Part 6 out of 7
inclined to do nothing, from morn till night, save roam the
defile without the exchanging of a word, the conceiving of a
desire, or the formulating of a thought.
At sunset, when we were engaged in drinking tea by the fire, the
"I hope that life in the next world will exactly resemble life
in this spot, and be just as quiet and peaceful and immune from
work. Here one needs but to sit and melt like butter and suffer
neither from wrong nor anxiety."
Then, as carefully he withdrew his pipe from his lips, and
sighed, he added:
"Aye! If I could but feel sure that life in the next world will
be like life here, I would pray to God: 'For Christ's sake take
my soul at the earliest conceivable moment.'"
"What might suit YOU would not suit ME," Vasili thoughtfully
observed. "I would not always live such a life as this. I might
do so for a time, but not in perpetuity."
"Ah, but never have you worked hard," grunted the ex-soldier.
In every way the evening resembled the previous one; there were
to be observed the same luscious flooding of the defile with
dove-coloured mist, the same flashing of the silver crags in the
roseate twilight, the same rocking of the dense, warm forest's
soft, leafy tree-tops, the same softening of the rocks' outlines
in the gloom, the same gradual uplift of shadows, the same
chanting of the "matchmaking" river, the same routine on the
part of the big, sleek carpenters around the barraque--a routine
as slow and ponderous in its course as the movements of a drove
of wild boars.
More than once during the off hours of the day had we sought to
make the carpenters' acquaintance, to start a conversation with
them, but always their answers had been given reluctantly, in
monosyllables, and never had a discussion seemed likely to get
under way without the whiteheaded foreman shouting to the
particular member of the gang concerned: " Hi, you, Pavlushka!
Get back to work, there! " Indeed, he, the foreman, had outdone
all in his manifestations of dislike for our friendship, and as
monotonously as though he had been minded to rival the rivulet as
a songster, he had hummed his pious ditties, or else raised his
snuffling voice to sing them with an ever-importunate measure of
insistence, so that all day long those ditties had been coursing
their way in a murky, melancholy-compelling flood. Indeed, as the
foreman had stepped cautiously on thin legs from stone to stone
during his ceaseless inspection of the work of his men, he had
come to seem to have for his object the describing of an
invisible, circular path, as a means of segregating us more
securely than ever from the society of the carpenters.
Personally, however, I had no desire to converse with him, for
his frozen eyes chilled and repelled me and from the moment when
I had approached him, and seen him fold his hands behind him, and
recoil a step as he inquired with suppressed sternness, "What do
you want?" there had fallen away from me all further ambition to
learn the nature of the songs which he sang.
The ex-soldier gazed at him resentfully, then said with an oath:
"The old wizard and pilferer! Take my word for it that a lump of
piety like that has got a pretty store put away somewhere."
Whereafter, as he lit his pipe and squinted in the direction of
the carpenters, he added with stifled wrath:
"The airs that the 'elect' give themselves--the sons of
"It is always so," commented Vasili with a resentment equal to
the last speaker's. "Yes, no sooner, with us, does a man
accumulate a little money than he sticks his nose in the air, and
falls to thinking himself a real barin."
"Why is it that you always say 'With us,' and 'Among us,' and so
"Among us Russians, then, if you like it better."
"I do like it better. For you are not a German, are you, nor a
"No. It is merely that I can see the faults in our Russian
Upon that (not for the first time) the pair plunged into a
discussion which had come so to weary them that now they spoke
only indifferently, without effort.
"The word 'faults' is, I consider, an insult," began the ex-
soldier as he puffed at his pipe. "Besides, you don't speak
consistently. Only this moment I observed a change in your
"To the term 'Russians.'"
"What should you prefer?"
A new sound floated into the defile as from some point on the
steppe the sound of a bell summoning folk to the usual Saturday
vigil service. Removing his pipe from his mouth, the ex-soldier
listened for a moment or two. Then, at the third and last stroke
of the bell, he doffed his cap, crossed himself with punctilious
piety, and said:
"There are not very many churches in these parts."
Whereafter he threw a glance across the river, and added
"Those devils THERE don't cross themselves, the accursed Serbs!"
Vasili looked at him, twisted a left-hand moustache, smoothed it
again, regarded for a moment the sky and the defile, and sank his
"The trouble with me," he remarked in an undertone, "is that I
can never remain very long in one place--always I keep fancying
that I shall meet with better things elsewhere, always I keep
hearing a bird singing in my heart, 'Do you go further, do you
"That bird sings in the heart of EVERY man," the ex-soldier
With a glance at us both, Vasili laughed a subdued laugh.
"'In the heart of every man'? " he repeated. "Why, such a
statement is absurd. For it means, does it not, that every one of
us is an idler, every one of us is constantly waiting for
something to turn up--that, in fact, no one of us is any better
than, or able to do any better than, the folk whose sole
utterance is 'Give unto us, pray give unto us'? Yes, if that be
the case, it is an unfortunate case indeed!"
And again he laughed. Yet his eyes were sorrowful, and as the
fingers of his right hand lay upon his knee they twitched as
though they were longing to grasp something unseen.
The ex-soldier frowned and snorted. For my own part, however, I
felt troubled for, and sorry for, Vasili. Presently he rose,
broke into a soft whistle, and moved away by the side of the
"His head is not quite right," muttered the ex-soldier as he
winked in the direction of the retreating figure. "Yes, I tell
you that straight, for from the first it was clear to me.
Otherwise, what could his words in depredation of Russia mean,
when of Russia nothing the least hard or definite can be said?
Who really knows her? What is she in reality, seeing that each of
her provinces is a soul to itself, and no one could state which
of the two Holy Mothers stands nearest to God--the Holy Mother of
Smolensk, or the Holy Mother of Kazan? "
For a while the speaker sat scraping greasy deposit from the
bottom and sides of the kettle; and all that while he grumbled as
though he had a grudge against someone. At length, however, he
assumed an attitude of attention, with his neck stretched out as
though to listen to some sound.
"Hist!" was his exclamation.
What then followed, followed as unexpectedly as when, like an
evil bird, a summer whirlwind suddenly sweeps up from the
horizon, and discharges a bluish-black cloud in torrents of rain
and hail, until everything is overwhelmed and battered to mud.
That is to say, with much din of whistling and other sounds there
now came pouring into the defile, and began to ascend the trail
beside the stream, a straggling procession of some thirty workmen
with, gleaming dully in the hands of their leading files, flagons
of vodka, and, suspended on the backs and shoulders of others,
wallets and bags of bread and other comestibles, and, in two
instances, poised on the heads of yet other processionists, large
black cauldrons the effect of which was to make their bearers
look like mushrooms.
"A vedro [2 3/4 gallons] and a half to the cauldron!" whispered
the ex-soldier with a computative grunt as he gained his feet.
"Yes, a vedro and a half," he repeated. As he spoke the tip of
his tongue protruded until it rested on the under-lip of his
half-opened mouth. In his face there was a curiously thirsty,
gross expression, and his attitude, as he stood there, was that
of one who had just received a blow, and was about to cry out in
Meanwhile the defile rumbled like a barrel into which heavy
weights are being dropped, for one of the newcomers was beating
an empty tin pail, and another one whistling in a manner the
tossed echoes of which drowned even the rivulet's murmur as
nearer and nearer came the mob of men, a mob clad variously in
black, grey, or russet, with sleeves rolled up, and heads, in
many cases, bare save for their own towsled, dishevelled locks,
and bodies bent with fatigue, or carried stumblingly along on
legs bowed outwards. Meanwhile, as the dull, polyphonous roar of
voices swept through the neck of the defile, a man shouted in
broken, but truculent, accents:
"I say no! Fiddlesticks! Not a man is there who could drink more
than a vedro of 'blood-and-sweat' in a day."
"A man could drink a lake of it."
"No, a vedro and a half. That is the proper reckoning."
"Aye, a vedro and a half." And the ex-soldier, as he repeated
the words, spoke both as though he were an expert in the matter
and as though he felt for the matter a touch of respect. Then,
lurching forward like a man pushed by the scruff of the neck, he
crossed the rivulet, intercepted the crowd, and became swallowed
up in its midst.
Around the barraque the carpenters (the foreman ever glimmering
among them) were hurriedly collecting tools. Presently Vasili
returned--his right hand thrust into his pocket, and his left
holding his cap.
"Before long those fellows will be properly drunk! " he said
with a frown. "Ah, that vodka of ours! It is a perfect curse!"
Then to me: "Do YOU drink?"
"No," I replied.
"Thank God for that! If one does not drink one will never really
get into trouble."
For a moment he gazed gloomily in the direction of the newcomers.
Then he said without moving, without even looking at me:
"You have remarkable eyes, young fellow. Also, they seem
familiar to me--I have seen them somewhere before. Possibly that
happened in a dream, though I cannot be sure. Where do you come
I answered, but, after scanning me perplexedly, he shook his
"No," he remarked. "I have never visited that part of the
country, or indeed, been so far from home."
"But this place is further still?"
"I must tell you the truth," he said. "I am not a Kurskan at
all, but a Pskovian. The reason why I told the ex-soldier that I
was from Kursk was that I neither liked him nor cared to tell him
the whole truth-he was not worth the trouble. And as for my real
name, it is Paul, not Vasili--Paul Nikolaev Silantiev-- and is so
marked on my passport (for a passport, and a passport quite in
order, I have got)."
"And why are you on your travels? "
"For the reason that I am so--I can say no more. I look back from
a given place, and wave my hand, and am gone again as a feather
floats before the wind."
"Silence!" a threatening voice near the barraque broke in. "I
am the foreman here."
The voice of the ex-soldier replied:
"What workmen are these of yours? They are mere sectarians,
fellows who are for ever singing hymns."
To which someone else added:
"Besides, old devil that you are, aren't you bound to finish all
building work before the beginning of a Sunday?"
"Let us throw their tools into the stream."
"Yes, and start a riot," was Silantiev's comment as he squatted
before the embers of the fire.
Around the barraque, picked out against the yellow of its
framework, a number of dark figures were surging to and fro as
around a conflagration. Presently we heard something smashed to
pieces--at all events, we heard the cracking and scraping of wood
against stone, and then the strident, hilarious command:
"Hold on there! I'LL soon put things to rights! Carpenters, just
hand over the saw!"
Apparently there were three men in charge of the proceedings: the
one a red-bearded muzhik in a seaman's blouse; the second a tall
man with hunched shoulders, thin legs, and long arms who kept
grasping the foreman by the collar, shaking him, and bawling,
"Where are your lathes? Bring them out!" (while noticeable also
was a broad-shouldered young fellow in a ragged red shirt who
kept thrusting pieces of scantling through the windows of the
barraque, and shouting, "Catch hold of these! Lay them out in a
row!"); and the third the ex-soldier himself. The last-named, as
he jostled his way among the crowd, kept vociferating, viciously,
virulently, and with a curious system of division of his
"Aha-a, ra-abble, secta-arians. Yo-ou would have nothing to say
to me, you Se-erbs! Yet I say to YOU: Go along, my chickens, for
the re-est of us are ti-ired of you, and come to sa-ay so!"
"What does he want?" asked Silantiev quietly as he lit a
cigarette. "Vodka? Oh, THEY'LL give him vodka! . . . Yet are you
not sorry for fellows of that stamp?"
Through the blue tobacco-smoke he gazed into the glowing embers;
until at last he took a charred stick, and collected the embers
into a heap glowing red-gold like a bouquet of fiery poppies; and
as he did so, his handsome eyes gleamed with just such a reverent
affection, such a prayerful kindliness, as must have lurked in
the eyes of primeval, nomadic man in the presence of the dancing,
beneficent source of light and heat.
"At least I am sorry for such fellows," Vasili continued.
"Aye, the very thought of the many, many folk who have come to
nothing! The very thought of it! Terrible, terrible!"
A touch of daylight was still lingering on the tops of the
mountains, but in the defile itself night was beginning to loom,
and to lull all things to sleep--to incline one neither to speak
oneself nor to listen to the dull clamour of those others on the
opposite bank, where even to the murmur of the rivulet the
distasteful din seemed to communicate a note of anger.
There the crowd had lit a huge bonfire, and then added to it a
second one which, crackling, hissing, and emitting coils of
bluish-tinted smoke, had fallen to vying with its fellow in
lacing the foam of the rivulet with muslin-like patterns in red.
As the mass of dark figures surged between the two flares an
hilarious voice shouted to us the invitation:
"Come over here, you! Don't be backward! Come over here, I say!"
Upon which followed a clatter as of the smashing of a drinking-
vessel, while from the red-bearded muzhik came a thick, raucous
"These fellows needed to be taught a lesson!"
Almost at the same moment the foreman of the carpenters broke his
way clear of the crowd, and, carefully crossing the rivulet by
the stepping-stones which we had constructed, squatted down upon
his heels by the margin, and with much puffing and blowing fell
to rinsing his face, a face which in the murky firelight looked
flushed and red.
"I think that someone has given him a blow," hazarded Silantiev
And when the foreman rose to approach us this proved to be the
case, for then we saw that dripping from his nose, and meandering
over his moustache and soaked white beard, there was a stream of
dark blood which had spotted and streaked his shirt-front.
"Peace to this gathering!" he said gravely as, pressing his
left hand to his stomach, he bowed.
"And we pray your indulgence," was Silantiev's response, though
he did not raise his eyes as he spoke. "Pray be seated."
Small, withered, and, for all but his blood-stained shirt,
scrupulously clean, the old man reminded me of certain pictures
of old-time hermits, and the more so since either pain or shame
or the gleam of the firelight had caused his hitherto dead eyes
to gather life and grow brighter--aye, and sterner. Somehow, as I
looked at him, I felt awkward and abashed.
A cough twisted his broad nose. Then he wiped his beard on the
palm of his hand, and his hand on his knee; whereafter, as he
stretched forth the pair of senile, dark-coloured hands, and held
them over the embers, he said:
"How cold the water of the rivulet is! It is absolutely icy."
With a glance from under his brows Silantiev inquired:
"Are you very badly hurt?"
"No. Merely a man caught me a blow on the bridge of the nose,
where the blood flows readily. Yet, as God knows, he will gain
nothing by his act, whereas the suffering which he has caused me
will go to swell my account with the Holy Spirit."
As the man spoke he glanced across the rivulet. On the opposite
bank two men were staggering along, and drunkenly bawling the
"In the du-u-uok let me die,
In the au-autumn time!"
"Aye, long is it since I received a blow," the old man
continued, scanning the two revellers from under his hand.
"Twenty years it must be since last I did so. And now the blow was
struck for nothing, for no real fault.. You see, I have been
allowed no nails for the doing of the work, and have been obliged
to make use of wooden clamps for most of it, while battens also
have not been forthcoming; and, this being so, it was through no
remissness of mine that the work could not be finished by sunset
tonight. I suspect, too, that, to eke out its wages, that rabble
has been thieving, with the eldest leading the rest. And that,
again, is not a thing for which I can be held responsible. True,
this is a Government job, and some of those fellows are young,
and young, hungry fellows such as they will (may they be
forgiven!) steal, since everyone hankers to get something in
return for a very little. But, once more, how is that my fault?
Yes, that rabble must be a regular set of rascals! Just now they
deprived my eldest son of a saw, of a brand-new saw; and
thereafter they spilt my blood, the blood of a greybeard!"
Here his small, grey face contracted into wrinkles, and, closing
his eyes, he sobbed a dry, grating sob.
Silantiev fidgeted--then sighed. Presently the old man looked at
him, blew his nose, wiped his hand upon his trousers, and said
"Somewhere, I think, I have seen you before."
"That is so. You saw me one evening when I visited your
settlement for the mending of a thresher."
"Yes, yes. That is where I DID see you. It was you, was it not?
Well, do you still disagree with me? "
To which the old man added with a nod and a smile:
"See how well I remember your words! You are, I imagine, still
of the same opinion?"
"How should I not be?" responded Silantiev dourly.
"Ah, well! Ah, well!"
And the old man stretched his hands over the fire once more,
discoloured hands the thumbs of which were curiously bent
outwards and splayed, and, seemingly, unable to move in harmony
with the fingers.
The ex-soldier shouted across the river:
"The land here is easy to work, and makes the people lazy. Who
would care to live in such a region? Who would care to come to
it? Much rather would I go and earn a living on difficult land."
The old man paid no heed, but said to Silantiev--said to him with
an austere, derisive smile:
"Do you STILL think it necessary to struggle against what has
been ordained of God? Do you STILL think that long-suffering is
bad, and resistance good? Young man, your soul is weak indeed:
and remember that it is only the soul that can overcome Satan."
In response Silantiev rose to his feet, shook his fist at the old
man, and shouted in a rough, angry voice, a voice that was not
"All that I have heard before, and from others besides yourself.
The truth is that I hold all you father-confessors in abhorrence.
"Moreover," (this last was added with a violent oath) "it is not
Satan that needs to be resisted, but such devil's ravens, such
devil's vampires, as YOU."
Which said, he kicked a stone away from the fire, thrust his
hands into his pockets, and turned slowly on his heel, with his
elbows pressed close to his sides. Nevertheless the old man,
still smiling, said to me in an undertone:
"He is proud, but that will not last for long."
"Because I know in advance that--"
Breaking off short, he turned his head upon his shoulder, and sat
listening to some shouting that was going on across the river.
Everyone in that quarter was drunk, and, in particular, someone
could be heard bawling in a tone of challenge:
"Oh? I, you say? A-a-ah! Then take that!"
Silantiev, stepping lightly from stone to stone, crossed the
river. Then he mingled--a conspicuous figure (owing to his
apparent handlessness)--with the crowd. Somehow, on his departure,
I felt ill at ease.
Twitching his fingers as though performing a conjuring trick, the
old man continued to sit with his hands stretched over the
embers. By this time his nose had swollen over the bridge, and
bruises risen under his eyes which tended to obscure his vision.
Indeed, as he sat there, sat mouthing with dark, bestreaked lips
under a covering of hoary beard and moustache, I found that his
bloodstained, disfigured, wrinkled, as it were "antique" face
reminded me more than ever of those of great sinners of ancient
times who abandoned this world for the forest and the desert.
"I have seen many proud folk," he continued with a shake of his
hatless head and its sparse hairs. "A fire may burn up quickly,
and continue to burn fiercely, yet, like these embers, become
turned to ashes, and. so lie smouldering till dawn. Young man,
there you have something to think of. Nor are they merely my
words. They are the words of the Holy Gospel itself."
Ever descending, ever weighing more heavily upon us, the night
was as black and hot and stifling as the previous one had been,
albeit as kindly as a mother. Still the two fires on the opposite
bank of the rivulet were aflame, and sending hot blasts of vapour
across a seeming brook of gold.
Folding his arms upon his breast, the old man tucked the palms of
his hands into his armpits, and settled himself more comfortably.
Nevertheless, when I made as though to add more twigs and
shavings to the embers he exclaimed imperiously:
"There is no need for that."
"Why is there not? "
"Because that would cause the fire to be seen, and bring some of
those men over here."
Again, as he kicked away some boughs which I had just broken up,
"There is no need for that, I tell you."
Presently, there approached us through the shimmering fire light
on the opposite bank two carpenters with boxes on their backs,
and axes in their hands.
"Are all the rest of our men gone?" inquired the foreman of the
"Yes," replied one of them, a tall man with a drooping moustache
and no beard.
"Well, 'shun evil, and good will result.'"
"Aye, and we likewise wish to depart."
"But a task ought not to be left unfinished. At dinner-time I
sent Olesha to say that none of those fellows had better be
released from work; but released they have been, and now the
result is apparent! Presently, when they have drunk a little more
of their poison, they will fire the barraque."
Every time that the first of the two carpenters inhaled the smoke
of my cigarette he spat into the embers, while the other man, a
young fellow as plump as a female baker, sank his towsled head
upon his breast as soon as he sat down, and fell asleep.
Next, the clamour across the rivulet subsided for awhile. But
suddenly I heard the ex-soldier exclaim in drunken, singsong
accents which came from the very centre of the tumult:
"Hi, do you answer me! How comes it that you have no respect for
Russia? Is not Riazan a part of Russia? What is Russia, then, I
should like to know? "
"A tavern," the foreman commented quietly; whereafter, turning
to me, he added more loudly:
"I say this of such fellows-- that a tavern... But what a noise
those roisterers are making, to be sure!"
The young fellow in the red shirt had just shouted:
"Hi, there, soldier! Seize him by the throat! Seize him, seize
While from Silantiev had come the gruff retort:
"What? Do you suppose that you are hunting a pack of hounds?"
"Here, answer me!" was the next shouted utterance--it came from
the ex-soldier-- whereupon the old man remarked to me in an
"It would seem that a fight is brewing."
Rising, I moved in the direction of the uproar. As I did so, I
heard the old man say softly to his companions:
"He too is gone, thank God!"
Suddenly there surged towards me from the opposite bank a crowd
of men. Belching, hiccuping, and grunting, they seemed to be
carrying or dragging in their midst some heavy weight. Presently
a woman's voice screamed, "Ya-av-sha!" and other voices raised
mingled shouts of "Throw him in! Give him a thrashing!" and
"Drag him along!"
The next moment we saw Silantiev break out of the crowd,
straighten himself, swing his right fist in the air, and hurl
himself at the crowd again. As he did so the young fellow in the
red shirt raised a gigantic arm, and there followed the sound of
a muffled, grisly blow. Staggering backwards, Silantiev slid
silently into the water, and lay there at my feet.
"That's right!" was the comment of someone.
For a moment or two the clamour subsided a little, and during
that moment or two one's ears once more became laved with the
sweet singsong of the river. Shortly afterwards someone threw
into the water a huge stone, and someone else laughed in a dull
As I was bending to look at Silantiev some of the men jostled me.
Nevertheless, I continued to struggle to raise him from the spot
where, half in and half out of the water, he lay with his head
and breast resting against the stepping-stones.
"You have killed him!" next I shouted--not because I believed
the statement to be true, but because I had a mind to frighten
into sobriety the men who were impeding me.
Upon this someone exclaimed in a faltering, sobered tone:
As for the young fellow in the red shirt, he passed me by with a
braggart, resentful shout of:
"Well? He had no right to insult me. Why should he have said
that I was a nuisance to the whole country?"
And someone else shouted:
"Where is the ex-soldier? Who is the watchman here?"
"Bring a light," was the cry of a third.
Yet all these voices were more sober, more subdued, more
restrained than they had been, and presently a little muzhik
whose poll was swathed in a red handkerchief stooped and raised
Silantiev's head. But almost as instantly he let it fall again,
and, dipping his hands into the water, said gravely:
"You have killed him. He is dead."
At the moment I did not believe the words; but presently, as I
stood watching how the water coursed between Silantiev's legs,
and turned them this way and that, and made them stir as though
they were striving to divest themselves of the shabby old boots,
I realised with all my being that the hands which were resting in
mine were the hands of a corpse. And, true enough, when I
released them they slapped down upon the surface like wet dish-
Until now, about a dozen men had been standing on the bank to
observe what was toward, but as soon as the little muzhik's words
rang out these men recoiled, and, with jostlings, began to vent,
in subdued, uneasy tones, cries of:
"Who was it first struck him?"
"This will lose us our jobs."
"It was the soldier that first started the racket."
"Yes, that is true."
"Let us go and denounce him."
As for the young fellow in the red shirt, he cried:
"I swear on my honour, mates, that the affair was only a
"To hit a man with a bludgeon is more than a quarrel."
"It was a stone that was used, not a bludgeon."
"The soldier ought to--"
A woman's high-pitched voice broke in with a plaintive cry of:
"Good Lord! Always something happens to us! "
As for myself, I felt stunned and hurt as I seated myself upon
the stepping-stones; and though everything was plain to my sight,
nothing was plain to my understanding, while in my breast a
strange emptiness was present, save that the clamour of the
bystanders aroused me to a certain longing to outshout them all,
to send forth my voice into the night like the voice of a brazen
Presently two other men approached us. In the hand of the first
was a torch which he kept waving to and fro to prevent its being
extinguished, and whence, therefore, he kept strewing showers of
golden sparks. A fair-headed little fellow, he had a body as thin
as a pike when standing on its tail, a grey, stonelike
countenance that was deeply sunken between the shoulders, a mouth
perpetually half-agape, and round, owlish-looking eyes.
As he approached the corpse he bent forward with one hand upon
his knee to throw the more light upon Silantiev's bruised head
and body. That head was resting turned upon the shoulder, and no
longer could I recognise the once handsome Cossack face, so
buried was the jaunty forelock under a clot of black-red mud, and
concealed by a swelling which had made its appearance above the
left ear. Also, since the mouth and moustache had been bashed
aside the teeth lay bared in a twisted, truly horrible smile,
while, as the most horrible point of all, the left eye was
hanging from its socket, and, become hideously large, gazing,
seemingly, at the inner pocket of the flap of Silantiev's pea-
jacket, whence there was protruding a white edging of paper.
Slowly the torch holder described a circle of fire in the air,
and thereby sprinkled a further shower of sparks over the poor
mutilated face, with its streaks of shining blood. Then he
muttered with a smack of the lips:
"You can see for yourselves who the man is."
As he spoke a few more sparks descended upon Silantiev's scalp
and wet cheeks, and went out, while the flare's reflection so
played in the ball of Silantiev's eye as to communicate to it an
added appearance of death.
Finally the torch holder straightened his back, threw his torch
into the river, expectorated after it, and said to his companion
as he smoothed a flaxen poll which, in the darkness, looked
"Do you go to the barraque, and tell them that a man has been
done to death."
"No; I should be afraid to go alone."
"Come, come! Nothing is there to be afraid of. Go, I tell you."
"But I would much rather not."
"Don't be such a fool!"
Suddenly there sounded over my head the quiet voice of the
"I will accompany you," he said. Then he added disgustedly as he
scraped his foot against a stone:
"How horrible the blood smells! It would seem that my very foot
is smeared with it."
With a frown the fair-headed muzhik eyed him, while the foreman
returned the muzhik's gaze with a scrutiny that never wavered.
Finally the elder man commented with cold severity:
"All the mischief has come of vodka and tobacco, the devil's
Not only were the pair strangely alike, but both of them
strangely resembled wizards, in that both were short of stature,
as sharp-finished as gimlets, and as green-tinted by the darkness
as tufts of lichen.
"Let us go, brother," the foreman said. "Go we with the Holy
And, omitting even to inquire who had been killed, or even to
glance at the corpse, or even to pay it the last salute demanded
of custom, the foreman departed down the stream, while in his
wake followed the messenger, a man who kept stumbling as he
picked his way from stone to stone. Amid the gloom the pair moved
as silently as ghosts.
The narrow-chested, fair-headed little muzhik then raked me with
his eyes; whereafter he produced a cigarette from a tin box,
snapped-to the lid of the box, struck a match (illuminating once
more the face of the dead man), and applied the flame to the
cigarette. Lastly he said:
"This is the sixth murder which I have seen one thing and
"One thing and another commit?" I queried.
The reply came only after a pause; when the little muzhik asked:
" What did you say? I did not quite catch it."
I explained that human beings, not inanimate entities, murdered
"Well, be they human beings or machinery or lightning or
anything else, they are all one. One of my mates was caught in
some machinery at Bakhmakh. Another one had his throat cut in a
brawl. Another one was crushed against the bucket in a coal mine.
Another one was--"
Carefully though the man counted, he ended by erring in his
reckoning to the extent of making his total "five." Accordingly
he re-computed the list--and this time succeeded in making the
total amount to "seven."
"Never mind," he remarked with a sigh as he blew his cigarette
into a red glow which illuminated the whole of his face. "The
truth is that I cannot always repeat the list correctly, just as
I should like. Were I older than I am, I too should contrive to
get finished off; for old-age is a far from desirable thing. Yes,
indeed! But, as things are, I am still alive, nor, thank the
Lord, does anything matter very much."
Presently, with a nod towards Silantiev, he continued:
"Even now HIS kinsfolk or his wife may be looking for news of
him, or a letter from him. Well, never again will he write, and
as likely as not his kinsfolk will end by saying to themselves:
'He has taken to bad ways, and forgotten his family.' Yes, good
By this time the clamour around the barraque had ceased, and the
two fires had burnt themselves out, and most of the men
dispersed. From the smooth yellow walls of the barraque dark,
round, knot-holes were gazing at the rivulet like eyes. Only in a
single window without a frame was there visible a faint light,
while at intervals there issued thence fragmentary, angry
exclamations such as:
"Look sharp there, and deal! Clubs will be the winners."
"Ah! Here is a trump!"
"Indeed? What luck, damn it!"
The fair-headed muzhik blew the ashes from his cigarette, and
"No such thing is there at cards as luck--only skill."
At this juncture we saw approaching us softly from across the
rivulet a young carpenter who wore a moustache. He halted beside
us, and drew a deep breath.
"Well, mate?" the fair-headed muzhik inquired.
"Would you mind giving me something to smoke?" the carpenter
asked. The obscurity caused him to look large and shapeless,
though his manner of speaking was bashful and subdued.
"Certainly. Here is a cigarette."
"Christ reward you! Today my wife forgot to bring my tobacco,
and my grandfather has strict ideas on the subject of smoking."
"Was it he who departed just now? It was."
As the carpenter inhaled a whiff he continued:
"I suppose that man was beaten to death?"
"He was--to death."
For a while the pair smoked in silence. The hour was past
Over the defile the jagged strip of sky which roofed it looked
like a river of blue flowing at an immense height above the
night-enveloped earth, and bearing the brilliant stars on its
Quieter and quieter was everything growing; more and more was
everything becoming part of the night....
One might have thought that nothing particular had happened.
Whistling from off the sea, the wind was charged with moist, salt
spray, and dashing foaming billows ashore with their white manes
full of snakelike, gleaming black ribands of seaweed, and causing
the rocks to rumble angrily in response, and the trees to rustle
with a dry, agitated sound as their tops swayed to and fro, and
their trunks bent earthwards as though they would fain reeve up
their roots, and betake them whither the mountains stood veiled
in a toga of heavy, dark mist.
Over the sea the clouds were hurrying towards the land as ever
and anon they rent themselves into strips, and revealed
fathomless abysses of blue wherein the autumn sun burned
uneasily, and sent cloud-shadows gliding over the puckered waste
of waters, until, the shore reached, the wind further harried the
masses of vapour towards the sharp flanks of the mountains, and,
after drawing them up and down the slopes, relegated them to
clefts, and left them steaming there.
There was about the whole scene a louring appearance, an
appearance as though everything were contending with everything,
as now all things turned sullenly dark, and now all things
emitted a dull sheen which almost blinded the eyes. Along the
narrow road, a road protected from the sea by a line of wave-
washed dykes, some withered leaves of oak and wild cherry were
scudding in mutual chase of one another; with the general result
that the combined sounds of splashing and rustling and howling
came to merge themselves into a single din which issued as a song
with a rhythm marked by the measured blows of the waves as they
struck the rocks.
"Zmiulan, the King of the Ocean, is abroad!" shouted my fellow
traveller in my ear. He was a tall, round-shouldered man of
childishly chubby features and boyishly bright, transparent eyes.
"WHO do you say is abroad?" I queried.
Never having heard of the monarch, I made no reply.
The extent to which the wind buffeted us might have led one to
suppose that its primary objective was to deflect our steps, and
turn them in the direction of the mountains. Indeed, at times its
pressure was so strong that we had no choice but to halt, to turn
our backs to the sea, and, with feet planted apart, to prise
ourselves against our sticks, and so remain, poised on three
legs, until we were past any risk of being overwhelmed with the
soft incubus of the tempest, and having our coats torn from our
At intervals such gasps would come from my companion that he
might well have been standing on the drying-board of a bath. Nor,
as they did so, was his appearance aught but comical, seeing that
his ears, appendages large and shaggy like a dog's, and
indifferently shielded with a shabby old cap, kept being pushed
forward by the wind until his small head bore an absurd
resemblance to a china bowl. And that, to complete the
resemblance, his long and massive nose, a feature grossly
disproportionate to the rest of his diminutive face, might
equally well have passed for the spout of the receptacle
Yet a face out of the common it was, like the whole of his
personality. And this was the fact which had captivated me from
the moment when I had beheld him participating in a vigil service
held in the neighbouring church of the monastery of New Athos.
There, spare, but with his withered form erect, and his head
slightly tilted, he had been gazing at the Crucifix with a
radiant smile, and moving his thin lips in a sort of whispered,
confidential, friendly conversation with the Saviour. Indeed, so
much had the man's smooth, round features (features as beardless
as those of a Skopetz [A member of the Skoptzi, a non-Orthodox
sect the members of which "do make of themselves eunuchs for the
Lord's sake."], save for two bright tufts at the corners of the
mouth) been instinct with intimacy, with a consciousness of
actually being in the presence of the Son of God, that the
spectacle, transcending anything of the kind that my eyes had
before beheld, had led me, with its total absence of the
customary laboured, servile, pusillanimous attitude towards the
Almighty which I had generally found to be the rule, to accord
the man my whole interest, and, as long as the service had
lasted, to keep an eye upon one who could thus converse with God
without rendering Him constant obeisance, or again and again
making the sign of the cross, or invariably making it to the
accompaniment of groans and tears which had always hitherto
obtruded itself upon my notice.
Again had I encountered the man when I had had supper at the
workmen's barraque, and then proceeded to the monastery's guest-
chamber. Seated at a table under a circle of light falling from a
lamp suspended from the ceiling, he had gathered around him a
knot of pilgrims and their women, and was holding forth in low,
cheerful tones that yet had in them the telling, incisive note of
the preacher, of the man who frequently converses with his fellow
"One thing it may be best always to disclose," he was saying,
"and another thing to conceal. If aught in ourselves seems harmful
or senseless, let us put to ourselves the question: 'Why is this
so?' Contrariwise ought a prudent man never to thrust himself
forward and say: 'How discreet am I!' while he who makes a parade
of his hard lot, and says, 'Good folk, see ye and hear how bitter
my life is,' also does wrong."
Here a pilgrim with a black beard, a brigand's dark eyes, and the
wasted features of an ascetic rose from the further side of the
table, straightened his virile frame, and said in a dull voice:
"My wife and one of my children were burnt to death through the
falling of an oil lamp. On THAT ought I to keep silence?"
No answer followed. Only someone muttered to himself:
"What? Again?": until the first speaker, the speaker seated
near the corner of the table, launched into the oppressive lull
the unhesitating reply:
"That of which you speak may be taken to have been a punishment
by God for sin."
"What? For a sin committed by one three years of age (for,
indeed, my little son was no more)? The accident happened of his
pulling down a lamp upon himself, and of my wife seizing him, and
herself being burnt to death. She was weak, too, for but eleven
days had passed since her confinement."
"No. What I mean is that in that accident you see a punishment
for sins committed by the child's father and mother."
This reply from the corner came with perfect confidence. The
black-bearded man, however, pretended not to hear it, but spread
out his hands as though parting the air before him, and proceeded
hurriedly, breathlessly to detail the manner in which his wife
and little one had met their deaths. And all the time that he was
doing so one had an inkling that often before had he recounted
his narrative of horror, and that often again would he repeat it.
His shaggy black eyebrows, as he delivered his speech, met in a
single strip, while the whites of his eyes
grew bloodshot, and their dull, black pupils never ceased their
Presently the gloomy recital was once more roughly,
unceremoniously broken in upon by the cheerful voice of the
"It is not right, brother," the voice said, "to blame God for
untoward accidents, or for mistakes and follies committed by
"But if God be God, He is responsible for all things."
"Not so. Concede to yourself the faculty of reason."
"Pah! What avails reason if it cannot make me understand?"
"Cannot make you understand WHAT?"
"The main point, the point why MY wife had to be burnt rather
than my neighbour's?"
Somewhere an old woman commented in spitefully distinct tones:
"Oh ho, ho! This man comes to a monastery, and starts railing as
soon as he gets there!"
Flashing his eyes angrily, the black-bearded man lowered his head
like a bull. Then, thinking better of his position, and
contenting himself with a gesture, he strode swiftly, heavily
towards the door. Upon this the Christ-loving pilgrim rose with a
swaying motion, bowed to everyone present, and set about
following his late interlocutor.
"It has all come of a broken heart," he said with a smile as he
passed me. Yet somehow the smile seemed to lack sympathy.
With a disapproving air someone else remarked:
"That fellow's one thought is to enlarge and to enlarge upon his
"Yes, and to no purpose does he do so," added the Christ-loving
pilgrim as he halted in the doorway. "All that he accomplishes by
it is to weary himself and others alike. Such experiences are far
better put behind one."
Presently I followed the pair into the forecourt, and near the
entrance-gates heard a voice say quietly:
"Do not disturb yourself, good father."
"Nevertheless" (the second voice was that of the porter of the
monastery, Father Seraphim, a strapping Vetlugan) "a spectre
walks here nightly."
"Never mind if it does. As regards myself, no spectre would
Here I moved in the direction of the gates.
"Who comes there?" Seraphim inquired as he thrust a hairy and
uncouth, but infinitely kindly, face close to mine. "Oh, it is
the young fellow from Nizhni Novgorod! You are wasting your time,
my good sir, for the women have all gone to bed."
With which he laughed and chuckled like a bear.
Beyond the wall of the forecourt the stillness of the autumn
night was the languid inertia of a world exhausted by summer, and
the withered grass and other objects of the season were exhaling
a sweet and bracing odour, and the trees looking like fragments
of cloud where motionless they hung in the moist, sultry air.
Also, in the darkness the half-slumbering sea could be heard
soughing as it crept towards the shore while over the sky lay a
canopy of mist, save at the point where the moon's opal-like blur
could be descried over the spot where that blur's counterfeit
image glittered and rocked on the surface of the dark waters.
Under the trees there was set a bench whereon I could discern
there to be resting a human figure. Approaching the figure, I
seated myself beside it.
"Whence, comrade?" was my inquiry.
"From Voronezh. And you?"
A Russian is never adverse to talking about himself. It would seem
as though he is never sure of his personality, as though he is
ever yearning to have that personality confirmed from some source
other than, extraneous to, his own ego. The reason for this must
be that we Russians live diffused over a land of such vastness
that, the more we grasp the immensity of the same, the smaller do
we come to appear in our own eyes; wherefore, traversing, as we
do, roads of a length of a thousand versts, and constantly losing
our way, we come to let slip no opportunity of restating
ourselves, and setting forth all that we have seen and thought
Hence, too, must it be that in conversations one seems to hear
less of the note of "I am I" than of the note of "Am I really
and truly myself?"
"What may be your name?" next I inquired of the figure on the
"A name of absolute simplicity--the name of Alexei Kalinin."
"You are a namesake of mine, then."
"Indeed? Is that so?"
With which, tapping me on the knee, the figure added:
"Come, then, namesake. 'I have mortar, and you have water, so
together let us paint the town.'"
Murmuring amid the silence could be heard small, light waves that
were no more than ripples. Behind us the busy clamour of the
monastery had died down, and even Kalinin's cheery voice seemed
subdued by the influence of the night--it seemed to have in it
less of the note of self-confidence.
"My mother was a wet-nurse," he went on to volunteer, and I her
only child. When I was twelve years of age I was, owing to my
height, converted into a footman. It happened thus. One day, on
General Stepan (my mother's then employer) happening to catch
sight of me, he exclaimed: 'Evgenia, go and tell Fedor' (the
ex-soldier who was then serving the General as footman) 'that he
is to teach your son to wait at table! The boy is at least tall
enough for the work.' And for nine years I served the General in
this capacity. And then, and then--oh, THEN I was seized with an
illness. . . . Next, I obtained a post under a merchant who was
then mayor of our town, and stayed with him twenty-one months.
And next I obtained a situation in an hotel at Kharkov, and held
it for a year. And after that I kept changing my places, for,
steady and sober though I was, I was beginning to lack taste for
my profession, and to develop a spirit of the kind which deemed
all work to be beneath me, and considered that I had been created
to serve only myself, not others."
Along the high road to Sukhum which lay behind us there were
proceeding some invisible travellers whose scraping of feet as
they walked proclaimed the fact that they were not over-used to
journeying on foot. Just as the party drew level with us, a
musical voice hummed out softly the line "Alone will I set forth
upon the road," with the word "alone" plaintively stressed.
Next, a resonant bass voice said with a sort of indolent
"Aphon or aphonia means loss of speech to the extent of, to the
extent of--oh, to WHAT extent, most learned Vera Vasilievna?"
"To the extent of total loss of power of articulation," replied
a voice feminine and youthful of timbre.
Just at that moment we saw two dark, blurred figures, with a
paler figure between them, come gliding into view.
"Strange indeed is it that, that--"
"That so many names proper to these parts should also be so
suggestive. Take, for instance, Mount Nakopioba. Certainly folk
hereabouts seem to have " amassed " things, and to have known how
to do so." [The verb nakopit means to amass, to heap up.]
"For my part, I always fail to remember the name of Simon the
Canaanite. Constantly I find myself calling him 'the Cainite.'"
"Look here," interrupted the musical voice in a tone of
chastened enthusiasm. "As I contemplate all this beauty, and
inhale this restfulness, I find myself reflecting: 'How would it
be if I were to let everything go to the devil, and take up my
abode here for ever?'"
At this point all further speech became drowned by the sound of
the monastery's bell as it struck the hour. The only utterance
that came borne to my ears was the mournful fragment:
Oh, if into a single word
I could pour my inmost thoughts!
To the foregoing dialogue my companion had listened with his head
tilted to one side, much as though the dialogue had deflected it
in that direction: and now, as the voices died away into the
distance, he sighed, straightened himself, and said:
"Clearly those people were educated folk. And see too how, as
they talked of one thing and another, there cropped up the old
and ever-persistent point."
"To what point are you referring?"
My companion paused a moment before he replied. Then he said:
"Can it be that you did not hear it? Did you not hear one of
those people remark: 'I have a mind to surrender everything '?"
Whereafter, bending forward, and peering at me as a blind man
would do, Kalinin added in a half-whisper:
"More and more are folk coming to think to themselves: 'Now must
I forsake everything.' In the end I myself came to think it. For
many a year did I increasingly reflect: 'Why should I be a
servant? What will it ever profit me? Even if I should earn
twelve, or twenty, or fifty roubles a month, to what will such
earnings lead, and where will the man in me come in? Surely it
would be better to do nothing at all, but just to gaze into space
(as I am doing now), and let my eyes stare straight before me?'"
"By the way, what were you talking to those people about?"
"Which people do you mean?"
"The bearded man and the rest, the company in the guest-chamber?"
"Ah, THAT man I did not like--I have no fancy at all for fellows
who strew their grief about the world, and leave it to be
trampled upon by every chance-comer. For how can the tears of my
neighbour benefit me? True, every man has his troubles; but also
has every man such a predilection for his particular woe that he
ends by deeming it the most bitter and remarkable grief in the
universe--you may take my word for that."
Suddenly the speaker rose to his feet, a tall, lean figure.
"Now I must seek my bed," he remarked. "You see, I shall have
to leave here very early tomorrow."
"And for what point?"
Now, the day being a Saturday, I had drawn my week's earnings
from the monastery's pay-office just before the vigil service.
Also, Novorossisk did not really lie in my direction. Thirdly, I
had no particular wish to exchange the monastery for any other
lodging. Nevertheless, despite all this, the man interested me to
such an extent (of persons who genuinely interest one there never
exist but two, and, of them, oneself is always one) that
straightway I observed:
"I too shall be leaving here tomorrow."
"Then let us travel together."
At dawn, therefore, we set forth to foot the road in company. At
times I mentally soared aloft, and viewed the scene from that
vantage-point. Whenever I did so, I beheld two tall men traversing
a narrow track by a seashore--the one clad in a grey military
overcoat and a hat with a broken crown, and the other in a drab
kaftan and a plush cap. At their feet the boundless sea was
splashing white foam, salt-dried ribands of seaweed were strewing
the path, golden leaves were dancing hither and thither, and the
wind was howling at, and buffeting, the travellers as clouds
sailed over their heads. Also, to their right there lay stretched
a chain of mountains towards which the clouds kept wearily,
nervelessly tending, while to their left there lay spread a
white-laced expanse over the surface of which a roaring wind kept
ceaselessly driving transparent columns of spray.
On such stormy days in autumn everything near a seashore looks
particularly cheerful and vigorous, seeing that, despite the
soughing of wind and wave, and the swift onrush of cloud, and the
fact that the sun is only occasionally to be seen suspended in
abysses of blue, and resembles a drooping flower, one feels that
the apparent chaos has lurking in it a secret harmony of mundane,
but imperishable, forces--so much so that in time even one's puny
human heart comes to imbibe the prevalent spirit of revolt, and,
catching fire, to cry to all the universe: " I love you! "
Yes, at such times one desires to taste life to the full, and so
to live that the ancient rocks shall smile, and the sea's white
horses prance the higher, as one's mouth acclaims the earth in
such a paean that, intoxicated with the laudation, it shall
unfold its riches with added bountifulness and display more and
more manifest beauty under the spur of the love expressed by one
of its creatures, expressed by a human being who feels for the
earth what he would feel for a woman, and yearns to fertilise the
same to ever-increasing splendour.
Nevertheless,words are as heavy as stones, and after felling
fancy to the ground, serve but to heap her grey coffin-lid, and
cause one, as one stands contemplating the tomb, to laugh in
sheer self-derision. . . .
Suddenly, plunged in dreams as I walked along, I heard through
the plash of the waves and the sizzle of the foam the unfamiliar
"Hymen, Demon, Igamon, and Zmiulan. Good devils are these, not
"How does Christ get on with them?" I asked.
"Christ? He does not enter into the matter."
"Is He hostile to them?"
"Is He HOSTILE to them? How could He be? Devils of that kind are
devils to themselves-devils of a decent sort. Besides, to no one
is Christ hostile" .............................. . . . . . .
[In the Russian this hiatus occurs as marked.]
As though unable any longer to brave the assault of the billows,
the path suddenly swerved towards the bushes on our right, and,
in doing so, caused the cloud-wrapped mountains to shift
correspondingly to our immediate front, where the masses of
vapour were darkening as though rain were probable.
Kalinin's discourse proved instructive as with his stick he from
time to time knocked the track clear of clinging tendrils.
"The locality is not without its perils," once he remarked.
"For hereabouts there lurks malaria. It does so because long ago
Maliar of Kostroma banished his evil sister, Fever, to these
parts. Probably he was paid to do so, but the exact circumstances
escape my memory."
So thickly was the surface of the sea streaked with cloud-shadows
that it bore the appearance of being in mourning, of being decked
in the funeral colours of black and white. Afar off, Gudaout lay
lashed with foam, while constantly objects like snowdrifts kept
gliding towards it.
"Tell me more about those devils," I said at length.
"Well, if you wish. But what exactly am I to tell you about
"All that you may happen to know."
"Oh, I know EVERYTHING about them."
To this my companion added a wink. Then he continued:
"I say that I know everything about those devils for the reason
that for my mother I had a most remarkable woman, a woman
cognisant of each and every species of proverb, anathema, and
item of hagiology. You must know that, after spreading my bed
beside the kitchen stove each night, and her own bed on the top
of the stove (for, after her wet-nursing of three of the
General's children, she lived a life of absolute ease, and did no
work at all)--"
Here Kalinin halted, and, driving his stick into the ground,
glanced back along the path before resuming his way with firm,
"I may tell you that the General had a niece named Valentina
Ignatievna. And she too was a most remarkable woman."
"Remarkable for what?"
"Remarkable for EVERYTHING."
At this moment there came floating over our heads through the
damp-saturated air a cormorant--one of those voracious birds which
so markedly lack intelligence. And somehow the whistling of its
powerful pinions awoke in me an unpleasant reminiscent thought.
"Pray continue," I said to my fellow traveller.
And each night, as I lay on the floor (I may mention that never
did I climb on to the stove, and to this day I dislike the heat
of one), it was her custom to sit with her legs dangling over the
edge of the top, and tell me stories. And though the room would
be too dark for me to see her face, I could yet see the things of
which she would be speaking. And at times, as these tales came
floating down to me, I would find them so horrible as to be
forced to cry out, 'Oh, Mamka, Mamka, DON'T! . . .' To this hour
I have no love for the bizarre, and am but a poor hand at
remembering it. And as strange as her stories was my mother.
Eventually she died of an attack of blood-poisoning and, though
but forty, had become grey-headed. Yes, and so terribly did she
smell after her death that everyone in the kitchen was
constrained to exclaim at the odour."
"Yes, but what of the devils?"
"You must wait a minute or two."
Ever as we proceeded, clinging, fantastic branches kept closing
in upon the path, so that we appeared to be walking through a sea
of murmuring verdure. And from time to time a bough would flick
us as though to say: "Speed, speed, or the rain will be upon
If anything, however, my companion slackened his pace as in
measured, sing-song accents he continued:
"When Jesus Christ, God's Son, went forth into the wilderness to
collect His thoughts, Satan sent devils to subject Him to
temptation. Christ was then young; and as He sat on the burning
sand in the middle of the desert, He pondered upon one thing and
another, and played with a handful of pebbles which He had
collected. Until presently from afar, there descried Him the
devils Hymen, Demon, Igamon, and Zmiulan--devils of equal age with
"Drawing near unto Him, they said, 'Pray suffer us to sport with
Thee.' Whereupon Christ answered with a smile: 'Pray be seated.'
Then all of them did sit down in a circle, and proceed to
business, which business was to see whether or not any member of
the party could so throw a stone into the air as to prevent it
from falling back upon the burning sand.
.............................. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . .
[In the original Russian this hiatus occurs as given.]
"Christ Himself was the first to throw a stone; whereupon His
stone became changed into a six-winged dove, and fluttered away
towards the Temple of Jerusalem. And, next, the impotent devils
strove to do the same; until at length, when they saw that Christ
could not in any wise be tempted, Zmiulan, the senior of the
"'0h Lord, we will tempt Thee no more; for of a surety do we
avail not, and, though we be devils, never shall do so!'
"'Aye, never shall ye!' Christ did agree. 'And, therefore, I
will now fulfil that which from the first I did conceive. That ye
be devils I know right well. And that, while yet afar off, ye
did, on beholding me, have compassion upon me I know right well.
While also ye did not in any wise seek to conceal from me the
truth as concerning yourselves. Hence shall ye, for the remainder
of your lives, be GOOD devils; so that at the last shall matters
be rendered easier for you. Do thou, Zmiulan, become King of the
Ocean, and send the winds of the sea to cleanse the land of foul
air. And do thou, Demon, see to it that the cattle shall eat of
no poisonous herb, but that all herbs of the sort be covered with
prickles. Do thou, Igamon, comfort, by night, all comfortless
widows who shall be blaming God for the death of their husbands?
And do thou, Hymen, as the youngest devil of the band, choose for
thyself wherein shall lie thy charge.'
"'0h Lord,' replied Hymen, 'I do love but to laugh.'
"And the Saviour replied:
"'Then cause thou folk to laugh. Only, mark thou, see to it
that they laugh not IN CHURCH.'
"'Yet even in church would I laugh, 0h Lord,' the devil objected.
" 'Jesus Christ Himself laughed.
" 'God go with you!' at length He said. 'Then let folk laugh even
in church--but QUIETLY.'
"In such wise did Christ convert those four evil devils into
devils of goodness."
Soaring over the green, bushy sea were a number of old oaks. On
them the yellow leaves were trembling as though chilled; here
and there a sturdy hazel was doffing its withered garments, and
elsewhere a wild cherry was quivering, and elsewhere an almost
naked chestnut was politely rendering obeisance to the earth.
"Did you find that story of mine a good one?" my companion
"I did, for Christ was so good in it."
"Always and everywhere He is so," Kalinin proudly rejoined. "But
do you also know what an old woman of Smolensk used to sing
" I do not."
Halting, my strange traveller chanted in a feignedly senile and
tremulous voice, as he beat time with his foot:
In the heavens a flow'r doth blow,
It is the Son of God.
From it all our joys do flow,
It is the Son of God.
In the sun's red rays He dwells
He, the Son of God.
His light our every ill dispels.
Praised be the Son of God!
Each successive line seemed to inspire Kalinin's voice with added
youthfulness, until, indeed, the concluding words-- "The One and
Only God"-- issued in a high, agreeable tenor.
Suddenly a flash of lightning blazed before us, while dull
thunder crashed among the mountains, and sent its hundred-voiced
echoes rolling over land and sea. In his consternation, Kalinin
opened his mouth until a set of fine, even teeth became bared to
view. Then, with repeated crossings of himself, he muttered.
"0h dread God, 0h beneficent God, 0h God who sittest on high, and
on a golden throne, and under a gilded canopy, do Thou now punish
Satan, lest he overwhelm me in the midst of my sins!"
Whereafter, turning a small and terrified face in my direction,
and blinking his bright eyes, he added with hurried diction:
"Come, brother! Come! Let us run on ahead, for thunderstorms are
my bane. Yes, let us run with all possible speed, run ANYWHERE,
for soon the rain will be pouring down, and these parts are full
of lurking fever."
Off, therefore, we started, with the wind smiting us behind, and
our kettles and teapots jangling, and my wallet, in particular,
thumping me about the middle of the body as though it had been
wielding a large, soft fist. Yet a far cry would it be to the
mountains, nor was any dwelling in sight, while ever and anon
branches caught at our clothes, and stones leapt aloft under our
tread, and the air grew steadily darker, and the mountains seemed
to begin gliding towards us.
Once more from the black cloud-masses, heaven belched a fiery dart
which caused the sea to scintillate with blue sapphires in
response, and, seemingly, to recoil from the shore as the earth
shook, and the mountain defiles emitted a gigantic scrunching
sound of their rock-hewn jaws.
"0h Holy One! 0h Holy One! 0h Holy One!" screamed Kalinin as he
dived into the bushes.
In the rear, the waves lashed us as though they had a mind to
arrest our progress; from the gloom to our front came a sort of
scraping and rasping; long black hands seemed to wave over our
heads; just at the point where the mountain crests lay swathed in
their dense coverlet of cloud ,there rumbled once more the
deafening iron chariot of the thunder-god; more and more
frequently flashed the lightning as the earth rang, and rifts
cleft by the blue glare disclosed, amid the obscurity, great
trees that were rustling and rocking and, to all appearances,
racing headlong before the scourge of a cold, slanting rain.
The occasion was a harassing but bracing one, for as the fine
bands of rain beat upon our faces, our bodies felt filled with a
heady vigour of a kind to fit us to run indefinitely--at all
events to run until this storm of rain and thunder should be
outpaced, and clear weather be reached again.
Suddenly Kalinin shouted: "Stop! Look!"
This was because the fitful illumination of a flash had just
shown up in front of us the trunk of an oak tree which had a
large black hollow let into it like a doorway. So into that
hollow we crawled as two mice might have done--laughing aloud in
our glee as we did so.
"Here there is room for THREE persons," my companion remarked.
"Evidently it is a hollow that has been burnt out--though rascals
indeed must the burners have been to kindle a fire in a living
However, the space within the hollow was both confined and
redolent of smoke and dead leaves. Also, heavy drops of rain
still bespattered our heads and shoulders, and at every peal of
thunder the tree quivered and creaked until the strident din
around us gave one the illusion of being afloat in a narrow
caique. Meanwhile at every flash of the lightning's glare, we
could see slanting ribands of rain cutting the air with a network
of blue, glistening, vitreous lines.
Presently, the wind began to whistle less loudly, as though now it
felt satisfied at having driven so much productive rain into the
ground, and washed clean the mountain tops, and loosened the
"U-oh! U-oh!" hooted a grey mountain owl just over our heads.
"Why, surely it believes the time to be night!" Kalinin
commented in a whisper.
"U-oh! U-u-u-oh!" hooted the bird again, and in response my
"You have made a mistake, my brother!"
By this time the air was feeling chilly, and a bright grey fog
had streamed over us, and wrapped a semi-transparent veil about
the gnarled, barrel-like trunks with their outgrowing shoots and
the few remaining leaves still adhering.
Far and wide the monotonous din continued to rage--it did so until
conscious thought began almost to be impossible. Yet even as one
strained one's attention, and listened to the rain lashing the
fallen leaves, and pounding the stones, and bespattering the
trunks of the trees, and to the murmuring and splashing of
rivulets racing towards the sea, and to the roaring of torrents
as they thundered over the rocks of the mountains, and to the
creaking of trees before the wind, and to the measured thud-thud
of the waves; as one listened to all this, the thousand sounds
seemed to combine into a single heaviness of hurried clamour, and
involuntarily one found oneself striving to disunite them, and to
space them even as one spaces the words of a song.
Kalinin fidgeted, nudged me, and muttered:
"I find this place too close for me. Always I have hated
Nevertheless he had taken far more care than I to make himself
comfortable, for he had edged himself right into the hollow, and,
by squatting on his haunches, reduced his frame to the form of a
ball. Moreover, the rain-drippings scarcely or in no wise touched
him, while, in general, he appeared to have developed to the full
an aptitude for vagrancy as a permanent condition, and for the
allowing of no unpleasant circumstance to debar him from
invariably finding the most convenient vantage-ground at a given
juncture. Presently, in fact, he continued:
"Yes; despite the rain and cold and everything else, I consider
life to be not quite intolerable."
"Not quite intolerable in what?"
"Not quite intolerable in the fact that at least I am bound to
the service of no one save God. For if disagreeablenesses have to
be endured, at all events they come better from Him than from
one's own species."
"Then you have no great love for your own species?"
"One loves one's neighbour as the dog loves the stick." To
which, after a pause, the speaker added:
For WHY should I love him?"
It puzzled me to cite a reason off-hand, but, fortunately,
Kalinin did not wait for an answer--rather, he went on to ask:
"Have you ever been a footman?"
"No," I replied.
"Then let me tell you that it is peculiarly difficult for a
footman to love his neighbour."
"Go and be a footman; THEN you will know. In fact, it is never
the case that, if one serves a man, one can love that man. . . .
How steadily the rain persists!"
Indeed, on every hand there was in progress a trickling and a
splashing sound as though the weeping earth were venting soft,
sorrowful sobs over the departure of summer before winter and its
storms should arrive.
"How come you to be travelling the Caucasus?" I asked at
"Merely through the fact that my walking and walking has brought
me hither," was the reply. "For that matter, everyone ends by
heading for the Caucasus."
"Why NOT, seeing that from one's earliest years one hears of
nothing but the Caucasus, the Caucasus? Why, even our old General
used to harp upon the name, with his moustache bristling, and his
eyes protruding, as he did so. And the same as regards my mother,
who had visited the country in the days when, as yet, the General
was in command but of a company. Yes, everyone tends hither. And
another reason is the fact that the country is an easy one to live
in, a country which enjoys much sunshine, and produces much food,
and has a winter less long and severe than our own winter, and
therefore presents pleasanter conditions of life."
"And what of the country's people?"
"What of the country's people? Oh, so long as you keep yourself
to yourself they will not interfere with you."
"And why will they not?"
Kalinin paused, stared at me, smiled condescendingly, and,
"What a dullard you are to ask about such simple things! Were
you never given any sort of an education? Surely by this time you
ought to be able to understand something?"
Then, with a change of subject, and subduing his tone to one of
snuffling supplication, he added in the sing-song chant of a
person reciting a prayer:
"'0h Lord, suffer me not to become bound unto the clergy the
priesthood, the diaconate, the tchinovstvo, [The official class]
or the intelligentsia!' This was a petition which my mother used
often to repeat."
The raindrops now were falling more gently, and in finer lines
and more transparent network, so that one could once more descry
the great trunks of the blackened oaks, with the green and gold
of their leaves. Also, our own hollow had grown less dark, and
there could be discerned its smoky, satin-bright walls. From
those walls Kalinin picked a bit of charcoal with finger and
"It was shepherds that fired the place. See where they dragged
in hay and dead leaves! A shepherd's fife hereabouts must be a
truly glorious one!"
Lastly, clasping his head as though he were about to fall asleep,
he sank his chin between his knees, and relapsed into silence.
Presently a brilliant, sinuous little rivulet which had long been
laving the bare roots of our tree brought floating past us a red
and fawn leaf.
"How pretty," I thought, "that leaf will look from a distance
when reposing on the surface of the sea! For, like the sun when
he is in solitary possession of the heavens, that leaf will stand
out against the blue, silky expanse like a lonely red star."
After awhile my companion began, catlike, to purr to himself a
song. Its melody, the melody of "the moon withdrew behind a
cloud," was familiar enough, but not so the words, which ran:
0h Valentina, wondrous maid,
More comely thou than e'er a flow'r!
The nurse's son doth pine for thee,
And yearn to serve thee every hour!
"What does that ditty mean?" I inquired.
Kalinin straightened himself, gave a wriggle to a form that was
as lithe as a lizard's, and passed one hand over his face.
"It is a certain composition," he replied presently. "It is a
composition that was composed by a military clerk who afterwards
died of consumption. He was my friend his life long, and my only
friend, and a true one, besides being a man out of the common."
"And who was Valentina?"
"My one-time mistress," Kalinin spoke unwillingly.
"And he, the clerk--was he in love with her?"
"Oh dear no!"
Evidently Kalinin had no particular wish to discuss the subject,
for he hugged himself together, buried his face in his hands, and
"I should like to kindle a fire, were it not that everything in
the place is too damp for the purpose."
The wind shook the trees, and whistled despondently, while the
fine, persistent rain still whipped the earth.
"I but humble am, and poor,
Nor fated to be otherwise,"
sang Kalinin softly as, flinging up his head with an unexpected
movement, he added meaningly:
"Yes, it is a mournful song, a song which could move to tears.
Only to two persons has it ever been known; to my friend the
clerk and to myself. Yes, and to HER, though I need hardly add
that at once she forgot it."
And Kalinin's eyes flashed into a smile as he added:
"I think that, as a young man, you had better learn forthwith
where the greatest danger lurks in life. Let me tell you a
And upon that a very human tale filtered through the silken
monotonous swish of the downpour, with, for listeners to it, only
the rain and myself.
"Lukianov was NEVER in love with her," he narrated. "Only I was
that. All that Lukianov did in the matter was to write, at my
request, some verses. When she first appeared on the scene (I
mean Valentina Ignatievna) I was just turned nineteen years of
age; and the instant that my eyes fell upon her form I realised
that in her alone lay my fate, and my heart almost stopped
beating, and my vitality stretched out towards her as a speck of
dust flies towards a fire. Yet all this I had to conceal as best
I might; with the result that in the company's presence I felt
like a sentry doing guard duty in the presence of his commanding
officer. But at last, though I strove to pull myself together, to
steady myself against the ferment that was raging in my breast,
something happened. Valentina Ignatievna was then aged about
twenty-five, and very beautiful--marvellous, in fact! Also, she
was an orphan, since her father had been killed by the
Chechentzes, and her mother had died of smallpox at Samarkand. As
regards her kinship with the General, she stood to him in the
relation of niece by marriage. Golden-locked, and as skin-fair as
enamelled porcelain, she had eyes like emeralds, and a figure
wholly symmetrical, though as slim as a wafer. For bedroom she
had a little corner apartment situated next to the kitchen (the
General possessed his own house, of course), while, in addition,
they allotted her a bright little boudoir in which she disposed
her curios and knickknacks, from cut-glass bottles and goblets to
a copper pipe and a glass ring mounted on copper. This ring, when
turned, used to emit showers of glittering sparks, though she was
in no way afraid of them, but would sing as she made them dance:
"Not for me the spring will dawn!
Not for me the Bug will spate!
Not for me love's smile will wait!
Not for me, ah, not for me!
"Constantly would she warble this.
"Also, once she flashed an appeal at me with her eyes, and said:
"'Alexei, please never touch anything in my room, for my things
are too fragile.'
"Sure enough, in HER presence ANYTHING might have fallen from my
"Meanwhile her song about 'Not for me' used to make me feel
sorry for her. 'Not for you? ' I used to say to myself. 'Ought
not EVERYTHING to be for you? ' And this reflection would cause
my heart to yearn and stretch towards her. Next, I bought a
guitar, an instrument which I could not play, and took it for
instruction to Lukianov, the clerk of the Divisional Staff, which
had its headquarters in our street. In passing I may say that
Lukianov was a little Jewish convert with dark hair, sallow
features, and gimlet-sharp eyes, but beyond all things a fellow
with brains, and one who could play the guitar unforgettably.
"Once he said: 'In life all things are attainable--nothing need
we lose for want of trying. For whence does everything come? From
the plainest of mankind. A man may not be BORN in the rank of a
general, but at least he may attain to that position. Also, the
beginning and ending of all things is woman. All that she
requires for her captivation is poetry. Hence, let me write you
some verses, that you may tender them to her as an offering.'
"These, mind you, were the words of a man in whom the heart was
absolutely single, absolutely dispassionate."
Until then Kalinin had told his story swiftly, with animation;
but thereafter he seemed, as it were, to become extinguished.
After a pause of a few seconds he continued--continued in slower,
to all appearances more unwilling, accents--
"At the time I believed what Lukianov said, but subsequently I
came to see that things were not altogether as he had
represented--that woman is merely a delusion, and poetry merely
fiddle-faddle; and that a man cannot escape his fate, and that,
though good in war, boldness is, in peace affairs, but naked
effrontery. In this, brother, lies the chief, the fundamental law
of life. For the world contains certain people of high station,
and certain people of low; and so long as these two categories
retain their respective positions, all goes well; but as soon as
ever a man seeks to pass from the upper category to the inferior
category, or from the inferior to the upper, the fat falls into
the fire, and that man finds himself stuck midway, stuck neither
here nor there, and bound to abide there for the remainder of his
life, for the remainder of his life. . . . Always keep to your
own position, to the position assigned you by fate.. . . . Will
the rain NEVER cease, think you?"
By this time, as a matter of fact, the raindrops. were falling
less heavily and densely than hitherto, and the wet clouds were
beginning to reveal bright patches in the moisture-soaked
firmament, as evidence that the sun was still in existence.
"Continue," I said.
"Then you find the story an interesting one," he remarked.
Presently he resumed:
"As I have said, I trusted Lukianov implicitly, and begged of
him to write the verses. And write them he did--he wrote them the
very next day. True, at this distance of time I have forgotten
the words in their entirety, but at least I remember that there
occurred in them a phrase to the effect that 'for days and weeks
have your eyes been consuming my heart in the fire of love, so
pity me, I pray.' I then proceeded to copy out the poem, and
tremblingly to leave it on her table.
"The next morning, when I was tidying her boudoir, she made an
unexpected entry, and, clad in a loose, red dressing-gown, and
holding a cigarette between her lips, said to me with a kindly
smile as she produced my precious paper of verses:
"'Alexei, did YOU write these?'
"'Yes,' was my reply. 'And for Christ's sake pardon me for the
"'What a pity that such a fancy should have entered your head!
For, you see, I am engaged already--my uncle is intending to marry
me to Doctor Kliachka, and I am powerless in the matter.'
"The very fact that she could address me with so much sympathy
and kindness struck me dumb. As regards Doctor Kliachka, I may
mention that he was a good-looking, blotchy-faced, heavy-jowled
fellow with a moustache that reached to his shoulders, and lips
that were for ever laughing and vociferating. 'Nothing has
either a beginning or an end. The only thing really existent is
"Nay, even the General could, at times, make sport of the
fellow, and say as he shook with merriment:
"'A doctor-comedian is the sort of man that you are.'
"Now, at the period of which I am speaking I was as straight as
a dart, and had a shock of luxuriant hair over a set of ruddy
features. Also, I was living a life clean in every way, and
maintaining a cautious attitude towards womenfolk, and holding
prostitutes in a contempt born of the fact that I had higher
views with regard to my life's destiny. Lastly, I never indulged
in liquor, for I actually disliked it, and gave way to its
influence only in days subsequent to the episode which I am
narrating. Yes, and, last of all, I was in the habit of taking a
bath every Saturday.
"The same evening Kliachka and the rest of the party went out to
the theatre (for, naturally, the General had horses and a
carriage of his own), and I, for my part, went to inform Lukianov
of what had happened.
"He said: 'I must congratulate you, and am ready to wager you
two bottles of beer that your affair is as good as settled. In a
few seconds a fresh lot of verses shall be turned out, for poetry
constitutes a species of talisman or charm.'
"And, sure enough, he then and there composed the piece about
'the wondrous Valentina.' What a tender thing it is, and how full
of understanding! My God, my God!"
And, with a thoughtful shake of his bead, Kalinin raised his
boyish eyes towards the blue patches in the rain-washed sky.
"Duly she found the verses," he continued after a while, and
with a vehemence that seemed wholly independent of his will. "And
thereupon she summoned me to her room.
"'What are we to do about it all?' she inquired.
"She was but half-dressed, and practically the whole of her
bosom was visible to my sight. Also, her naked feet had on them
only slippers, and as she sat in her chair she kept rocking one
foot to and fro in a maddening way.
"'What are we to do about it all?' she repeated.
"'What am I to say about it, at length I replied, 'save that I
feel as though I were not really existing on earth?'
"'Are you one who can hold your tongue?' was her next question.
"I nodded--nothing else could I compass, for further speech had
become impossible. Whereupon, rising with brows puckered, she
fetched a couple of small phials, and, with the aid of
ingredients thence, mixed a powder which she wrapped in paper,
and handed me with the words:
"'Only one way of escape offers from the Plagues of Egypt. Here
I have a certain powder. Tonight the doctor is to dine with us.
Place the powder in his soup, and within a few days I shall be
free!--yes, free for you!'
"I crossed myself, and duly took from her the paper, whilst a
mist rose, and swam before my eyes, as I did so, and my legs
became perfectly numb. What I next did I hardly know, for
inwardly I was swooning. Indeed, until Kliachka's arrival the
same evening I remained practically in a state of coma."
Here Kalinin shuddered--then glanced at me with drawn features and
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