A volume of short stories representing the later work of the Russian novelist, the fruit of his sojourn in Capri. It is interesting to note how this change of environment altered not merely his point of view, but even his literary style.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
MAN AND THE SIMPLON
AN UNWRITTEN SONATA
SUN AND SEA
LOVE OF LOVERS
HEARTS AND CREEDS
THE TRAITOR'S MOTHER
THE MIGHT OF MOTHERHOOD
A MESSAGE FROM THE SEA
THE HONOUR OF THE VILLAGE
ON THE STEAMER
THE MAN WITH A NATIONAL FACE
THE JEWS AND THEIR FRIENDS
HARD TO PLEASE
MAKING A SUPERMAN
A blue lake is deeply set in mountains capped with eternal snow. A dark network of gardens descends in gorgeous folds to the water. White houses that look like lumps of sugar peer down from the bank into the lake; and everything around is as quiet and peaceful as the sleep of a child.
It is morning. A perfume of flowers is wafted gently from the mountains. The sun is new risen and the dew still glistens on the leaves of trees and the petals of flowers. A road like a grey ribbon thrusts into the quiet mountain gorge—a stone-paved road which yet looks as soft as velvet, so that one almost has a desire to stroke it.
Near a pile of stones sits a workman, like some dark coloured beetle; on his breast is a medal; his face is serious, bold, but kindly.
Placing his sunburnt hands on his knees and looking up into the face of a passer-by who has stopped in the shade of a chestnut-tree, he says:
"This is the Simplon, signor, and this is a medal for working in the Simplon tunnel,"
And lowering his eyes to his breast he smiles fondly at the bright piece of metal.
"Oh, every kind of work is hard for a time, until you get used to it, and then it grows upon you and becomes easy. Ay, but it was hard work though!"
He shook his head a little, smiling at the sun; then suddenly he checked and waved his hand; his black eyes glistened.
"I was afraid at times. The earth must have some feeling, don't you think? When we had burrowed to a great depth, when we had made this wound in the mountain, she received us rudely enough. She breathed a hot breath on us that made the heart stop beating, made the head dizzy and the bones to ache. Many experienced this. Then the mother earth showered stones upon her children, poured hot water over us; ay, there was fear in it, signor! Sometimes, in the torchlight, the water became red and my father told me that we had wounded the earth and that she would drown us, would burn us all up with her blood—'you will live to see it!' It was all fancy, like enough, but when one hears such words deep in the bowels of the earth—in the damp and suffocating darkness, amid the plaintive splashing of water and the grinding of iron against stone—one forgets for the moment how much is fantasy. For everything was fantastic there, dear signor: we men were so puny, while the mountain, into whose belly we were boring, reached up to the sky. One must see in order to understand it. It is necessary to see the black gaping mouth cut by us, tiny people, who entered it at sunset—and how sadly the sun looks after those who desert him and go into the bowels of the earth! It is necessary to see our machines and the grim face of the mountain, and to hear the dark rumblings in it and the blasts, like the wild laughter of a madman."
He looked at his hands, set right the medal on his blue blouse and sighed.
"Man knows how to work!" he continued, with manifest pride. "Oh, signor, a puny man, when he wills to work, is an invincible force! And, believe me: in the end, the little man will do everything he wants to do. My father did not believe it at first.
"'To cut through a mountain from country to country,' he said, 'is contrary to the will of God, who separated countries by mountain walls; you will see that the Madonna will not be with us!' He was wrong, the old man; the Madonna is on the side of everyone who loves her. Afterwards my father began to think as I now think and avow to you, because he felt that he was greater and stronger than the mountain; but there was a time when, on holidays, sitting at a table before a bottle of wine, he would declare to me and others:
"'Children of God'—that was his favourite saying, for he was a kind and good man—'children of God, you must not struggle with the earth like that; she will be revenged on you for her wounds, and will remain unconquerable! You will see: when we bore into the mountain as far as the heart, when we touch the heart, it will burn us up, it will hurl fire upon us, because the earth's heart is fiery—everybody knows that! To cultivate the soil means to help it to give birth—we are bidden to do that; but now we are spoiling its physiognomy, its form. Behold! The farther we dig into the mountain the hotter the air becomes and the harder it is to breathe.'"
The man laughed quietly and curled the ends of his moustache with both hands.
"Not he alone thought like that, and he was right; the farther we went in the tunnel, the hotter it became, and men fell prostrate and were overcome. Water gushed forth faster from the hot springs, whole seams fell down, and two of our fellows from Lugano went mad. At night in the barracks many of us talked in delirium, groaned and jumped up from our beds in terror.
"'Am I not right?' said my father, with fear in his eyes and coughing more and more, and more and more huskily—he did, signor. 'Am I not right?' he said. 'She is unconquerable, the earth.'
"At last the old man lay down for the last time. He was very strong, my old one; for more than three weeks he struggled bravely with death, as a man who knows his worth, and never complained.
"'My work is finished, Paolo,' he said to me once in the night. 'Take care of yourself and return home; let the Madonna guide you!'
"Then he was silent for a long time; he covered up his face, and was nigh to choking."
The man stood up, looked at the mountains and stretched himself with such force that his sinews cracked.
"He took me by the hand, drew me to himself and said—it's the solemn truth, signor—
"'Do you know, Paolo, my son, in spite of all, I think it will be done: we and those who advance from the other side will meet in the mountain, we shall meet—do you believe that?'
"I did believe it, signor.
"'Well, my son, so you must: everything must be done with a firm belief in a happy ending and in God who helps good people by the prayers of the Madonna. I beg you, my son, if it does happen, if the men meet, come to my grave and say: "Father, it is done," so that I may know!'
"It was all right, dear signor, I promised him. He died five days after my words were spoken, and two days before his death he asked me to bury him at the spot where he had last worked in the tunnel. He prayed, but I think it was in delirium.
"We and the others who came from the opposite side met in the mountain thirteen weeks after my father's death—it was a mad day, signor! Oh, when we heard there, under the earth, in the darkness, the noise of other workmen, the noise of those who came to meet us under the earth—you understand, signor, under the tremendous weight of the earth which might have crushed us, puny little things, all at once had it but known how!
"For many days we heard these rumbling sounds, every day they became louder and louder, clearer and clearer, and we became possessed by the joyful madness of conquerors—we worked like demons, like persons without bodies, not feeling fatigue, not requiring direction—it was as good as a dance on a sunny day, upon my word of honour! We all became as good and kind to one another as children are. Oh, if you only knew how strong, how intensely passionate is one's desire to meet a human being in the dark, under the earth into which one has burrowed like a mole for many long months!"
His face flushed, he walked up close to the listener and, looking into the latter's face with deep kindling eyes, went on quietly and joyously:
"And when the last wall finally crumbled away, and in the opening appeared the red light of a torch and somebody's dark face covered with tears of joy, and then another face, and more torches and more faces—shouts of victory resounded, shouts of joy.... Oh, it was the best day of my life, and when I think of it I feel that I have not lived in vain! There was work, my work, holy work, signor, I tell you, yes!.... Yes, we kissed the conquered mountain, kissed the earth—that day the earth was specially near and dear to me, signor, and I fell in love with it as if it had been a woman!
"Of course I went to my father! Of course—although I don't know that the dead can hear—but I went: we must respect the wishes of those who toiled for us and who suffered no less than we do—must we not, signor?
"Yes, yes, I went to his grave, knocked with my foot against the ground and said, as he wished:
"'Father—it is done!' I said. 'The people have conquered. It is done, father!'"
A young musician, his dark eyes fixed intently on far-off things, said quietly:
"I should like to set this down in terms of music":
Along a road leading to a large town walks a little boy. He walks and hastens not.
The town lies prostrate; the heavy mass of its buildings presses against the earth. And it groans, this town, and sends forth a murmurous sound. From afar it looks as if it had just burned out, for over it the blood-red flame of the sunset still lingers, and the crosses of its churches, its spires and vanes, seem red-hot.
The edges of the black clouds are also on fire, angular roofs of tall buildings stand out ominously against the red patches, window-panes like deep wounds glisten here and there. The stricken town, spent with woe, the scene of an incessant striving after happiness—is bleeding to death, and the warm blood sends up a reek of yellowish, suffocating smoke.
The boy walks on. The road, like a broad ribbon, cleaves a way amid fields invaded by the gathering twilight; straight it goes, piercing the side of the town like a rapier thrust by a powerful, unseen hand. The trees by the roadside resemble unlit torches; their large black heads are uplifted above the silent earth in motionless expectancy.
The sky is covered with clouds and no stars are to be seen; there are no shadows; the late evening is sad and still, and save for the slow, light steps of the boy no sound breaks the silence of the tired fields as they fall asleep in the dusk.
The boy walks on. And, noiselessly, the night follows him and envelops in its black mantle the distances from which he has emerged.
As the dusk grows deeper it hides in its embrace the red and white houses which sink submissively into the earth. It hides the gardens with their trees, and leaves them lonely, like orphans, on the hillsides. It hides the chimney-stacks.
Everything around becomes black, vanishes, blotted out by the darkness of the night; it is as if the little figure advancing slowly, stick in hand, along the road inspired some strange kind of fear.
He goes on, without speaking, without hastening, his eyes steadily fixed upon the town; he is alone, ridiculously small and insignificant, yet it seems as if he bore something indispensable to and long awaited by all in the town, where blue, yellow and red lights are being speedily lit to greet him.
The sun sinks completely. The crosses, the vanes and the spires melt and vanish, the town seems to subside, grow smaller, and to press ever more closely against the dumb earth.
Above the town, an opal cloud, weirdly coloured, flares and gradually grows larger; a phosphorescent, yellowish mist settles unevenly on the grey network of closely huddled houses. The town itself no longer seems to be consumed by fire and reeking in blood—the broken lines of the roofs and walls have the appearance now of something magical, fantastic, but yet of something incomplete, not properly finished, as if he who planned this great town for men had suddenly grown tired and fallen asleep, or had lost faith, and, casting everything aside in his disappointment, had gone away, or died.
But the town lives and is possessed by an anxious longing to see itself beautiful and upraised proudly before the sun. It murmurs in a fever of many-sided desire for happiness, it is excited by a passionate will to live. Slow waves of muffled sound issue into the dark silence of the surrounding fields, and the black bowl of the sky is gradually filled with a dull, languishing light.
The boy stops, with uplifted brows, and shakes his head; then he looks boldly ahead and, staggering, walks quickly on.
The night, following him, says in the soft, kind voice of a mother:
"It is time, my son, hasten! They are waiting."
"Of course it is impossible to write it down!" said the young musician with a thoughtful smile.
Then, after a moment's silence, he folded his hands, and added, wistfully, fondly, in a low voice:
"Purest Virgin Mary! what awaits him?"
The sun melts in the blue midday sky, pouring hot, many-coloured rays on to the water and the earth. The sea slumbers and exhales an opal mist, the bluish water glistens like steel. A strong smell of brine is carried to the lonely shore.
The waves advance and splash lazily against a mass of grey stones; they roll slowly upon the beach and the pebbles make a jingling sound; they are gentle waves, as clear as glass, and there is no foam on them.
The mountain is enveloped in a violet haze of heat, the grey leaves of the olive-trees shine like old silver in the sun; in the gardens which cover the mountain-side the gold of lemons and oranges gleams in the dark velvet of the foliage; the red blossoms of pomegranate-trees smile brightly, and everywhere there are flowers.
How the sun loves the earth!
There are two fishermen on the stones. One is an old man, in a straw hat. He has a heavy-looking face, covered on cheeks and chin and upper lip with grey bristles; his eyes are embedded in fat, his nose is red, and his hands are sunburnt. He has cast his pliant fishing-rod far out into the sea, and he sits upon a rock, his hairy legs hanging over the green water. A wave washes up and bathes them, and from the dark toes clear, heavy drops of water fall back into the sea.
Behind the old man, leaning with one elbow on a rock, stands a tawny black-eyed fellow, thin and lank. On his head is a red cap, and a white jersey covers his muscular torso; his blue trousers are rolled up to the knee. He tugs with his right hand at his moustache and looks thoughtfully out to sea; in the distance black streaks of fishing boats are moving, and far beyond them, scarcely visible, is a white sail; the white sail is motionless, and seems to melt like a cloud in the sun.
"Is she a rich signora?" the old man inquires, in a husky voice, as he makes an unsuccessful effort to cross his knees.
The young man answered quietly:
"I think so. She has a brooch, and earrings with large stones as blue as the sea, and many rings, and a watch.... I think she is an American."
"Oh yes! Very slender, it is true, but such eyes, just like flowers, and, do you know, a mouth so small, and slightly open."
"It is the mouth of an honest woman and of the kind that loves but once in her life."
"I think so too."
The old man drew in his rod, winked as he looked at the hook, and muttered with a laugh:
"A fish is no fool, to be sure."
"Who fishes at midday?" asked the youth, getting down on his knees.
"I," replied the old man, putting on fresh bait. And, having thrown the line far into the sea, he asked:
"You rowed her till the morning, you said?"
"The sun was rising when we got out on the shore," readily replied the young man, with a heavy sigh.
"She might have given more."
"She might have given much."
"What did you speak to her about?"
The youth seemed annoyed and lowered his head gloomily.
"She does not know more than ten words, so we were silent."
"True love," said the old man, looking back and showing his strong teeth in a broad smile, "strikes the heart like lightning, and is as dumb as lightning, you know."
The young man picked up a large stone and was about to throw it into the sea; but he threw it back over his shoulder, saying:
"Sometimes one cannot understand what people want with different languages."
"They say some day it will be different," said the old man, after a moments thought.
Over the blue surface of the sea, in the far-off milky mist, noiselessly glides a white steamer, like the shadow of a cloud.
"To Sicily," said the old man, nodding towards the steamer.
From somewhere or other he took a long, uneven, black cigar, broke it in two and, handing one half over his shoulder to the young man, asked:
"What did you think about as you sat with her?"
"Man always thinks of happiness."
"That's why he is always so stupid," the old man put in quietly.
They began to smoke. The blue smoke wreaths hung over the stones in the breathless air which was impregnated with the rich odour of fertile earth and gentle water.
"I sang to her and she smiled."
"But you know that I sing badly."
"Yes, I know."
"Then I rested the oars and looked at her."
"I looked, saying to myself: 'Here am I, young and strong, while you are languishing. Love me and make me happy.'"
"Was she feeling lonely?"
"Who that is not poor goes to a strange land if he feels merry?"
"I promise by the name of the Virgin Mary—I thought to myself—that I will be kind to you and that everybody shall be happy who lives near us."
"Well, well!" exclaimed the old man, throwing back his large head and bursting into loud bass laughter.
"I will always be true to you."
"Or—I thought—let us live together a little while; I will love you to your heart's content; then you can give me some money for a boat and rigging, and a piece of land; and I will return to my own dear country and will always, as long as I live, remember and think kindly of you."
"There's some sense in that."
"Then—towards the morning—it seemed to me that I needed nothing, that I did not want money, only her, even if it were only for one night."
"That is simpler."
"Just for one single night."
"Well, well!" said the old man.
"It seems to me, Uncle Pietro, that a small happiness is always more honest."
The old man was silent. His thick, shaven lips were compressed; he looked intently into the green water. The young man sang quietly and sadly:
"Yes, yes," said the old man suddenly, shaking his head, "a small happiness is more honest, but a great happiness is better. Poor people are better-looking, but the rich are stronger. It is always so."
The waves rock and splash. Blue wreaths of smoke float, like nymphs, above the heads of the two men. The young man rises to his feet and sings quietly, his cigar stuck in a corner of his mouth. He leans his shoulder against the grey side of the rock, folds his arms across his chest, and looks out to sea with the eyes of a dreamer.
But the old man is motionless, his head has sunk on his breast and he seems to doze.
The violet shadows on the mountains grow deeper and softer.
"O sun!" sings the youth.
"The sun was born more beautiful,
More beautiful than thou!
Bathe me in thy light,
Fill me with thy life!"
The green waves chuckle merrily.
At a small station between Rome and Genoa the guard opened the door of our compartment and, with the assistance of a dirty oiler, led, carried almost, a little, one-eyed, old man up the steps into our midst.
"Very old!" remarked both at the same time, smiling good-naturedly.
But the old man turned out to be very vigorous. After thanking his helpers with a pretty gesture of his wrinkled hand he politely and gaily lifted his shabby dust-stained hat from his grey head, and, looking sharply at the seats with his one eye, inquired:
"Will you permit me?"
He was given a seat at once. He then straightened his blue linen suit, heaved a sigh of relief and, putting his hands on his little, withered knees, smiled good-humouredly, disclosing a toothless mouth.
"Going far, uncle?" asked my companion.
"Only three stations!" he replied readily. "I am going to my grandson's wedding."
After a few minutes he became very talkative and, raising his voice above the noise made by the wheels of the train, told us as he swayed this way and that like a broken branch on a windy day:
"I am a Ligurian: we Ligurians are a strong people. I, for instance, have thirteen sons and four daughters; I confuse my grandchildren in counting them; this is the second one to get married—that's pretty good, don't you think?"
He looked proudly round the compartment with his lustreless but still merry eye; then he laughed quietly and said: "See how many people I have given to my country and to the king!"
"How did I lose my eye? Oh, that was long ago, when I was still a boy, but already helping my father. He was breaking stones in the vineyard; our soil is very hard, and needs a lot of attention: there are a great many stones. A stone flew from underneath my father's pick and hit me in the eye. I don't remember any pain, but at dinner my eye came out—it was terrible, signors! They put it back in its place and applied some warm bread, but the eye died!"
The old man rubbed his brown skinny cheek, and laughed again in a merry, good-humoured way.
"At that time there were not so many doctors, and people were much more stupid. What! you think they may have been kinder? Perhaps they were."
And now this dried-up, one-eyed, deeply wrinkled face, with its partial covering of greenish-grey, mouldy-looking hair, became knowing and triumphant.
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