Maxim Gorky July 1901
On the Steppes
Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. V No. 7, July, 1901, pp. 214-224;
Translated: by Emily Jakowleff and Dora B. Montefiore;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Alexei Maximovitch Peshkoff was born March 14, 1869, at Nijni Novgorod. He belonged to the people, both on his father’s and mother’s side; his father had followed the trade of a jobbing upholsterer. His parents died when he was quite young, and he passed then under the care of his grandfather, a cruel and tyrannical old man, who had already so ill-treated young Maxime’s father when the latter was a lad that he ran away from home, This exploit was repeated by our author, who, after a few months spent under his grandfather’s roof, during five of which only he attended school and the rest of the time was apprenticed to a shoemaker, began his life of roving by taking service as galley-boy on board a river steamer. The cook on the steamer, whom it was his duty to help, was a reader and something of a character; he possessed a small library, which he allowed his galley-boy to read, and it was here that Görki felt the first awakening of literary instinct, though he had always, from the time he left school, at nine years old, read everything that fell into his hands. The cook’s library contained, amongst other authors, Nekrassoff; translations of the works of Ann Radcliff; a volume of Sovrememick, whose editor was Tchernichewsky, the translator and commentator of John Stuart Mill; Iscra and several works in Little Russian; the lives of the Saints, and works by some mystical writers; some odd volumes of Damas, and some Freemason’s literature. This odd collection of miscellaneous writings gave the boy Görki, now fifteen years of age, a burning desire to obtain some degree of culture, and awoke in him the wish to write. He left the steamer and wandered to Kazan, where he was told free instruction could be obtained. Here, in order to maintain himself, he had to enter a bakery at three roubles, or six shillings, a month, and he speaks of this work as being the hardest that he ever did, with the exception of work in the salt mines, which he describes in one of his essays. A powerful story, written later in life, called “The Outcasts,” is a truthful reflection of the people amongst whom he lived and worked at this period of his life, and there is in it much that is autobiographical. He lived amongst these outcasts of society, chopping and sawing wood, carrying burdens and earning a living as best he could, and in the intervals of manual work, picking up what instruction fell in his way. On leaving Kazan he tried his luck as a signalman on the railway at Tzaritzine.
At the age of twenty he had to return to Nijni Novgorod, in order to perform his years of military service, but he failed to pass the health test, and was rejected as not strong enough for service. For some time after this he sold “kwass” in the streets, until he managed to get a situation in a lawyer’s office. This lawyer, whose name was Laraine, eventually took a great interest in Görki, and influenced him much in his reading and general culture. But a settled and sedentary life did not suit him, and in 1890 we find him again wandering through Southern Russia and two years later he was working at Tiflis, in the Caucasus, in the railway engineering shops. At this time also his first story, “Markar Tchoudra” appeared in a local paper. The budding, talent in his stories being recognised he returned to the Volga, where he had spent so much of his youth, and began writing short stories for the Volgessky Viesknick. These were followed by a longer story, “Emilia Pilai,” which appeared in an important Moscow paper, the Russky Viedimoski; and a lucky chance having brought him across Korolenko, Görki, through the influence of this leading Russian man of letters, was able to place his writings in some of the most important periodicals of the day. Korolenko did much for him also in the way of advice, and Görki wrote later of this period of his life “If I learnt little it was not Korolenko’s fault but my own.”
Görki acknowledges the four literary influences of his life to have been those of the cook on the steamer; secondly, of Laraine; thirdly, of Kaligny, a Nihilist; and fourthly, of Korolenko. Of late years he has been forbidden, because of political writings, to enter St. Petersburg or Moscow, and his name appeared lately amongst those who were arrested early this year at the time of the student troubles, occasioned by the forcible and illegal enlistment in the Russian army of students who had been concerned in breaches of university discipline.
Görki possesses a literary style peculiarly his own, characterised by a spontaneity and freshness, and a freedom from the ordinary tricks of literature which charm and surprise one at every turn. His philosophy of life consists in accepting and delineating life as it is, neither excusing nor exaggerating, but depicting the morals, the habits, the soul of the tramp and vagabond as faithfully as in him lies. His nom de plume, “Görki” signifies “bitter,” and his realism is often intensely flavoured with this quality; but the restless pessimism of his soul is counterbalanced by his passion for nature and music, and by the consolations which are granted to delicately responsive temperaments in cloud, water and sunset effects, in the midnight march of the stars, and in aspirations towards an ideal of liberty, and of revolt from the trammels of a worn-out civilisation. Görki has found many admirers in France and Germany, where his works are being daily translated. A writer in the Revue d Paris says of him, “It is possible that it is not only as an artist that Görki has enriched life; he has made real for us a large class of our fellow beings whom before we knew nothing of ... Less successful when delineating other classes of society, he is a prophet of revolt, especially from bourgeois ideals of life, from comfort, from conventions ... His constant message seems to be that Man must give to each moment of his life the nobility of his fierce rebellion ... He has sung the praises of the revolted, not because they realise happiness in the least, but because they stamp their life strongly with the seal of their tremendous will-power.”
DORA B. MONTEFIORE
On the Steppes
told by a tramp
We left Perekopp in the worst possible humour – hungry as wolves, and angry with the whole world. From early in the morning we had been trying to turn our talents and efforts to account, either by stealing or earning something, and when at length we were forced to the conclusion. that neither one nor the other was likely to be crowned with success we made up our minds to push on ... But where? ... Just on, and on. ... This was the unanimous but silent decision taken by us all; for we were ready to go on, in every sense of the word, along the path of life which we had already for some time been tramping. This decision was no less silent than the previous one, though it flashed forth from under the lowering gloom of our hungry eyes.
There were three of us; our acquaintanceship was of recent date. We dropped across one another in a vodka shop in Kherson, on the banks of the Dnieper.
One of us had been a soldier attached to the railway brigade, and later on took service as a platelayer on one of the Viesla lines; a red-haired, muscular man, with cold grey eyes; he could speak German, and had an extensive knowledge of prison life.
Folk like us don’t care much to speak of their past life, having always more or less good reasons for not doing so; and all of us believed one another – at least apparently – for inwardly each of us had ceased to trust even himself.
The second one of the party was a shrivelled, dried up little man, with thin lips, always sceptically pursed up; and when he told us that he was a former student of Moscow University, the soldier and I took it as a matter of course.
As a matter of fact it was all the same to us whether he was a student, a spy, or a rogue. All that concerned us was that during our present acquaintanceship he was our equal; he was hungry, he enjoyed in towns the special attention of the police, and in villages was looked upon by the peasants with suspicion. He hated both town and village with the hatred of an impotent hunted hungry animal, and used to dream of a general vengeance on all and on everything. In a word, as regards his position amongst the chosen ones of nature, and the powerful ones of life, and as regards his disposition, he was one of us.
Misfortune is the strongest cement in the uniting of characters, even divergent ones; and we were all deeply convinced of our right to consider ourselves unfortunate.
The third was myself. From that natural modesty which has distinguished me from my earliest days, I shall not say a word about my own qualities; and not wishing to appear before you as a knave, I shall be silent on the subject of my faults. But as a clue to my character I shall allow myself to mention that I always considered myself as superior to the others, and continue to do so till the present day.
Well, ... we left Perekopp, and were trudging along with nothing in view but bread, which we might beg of the shepherds, who seldom refused the petition of wayfarers.
I was walking abreast of the soldier, and the “student” was striding behind us. Something that suggested the remains of a coat was hanging on his back. On his close cropped head, adorned with a striking variety of humps, rested composedly what was little more than a recollection of a broad-brimmed hat. His thin legs were clad in tight grey breeches, with variegated patches; to the soles of his feet he had bound with strips of rag torn from the linings of his clothes, the old uppers of a boot he had found on the road; this arrangement he called sandals, and he shuffled along in them, kicking up the dust as he went, and glancing from side to side with furtive eyes. The soldier wore a red shirt, which, according to his own account, was actually bought by himself in Kernoneff. Over this shirt he wore a thick wadded -waistcoat; on his head, worn with a military cock, was a soldier’s cap of indefinite colour, and on his legs hung loosely wide moujik trousers; he was barefooted.
I was dressed much in the same style, and was also barefooted.
We, trudged along ... and on all sides of us stretched the immense boundless steppes, looking like a huge round flat black bowl, under the hot blue dome of a summer sky. The grey, dusty road cut through the distance-like a broad stripe, whilst its baked surface burnt our feet. From time to time we came across bristly patches of freshly cut corn, which bore a strange resemblance to the soldier’s stubbly cheeks. He stepped along, singing in a rather hoarse voice:
“The blessed resurrection,
We greet, and sing its praise..”..
Whilst serving in the army he had performed the duties of a deacon in the garrison chapel, and knew an endless number of these sacred songs, to which he always had recourse whenever the conversation flagged.
Ahead of us, on the horizon, rose a delicate sky-line, steeped in tones that shaded from lilac to pale pink.
These are evidently the Crimean hills,” said the “student” in a dry voice.
“Hills?” exclaimed the soldier, “It’s too early in the day to see hills yet, my friend. Those are clouds, nothing but clouds. See how strange they look; they are of the colour of curdled milk and fruit.”
I hinted that it would be extremely agreeable if these clouds were in reality curdled milk and fruit. This suddenly aroused our hunger – the bane of our life.
“Damn it all!” cursed the soldier, spitting on one side. “If we could but come across a living soul, but there isn’t one ... We shall have to do as the bears in the woods do, and suck our own paws.”
“I told you we ought to have kept to inhabited parts of the country,” said the “student” didactically.
“You told us so,” exclaimed the soldier indignantly. “All your learning is nothing but words, What inhabited places are there here? The devil only knows where they are.”
The “student” pursed up his lips silently .... the sun was setting ... the clouds on the horizon were taking on them a variety of colours, indescribable in words ... a mingled smell of earth and of salt arose from the ground ... This dry and savoury smell increased our appetites more and more.
A gnawing feeling took possession of our stomachs – a strange and disagreeable feeling as if from all the muscles of our bodies the life juices were exuding, evaporating, and as if the muscles themselves were losing their elasticity. A pricking dryness filled the mouth and throat, the head grew dizzy, and now and again dark spots flashed and danced before the eyes. Sometimes these took the form of hot, steaming meats, sometimes of loaves of bread; fancy attaching to these “silent visions of the past,” their own particular smells, and then it seemed as if a knife were being turned in the stomach. Still, on we went, sharing with each other the description of our impressions, and keeping a keen look-out on either side lest a flock of sheep might be seen, or listening for the squeaking creak of the Tartar’s cart, carrying fruit to the Armenian market.
But the steppe was void and silent ... On the eve of this unlucky day we three had eaten four pounds of rye bread and five water-melons; after which we walked forty versts ... and, the expenses not, equalling the income, we fell asleep on the market-place of Perekopp, and awoke at the call of hunger.
The “student” wisely advised us not to go to sleep, but to take advantage of the night for ... business; ... but in respectable society it is not considered correct to speak of projects bearing on the violation of the rights of property, and, therefore I keep silence ... I only wish to be truthful, but it is not in my own interests to be brutal. I know that people are growing more tender-hearted in these highly-cultivated days; and even when they take their neighbour by the throat, with the evident intention of throttling him, they try to do it with all the amiability in the world, and with the strict regard for etiquette proper to the circumstances. The experience that my own throat has undergone causes me to observe this advance in manners, and, with an agreeable feeling of deep conviction, I assert that everything in this world develops and becomes perfect. More especially is this wonderful process admirably proved by the annual growth of prisons, vodka shops and brothels.
Striving thus to swallow down the saliva of hunger, and making an effort to appease the tortures of the stomach by friendly talk, we tramped along the vast and silent steppes in the ruddy rays of the sunset, ... full of vague hope ... We watched the sun sinking quietly into the soft clouds, richly coloured by its rays, whilst behind us, and on either side, a bluish mist rising up from the steppes towards the sky veiled the gloomy landscape behind us.
“Come, mates, gather some fuel for a fire,” said the soldier, picking up a log from the ground. “It seems as if we shall have to spend the night on the steppes ... The dew is heavy ... Take twigs, dung, anything you find.” . We scattered on either side of the road, and began collecting dried weeds and anything else that would burn, Each time one of us stooped towards the earth the whole body seemed possessed with an intense desire to throw itself down full length, to lie there motionless and eat ... eat long ... eat to repletion ... and then fall asleep ... Though it might be an eternal sleep ... only to eat, and eat ... to chew .... to feel a warm thick mash slowly sliding down the parched gullet into the starved, contracted stomach, aching with the desire to absorb something into itself.
“If we could but find some roots,’’ said the soldier. Eatable roots are sometimes to be found.”
But in the black, ploughed ground there were no roots to be had. The southern night came on suddenly, and the last ray of the sun had scarcely disappeared, when in the dark blue sky stars began to twinkle, and around us black shadows blended, narrowing the vast extent of the boundless steppes which swallowed us up.
“Brothers!” said the “student” on the left in a low voice; “there is ... a man ... lying down!”
“A man!” laughed the soldier, incredulously; “what can a man be doing lying there?”
“Go and ask! Probably he has bread, if he has made up his mind to spend the night on the steppes,” exclaimed the “student.”
The soldier looked in the direction indicated, and spitting resolutely, said
“Come and see!”
Only the green, sharp eyes of the “student” could discern that the dark heap which lay some hundred yards to the left of the road was a man.
We approached him quickly, striding over the heaps of ploughed ground. and feeling that the aroused hope for food had sharpened the pangs of hunger; We had already got near, but the man did not move.
“Perhaps, after all, it’s not a man” the soldier gloomily expressed the idea common to us all, But all doubt was at the same moment dispelled, for the heap on the ground suddenly began moving, and. we saw that it was a. real flesh-and-blood person, who knelt, stretching out his hand towards us,
He spoke in a dull shaky voice:
“Don’t come nearer, or I shall shoot you,”
Through the misty air we heard the short, dry crack of a pistol. We stopped as if at a word of command, and for several seconds we were silent, taken aback by this uncourteous greeting.
“What a brute!” muttered the soldier.
“That he is,” answered the “student” reflectively. “He goes about with a revolver ... one can see the sort of fellow he is.”
“I say!” Shouted the soldier, having evidently taken a decision. The man did not change his position and remained silent.
“I say! ... whoever you are, We won’t touch you; only give us some bread. ... You’re sure to have some ... do, for Christ’s sake! ... Damn ... Damn ...” the last words were uttered under his breath.
Still the man remained silent.
“Can’t you hear” continued the soldier, trembling with rage and despair. “Give us some bread! ... do! ... We won’t go near you; throw it to us.”
“All right,” curtly answered the man.
If even he had added “my dear brothers,” and if he had poured into these blessed words the most sacred and pure feeling they would not have touched us and humanised us so much as did this gruff and brief “all right.”
“Don’t be afraid of us, my good fellow,” continued the soldier, with a soft and ingratiating smile, which was lost on the stranger, who was still at least twenty paces distance from us “we are quiet people, travelling from Russia to the Kouban. ... We were out of our reckoning in money matters, and have eaten everything off our backs ... This is the second day since we had a morsel in our mouths.”
“Here, catch!” ... said the sympathising man, swinging his arm forward. The black object flashed out, and fell near us on the ploughed ground. The “student” rushed to catch it.
“Here, catch! ... Here’s some more ... and some more!”
When the student had finished gathering up this strange alms, we found that it was four pounds of hard wheaten bread; it was soiled with earth and very stale; we paid little heed to the first fact, but the second gave us great pleasure. Stale bread is more satisfying than new bread, for it has less moisture in it.
“Here’s for you ... and for you ... and for you” ... The soldier divided busily the pieces ... “Stop! that isn’t fair; let me take a bit off yours my friend, for the philosopher, for his share’s not big enough.’’
The “student” put up with the loss of a few ounces of his bread without remonstrance. It fell to my share, and soon found its way into my mouth.
I began chewing it slowly with convulsive movements of the jaws, which seemed-ready to crush even a stone. The contraction of the gullet gave me a sensation of keen delight, as did also the slow satisfaction of my hunger. Bit by bit the warm and indescribably delicious food found its way into the hot stomach and seemed there to be transformed into blood and brain. Joy, a strange, calm and vivifying joy, gradually warmed the heart at the same time as the stomach was being satisfied with food, and I fell into a half dreamy state. I forgot the cursed days of constant chronic hunger, and forgot also my companions, engrossed, for the time being, by the sensations I was experiencing.
But when with the palm of my hand I jerked the last crumbs of bread into my mouth, I felt I was still mortally hungry.
“That cursed dog over there, he has got some bacon left, and some sort of meat” ... growled the soldier, sitting on the ground opposite me, and rubbing his stomach with his hands.
“Yes, that’s certain, for the bread smelt of meat ... And I believe he’s got more bread left,” said the “student,” whilst he added, in a low voice, “If it were not for that revolver.”
“Who can he be, I wonder?”
“The chances are he’s one of us.”
“’Dog!” concluded the soldier.
We were sitting in a close group, and glancing askance towards the spot where crouched our benefactor with the revolver.
No sound came from his direction nor any sign of life.
Night was gathering around us its dark powers ... A deadly quiet reigned over the steppes ... We could hear each other’s breathing. From time to time was heard the distant melancholy whistle of the shrew mouse ... The stars, the living flowers of the sky, glittered overhead ... We were hungry.
I can say with pride that during this rather strange night I was neither worse nor better than my casual acquaintances. I suggested that we should get up and attack the man; not to hurt him, but to get hold of all the food he had with him. He may shoot ... well, let him ... If he succeeds in hitting anyone, he can only hit one out of the three; and even if he should aim straight a bullet from a revolver would hardly kill.
“Come on!” said the soldier, jumping to his feet.
The “student” rose more slowly.
We went off almost at a run.
The “student” kept behind, and rather away from us.
“Come, mate!” exclaimed the soldier in a reproachful tone.
In front of us we heard a muttered threat, the sharp click of a trigger, a flash of fire, the report of a pistol.
“Missed!” exclaimed the soldier joyfully, jumping with a bound on to the man. “Now, you devil! won’t I give it you!”
The “student made a rush at the bag.
The “devil” fell on his back, his arms flung out on the ground, and a choking sound in his throat.
“What the deuce does that mean?” exclaimed the astonished soldier, who had raised his foot prepared to kick the stranger.
“Could he have shot himself? ... Hi! ... you there! ... Hi! Have you shot yourself, or what’s the matter?”
“Meat! ... some kinds of biscuits ... and bread ... plenty of everything, mates!” sounded the triumphant voice of the “student.”
“Well curse you! ... die if you like ... let’s come and eat, mates!” shouted the soldier.
I took the revolver out of the hand of the man, who lay now motionless, the choking sounds in his throat having ceased. In the barrel only one bullet remained.
Again we fell to and ate in silence.
The stranger lay by our side, also silent, and without moving a limb. We paid no heed to him.
Suddenly we heard uttered in a hoarse, trembling voice “Dear friends ... can you behave like this just for a piece of bread?”
A shudder ran through us, The “student” choked himself with a piece of food, and bending forward, coughed loudly.
The soldier, having swallowed what was in his mouth, uttered curses.
“Hound ... May you burst yourself! Did you think it was your skin we wanted? What use would that be to us, you fathead! You dirty coward – the idea of carrying arms, and shooting at people. Curses on you!”
He continued to curse and to eat by turns, which in no way interfered with the force of his expletives.
“Just wait till we’ve done eating! We’ll he even with you, then,” was the “student’s” grim threat.
Then through the darkness of the night we heard loud sobs that frightened us.
“Friends ... I didn’t know. I fired because I was afraid ... I am travelling from New Athon ... to the government of Orel. Oh! dear me! The ague has got me! As soon as the sun sets my torture begins: It was the ague drove me away from Athon. I was a cabinetmaker there ... that’s how I earned my living. I’ve got a wife at home ... Two little girls. Its three years ... nearly four, since I saw them. Eat all there is, friends!”
“That’s what we mean to do, without being asked,’’ said the “student.”
“Gracious heaven! if only I had known that you were quiet, good people, I would never have fired! ... but see friends ... it was the steppes! ... the night! ... could I help it? ... just think!”
He cried whilst he was speaking, or rather uttered a strange, trembling, terrified howl.
“Gammon!” interjected the soldier, disdainfully.
“He must have money about him,” suggested the “student.”
The soldier screwed up his eyes, scanned him narrowly, and sneered.
“You’re a sharp fellow ... What I say is, let’s have a fire, and go to sleep.”
“And what about him?” enquired the “student.”
“Oh! devil take him! . . we don’t want to fry him, do we?”
“Why not ‘’ nodded the “student,” with his long, narrow head.
We went off to fetch the fuel which we had left at the place where we had been arrested by the shout of the cabinetmaker, We collected it again, and were soon sitting round a comfortable fire. It smouldered gently in the quiet windless night, and lit up the spot on which we were seated. We were getting sleepy, but we could still have eaten another supper.
“Friends!” called to us the cabinetmaker, lie was lying a few steps away from us, and at times it seemed to me he was whispering something.
“Well” said the soldier.
“May I come near ... to the fire? I’m not far from death’s door; All my bones are full of pain! . . Gracious heavens! I shall never reach home again.”
“Crawl in here! ... said the “student,” making room for him. The stranger crawled slowly towards the fire, as if afraid of losing on the way a leg or a hand. He was a tall, exceedingly emaciated man; his clothes hung terribly loosely on him, and his large dimmed eyes spoke of gnawing pain. His drawn face was bony, and even by the firelight showed an earthy, yellow, dead colour. He was shaking from head to foot, and aroused in us, a feeling of contemptuous pity. Stretching out to the fire his long thin hands, he rubbed his bony fingers, the joints of which bent stiffly and slowly, The sight of him became at last sickening and revolting.
“Why are you travelling on foot in this sort of state? Is it because you are so stingy?” asked the soldier gloomily.
“I was advised they told me not to travel by water ... They said go by the Crimea’ ... the air they told me was so good. And here am. I, friends, unable to walk ... dying. I shall die alone on the steppes. The birds will eat my flesh ... and no one will know. My wife ... my daughters ... will await me. I wrote to them ... I ... told them .... And my bones will be washed by the rains of the steppes.”
And he howled with the dismal howl of a wounded wolf.
“Damn it all!” exclaimed the enraged soldier, jumping to his feet. “What’s all this about? You don’t give us a chance of resting. If you’re dying, just die, but be quiet about it. Who wants to bother about you? Just shut up that row!”
“Give him one over the head,” suggested the “student.”
“Give us a chance of going to sleep,” said I, “And if you want to stay near the fire, stop howling, for otherwise ... indeed.’’
“ Did you hear?” asked the soldier, angrily. “If so, just remember. You think perhaps we are going to bother about you, after you have been slinging bread at our heads, and taking aim at us with your rotten pistol! You whining devil! Anyone in your place would ...” And the soldier spat on one side with a gesture of disgust.
He stopped suddenly, and stretched himself full length on the ground.. The “student” had already settled himself to sleep. I had done the same. The terrified cabinetmaker shrunk together, and, creeping towards the fire, sat silently watching it. I was lying to the right of him, and I could hear his teeth chattering. The “student” lay on the left, curled up in a heap, and seemed to have fallen asleep suddenly.
The soldier, with his hands behind his head, lay on his back, watching the sky. “What a beautiful night ... is it not? ... just look at the stars! – And so warm!” After some minutes he added, speaking to me “Look at the sky ... it’s really more like a warm blanket than a sky! Oh! how I love this wandering life? Though it means sometimes cold and hunger ... yet the freedom is worth everything. There is no master over one ... one’s own life is one’s own ... one can even do away with oneself, and no one dares say one nay. It’s fine! See how angry and how famished I have been these last few days ... and now, here am I, looking at the sky, with the stars twinkling above me, as if they were saying; ‘It’s all right, Lakontine; continue to wander about the world, and don’t let anyone get the better of you.’ Yes, and my heart and soul feel so happy. How are you now ... what’s your name ... cabinetmaker? Don’t be angry with me now, and don’t fear me. It was so natural we should eat your bread, for you had some and we had none .... so, of course, we ate yours! And, fancy you firing at us! Don’t you know that a bullet may hurt a fellow? I was very angry with you when you did that, and if you had not tripped up, I should have given you something to be going on with. And as for the bread – why to-morrow you will be at Perekopp, and can buy more ... for you have plenty of money, I know. When did you pick up this ague?”
And for some time longer, the soldier’s bass tones, and the trembling replies of the sick cabinetmaker sounded in my ears. The night, dark almost to blackness, fell thicker and darker on the earth, and the fresh scented night air tilled all one’s lungs.
The fire gave forth a steady light, and an invigorating warmth ... my eyelids grew gradually tired and drooped, and before my eyes something soft and beautiful seemed to hover.
* * *
“Up with you! Look sharp! Let’s be off!”
With a feeling of fear I opened my eyes, and sprang to my feet Assisted by the soldier, who dragged me up impetuously by the hand. “Look sharp, I say? Let’s be off! “
His face showed anxiety and fear.
I glanced around. The sun was rising, and its reddish ray was already lying on the motionless and livid face of the cabinetmaker. His mouth was wide open, and his eyes protruded from the sockets, and seemed to glance upwards with a glassy look expressive of terror. The clothes on his body were torn, and lay in unnatural, tumbled disorder. There were no traces of the “student.”
“What’s the use of staring? Come along, don’t you hear?” said the soldier meaningly, and dragging me along by the arm.
“Is he dead?’’ I asked, shivering with the chill air of the morning. “Of course he is If you were strangled, you would be dead?”
“Is he? ... Has he been? ... The student ...” I exclaimed.
“Why, who else could it be? You don’t think it was you or I who did it? ... H’m ... so much for a man of education! Finished off a man cleverly, he did, and left his mates in the lurch to stand the brunt of it. Had I known it yesterday, I would have killed the ‘student.’ I’d have done for him with one blow! A knock on the temple, and there would have been one rascal less in the world! Don’t you see now what he has done? We’ve got to make off at once, so that no human eye shall be able to detect that we have been on the steppes! You see what I mean! In the first place they will find the cabinetmaker, and will see plainly that he has been strangled and robbed. Then all folk like us will be watched and questioned ... ‘Where do you come from? ....! Where did you sleep last night?’ And then they will arrest us ... Though you and I have nothing compromising on us. But there’s the revolver in my shirt ... that’s awkward.”
“Throw it away,” I advised him.
“Throw it away? be replied thoughtfully; “it’s valuable ... and perhaps after all we shan’t be caught! No, I won’t throw it away! worth three roubles. Ah with what pleasure I would put this bullet into our friend’s ear! ... I should like to know how much he grabbed ... the dog! ... How much do you think? ... Damn it all!”
“As to the cabinetmaker’s daughters – it all up with their chance of getting it!” said I.
“Daughters? ... what daughters? Ah! Yes! Well, they will grow up; they are sure not to marry fellows like us; it’s not to be thought of. Step; along quicker! ... where shall we go?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure, It’s all the same.”
“No more do I ... but as you say ... it’s all the same. Let’s go towards the right, it must lead to the sea.”
So we went to the right.
I glanced back ... Far behind us on the bare steppes rose a dark mound, lit up by rays of the morning sun.
“Are you looking to see if he has risen from the dead? No fear, he won’t pursue us. That philosopher friend of ours was evidently a clever fellow; he did it neatly. A fine sort of mate he was! He’s got us into a rare muddle! ... Ah! ... Ah! ... I see that people are getting worse from year to year,” added the soldier despondingly.
The silent and deserted steppes, all inundated with the bright glow of the morning sun, stretched out around us, uniting at the horizon with the sky, suffused with such a clear caressing and soft light that everything black and evil seemed impossible amidst this immense space of free open land shut in with the blue dome of heaven.
“I feel empty still,’’ said my companion, twisting op a cigarette of coarse tobacco. “What shall we get to eat to-day? Where shall we got it ... and how?
“Ah ... that’s the question!”
Here the narrator, my neighbour in the next bed in the hospital, finished his story, adding: “And this is all. My friendship with the soldier continued, and together we tramped to Kars. He was a good and very clever fellow, the real type of a vagabond tramp, I respected him. We travelled together as far as Asia Minor, and there we lost sight of each other.”
And do you ever remember the cabinetmaker?” asked I.
“Yes, as you see, or, rather, as you have heard.”
“And ... what do you feel about him?”
“Well, what is there for me to feel about him? ... It was no more my fault what happened to him than it was your fault what has happened to me ... For, in fact, no one is to blame for anything, for all of us are alike, beasts!”
Translated by Emily Jakowleff and Dora B. Montefiore.