SEMEN IVANOV served as trackman on the railroad. His watch-house was twelve versts (nearly eight miles) distant from one station and ten from the other. The year before a large weaving mill had been established about four versts away; and its tall chimneys looked black from behind the trees of the wood; and nearer than this, apart from the other watch-houses, there was no human habitation.
Semen Ivanov was a sickly, broken-down man. Nine years before he had gone to the war: he served as orderly to an officer and had remained with him during the whole campaign. He starved and froze, and baked in the hot sun, and marched from forty to fifty versts in the frost or in the burning heat. It also happened that he was often under fire, but, thank God, no bullet ever touched him.
Once his regiment was in the first line; for a whole week the firing was kept up constantly on both sides: the Russian line on this side of the hollow and the Turkish lines just across, and from morning till night the firing was going on. Semen's officer was also in the front lines, and three times a day, from the regiment kitchens in the hollow, Semen carried the hot samovar and the food. Semen walked through the open space while the bullets whistled over his head and cracked the stones. Semen was afraid, but he went on—wept, and went on. The officers were very much satisfied with Semen's services: the officers always had their hot tea.
Semen returned from the war without a wound, but with a rheumatic pain in his legs and arms. And he had suffered a good deal of sorrow since that time. His old father died soon after his return, then his little son—a boy of four—also died from some throat trouble; and Semen was left alone in the world with his wife.
Their work on the little piece of land allotted to them also proved unsuccessful, it being too hard for a man to till the soil with swollen arms and legs. And so they could not get along in their native village, and decided to go into new places in search of better luck. Semen lived with his wife on the Done for some time, and in the Government of Cherson; but they somehow could not get along very well anywhere. At last his wife went into service, and Semen continued his roving life as heretofore.
Once he happened to go by rail, and on one station he noticed the station-master, who seemed rather familiar to him. Semen looked at him intently, and the station-master also peered into Semen's face. They recognized each other: it was an officer of his regiment. "Is it you, Ivanov?" said the man.
"Yes, your honor, my very self."
"How did you get here?" And so Semen told him: such and such were the circumstances.
"Well, where are you going now?"
"I can not say, your honor."
"How is that, you fool, you can not say?"
"Just so, your honor, because I have nowhere to go to. I must look for some kind of employment, your honor."
And the station-master looked at him for a moment and fell to thinking, then he said to him: "Well, brother, stay here on the station in the mean time. But it seems to me that you are a married man? Where is your wife?"
"Yes, sir, I am married; my wife is serving at the house of a merchant at Kursk."
"Well, then, write to your wife to come here. I shall get a free ticket for her. We will soon have a vacant watch-house here, and I will ask the division-master to give you the place."
"Many thanks, your honor," replied Semen.
And so he remained on the station, helping in the station-master's kitchen, cutting wood, sweeping the courtyard and the railway platform. In two weeks his wife arrived, and Semen went on a hand-car to his new home.
The watch-house was new and warm, wood he had in plenty, the former watchman left a small garden, and there was a little less than one and a half acres of arable land on the two sides of the railroad-bed. Semen was overjoyed: he began to dream of a little homestead of his own, and of buying a horse and a cow.
He was given all the necessary supplies: a green flag, a red flag, lanterns, a signal-pipe, a hammer, a rail-key for tightening the screw-nuts, a crowbar, shovel, brooms, clinch-nails, bolts, and two books with the rules and regulations of the railroad. At first Semen did not sleep at night, for he continually repeated the regulations. If the train was due in two hours, he had already gone his rounds, and would sit on the little bench at the watch-house and look and listen: were not the rails trembling, was there no noise of an approaching train?
At last he learned by heart all the rules; though he read with difficulty and had to spell out each word, nevertheless he did learn them by heart.
This happened in summer: the work was not hard, there was no snow to shovel, and, besides, the trains passed but rarely on that road. Semen would walk over his verst twice in twenty-four hours, would tighten a screw here and there, pick up a splinter, examine the water-pipes, and go home to take care of his little homestead. The only thing that bothered him and his wife was: no matter what they made up their minds to do, they had to ask the permission of the track-master, who again had to lay the matter before the division-master, and when permission was at last given the time had already passed, and it was then too late to be of any use to them. On account of this, Semen and his wife began, at times, to feel very lonely.
About two months passed in this way; Semen began to form acquaintance with his nearest neighbors—trackmen like himself. One was already a very old man, whom the railway authorities had long intended to replace; he could hardly move from his watch-house, and his wife attended to his duties. The other trackman, who lived nearer to the station, was still a young man, thin and sinewy. Semen met him for the first time on the railroad-bed half-way between their watch-houses, while they were making their rounds; Semen took off his cap and bowed. "Good health to you, neighbor," he said.
The neighbor looked at him askance. "How are you?" he replied, turned, and went his way.
The women also met afterward. Arina, Semen's wife, greeted her neighbor affably, but this neighbor, also not of the talkative kind, spoke a few words and walked away. On meeting her once, Semen asked:
"Why is your husband so uncommunicative, young woman?" After standing for some time in silence, she said: "But what should he talk to you about? Everybody has his troubles—God speed you."
But after another month had passed, their intimacy grew. Now, when Semen and Vasili met on the road-bed, they sat down on the edge, smoked their pipes, and told each other of their past life and experiences. Vasili spoke but little, but Semen told of his campaign life and of his native village.
"I have seen plenty of sorrow in my time, and God knows I am not so very old either. God has not given us much luck. It just depends: the kind of a lot the dear Lord portions out to one—such he must have. This is the way I make it out, Vasili Stepanich, little brother."
And Vasili struck the bowl of his pipe on the rail to empty it, and said:
"It isn't luck nor fate which is eating your life and mine away, but people. There is not a beast more cruel and rapacious than man. A wolf does not devour a wolf—but man eats man alive."
"Well, brother, wolf does eat wolf—that is where you are wrong."
"It came to my tongue, so I said it; anyhow there is not a more cruel beast. If it were not for man's viciousness and greed—'twould be possible to live. Every one is on the lookout to grasp at your vitals, tear off a piece, and gobble it up."
"I don't know, brother," said Semen after thinking a bit. "Maybe it is so—but if it is really so, then the great God ordained it in this way."
"And if it is so," spoke Vasili, "then there is no use of my speaking to you. A man who attributes to God every kind of iniquity, and himself sits and patiently bears it, can not be a man, brother mine—but an animal. Here you have my whole say!"
And he turned and went off without even saying good-by. Semen rose also and called after him; "Neighbor, and what are you abusing me for?"
But the neighbor did not even turn around, and went his way.
Semen looked after him till he was lost from sight at the turn of the road, then he returned home and said to his wife: "Well, Arina, what a venomous man that neighbor of ours is!"
Nevertheless they were not angry with each other; and when they met again they spoke as if nothing had happened and on the very same topic.
"Ei, brother, if not for the people—we would not sit here in these watch-houses," spoke Vasili.
"Well, what if we do live in a watch-house? It is not so bad to live in one, after all."
"Not so bad to live, not so bad— Ech, you! You lived long, but gained little; looked at much, but saw little. A poor man, no matter where he lives, in a railway watch-house or in any other place, what sort of a life is his? Those fleecers are eating your life away, squeeze all your juice out, and when you have grown old they throw you out like some swill, for the pigs to feed on. How much wages do you get?"
"Well, not much, Vasili Stepanich, twelve rubles" (about seven dollars and a half).
"And I thirteen and a half. Allow me to ask you why! According to the rulings of the administration, every one of us is supposed to get the same amount—fifteen rubles a month, and light and heat. Who was it that allotted you and me twelve, or say, thirteen and a half rubles? Allow me to ask you?—And you say it is not so bad a life? Understand me well, it is not about the three or one and a half rubles I am wrangling about—but even if they paid me the whole amount— Last month I was at the station when the director happened to pass. I saw him there. Had the honor. He occupied a whole private car by himself—on the station he alighted and stood on the platform, looking—no, I will not stay here long; I shall go where my eyes will lead me."
"But where will you go, Stepanich? Let well alone, you will not find it much better anywhere. You have a home here, warmth, arid a bit of land. Your wife is an able workwoman—"
"Land! You ought to see the land I have—why, there isn't a stick on it. This spring I planted some cabbages. Well, one day the track-master passed: 'What is this?' he says. 'Why did you not report it? Why not have waited for permission? Dig it out at once and not a vestige should be left of it.' He was in his cups. At another time he would not have said a word, and here he got it into his head— Three rubles fine!—"
For some moments Vasili pulled at his pipe in silence, then he said in a low voice: "It wanted but little more, and I would have made short work of him."
"Well, neighbor, you are a hot-head, I can tell you."
"I am not hot, I am only speaking and considering everything from the point of justice. But he will get it from me yet, the red-mug; I shall make a complaint to the master of the division in person. We shall see!"
And he really complained.
Once the master of the division came to make a preliminary inspection of the road. In three days' time very important gentlemen were expected from St. Petersburg to make an inspection of the road: everything had to be made ship-shape; some new gravel was ordered before their arrival, added, leveled, and smoothed out, the sleepers were examined, the nuts tightened, the verst-posts newly painted, and the order was given that some fine yellow sand be strewn over the crossings. A track-woman even drove her old man out of the nearest watch-house, which he almost never left, in order to trim a little the tiny grass-plot. Semen worked a whole week to bring everything into first-rate order, even mended his coat and burnished his brass shield till it shone. Vasili also worked hard.
At last the division master arrived in a buzzing draisine (hand car), worked by four men and making twenty versts an hour. It came flying toward Semen's watch-house, and Semen sprang forward and reported in military fashion. Everything appeared to be correct.
"Are you long here?" asked the master.
"Since the second of May, your honor.'
"Very well, thank you. And who is at Number 164?"
The track-master who rode with him on the draisine replied: "Vasili Spiridov."
"Spiridov, Spiridov— Oh, the one you reported?"
"The very same."
"Very well, let us have a look at Vasili Spiridov. Go ahead."
The workmen leaned upon the handles and the draisine flew farther. "There will be a fight between them and the neighbor," thought Semen, looking after the disappearing draisine.
About two hours later Semen went on his rounds. He saw that some one was coming toward him, walking over the railroad bed, and there was something white visible on his head. Semen strained his eyes to see who it was—Vasili; in his hand he carried a stick and a small bundle was slung across his shoulders, and one cheek was tied up with a white kerchief.
"Where are you going, neighbor?" Semen shouted to him.
When Vasili approached him closer, Semen saw that he was as pale as chalk and wild-eyed; and when he started to speak his voice broke.
"I am off to the city," he said, "to Moscow—to the main office of the administration."
"To the administration— Is that it! You are going to make a complaint, are you? Better not, Vasili Stepanich, forget it—"
"No, brother, I will not forget it. It is too late to forget. You see, he struck me in the face, beat me till the blood flowed. As long as I live, I will not forget it, nor let it go at this."
"Give it up, Stepanich," Semen spoke to him, taking hold of his hand. "I speak truth: you will not make things better."
"Who speaks of better! I know myself that I will not make them better; you spoke truly about fate—you did. I shall not do much good to myself, but one has to stand up for justice."
"But won't you tell me how it all came about?"
"How it all came about— Well, he inspected everything, left the draisine on purpose to do so—even looked inside the watch-house. I knew beforehand that he would be strict—so I had everything in class order. He was already going to leave when I came forward with my complaint. He immediately burst forth: 'Here,' he said, 'is to be a government inspection, you—so and so—and you dare come forward with your complaints about your vegetable garden! We are expecting privy councilors and he comes with his cabbages!' I could not control myself and said a word—not so very bad either, but it seemed to offend him and he struck me— And I stood there, as if it was the most usual thing in the world to happen. Only, when they went off, I came to my senses, washed off the blood from my face and went away."
"And what about the watch-house?"
"My wife is there, she will take care; and besides, the devil take their road, anyway!"
"Good-by, Ivanich," he said to Semen on taking leave of him; "I don't know if I shall find justice for myself."
"You don't mean to tell me that you will go on foot?"
"I shall ask them at the station to let me ride in a freighter; to-morrow I shall be in Moscow."
The neighbors took leave of each other and each went his way. Vasili stayed away for a long time. His wife did all the work for him, sleeping neither night nor day, and looked very worn and exhausted. On the third day the inspectors passed: an engine, freight-car, and two private cars, and Vasili was still absent. On the fourth day Semen saw Vasili's wife; her face was swollen with incessant weeping and her eyes were very red. "Has your husband returned?" he asked her. She only waved her arm, but did not utter a word.
When still a little boy Semen had learned how to make willow pipes. He burnt out the pith, drilled out where necessary the tiny finger-holes, and finished up the end of the pipe so artistically that almost anything could be played on it. At odd moments he now made lots of such pipes and sent them with an acquaintance of his, a freight conductor, to the city, where they were sold at two copecks a pipe. On the third day after the inspection he left his wife at home to meet the six o'clock train, took his knife and went into the woods to cut his willow sticks. He came to the end of his section, where the road made a sharp turn, descended the embankment and went up the hill. About a half verst farther was a large bog, around which grew splendid shrubs for his pipes. He cut a whole heap of sticks and went home, again walking through the wood. The sun was already low; and a deathlike quiet reigned all about, only the chirping of the birds could be heard and the crackling underfoot of the wind-fallen wood. A little more and he would reach the railroad bed; suddenly it seemed to him as if he heard coming from somewhere the clang of iron striking on iron. Semen hurried his steps. "What can it be?" he asked himself, knowing that no repairs were going on in that section at that time. He reached the edge of the wood—before him rose high the embankment of the railway; and he saw—on the top on the railroad bed—a man squatting down at work on something. Semen began to ascend the embankment very quietly, thinking that some one was trying to steal the screw-nuts. He saw the man rise; in his hand he held a crowbar; he quickly shoved the crowbar under the rail and gave it a push to one side—Semen felt everything grow dim; he tried to shout, but could not. He saw that it was Vasili, and made a dash for the embankment, but Vasili was already rolling down the other side of the embankment with the rail-key and crowbar.
"Vasili Stepanich! Little father, friend, come back! Give me the crowbar! Let us put the rail in place; no one will ever know. Come back, save your soul from a great sin!"
But Vasili did not even turn round, and went on into the woods.
Semen remained standing over the dislocated rail, his sticks lying in a heap at his feet. The train which was due was not a freighter, but a passenger train, and he had nothing to stop it with: a flag he had none. He could not put the rail into its right place; with bare hands one can not fasten in the rail spikes. He had to run, run for dear life into his watch-house for the necessary implements! God give him strength!
And Semen started to run breathlessly toward his watch-house. He ran now,—now he would fall—at last he left the wood behind, he had only about seven hundred feet left to his watch-house suddenly he heard the factory whistle. Six o'clock, and at two minutes past six the train would pass. Great God! Save the innocent souls! And before his eyes he seemed to see how the left wheel of the engine would strike the cut rail, quiver, slant to one side, and tear the sleepers, knock them all to slivers, and just here—is the rounded curve, and the embankment—and the engine, the cars, all—would go pell-mell down, down from the height of seventy-seven feet, and the third-class cars were jammed full of people, little children among them. Now they were sitting tranquilly, not thinking of anything. O Lord, teach him what to do! No, he would not be able to get to the watch-house and return in time.
Semen gave up his intention of running to the watch-house, turned and ran back quicker than he had come, his head in a whirl; not knowing himself what would happen he ran up to the cut rail: his sticks lay scattered all around. He bent down and took one of the sticks, not understanding himself why he did it; and ran farther. And it seemed to him that the train was already approaching. He heard a far-away whistle, heard the rails begin to quiver measuredly and quietly: he had no more strength left to run. He stopped about seven hundred feet from the fatal spot: suddenly he became illuminated, as it were, by a thought.
He took off his hat, took from it a handkerchief; took out his knife from his boot-leg and crossed himself. God's blessing!
He slashed his left arm a little above the elbow with his sharp knife; the blood spurted down in a hot stream; he dipped his handkerchief in it, smoothed it out, tied it to his stick, and displayed his red flag.
He stood waving the flag; the train was already in sight. The engineer did not see him, he would come nearer, but at a distance of seven hundred feet he would not be able to stop the heavy train!
And the blood was pouring and pouring— Semen pressed his hand to his side, but the blood would not stop; evidently he had made too deep a cut into the arm; his head was beginning to turn; he was getting dizzy, as if black flies were swimming in his eyes; then everything became altogether dark, and loud bells were ringing in his ears— He no longer saw the train, no longer heard the noise: only one thought predominated: "I will not be able to keep on my feet, will fall down, drop the flag; the train will pass over me?— Dear God, succor, send some one to relieve me—" His soul became a void, and he dropped the flag. But the bloody flag did not fall to the ground: some one's hand caught it and raised it aloft in front of the oncoming train. The engineer saw him and brought the engine to a stop.
The people came rushing from the train; soon they gathered into a crowd; before them lay a man, unconscious, covered with blood; another man stood beside him with a bloody rag tied to a stick.
Vasili surveyed the crowd and lowered his head.
Bind me," he said; "it was I who cut the rail."