The blue southern sky was bedimmed by the dust rising from the haven; the burning sun looked dully down into the greenish sea as if through a thin grey veil. It could not reflect itself in the water, which indeed was cut up by the strokes of oars and the furrows made by steam-screws and the sharp keels of Turkish feluccas and other sailing vessels, ploughing up in every direction the crowded harbour in which the free billows of the sea were confined within fetters of granite and crushed beneath the huge weights gliding over their crests, though they beat against the sides of the ships, beat against the shore, beat themselves into raging foam—foam begrimed by all sorts of floating rubbish.
The sound of the anchor chains, the clang of the couplings of the trucks laden with heavy goods, the metallic wail of the iron plates falling on the stone flagging, the dull thud of timber, the droning of the carrier-wagons, the screaming of the sirens of the steamships, now piercingly keen, now sinking to a dull roar, the cries of the porters, sailors, and custom-house officers—all these sounds blended into the deafening symphony of the laborious day, and vibrating restlessly, remained stationary in the sky over the haven, as if fearing to mount higher and disappear. And there ascended from the earth, continually, fresh and ever fresh waves of sound—some dull and mysterious, and these vibrated sullenly all around, others clangorous and piercing which rent the dusty sultry air.
Granite, iron, the stone haven, the vessels and the people—everything is uttering in mighty tones a madly passionate hymn to Mercury. But the voices of the people, weak and overborne, are scarce audible therein. And the people themselves to whom all this hubbub is primarily due, are ridiculous and pitiful. Their little figures, dusty, strenuous, wriggling into and out of sight, bent double beneath the burden of heavy goods lying on their shoulders, beneath the burden of the labour of dragging these loads hither and thither in clouds of dust, in a sea of heat and racket—are so tiny and insignificant in comparison with the iron colossi surrounding them, in comparison with the loads of goods, the rumbling wagons, and all the other things which these same little creatures have made! Their own handiwork has subjugated and degraded them.
Standing by the quays, heavy giant steamships are now whistling, now hissing, now deeply snorting, and in every sound given forth by them there seems to be a note of ironical contempt for the grey, dusty little figures of the people crowding about on the decks, and filling the deep holds with the products of their slavish labour. Laughable even to tears are the long strings of dockyard men, dragging after them tens of thousands of pounds of bread and pitching them into the iron bellies of the vessels in order to earn a few pounds of that very same bread for their own stomachs—people, unfortunately, not made of iron and feeling the pangs of hunger. These hustled, sweated crowds, stupefied by weariness and by the racket and heat, and these powerful machines, made by these selfsame people, basking, sleek and unruffled, in the sunshine—machines which, in the first instance, are set in motion not by steam, but by the muscles and blood of their makers—in such a juxtaposition there was a whole epic of cold and cruel irony.
The din is overwhelming, the dust irritates the nostrils and blinds the eyes, the heat burns and exhausts the body, and everything around—the buildings, the people, the stone quays—seem to be on the stretch, full-ripe, ready to burst, ready to lose all patience and explode in some grandiose catastrophe, like a volcano, and thus one feels that one would be able to breathe more easily and freely in the refreshened air; one feels that then a stillness would reign upon the earth, and this dusty din, benumbing and irritating the nerves to the verge of melancholy mania, would vanish, and in the town, and on the sea, and in the sky, everything would be calm, clear, and glorious. But it only seems so. One fancies it must be so, because man has not yet wearied of hoping for better things, and the wish to feel himself free has not altogether died away within him.
Twelve measured and sonorous strokes of a bell resound. When the last brazen note has died away the wild music of labour has already diminished by at least a half. Another minute and it has passed into a dull involuntary murmur. The voices of men and the splashing of the sea have now become more audible. The dinner-hour has come.
When the dock-hands, leaving off work, scatter along the haven in noisy groups, buying something to eat from the costermonger women and sitting down to their meal in the most shady corners of the macadamized quay, amidst them appears Greg Chelkash, that old wolf of the pastures, well-known to the people of the haven as a confirmed toper and a bold and skilful thief. He is barefooted, in shabby old plush breeches, hatless, with a dirty cotton shirt with a torn collar, exposing his mobile, withered, knobbly legs in their cinnamon-brown case of skin. It is plain from his touzled black, grey-streaked hair and his keen wizened face that he has only just awoke. From one of his smutty moustaches a wisp of straw sticks out, the fellow to it has lost itself among the bristles of his recently shaved left cheek, and behind his ear he has stuck a tiny linden twig just plucked from the tree. Lanky, bony, and somewhat crooked, he slowly shambled along the stones, and moving from side to side his hooked nose, which resembled the beak of a bird of prey, he cast around him sharp glances, twinkling at the same time his cold grey eyes as they searched for someone or other among the dockyard men. His dirty brown moustaches, long and thick, twitched just like a cat's whiskers, and his arms, folded behind his back, rubbed one against the other, while the long, crooked, hook-like fingers clutched at the air convulsively. Even here, in the midst of a hundred such ragged striking tatter-demalions as he, he immediately attracted attention by his resemblance to the vulture of the steppes, by his bird-of-prey like haggardness, and that alert sort of gait, easy and quiet in appearance, but inwardly the result of excited wariness, like the flight of the bird of prey he called to mind.
When he came alongside one of the groups of ragged porters sprawling in the shade beneath the shelter of the coal baskets, he suddenly encountered a broad-shouldered little fellow with a stupid pimply face and a neck scarred with scratches, evidently fresh from a sound and quite recent drubbing. He got up and joined Chelkash, saying to him in a subdued voice:
"Goods belonging to the fleet have been missed in two places. They are searching for them still. Do you hear, Greg!"
"Well!" asked Chelkash quietly, calmly measuring his comrade from head to foot.
"What do you mean by well? They're searching I say, that's all."
"Are they asking me to help them in their search then?"
And Chelkash, with a shrewd smile, glanced in the direction of the lofty packhouse of the Volunteer Fleet.
"Go to the devil!"
His comrade turned back.
"Wait a bit! What are you so stuck-up about? Look how they've spoiled the whole show! I don't see Mike here!"
"Haven't seen him for a long time," said the other, going back to his companions.
Chelkash went on further, greeted by everyone like a man well-known. And he, always merry with a biting repartee, to-day was evidently not in a good humour, and gave abrupt and snappy answers.
At one point a custom-house officer, a dusty, dark-green man with the upright carriage of a soldier, emerged from behind a pile of goods. He barred Chelkash's way, standing in front of him with a challenging pose and seizing with his left hand the handle of his dirk, tried to collar Chelkash with his right.
"Halt! whither are you going?"
Chelkash took a step backwards, raised his eyes to the level of the custom-house officer, and smiled drily.
The ruddy, good-humouredly-cunning face of the official tried to assume a threatening look, puffing out its cheeks till they were round and bloated, contracting its brows and goggling its eyes—and was supremely ridiculous in consequence.
"You have been told that you are not to dare to enter the haven, or I'd break your ribs for you. And here you are again!" cried the guardian of the customs threateningly.
"Good day, Semenich! we have not seen each other for a long time," calmly replied Chelkash, stretching out his hand.
"I wish it had been a whole century. Be off! Be off!"
But Semenich pressed the extended hand all the same.
"What a thing to say!" continued Chelkash, still retaining in his talon-like fingers the hand of Semenich, and shaking it in a friendly familiar sort of way—"have you seen Mike by any chance?"
"Mike, Mike? whom do you mean? I don't know any Mike. Go away, my friend! That packhouse officer is looking, he...."
"The red-haired chap, I mean, with whom I worked last time on board the 'Kostroma,'" persisted Chelkash.
"With whom you pilfered, you ought to say. They've carried your Mike off to the hospital if you must know; he injured his leg with a bit of iron. Go, my friend, while you are asked to go civilly; go, and I'll soon saddle you with him again!"
"Ah! look there now! and you said you did not know Mike! Tell me now, Semenich, why are you so angry?"
"Look here, Greg! none of your cheek! be off!"
The custom-house officer began to be angry, and glancing furtively around him, tried to tear his hand out of the powerful hand of Chelkash. Chelkash regarded him calmly from under his bushy brows, smiled to himself, and not releasing his hand, continued to speak:
"Don't hurry me! I'll have my say with you and then I'll go. Now tell me, how are you getting on?—you wife, your children, are they well?"—and, twinkling his eyes maliciously and biting his lips, with a mocking smile, he added: "I was going to pay you a visit, but I never had the time—I was always on the booze...."
"Well, well, drop that!—none of your larks, you bony devil!—I'm really your friend.... I suppose you're laying yourself out to nab something under cover or in the streets?"
"Why so? Here and now I tell you a good time's coming for both you and me, if only we lay hold of a bit In God's name, Semenich, lay hold! Listen now, again in two places goods are missing! Look out now, Semenich, and be very cautious lest you come upon them somehow!"
Utterly confused by the audacity of Chelkash, Semenich trembled all over, spat freely about him, and tried to say something. Chelkash let go his hand and calmly shuffled back to the dock gates with long strides, the custom-house officer, cursing fiercely, moved after him.
Chelkash was now in a merry mood. He softly whistled through his teeth, and burying his hands into his breeches' pockets, marched along with the easy gait of a free man, distributing sundry jests and repartees right and left. And the people he left behind paid him out in his own coin as he passed by.
"Hello, Chelkash! how well the authorities mount guard over you!" howled someone from among the group of dock-workers who had already dined and were resting at full length on the ground.
"I'm barefooted you see, so Semenich follows behind so as not to tread upon my toes—he might hurt me and lay me up for a bit," replied Chelkash.
They reached the gates, two soldiers searched Chelkash and hustled him gently into the street.
"Don't let him go!" bawled Semenich, stopping at the dockyard gate.
Chelkash crossed the road and sat down on a post opposite the door of a pot-house. Out of the dockyard gates, lowing as they went, proceeded an endless string of laden oxen, meeting the returning teams of unladen oxen with their drivers mounted upon them. The haven vomited forth thunderous noise and stinging dust, and the ground trembled.
Inured to this frantic hurly-burly, Chelkash, stimulated by the scene with Semenich, felt in the best of spirits. Before him smiled a solid piece of work, demanding not very much labour but a good deal of cunning. He was convinced that he would be equal to it, and blinking his eyes, fell thinking how he would lord it to-morrow morning, when the whole thing would have been managed and the bank-notes would be in his pocket. Then he called to mind his comrade Mike, who would have just done for this night's job if he had not broken his leg. Chelkash cursed inwardly that, without Mike's help, it would be a pretty stiffish job for him alone. What sort of a night was it going to be? He looked up at the sky and then all down the street....
Six paces away from him on the macadamized pavement, with his back against a post, sat a young lad in a blue striped shirt, hose to match, with bast shoes and a ragged red forage cap. Near him lay a small knapsack and a scythe without a handle wrapped up in straw carefully wound round with cord. The lad was broad-shouldered, sturdy, and fair-haired, with a tanned and weather-beaten face, and with large blue eyes gazing at Chelkash confidingly and good-naturedly....
Chelkash ground his teeth, protruded his tongue, and making a frightful grimace, set himself to gaze fixedly at the youth with goggling eyes.
The youth, doubtful, at first, what to make of it, blinked a good deal, but suddenly bursting into a fit of laughter, screamed in the midst of his laughter: "Ah, what a character!" and scarce rising from the ground, rolled clumsily from his own to Chelkash's post, dragging his knapsack along through the dust and striking the blade of the scythe against a stone.
"What, brother, enjoying yourself, eh? Good health to you!" said he to Chelkash, plucking his trouser.
"There's a job on hand, my sucking pig, and such a job!" confessed Chelkash openly. He liked the look of this wholesome, good-natured lad with the childish blue eyes. "Been a mowing, eh?"
"Pretty mowing! Mow a furlong and earn a farthing! Bad business that! The very hungriest come crowding in, and they lower wages though they don't gain any. They pay six griveniki in the Kuban here—a pretty wage! Formerly they paid, people say, three silver roubles, four, nay five!"
 A grivenik is a 10 kopeck piece = 1/10th of a silver rouble. A silver rouble = 2s.
"Formerly!—Ah, formerly, at the mere sight of a Russian man they paid up splendidly there. I worked at the same job myself ten years ago. You went up to the cossack station—here am I, a Russian! you said, and immediately they looked at you, felt you, marvelled at you, and—three roubles down into your palm straightway! Those were the days for eating and drinking. And you lived pretty much as you liked."
The lad listened to Chelkash at first with wide-open mouth, with puzzled rapture writ large on his rotund physiognomy; but, presently, understanding that this ragamuffin was joking, he closed his lips with a snap and laughed aloud. Chelkash preserved a serious countenance, concealing his smile in his moustaches.
"Rum card that you are! you spoke as if it were true, and I listened and believed you. Now, God knows, formerly...."
"But I count for something, don't I? I tell you that formerly...."
"Go along!" said the lad, waving his hand. "I suppose you're a cobbler?—or are you a tailor? What are you?"
"What am I?" repeated Chelkash, reflecting a little—"I'm a fisherman!" he said at last.
"A fisherman! really?—you really catch fish?"
"Why fish? The fishermen here don't only catch fish. There's more than that. There are drowned corpses, old anchors, sunken ships—everything! There are hooks for fishing up all sorts...."
"Nonsense, nonsense! I suppose you mean the sort of fishermen who sang of themselves:
"'Our nets we cast forth abroad On the river bank so high, And in storehouse and grain loft so high....'" "And you have seen such like, eh?" inquired Chelkash, looking at him with a smile and thinking to himself that this fine young chap was really very stupid.
"No, where could I see them? But I've heard of them...."
"Like the life, eh?"
"Like their life? Well, how shall I put it?—they are not bothered with kids ... they live as they like ... they are free...."
"What do you know about freedom? Do you love it?"
"Why of course. To be your own master ... to go where you like ... to do what you like. Still more, if you know how to keep straight, and have no stone about your neck ... then it's splendid! You may enjoy yourself as you like, if only you don't forget God...."
Chelkash spat contemptuously, ceased from questioning, and turned away from the youth.
"I'll tell you my story," said the other with a sudden burst of confidence. "When my father died he left but little, my mother was old, the land was all ploughed to death, what was I to do? Live I must—but how? I didn't know. I went to my wife's relations—a good house. Very well! 'Will you give your daughter her portion?' But no, my devil of a father-in-law would not shell out I was worrying him a long time about it—a whole year. What a business it was! And if I had had a hundred and fifty roubles in hand I could have paid off the Jew Antipas and stood on my legs again. 'Will you give Marfa her portion?' I said. 'No? Very well! Thank God she is not the only girl in the village.' I wanted to let him know that I would be my own master and quite free. Heigh-ho!" And the young fellow sighed. "And now there is nothing for it but to go to my relations after all. I had thought: look now! I'll go to the Kuban District. I'll scrape together two hundred roubles—and then I shall be a gentleman at large. But it was only so-so! It all ended in smoke. Now you'll have to go back to your relations, I said to myself ... as a day-labourer. I'm not fit to be my own master—no, I'm quite unfit. Alas! Alas!'"
The young fellow had a violent disinclination to go to his relatives. Even his cheerful face grew dark and made itself miserable. He shifted heavily about on the ground, and drew Chelkash out of the reverie in which he had plunged while the other was talking.
Chelkash also began to feel that the conversation was boring him, yet, for all that, he asked a few more questions:
"And now where are you going?"
"Where am I going? Why, home of course."
"My friend, it is not 'of course' to me. You might be going to kick up your heels in Turkey for ought I know."
"In Tur-tur-key?" stammered the youth. "Who of all the Orthodox would think of going there? What do you mean?"
"I mean that you're a fool!" sighed Chelkash, and again he turned away from the speaker, and this time he felt an utter disinclination to waste another word upon him. There was something in this healthy country lad which revolted him.
A troublesome, slowly ripening irritating feeling was stirring somewhere deep within him, and prevented him from concentrating his attention and meditating on all that had to be done that night.
The snubbed young rustic kept murmuring to himself in a low voice, now and then glancing furtively at the vagabond. His cheeks were absurdly chubby, his lips were parted, and his lackadaisical eyes blinked ridiculously and preposterously often. Evidently he had never expected that his conversation with this moustached ragamuffin would have been terminated so quickly and so offensively.
The ragamuffin no longer paid him the slightest attention. He was whistling reflectively as he sat on the post and beating time with his naked dirty paw.
The rustic wanted to be quits with him.
"I say, fisherman, do you often get drunk?"—he was beginning, when the same instant the fisherman turned round quickly face to face with him and asked:
"Hark ye, babby! Will you work with me to-night? Come!—yes or no?"
"Work at what?" inquired the rustic suspiciously.
"At whatever work I give you. We'll go a fishing. You'll have to row...."
"Oh!... All right!... No matter. I can work. Only don't let me in for something ... You're so frightfully double-tongued ... you're a dark horse...."
Chelkash began to feel something of the nature of a gangrened wound in his breast, and murmured with cold maliciousness:
"No blabbing, whatever you may think. Look now, I've a good mind to knock your blockhead about till I drive some light into it."
He leaped from his post, and while his left hand still twirled his moustache, he clenched his right into a muscular fist as hard as iron, while his eyes flashed and sparkled.
The rustic was terrified. He quickly looked about him, and timidly blinking his eyes, also leapt from the ground. They both stood there regarding each other in silence.
"Well?" inquired Chelkash sullenly, he was boiling over and tremulous at the insult received from this young bull-calf, whom during the whole course of their conversation he had despised, but whom he now thoroughly hated because he had such clear blue eyes, such a healthy sun-burnt face, such short strong arms. He hated him, moreover, because, somewhere or other, he had his native village, and a house in it, and because he numbered among his relatives a well-to-do peasant farmer; he hated him for all his past life and all his life to come, and, more than all this, he hated him because this creature, a mere child in comparison with himself, Chelkash, dared to love freedom, whose value he knew not, and which was quite unnecessary to him. It is always unpleasant to see a man whom you regard as worse and lower than yourself, love or hate the same thing as you do, and thus become like unto yourself.
The rustic looked at Chelkash, and felt that in him he had found his master.
"Well ..." he began, "I have nothing to say against it. I am glad, in fact.... You see I am out of work. It is all one to me whom I work for, for you or another. I only mean to say that you don't look like a working man ... you're so terribly ragged, you know. Well, I know that may happen to us all. Lord! the topers I've seen in my time! No end to 'em! But I've never seen any like you."
"All right, all right! It is agreed then, eh?" asked Chelkash. His voice was now a little softer.
"With pleasure, so far as I am concerned. What's the pay?"
"I pay according to the amount of work done, and according to the kind of work too. It depends upon the haul. You might get a fifth part—what do you say to that?"
But now it was a matter of money, and therefore the peasant must needs be exact and demand the same exactness from his employer. The rustic had a fresh access of uncertainty and suspicion.
"Nay, brother, 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush——'"
Chelkash fell in with his humour.
"No more gabble! Wait! come to the pub!"
And they walked along the street side by side, Chelkash twisting his moustaches with the impudent air of a master, the rustic with the expression of a complete readiness to buckle under, yet at the same time full of uneasiness and suspicion.
"What do they call you?" inquired Chelkash.
"Gabriel," replied the rustic.
When they came to the filthy and smoke-black inn, Chelkash, going up to the buffet with the familiar tone of an old habitué, ordered a bottle of vodka, cabbage-soup, a roasted joint, tea; and totting up the amount of the items, curtly remarked to the barmaid: "All to my account, eh?" whereupon the barmaid nodded her head in silence. And Gabriel was suddenly filled with a profound respect for his master, who, notwithstanding his hang-dog look, enjoyed such notoriety and credit.
"Well, now we can peck a bit, and have a talk comfortably. You sit here. I'll be back directly."
Out he went. Gabriel looked about him. The inn was on the ground-floor, it was damp and dark, and full of the stifling odour of distilled vodka, tobacco smoke, tar, and a something else of a pungent quality. Opposite Gabriel, at another table, sat a drunken man in sailor's costume, with a red beard, all covered with coal dust and tar. He was growling, in the midst of momentary hiccoughs, a song, or rather the fragmentary and inconsecutive words of a song, his voice now rising to a frightful bellow, now sinking to a throaty gurgle. He was obviously not a Russian.
Behind him sat two young Moldavian girls, ragged, dark-haired, sun-burnt, also screeching some sort of a song with tipsy voices.
Further back other figures projected from the surrounding gloom, all of them strangely unkempt, half-drunk, noisy, and restless....
Gabriel felt uncomfortable sitting there all alone. He wished his master would return sooner. The din of the eating-house blended into a single note, and it seemed to him like the roar of some huge animal. It possessed a hundred different sorts of voices, and was blindly, irritably, soaring away out of this stony prison, as if it wanted to find an outlet for its will and could not.... Gabriel felt as if something bemused and oppressive was sucking away in his body, something which made his head swim, and made his eyes grow dim as they wandered, curious and terrified, about the eating-house.
Chelkash now arrived, and they began to eat and drink and converse at the same time. At the third rummer Gabriel got drunk. He felt merry, and wanted to say something pleasant to his host who—glorious youth!—though nothing to look at, was so tastefully entertaining him. But the words, whole waves of them, pouring into his very throat, for some reason or other wouldn't leave his tongue, which had suddenly grown quite cumbersome.
Chelkash looked at him, and said with a derisive smile: "Why, you're drunk already! What a milksop! And only the fifth glass too! How will you manage to work?"
"My friend," lisped Gabriel, "never fear, I respect you—there you are Let me kiss you. Ah!"
"Well, well—come, chink glasses once more."
Gabriel went on drinking, and arrived at last at that stage when to his eyes everything began to vibrate with a regular spontaneous motion of its own. This was very disagreeable, and made him feel unwell. His face assumed a foolishly-ecstatic expression. He tried to say something, but only made a ridiculous noise with his lips and bellowed. Chelkash continued to gaze fixedly at him as if he was trying to recollect something, and twirled his moustaches, smiling all the time, but now his smile was grim and evil.
The eating-house was a babel of drunken voices. The red-haired sailor had gone to sleep with his elbows resting on the table.
"Come now, let us go," said Chelkash, standing up.
Gabriel tried to rise, but could not, and cursing, loudly, began to laugh the senseless laugh of the drunkard.
"He'll have to be carried," said Chelkash, sitting down again on the chair opposite his comrade.
Gabriel kept on laughing, and looked at his host with lack-lustre eyes. And the latter regarded him fixedly, keenly, and meditatively. He saw before him a man whose life had fallen into his vulpine paws. Chelkash felt that he could twist him round his little finger. He could break him in pieces like a bit of cardboard, or he could make a substantial peasant of him as solid as a picture in its frame. Feeling himself the other man's master, he hugged himself with delight, and reflected that this rustic had never emptied so many glasses as Fate had permitted him, Chelkash, to do. And he had a sort of indignant pity for this young life; he despised and even felt anxious about it, lest it should fall at some other time into such hands as his. And finally, all Chelkash's feelings blended together into one single sentiment—into something paternal and hospitable. He was sorry for the youth, and the youth was necessary to him. Then Chelkash took Gabriel under the armpits, and urging him lightly forward from behind with his knee, led him out of the door of the tavern, where he placed him on the ground in the shadow of a pile of wood, and himself sat down beside him and smoked his pipe. Gabriel rolled about for a bit, bellowed drunkenly, and dozed off.
"Well now, are you ready?" inquired Chelkash in a low voice of Gabriel, who was fumbling about with the oars.
"Wait a moment. The row-locks are all waggly. Can I ship oars for a bit?"
"No, no! Don't make a noise! Press down more firmly with your hands, and they'll fall into place of their own accord."
The pair of them were quietly making off with the skiff attached to the stern of one of a whole flotilla of sailing barques laden with batten rivets and large Turkish feluccas half unloaded and still half-filled with palm, sandal, and thick cypress-wood logs.
The night was dark, across the sky dense layers of ragged cloud were flitting, and the water was still, dark, and as thick as oil. It exhaled a moist, saline aroma, and murmured caressingly as it splashed against the sides of the ships and against the shore, and rocked the skiff of Chelkash to and fro. Stretching a long distance seawards from the shore, rose the dark hulls of many vessels, piercing the sky with their sharp masts which had variegated lanterns in their tops. The sea reflected the lights of these lanterns, and was covered with a mass of yellow patches. They twinkled prettily on its soft, faint-black, velvet bosom, heaving so calmly, so powerfully. The sea was sleeping the sleep of a strong and healthy labourer wearied to death by the day's work.
"Let's be off," said Gabriel, thrusting the oar into the water.
"Go!" Chelkash, with a powerful thrust of his hand, thrust the skiff right into the strip of water behind the barques. The skiff flew swiftly through the smooth water, and the water, beneath the stroke of the oars, burned with a bluish, phosphorescent radiance. A long ribbon of this radiance, faintly gleaming, tapered away from the keel of the skiff.
"Well, how's the head? Aching, eh?" inquired Chelkash jocosely.
"Frightfully. It hums like molten iron. I'll wash it with water presently."
"Why? What you want is something to go inside. Take a pull at that—that will soon put you all right," and he handed Gabriel a flask.
"Oh-ho! Lord bless you!"
A gentle gurgle was audible.
"How now? Feel glad, eh? Stop, that'll do!"
The skiff sped on again, lightly and noiselessly, turning and winding among the vessels. Suddenly it wrenched itself free from them, and the sea—the endless, mighty, glistening; sea—lay extended before them, receding into the blue distance, whence there arose out of its waters mountains of cloud of a dark lilac-blue, with yellowish downy fringes at the corners, and greenish clouds the colour of sea water, and those melancholy leaden clouds which cast abroad such heavy, oppressive shadows, crushing down mind and spirit. They crept so slowly away from one another, and now blending with, now pursuing one another, intermingled their shapes and colours, swallowing each other up and re-emerging in fresh shapes, magnificent and menacing.... And there was something mysterious in the gradual motion of these lifeless masses. There seemed to be an infinite host of them at the verge of the sea-shore, and it seemed as if they must always creep indifferently over the face of Heaven, with the sullen, evil aim of obliterating it, and never allowing it to shine down again upon the sleeping sea with its millions of golden eyes, the many-coloured living stars that sparkle so dreamily, awakening lofty desires in those to whom their pure and holy radiance is so precious.
"The sea's good, ain't it?" inquired Chelkash.
"Rubbish! it's horrible to me," replied Gabriel, as his oars struck the water vigorously and symmetrically. The water plashed and gurgled with a scarcely audible sound beneath the strokes of the long oars—splashing and splashing, and sparkling with its warm blue phosphorescent light.
"Horrible! do you say? Ugh, you fool!" exclaimed Chelkash contemptuously.
He, thief and cynic, loved the sea. His excitable, nervous nature, greedy of new impressions, was never tired of contemplating that dark expanse, limitless, free, and mighty. And it offended him to receive such an answer to his question as to the loveliness of the thing he loved. Sitting in the stern, he cut the water with his oar, and looked calmly in front of him, full of the desire to go long and far in that velvety smoothness.
On the sea there always arose within him a broad, warm feeling embracing his whole soul, and, for a time, purifying him from the filth of earthly life. This feeling he prized, and he loved to see himself better there, in the midst of the water and the air, where thoughts of life and life itself always lost first their keenness and then their value. At night on the sea can be heard the soft murmur of the sea's slumberous breathing, that incomprehensible sound which pours peace into the soul of man, and caressingly taming his evil impulses, awakes within him mighty musings....
"But where's the tackle, eh?" inquired Gabriel suddenly, looking uneasily about the boat.
Chelkash started violently.
"The tackle?—It is with me in the stern of the boat."
"What sort of tackle is that?" Gabriel again inquired, this time with suspicion in his voice.
"What tackle? Why, ground tackle and——"
But Chelkash felt ashamed to lie to this youngster while concealing his real project, and he regretted the thoughts and feelings which the question of this rustic had suddenly annihilated. He grew angry. A familiar, sharp, burning sensation in his breast and throat convulsed him, and he said to Gabriel with suppressed fury:
"Mind your own business, and don't thrust your nose into other folk's affairs. You are hired to row—so row. If your tongue wags again it will be the worse for you. Do you understand?"
For a moment the skiff rocked to and fro, and stood still. The oars remained in the water feathering it, and Gabriel moved uneasily on his bench.
Violent abuse shook the air. Gabriel grasped the oars. The skiff, as if terrified, fared along with quick, nervous jolts, noisily cutting through the water.
Chelkash rose a little from his seat in the stern, without letting go his oar, and fixed his cold eyes on the pale face and trembling lips of Gabriel. Bending forward with arched back he resembled a cat about to spring. Perfectly audible was the savage grinding of his teeth, and also a timorous clattering as if of bones.
"Who calls?" resounded a surly shout from the sea.
"Devil take it!—row, can't you? Quiet with the oars! I'll kill you, you hound! Row, I say! One, two! You dare to whisper, that's all!" whispered Chelkash.
"Mother of God! Holy Virgin!" whispered Gabriel, trembling and helpless with terror and over-exertion.
The skiff turned and went lightly back towards the haven, where the lights of the lanterns were jogging together in a parti-coloured group, and the shafts of the masts were visible.
"Hie! who was making that row?" the voice sounded again. This time it was further off than before. Chelkash felt easier.
"You're making all the row yourself, my friend!" he cried in the direction of the voice, and then he turned again to Gabriel, who was still muttering a prayer: "Well, my friend, you're in luck! If those devils had come after us there would have been an end of you! Do you hear? I'd have thrown you to the fishes in a twinkling!"
Now when Chelkash spoke calmly, and even good-naturedly, Gabriel trembled still more with terror and fell to beseeching.
"Listen! Let me go! For Christ's sake let me go! Land me somewhere—oh, oh, oh! I'm ruined altogether. Now, in the name of God, let me go! What am I to you? I'm not up to it. I'm not used to such things. It's the very first time. Oh, Lord! It's all up with me! How could you so deceive me, my friend? It is wilful of you. You have lost your soul. A pretty business."
"What business do you mean?" asked Chelkash surlily. "Ha! What business, eh?"
He was amused at the terror of the rustic, and he took a delight in Gabriel's terror, because it showed what a terrible fellow he, Chelkash, was.
"A dark business, my friend! Let me go, for God's sake. What harm have I done you?... Mercy...!"
"Silence! If you were of no use to me I would not have taken you. Do you understand?—And now be quiet!"
"Oh, Lord!" sighed the sobbing Gabriel.
"Come, come! Don't blubber!" Chelkash rounded on him sternly.
But Gabriel could no longer restrain himself, and sobbing softly, wept and snivelled and fidgeted on his seat, but rowed vigorously, desperately. The skiff sped along like a dart. Again the dark hulls of big vessels stood in their way, and the skiff lost itself among them, turning like a top in the narrow streaks of water between the vessels.
"Hie you! Listen! If anyone asks you anything, hold your tongue, if you want to remain alive! Do you understand?"
"Woe is me!" sighed Gabriel hopelessly in reply to the stern command, adding bitterly: "My accursed luck!"
"Now row!" said Chelkash in an intense curdling whisper.
At this whisper Gabriel lost all capacity for forming any ideas whatsoever, and became more dead than alive, benumbed by a cold presentiment of coming evil. He mechanically lowered his oars into the water, leaned back his uttermost, took a long pull, and set steadily to work again, gazing stolidly all the time at his bast shoes.
The sleepy murmur of the waves had now a sullen sound and became terrible. They were in the haven.... Behind its granite wall could be heard people's voices, the splashing of water, singing, and high-pitched whistling.
"Stop!" whispered Chelkash. "Ship oars! cling close to the wall! Hush, you devil!"
Gabriel, grasping the slippery stones with his hands, drew the skiff up alongside the wall. The skiff moved without any grating, its keel gliding noiselessly over the slimy seaweed growing on the stones.
"Stop! Give me the oars! Give them here! Where's your passport? In your knapsack? Hand over the knapsack! Come, look sharp! It will be a good hostage for your not bolting! You'll not bolt now, I know! Without the oars you might bolt somewhere, but without the passport you'd be afraid to. Wait, and look here, if you whine—to the bottom of the sea you go!"
And suddenly clinging to something with his hands, Chelkash rose in the air and disappeared over the wall.
Gabriel trembled.... It was done so smartly. He began to feel the cursed oppression and terror which he felt in the presence of that evil moustached thief, rolling, creeping off him. Now was the time to run!... With a sigh of relief he looked about him. To the left of him rose a black mastless hull, a sort of immense tomb, unpeopled and desolate. Every stroke of the billows against its side awoke within it a hollow, hollow echo, like a heavy sigh. To the right of him on the water, stretching right away, was the grey stony wall of the mole, like a cold and massive serpent. Behind, some black bodies were also visible, and in front, in the opening between the wall and the hull of the floating tomb, the sea was visible, dumb and dreary with black clouds all over it. Huge and heavy, they were moving slowly along, drawing their horror from the gloom and ready to stifle man beneath their heaviness. Everything was cold, black, and of evil omen. Gabriel felt terrified. This terror was worse than the terror inspired by Chelkash, it grasped the bosom of Gabriel in a strong embrace, made him collapse into a timid lump, and nailed him to the bench of the skiff.
And around him all was silent, not a sound save the sighing of the sea, and it seemed as if this silence were broken upon by something terrible, something insanely loud, by something which shook the sea to its very foundation, tore asunder the heavy flocks of clouds in the sky, and scattered over the wilderness of the sea all those heavy vessels. The clouds crept along the sky just as gradually and wearyingly as before; but more and more of them kept rising from the sea, and, looking at the sky, one might fancy that it also was a sea, but a sea in insurrection against and falling upon the other so slumberous, peaceful, and smooth. The clouds resembled billows pouring upon the earth with grey inwardly-curling crests; they resembled an abyss, from which these billows were torn forth by the wind; they resembled new-born breakers still covered with greenish foam of rage and frenzy.
Gabriel felt himself overwhelmed by this murky silence and beauty; he felt that he would like to see his master again soon. Why was he staying away there? The time passed slowly, more slowly even than the clouds crawling across the sky.... And the silence as time went on became more and more ominous. But now from behind the wall of the mole a splashing, a rustling, and something like a whispering became audible. It seemed to Gabriel as if he must die on the spot.
"Hie! Are you asleep? Catch hold!" sounded the hollow voice of Chelkash cautiously.
Something round and heavy was let down from the wall, Gabriel hauled it into the boat. Another similar thing was let down. Then across the wall stretched the long lean figure of Chelkash, then from somewhither appeared the oars, Gabriel's knapsack plumped down at his feet, and heavily breathing Chelkash was sitting in the stern.
Gabriel looked at him and smiled joyfully and timidly.
"Tired?" he asked.
"A bit, you calf! Come, take the oars and put your whole heart into it. A bit of work will do you no harm, my friend. The work's half done, now we've only got to swim a bit under their very noses, and then you shall have your money and go to your Polly. You have a Polly, haven't you? Eh, baby?"
Gabriel did his very utmost, working with a breast like shaggy fur and with arms like steel springs. The water foamed beneath the skiff, and the blue strip behind the stern now became broader. Gabriel was presently covered with sweat, but kept on rowing with all his might. Experiencing such terror twice in one night, he feared to experience it a third time, and only wished for one thing: to be quite out of this cursed work, land on terra firma, and run away from this man before he killed him downright, or got him locked up in jail. He resolved to hold no conversation with him, to contradict him in nothing, to do all he commanded, and if he were fortunate enough to break away from him, he vowed to offer up a prayer to St. Nicholas, the Wonder Worker, on the morrow. A passionate prayer was ready to pour from his breast.... But he controlled himself, panted like a steam-engine, and was silent, casting sidelong glances at Chelkash from time to time.
And Chelkash, long, lean, leaning forward and resembling a bird ready to take to flight, glared into the gloom in front of the boat with his vulture eyes, and moving his hooked beak from side to side, with one hand held the tiller firmly, while with the other he stroked his moustache, his features convulsed occasionally by the smiles that curled his thin lips. Chelkash was satisfied with his success, with himself, and with this rustic so terribly frightened by him, and now converted into his slave. He was enjoying in anticipation the spacious debauch of to-morrow, and now delighted in his power over this fresh young rustic impounded into his service. He saw how he was exerting himself, and he felt sorry for him, and wished to encourage him.
"Hie!" said he softly, with a smile, "got over your funk, eh?"
"It was nothing!" sighed Gabriel, squirming before him.
"You needn't lean so heavily on your oars now. Take it easy a bit We've only got one more place to pass. Rest a bit."
Gabriel stopped short obediently, wiped the sweat off his face with his shirt-sleeve, and again thrust the oars into the water.
"Row more gently. Don't let the water blab about you! We have only the gates to pass. Softly, softly! We've serious people to deal with here, my friend. They may take it into their heads to joke a bit with their rifles. They might saddle you with such a swelling on your forehead that you wouldn't even be able to sing out: oh!"
The skiff now crept along upon the water almost noiselessly. Only from the oars dripped blue drops and when they fell into the sea, tiny blue spots lingered for an instant on the place where they fell. The night grew even darker and stiller. The sky no longer resembled a sea in insurrection—the clouds had spread all over it and covered it with an even, heavy baldachin, drooping low and motionless over the sea. The sea grew still quieter, blacker, and exhaled a still stronger saline odour, nor did it seem so vast as heretofore.
"Ah! if only the rain would come!" whispered Chelkash, "it would be as good as a curtain for us."
Right and left of them some sort of edifice now rose out of the black water—barges, immovable, sinister, and as black as the water itself. On one of them a fire was twinkling, and someone was going about with a lantern. The sea, washing their sides, sounded supplicatory and muffled, and they responded in a shrill and cold echo, as if quarrelsome and refusing to concede anything to it.
"The cordons!" whispered Chelkash in a scarcely audible voice.
From the moment when he commanded Gabriel to row more gently, Gabriel was again dominated by a keen expectant tension. Onwards he kept, going through the gloom, and it seemed to him that he was growing—his bones and sinews were extending within him with a dull pain, his head, filled with a single thought, ached abominably, the skin on his back throbbed, and his feet were full of tiny, sharp, cold needles. His eyes were exhausted by gazing intently into the gloom, from which he expected to emerge every instant something which would cry to them with a hoarse voice: "Stop, thieves!"
Now, when Chelkash whispered, "The cordons!" Gabriel trembled, a keen burning thought ran through him, and settled upon his over-strained nerves—he wanted to shout and call to people to help him. He had already opened his mouth, and, rising a little in the skiff, stuck out his breast, drew in a large volume of air, and opened his mouth ... but suddenly, overcome by a feeling of terror which struck him like the lash of a whip, he closed his eyes and rolled off his bench.
In front of the skiff, far away on the horizon out of the black water, arose an enormous fiery-blue sword, cutting athwart the night, gliding edgewise over the clouds on the sky, and lying on the bosom of the sea in a broad blue strip. There it lay, and into the zone of its radiance there floated out of the dark the hitherto invisible black vessels, all silent and enshrouded in the thick night mists. It seemed as if they had lain for long at the bottom of the sea, drawn down thither by the mighty power of the tempest, and now behold! they had risen from thence at the command of the fiery sea-born sword, risen to look at the sky and at all above the water. Their tackle hugged the masts, and seemed to be ends of seaweed risen from the depths together with these black giants immeshed within them. And again this strange gleaming blue sword arose from the surface of the sea, again it cut the night in twain, and flung itself in another direction. And again where it lay the dark hulls of vessels, invisible before its manifestation, floated out of the darkness.
The skiff of Chelkash stood still and rocked to and fro on the water as if irresolute Gabriel lay at the bottom of it, covering his face with his hands, and Chelkash poked him with the oars and whispered furiously, but quietly:
"Fool! that's the custom-house cruiser. That is the electric lantern. Get up, you blockhead. The light will be thrown upon us in a moment. What the devil! you'll ruin me as well as yourself if you don't look out. Come!"
And at last when one of the blows with the sharp end of the oar caught Gabriel more violently than the others on the spine, he leaped up, still fearing to open his eyes, sat on the bench, blindly grasped the oars, and again set the boat in motion.
"Not so much noise! I'll kill you, I will! Not so much noise, I say. What a fool you are! Devil take you.... What are you afraid of? Now then, ugly! The lantern is a mirror—that's all! Softly with the oars, silly devil! They incline the mirror this way and that, and so light up the sea, in order that they may see whether folks like you and me, for instance, are sailing about anywhere. They do it to catch smugglers. They won't tackle us—they'll sail far away. Don't be afraid, clodhopper, they won't tackle us. Now we're clear...." Chelkash looked round triumphantly.... "At last we've sailed out of it! Phew! well you're lucky, blockhead!"
Gabriel kept silence, rowed and breathed heavily, still gazing furtively in the direction where that fiery sword kept on rising and falling. He could by no means believe Chelkash that it was only a lamp with a reflector. The cold blue gleam, cutting the darkness asunder and making the sea shine with a silvery radiance, had something incomprehensible in it, and Gabriel again fell into the hypnosis of anxious terror. And again a foreboding weighed heavily on his breast. He rowed like a machine, all huddled up, as if he expected a blow to come from above him; and not a desire, not a single feeling remained in him—he was empty and spiritless. The agitation of this night had at last gnawed out of him everything human.
But Chelkash triumphed once more, the whole thing was a complete success. His nerves, accustomed to excitement, were already placid again. His moustaches quivered with rapture, and a hungry little flame was burning in his eyes. He felt magnificent, whistled between his teeth, drew a deep inspiration of the moist air of the sea, glanced around, and smiled good-naturedly when his eyes rested on Gabriel.
A breeze arose and awoke the sea, which suddenly began heaving sportively. The clouds seemed to make themselves thinner and more transparent, but the whole sky was obscured by them. Despite the fact that the wind, though but a light breeze, played over the sea, the clouds remained motionless, as if lost in some grey, grizzling meditation.
"Come, friend, wake up! It's high time. Why, you look as if your soul had evaporated through your skin, and only a bag of bones remained. Dear friend, I say! We're pretty well at the end of this job, eh?"
It was pleasant to Gabriel, at any rate, to hear a human voice, even if the speaker were Chelkash.
"I hear," he said softly.
"Very well, thick-head. Come now, take the rudder, and I'll have a go at the oars. You seem tired. Come!"
Gabriel mechanically changed places. When Chelkash, in changing places with him, looked him in the face and observed that his tottering legs trembled beneath him, he was still sorrier for the lad. He patted him on the shoulder.
"Well, well, don't be frightened. You have worked right well. I'll richly reward you, my friend. What say you to a fiver, eh?"
"I want nothing. Put me ashore, that's all."
Chelkash waved his hand, spat a bit, and began rowing, flinging the oars far back with his long arms.
The sea was waking. It was playing with tiny billows, producing them, adorning them with a fringe of foam, bumping them together, and beating them into fine dust. The foam, in dissolving, hissed and spluttered—and everything around was full of a musical hubbub and splashing. The gloom seemed to have more life in it.
"Now, tell me," said Chelkash, "I suppose you'll be off to your village, marry, plough up the soil, and sow corn, your wife will bear you children, and there won't be food enough. Now, tell me, do you mean to go on working your heart out all your life long? Say! There's not very much fun in that now, is there?"
"Fun indeed!" said Gabriel timidly and tremulously.
Here and there the wind had penetrated the clouds, and between the gaps peeped forth little patches of blue sky, with one or two little stars in them. Reflected by the sportive sea, these little stars leaped up and down on the waters, now vanishing and now shining forth again.
"Move to the right," said Chelkash; "we shall soon be there now, I hope. It's over now. An important little job, too. Look now—it's like this, d'ye hear? In one single night I've grabbed half a thousand. What do you think of that, eh?"
"Half a thousand!" gasped Gabriel incredulously, but then terror again seized him, and kicking the bundle in the skiff, he asked quickly, "What sort of goods is this?"
"It's silk. Precious wares. If you sold all that at a fair price you would get a full thousand. But I'm not a shark! Smart, eh?"
"Ye-es!" gasped Gabriel. "If only it had been me," he sighed, all at once thinking of his village, and his poor household, his necessities, his mother, and everything belonging to his home so far away, for the sake of which he had gone to seek work—for the sake of which he had endured such torments this very night. A wave of reminiscence overwhelmed him, and he bethought him of his little village running down the steep slope of the hill, down to the stream hidden among the birches, silver willows, mountain-ashes, and wild cherry-trees. These reminiscences suffused him with a warm sort of feeling, and put some heart into him. "Ah! it's valuable, no doubt," he sighed.
"Well, it seems to me you'll very soon be by your iron pot at home. How the girls at home will cotton to you! You may pick and choose. No doubt your house is crazy enough just now.... well, I suppose we want a little money to build it up again, just a little, eh...?"
"That's true enough ... the house is in sore need—wood is so dear with us."
"Come now, how much? Old shanty wants repairing, eh? How about a horse? Got one?"
"A horse? Oh, yes, there is one ... but damned old."
"Well, you must have a horse, of course.... A jolly good 'un.... And a cow, I suppose ... some sheep ... fowls of different sorts, eh?"
"Don't speak of it! Ah! if it could be so! Ah! Lord! Lord! then life would be something like."
"Well, friend, life's a poor thing in itself.... I know something about it myself. I have my own little nest somewhere or other. My father was one of the richest in the village Chelkash rowed slowly. The skiff rocked upon the waves saucily splashing against her sides, scarcely moving upon the dark sea, and the sea sported ever more and more saucily. Two people were dreaming as they rocked upon the water, glancing pensively around them. Chelkash guided Gabriel's thoughts to his village, wishing to encourage him a little and soothe him. At first he spoke, smiling sceptically to himself all the time; but, presently, suggesting replies to his neighbour, and reminding him of the joys of a rustic life, as to which he himself had long been disillusioned, he forgot all about them, and remembered only the actual present, and wandered far away from his intention, so that instead of questioning the rustic about his village and its affairs, he insensibly fell to laying down the law to him on the subject.
"The chief thing in the life of the peasant, my friend, is liberty. You are your own master. You have your house—not worth a farthing, perhaps—but still it is your own. You have your land—a mere handful, no doubt—still it is yours. You have your own hives, your own eggs, your own apples. You are king on your own land! And then the regularity of it. Work calls you up in the morning—in spring one sort of work, in summer another sort of work, in autumn and in winter work again, but again of a different sort. Wherever you go, it is to your house that you always return—to warmth and quiet. You're a king, you see. Ain't it so?" concluded Chelkash enthusiastically, thus totting up the long category of rustic rights and privileges with the accompanying suggestion of corresponding obligations.
Gabriel looked at him curiously, and also felt enthusiastic. During this conversation he had managed to forget whom he was having dealings with, and saw before him just such a peasant-farmer as himself, chained for ages to the soil through many generations, bound to it by the recollections of childhood, voluntarily separated from it and from its cares, and bearing the just punishment of this separation.
"Ah, brother! true! Ah, how true! Look at yourself now. What are you now without the land? Ah! the land, my friend, is like a mother; not for long do you forget her."
Chelkash fell a musing. He began to feel once more that irritating, burning sensation in his breast, that sensation which arose whenever his pride—the pride of the tireless adventurer—was wounded by something, especially by something which had no value in his eyes.
"Silence!" he cried savagely, "no doubt you thought I meant all that seriously. Open your pouch a little wider."
"You're a funny sort of man," said Gabriel, suddenly grown timid again, "as if I were speaking of you. I suppose there are lots like you. Alas! what a lot of unhappy people there are in the world!... vagabonds who...."
"Sit down, blockhead, and row," commanded Chelkash curtly, bottling up within him, somehow or other, a whole stream of burning abuse gushing into his throat.
Again they changed places, and as they did so Chelkash, as he crawled into the stern across the packages, felt a burning desire to give Gabriel a kick that would send him flying into the water, and at the same time could not muster up sufficient strength to look him in the face.
The short dialogue broke off; but now a breath of rusticity was wafted to Chelkash from the very silence of Gabriel. He began to think of the past, forgot to steer the boat, which was turned to and fro by the surge, and drifted seawards. The waves seemed to understand that this skiff had lost its purpose, and pitching her higher and higher, began lightly playing with her, flashing their friendly blue fire beneath her oars. And visions of the past rose quickly before Chelkash—visions of the long distant past, separated from his present purpose by a whole barrier of eleven years of a vagabond life. He succeeded in recalling himself as a child; he saw before him his village, his mother, a red-cheeked, plump woman, with good grey eyes, his father, a red-bearded giant with a stern face. He saw himself a husband, he saw his wife, black-haired Anfisa, with a long pig-tail, full-bodied, gentle, merry ... again he beheld himself, a handsome beau, a soldier in the Guards; again he saw his father, grey-headed and crooked by labour, and his mother all wrinkled and inclining earthwards; he conjured up, too, a picture of the meeting in the village when he returned from service; he saw how proud of his Gregory his father was before the whole village, his broad-shouldered, vigorous, handsome soldier-son.... Memory, that scourge of the unlucky, revived the very stories of the past, and even distilled a few drops of honey into the proffered draught of venom—and all this, too, simply to crush a man with the consciousness of his mistakes, and make him love this past and deprive him of hope in the future.
Chelkash felt himself fanned by the peaceful, friendly breezes of his native air, conveying with them to his ear the friendly words of his mother and the solid speeches of his sturdy peasant-father, and many forgotten sounds, and the sappy smell of his mother-earth, now just thawed, now just ploughed up, and now covered by the emerald-green silk of the winter crops. And he felt himself cast aside, rejected, wretched, and lonely, plucked forth from and flung for ever away from that order of life in which the blood that flowed in his veins had worked its way upwards.
"Hie! whither are we going?" asked Gabriel suddenly.
Chelkash started, and looked around with the uneasy glance of a bird of prey.
"Ugh! The devil only knows! It doesn't matter ... come, a steadier stroke! We shall be ashore immediately."
"Meditating, eh?" inquired Gabriel with a smile.
Chelkash looked at him angrily. The youth had quite recovered himself; he was calm, merry, and, in a way, even triumphant. He was very young, he had the whole of life still before him. And he knew nothing. That was stupid. Perhaps it was the land that kept him back. When such thoughts flashed through the head of Chelkash, he became still surlier, and in reply to Gabriel's question he growled:
"I was tired ... and there was the rocking of the sea...."
"Yes, it does rock.... But now, suppose we are nabbed with that?" he asked, and he touched the parcels with his foot.
"No fear ... be easy! I'm going to hand them over immediately and get the money. Come!"
"Five hundred, eh?"
"Not much less, I should think."
"What a lot of money! If only it had come to a poor wretch like me! I'd have sung a pretty song with it."
"In clodhopper fashion, eh?"
"Nothing less. Why, I would straight off...."
And Gabriel was carried away on the wings of his imagination. Chelkash seemed depressed. His moustaches hung down, his right side, sprinkled by the waves, was wet, his eyes were sunken, and had lost their brilliance. He was very miserable and depressed. All that was predatory in his appearance seemed to have been steeped in a lowering melancholy, which even came to light in the folds of his dirty shirt.
"Tired, eh? and I'm so well.... You've over-done it...."
"We shall be there in a moment.... Look!... yonder!"
Chelkash turned the boat sharply round, and steered it in the direction of a black something emerging from the water.
The sky was once more all covered with clouds, and rain had begun to descend—a fine, warm rain pattering merrily down on the crests of the waves.
"Stop! slower!" commanded Chelkash.
The nose of the skiff bumped against the hull of a barque.
"Are the devils asleep," growled Chelkash, grasping with his boat-hook a rope dangling down the side of the ship.... "Why, the ladder's not let down! And it's raining, too! Why don't they look sharp! Hie! sluggards! hie!"
"Is that Chelkash?" murmured a friendly voice above them.
"Yes, let down the ladder."
"How goes it, Chelkash?"
"Let down the ladder, you devil!" roared Chelkash.
"Oh, he's waxy to-day, eh? There you are, then."
"Up you go, Gabriel," said Chelkash, turning to his companion.
In a moment they were on the deck, where three dark-bearded figures, jabbering vigorously together in a strange pricky sort of tongue, were looking over-board into Chelkash's skiff. The fourth, wrapped round in a long cloak, came to him and pressed his hand in silence, and then glanced suspiciously at Gabriel.
"Have the money ready by morning," said Chelkash curtly. "And now I'll have a little sleep. Come, Gabriel. Do you want anything to eat?"
"I should like to sleep," replied Gabriel, and in a few moments he was snoring in the dirty hold of the ship; but Chelkash, seated by his side, was fitting on some sort of boot to his foot, and meditatively spitting about him, fell to whistling angrily and moodily through his teeth. Then he stretched himself alongside Gabriel, and without taking off his boots, folded his arms beneath his head, and began concentrating his attention on the deck, twisting his moustaches the while.
The barque rocked slowly on the heaving water, now and then a plank gave forth a melancholy squeak, the rain fell softly on the deck, and the waves washed the sides of the vessel. It was all very mournful, and sounded like the cradle-song of a mother having no hope of the happiness of her son.
Chelkash, grinding his teeth, raised his head a little, looked around him ... and having whispered something, lay down again.... Stretching his legs wide, he resembled a large pair of shears.
He awoke first, gazed anxiously around, immediately recovered his self-possession, and looked at the still sleeping Gabriel. He was sweetly snoring, and was smiling at something in his sleep with his childish, wholesome, sun-tanned face. Chelkash sighed, and climbed up the narrow rope ladder. Through the opening of the hold he caught sight of a leaden bit of sky. It was light, but grey and drear—autumnal in fact.
Chelkash returned in about a couple of hours. His face was cheerful, his moustaches were twirled neatly upwards, a good-natured, merry smile was on his lips. He was dressed in long strong boots, a short jacket, leather trousers, and walked with a jaunty air. His whole costume was the worse for wear, but strong, and fitted him well, making his figure broader, hiding his boniness, and giving him a military air.
"Hie! get up, blockhead!" bumping Gabriel with his foot.
The latter started up, and not recognising him for sleepiness, gazed upon him with dull and terrified eyes. Chelkash laughed.
"Why, who would have known you?" said Gabriel at last, with a broad grin; "you have become quite a swell."
"Oh, with us that soon happens. Well, still in a funk, eh? How many times did you think you were going to die last night, eh? Tell me, now."
"Nay, but judge fairly. In the first place, what sort of a job was I on? Why, I might have ruined my soul for ever!"
"Well, I should like it all over again. What do you say?"
"Over again? Nay, that's a little too ... how shall I put it? Is it worth it? That's where it is."
"What, not for two rainbows?"
"Two hundred roubles you mean? Not if I know it. Why, I ought.
"Stop. How about ruining your soul, eh?"
"Well, you see, I might ... even if you didn't," smiled Gabriel; "instead of ruining yourself you'd be a made man for life, no doubt."
Chelkash laughed merrily.
"All right, we must have our jokes, I suppose. Let us go ashore. Come, look sharp!"
And again they were in the skiff, Chelkash at the helm, Gabriel with the oars. Above them the grey sky was covered by a uniform carpet of clouds, and the turbid green sea sported with their skiff, noisily tossing it up and down on the still tiny billows, and sportively casting bright saline jets of watertight into it. Far away along the prow of the skiff a yellow strip of sandy shore was visible, and far away behind the stern stretched the free, sportive sea, all broken up by the hurrying heads of waves adorned here and there with fringes of white sparkling foam. There, too, far away, many vessels were visible, rocking on the bosom of the sea; far away to the left was a whole forest of masts, and the white masses of the houses of the town. From thence a dull murmur flitted along the sea, thunderous, and at the same time blending with the splashing of the waves into a good and sonorous music.... And over everything was cast a fine web of ashen vapour, separating the various objects from each other.
"Ah, we shall have a nice time of it this evening," and Chelkash jerked his head towards the sea.
"A storm, eh?" inquired Gabriel, ploughing hard among the waves with his oars. He was already wet from head to foot from the scud carried across the sea by the wind.
Chelkash grunted assent.
Gabriel looked at him searchingly.
"How much did they give you?" he asked at last, perceiving that Chelkash was not inclined to begin the conversation.
"Look there," said Chelkash, extending towards Gabriel a small pouch which he had taken from his pocket.
Gabriel saw the rainbow-coloured little bits of paper, and everything he gazed upon assumed a bright rainbow tinge.
"You are a brick! And here have I been thinking all the time that you would rob me. How much?"
"Five hundred and forty. Smart, eh?"
"S-s-smart!" stammered Gabriel, his greedy eyes running over the five hundred and forty roubles before they disappeared into the pocket again. "Oh my! what a lot of money!"—and he sighed as if a whole weight was upon his breast.
"We'll have a drink together, clodhopper," cried Chelkash enthusiastically. "Ah, we'll have a good time. Don't think I want to do you, my friend, I'll give you your share. I'll give you forty, eh? Is that enough for you? If you like you shall have 'em at once."
"If it's all the same to you—no offence—I'll have 'em then."
Gabriel was all tremulous with expectation, and not only with expectation, but with another acute sucking feeling which suddenly arose in his breast.
"Ha, ha, ha! That's like you! What a tight-fisted devil you are! I'll take 'em now! Well, take 'em, my friend; take 'em, I implore you. I really don't know what I might do with such a lot of money. Relieve me of it! Do take it I beg!"
Chelkash handed Gabriel some nice bank-notes. The latter seized them with a trembling hand, threw down the oars, and began concealing the cash somewhere in his bosom, greedily screwing up his eyes and noisily inhaling the air, as if he were drinking something burning hot. Chelkash, with a sarcastic smile, observed him, but Gabriel soon took up the oars again, and rowed on nervously and hurriedly, as if afraid of something, and with his eyes cast down. His shoulders and ears were all twitching.
"Ah, you're greedy! Isn't that good enough? What more do you want? Just like a rustic!" said Chelkash pensively.
"Ah, with money one can do something," cried Gabriel, suddenly exploding with passionate excitement. And gaspingly, hurriedly, as if pursuing his own thoughts and catching his words on the wing, he talked of life in the country, with money and without money, honour, contentment, liberty, and hilarity.
Chelkash listened to him attentively with a serious face, and with eyes puckered with some idea or other. At times he smiled a complacent smile.
"We have arrived!" cried Chelkash, at last interrupting the discourse of Gabriel.
A wave caught the skiff and skilfully planted it on the strand.
"Well, my friend, here's the end of the job. We must drag the boat a little further in shore that it may not be washed away. And then you and I will say good-bye. It is eight versts from here to the town. What are you going to do?—back to town, eh?"
A sly, good-natured smile lit up the face of Chelkash, and he had all the appearance of a man meditating something very pleasant for himself and unexpected for Gabriel. Dipping his hand into his pocket he crinkled the bank-notes there.
"No ... I—I'm not going! I—I...." Gabriel breathed heavily, as if struggling with something. Within him was raging a whole mob of desires, words, and feelings, mutually devouring each other and filling him as if with fire.
Chelkash looked at him doubtfully.
"Why are you twisting about like that?"
"It's because, because...." But the face of Gabriel was burning red at one moment and deadly grey at another, and he was glued to the spot, now desiring to fall upon Chelkash, and now torn by other desires, the fulfilment of which was difficult for him.
Chelkash did not know what to make of such a state of excitement in this rustic. He waited to see what would come of it.
Gabriel began to laugh in an odd sort of way, it was more of a howl than a laugh. His head was lowered, the expression of his face Chelkash did not see, but the ears of Gabriel, alternately reddish and palish, were painfully prominent.
"Come, what the devil's the matter," said Chelkash, waving his hand, "have you fallen in love with me all at once? What's up? You change colour like a wench. Sorry to part from me, eh? Eh, blockhead? Say what's the matter with you, and I'll be off."
"Going, are you?" shrieked Gabriel shrilly.
The sandy and desolate shore trembled beneath his cry, and the yellow billows of sand, washed by the billows of the sea, seemed to undulate. Chelkash also trembled. Suddenly Gabriel bounded from his place, threw himself at the feet of Chelkash, embraced them with his arms, and turned towards him. Chelkash staggered, sat down heavily on the sand, gnashed his teeth, and cut the air sharply with his long arm, clenching his fist at the same time. But strike he could not, being stayed by the shamefaced supplicating whisper of Gabriel:
"Dear little pigeon.... Give me ... that money! Give it to me, for Christ's sake!... What is it to you? Why, it was gained in a single night ... in a single night!... It would take me years.... Give it me ... I'll pray for you if you will! Perpetually ... in three churches ... for the salvation of your soul! Look now, you'd scatter it to the ... winds ... I would put it into land. Oh, give it to me! What is it to you?... How can you prize it? A single night ... and you're a rich man. Do a good act! You're all but done for.... You haven't got your way to make. But I would.... Oh! give them to me!"
Chelkash, alarmed, astonished, and offended, sat on the sand, leaning back, supporting himself on his arms; he sat there in silence and fixed a terrible gaze on the rustic who had buried his head in his knees, sobbing as he whispered his petition. He repulsed him at last, leaped to his feet and, thrusting his hands into his pockets, flung the rainbow bank-notes to Gabriel.
"There, you dog! Devour...!" he cried trembling with excitement, bitter sorrow and loathing for this greedy slave. And he felt himself a hero for thus throwing away the money. Reckless daring shone in his eyes and lit up his whole face.
"I was going to give you more of my own accord. I was a bit down in the mouth yesterday, and bethought me of my own village. I thought to myself: let us give this rustic a helping hand. I was waiting to see what you would do. If you asked you were to get nothing. And you! Ugh! you miser! mean hound! To think that it is possible so to lower oneself for money I Fool! Greedy devils the lot of you! Not to recollect yourself! To sell yourself for a fiver! Ugh!"
"Dear little pigeon! Christ save you! Now I have got something ... a thousand! Now I am rich!" cried Gabriel in his enthusiasm, all tremulous as he hid his money away in his bosom. "Ah, you merciful one! Never will I forget it ... Never!... And I'll make my wife and children pray for you."
Chelkash listened to his joyous cries, looked at his radiant face deformed by the rapture of greed, and he felt that he, thief, vagabond, and outcast though he was, never could be so greedy, so mean, so forgetful of his own dignity. Never would he be such a one! And these thoughts and sensations, filling him with the consciousness of his large mindedness and nonchalance, held him fast to Gabriel by the sandy sea-shore.
"You have made me happy!" shrieked Gabriel, and seizing the hand of Chelkash he pulled it towards his face.
Chelkash was silent, and fleshed his teeth like a wolf. Gabriel continued to pour forth his heart to him:
"Do you know what was in my mind?... We came here—I saw the money.... Thinks I ... I'll fetch him one ... you I meant ... with the oar—c-c-crack! The money's mine and he ... that's you ... goes into the sea.... Who would ever light upon him? And if they did find him they would never inquire how he was killed or who killed him ... such a fellow as that! He's not the sort of man people make a fuss about!... He's no good at all in the world! Who would ever trouble about him? You see how...."
"Give up that money!" howled Chelkash, seizing Gabriel by the throat.
Gabriel tore himself away—the other hand of Chelkash twined round him like a serpent—there was the grating tear of a rent shirt, and Gabriel lay on the sands with senseless goggling eyes, with sprawling feet and the tips of his outstretched fingers fumbling for air. Chelkash stiff, dry, and savage, with grinding teeth, laughed a bitter spasmodic laugh, and his moustaches twitched nervously on his clear-cut angular face. Never in his whole life had he felt so angry.
"What, you're lucky, eh?" he inquired of Gabriel in the midst of his laughter, and turning his back upon him, went right away in the direction of the town. But he hadn't gone a couple of yards when Gabriel, with his back arched like a cat, rose on one knee, and taking a wide sweep with his arm, threw after him a large stone, crying spitefully: "Crack!"
Chelkash yelled, put both his hands to the back of his head, tottered forward, turned towards Gabriel, and fell prone in the sand. Gabriel's heart died away as he gazed at him. There he lay, and presently he moved his foot, tried to raise his head, and stretched himself, quivering like a bow-string. Then Gabriel set off running away in the direction of the misty shore, it was overhung by a shaggy black cloud, and was dark. The waves were roaring as they ran upon the sand, mingling with it and then running back again. The foam hissed, and the sea-scud was flying about in the air.
The rain began to fall. At first there were but rare drops, but soon it poured down in torrents, descending from the sky in long thin jets, weaving a whole net of water-threads—a net suddenly hiding away within it the steppes and the sea, and removing them to an immense distance Gabriel vanished behind it. For a long time nothing was visible except the rain, and the long lean man lying on the sand by the sea. But behold I again from out of the rain emerged the running Gabriel; he flew like a bird and, running towards Chelkash, fell down before him, and began to pull him about on the ground. His hands dipped into the warm red slime. He trembled and staggered back with a pale and stupid face.
"Brother! get up! do get up!" he whispered in the ear of Chelkash amidst the din of the sea.
Chelkash came to himself and shoved Gabriel away, hoarsely exclaiming: "Be off!"
"Brother, forgive!... the devil tempted me!" whispered the tremulous Gabriel, kissing Chelkash's hand.
"Go! Be off!" growled the other.
"Take the sin from my soul, my brother! Forgive!"
"Slope! Go to the devil, I say!" cried Chelkash, and with an effort he sat up on the sand. His face was pale and angry, his eyes were dull and half closed, as if he wanted to sleep. "What more do you want? You have done what you wanted to do.... So go! Be off!" and he tried to kick the utterly woe-begone Gabriel, but could not, and would again have rolled over had not Gabriel held him up by embracing his shoulders. The face of Chelkash was now on a level with the face of Gabriel; both were pale, pitiful, and odd-looking.
"Phew!" said Chelkash, and he spat full into the wide-open eyes of his workman.
The latter gently wiped it off with his sleeve.
"What would you do? Won't you answer a word? Forgive me, for Christ's sake!"
"Ugh, you horror! But you'll never understand," cried Chelkash contemptuously, dragging off his shirt from under his short jacket and proceeding to wrap it round his head in silence, save for the occasional gnashing of his teeth. "You have taken the notes, I suppose?" he muttered through his teeth.
"No, I've not taken them, my friend!... I don't want them ... they'd do me harm!"
Chelkash shoved his hand into the pocket of his jacket, drew out a bundle of money, put back again in his pocket a single rainbow note, and pitched all the rest at Gabriel.
"Take it and go!"
"I'll not take it, my brother ... I cannot I Forgive me!"
"Take it, I say!" roared Chelkash, rolling his eyes horribly.
"Forgive me ... and then I'll take it!" said Gabriel timidly, and fell on his knees before Chelkash on the grey sand, now saturated with rain.
"Take it, you monster!" said Chelkash confidently, and, with an effort, raising Gabriel's head by the hair, he flung the money in his face. "There, take it! You shan't work for me for nothing. Take it without fear! Don't be ashamed of nearly killing a man. Nobody will bother about such as I. They'll even thank you when they hear about it. Come, take it! Nobody knows about your deed, and it's worth a recompense. There you are!"
Gabriel perceived that Chelkash was laughing at him, and his heart grew lighter. He grasped the money tightly in his hand.
"But, brother, you forgive me, won't you?" he inquired tearfully.
"What for, my brother?" said Chelkash in the same tone, rising to his feet and tottering a little. "What for? For nothing at all. To-day it's your turn, to-morrow mine."
"Alas, my brother, my brother!" sobbed the afflicted Gabriel, shaking his head.
Chelkash stood in front of him with a strange smile, and the rag round his head, now slightly tinged with red, bore some resemblance to a Turkish fez.
The rain was pouring down as if from a bucket The sea raged with a muffled roar, and the waves now beat upon the shore with frantic rage.
For a time both men were silent.
"Well, good-bye!" said Chelkash coldly and sarcastically, and set off on his journey.
He staggered as he went, his feet tottered beneath him, and he held his head so oddly, just as if he were afraid of losing it.
"Forgive me, brother!" Gabriel besought him once more.
"Bosh!" coldly replied Chelkash, pursuing his way.
On he staggered, supporting his head all the time in the palm of his left hand, while with his right he gently twirled his fierce moustache.
Gabriel continued to gaze after him till he disappeared in the rain, which was now pouring down more densely than ever from the clouds in fine endless jets, enveloping the steppe in an impenetrable mist of a steely hue.
Then Gabriel took off his wet cap, crossed himself, looked at the money fast squeezed in his palm, sighed deeply and freely, hid the notes in his bosom, and With a spacious confident stride marched off along the sea-shore in the direction opposite to that in which Chelkash had vanished.
The sea howled, and cast huge heavy waves on the strand, churning them up into foam and scud. The rain cut up sea and land furiously. Everything around was filled with howling, yelling, moaning. Neither sea nor sky was visible behind the rain.
Soon the rain and the wash of the waves had cleansed the red spot on the place where Chelkash had lain, had washed away all traces of Chelkash, and all traces of the young rustic from the sand of the sea-shore. And on the desolate strand nothing remained as a memorial of the petty drama played there by two living souls.