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Tales from Gorky
Translator: R. Nisbet Bain
I.—IN THE STEPPE.
II.—TWENTY-SIX OF US AND ONE OTHER.
III.—ONE AUTUMN NIGHT.
IV.—A ROLLING STONE.
I. I MEET HIM.
II. THE STORY OF HIS LIFE.
V.—THE GREEN KITTEN.
We should not give very much for the chances of a poor friendless lad of feeble constitution, vagrant disposition, and an overpowering taste for excitement, who should be turned adrift to shift for himself at an age when most young lads are still safe at school. The fortunes of such a one, if adequately recorded, might, and no doubt would, be infinitely more engrossing, if less edifying, than the humdrum chronicle of the steady clerk or patient mechanic; but a prison, or workhouse infirmary, might safely be predicted as the ultimate and inevitable receptacle of such a piece of human flotsam.
But now let us suppose—a handy supposition, I admit—that our imaginary little nomad were endowed with that illuminating spark we call genius; let us suppose, too, that in late boyhood, or early manhood, he learnt to love letters, and deliberately set about describing his extraordinary experiences, as well as the strange bedfellows whom misery from time to time threw in his way—what piquant, what grotesque pen-and-ink sketches we might expect from such an inspired ragamuffin! It would be Oliver Twist or Humphrey Clinker telling his own tale without the softening intervention of Mr. Charles Dickens or Mr. Tobias Smollett.
Let us further suppose not England but Russia to be the theatre of our hero's miseries and adventures, and the interest of the story will at once be infinitely enhanced. The odds would now be a thousand to one against our hero's attaining to manhood at all, and a hundred thousand to one against his ever attaining to authorship. His risks would be out of all proportion to his chances. From first to last starvation would constantly dog his footsteps, and Siberian exile would be the least terrible of a score of those administrative measures by means of which the servants of the Tsar wage unintermittent warfare against the vagrant population of their master's immense Empire. The career, then, of a professional tramp in Russia must needs be of tragic intensity, and it was my good fortune, some eighteen months ago, in the pages of "The Pilot," to be the first to call the attention of English readers to the strange history of a Russian tramp of genius, who is, moreover, his own chronicler. Maksim Gorky—Maximus the Bitter—is the pseudonym deliberately chosen, at the outset of his career, by the young Muscovite author who is at the present moment (and I do not even except the revered name of Tolstoi) by far the most popular story-teller in the Russian Empire. The following brief biographical sketch of this remarkable man is the best introduction I can affix to this selection from Gorky's unique "Razskazui," in all of which the author has, more or less, embodied his grim experiences of life beneath the transparent veil of fiction.
Aleksyei Maksimovich Pyeshkov was born on March 14th, 1869, at Nijni-Novgorod. His mother Barbara was the daughter of a house painter and decorator, Vasily Kacherin; his father was Maksim Savvatiev Pyeshkov, an upholsterer of Perm. Aleksyei's parents seem to have been worthy, colourless people, and fairly well educated for their station; but they dwindle into insignificance before their respective fathers. Young Pyeshkov's two grandfathers were undeniably men of character, self-made men of brutal energy, who terrorized their respective families, and were as hard and cold as the money they worshipped. So severe, indeed, was the regimen of Aleksyei's paternal grandfather, that his own son ran away from him five times in the course of seven years. On the fifth occasion he did not return, but walked all the way (he was only seventeen) from Tobolsk in Siberia, where the family then lived, to Nijni-Novgorod, where he settled down as an apprentice to a clothier. Five years later we find him occupying a responsible position in the office of a steamship company at Astrakhan. Gorky's maternal grandfather may well have been the prototype of Ignat Gordyeev, the most impressive character in Gorky's romance, "Thoma Gordyeev." Beginning life as a raftsman on the Volga, in the course of a short time he became a man of substance, started a dyeing factory at his native place, Nijni-Novgorod, was elected Starshina, or Chief of the Traders' Guild there, and was generally looked up to by everyone but his wretched daughter, whom he made more wretched still when she threw herself away—or so he accounted it—on such a poor non-descript as Maksim Pyeshkov.
The earlier years of Aleksyei Pyeshkov were as uneventful as are the years of most children. In 1873, however, when he was only four years old, he met with his first misfortune: his rolling stone of a father died of cholera at Astrakhan. His mother re-married shortly afterwards, and transferred him to the care of his grandfather, who seems to have been kind to the little lad—cruel fathers are very often indulgent grandfathers—and taught him to read with the aid of the Psalter and other liturgical books, by way of preparing him for school, whither he was presently sent But his regular schooling lasted no longer than five months, for about this time his mother died of consumption, and almost simultaneously his last natural prop gave way, his grandfather suddenly ruining himself utterly by over-speculation. Little Aleksyei, therefore, was obliged to exchange his schoolroom for the shop of a cobbler to whom he was apprenticed; but after serving his master for two months, he burnt one hand so severely with boiling pitch that he was pronounced useless to the trade, and sent about his business.
On recovering from the effects of this accident he was apprenticed by his kinsfolk to a draughtsman, who treated him so harshly that he ran away, becoming first an assistant to an ikon-maker, and then a turnspit on a steamer on the Volga. Here he met with an unexpected piece of good luck. His new master, the cook on board the steamer, Smurny by name, happened to be a lettered man of superior ability, and he proved to be one of the best friends young Pyeshkov ever had. But for him, indeed, modern Russian Literature in all probability would now have been minus of one of its chief ornaments. Smurny awakened within the lad a love of literature, and placed at his disposal his own little library, a miscellaneous collection enough, in which fantastic lives of the Greek Orthodox Saints and interminable treatises on Freemasonry lay cheek by jowl; it was, however, an inestimable boon to Aleksyei, and it included, at any rate, the works of one indisputable European classic—Gogol—besides some of the novels of Alexandre Dumas. Pyeshkov himself, in his fragmentary autobiography, insinuates that his chance encounter with the cultured cook was a turning-point in his career. "Till the advent of the cook," says he, "I could not endure books, or, indeed, any sort of printed paper—passports included." Why he quitted Smurny we are not told; but we do know that when he left the steamer to become a gardener's assistant, he pursued his studies whenever and wherever he had the chance. At the age of fifteen, indeed, his thirst for learning induced him to present himself at the gates of the University of Kazan, the great Volgan seminary, where Tolstoi had been educated forty years earlier, in the naïve belief that instruction of all sorts was to be had there by anyone for the simple asking. "I was mistaken, it appeared," he observes with pathetic sarcasm, "so I entered a biscuit factory at three roubles (6s.) a month." He has related his experiences of this grinding slavery in a subterranean "stone cage" in that powerful story, "Twenty-Six of Us and one Other."
"It was a grievous evil life we lived within those thick walls.... We rose at five o'clock in the morning without having had our sleep out, and—stupid and indifferent—at six o'clock we were sitting at the table to make biscuits from dough already prepared for us by our comrades while we were still sleeping.... Our master called us niggers, and gave us rotten entrails for dinner instead of butcher's meat." No wonder he calls this drudgery "the hardest work I ever experienced."
And here there is a blank in our biographical record—a blank, however, which may, partially, be filled up from conjecture. To this period belongs, I opine, the first of Pyeshkov's gipsy-like wanderings through Russia. The most casual reader of his tales is struck at once by his delight for the free, careless life of a vagabond. The justification, the philosophy of that life, so to speak, he has put into the mouth of that prince of vagabonds, Promtov, evidently a real person, whose antitype Pyeshkov must have met with on his rambles, and who is one of his best creations It was now, too, that he must have made the acquaintance of the so-called "Buivshie Lyudi,"—or "Have-beens," whom he has immortalized in so many of his tales, that numerous and unhappy class who have fallen, beyond recovery, from positions of trust or emolument. These, too, were the days when, as he tells us, "I sawed wood, dragged loads," and, in fact, did all sorts of ill-paid, menial labour. On the other hand, he made the acquaintance of numerous students at Kazan, was admitted into their clubs, and his unquenchable ardour for learning revived. We do not know what he read during these years, but he must have read a very great deal. None can take up his works without being impressed by the richness and variety of his vocabulary, and it is not too much to say that no other Russian writer ever uses, or has used, so many foreign terms (English and French especially), or has coined so many new words from extraneous western sources. It is also plain from internal evidence that he has studied history, philosophy, and science with enthusiasm, and I agree with those Russian critics who complain that he has assimilated more Nietzschianism than is good for him, although, on the other hand, I consider that his obligations to Nietzsche are far less considerable than is commonly supposed. And at the same time he was consorting freely with ruffians of every description, sleeping round camp fires with murderers and thieves, for the sake of a crust of bread, and once would actually have starved to death but for the charity of a kind-hearted prostitute Naturally courageous, and with the buoyancy of youth to hold him up, he seems to have endured these hardships cheerfully enough, and a fine sunset, or a majestic seascape, or even a glimpse of the monotonous grandeur of the endless steppe, would, as a rule, be compensation enough for the fatigues of a hard day at its close. But he, too, had his dark moments, and in 1888 (when only nineteen) he tried to commit suicide from sheer wretchedness. Fortunately the bullet struck no vital part, and he was nursed into convalescence at a hospital in Kazan. "Having sufficiently recovered," says Gorky, sarcastically summing up his position at this period, "I survived in order to devote myself to the apple-selling trade."
On quitting Kazan, Pyeshkov appeared at Tsaritsuin, where, for a time, he was a railway porter. He was summoned from thence to his native place, Nijni-Novgorod, to serve as a recruit. But Aleksyei was not of the stuff of which soldiers are made. "They don't take rubbish like me," he explains, so he eked out a living by selling lager-beer in the streets till he attracted the attention of the benevolent advocate, A. J. Lanin, who made young Pyeshkov his secretary.
According to Gorky's own admission, Lanin had a considerable influence on his future development. But Gorky, who always felt himself "out of place among intellectual folk," and has an undisguised contempt for mere book-learning, now quitted his patron and returned to Tsaritsuin, whence he rambled through Southern Russia, the Ukraine, and Bessarabia, finally working his way through the Crimea and the Kuban District to the Caucasus. The tour was rich in new experiences, and may be said to have matured his genius, and taught him more than whole libraries of books could have done, but he suffered terrible privations by the way. He made a particular study during this period of the cities of Southern Russia, their commercial activity and their shifting, nondescript population, and that noble story, "Chelkash," which contains his finest descriptions of nature, was the ultimate result of his experiences.
At Tiflis he worked as a navvy for a time, and in 1892 his first printed story, "Makar Chudra," appeared in the columns of the Tiflis journal, Kavkaz. I have described elsewhere his dramatic introduction to the astonished but appreciative editor on that occasion. Returning to Nijni-Novgorod, Gorky got several subsequent stories inserted in the principal newspapers of the various Volgan cities; but he wrote but little at this period, and that little did not win general favour.
In 1893 he made the acquaintance of the eminent Russian writer, Korolenko, to whose encouragement he always attributed his ultimate success. Korolenko urged him to have done with trifles, aim high, and, above all things, cultivate his style. Shortly afterwards, Gorky published his first indisputable masterpiece, "Chelkash," No. 8 of the present collection, which opened "the big reviews" to the young author, and made him famous. "Chelkash" was speedily followed by a whole series of vivid stories. In 1900 appeared his first romance, "Thoma Gordyeev," a disappointing performance on the whole, though not without superlative merits. The descriptions of Volgan scenery are magnificent, and the characterization is masterly. But it is far too long, and, the narrative is swamped by floods of second-rate philosophy. A collection of all Gorky's works, under the title of "Razskazui" (Tales), is still in progress. At present Gorky is, without doubt, by far the most popular author in Russia, and the authorities there have already paid him the compliment of branding his writings as even more dangerous than those of his veteran contemporary, Count Leo Tolstoi. He is also, I fancy, likely to give them much more trouble in future than the Count, as his temperament and genius are distinctly of the volcanic order.
R. NISBET BAIN.
 No. 2 of the present collection.
 In "A Rolling Stone."
 Lit., those who have been.
See "In the Steppe."
See "One Autumn Night."
 In the Monthly Review for December. In the same number of the same periodical appeared the first English translation of one of Gorky's tales, curiously enough, the first tale he wrote.
We quitted Perekop in the vilest spirits—hungry as wolves and at war with all the world. In the course of a whole twelve hours we had unsuccessfully employed all our talents and capabilities to earn or steal something, and when we became convinced, at last, that success was impossible either way, we resolved to go further on. Whither? Simply—further on.
This resolution was unanimous, and by mutual agreement. Moreover, we were resolved to go further in every respect. The manner of life we lately had been leading was to be a mere starting-point, and although we did not so express ourselves aloud, it blazed forth plainly enough in the sullen glare of our hungry eyes.
There were three of us, and we had all quite recently made one another's acquaintance, having first rubbed shoulders together at Kherson, in a little tavern on the banks of the Dnieper.
One of us had been a soldier of the railway battalion, and after that a sort of upper road-mender on one of the Polish roads; he was a red-haired, muscular chap with cold grey eyes; he could speak German, and was very intimately acquainted with the minutiæ of prison life.
Our friend did not like to speak very much of his past for more or less well-founded reasons, and indeed we all of us took each other on trust, at least we ostensibly took each other on trust, for, privately, not one of us even trusted himself.
When our second comrade, a withered little mannikin with small teeth, always pressed together sceptically—when our second comrade, I say, speaking of himself, said that he had formerly been a student at the University of Moscow, I and the soldier accepted the statement as a fact. In reality it was all one to us whether he had been a student, a bailiff's man, or a thief. The only matter of any importance to us was that at the moment of our first acquaintance he stood on our level, in other words: he was starving, engaged the particular attention of the police in the towns, was an object of suspicion to the peasants in the villages, hated everyone with the hatred of an impotent, bated, and starving wild beast, and was intent on a universal vengeance—in a word, he was of precisely the same kidney as ourselves.
Misfortune is the most durable cement for the joining together of natures even diametrically opposed to each other, and we were all convinced of our right to account ourselves unfortunate.
I was the third. The modesty inherent in me from my earliest years forbids me to say a single word as to my merits, and, not wishing to seem naïve, I will be reticent as to my defects. But by way of supplying materials for an estimate of my character, I will add, if you like, that I had always accounted myself better than other people, and have successfully held to the same opinion down to this very day.
Thus we emerged from Perekop and went further on, our objective for that day being the Chabans, from whom it is always possible to cadge a little bread, and who very rarely turn tramps away empty-handed.
I walked with the soldier, "the student" was slouching along behind us. On his shoulders hung something dimly reminiscent of a pea-jacket; on his head reposed a sharp, singular, and smoothly clipped fragment of a broad-brimmed hat; grey breeches, covered with variegated patches, fitted tightly round his thin little legs, and by way of foot gear he made use of the leg of a boot which he had picked up on the road, and attached to its proper place by means of little bandages ripped from the inner lining of his costume. This invention he called sandals, and he shambled along in silence, raising a great deal of dust, and blinking around with his tiny, greenish little eyes. The soldier wore a red woollen shirt, which, to use his own words, he had "gained with his own hands" at Kherson; over the shirt he wore a warm wadding vest; on his head was a military forage cap of indeterminate colour, worn, according to the service regulations, "with the flap of the upper segment over the left brow"; on his legs were broad baggy chumak trousers. He was barefooted.
 Shepherds of Southern Russia.
I also had clothes on and was barefooted.
On we went, and around us in every direction, in heroic proportions, stretched the steppe, covered by the blue sultry cupola of the cloudless summer sky, and lying before us like a huge round black platter. The grey dusty road intersected it like a broad ribbon and burnt our feet Here and there we fell in with bristly patches of trampled-down corn, having a strange resemblance to the long unshaven cheeks of the soldier.
The soldier marched along, singing in a hoarse bass:
"And thus, oh Holy Eastertide,Thy fame we sing and pr-r-raise."
While under arms he had held some sort of office resembling that of clerk in the battalion church, and knew a countless number of liturgical snatches and fragments, the knowledge of which he constantly abused every time our conversation happened to flag.
In front of us on the horizon certain forms with soft outlines and pleasant shades of colour, from faint lilac to fresh pink, began to stand forth prominently.
"Evidently those are the Crimean mountains," said "the student" with a dry voice.
"Mountains?" cried the soldier, "it's jolly early yet to see mountains. They are clouds—simply clouds. Don't you see—just like cranberry vinegar with milk."
I observed that it would be in the highest degree acceptable if they were clouds and did indeed consist of cranberry vinegar. This suddenly awakened our hunger—the evil of our days.
"Deuce take it!" growled the soldier, spitting a bit; "if only we could fall in with a single living soul! There's nobody at all! We shall have to do as the bears do in winter-time and suck our own paws."
"I said we ought to have gone towards inhabited places," observed "the student" didactically.
"You said, did you!" the soldier fired up at once. "Talk—that's about all you students are up to! What sort of inhabited places are there here? The Devil knows where they are."
"The student" was silent, he only pressed his lips tightly together. The sun was setting, and the clouds on the horizon exhibited a play of colour of every shade that language fails to grasp. There was a smell of earth and of salt in the air, and this dry and tasty smell piqued our appetites still more.
There was a sucking sensation in our stomachs, a strange and unpleasant feeling. It seemed as if the juice was gradually trickling out of every muscle in our bodies—trickling away somewhither, and evaporating, and that our muscles were losing their vital elasticity. A feeling of prickly dryness filled the hollow of the mouth and throat, there was a dull sensation in our heads, and dark spots really arose and flashed before our eyes. Sometimes they took the form of steaming pieces of meat—nourishing beef. Memory provided these "visions of the past, dumb visions," with their own peculiar fragrance, and then it was just as if a knife were turning round in our stomachs.
We went along all the same, giving one another a description of our feelings, casting angry sidelong glances about us in case we might peradventure perceive a sheepfold, and listening for the sharp creak of a Tatar arba carrying fruit to the Armenian bazaar.
But the steppe was desolate and voiceless.
On the eve of this hard day we three had eaten four pounds of rye bread and five melons, had walked about thirty-five miles—our income was scarcely equal to our expenditure!—and after going to sleep in the bazaar square at Perekop were awakened by hunger.
"The student" had very properly advised us not to lie down to sleep, but in the course of the night to occupy ourselves with ... but in orderly society it is not considered the right thing openly to speak of any project for infringing the rights of property, and I will therefore keep silence. I only want to be just and not rude to others even in my own interests. I know that people in our highly cultured days are becoming more and more soft hearted, and even when they take their neighbours by the throat with the obvious intention of throttling them—they try to do it with as much amiability as possible, and with the observance of all the consideration which the circumstances will admit of. The experience! of my own throat has caused me to observe this progress in morals, and I maintain, with a pleasant feeling of conviction, that everything in this world is developing towards perfection. In particular this remarkable process is solidly established every year by the growth of prisons, taverns, and tolerated houses.
 A two-wheeled cart used in the Crimea.
Thus, swallowing the spittle of hunger, and endeavouring by friendly conversation to blunt the pangs of our stomachs, we went along the desolate and silent steppe—went along in the beautiful rays of the setting sun, full of a dull hope of something or other turning up. In front of us the setting sun was silently vanishing in the midst of soft clouds liberally embellished by his rays, and behind us and on both sides of us a dove-coloured mist, rising from the steppe into the sky, fixed unalterably the disagreeable horizon surrounding us.
"My brothers, let us collect materials for a camp fire," said the soldier, picking up from the road a chump of wood; "we shall have to make a night of it in the steppe, and the dew is about to fall ... cow-dung, twigs—take anything!"
We dispersed on the road in various directions, and began to collect dry grass and everything that could possibly burn. Every time we chanced to bend down towards the ground a passionate desire seized upon our whole body to lie down upon the earth—lie there immovably and eat the fat black stuff—eat a lot of it, eat till we could eat no more, and then fall asleep. Only to eat!—if we slept for evermore afterwards—to chew and chew and feel the thick warm mash flow gradually from our mouths along our dried-up gullet and food passages into our famished, extenuated stomachs, burning with the desire to suck up some sort of nutriment.
"If only we could find some root or other!" sighed the soldier; "there are roots you can eat, you know."
But in the black furrowed earth there were no roots. The southern night came on quickly, and the last ray of the sun had scarce disappeared when the stars were twinkling in the dark blue sky, and around us, more and more solidly, were gathering the dark shadows, and a smooth blankness engulfed the whole steppe.
"My brothers," said "the student," "yonder to the left a man is lying."
"A man?"—the soldier's tone was dubious—"what should he be lying there for?"
"Go and ask. He must certainly have bread with him if he lies down in the steppe," explained "the student."
The soldier looked in the direction where the man lay, and spitting with decision, said:
"Let us go to him!"
Only the keen, green eyes of "the student" could have made out that the dark patch rising up some fifty fathoms to the left of the road was a man. We went towards him, quickly stepping over the ploughed-up hummocks of earth, and we felt the hope of food new-born within us put a fresh edge upon our hunger. We were already quite close—the man did not move.
"Perhaps it is not a man at all!"—the soldier had put into words the thought common to us all.
But our doubts were resolved that selfsame instant, for the heap on the ground suddenly began to move, grew in size, and we saw that it was a real living man, now on his knees and stretching towards us an arm.
And he said to us in a hollow, tremulous voice:
"Another step—and I fire!"
A short and dry click resounded through the murky air.
We stopped short, as if at the word of command, and were silent for some seconds, dumfounded by such an unpleasant encounter.
"What a beast!" growled the soldier expressively.
"Well, I never!" said "the student," reflectively, "to go about with a revolver. A well-plucked one evidently!"
"Aye!" cried the soldier, "pretty resolute too."
The man never changed his pose, but remained silent.
"Hie, you there! We won't touch you ... Only give us some bread—got any, eh? Give us some, my brother, for Christ's sake—be anathema accursed one!"
The last words of the soldier, naturally, were muttered between his teeth.
The man was silent.
"Do you hear?" cried the soldier again, with a spasm of rage and despair. "Give us bread, we pray you! We won't go near to you—throw it to us!"
"All right!" said the man curtly.
He might have said "my dear brethren!" and if he had poured into these three Christian words the holiest and purest feelings they would not have excited us, they would not have humanized us so much, as did that short and hollow: "All right!"
"Do not be afraid of us, good man!" began the soldier softly, and with a sweet smile on his face, although the man could not have seen his smile, for he was at least twenty paces distant from us.
"We are peaceful folks ... we are going from Russia into the Kuban. We have lost our money on the road, we have eaten all our provisions, and this is now the second four and twenty hours that we haven't tasted a morsel...."
"Catch!" said the good man, flinging out his arm A black morsel flashed towards us and fell on a hummock not very far from us. "The student" fell upon it.
"Catch again!—again! There is no more!"
When "the student" had picked up this original gift it appeared that we had four pounds of stale wheaten bread. It had been buried in the earth and was very stale. The first piece barely arrested our attention, the second piece pleased us very much. Stale bread is more satisfying than fresh bread, there is less moisture in it.
"So—and so—and so!" said the soldier, concentrating all his attention on the division of the morsels. "Stay! That's fair, I think! A little corner ought to be nibbled off your piece, student, for his"—he meant mine—"is too little."
"The student," without a murmur, submitted to the subtraction from his portion of about an ounce in weight. I snatched it, and popped it into my mouth.
I began to chew it, chew it gradually, scarce able to control the convulsive movement of my jaws, ready to pulverize a stone. It afforded me a keen delight to feel the jerky throbs of my gullet, and to be able, by little and little, to gratify it with little rivulets of nutriment. Mouthful after mouthful, warm and inexplicably, indescribably tasty, penetrated at last to my burning stomach, and seemed instantly to turn into blood and muscle. Delight, such a strange, calm, and vivifying delight, warmed my heart proportionately to the filling of my stomach, and my general condition was similar to that of someone half asleep. I forgot all about those accursed days of chronic hunger, and I forgot about my comrades engulfed in the rapture of those very feelings which I myself had just experienced.
But when I had cast from my palm into my mouth the last crumb of bread, I felt a mortal desire for more.
"He must have about him—anathemas smite him!—some tallow or a bit of meat," cried the soldier, sitting down on the ground opposite to me and rubbing his belly with his hands.
"Certainly, for the bread has a smell of meat.... Yes, and he has more bread, I'll be bound," said "the student," and he added very quietly, "if only he hadn't a revolver!"
"Who is he, I wonder?"
"A hound!" said the soldier decidedly.
We sat together in a close group and cast sidelong glances in the direction where sat our benefactor with his revolver. Not a sound, not a sign of life now proceeded from that quarter.
Night had assembled her dark forces all around us. Mortally still it was in the steppe there—we could hear each other's breath. Now and then from somewhither resounded the melancholy whistle of the suslik.... The stars, the bright flowers of heaven, shone down upon us ... We wanted more to eat.
 The earless marmot of the steppe.
With pride I say it—I was neither better nor worse than my casual comrades on this somewhat strange night. I persuaded them to get up and go towards this man. We need not touch him, but we would eat everything we found upon him. He would fire—let him! Out of three of us only one could fall, even if one fell at all, and even if one of us did fall, a mere revolver bullet would scarcely be the death of him.
"Let us go," said the soldier, leaping to his feet.
"The student" rose to his feet more slowly than the soldier.
And we went, we almost ran. "The student" kept well behind us.
"Comrade!" cried the soldier reproachfully.
There met us a dull report and the sharp sound of a snapping trigger. There was a flash and the dry report of a firearm.
"It is over!" yelled the soldier joyfully, and with a single bound he was level with the man. "Now, you devil, I am going to have it out with you."
"The student" flung himself on the knapsack.
"The devil" fell from his knees on to his back, and stretching out his arms gave forth a choking sound.
"What the deuce!" cried the astonished soldier in the very act of raising his foot to give the man a kick. "What is he groaning for like that? Hie! Hie you! What's the matter? Have you shot yourself or what?"
"There's meat and some pancakes and bread—a whole lot, my brothers!"—and the voice of "the student" crowed with delight.
"But what the deuce ails him?—he is at the last gasp! Come then, let us eat, my friends!" cried the soldier. I had taken the revolver out of the hand of the man who had ceased to groan, and now lay motionless. There was only a single cartridge in the cartridge-box.
Again we ate—ate in silence. The man also lay there in silence, not moving a limb. We paid no attention to him whatever.
"My brothers, I suppose you have done all this simply for the sake of bread?" suddenly exclaimed a hoarse and tremulous voice.
We all started. "The student" even swallowed a crumb, and bending low towards the ground fell a coughing.
The soldier in the midst of his chewing became abusive.
"You soul of a dog! Take care I don't hack you like a clod of wood! Or would you prefer us to flay you alive, eh?—It was ours because we wanted it Shut your foolish mouth, you unclean spirit! A pretty thing!—To go about armed and fire at folks! May you be anathema!"
He cursed while he ate, and for that reason his cursing lost all its expression and force.
"Wait till we have eaten our fill and then we'll settle accounts with you," remarked "the student" viciously.
And then through the silence of the night resounded a wailing cry which frightened us.
"My brothers ... how could I tell? I fired because I was frightened. I am going from New Athos ... to the Government of Smolensk ... Oh, Lord! The fever has caught me ... it burns me up like the sun ... woe is me! Even when I left Athos the fever was upon me ... I was doing some carpenter's work ... I am a carpenter by trade ... At home is my wife and two little girls ... for three or four years I have not seen them ... my brothers ... you know all!"
"We are eating, don't bother," said "the student."
"Lord God! If only I had known that you were quiet peaceable folks ... do you think I would have fired? And here in the steppe too, at night, my brothers, you cannot say I am guilty, surely?"
He spoke and he wept, or to speak more accurately, he uttered a sort of tremulous terrified howl.
"He's a miser!" said the soldier contemptuously.
"He must have money about him," observed "the student."
The soldier winked, looked at him, and smiled.
"How sharp you are ... I say, give us some of the firewood here, and we'll light up and go to sleep."
"And how about him?" inquired "the student."
"The deuce take him! He may roast himself with us if he likes—what?"
"He might follow us!" and "the student" shook his sharp head.
We went to fetch the materials we had collected, threw them down where the carpenter had brought us to a standstill with his threatening cry, set light to them, and soon were sitting round a bonfire. It burnt quietly in the windless night and lighted up the tiny space occupied by us. We ached to go to sleep, though for all that we should have liked a little more supper first.
"My brothers!" the carpenter called to us. He was lying three yards off, and sometimes it seemed to me that he was whispering something.
"Well!" said the soldier.
"May I come to you—to the fire? I am about to die ... all my bones are broken Oh, Lord! It is plain to me that I shall never live to get home."
"Crawl along then,"—it was "the student" who decided.
Very gradually, as if fearing to lose hand or foot, the carpenter moved along the ground towards the fire. He was a tall and frightfully wasted man, every part of him seemed to be quivering, and his large dim eyes expressed the pain that was consuming him. His shrivelled face was very bony, and had in the light of the fire a yellowish earthy cadaverous colour. He was still tremulous, and excited our contemptuous pity. Stretching his long thin hands towards the fire, he rubbed his bony fingers, and kneaded their joints slowly and wearily. At last it went against us to look at him.
"What do you cut such a figure for, and why do you go on foot?—to save expense, eh?" asked the soldier surlily.
"I was so advised ... don't go, said they, by water, but go by way of the Crimea, for the air, they said. And lo! I cannot go, I am dying, my brothers. I shall die alone in the steppe ... the birds will pick my bones and nobody will know about it ... My wife ... my little daughters will be waiting for me ... I wrote to them ... and my bones will be washed by the rains of the steppe ... Lord, Lord!"
He uttered the anguished howl of a wounded wolf.
"Oh, the devil!" cried the soldier, waxing wrath, and springing to his feet. "How you whine! Can't you leave folks in peace! You're dying, eh? Well, die then, and hold your tongue ... What use are you to anyone? Shut up!"
"Give him one on the chump!" suggested "the student."
"Lie down and sleep!" said I, "and if you want to be by the fire, don't howl, really, you know...."
"Now you have heard," said the soldier savagely, "pray understand. You fancy we shall pity you and pay attention to you because you flung bread to us and fired bullets at us, do you? You sour-faced devil you! Others would have... Ugh!"
The soldier ceased and stretched himself on the ground.