The wind is scudding over the steppe, and beating upon the
rampart of the Caucasian heights until their backbone seems to be
bellying like a huge sail, and the earth to be whirling and
whizzing through unfathomable depths of blue, and leaving behind
it a rack of wind-torn clouds which, as their shadows glide over
the surface of the land, seem ever to be striving to keep in
touch with the onrush of the gale, and, failing to maintain the
effort, dissolving in tears and despondency.
The trees too are bending in the attitude of flight–their boughs
are brandishing their foliage as a dog worries a fleece, and
littering the black soil with leaves among which runs a constant
querulous hissing and rustling. Also, storks are uttering their
snapping cry, sleek rooks cawing, steppe grasshoppers maintaining
their tireless chirp, sturdy, well-grown husbandmen uttering
shouts like words of command, the threshing-floors of the
rolling steppe diffusing a rain of golden chaff, and eddying
whirlwinds catching up stray poultry feathers, dried-onion
strips, and leaves yellowed with the heat, to send them dancing
again over the trim square of the little Cossack hamlet.
Similarly does the sun keep appearing and disappearing as though
he were pursuing the fugitive earth, and ever and anon halting
through weariness before his decline into the dark, shadowy vista
where the snowclad peaks of the western mountains are rearing
their heads, and fast-reddening clouds are reminding one of the
surface of a ploughed field.
At times those clouds part their bulk to reveal in blinding
splendour the silvery saddle of Mount Elburz, and the crystal
fangs of other peaks–all, apparently, striving to catch and
detain the scudding vapours. And to such a point does one come to
realise the earth’s flight through space that one can scarcely
draw one’s breath for the tension, the rapture, of the thought
that with the rush of that dear and beautiful earth oneself is
keeping pace towards, and ever tending towards, the region where,
behind the eternal, snow-clad peaks, there lies a boundless ocean
of blue–an ocean beside which there may lie stretched yet other
proud and marvellous lands, a void of azure amid which one may
come to descry far-distant, many-tinted spheres of planets as yet
unknown, but sisters, all, to this earth of ours.
Meanwhile from the steppe slow, ponderous grey oxen with sharp
horns are drawing an endless succession of wagon-loads of
threshed grain through rich, black, sootlike dust. Patiently the
beasts’ round eyes regard the earth, while on the top of each
load there lolls a Cossack who, with face sunburnt to the last
pitch of swarthiness, and eyes reddened with exposure to the
wind, and beard matted, seemingly solidified, with dust and
sweat, is clad in a shirt drab with grime, and has a shaggy
Persian cap thrust to the back of his head. Occasionally, also,
he may he seen riding on the pole in front of his team, and being
buffeted from behind by the wind which inflates his shirt. And as
sleek and comfortable as the carcasses of the bullocks are these
Cossacks’ frames in proportion their eyes are sluggishly
intelligent, and in their every movement is the deliberate air of
men who know precisely what they have to do.
“Tsob, tsobe!” such fellows shout to their teams. This year
they are reaping a splendid harvest.
Yet though these folk, one and all, look fat and prosperous,
their mien is dour, and they speak reluctantly, and through their
teeth. Possibly this is because they are over-weary with toil.
However that may be, the full-fed country people of the region
laugh but little, and seldom sing.
In the centre of the hamlet soars the red brick church of the
place–an edifice which, with its five pinnacles, its belfry over
its porch, and its yellow plaster window-mouldings, looks like an
edifice that has been fashioned of meat, and cemented with
grease. Nay, its very shadow seems so richly heavy as to be the
shadow of a fane erected by men endowed with a plethora of this
world’s goods to a god otiose in his grandeur. Ranged around the
building in ring fashion, the hamlet’s squat white huts stand
girdled with belts of plaited wattle, shawled in the gorgeous
silken scarves of gardens, and crowned with a flowered
brocadework of reed-thatched roofs. In fact, they resemble a bevy
of buxom babi, [Peasant women] as over and about them wave
silver poplar trees, with quivering, lacelike leaves of acacias,
and dark-leaved chestnuts (the leaves of the latter like the
palms of human hands) which rock to and fro as though they would
fain seize, and detain the driving clouds. Also, from court to
court scurry Cossack women who, with skirt-tails tucked up to
reveal muscular legs bare to the knee, are preparing to array
themselves for the morrow’s festival, and, meanwhile, chattering
to one another, or shouting to plump infants which may be seen
bathing in the dust like sparrows, or picking up handfuls of
sand, and tossing them into the air.
Sheltered from the wind by the churchyard wall, there may be seen
also, as they sprawl on the dry, faded herbage, a score of ”
strollers for work “that is to say, of folk who, a community
apart, consist of “nowhere people,” of dreamers who live
constantly in expectation of some stroke of luck, some kindly
smile from fortune, and of wastrels who, intoxicated with the
abundant bounty of the opulent region, have fallen passive
victims to the Russian craze for vagrancy. These folk tramp from
hamlet to hamlet in parties of two or three, and, while
purporting to seek employment, merely contemplate that employment
lethargically, express astonishment at the plenitude which it
produces, and then decline to put their hands to toil save when
dire necessity renders it no longer possible to satisfy hunger’s
pangs through the expedients of mendicancy and theft. Dull, or
cowed, or timid, or furtive of eye, these folk have lost all
sense of the difference between that which constitutes honesty
and that which does not.
The morrow being the Feast of the Assumption, these people have,
in the present instance, gathered from every quarter of the
country, for the reason that they hope to be provided with food
and drink without first being made to earn their entertainment.
For the most part they are Russians from the central provinces,
vagabonds whose faces are blackened, and heads blanched with the
unaccustomed sunshine of the South, but whose bodies are clad
merely in rags tossed and tumbled by the wind. True, the wearers
of those rags declare themselves to be peaceful, respectable
citizens whom toil and life’s buffetings have exhausted, and
compelled to seek temporary rest and prayer; yet never does a
creaking, groaning, ponderous grain wagon, with its Cossack
driver, pass them by without their according the latter a humble,
obsequious salute as, with straw in mouth, and omitting, always,
to raise his cap, the man glances at them askance and with
contempt, or, more frequently, does not even descry these
tattered, grimy hulks between whom and himself there is
absolutely nothing in common.
Lower even, and more noticeably, more pretentiously, than the
rest does a certain ” needy ” native of Tula named Konev salute
each Cossack. A hardbitten muzhik as sunburnt as a stick of
ergot, he has a black beard distributed irregularly over a lean
face, a fawning smile, and eyes deep-sunken in their sockets.
Most of these persons I have met for the first time today; but
Konev is an old acquaintance of mine, for he and I have more than
once encountered one another on the road between Kursk and the
province of Ter. An “artelni,” that is to say, a member of a
workman’s union, he cultivates his fellows’ good graces for the
reason that he is also an arrant coward, and accustomed,
everywhere save in his own village (which lies buried among the
sands of Alexin), to assert that:
“Certainly, this countryside is rich, yet I cannot hit things
off with its inhabitants. In my own part of the country folk are
more spiritual, more truly Russian, by far than here–they are
folk with whom the natives of this region are not to be compared,
since in the one locality the population has a human soul,
whereas in the other locality it is a flint-stone.”
And with a certain quiet reflectiveness, he loves also to recount
a marvellous example of unlooked-for enrichment. He will say to
“Maybe you do not believe in the virtue of horseshoes? Yet I
tell YOU that once, when a certain peasant of Efremov found a
horseshoe, the next three weeks saw it befall that that peasant’s
uncle, a tradesman of Efremov, was burnt to death with all his
family, and the property devolved to the peasant. Did you ever
hear of such a thing? What is going to happen CANNOT be foretold,
for at any moment fortune may pity a man, and send him a
As Konev says this his dark, pointed eyebrows will go shooting up
his forehead, and his eyes come protruding out of their sockets,
as though he himself cannot believe what he has just related.
Again, should a Cossack pass him without returning his salute, he
will mutter as he follows the man with his eyes:
“An overfed fellow, that–a fellow who can’t even look at a human
being! The souls of these folk, I tell you, are withered.”
On the present occasion he has arrived on the scene in company
with two women. One of them, aged about twenty, is gentle-
looking, plump, and glassy of eye, with a mouth perpetually half-
open, so that the face looks like that of an imbecile, and though
the exposed teeth of its lower portion may seem to be set in a
smile, you will perceive, should you peer into the motionless
eyes under the overhanging brows, that she has recently been
weeping in the terrified, hysterical fashion of a person of weak
I have come here with that man and other strangers thus I heard
her narrate in low, querulous tones as with a stumpy finger she
rearranged the faded hair under her yellow and green scarf.
A fat-faced youth with high cheek-bones and the small eyes of a
Mongol here nudged her, and said carelessly:
“You mean, rather, that your own man has cast you off. Probably
he was the only man you ever saw.”
“Aye,” Konev drawled thoughtfully as he felt in his wallet.
Nowadays folk need think little of deserting a woman, since in
this year of grace women are no good at all.”
Upon this the woman frowned–then blinked her eyes timidly, and
would have opened her lips to reply, but that her companion
interrupted her by saying in a brisk, incisive tone:
“Do not listen to those rascals!”
The woman’s companion, some five or six years her senior, has a
face exceptional in the constant change and movement of its great
dark eyes as at one moment they withdraw themselves from the
street of the Cossack hamlet, to gaze fixedly and gravely towards
the steppe where it lies scoured with the scudding breeze, and at
another moment fall to scanning the faces of the persons around
her, and, at another, frown anxiously, or send a smile flitting
across her comely lips as she bends her head, until her features
are concealed. Next, the head is raised again, for the eyes have
taken on another phase, and become dilated with interest, while a
sharp furrow is forming between the slender eyebrows, and the
finely moulded lips and trim mouth have compressed themselves
together, and the thin nostrils of the straight nose are snuffing
the air like those of a horse.
In fact, in the woman there is something non-peasant in its
origin. For instance, let one but watch her sharply clicking feet
as, in walking, they peep from under her blue skirt, and one
will perceive that they are not the splayed feet of a villager,
but, rather, feet arched of instep, and at one time accustomed to
the wearing of boots. Or, as the woman sits engaged in
embroidering a blue bodice with a pattern of white peas, one will
perceive that she has long been accustomed to plying the needle
so dexterously; swiftly do the small, sunburnt hands fly in and
out under the tumbled material, eagerly though the wind may
strive to wrest it from her. Again, as she sits bending over her
work, one will descry through a rent in her bodice a small, firm
bosom which might almost have been that of a virgin, were it not
for the fact that a projecting teat proclaims that she is a woman
preparing to suckle an infant. In short, as she sits among her
companions she looks like a fragment of copper flung into the
midst of some rusty old scrap-iron.
Most of the people in whose society I wander neither rise to
great heights nor sink to great depths, but are as colourless as
dust, and wearisomely insignificant. Hence is it that whenever I
chance upon a person whose soul I can probe and explore for
thoughts unfamiliar to me and words not hitherto heard I
congratulate myself, seeing that though it is my desire to see
life grow more fair and exalted, and I yearn to bring about that
end, there constantly reveals itself to me merely a vista of
sharp angles and dark spaces and poor crushed, defrauded people.
Yes, never do I seek to project a spark of my own fire into the
darkness of my neighbour’s soul but I see that spark disappear,
become lost, in a chaos of dumb vacuity.
Hence the woman of whom I have just spoken particularly excites
my fancy, and leads me to attempt divinations of her past, until
I find myself evolving a story which is not only of vast
complexity, but has got painted into it merely the colours of my
own hopes and aspirations. It is a story necessarily illusory,
necessarily bound to make life seem even worse than before. Yet
it is a grievous thing NEVER to distort actuality, NEVER to
envelop actuality in the wrappings of one’s imagination . . . .
Closing his eyes, and picking his words with difficulty, a tall,
fair peasant drawls in thick, gluelike tones:
“‘Very well,’ I said: and off we set. On the way I said again:
‘Gubin, though you may not like to be told so, you are no better
than a thief.'”
The o’s uttered by this peasant are uniformly round and firm–they
roll forward as a cartwheel trundles along a hot, dusty country
The youth with the high cheek-bones fixes the whites of his
porcine eyes (eyes the pupils of which are as indeterminate as
the eyes of a blind man) upon the woman in the green scarf.
Then, having, like a calf, plucked and chewed some stalks of the
withered grass, he rolls up the sleeves of his shirt, bends one
fist into the crook of the elbow, and says to Konev with a glance
at the well-developed muscle:
“Should you care to hit me?”
“No, you can hit yourself. Hit yourself over the head. Then,
perhaps, you’ll grow wiser.”
Stolidly the young fellow looks at Konev, and inquires:
“How do you know me to be a fool? ”
“Because your personality tells me so.”
“Eh?” cries the young fellow truculently as he raises himself
to a kneeling posture. “How know you what I am?”
“I have been told what you are by the Governor of your
The young fellow opens his mouth, and stares at Konev. Then he
“To what province do I belong?”
“If you yourself have forgotten to what province you belong, you
had better try and loosen your wits.”
“Look here. If I were to hit you, I–”
The woman who has been sewing drops her work to shrug one rounded
shoulder as though she were cold, and ask conciliatorily:
“Well, WHAT province do you belong to?”
“I? ” the young fellow re-echoes as he subsides on to his heels.
“I belong to Penza. Why do you ask?”
“Oh never mind why.”
Presently, with a strangely youthful laugh, the woman adds in a
“I ask because I too belong to that province.”
“And to which canton?”
“To that of Penza.” In the woman’s tone is a touch of pride.
The young fellow squats down before her, as before a wood fire,
stretches out his hands, and says in an ingratiating voice:
“What a fine place is our cantonal town! What churches and shops
and stone houses there are in it! In fact, one shop sells a
machine on which you can play anything you like, any sort of a
“As well as, probably, the fool,” comments Konev in an
undertone, though the young fellow is too enthralled with the
memory of the amenities of his cantonal capital to notice the
remark. Next, smacking his lips, and chewing his words, he
continues in a murmur:
“In those stone houses.”
Here the woman drops her sewing a second time to inquire: “Is
there a convent there?”
And the young fellow pauses uncouthly to scratch his neck. Only
after a while does he answer:
“A convent? Well, I do not know, for only once, to tell the
truth, have I been in the town, and that was when some of us
famine folk were set to a job of roadmaking.”
“Well, well!” gasps Konev, as he rises and takes his departure.
The vagabonds, huddled against the churchyard wall, look like
litter driven thither by the steppe wind, and as liable to be
whirled away again whenever the wind shall choose. Three of the
party are sleeping, and the remainder either mending their
clothing, or killing fleas, or lethargically munching bread
collected at the windows of the Cossacks’ huts. I find the sight
of them weary me as much as does the young fellows fatuous
babble. Also, I find that whenever the elder of the two women
lifts her eyes from her work, and half smiles, the faint half-
smile in question vexes me intensely. Consequently, I end by
departing in Konev’s wake.
Guarding the entrance of the churchyard, four poplar trees stand
erect, save when, as the wind harries them, they bow alternately
to the arid, dusty earth and towards the dim vista of tow-
coloured steppe and snowcapped mountain peaks. Yet, oh how that
steppe, bathed in golden sunshine, draws one to itself and its
smooth desolation of sweet, dry grasses as the parched, fragrant
expanse rustles under the soughing wind!
“You ask about that woman, eh? ” queries Konev, whom I find
leaning against one of the poplar trunks, and embracing it with
“Yes. From where does she hail?”
“From Riazan, she says. Another story of hers is that her name
“Has she been with you long?”
“No. In fact, it was only this morning, some thirty versts from
here, that I overtook her and her companion. However, I have seen
her before, at Maikop-on-Laba, during the season of hay harvest,
when she had with her an elderly, smoothfaced muzhik who might
have been a soldier, and certainly was either her lover or an
uncle, as well as a bully and a drunkard of the type which,
before it has been two days in a place, starts about as many
brawls. At present, however, she is tramping with none but this
female companion, for, after that the ‘uncle’ had drunk away his
very belly-band and reins, he was clapped in gaol. The Cossack,
you know, is an awkward person to deal with.”
Although Konev speaks without constraint, his eyes are fixed upon
the ground in a manner suggestive of some disturbing thought. And
as the breeze ruffles his dishevelled beard and ragged pea-jacket
it ends by robbing his head of his cap– of the tattered, peakless
clout which, with rents in its lining, so closely resembles a
tchepchik [Woman’s mob-cap], as to communicate to the
picturesque features of its wearer an appearance comically
“Ye-es,” expectorating, and drawling the words between his
teeth, he continues: “She is a remarkable woman, a regular, so
to speak, highstepper. Yet it must have been the Devil himself
that blew this young oaf with the bloated jowl on to the scene.
Otherwise I should soon have fixed up matters with her. The cur
that he is!”
“But once you told me that you had a wife already?”
Darting at me an angry glance, he turns away with a mutter of:
“AM I to carry my wife about with me in my wallet? ”
Here there comes limping across the square a moustachioed
Cossack. In one hand he is holding a bunch of keys, and in the
other hand a battered Cossack cap, peak in front. Behind him,
sobbing and applying his knuckles to his eyes, there is creeping
a curly-headed urchin of eight, while the rear is brought up by a
shaggy dog whose dejected countenance and lowered tail would seem
to show that he too is in disgrace. Each time that the boy
whimpers more loudly than usual the Cossack halts, awaits the
lad’s coming in silence, cuffs him over the head with the peak of
the cap, and, resuming his way with the gait of a drunken man,
leaves the boy and the dog standing where they are–the boy
lamenting, and the dog wagging its tail as its old black muzzle
sniffs the air. Somehow I discern in the dog’s mien of holding
itself prepared for anything that may turn up, a certain
resemblance to Konev’s bearing, save that the dog is older in
appearance than is the vagabond.
“You mentioned my wife, I think?” presently he resumes with a
sigh. “Yes, I know, but not EVERY malady proves mortal, and I
have been married nineteen years! ”
The rest is well-known to me, for all too frequently have I heard
it and similar tales. Unfortunately, I cannot now take the
trouble to stop him; so once more I am forced to let his
complaints come oozing tediously into my ears.
“The wench was plump,” says Konev, “and panting for love; so we
just got married, and brats began to come tumbling from her like
bugs from a bunk.”
Subsiding a little, the breeze takes, as it were, to whispering.
“In fact, I could scarcely turn round for them. Even now seven
of them are alive, though originally the stud numbered thirteen.
And what was the use of such a gang? For, consider: my wife is
forty-two, and I am forty-three. She is elderly, and I am what
you behold. True, hitherto I have contrived to keep up my
spirits; yet poverty is wearing me down, and when, last winter,
my old woman went to pieces I set forth (for what else could I
do?) to tour the towns. In fact, folk like you and myself have
only one job available–the job of licking one’s chops, and
keeping one’s eyes open. Yet, to tell you the truth, I no sooner
perceive myself to be growing superfluous in a place than I spit
upon that place, and clear out of it.”
Never to this sturdy, inveterate rascal does it seem to occur to
insinuate that he has been doing work of any kind, or that he in
the least cares to do any; while at the same time all self-pity
is eschewed in his narrative, and he relates his experiences much
as though they are the experiences of another man, and not of
Presently, as the Cossack and the boy draw level with us, the
former, fingering his moustache, inquires thickly:
“Whence are you come?”
“All such folk come from there.”
Thereafter, with a gesture of disdain, this man of the abnormally
broad nose, eyes floating in fat, and flaxen head shaped like a
flounder’s, resumes his way towards the porch of the church. As
for the boy, he wipes his nose and follows him while the dog
sniffs at our legs, yawns, and stretches itself by the churchyard
“Did you see?” mutters Konev. “Oh yes, I tell you that the
folk here are far less amiable than our own folk in Russia. . .
But hark! What is that?”
To our ears there have come from behind the corner of the
churchyard wall a woman’s scream and the sound of dull blows.
Rushing thither, we behold the fair-headed peasant seated on the
prostrate form of the young fellow from Penza, and methodically,
gruntingly delivering blow after blow upon the young fellow’s
ears with his ponderous fists, while counting the blows as he
does so. Vainly, at the same time, the woman from Riazan is
prodding the assailant in the back, whilst her female companion
is shrieking, and the crowd at large has leapt to its feet, and,
collected into a knot, is shouting gleefully, “THAT’S the way!
THAT’S the way!”
“Five!” the fair-headed peasant counts.
“Why are you doing this?” the prostrate man protests.
“Oh dear!” ejaculates Konev, dancing with nervousness. “Oh
dear, oh dear!”
The smacking, smashing blows fall in regular cadence as, prone on
his face, the young fellow kicks, struggles and puffs up the
dust. Meanwhile a tall, dour man in a straw hat is rolling up a
shirt-sleeve, and alternately bending and stretching a long arm,
whilst a lithe, white-headed young stripling is hopping, sparrow-
like, from one onlooker to another, and exclaiming in suppressed,
“Stop it, pray stop it, or we shall be arrested for creating a
Presently the tall man strides towards the fair-headed peasant,
deals him a single blow which knocks him from the back of the
young fellow, and, turning to the crowd, says with an informing
“THAT’S how we do it in Tambov!”
“Brutes! Villains!” screams the woman from Riazan, as she bends
over the young fellow. Her cheeks are livid, and as she wipes the
flushed face of the beaten youth with the hem of her gown, her
dark eyes are flashing with dry wrath, and her lips quivering so
painfully as to disclose a set of fine, level teeth.
Konev, pecking up to her, says with an air of advice:
“You had better take him away, and give him some water.”
Upon this the fair-headed muzhik, rising to his knees, stretches
a fist towards the man from Tambov, and exclaims:
“Why should he have gone and bragged of his strength, pray?”
“Was that a good reason for thrashing him?”
“And who are you?”
“Who am I?”
“Yes, who are YOU?”
“Never mind. See that I don’t give you another swipe!”
Upon this the onlookers plunge into a heated debate as to who
was actually the beginner of the disturbance, while the lithe
young fellow continues to wring his hands, and cry imploringly:
“DON’T make so much noise about it! Remember that we are in a
strange land, and that the folk hereabouts are strict.”
So queerly do his ears project from his head that he would seem
to be able, if he pleased, to fold them right over his eyes.
Suddenly from the roseate heavens comes the vibrant note of a
bell; whereupon, the hubbub ceases and at the same moment a young
Cossack with a face studded with freckles, and, in his hands, a
cudgel, makes his appearance among the crowd.
“What does all this mean?” he inquires not uncivilly.
“They have been beating a man,” the woman from Riazan replies.
As she does so she looks comely in spite of her wrath.
The Cossack glances at her–then smiles.
“And where is the party going to sleep?” he inquires of the
“Here,” someone ventures.
“Then you must not–someone might break into the church. Go,
rather, to the Ataman [Cossack headman or mayor], and you will
be billeted among the huts.”
“It is a matter of no consequence,” Konev remarks as he paces
beside me. “Yet–”
“They seem to be taking us for robbers,” is my interruption.
“As is everywhere the way,” he comments. “It is but one thing
more laid to our charge. Caution decides always that a stranger
is a thief.”
In front of us walks the woman from Riazan, in company with the
young fellow of the bloated features. He is downcast of mien, and
at length mutters something which I cannot catch, but in answer
to which she tosses her head, and says in a distinct, maternal
“You are too young to associate with such brutes.”
The bell of the church is slowly beating, and from the huts there
keep coming neat old men and women who make the hitherto deserted
street assume a brisk appearance, and the squat huts take on a
In a resonant, girlish voice there meets our ears:
“Ma-am! Ma-amka! Where is the key of the green box? I want my
While in answer to the bell’s summons, the oxen low a deep echo.
The wind has fallen, but reddish clouds still are gliding over
the hamlet, and the mountain peaks blushing until they seem,
thawing, to be sending streams of golden, liquid fire on to the
steppes, where, as though cast in stone, a stork, standing on one
leg, is listening, seemingly, to the rustling of the heat-
In the forecourt of the Ataman’s hut we are deprived of our
passports, while two of our number, found to be without such
documents, are led away to a night’s lodging in a dark storehouse
in a corner of the premises. Everything is executed quietly
enough, and without the least fuss, purely as a matter of
routine; yet Konev mutters, as dejectedly he contemplates the
“What a surprising thing, to be sure!”
“A passport. Surely a decent, peaceable man ought to be able to
travel WITHOUT a passport? So long as he be harmless, let him–”
“You are not harmless,” with angry emphasis the woman from
Konev closes his eyes with a smile, and says nothing more.
Almost until the vigil service is over are we kept kicking our
heels about that forecourt, like sheep in a slaughter-house. Then
Konev, myself, the two women, and the fat-faced young fellow are
led away towards the outskirts of the village, and allotted an
empty hut with broken-down walls and a cracked window.
“No going out will be permitted,” says the Cossack who has
conducted us thither. “Else you will be arrested.”
“Then give us a morsel of bread,” Konev says with a stammer.
“Have you done any work here?” the Cossack inquires.
“No. It did not so happen.”
“When it does so happen I will give you some bread.”
And like a water-butt the fat kindly-looking man goes rolling out
of the yard.
“What else was to be expected?” grumbles Konev with his
eyebrows elevated to the middle of his forehead. “The folk
hereabouts are knaves. Ah, well!”
As for the women, they withdraw to the darkest corner of the hut,
and lie down, while the young fellow disappears after probing the
walls and floor, and returns with an armful of straw which he
strews upon the hard, beaten clay. Then he stretches himself
thereon with hands clasped behind his battered head.
“See the resourcefulness of that fellow from Penza!” comments
Konev enviously. “Hi, you women! There is, it would seem, some
To this comes from the women’s corner the acid reply:
“Then go and fetch some.”
“Yes, for us.”
“Then I must, I suppose.”
Nevertheless Konev merely remains sitting on the windowsill, and
discoursing on the subject of certain needy folk who do but
desire to go and say their prayers in church, yet are banded into
“Yes, and though you may say that folk, the world over, have a
soul in common, I tell you that this is not so–that, on the
contrary, we Russian strangers find it a hard matter here to get
looked upon as respectable.”
With which he slips out quietly into the street, and disappears
The young fellow’s sleep is restless–he keeps tossing about, with
his fat arms and legs sprawling over the floor, and grunting, and
snoring. Under him the straw makes a crackling sound, while the
two women whisper together in the darkness, and the reeds of the
dry thatch on the roof rustle (the wind is still drawing an
occasional breath), and ever and anon a twig brushes against an
outside wall. The scene is like a scene in a dream.
Out of doors the myriad tongues of the pitch-black, starless
night seem to be debating something in soft, sad, pitiful tones
which ever keep growing fainter; until, when the hour of ten has
been struck on the watchman’s gong, and the metal ceases to
vibrate, the world grows quieter still, much as though all living
things, alarmed by the clang in the night, have concealed
themselves in the invisible earth or the equally invisible
I seat myself by the window, and watch how the earth keeps
exhaling darkness, and the darkness enveloping, drowning the
grey, blurred huts in black, tepid vapour, though the church
remains invisible–evidently something stands interposed between
it and my viewpoint. And it seems to me that the wind, the seraph
of many pinions which has spent three days in harrying the land,
must now have whirled the earth into a blackness, a denseness, in
which, exhausted, and panting, and scarcely moving, it is
helplessly striving to remain within the encompassing, all-
pervading obscurity where, helpless and weary in like degree, the
wind has sloughed its thousands of wing-feathers–feathers white
and blue and golden of tint, but also broken, and smeared with
dust and blood.
And as I think of our petty, grievous human life, as of a
drunkard’s tune on a sorry musical instrument, or as of a
beautiful song spoilt by a witless, voiceless singer, there
begins to wail in my soul an insatiable longing to breathe forth
words of sympathy with all mankind, words of burning love for all
the world, words of appreciation of, for example, the sun’s
beauty as, enfolding the earth in his beams, and caressing and
fertilising her, he bears her through the expanses of blue. Yes,
I yearn to recite to my fellow-men words which shall raise their
heads. And at length I find myself compounding the following
To our land we all are born
In happiness to dwell.
The sun has bred us to this land
Its fairness to excel.
In the temple of the sun
We high priests are, divine.
Then each of us should claim his life,
And cry, ” This life is mine!”
Meanwhile from the women’s corner there comes a soft,
intermittent whispering; and as it continues to filter through
the darkness, I strain my ears until I succeed in catching a few
of the words uttered, and can distinguish at least the voices of
The woman from Riazan mutters firmly, and with assurance:
“Never ought you to show that it hurts you.”
And with a sniff, in a tone of dubious acquiescence, her
“Ye-es-so long as one can bear it.”
“Ah, but never mind. PRETEND. That is to say, when he beats you,
make light of it, and treat it as a joke.”
“But what if he beats me very much indeed?”
“Continue still to make light of it, still to smile at him
“Well, YOU can never have been beaten, for you do not seem to
know what it is like.”
“Oh, but I have, my dear–I do know what it is like, for my
experience of it has been large. Do not be afraid, however. HE
won’t beat you.”
A dog yelps, pauses a moment to listen, and then barks more
angrily than ever. Upon that other dogs reply, and for a moment
or two I am annoyed to find that I cannot overhear the women’s
conversation. In time, however, the dogs cease their uproar, for
want of breath, and the suppressed dialogue filters once more to
“Never forget, my dear, that a muzhik’s life is a hard one. Yes,
for us plain folk life is hard. Hence, one ought to make nothing
of things, and let them come easy to one.”
“Mother of God!”
“And particularly should a woman so face things; for upon her
everything depends. For one thing, let her take to herself, in
place of her mother, a husband or a sweetheart. Yes, try that,
and see. And though, at first, your husband may find fault with
you, he will afterwards take to boasting to other muzhiks that he
has a wife who can do everything, and remain ever as bright and
loving as the month of May. Never does she give in; never WOULD
she give in–no, not if you were to cut off her head!”
“Yes. And see if that will not come to be your opinion as much
Again, to my annoyance, the dialogue is interrupted–this time by
the sound of uncertain footsteps in the street without. Thus the
next words of the women’s conversation escape me. Then I hear:
“Have you ever read ‘The Vision of the Mother of God’?”
“N-no, I have not.”
“Then you had better ask some older woman than myself to tell
you about it, for it is a good book to become acquainted with.
Can you read?”
“No, I cannot. But tell me, yourself, what the vision was?”
“Listen, and I will do so.”
From outside the window Konev’s voice softly inquires:
“Is that our lot in there? Yes? Thank God, then, for I had
nearly lost my way after stirring up a lot of dogs, and being
forced to use my fists upon them. Here, you! Catch hold!”
With which, handing me a large watermelon, he clambers through
the window with a great clattering and disturbance.
“I have managed also to gee a good supply of bread,” he
continues. “Perhaps you believe that I stole it? But no. Indeed,
why should one steal when one can beg-a game at which I am
particularly an old hand, seeing that always, on any occasion, I
can make up to people? It happened like this. When I went out I
saw a fire glowing in a hut, and folk seated at supper. And
since, wherever many people are present, one of them at least has
a kind heart, I ate and drank my fill, and then managed to make
off with provender for you as well. Hi, you women!”
There follows no answer.
“I believe those daughters of whores must be asleep,” he
comments. “Hi, women!”
“What is it?” drily inquires the woman from Riazan.
“Should you like a taste of water-melon?”
“I should, thank you.”
Thereupon, Konev begins to make his way towards the voice.
“Yes, bread, soft wheaten bread such as you–”
Here the, other woman whines in beggar fashion:
“And give ME a taste, too.”
“Oh, yes, I will. But where the devil are you?”
“And a taste of melon as well?”
“Yes, certainly. Hullo! Who is this?”
From the woman from Riazan comes a cry of pain.
“Mind how you step, wretch!” she exclaims.
“All right, but you needn’t make so much noise about it. You see
how dark it is, and I–”
“You ought to have struck a match, then.”
“I possess but a quarter of a match, for matches are not over-
plentiful, and even if I did catch hold of you no great harm can
have been done. For instance, when your husband used to beat you
he must have hurt you far worse than I. By the way, DID he beat
“What business is that of yours?”
“None; only, I am curious to know. Surely a woman like you–”
“See here. Do not dare to touch me, or I–”
“Or you what?”
There ensues a prolonged altercation amid which I can hear
epithets of increasing acerbity and opprobrium being applied;
until the woman from Riazan exclaims hoarsely:
“Oh, you coward of a man, take that!”
Whereupon follows a scrimmage amid which I can distinguish
slappings, gross chuckles from Konev, and a muffled cry from the
younger woman of:
“Oh, do not so behave, you wretch!”
Striking a match, I approach the spot, and pull Konev away. He is
in no way abashed, but merely cooled in his ardour as, seated on
the floor at my feet, and panting and expectorating, he says
reprovingly to the woman:
“When folk wish merely to have a game with you, you ought not to
let yourself lose your temper. Fie, fie!”
“Are you hurt?” the woman inquires quietly.
“What do you suppose? You have cut my lip, but that is the worst
“Then if you come here again I will lay the whole of your face
“Vixen! What bumpkinish stupidity!”
Konev turns to myself.
“And as for you, you go catching at the first thing you find,
and have torn my coat.”
“Then do not insult people.”
“INSULT people, fool? The idea of anyone insulting a woman like
Whereafter, with a mean chuckle, the fellow goes on to discourse
upon the ease with which peasant women err, and upon their love
of deceiving their husbands.
“The impudent rascal!” comments the woman from Penza sleepily.
After a while the young fellow springs to his feet, and grates
his teeth. Then, reseating himself, and clutching at his head, he
“I intend to leave here tomorrow, and go home. I do not care
WHAT becomes of me.”
With which he subsides on to the floor as though exhausted.
“The blockhead!” is Konev’s remark.
Amid the darkness a black shape rises. It does so as soundlessly
as a fish in a pond, glides to the door, and disappears.
“That was she,” remarks Konev. “What a strong woman! However, if
you had not pulled me away, I should have got the better of her.
By God I should!”
“Then follow her, and make another attempt.”
“No,” after a moment’s reflection he rejoins. “Out there she
might get hold of a stick, or a brick, or some such thing.
However, I’LL get even with her. As a matter of fact, you wasted
your time in stopping me, for she detests me like the very
And he renews his wearisome boastings of his conquests; until
suddenly, he stops as though he has swallowed his tongue.
All becomes quiet; everything seems to have come to a halt, and
to be pressing close in sleep to the motionless earth. I too grow
drowsy, and have a vision amid which my mind returns to the
donations which I have received that day, and sees them swell and
multiply and increase in weight until I feel their bulk pressing
upon me like a tumulus of the steppes. Next, the coppery notes of
a bell jar in my ears, and, struck at random intervals, go
floating away into the darkness.
It is the hour of midnight.
Soon, scattered drops of rain begin to patter down upon the dry
thatch of the hut and the dust in the street outside, while a
cricket continues chirping as though it were hurriedly relating
a tale. Also, I hear filtering forth into the darkness a softly
gulped, eager whispering.
“Think,” says one of the voices, ” what it must mean to have to
go tramping about without work, or only with work for another to
The young fellow who has been so soundly thrashed replies in a
“I know nothing of you.”
“More softly, more softly!” urges the woman.
“What is it you want?”
“I want NOTHING. It is merely that I am sorry for you as a man
yet young and strong. You see–well, I have not lived with my eyes
shut. That is why I say, come with me.”
“But come whither?”
“To the coast, where I know there to be beautiful plots of land
for the asking. You yourself can see how good the land hereabout
is. Well, there land better still is to be obtained.”
“More softly, more softly!” again urges the woman. “Moreover,
I am not bad-looking, and can manage things well, and do any sort
of work. Hence you and I might live quite peacefully and happily,
and come, eventually, to have a place of our own. Yes, and I
could bear and rear you a child. Only see how fit I am. Only feel
this breast of mine.”
The young fellow snorts, and I begin to find the situation
oppressive, and to long to let the couple know that I am not
asleep. Curiosity, however, prevents me, and I continue listening
to the strange, arresting dialogue.
“Wait a little,” whispers the woman with a gasp. “Do not play
with me, for I am not that sort of woman. Yes, I mean what I say.
Rudely, roughly the young fellow replies:
“Then don’t run after me. A woman who runs after a man, and
plays the whore with him, is–”
“Less noise, please–less noise, I beg of you, or we shall be
heard, and I shall be put to shame!”
“Doesn’t it put you to shame to be offering yourself to me like
A silence ensues, save that the young fellow goes on snorting and
fidgeting, and the raindrops continue to fall with the same
reluctance, the same indolence, as ever. Then once more the
woman’s voice is heard through the pattering.
“Perhaps,” says the voice, “you have guessed that I am seeking
a husband? Yes, I AM seeking one–a good, steady muzhik.”
“But I am NOT a good, steady muzhik.”
“What?” he sniggers. “A husband for you? The impudence of you!
A ‘husband’! Go along!”
“Listen to me. I am tired of tramping.”
“Then go home.”
This time there ensues a long pause. Then the woman says very
“I have neither home nor kindred.”
“A lie!” ejaculates the young fellow.
“No, by God it is not a lie! The Mother of God forget me if it
In these last words I can detect the note of tears. By this time
the situation has become intolerable, for I am yearning to rise
and kick the young fellow out of the hut, and then to have a long
and earnest talk with his companion. “Oh that I could take her
to my arms,” I reflect, “and cherish her as I would a poor lost
After a while the sounds of a new struggle between the pair are
“Don’t put me off like that!” growls the young fellow.
“And don’t you make any attempt upon me! I am not the sort of
woman to be forced.”
The next moment there arises a cry of pain and astonishment.
“What was that for? What was that for?” the woman wails.
With an answering exclamation I spring to my feet, for my
feelings have become those of a wild beast.
At once everything grows quiet again, save that someone, crawls
over the floor and, in leaving the hut, jars the latch of the
crazy, single-hinged portal.
“It was not my fault,” grumbles the young fellow. “It all came
of that stinking woman offering herself to me. Besides, the place
is full of bugs, and I cannot sleep.”
“Beast!” pants someone in the vicinity.
“Hold your tongue, bitch!” is the fellow’s retort.
By now the rain has ceased, and such air as filters through the
window seems increasedly stifling. Momentarily the hush grows
deeper, until the breast feels filled with a sense of oppression,
and the face and eyes as though they were glued over with a web.
Even when I step into the yard I find the place to be like a
cellar on a summer’s day, when the very ice has melted in the
dark retreat, and the latter’s black cavity is charged with hot,
Somewhere near me a woman is gulping out sobs. For a moment or
two I listen; then I approach her, and come upon her seated in a
corner with her head in her hands, and her body rocking to and
fro as though she were doing me obeisance.
Yet I feel angry, somehow, and remain standing before her without
speaking– until at length I ask:
“Are you mad?”
“Go away,” is, after a pause, her only reply.
“I heard all that you said to that young fellow.”
“Oh, did you? Then what business is it of yours? Are you my
Yet she speaks the words absent-mindedly rather than angrily.
Around us the dim, blurred walls are peering in our direction
with sightless eyes, while in the vicinity a bullock is drawing
I seat myself by her side.
“Should you remain much longer in that position,” I remark, “you
will have a headache.”
There follows no reply.
“Am I disturbing you? ” I continue.
“Oh no; not at all.” And, lowering her hands, she looks at me.
“Whence do you come?”
“From Nizhni Novgorod.”
“Oh, from a long way off!”
“Do you care for that young fellow?”
Not for a moment or two does she answer; and when she does so she
answers as though the words have been rehearsed.
“Not particularly. It is that he is a strong young fellow who
has lost his way, and is too much of a fool (as you too must have
seen) to find it again. So I am very sorry for him. A good muzhik
ought to be well placed.”
On the bell of the church there strikes the hour of two. Without
interrupting herself, the woman crosses her breast at each
“Always,” she continues, “I feel sorry when I see a fine young
fellow going to the dogs. If I were able, I would take all such
young men, and restore them to the right road.”
“Then you are not sorry FOR YOURSELF? ”
“Not for myself? Oh yes, for myself as well.”
“Then why flaunt yourself before this booby, as you have been
“Because I might reform him. Do you not think so? Ah, you do not
A sigh escapes her.
“He hit you, I think?” I venture.
“No, he did not. And in any case you are not to touch him.”
“Yet you cried out?”
Suddenly she leans towards me, and says:
“Yes, he did strike me–he struck me on the breast, and would
have overpowered me had it not been that I cannot, I will not, do
things heartlessly, like a cat. Oh, the brutes that men can be!”
Here the conversation undergoes an interruption through the fact
that someone has come out to the hut door, and is whistling
softly, as for a dog.
“There he is!” whispers the woman.
“Then had I not best send him about his business?”
“No, no!” she exclaims, catching at my knees. “No need is
there for that, no need is there for that!”
Then with a low moan she adds:
“Oh Lord, how I pity our folk and their lives! Oh God our Father!”
Her shoulders heave, and presently she bursts into tears, with a
whisper, between the pitiful sobs, of:
“How, on such a night as this, one remembers all that one has
ever seen, and the folk that ever one has known! And oh, how
wearisome, wearisome it all is! And how I should like to cry
throughout the world–But to cry what? I know not–I have no
message to deliver.”
That feeling I can understand as well as she, for all too often
has it seemed to crush my soul with voiceless longing.
Then, as I stroke her bowed head and quivering shoulder, I ask
her who she is; and presently, on growing a little calmer, she
tells me the history of her life.
She is, it appears, the daughter of a carpenter and bee-keeper.
On her mother’s death, this man married a young woman, and
allowed her, as stepmother, to persuade him to place the
narrator, Tatiana, in a convent, where she (Tatiana) lived from
the age of nine till adolescence, and, meanwhile, was taught her
letters, and also a certain amount of manual labour; until,
later, her father married her off to a friend of his, a well-to-
do ex-soldier, who was acting as forester on the convent’s estate.
As the woman relates this, I feel vexed that I cannot see her
face–only a dim, round blur amid which there looms what appears
to be a pair of closed eyes. Also, so complete is the stillness,
that she can narrate her story in a barely audible whisper; and I
gain the impression that the pair of us are sitting plunged in a
void of darkness where life does not exist, yet where we are
destined to begin life.
“However, the man was a libertine and a drunkard, and many a
riotous night did he spend with his cronies in the porter’s lodge
of the convent. Also, he tried to arouse a similar taste in
myself; and though for a time I resisted the tendency, I at
length, on his taking to beating me, yielded. Only for one man,
however, had I really a liking; and with him it was, and not with
my husband, that I first learnt the meaning of spousehood. . . .
Unfortunately, my lover himself was married; and in time his wife
came to hear of me, and procured my husband’s dismissal. The
chief reason was that the lady, a person of great wealth, was
herself handsome, albeit stout, and did not care to see her place
assumed by a nobody. Next, my husband died of drink; and as my
father had long been dead, and I found myself alone, I went to
see and consult my stepmother. All that she said, however, was:
‘Why come to me? Go and think things out for yourself.’ And I too
then reflected: ‘Yes, why should I have gone to her? ‘ and
repaired to the convent. Yet even there there seemed to be no
place left for me, and eventually old Mother Taisia, who had once
been my governess, said: ‘Tatiana, do you return to the world,
for there, and only there, will you have a chance of happiness.
So to the world I returned –and still am roaming it.”
“Your quest of happiness is not following an easy road!”
“It is following the road that it best can.”
By now the darkness has ceased to keep spread over us, as it
were, the stretched web of a heavy curtain, but has grown thinner
and more transparent with the tension, save that, in places (for
instance, in the window of the hut), it still lies in thick folds
or clots as it peers at us with its sightless eyes.
Over the hummock-like roofs of the huts rise the church’s steeple
and the poplar trees; while hither and thither on the wall of the
hut, the cracks and holes in the crumbling plaster have caused the
wall to resemble the map of an unknown country.
Glancing at the woman’s dark eyes, I perceive them to be shining
as pensively, innocently as the eyes of a young maiden.
“You are indeed a curious woman!” I remark.
“Perhaps I am,” she replies as she moistens her lips with a
slender, almost feline tongue.
“What are you really seeking?”
“I have considered the matter, and know, at last, my mind. It is
this: I hope some day to fall in with a good muzhik with whom to
go in search of land. Probably land of the kind, I mean, is to be
found in the neighbourhood of New Athos, [A monastery in the
Caucasus, built on the reputed site of a cave tenanted by Simeon
the Canaanite] for I have been there already, and know of a
likely spot for the purpose. And there we shall set our place in
order, and lay out a garden and an orchard, and prepare as much
plough land as we may need for our working.”
Her words are now firmer, more assured.
“And when we have put everything in order, other folk may join
us; and then, as the oldest settlers in the place, we shall hold
the position of honour. And thus things will continue until a new
village, really a fine settlement, will have become formed–a
settlement of which my husband will be selected the warden until
such time as I shall have made of him a barin [Gentleman or
squire] outright. Also, children may one day play in that
garden, and a summer-house be built there. Ah, how delightful
such a life appears!”
In fact, she has planned out the future so thoroughly that
already she can describe the new establishment in as much detail
as though she has long been a resident in it.
“Yes, I yearn indeed for a nice home!” she continues. “Oh that
such a home could fall to my lot! But the first requisite, of
course, is a muzhik.”
Her gentle face and eyes peer into the waning night as though
they aspire to caress everything upon which they may light.
And all the while I am feeling sorry for her–sorry almost to
tears. To conceal the fact I murmur:
“Should I myself suit you?”
She gives a faint laugh.
“Because the ideas in your mind are different from mine.”
“How do you know what my ideas are?”
She edges away from me a little,then says drily:
“Because I can see them in your eyes. To be plain, I could never
With a finger tapping upon the mouldy, gnarled old oaken stump on
which we are sitting, she adds:
“The Cossacks, for instance, live comfortably enough; yet I do
not like them.”
“What in them is it that displeases you?”
“Somehow they repel me. True, much of everything is theirs; yet
also they have ways which alienate me.”
Unable any longer to conceal from her my pity, I say gently:
“Never, I fear, will you discover what you are seeking.”
She shakes her head protestingly.
“And never ought a woman to be discouraged,” she retorts.
“Woman’s proper round is to wish for a child, and to nurse it,
and, when it has been weaned, to get herself ready to have
another one. That is how woman should live. She should live as
pass spring and summer, autumn and winter.”
I find it a pleasure to watch the play of the woman’s
intellectual features; and though, also, I long to take her in my
arms, I feel that my better plan will be to seek once more the
quiet, empty steppe, and, bearing in me the recollection of this
woman, to resume my lonely journey towards the region where the
silver wall of the mountains merges with the sky, and the dark
ravines gape at the steppe with their chilly jaws. At the moment,
however, I cannot so do, for the Cossacks have temporarily
deprived me of my passport.
“What are you yourself seeking?” she asks suddenly as again she
edges towards me.
“Simply nothing. My one desire is to observe how folk live.”
“And are you travelling alone?”
“Even as am I. Oh God, how many lonely people there are in the
By this time the cattle are awakening from slumber, and, with
their soft lowings, reminding one of a pipe which I used to hear
played by a certain blind old man. Next, four times, with
unsteady touch, the drowsy watchman strikes his gong–twice
softly, once with a vigour that clangs the metal again, and a
fourth time with a mere tap of the iron hammer against the copper
“What sort of lives do the majority of folk lead?”
“Yes, that is what I too have found.”
A pause follows. Then the woman says quietly:
“See, dawn is breaking, yet never this night have my eyes
closed. Often I am like that; often I keep thinking and thinking
until I seem to be the only human being in the world, and the
only human being destined to re-order it.”
“Many folk live unworthy lives. They live them amid discord,
abasement, and wrongs innumerable, wrongs born of want and
And as the words leave my lips my mind loses itself in
recollections of all the dark and harrowing and shameful scenes
that I have beheld.
“Listen,” I say. “You may approach a man with nothing but good
in your heart, and be prepared to surrender both your freedom and
your strength; yet still he may fail to understand you aright.
And how shall he be blamed for this, seeing that never may he
have been shown what is good?”
She lays a hand upon my shoulder, and looks straight into my eyes
as she parts her comely lips.
“True,” she rejoins–“But, dear friend, it is also true that
goodness never bargains.”
Together she and I seem to be drifting towards a vista which is
coming to look, as it sloughs the shadow of night, ever clearer
and clearer. It is a vista of white huts, silvery trees, a red
church, and dew-bespangled earth. And as the sun rises he reveals
to us clustered, transparent clouds which, like thousands of
snow-white birds, go gliding over our heads.
“Yes,” she whispers again as gently she gives me a nudge. “As one
pursues one’s lonely way one thinks and thinks–but of
what? Dear friend, you have said that no one really cares what is
the matter. Ah, HOW true that is! ”
Here she springs to her feet, and, pulling me up with her, glues
herself to my breast with a vehemence which causes me momentarily
to push her away. Upon this, bursting into tears, she tends
towards me again, and kisses me with lips so dry as almost to cut
me–she kisses me in a way which penetrates to my very soul.
“You have been oh, so good!” she whispers softly. As she speaks,
the earth seems to be sinking under my feet.
Then she tears herself away, glances around the courtyard, and
darts to a corner where, under a fence, a clump of herbage is
“Go now,” she adds in a whisper. “Yes, go.”
Then, with a confused smile, as, crouching among the herbage as
though it had been a small cave, she rearranges her hair, she
“It has befallen so. Ah, me! May God grant unto me His pardon!”
Astonished, feeling that I must be dreaming, I gaze at her with
gratitude, for I sense an extraordinary lightness to be present
in my breast, a radiant void through which joyous, intangible
words and thoughts keep flying as swallows wheel across the
“Amid a great sorrow,” she adds, “even a small joy becomes a
Yet as I glance at the woman’s bosom, whereon moist beads are
standing like dewdrops on the outer earth; as I glance at that
bosom, whereon the sun’s rays are finding a roseate reflection,
as though the blood were oozing through the skin, my rapture dies
away, and turns to sorrow, heartache, and tears. For in me there
is a presentiment that before the living juice within that bosom
shall have borne fruit, it will have become dried up.
Presently, in a tone almost of self-excuse, and one wherein the
words sound a little sadly, she continues:
“Times there are when something comes pouring into my soul which
makes my breasts ache with the pain of it. What is there for me
to do at such moments save reveal my thoughts to the moon, or, in
the daytime, to a river? Oh God in Heaven! And afterwards I feel
as ashamed of myself! . . . Do not look at me like that. Why
stare at me with those eyes, eyes so like the eyes of a child?”
“YOUR face, rather, is like a child’s,” I remark.
“What? Is it so stupid?”
“Something like that.”
As she fastens up her bodice she continues:
“Soon the time will be five o’clock, when the bell will ring for
Mass. To Mass I must go today, for I have a prayer to offer to
the Mother of God. . . Shall you be leaving here soon?”
“Yes–as soon, that is to say, as I have received back my
“And for what destination?”
“For Alatyr. And you?”
She straightens her attire, and rises. As she does so I perceive
that her hips are narrower than her shoulders, and that
throughout she is well-proportioned and symmetrical.
“I? As yet I do not know. True, I had thought of proceeding to
Naltchik, but now, perhaps, I shall not do so, for all my future
Upon that she extends to me a pair of strong, capable arms, and
proposes with a blush:
“Shall we kiss once more before we part?”
She clasps me with the one arm, and with the other makes the sign
of the cross, adding:
“Good-bye, dear friend, and may Christ requite you for all your
words, for all your sympathy!”
“Then shall we travel together?”
At the words she frees herself, and says firmly, nay, sternly:
“Not so. Never would I consent to such a plan. Of course, had
you been a muzhik–but no. Even then what would have been the use
of it, seeing that life is to be measured, not by a single hour,
but by years?”
And, quietly smiling me a farewell, she moves away towards the
hut, whilst I, remaining seated, lose myself in thoughts of her.
Will she ever overtake her quest in life? Shall I ever behold her
The bell for early Mass begins, though for some time past the
hamlet has been astir, and humming in a sedate and non-festive
I enter the hut to fetch my wallet, and find the place empty.
Evidently the whole party has left by the gap in the broken-down
I repair, next, to the Ataman’s office, where I receive back my
passport before setting out to look for my companions in the
In similar fashion to yesterday those “folk from Russia ” are
lolling alongside the churchyard wall, and also have seated among
them, leaning his back against a log, the fat-jowled youth from
Penza, with his bruised face looking even larger and uglier than
before, for the reason that his eyes are sunken amid purple
Presently there arrives a newcomer in the shape of an old man
with a grey head adorned with a faded velvet skull-cap, a pointed
beard, a lean, withered frame, prominent cheekbones, a red,
porous-looking, cunningly hooked nose, and the eyes of a thief.
Him a flaxen-haired youth from Orel joins with a similar youth in
“Why are YOU tramping?” inquires the former.
“And why are YOU? ” the old man retorts in nasal tones as,
looking at no one, he proceeds to mend the handle of a battered
metal teapot with a piece of wire.
“We are travelling in search of work, and therefore living as we
have been commanded to live.”
“By WHOM commanded?”
“By God. Have you forgotten?”
Carelessly, but succinctly, the old man retorts:
“Take heed lest upon you, some day, God vomit all the dust and
litter which you are raising by tramping His earth!”
“How?” cries one of the youths, a long-eared stripling.
“Were not Christ and His Apostles also tramps?”
“Yes, CHRIST,” is the old man’s meaning reply as he raises his
sharp eyes to those of his opponent. “But what are you talking
of, you fools? With whom are you daring to compare yourselves?
Take care lest I report you to the Cossacks!”
I have listened to many such arguments, and always found them
distasteful, even as I have done discussions regarding the soul.
Hence I feel inclined to depart.
At this moment, however, Konev makes his appearance. His mien is
dejected, and his body perspiring, while his eyes keep blinking
“Has any one seen Tanka–that woman from Riazan?” he inquires.
“No? Then the bitch must have bolted during the night. The fact is
that, overnight, someone gave me a drop or two to drink, a mere
dram, but enough to lay me as fast asleep as a bear in winter-
time. And in the meantime, she must have run away with that Penza
“No, HE is here,” I remark.
“Oh, he is, is he? Well, as what has the company registered
itself? As a set of ikon-painters, I should think!”
Again he begins to look anxiously about him.
“Where can she have got to? ” he queries.
“To Mass, maybe.”
“0F course! Well, I am greatly smitten with her. Yes, my word I
Nevertheless, when Mass comes to an end, and, to the sound of a
merry peal of bells, the well-dressed local Cossacks file out of
church, and distribute themselves in gaudy streams about the
hamlet, no Tatiana makes her appearance.
“Then she IS gone,” says Konev ruefully. “But I’ll find her
yet! I’LL come up with her!”
That this will happen I do not feel confident. Nor do I desire
that it should.
Five years later I am pacing the courtyard of the Metechski
Prison in Tiflis, and, as I do so, trying to imagine for what
particular offence I have been incarcerated in that place of
Picturesquely grim without, the institution is, inwardly, peopled
with a set of cheerful, but clumsy, humourists. That is to say,
it would seem as though, ” by order of the authorities,” the
inmates are presenting a stage spectacle in which they are
playing, willingly and zealously, but with a complete lack of
experience, imperfectly comprehended roles as prisoners, warders,
For instance, today, when a warder and a gendarme came to my
cell to escort me to exercise, and I said to them, ” May I be
excused exercise today? I am not very well, and do not feel like,
etcetera, etcetera,” the gendarme, a tall, handsome man with a
red beard, held up to me a warning finger.
“NO ONE,” he said, “has given you permission to feel, or not to
feel, like doing things.”
To which the warder, a man as dark as a chimney-sweep, with large
blue “whites” to his eyes, added stutteringly:
“To no one here has permission been given to feel, or not to
feel, like doing things. You hear that?”
So to exercise I went.
In this stone-paved yard the air is as hot as in an oven, for
overhead there lours only a small, flat patch of dull, drab-
tinted sky, and on three sides of the yard rise high grey walls,
with, on the fourth, the entrance-gates, topped by a sort of
Over the roof of the building there comes floating the dull roar
of the turbulent river Kura, mingled with shouts from the
hucksters of the Avlabar Bazaar (the town’s Asiatic quarter) and
as a cross motif thrown into these sounds, the sighing of the
wind and the cooing of doves. In fact, to be here is like being
in a drum which a myriad drumsticks are beating.
Through the bars of the double line of windows on the second and
the third stories peer the murky faces and towsled heads of some
of the inmates. One of the latter spits his furthest into the
yard–evidently with the intention of hitting myself: but all his
efforts prove vain. Another one shouts with a mordant expletive:
“Hi, you! Why do you keep tramping up and down like an old hen?
Hold up your head!”
Meanwhile the inmates continue to intone in concert a strange
chant which is as tangled as a skein of wool after serving as a
plaything for a kitten’s prolonged game of sport. Sadly the chant
meanders, wavers, to a high, wailing note. Then, as it were, it
soars yet higher towards the dull, murky sky, breaks suddenly
into a snarl, and, growling like a wild beast in terror, dies
away to give place to a refrain which coils, trickles forth from
between the bars of the windows until it has permeated the free,
As I listen to that refrain, long familiar to me, it seems to
voice something intelligible, and agitates my soul almost to a
sense of agony. . . .
Presently, while pacing up and down in the shadow of the
building, I happen to glance towards the line of windows. Glued
to the framework of one of the iron window-squares, I can discern
a blue-eyed face. Overgrown with an untidy sable beard it is, as
well as stamped with a look of perpetually grieved surprise.
“That must be Konev,” I say to myself aloud.
Konev it is–Konev of the well-remembered eyes. Even at this
moment they are regarding me with puckered attention.
I throw around me a hasty glance. My own warder is dozing on a
shady bench near the entrance. Two more warders are engaged in
throwing dice. A fourth is superintending the pumping of water by
two convicts, and superciliously marking time for their lever
with the formula, “Mashkam, dashkam! Dashkam, mashkam!”
I move towards the wall.
“Is that you, Konev?” is my inquiry.
“It is,” he mutters as he thrusts his head a little further
through the grating. “Yes, Konev I am, but who you are I have
not a notion.”
“What are you here for?”
“For a matter of base coin, though, to be truthful, I am here
accidentally, without genuine cause.”
The warder rouses himself, and, with his keys jingling like a set
of fetters, utters drowsily the command:
“Do not stand still. Also, move further from the wall. To
approach it is forbidden.”
“But it is so hot in the middle of the yard, sir!”
“Everywhere it is hot,” retorts the man reprovingly, and his
head subsides again. From above comes the whispered query:
“Who ARE you?”
“Well, do you remember Tatiana, the woman from Riazan?”
“DO I remember her?” Konev’s voice has in it a touch of subdued
resentment. “DO I remember her? Why, I was tried in court
together with her!”
“Together with HER? Was she too sentenced for the passing of
“Yes. Why should she not have been? She was merely the victim of
an accident, even as I was.”
As I resume my walk in the stifling shade I detect that, from the
windows of the basement there is issuing a smell of, in equal
parts, rotten leather, mouldy grain, and dampness. To my mind
there recur Tatiana’s words: “Amid a great sorrow even a small
joy becomes a great felicity,” and, “I should like to build a
village on some land of my own, and create for myself a new and
And to my recollection there recur also Tatiana’s face and
yearning, hungry breast. As I stand thinking of these things,
there come dropping on to my head from above the low-spoken,
“The chief conspirator in the matter was her lover, the son of a
priest. He it was who engineered the plot. He has been sentenced
to ten years penal servitude.”
“And she? ”
“Tatiana Vasilievna? To the same, and I also. I leave for Siberia
the day after tomorrow. The trial was held at Kutair. In Russia
I should have got off with a lighter sentence than here, for the
folk in these parts are, one and all, evil, barbaric scoundrels.”
“And Tatiana, has she any children?”
“How could she have while living such a rough life as this? Of
course not! Besides, the priest’s son is a consumptive.”
“Indeed sorry for her am I!”
“So I expect.” And in Konev’s tone there would seem to be a
touch of meaning. “The woman was a fool–of that there can be no
doubt; but also she was comely, as well as a person out of the
common in her pity for folk.”
“Was it then that you found her again?”
“On that Feast of the Assumption?”
“Oh no. It was only during the following winter that I came up
with her. At the time she was serving as governess to the
children of an old officer in Batum whose wife had left him.”
Something snaps behind me–something sounding like the hammer of a
revolver. However, it is only the warder closing the lid of his
huge watch before restoring the watch to his pocket, giving
himself a stretch, and yawning to the utmost extent of his jaws.
“You see, she had money, and, but for her restlessness, might
have lived a comfortable life enough. As it was, her
“Time for exercise is up!” shouts the warder.
“Who are you?” adds Konev hastily. “Somehow I seem to remember
your face; but 1 cannot place it.”
Yet so stung am I with what I have heard that I move away in
silence: save that just as I reach the top of the steps I turn to
“Goodbye, mate, and give her my greeting.”
“What are you bawling for? ” blusters the warder. . . .
The corridor is dim, and filled with an oppressive odour. The
warder swings his keys with a dry, thin clash, and I, to dull the
pain in my heart, strive to imitate him. But the attempt proves
futile; and as the warder opens the door of my cell he says
“In with you, ten-years man!”
Entering, I move towards the window. Between some grey spikes on
a wall I can just discern the boisterous current of the Kura,
with sakli [warehouses] and houses glued to the opposite bank,
and the figures of some workmen on the roof of a tanning shed.
Below, with his cap pushed to the back of his head,a sentry is pacing
backwards and forwards.
Wearily my mind recalls the many scores of Russian folk whom it
has seen perish to no purpose. And as it does so it feels
crushed, as in a vice, beneath the burden of great and inexorable
sorrow with which all life is dowered.