked searchingly at him. The lad was entirely himself again; calm, gay, he even seemed complacent. He was very young, all his life was before him. That was bad! But perhaps the soil would retain him. At this thought, Tchelkache grew sad again, and growled out in reply:
“I’m tired! . . . and the boat rocks!”
“Of course it rocks! So, now, there’s no danger of being caught with this?”
Gavrilo kicked the bales.
“No, be quiet. I’m going to deliver them at once and receive the money. Yes!”
“Not less, probably. . .”
“It’s a lot! If I had it, poor beggar that I am, I’d soon let it be known.”
“At the village? . . .”
“Sure! without delay. . .”
Gavrilo let himself be carried away by his imagination. Tchelkache appeared crushed. His moustache hung down straight; his right side was all wet from the waves, his eyes were sunken in his head and without life. He was a pitiful and dull object. His likeness to a bird of prey had disappeared; self-abasement appeared in the very folds of his dirty blouse.
“I’m tired, worn out!”
“We are landing. . . Here we are.”
Tchelkache abruptly turned the boat and guided it toward something black that arose from the water.
The sky was covered with clouds, and a fine, drizzling rain began to fall, pattering joyously on the crests of the waves.
“Stop! . . . Softly!” ordered Tchelkache.
The bow of the boat hit the hull of a vessel.
“Are the devils sleeping?” growled Tchelkache, catching the ropes hanging over the side with his boat-hook. “The ladder isn’t lowered. In this rain, besides. . . It couldn’t have rained before! Eh! You vermin, there! Eh!”
“Is that you Selkache?” came softly from above.
“Lower the ladder, will you!”
“Lower the ladder, smoky devil!” roared Tchelkache.
“Oh! Isn’t he ill-natured to-day. . . Eh! Oh!”
“Go up, Gavrilo!” commanded Tchelkache to his companion.
In a moment they were on the deck, where three dark and bearded individuals were looking over the side at Tchelkache’s boat and talking animatedly in a strange and harsh language. A fourth, clad in a long gown, advanced toward Tchelkache, shook his hand in silence and cast a suspicious glance at Gavrilo.
“Get the money ready for to-morrow morning,” briefly said Tchelkache. “I’m going to sleep, now. Come Gavrilo. Are you hungry?” “I’m sleepy,” replied Gavrilo,
In five minutes, he was snoring on the dirty deck; Tchelkache sitting beside him, was trying on an old boot that he found lying there. He softly whistled, animated both by sorrow and anger. Then he lay down beside Gavrilo, without removing the boot from his foot, and putting his hands under the back of his neck he carefully examined the deck, working his lips the while.
The boat rocked joyously on the water; the sound of wood creaking dismally was heard, the rain fell softly on the deck, the waves beat against the sides. Everything resounded sadly like the lullaby of a mother who has lost all hope for the happiness of her son.
Tchelkache, with parted lips, raised his head and gazed around him . . . and murmuring a few words, lay down again.
* * * * *
He was the first to awaken, starting up uneasily; then suddenly quieting down he looked at Gavrilo, who was still sleeping. The lad was smiling in his sleep, his round, sun-burned face irradiated with joy.
Tchelkache sighed and climbed up a narrow rope ladder. The opening of the trap-door framed a piece of leaden sky. It was daylight, but the autumn weather was gray and gloomy.
It was two hours before Tchelkache reappeared. His face was red, his moustache curled fiercely upward; his eyes beamed with gaiety and good-nature. He wore high, thick boots, a coat and leather trowsers; he looked like a hunter. His costume, which, although a little worn, was still in good condition and fitted him well, made him appear broader, concealed his too angular lines and gave him a martial air.
“Hey! Youngster, get up!” said he touching Gavrilo with his foot.
The last named started up, and not recognizing him just at first, gazed at him vacantly. Tchelkache burst out laughing.
“How you’re gotten up! . . .” finally exclaimed Gavrilo, smiling broadly. “You are a gentleman!”
“We do that quickly here! What a coward you are! Dear, dear! How many times did you make up your mind to die last night, eh? Say. . .”
“But you see, it’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this! One might lose his soul for the rest of his days!” “Would you be willing to go again?”
“Again? I must know first what there would be in it for me.”
“Two hundred, you say? Yes I’d go.”
“Stop! . . . And your soul?”
“Perhaps I shouldn’t lose it!” said Gavrilo, smiling. “And then one would be a man for the rest of his days!”
Tchelkache burst out laughing. “That’s right, but we’ve joked long enough! Let us row to the shore. Get ready.”
“I? Why I’m ready. . .”
They again took their places in the boat. Tchelkache at the helm, Gavrilo rowing. The gray sky was covered with clouds; the troubled, green sea, played with their craft, tossing it on its still tiny waves that broke over it in a shower of clear, salt drops. Far off, before the prow of the boat, appeared the yellow line of the sandy beach; back of the stern was the free and joyous sea, all furrowed by the troops of waves that ran up and down, already decked in their superb fringe of foam. In the far distance, ships were rocking on the bosom of the sea and, on the left, was a whole forest of masts mingled with the white masses of the houses of the town. Prom there, a dull murmur is borne out to sea and blending with the sound of the waves swelled into rapturous music. Over all stretched a thin veil of mist, widening the distance between the different objects.
“Eh! It’ll be rough to-night!” said Tchelkache, nodding his head in the direction of the sea.
“A storm?” asked Gavrilo. He was rowing hard. He was drenched from head to foot by the drops blown by the wind.
“Ehe!” affirmed Tchelkache.
Gavrilo looked at him curiously.
“How much did they give you?” he asked at last, seeing that Tchelkache was not disposed to talk.
“See!” said Tchelkache. He held out toward Gavrilo something that he drew from his pocket.
Gavrilo saw the variegated banknotes, and they assumed in his eyes all the colors of the rainbow.
“Oh! And I thought you were boasting! How much?”
“Five hundred and forty! Isn’t that a good haul?”
“Certain!” murmured Gavrilo, following with greedy eyes the five hundred and forty roubles as they again disappeared in the pocket. “Ah! If it was only mine!” He sighed dejectedly.
“We’ll have a lark, little one!” enthusiastically exclaimed Tchelkache! “Have no fear: I’ll pay you, brother. I’ll give you forty rubles! Eh? Are you pleased? Do you want your money now?” “If you don’t mind. Yes, I’ll accept it!”
Gavrilo trembled with anticipation; a sharp, burning pain oppressed his breast.
“Ha! ha! ha! Little devil! You’ll accept it? Take it, brother, I beg of you! I implore you, take it! I don’t know where to put all this money; relieve me, here!”
Tchelkache handed Gavrilo several ten ruble notes. The other took them with a shaking hand, dropped the oars and proceeded to conceal his booty in his blouse, screwing up his eyes greedily, and breathing noisily as though he were drinking something hot. Tchelkache regarded him ironically. Gavrilo seized the oars; he rowed in nervous haste, his eyes lowered, as though he were afraid. His shoulders shook.
“My God, how greedy you are! That’s bad. Besides, for a peasant. . .”
“Just think of what one can do with money!” exclaimed Gavrilo, passionately. He began to talk brokenly and rapidly, as though pursuing an idea, and seizing the words on the wing, of life in the country with and without money. “Respect, ease, liberty, gaiety. . .”
Tchelkache listened attentively with a serious countenance and inscrutable eyes. Occasionally, he smiled in a pleased manner.
“Here we are!” he said at last.
A wave seized hold of the boat and landed it high on the sand.
“Ended, ended, quite ended! We must draw the boat up farther, so that it will be out of reach of the tide. They will come after it. And, now, good-bye. The town is eight versts from here. You’ll return to town, eh?”
Tchelkache’s face still beamed with a slily good-natured smile; he seemed to be planning something pleasant for himself and a surprise for Gavrilo. He put his hand in his pocket and rustled the bank-notes.
“No, I’m not going. . . I. . .”
Gavrilo stifled and choked. He was shaken by a storm of conflicting desires, words and feelings. He burned as though on fire.
Tchelkache gazed at him with astonishment.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked.
But Gavrilo’s face grew red and then ashy pale. The lad moved his feet restlessly as though he would have thrown himself upon Tchelkache, or as though he were torn by Borne secret desire difficult to realize.
His suppressed excitement moved Tchelkache to some apprehension. He wondered what form it would take in breaking out.
Gavrilo gave a laugh, a strange laugh, like a sob. His head was bent, so that Tchelkache could not see the expression of his face; he could only perceive Gavrilo’s ears, by turns red and white.
“Go to the devil!” exclaimed Tchelkache, motioning with his hand. “Are you in love with me? Say? Look at you mincing like a young girl. Are you distressed at leaving me? Eh! youngster, speak, or else I’m going!”
“You’re going?” cried Gavrilo, in a sonorous voice. The deserted and sandy beach trembled at this cry, and the waves of sand brought by the waves of the sea seemed to shudder. Tchelkache also shuddered. Suddenly Gavrilo darted from his place, and throwing himself at Tchelkache’s feet, entwined his legs with his arms and drew him toward him. Tchelkache tottered, sat down heavily on the sand, and gritting his teeth, brandished his long arm and closed fist in the air. But before he had time to strike, he was stopped by the troubled and suppliant look of Gavrilo.
“Friend! Give me . . . that money! Give it to me, in the name of Heaven. What need have you of it? It is the earnings of one night . . . a single night . . . And it would take me years to get as much as that. . . Give it to me. . . I’ll pray for you . . . all my life . . . in three churches . . . for the safety of your soul. You’ll throw it to the winds, and I’ll give it to the earth. Oh! give me that money. What will you do with it, say? Do you care about it as much as that? One night . . . and you are rich! Do a good deed! You are lost, you! . . . You’ll never come back again to the way, while I! . . . Ah! give it to me!”
Tchelkache frightened, astonished and furious threw himself backward, still seated on the sand, and leaning on his two hands silently gazed at him, his eyes starting from their orbits; the lad leaned his head on his knees and gasped forth his supplications. Tchelkache finally pushed him away, jumped to his feet, and thrusting his hand into his pocket threw the multi-colored bills at Gavrilo.
“There, dog, swallow them!” he cried trembling with mingled feelings of anger, pity and hate for this greedy slave. Now that he had thrown him the money, he felt himself a hero. His eyes, his whole person, beamed with conscious pride.
“I meant to have given you more. I pitied you yesterday. I thought of the village. I said to myself: ‘I’ll help this boy.’ I was waiting to see what you’d do, whether you’d ask me or not. And now, see! tatterdemalion, beggar, that you are! . . . Is it right to work oneself up to such a state for money . . . to suffer like that? Imbeciles, greedy devils who forget . . . who would sell themselves for five kopeks, eh?”
“Friend . . . Christ’s blessing on you! What is this? What? Thousands? . . . I’m a rich man, now!” screamed Gavrilo, in a frenzy of delight, hiding the money in his blouse. “Ah! dear man! I shall, never forget this! never! And I’ll beg my wife and children to pray for you.”
Tchelkache listened to these cries of joy, gazed at this face, irradiated and disfigured by the passion of covetousness; he felt that he himself, the thief and vagabond, freed from all restraining influence, would never become so rapacious, so vile, so lost to all decency. Never would he sink so low as that! Lost in these reflections, which brought to him the consciousness of his liberty and his audacity, he remained beside Gavrilo on the lonely shore.
“You have made me happy!” cried Gavrilo, seizing Tchelkache’s hand and laying it against his cheek.
Tchelkache was silent and showed his teeth like a wolf. Gavrilo continued to pour out his heart.
“What an idea that was of mine! We were rowing here . . . I saw the money . . . I said to myself:
“Suppose I were to give him . . . give you . . . a blow with the oar . . . just one! The money would be mine; as for him, I’d throw him in the sea . . . you, you understand? Who would ever notice his disappearance? And if you were found, no inquest would be made: who, how, why had you been killed? You’re not the kind of man for whom any stir would be made! You’re of no use on the earth! Who would take your part? That’s the way it would be! Eh?”
“Give back that money!” roared Tchelkache, seizing Gavrilo by the throat.
Gavrilo struggled, once, twice . . . but Tchelkache’s other arm entwined itself like a serpent around him . . . a noise of tearing linen,—and Gavrilo slipped to the ground with bulging eyes, catching at the air with his hands and waving his legs. Tchelkache, erect, spare, like a wild beast, showed his teeth wickedly and laughed harshly, while his moustache worked nervously on his sharp, angular face. Never, in his whole life, had he been so deeply wounded, and never had his anger been so great.
“Well! Are you happy, now?” asked he, still laughing, of Gavrilo, and turning his back to him, he walked away in the direction of the town.
But he had hardly taken two steps when Gavrilo, crouching like a cat, threw a large, round stone at him, crying furiously:
Tchelkache groaned, raised his hands to the back of his neck and stumbled forward, then turned toward Gavrilo and fell face downward on the sand. He moved a leg, tried to raise his head and stiffened, vibrating like a stretched cord. At this, Gavrilo began to run, to run far away, yonder, to where the shadow of that ragged cloud overhung the misty steppe. The murmuring waves, coursing over the sands, joined him and ran on and on, never stopping. The foam hissed, the spray flew through the air.
The rain fell. Slight at first, it soon came down thickly, heavily and came from the sky in slender streams. They crossed, forming a net that soon shut off the distance on land and water. For a long time there was nothing to be seen but the rain and this long body lying on the sand beside the sea . . . But suddenly, behold Gavrilo coming from out the rain, running; he flew like a bird. He went up to Tchelkache, fell upon his knees before him, and tried to turn him over. His hand sank into a sticky liquid, warm and red. He trembled and drew back, pale and distracted.
“Get up, brother!” he whispered amid the noise of the falling rain into the ear of Tchelkache.
Tchelkache came to himself and, repulsing Gavrilo, said in a hoarse voice:
“Forgive me, brother: I was tempted by the devil . . .” continued Gavrilo, trembling and kissing Tchelkache’s hand. “Go, go away!” growled the other.
“Absolve my sin! Friend . . . forgive me!”
“Go, go to the devil!” suddenly cried out Tchelkache, sitting up on the sand. His face was pale, threatening; his clouded eyes closed as though he were very sleepy . . . “What do you want, now? You’ve finished your business . . . go! Off with you!”
He tried to kick Gavrilo, prostrated by grief, but failed, and would have fallen if Gavrilo hadn’t supported him with his shoulders. Tchelkache’s face was now on a level with Gavrilo’s. Both were pale, wretched and terrifying.
Tchelkache spat in the wide opened eyes of his employe.
The other humbly wiped them with his sleeve, and murmured:
“Do what you will . . . I’ll not say one word. Pardon me, in the name of Heaven!”
“Fool, you don’t even know how to steal!” cried Tchelkache, contemptuously. He tore his shirt under his waistcoat and, gritting his teeth in silence, began to bandage his head.
“Have you taken the money?” he asked, at last.
“I haven’t taken it, brother; I don’t want it! It brings bad luck!”
Tchelkache thrust his hand into his waistcoat pocket, withdrew the package of bills, put one of them in his pocket and threw all the rest at Gavrilo.
“Take that and be off!”
“I cannot take it . . . I cannot! Forgive me!”
“Take it, I tell you!” roared Tchelkache, rolling his eyes frightfully.
“Pardon me! When you have forgiven me I’ll take it,” timidly said Gavrilo, falling on the wet sand at Tchelkache’s feet. “You lie, fool, you’ll take it at once!” said Tchelkache, confidently, and raising his head, by a painful effort, he thrust the money before his face. “Take it, take it! You haven’t worked for nothing! Don’t be ashamed of having failed to assassinate a man! No one will claim anyone like me. You’ll be thanked, on the contrary, when it’s learned what you’ve done. There, take it! No one’ll know what you’ve done and yet it deserves some reward! Here it is!”
Gavrilo saw that Tchelkache was laughing, and he felt relieved. He held the money tightly in his hand.
“Brother! Will you forgive me? Won’t you do it? Say?” he supplicated tearfully.
“Little brother!” mimicked Tchelkache, rising on his tottering limbs. “Why should I pardon you? There’s no occasion for it. To-day it’s you, to-morrow it’ll be me . . .”
“Ah! brother, brother!” sighed Gavrilo, sorrowfully, shaking his head.
Tchelkache was standing before him, smiling strangely; the cloth wrapped around his head, gradually reddening, resembled a Turkish head-dress.
The rain fell in torrents. The sea complained dully and the waves beat angrily against the beach.
The two men were silent.
“Good-bye!” said Tchelkache, with cold irony.
He staggered, his legs trembled, and he carried his head oddly, as though he was afraid of losing it.
“Pardon me, brother!” again repeated Gavrilo.
“It’s nothing!” drily replied Tchelkache, as he supported his head with his left hand and gently pulled his moustache with his right.
Gavrilo stood gazing after him until he had disappeared in the rain that still fell in fine, close drops, enveloping the steppe in a mist as impenetrable and gray as steel.
Then Gavrilo took off his wet cap, made the sign of the cross, looked at the money pressed tightly in his hand and drew a long, deep sigh; he concealed his booty in his blouse and began to walk, taking long strides, in the opposite direction to that in which Tchelkache had gone.
The sea thundered, threw great heavy waves upon the sand and broke them into foam and spray. The rain lashed the sea and land pitilessly; the wind roared. All the air around was filled with plaints, cries and dull sounds. The rain masked sea and sky. . .
The rain and the breaking waves soon washed away the red spot where Tchelkache had been struck to the ground; they soon effaced his footprints and those of the lad on the sand, and the lonely beach was left without the slightest trace of the little drama that had been played between these two men.