In A Mountain Defile By Maxim Gorky

In a mountain defile near a little tributary of the Sunzha, there
was being built a workman’s barraque– a low, long edifice which
reminded one of a large coffin lid.

The building was approaching completion, and, meanwhile, a score
of carpenters were employed in fashioning thin planks into doors
of equal thinness, knocking together benches and tables, and
fitting window-frames into the small window-squares.

Also, to assist these carpenters in the task of protecting the
barraque from tribesmen’s nocturnal raids, the shrill-voiced
young student of civil engineering who had been set in charge of
the work had sent to the place, as watchman, an ex-soldier named
Paul Ivanovitch, a man of the Cossack type, and myself.

Yet whereas we were out-at-elbows, the carpenters were sleek,
respectable, monied, well-clad fellows. Also, there was something
dour and irritating about them, since, for one thing, they had
failed to respond to our greeting on our first appearance, and
eyed us with nothing but dislike and suspicion. Hence, hurt by
their chilly attitude, we had withdrawn from their immediate
neighbourhood, constructed a causeway of stepping stones to the
eastern bank of the rivulet, and taken up our abode beneath the
chaotic grey mists which enveloped the mountain side in that

Also, over the carpenters there was a foreman–a man whose bony
frame, clad in a white shirt and a pair of white trousers, looked
always as though it were ready-attired for death. Moreover, he
wore no cap to conceal the yellow patch of baldness which covered
most of his head, and, in addition, his nose was squat and grey,
his neck and face had over them skin of a porous, pumice-like
consistency, his eyes were green and dim, and upon his features
there was stamped a dead and disagreeable expression. To be
candid, however, behind the dark lips lay a set of fine, close
teeth, while the hairs of the grey beard (a beard trimmed after
the Tartar fashion) were thick and, seemingly, soft.

Never did this man put a hand actually to the work; always he
kept roaming about with the large, rigid-looking fingers of his
hands tucked into his belt, and his fixed and expressionless eyes
scanning the barraque, the men, and the work as his lips vented
some such lines as:

Oh God our Father, bound hast Thou
A crown of thorns upon my brow!
Listen to my humble prayer!
Lighten the burden which I bear!

“What on earth can be in the man’s mind?” once remarked the ex-
soldier, with a frowning glance at the singer.

As for our duties, my mates and I had nothing to do, and soon
began to find the time tedious. For his part, the man with the
Cossack physiognomy scaled the mountain side; whence he could be
heard whistling and snapping twigs with his heavy feet, while the
ex-soldier selected a space between two rocks for a shelter of
ace-rose boughs, and, stretching himself on his stomach, fell to
smoking strong mountain tobacco in his large meerschaum pipe as
dimly, dreamily he contemplated the play of the mountain torrent.
Lastly, I myself selected a seat on a rock which overhung the
brook, dipped my feet in the coolness of the water, and proceeded
to mend my shirt.

At intervals, the defile would convey to our ears a dull echo of
sounds so wholly at variance with the locality as muffled hammer-
blows, a screeching of saws, a rasping of planes, and a confused
murmur of human voices.

Also, a moist breeze blew constantly from the dark-blue depths of
the defile, and caused the stiff, upright larches on the knoll
behind the barraque to rustle their boughs, and distilled from
the rank soil the voluptuous scents of ace-rose and pitch-pine,
and evoked in the trees’ quiet gloom a soft, crooning, somnolent

About a sazhen [Fathom] below the level of the barraque there
coursed noisily over its bed of stones a rivulet white with foam.
Yet though of other sounds in the vicinity there were but few,
the general effect was to suggest that everything in the
neighbourhood was speaking or singing a tale of such sort as to
shame the human species into silence.

On our own side of the valley the ground lay bathed in sunshine–
lay scorched to the point of seeming to have spread over it a
tissue-cloth. Old gold in colour, while from every side arose the
sweet perfume of dried grasses, and in dark clefts there could be
seen sprouting the long, straight spears and fiery, reddish,
cone-shaped blossoms of that bold, hardy plant which is known to
us as saxifrage–the plant of which the contemplation makes one
long to burst into music, and fills one’s whole body with
sensuous languor.

Laced with palpitating, snow-white foam, the beautiful rivulet
pursued its sportive way over tessellated stones which flashed
through the eddies of the glassy, sunlit, amber-coloured water
with the silken sheen of a patchwork carpet or costly shawl of

Through the mouth of the defile one could reach the valley of the
Sunzha, whence, since men were ther, building a railway to
Petrovsk on the Caspian Sea, there kept issuing and breaking
against the crags a dull rumble of explosions, of iron rasped
against stone, of whistles of works locomotives, and of animated
human voices.

From the barraque the distance to the point where the defile
debouched upon the valley was about a hundred paces, and as one
issued thence one could see, away to the left, the level steppes
of the Cis-Caucasus, with a boundary wall of blue hills, topped
by the silver-hewn saddle of Mount Elburz behind it. True, for
the most part the steppes had a dry, yellow, sandy look, with
merely here and there dark patches of gardens or black poplar
clumps which rendered the golden glare more glaring still; yet
also there could be discerned on the expanse farm buildings
shaped like lumps of sugar or butter, with, in their vicinity,
toylike human beings and diminutive cattle — the whole shimmering
and melting in a mirage born of the heat. And at the mere sight
of those steppes, with their embroidery of silk under the blue of
the zenith, one’s muscles tightened, and one felt inspired with a
longing to spring to one’s feet, close one’s eyes, and walk for
ever with the soft, mournful song of the waste crooning in one’s

To the right also of the defile lay the winding valley of the
Sunzha, with more hills; and above those hills hung the blue sky,
and in their flanks were clefts which, full of grey mist, kept
emitting a ceaseless din of labour, a sound of dull explosions, as
a great puissant force attained release.

Yet almost at the same moment would that hurly-burly so merge
with the echo of our defile, so become buried in the defile’s
verdure and rock crevices, that once more the place would seem to
be singing only its own gentle, gracious song.

And, should one turn to glance up the defile, it could be seen to
grow narrower and narrower as it ascended towards the mists, and
the latter to grow thicker and thicker until the whole defile was
swathed in a dark blue pall. Higher yet there could be discerned
the brilliant gleam of blue sky. Higher yet one could distinguish
the ice-capped peak of Kara Dagh, floating and dissolving amid
the ( from here) invisible sunlight. Highest of all again brooded
the serene, steadfast peace of heaven.

Also, everything was bathed in a strange tint of bluish grey: to
which circumstance must have been due the fact that always one’s
soul felt filled with restlessness, one’s heart stirred to
disquietude, and fired as with intoxication, charged with
incomprehensible thoughts, and conscious as of a summons to set
forth for some unknown destination.


The foreman of the carpenters shaded his eyes to gaze in our
direction; and as he did so, he drawled and rasped out in tedious

“Some shall to the left be sent,
And in the pit of Hell lie pent.
While others, holding palm in hand,
Shall on God’s right take up their stand.”

“DID you hear that?” the ex-soldier growled through clenched
teeth. “‘Palm in hand’ indeed! Why, the fellow must be a
Mennonite or a Molokan, though the two, really, are one, and
absolutely indistinguishable, as well as equally foolish. Yes,
‘palm in hand’ indeed!”

Similarly could I understand the ex-soldier’s indignation, for,
like him, I felt that such dreary, monotonous singing was
altogether out of place in a spot where everything could troll a
song so delightful as to lead one to wish to hear nothing more,
to hear only the whispering of the forest and the babbling of the
stream. And especially out of place did the terms “palm” and
“Mennonite” appear.

Yet I had no great love for the ex-soldier. Somehow he jarred
upon me. Middle-aged, squat, square, and bleached with the sun,
he had faded eyes, flattened-out features, and an expression of
restless moroseness. Never could I make out what he really
wanted, what he was really seeking. For instance, once, after
reviewing the Caucasus from Khassav-Urt to Novorossisk, and from
Batum to Derbent, and, during the review, crossing the mountain
range by three different routes at least, he remarked with a
disparaging smile:

“I suppose the Lord God made the country.”

“You do not like it, then? How should I? Good for nothing is
what I call it.”

Then, with a further glance at me, and a twist of his sinewy
neck, he added:

“However, not bad altogether are its forests.”

A native of Kaluga, he had served in Tashkend, and, in fighting
with the Chechintzes of that region,had been wounded in the head
with a stone. Yet as he told me the story of this incident, he
smiled shamefacedly, and, throughout, kept his glassy eyes fixed
upon the ground.

“Though I am ashamed to confess it,” he said, “once a woman
chipped a piece out of me. You see, the women of that region are
shrieking devils–there is no other word for it; and when we
captured a village called Akhal-Tiapa a number of them had to be
cut up, so that they lay about in heaps, and their blood made
walking slippery. Just as our company of the reserve entered the
street, something caught me on the head. Afterwards, I learnt that
a woman on a roof had thrown a stone, and, like the rest, had had
to be put out of the way.”

Here, knitting his brows, the ex-soldier went on in more serious

“Yet all that folk used to say about those women, about their
having beards to shave, turned out to be so much gossip, as I
ascertained for myself. I did so by lifting the woman’s skirt on
the point of my bayonet, when I perceived that, though she was
lean, and smelt like a goat, she was quite as regular as, as–”

“Things must have been indeed terrible on that expedition!” I

“I do not know for certain, since, though men who took an actual
part in the expedition’s engagements have said that they were so
(the Chechintze is a vicious brute, and never gives in), I myself
know but little of the affair, since I spent my whole time in the
reserve, and never once did my company advance to the assault.
No, it merely lay about on the sand, and fired at long range. In
fact, nothing but sand was to be seen thereabouts; nor did we
ever succeed in finding out what the fighting was for. True, if a
piece of country be good, it is in our interest to take it; but
in the present case the country was poor and bare, with never a
river in sight, and a climate so hot that all one thought of was
one’s mortal need of a drink. In fact, some of our fellows died
of thirst outright. Moreover, in those parts there grows a sort
of millet called dzhugar — millet which not only has a horrible
taste, but proves absolutely delusive, since the more one eats of
it, the less one feels filled.”

As the ex-soldier told me the tale colourlessly and reluctantly,
with frequent pauses between the sentences (as though either he
found it difficult to recall the experience or he were thinking
of something else), he never once looked me straight in the face,
but kept his eyes shamefacedly fixed upon the ground.

Unwieldily and unhealthily stout, he always conveyed to me the
impression of being charged with a vague discontent, a sort of
captious inertia.

“Absolutely unfit for settlement is this country ” he continued as
he glanced around him. “It is fit only to do nothing in. For
that matter, one doesn’t WANT to do anything in it, save to live
with one’s eyes bulging like a drunkard’s– for the climate is too
hot, and the place smells like a chemist’s shop or a hospital.”

Nevertheless, for the past eight years had he been roaming this
“too hot” country, as though fascinated!

“Why not return to Riazan?” I suggested.

“Nothing would there be there for me to do,” he replied through
his teeth, and with an odd division of his words.

My first encounter with him had been at the railway station at
Armavir, where, purple in the face with excitement, he had been
stamping like a horse, and, with distended eyes, hissing, or,
rather, snarling, at a couple of Greeks:

“I’ll tear the flesh from your bones!”

Meanwhile the two lean, withered, ragged, identically similar
denizens of Hellas had been baring their sharp white teeth at
intervals, and saying apologetically:

“What has angered you, sir?”

Finally, regardless of the Greeks’ words, the ex-soldier had beat
his breast like a drum, and shouted in accents of increased

“Now, where are you living? In Russia, do you say? Then who is
supporting you there? Aha-a-a! Russia, it is said, is a good
foster-mother. I expect you say the same.”

And, lastly, he had approached a fat, grey-headed, bemedalled
gendarme, and complained to him:

“Everyone curses us born Russians, yet everyone comes to live
with us–Greeks, Germans, Songs, and the lot. And while they get
their livelihood here, and cat and drink their fill, they
continue to curse us. A scandal, is it not?”


The third member of our party was a man of about thirty who wore
a Cossack cap over his left ear, and had a Cossack forelock,
rounded features, a large nose, a dark moustache, and a retrousse
lip. When the volatile young engineering student first brought
him to us and said, “Here is another man for you,” the newcomer
glanced at me through the lashes of his elusive eyes–then plunged
his hands into the pockets of his Turkish overalls. Just as we
were departing, however, he withdrew one hand from the left
trouser pocket, passed it slowly over the dark bristles of his
unshaven chin, and asked in musical tones:

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“Do you come from Russia?”

“Whence else, I should like to know?” snapped the ex-soldier

Upon this the newcomer twisted his right-hand moustache then
replaced his hand in his pocket. Broad-shouldered, sturdy, and
well-built throughout, he walked with the stride of a man who is
accustomed to cover long distances. Yet with him he had brought
neither wallet nor gripsack, and somehow his supercilious,
retrousse upper lip and thickly fringed eyes irritated me, and
inclined me to be suspicious of, and even actively to dislike,
the man.

Suddenly, while we were proceeding along the causeway by the side
of the rivulet, he turned to us, and said, as he nodded towards
the sportively coursing water:

“Look at the matchmaker!”

The ex-soldier hoisted his bleached eyebrows, and gazed around
him for a moment in bewilderment. Then he whispered:

“The fool!”

But, for my own part, I considered that what the man had said was
apposite; that the rugged, boisterous little river did indeed
resemble some fussy, light-hearted old lady who loved to arrange
affaires du coeur both for her own private amusement and for the
purpose of enabling other folk to realise the joys of affection
amid which she was living, and of which she would never grow
weary, and to which she desired to introduce the rest of the
world as speedily as possible.

Similarly, when we arrived at the barraque this man with the
Cossack face glanced at the rivulet, and then at the mountains
and the sky, and, finally, appraised the scene in one pregnant,
comprehensive exclamation of ” Slavno! ” [How splendid!]

The ex-soldier, who was engaged in ridding himself of his
knapsack, straightened himself, and asked with his arms set

“WHAT is it that is so splendid?”

For a moment or two the newcomer merely eyed the squat figure of
his questioner–a figure upon which hung drab shreds as lichen
hangs upon a stone. Then he said with a smile:

“Cannot you see for yourself? Take that mountain there, and that
cleft in the mountain– are they not good to look at?”

And as he moved away, the ex-soldier gaped after him with a
repeated whisper of:

“The fool!”

To which presently he added in a louder, as well as a mysterious,

“I have heard that occasionally they send fever patients hither
for their health.”

The same evening saw two sturdy women arrive with supper for the
carpenters; whereupon the clatter of labour ceased, and therefore
the rustling of the forest and the murmuring of the rivulet
became the more distinct.

Next, deliberately, and with many coughs, the ex-soldier set to
work to collect some twigs and chips for the purpose of lighting
a fire. After which, having arranged a kettle over the flames, he
said to me suggestively:

“You too should collect some firewood, for in these parts the
nights are dark and chilly.”

I set forth in search of chips among the stones which lay around
the barraque, and, in so doing, stumbled across the newcomer, who
was lying with his body resting on an elbow, and his head on his
hand, as he conned a manuscript spread out before him. As he
raised his eyes to gaze vaguely, inquiringly into my face, I saw
that one of his eyes was larger than the other.

Evidently he divined that he interested me, for he smiled. Yet so
taken aback by this was I, that I passed on my way without

Meanwhile the carpenters, disposed in two circles around the
barraque (a circle to each woman), partook of a silent supper.

Deeper and deeper grew the shadow of night over the defile.
Warmer and warmer, denser and denser, grew the air, until the
twilight caused the slopes of the mountains to soften in outline,
and the rocks to seem to swell and merge with the bluish-
blackness which overhung the bed of the defile, and the
superimposed heights to form a single apparent whole, and the
scene in general to resolve itself into, become united into, one
compact bulk.

Quietly then did tints hitherto red extinguish their tremulous
glow–softly there flared up, dusted purple in the sunset’s sheen,
the peak of Kara Dagh. Vice versa, the foam of the rivulet now
blushed to red, and, seemingly, assuaged its vehemence–flowed
with a deeper, a more pensive, note; while similarly the forest
hushed its voice, and appeared to stoop towards the water while
emitting ever more powerful, intoxicating odours to mingle with
the resinous, cloyingly sweet perfume of our wood fire.

The ex-soldier squatted down before the little blaze, and
rearranged some fuel under the kettle.

“Where is the other man?” said he. “Go and fetch him.”

I departed for the purpose, and, on my way, heard one of the
carpenters in the neighbourhood of the barraque say in a thick,
unctuous, sing-song voice.

“A great work is it indeed!”

Whereafter I heard the two women fall to drawling in low, hungry

“With the flesh I’ll conquer pain;
The spirit shall my lust restrain;
All-supreme the soul shall reign;
And carnal vices lure in vain.”

True, the women pronounced their words distinctly enough; yet
always they prolonged the final “u” sound of the stanza’s first
and third lines until, as the melody floated away into the
darkness, and, as it were, sank to earth, it came to resemble the
long-drawn howl of a wolf.

In answer to my invitation to come to supper, the newcomer sprang
to his feet, folded up his manuscript, stuffed it into one of the
pockets of his ragged coat, and said with a smile:

“I had just been going to resort to the carpenters, for they
would have given us some bread, I suppose? Long is it since I
tasted anything.”

The same words he repeated on our approaching the ex-soldier;
much as though he took a pleasure in their phraseology.

“You suppose that they would have given us bread?” echoed the ex-
soldier as he unfastened his wallet. “Not they! No love is lost
between them and ourselves.”

“Whom do you mean by ‘ourselves’?”

“Us here–you and myself–all Russian folk who may happen to be in
these parts. From the way in which those fellows keep singing
about palms, I should judge them to be sectarians of the sort
called Mennonites.”

“Or Molokans, rather?” the other man suggested as he seated
himself in front of the fire.

“Yes, or Molokans. Molokans or Mennonites– they’re all one. It is
a German faith and though such fellows love a Teuton, they do not
exactly welcome US.”

Upon this the man with the Cossack forelock took a slice of bread
which the ex-soldier cut from a loaf, with an onion and a pinch
of salt. Then, as he regarded us with a pair of good-humoured
eyes, he said, balancing his food on the palms of his hands:

“There is a spot on the Sunzha, near here, where those fellows
have a colony of their own. Yes, I myself have visited it. True,
those fellows are hard enough, but at the same time to speak
plainly, NO ONE in these parts has any regard for us since only
too many of the sort of Russian folk who come here in search of
work are not overly-desirable.”

“Where do you yourself come from?” The ex-soldier’s tone was

“From Kursk, we might say.”

“From Russia, then?”

“Yes, I suppose so. But I have no great opinion even of myself.”

The ex-soldier glanced distrustfully at the newcomer. Then he

“What you say is cant, sheer Jesuitism. It is fellows like
THOSE, rather, that ought to have a poor opinion of themselves.”

To this the other made no reply–merely he put a piece of bread
into his mouth. For a moment or two the ex-soldier eyed him
frowningly. Then he continued:

“You seem to me to be a native of the Don country? ”

“Yes, I have lived on the Don as well.”

“And also served in the army?”

“No. I was an only son.”

“Of a miestchanin? ” [A member of the small commercial class.]

“No, of a merchant.”

“And your name–?”

“Is Vasili.”

The last reply came only after a pause, and reluctantly;
wherefore, perceiving that the Kurskan had no particular desire
to discuss his own affairs, the ex-soldier said no more on the
subject, but lifted the kettle from the fire.

The Molokans also had kindled a blaze behind the corner of the
barraque, and now its glow was licking the yellow boards of the
structure until they seemed almost to be liquescent, to be about
to dissolve and flow over the ground in a golden stream.

Presently, as their fervour increased, the carpenters, invisible
amid the obscurity, fell to singing hymns–the basses intoning
monotonously, ” Sing, thou Holy Angel! ” and voices of higher
pitch responding, coldly and formally.

“Sing ye!
Sing glory unto Christ, thou Angel of Holiness!
Sing ye!
Our singing will we add unto Thine,
Thou Angel of Holiness!”

And though the chorus failed altogether to dull the splashing of
the rivulet and the babbling of the by-cut over a bed of stones,
it seemed out of place in this particular spot;it aroused
resentment against men who could not think of a lay more atune
with the particular living, breathing objects around us.

Gradually darkness enveloped the defile until only over the mouth
of the pass, over the spot where, gleaming a brilliant blue, the
rivulet escaped into a cleft that was overhung with a mist of a
deeper shade, was there not yet suspended the curtain of the
Southern night.

Presently, the gloom caused one of the rocks in our vicinity to
assume the guise of a monk who, kneeling in prayer, had his head
adorned with a pointed skull-cap, and his face buried in his
hands. Similarly, the stems of the trees stirred in the firelight
until they developed the semblance of a file of friars entering,
for early Mass, the porch of their chapel-of-ease.

To my mind there then recurred a certain occasion when, on just
such a dark and sultry night as this, I had been seated tale-
telling under the boundary-wall of a row of monastic cells in the
Don country. Suddenly I had heard a window above my head open,
and someone exclaim in a kindly, youthful voice:

“The Mother of God be blessed for all this goodly world of ours!”

And though the window had closed again before I had had time to
discern the speaker, I had known that there was resident in the
monastery a friar who had large eyes, and a limp, and just such a
face as had Vasili here; wherefore, in all probability it had been
he who had breathed the benediction upon mankind
at large, for the reason that moments there are when all humanity
seems to be one’s own body, and in oneself there seems to beat
the heart of all humanity. . . .

Vasili consumed his food deliberately as, breaking off morsels
from his slice, and neatly parting his moustache, he placed the
morsels in his mouth with a curious stirring of two globules
which underlay the skin near the ears.

The ex-soldier, however, merely nibbled at his food–he ate but
little, and that lazily. Then he extracted a pipe from his breast
pocket, filled it with tobacco, lit it with a faggot taken from
the fire, and said as he set himself to listen to the singing of
the Molokans:

“They are filled full, and have started bleating. Always folk
like them seek to be on the right side of the Almighty.”

“Does that hurt you in any way?” Vasili asked with a smile.

“No, but I do not respect them–they are less saints than
humbugs, than prevaricators whose first word is God, and second
word rouble.”

“How do you know that?” cried Vasili amusedly. “And even if
their first word IS God, and their second word rouble, we had
best not be too hard upon them, since if they chose to be hard
upon US, where should WE be? Yes, we have only to open our mouths
to speak a word or two for ourselves, and we should find every
fist at our teeth.”

” Quite so,” the ex-soldier agreed as, taking up a square of
scantling, he examined it attentively.

“Whom DO you respect?” Vasili continued after a pause.

“I respect,” the ex-soldier said with some emphasis, “only the
Russian people, the true Russian people, the folk who labour on
land whereon labour is hard. Yet who are the folk whom you find
HERE? In this part of the world the business of living is an easy
one. Much of every sort of natural produce is to be had, and the
soil is generous and light–you need but to scratch it for it to
bear, and for yourself to reap. Yes, it is indulgent to a fault.
Rather, it is like a maiden. Do but touch her, and a child will

“Agreed,” was Vasili’s remark as he drank tea from a tin mug.
“Yet to this very part of the world is it that I should like to
transport every soul in Russia.”

“And why?”

“Because here they could earn a living.”

“Then is not that possible in Russia? ”

“Well, why are you yourself here?”

“Because I am a man lacking ties.”

“And why are you lacking ties?”

“Because it has been so ordered–it is, so to speak, my lot.”

“Then had you not better consider WHY it is your lot?”

The ex-soldier took his pipe from his mouth, let fall the hand
which held it, and smoothed his plain features in silent
amazement. Then he exclaimed in uncouth, querulous tones:

“Had I not better consider WHY it is my lot, and so forth? Why,
damn it, the causes are many. For one thing, if one has
neighbours who neither live nor see things as oneself does, but
are uncongenial, what does one do? One just leaves them, and
clears out–more especially if one be neither a priest nor a
magistrate. Yet YOU say that I had better consider why this is my
lot. Do you think that YOU are the only man able to consider
things, possessed of a brain? ”

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And in an access of fury the speaker replaced his pipe, and sat
frowning in silence. Vasili eyed his interlocutor’s features as
the firelight played red upon them, and, finally, said in an

“Yes, it is always so. We fail to get on with our neighbours,
yet lack a charter of our own, so, having no roots to hold us,
just fall to wandering, troubling other folk, and earning

“The dislike of whom?” gruffly queried the ex-soldier.

“The dislike of everyone, as you yourself have said!”

In answer the ex-soldier merely emitted a cloud of smoke which
completely concealed his form. Yet Vasili’s voice had in it an
agreeable note, and was flexible and ingratiating, while
enunciating its words roundly and distinctly.

A mountain owl, one of those splendid brown creatures which have
the crafty physiognomy of a cat, and the sharp grey ears of a
mouse, made the forest echo with its obtrusive cry. A bird of
this species I once encountered among the defile’s crags, and as
the creature sailed over my head it startled me with the glassy
eyes which, as round as buttons, seemed to be lit from within
with menacing fire. Indeed, for a moment or two I stood half-
stupefied with terror, for I could not conceive what the creature

“Whence did you get that splendid pipe?” next asked Vasili as
he rolled himself a cigarette. “Surely it is a pipe of old
German make?”

“You need not fear that I stole it,” the ex-soldier responded as
he removed it from his lips and regarded it proudly. “It was
given me by a woman.”

To which, with a whimsical wink, he added a sigh.

“Tell me how it happened,” said Vasili softly. Then he flung up
his arms, and stretched himself with a despondent cry of:

“Ah, these nights here! Never again may God send me such bad
ones! Try to sleep as one may, one never succeeds. Far easier,
indeed, is it to sleep during the daytime, provided that one can
find a shady spot. During such nights I go almost mad with
thinking, and my heart swells and murmurs.”

The ex-soldier, who had listened with mouth agape and eyebrows
raised even higher than usual, responded to this:

“It is the same with me. If one could only–What did you say?”

This last was addressed to myself, who had been about to remark,
“The same with me also,” but on seeing the pair exchanging a
strange glance (as though involuntarily they had surprised one
another), had left the words unspoken. My companions then set
themselves to a mutually eager questioning with respect to their
respective identities, past experiences, places of origin, and
destinations, even as though they had been two kinsmen who,
meeting unexpectedly, had discovered for the first time their
bond of relationship.

Meanwhile the black, fringed boughs of the pine trees hung
stretched over the flames of the Molokans’ fire as though they
would catch some of the fire’s glow and warmth, or seize it
altogether, and put it out. And when, at times, their red tongues
projected beyond the corner of the barraque, they made the
building look as though it had caught alight, and extended their
glow even to the rivulet. Constantly the night was growing denser
and more stifling; constantly it seemed to embrace the body more
and more caressingly, until one bathed in it as in an ocean.
Also, much as a wave removes dirt from the skin, so the softly
vocal darkness seemed to refresh and cleanse the soul. For it is
on such nights as that that the soul dons its finest raiment, and
trembles like a bride at the expectation of something glorious.

“You say that she had a squint?” presently I heard Vasili
continue in an undertone, and the ex-soldier slowly reply:

“Yes, she had one from childhood upwards–she had one from the
day when a fall from a cart caused her to injure her eyes. Yet,
if she had not always gone about with one of her eyes shaded, you
would never have guessed the fact. Also, she was so neat and
practical! And her kindness–well, it was kindness as
inexhaustible as the water of that rivulet there; it was kindness
of the sort that wished well to all the world, and to all
animals, and to every beggar, and even to myself! So at last
there gripped my heart the thought, ‘Why should I not try a
soldier’s luck? She is the master’s favourite–true; yet none the
less the attempt shall be made by me.’ However, this way or that,
always the reply was ‘No’; always she put out at me an elbow, and
cut me short.”

Vasili, lying prone upon his back, twitched his moustache, and
chewed a stalk of grass. His eyes were fully open, and for the
second time I perceived that one of them was larger than the
other. The ex-soldier, seated near Vasili’s shoulder, stirred the
fire with a bit of charred stick, and sent sparks of gold flying
to join the midges which were gliding to and fro over the blaze.
Ever and anon night-moths subsided into the flames with a plop,
crackled, and became changed into lumps of black. For my own
part, I constructed a couch on a pile of pine boughs, and there
lay down. And as I listened to the ex-soldier’s familiar story, I
recalled persons whom I had on one and another occasion
remembered, and speeches which on one and another occasion had
made an impression upon me.

“But at last,” the ex-soldier continued, “I took heart of
grace, and caught her in a barn. Pressing her into a corner, I
said: ‘Now let it be yes or no. Of, course it shall be as you
wish, but remember that I am a soldier with a small stock of
patience.’ Upon that she began to struggle and exclaim: ‘What do
you want? What do you want?’ until, bursting into tears like a
girl, she said through her sobs: ‘Do not touch me. I am not the
sort of woman for you. Besides, I love another–not our master,
but another, a workman, a former lodger of ours. Before he
departed he said to me: “Wait for me until I have found you a
nice home, and returned to fetch you”; and though it is
seventeen years since I heard speech or whisper of him, and maybe
he has since forgotten me, or fallen in love with someone else,
or come to grief, or been murdered, you, who are a map, will
understand that I must bide a little while longer.’ True, this
offended me (for in what respect was I any worse than the other
man?); yet also I felt sorry for her, and grieved that I should
have wronged her by thinking her frivolous, when all the time
there had been THIS at her heart. I drew back, therefore–I could
not lay a finger upon her, though she was in my power. And at
last I said: ‘Good-bye! I am going away.’ ‘Go,’ she replied.
‘Yes, go for the love of Christ!’ . . . Wherefore, on the
following evening I settled accounts with our master, and at dawn
of a Sunday morning packed my wallet, took with me this pipe, and
departed. ‘Yes, take the pipe, Paul Ivanovitch,’ she said before
my departure. ‘Perhaps it will serve to keep you in remembrance
of me–you whom henceforth I shall regard as a brother, and whom I
thank.’ . . . As I walked away I was very nigh to tears, so keen
was the pain in my heart. Aye, keen it was indeed! ”

“You did right,” Vasili remarked softly after a pause.

“Things must always so befall. Always must it be a case either
of ‘Yes?’ ‘Yes,’ and of folk coming together, or of ‘No’ ‘No,’
and of folk parting. And invariably the one person in the case
grieves the other. Why should that be?”

Emitting a cloud of grey smoke, the ex-soldier replied

“Yes, I know I did right; but that right was done only at a
great cost.”

“And always that too is the case,” Vasili agreed. Then he added:

“Generally such fortune falls to the lot of people who have
tender consciences. He who values himself also values his
fellows; but, unfortunately a man all too seldom values even

“To whom are you referring? To you and myself?”

“To our Russian folk in general.”

“Then you cannot have very much respect for Russia.” The ex-
soldier’s tone had taken on a curious note. He seemed to be
feeling both astonished at and grieved for his companion.

The other, however, did not reply; and after a few moments the
ex-soldier softly concluded:

“So now you have heard my story.”

By this time the carpenters had ceased singing around the
barraque, and let their fire die down until quivering on the wall
of the edifice there was only a fiery-red patch, a patch barely
sufficient to render visible the shadows of the rocks; while
beside the fire there was seated only a tall figure with a black
beard which had, grasped in its hands, a heavy cudgel, and, lying
near its right foot, an axe. The figure was that of a watchman
set by the carpenters to keep an eye upon ourselves, the
appointed watchmen; though the fact in no way offended us.

Over the defile, in a ragged strip of sky, there were gleaming
stars, while the rivulet was bubbling and purling, and from the
obscurity of the forest there kept coming to our ears, now the
cautious, rustling tread of some night animal, and now the
mournful cry of an owl, until all nature seemed to be instinct
with a secret vitality the sweet breath of which kept moving the
heart to hunger insatiably for the beautiful.

Also, as I lay listening to the voice of the ex-soldier, a voice
reminiscent of a distant tambourine, and to Vasili’s pensive
questions, I conceived a liking for the men, and began to detect
that in their relations there was dawning something good and
human. At the same time, the effect of some of Vasili’s dicta on
Russia was to arouse in me mingled feelings which impelled me at
once to argue with him and to induce him to speak at greater
length, with more clarity, on the subject of our mutual
fatherland. Hence always I have loved that night for the visions
which it brought to me–visions which still come back to me like a
dear, familiar tale.

I thought of a student of Kazan whom I had known in the days of
the past, of a young fellow from Viatka who, pale-browed, and
sententious of diction, might almost have been brother to the ex-
soldier himself. And once again I heard him declare that “before
all things must I learn whether or not there exists a God; pre-
eminently must I make a beginning there.”

And I thought, too, of a certain accoucheuse named Velikova who
had been a comely, but reputedly gay, woman. And I remembered a
certain occasion when, on a hill overlooking the river Kazan and
the Arski Plain, she had stood contemplating the marshes below,
and the far blue line of the Volga; until suddenly turning pale,
she had, with tears of joy sparkling in her fine eyes, cried
under her breath, but sufficiently loudly for all present to hear

“Ah, friends, how gracious and how fair is this land of ours!
Come, let us salute that land for having deemed us worthy of
residence therein!”

Whereupon all present, including a deacon-student from the
Ecclesiastical School, a Morduine from the Foreign College, a
student of veterinary science, and two of our tutors, had done
obeisance. At the same time I recalled the fact that subsequently
one of the party had gone mad, and committed suicide.

Again, I recalled how once, on the Piani Bor [Liquor Wharf] by
the river Kama, a tall, sandy young fellow with intelligent eyes
and the face of a ne’er-do-well had caught my attention. The day
had been a hot, languorous Sunday on which all things had seemed
to be exhibiting their better side, and telling the sun that it
was not in vain that he was pouring out his brilliant potency,
and diffusing his living gold; while the man of whom I speak had,
dressed in a new suit of blue serge, a new cap cocked awry, and a
pair of brilliantly polished boots, been standing at the edge of
the wharf, and gazing at the brown waters of the Kama, the
emerald expanse beyond them and the silver-scaled pools left
behind by the tide. Until, as the sun had begun to sink towards
the marshes on the other side of the river, and to become
dissolved into streaks, the man had smiled with increasing
rapture, and his face had glowed with creasing eagerness and
delight; until finally he had snatched the cap from his head,
flung it, with a powerful throw far out into the russet waters,
and shouted: “Kama, O my mother, I love you, and never will
desert you!”

And the last, and also the best, recollection of things seen
before the night of which I speak was the recollection of an
occasion when, one late autumn, I had been crossing the Caspian
Sea on an old two-masted schooner laden with dried apricots,
plums, and peaches. Sailing on her also she had had some hundred
fishermen from the Bozhi Factory, men who, originally forest
peasants of the Upper Volga, had been well-built, bearded,
healthy, goodhumoured, animal-spirited young fellows, youngsters
tanned with the wind, and salted with the sea water; youngsters
who, after working hard at their trade, had been rejoicing at the
prospect of returning home. And careering about the deck like
youthful bears as ever and anon lofty, sharp-pointed waves had
seized and tossed aloft the schooner, and the yards had cracked,
and the taut-run rigging had whistled, and the sails had bellied
into globes, and the howling wind had shaved off the white crests
of billows, and partially submerged the vessel in clouds of foam.

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And seated on the deck with his broad back resting against the
mainmast there had been one young giant in particular. Clad in a
white linen shirt and a pair of blue serge trousers, and innocent
alike of beard and moustache, this young fellow had had full, red
lips, blue, boyish, and exceedingly translucent eyes, and a face
intoxicated in excelsis with the happiness of youth; while
leaning across his knees as they had rested sprawling over the
deck there had been a young female trimmer of fish, a wench as
massive and tall as the young man himself, and a wench whose face
had become tanned to roughness with the sun and wind, eyebrows
dark, full, and as large as the wings of a swallow, breasts as
firm as stone, and teats around which, as they projected from the
folds of a red bodice, there had lain a pattern of blue veins.

The broad, iron-black palm of the young fellow’s long, knotted
hand had been resting on the woman’s left breast, with the arm
bare to the elbow; while in his right hand, as he had sat gazing
pensively at the woman’s robust figure, there had been grasped a
tin mug from which some of the red liquor had scattered stains
over the front of his linen shirt.

Meanwhile, around the pair there had been hovering some of the
youngster’s comrades, who, with coats buttoned to the throat, and
caps gripped to prevent their being blown away by the wind, had
employed themselves with scanning the woman’s figure with envious
eyes, and viewing her from either side. Nay, the shaggy green
waves themselves had been stealing occasional glimpses at the
picture as clouds had swirled across the sky, gulls had uttered
their insatiable scream, and the sun, dancing on the foam-flecked
waters, had vested the billows, now in tints of blue, now in
natural tints as of flaming jewels.

In short, all the passengers on the schooner had been shouting
and laughing and singing, while the great bearded peasants had
also been paying assiduous court to a large leathern bottle which
had lain ensconced on a heap of peach-sacks, with the result that
the scene had come to have about it something of the antique,
legendary air of the return of Stepan Razin from his Persian

At length the buffeting of the wind had caused an old man with a
crooked nose set on a hairy, faun-like face to stumble over one
of the woman’s feet; whereupon he had halted, thrown up his head
with nonsenile vigour, and exclaimed:

“May the devil fly away with you, you shameless hussy! Why lie
sprawling about the deck like this? See, too, how exposed you

The woman had not stirred at the words–she had not even opened an
eye; only over her lips there had passed a faint tremor. Whereas
the young fellow had straightened himself, deposited his tin mug
upon the deck, and cried loudly as he laid his disengaged hand
upon the woman’s breast.

“Ah, you envy me, do you, Yakim Petrov? Never mind, though you
have done no great harm. But run no risks; do not look for
needless trouble, for your day for sucking sugarplums is past.”

Whereafter, raising both his hands, the young fellow had softly
let them sink again upon the woman’s bosom as he added

“These breasts could feed all Russia! ”

Then, and only then, had the woman smiled a long, slow smile. And
as she had done so everything in the vicinity had seemed to smile
in unison, and to rise and fall in harmony with her bosom–yes,
the whole vessel, and the vessel’s freight. And at the moment
when a particularly large wave had struck the bulwarks, and
besprinkled all on board with spray, the woman had opened her
dark eyes, looked kindly at the old man, and at the young fellow,
and at the scene in general–then set herself to recover her

“Nay,” the young fellow had cried as he interposed to remove her
hands. “There is no need for that, there is no need for that.
Let them ALL look.”


Such the memories that came back to my recollection that night.
Gladly I would have recounted them to my companions, but,
unfortunately, these had, by now, succumbed to slumber. The ex-
soldier, resting in a sitting posture, and snoring loudly, had
his back prised against his wallet, his head sloped sideways, and
his hands clasped upon his knees, while Vasili was lying on his
back with his face turned upwards, his hands clasped behind his
head, his dark, finely moulded brows raised a little, and his
moustache erect. Also, he was weeping in his sleep–tears were
coursing down his brown, sunburnt cheeks; tears which, in the
moonlight, had in them something of the greenish tint of a
chrysolite or sea water, and which, on such a manly face, looked
strange indeed!

Still the rivulet was purling as it flowed, and the fire
crackling; while bathed in the red glow of the flames there was
sitting, bent forward, the dark, stonelike figure of the
Molokans’ watchman, with the axe at his feet reflecting the
radiant gleam of the moon in the sky above us.

All the earth seemed to be sleeping as ever the waning stars
seemed to draw nearer and nearer. . . .

The slow length of the next day was dragged along amid an inertia
born of the moist heat, the song of the river, and the
intoxicating scents of forest and flowers. In short, one felt
inclined to do nothing, from morn till night, save roam the
defile without the exchanging of a word, the conceiving of a
desire, or the formulating of a thought.

At sunset, when we were engaged in drinking tea by the fire, the
ex-soldier remarked:

“I hope that life in the next world will exactly resemble life
in this spot, and be just as quiet and peaceful and immune from
work. Here one needs but to sit and melt like butter and suffer
neither from wrong nor anxiety.”

Then, as carefully he withdrew his pipe from his lips, and
sighed, he added:

“Aye! If I could but feel sure that life in the next world will
be like life here, I would pray to God: ‘For Christ’s sake take
my soul at the earliest conceivable moment.'”

“What might suit YOU would not suit ME,” Vasili thoughtfully
observed. “I would not always live such a life as this. I might
do so for a time, but not in perpetuity.”

“Ah, but never have you worked hard,” grunted the ex-soldier.

In every way the evening resembled the previous one; there were
to be observed the same luscious flooding of the defile with
dove-coloured mist, the same flashing of the silver crags in the
roseate twilight, the same rocking of the dense, warm forest’s
soft, leafy tree-tops, the same softening of the rocks’ outlines
in the gloom, the same gradual uplift of shadows, the same
chanting of the “matchmaking” river, the same routine on the
part of the big, sleek carpenters around the barraque–a routine
as slow and ponderous in its course as the movements of a drove
of wild boars.

More than once during the off hours of the day had we sought to
make the carpenters’ acquaintance, to start a conversation with
them, but always their answers had been given reluctantly, in
monosyllables, and never had a discussion seemed likely to get
under way without the whiteheaded foreman shouting to the
particular member of the gang concerned: ” Hi, you, Pavlushka!
Get back to work, there! ” Indeed, he, the foreman, had outdone
all in his manifestations of dislike for our friendship, and as
monotonously as though he had been minded to rival the rivulet as
a songster, he had hummed his pious ditties, or else raised his
snuffling voice to sing them with an ever-importunate measure of
insistence, so that all day long those ditties had been coursing
their way in a murky, melancholy-compelling flood. Indeed, as the
foreman had stepped cautiously on thin legs from stone to stone
during his ceaseless inspection of the work of his men, he had
come to seem to have for his object the describing of an
invisible, circular path, as a means of segregating us more
securely than ever from the society of the carpenters.

Personally, however, I had no desire to converse with him, for
his frozen eyes chilled and repelled me and from the moment when
I had approached him, and seen him fold his hands behind him, and
recoil a step as he inquired with suppressed sternness, “What do
you want?” there had fallen away from me all further ambition to
learn the nature of the songs which he sang.

The ex-soldier gazed at him resentfully, then said with an oath:

“The old wizard and pilferer! Take my word for it that a lump of
piety like that has got a pretty store put away somewhere.”

Whereafter, as he lit his pipe and squinted in the direction of
the carpenters, he added with stifled wrath:

“The airs that the ‘elect’ give themselves–the sons of
bitches! ”

“It is always so,” commented Vasili with a resentment equal to
the last speaker’s. “Yes, no sooner, with us, does a man
accumulate a little money than he sticks his nose in the air, and
falls to thinking himself a real barin.”

“Why is it that you always say ‘With us,’ and ‘Among us,’ and so

“Among us Russians, then, if you like it better.”

“I do like it better. For you are not a German, are you, nor a

“No. It is merely that I can see the faults in our Russian

Upon that (not for the first time) the pair plunged into a
discussion which had come so to weary them that now they spoke
only indifferently, without effort.

“The word ‘faults’ is, I consider, an insult,” began the ex-
soldier as he puffed at his pipe. “Besides, you don’t speak
consistently. Only this moment I observed a change in your

“To what?”

“To the term ‘Russians.'”

“What should you prefer?”

A new sound floated into the defile as from some point on the
steppe the sound of a bell summoning folk to the usual Saturday
vigil service. Removing his pipe from his mouth, the ex-soldier
listened for a moment or two. Then, at the third and last stroke
of the bell, he doffed his cap, crossed himself with punctilious
piety, and said:

“There are not very many churches in these parts.”

Whereafter he threw a glance across the river, and added

“Those devils THERE don’t cross themselves, the accursed Serbs!”

Vasili looked at him, twisted a left-hand moustache, smoothed it
again, regarded for a moment the sky and the defile, and sank his

“The trouble with me,” he remarked in an undertone, “is that I
can never remain very long in one place–always I keep fancying
that I shall meet with better things elsewhere, always I keep
hearing a bird singing in my heart, ‘Do you go further, do you
go further.'”

“That bird sings in the heart of EVERY man,” the ex-soldier
growled sulkily.

With a glance at us both, Vasili laughed a subdued laugh.

“‘In the heart of every man’? ” he repeated. “Why, such a
statement is absurd. For it means, does it not, that every one of
us is an idler, every one of us is constantly waiting for
something to turn up–that, in fact, no one of us is any better
than, or able to do any better than, the folk whose sole
utterance is ‘Give unto us, pray give unto us’? Yes, if that be
the case, it is an unfortunate case indeed!”

And again he laughed. Yet his eyes were sorrowful, and as the
fingers of his right hand lay upon his knee they twitched as
though they were longing to grasp something unseen.

The ex-soldier frowned and snorted. For my own part, however, I
felt troubled for, and sorry for, Vasili. Presently he rose,
broke into a soft whistle, and moved away by the side of the

“His head is not quite right,” muttered the ex-soldier as he
winked in the direction of the retreating figure. “Yes, I tell
you that straight, for from the first it was clear to me.
Otherwise, what could his words in depredation of Russia mean,
when of Russia nothing the least hard or definite can be said?
Who really knows her? What is she in reality, seeing that each of
her provinces is a soul to itself, and no one could state which
of the two Holy Mothers stands nearest to God–the Holy Mother of
Smolensk, or the Holy Mother of Kazan? ”

For a while the speaker sat scraping greasy deposit from the
bottom and sides of the kettle; and all that while he grumbled as
though he had a grudge against someone. At length, however, he
assumed an attitude of attention, with his neck stretched out as
though to listen to some sound.

“Hist!” was his exclamation.

What then followed, followed as unexpectedly as when, like an
evil bird, a summer whirlwind suddenly sweeps up from the
horizon, and discharges a bluish-black cloud in torrents of rain
and hail, until everything is overwhelmed and battered to mud.

That is to say, with much din of whistling and other sounds there
now came pouring into the defile, and began to ascend the trail
beside the stream, a straggling procession of some thirty workmen
with, gleaming dully in the hands of their leading files, flagons
of vodka, and, suspended on the backs and shoulders of others,
wallets and bags of bread and other comestibles, and, in two
instances, poised on the heads of yet other processionists, large
black cauldrons the effect of which was to make their bearers
look like mushrooms.

“A vedro [2 3/4 gallons] and a half to the cauldron!” whispered
the ex-soldier with a computative grunt as he gained his feet.

“Yes, a vedro and a half,” he repeated. As he spoke the tip of
his tongue protruded until it rested on the under-lip of his
half-opened mouth. In his face there was a curiously thirsty,
gross expression, and his attitude, as he stood there, was that
of one who had just received a blow, and was about to cry out in

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Meanwhile the defile rumbled like a barrel into which heavy
weights are being dropped, for one of the newcomers was beating
an empty tin pail, and another one whistling in a manner the
tossed echoes of which drowned even the rivulet’s murmur as
nearer and nearer came the mob of men, a mob clad variously in
black, grey, or russet, with sleeves rolled up, and heads, in
many cases, bare save for their own towsled, dishevelled locks,
and bodies bent with fatigue, or carried stumblingly along on
legs bowed outwards. Meanwhile, as the dull, polyphonous roar of
voices swept through the neck of the defile, a man shouted in
broken, but truculent, accents:

“I say no! Fiddlesticks! Not a man is there who could drink more
than a vedro of ‘blood-and-sweat’ in a day.”

“A man could drink a lake of it.”

“No, a vedro and a half. That is the proper reckoning.”

“Aye, a vedro and a half.” And the ex-soldier, as he repeated
the words, spoke both as though he were an expert in the matter
and as though he felt for the matter a touch of respect. Then,
lurching forward like a man pushed by the scruff of the neck, he
crossed the rivulet, intercepted the crowd, and became swallowed
up in its midst.

Around the barraque the carpenters (the foreman ever glimmering
among them) were hurriedly collecting tools. Presently Vasili
returned–his right hand thrust into his pocket, and his left
holding his cap.

“Before long those fellows will be properly drunk! ” he said
with a frown. “Ah, that vodka of ours! It is a perfect curse!”
Then to me: “Do YOU drink?”

“No,” I replied.

“Thank God for that! If one does not drink one will never really
get into trouble.”

For a moment he gazed gloomily in the direction of the newcomers.
Then he said without moving, without even looking at me:

“You have remarkable eyes, young fellow. Also, they seem
familiar to me–I have seen them somewhere before. Possibly that
happened in a dream, though I cannot be sure. Where do you come

I answered, but, after scanning me perplexedly, he shook his

“No,” he remarked. “I have never visited that part of the
country, or indeed, been so far from home.”

“But this place is further still?”

“Further still?”

“Yes–from Kursk.”

He laughed.

“I must tell you the truth,” he said. “I am not a Kurskan at
all, but a Pskovian. The reason why I told the ex-soldier that I
was from Kursk was that I neither liked him nor cared to tell him
the whole truth-he was not worth the trouble. And as for my real
name, it is Paul, not Vasili–Paul Nikolaev Silantiev– and is so
marked on my passport (for a passport, and a passport quite in
order, I have got).”

“And why are you on your travels? ”

“For the reason that I am so–I can say no more. I look back from
a given place, and wave my hand, and am gone again as a feather
floats before the wind.”


“Silence!” a threatening voice near the barraque broke in. “I
am the foreman here.”

The voice of the ex-soldier replied:

“What workmen are these of yours? They are mere sectarians,
fellows who are for ever singing hymns.”

To which someone else added:

“Besides, old devil that you are, aren’t you bound to finish all
building work before the beginning of a Sunday?”

“Let us throw their tools into the stream.”

“Yes, and start a riot,” was Silantiev’s comment as he squatted
before the embers of the fire.

Around the barraque, picked out against the yellow of its
framework, a number of dark figures were surging to and fro as
around a conflagration. Presently we heard something smashed to
pieces–at all events, we heard the cracking and scraping of wood
against stone, and then the strident, hilarious command:

“Hold on there! I’LL soon put things to rights! Carpenters, just
hand over the saw!”

Apparently there were three men in charge of the proceedings: the
one a red-bearded muzhik in a seaman’s blouse; the second a tall
man with hunched shoulders, thin legs, and long arms who kept
grasping the foreman by the collar, shaking him, and bawling,
“Where are your lathes? Bring them out!” (while noticeable also
was a broad-shouldered young fellow in a ragged red shirt who
kept thrusting pieces of scantling through the windows of the
barraque, and shouting, “Catch hold of these! Lay them out in a
row!”); and the third the ex-soldier himself. The last-named, as
he jostled his way among the crowd, kept vociferating, viciously,
virulently, and with a curious system of division of his

“Aha-a, ra-abble, secta-arians. Yo-ou would have nothing to say
to me, you Se-erbs! Yet I say to YOU: Go along, my chickens, for
the re-est of us are ti-ired of you, and come to sa-ay so!”

“What does he want?” asked Silantiev quietly as he lit a
cigarette. “Vodka? Oh, THEY’LL give him vodka! . . . Yet are you
not sorry for fellows of that stamp?”

Through the blue tobacco-smoke he gazed into the glowing embers;
until at last he took a charred stick, and collected the embers
into a heap glowing red-gold like a bouquet of fiery poppies; and
as he did so, his handsome eyes gleamed with just such a reverent
affection, such a prayerful kindliness, as must have lurked in
the eyes of primeval, nomadic man in the presence of the dancing,
beneficent source of light and heat.

“At least I am sorry for such fellows,” Vasili continued.
“Aye, the very thought of the many, many folk who have come to
nothing! The very thought of it! Terrible, terrible!”

A touch of daylight was still lingering on the tops of the
mountains, but in the defile itself night was beginning to loom,
and to lull all things to sleep–to incline one neither to speak
oneself nor to listen to the dull clamour of those others on the
opposite bank, where even to the murmur of the rivulet the
distasteful din seemed to communicate a note of anger.

There the crowd had lit a huge bonfire, and then added to it a
second one which, crackling, hissing, and emitting coils of
bluish-tinted smoke, had fallen to vying with its fellow in
lacing the foam of the rivulet with muslin-like patterns in red.
As the mass of dark figures surged between the two flares an
hilarious voice shouted to us the invitation:

“Come over here, you! Don’t be backward! Come over here, I say!”

Upon which followed a clatter as of the smashing of a drinking-
vessel, while from the red-bearded muzhik came a thick, raucous
shout of:

“These fellows needed to be taught a lesson!”

Almost at the same moment the foreman of the carpenters broke his
way clear of the crowd, and, carefully crossing the rivulet by
the stepping-stones which we had constructed, squatted down upon
his heels by the margin, and with much puffing and blowing fell
to rinsing his face, a face which in the murky firelight looked
flushed and red.

“I think that someone has given him a blow,” hazarded Silantiev
sotto voce.

And when the foreman rose to approach us this proved to be the
case, for then we saw that dripping from his nose, and meandering
over his moustache and soaked white beard, there was a stream of
dark blood which had spotted and streaked his shirt-front.

“Peace to this gathering!” he said gravely as, pressing his
left hand to his stomach, he bowed.

“And we pray your indulgence,” was Silantiev’s response, though
he did not raise his eyes as he spoke. “Pray be seated.”

Small, withered, and, for all but his blood-stained shirt,
scrupulously clean, the old man reminded me of certain pictures
of old-time hermits, and the more so since either pain or shame
or the gleam of the firelight had caused his hitherto dead eyes
to gather life and grow brighter–aye, and sterner. Somehow, as I
looked at him, I felt awkward and abashed.

A cough twisted his broad nose. Then he wiped his beard on the
palm of his hand, and his hand on his knee; whereafter, as he
stretched forth the pair of senile, dark-coloured hands, and held
them over the embers, he said:

“How cold the water of the rivulet is! It is absolutely icy.”

With a glance from under his brows Silantiev inquired:

“Are you very badly hurt?”

“No. Merely a man caught me a blow on the bridge of the nose,
where the blood flows readily. Yet, as God knows, he will gain
nothing by his act, whereas the suffering which he has caused me
will go to swell my account with the Holy Spirit.”

As the man spoke he glanced across the rivulet. On the opposite
bank two men were staggering along, and drunkenly bawling the
tipsy refrain:

“In the du-u-uok let me die,
In the au-autumn time!”

“Aye, long is it since I received a blow,” the old man
continued, scanning the two revellers from under his hand.
“Twenty years it must be since last I did so. And now the blow was
struck for nothing, for no real fault.. You see, I have been
allowed no nails for the doing of the work, and have been obliged
to make use of wooden clamps for most of it, while battens also
have not been forthcoming; and, this being so, it was through no
remissness of mine that the work could not be finished by sunset
tonight. I suspect, too, that, to eke out its wages, that rabble
has been thieving, with the eldest leading the rest. And that,
again, is not a thing for which I can be held responsible. True,
this is a Government job, and some of those fellows are young,
and young, hungry fellows such as they will (may they be
forgiven!) steal, since everyone hankers to get something in
return for a very little. But, once more, how is that my fault?
Yes, that rabble must be a regular set of rascals! Just now they
deprived my eldest son of a saw, of a brand-new saw; and
thereafter they spilt my blood, the blood of a greybeard!”

Here his small, grey face contracted into wrinkles, and, closing
his eyes, he sobbed a dry, grating sob.

Silantiev fidgeted–then sighed. Presently the old man looked at
him, blew his nose, wiped his hand upon his trousers, and said

“Somewhere, I think, I have seen you before.”

“That is so. You saw me one evening when I visited your
settlement for the mending of a thresher.”

“Yes, yes. That is where I DID see you. It was you, was it not?
Well, do you still disagree with me? ”

To which the old man added with a nod and a smile:

“See how well I remember your words! You are, I imagine, still
of the same opinion?”

“How should I not be?” responded Silantiev dourly.

“Ah, well! Ah, well!”

And the old man stretched his hands over the fire once more,
discoloured hands the thumbs of which were curiously bent
outwards and splayed, and, seemingly, unable to move in harmony
with the fingers.

The ex-soldier shouted across the river:

“The land here is easy to work, and makes the people lazy. Who
would care to live in such a region? Who would care to come to
it? Much rather would I go and earn a living on difficult land.”

The old man paid no heed, but said to Silantiev–said to him with
an austere, derisive smile:

“Do you STILL think it necessary to struggle against what has
been ordained of God? Do you STILL think that long-suffering is
bad, and resistance good? Young man, your soul is weak indeed:
and remember that it is only the soul that can overcome Satan.”

In response Silantiev rose to his feet, shook his fist at the old
man, and shouted in a rough, angry voice, a voice that was not
his own:

“All that I have heard before, and from others besides yourself.
The truth is that I hold all you father-confessors in abhorrence.
“Moreover,” (this last was added with a violent oath) “it is not
Satan that needs to be resisted, but such devil’s ravens, such
devil’s vampires, as YOU.”

Which said, he kicked a stone away from the fire, thrust his
hands into his pockets, and turned slowly on his heel, with his
elbows pressed close to his sides. Nevertheless the old man,
still smiling, said to me in an undertone:

“He is proud, but that will not last for long.”

“Why not?”

“Because I know in advance that–”

Breaking off short, he turned his head upon his shoulder, and sat
listening to some shouting that was going on across the river.
Everyone in that quarter was drunk, and, in particular, someone
could be heard bawling in a tone of challenge:

“Oh? I, you say? A-a-ah! Then take that!”

Silantiev, stepping lightly from stone to stone, crossed the
river. Then he mingled–a conspicuous figure (owing to his
apparent handlessness)–with the crowd. Somehow, on his departure,
I felt ill at ease.

Twitching his fingers as though performing a conjuring trick, the
old man continued to sit with his hands stretched over the
embers. By this time his nose had swollen over the bridge, and
bruises risen under his eyes which tended to obscure his vision.
Indeed, as he sat there, sat mouthing with dark, bestreaked lips
under a covering of hoary beard and moustache, I found that his
bloodstained, disfigured, wrinkled, as it were “antique” face
reminded me more than ever of those of great sinners of ancient
times who abandoned this world for the forest and the desert.

“I have seen many proud folk,” he continued with a shake of his
hatless head and its sparse hairs. “A fire may burn up quickly,
and continue to burn fiercely, yet, like these embers, become
turned to ashes, and. so lie smouldering till dawn. Young man,
there you have something to think of. Nor are they merely my
words. They are the words of the Holy Gospel itself.”

Ever descending, ever weighing more heavily upon us, the night
was as black and hot and stifling as the previous one had been,
albeit as kindly as a mother. Still the two fires on the opposite
bank of the rivulet were aflame, and sending hot blasts of vapour
across a seeming brook of gold.

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Folding his arms upon his breast, the old man tucked the palms of
his hands into his armpits, and settled himself more comfortably.
Nevertheless, when I made as though to add more twigs and
shavings to the embers he exclaimed imperiously:

“There is no need for that.”

“Why is there not? ”

“Because that would cause the fire to be seen, and bring some of
those men over here.”

Again, as he kicked away some boughs which I had just broken up,
he repeated:

“There is no need for that, I tell you.”

Presently, there approached us through the shimmering fire light
on the opposite bank two carpenters with boxes on their backs,
and axes in their hands.

“Are all the rest of our men gone?” inquired the foreman of the

“Yes,” replied one of them, a tall man with a drooping moustache
and no beard.

“Well, ‘shun evil, and good will result.'”

“Aye, and we likewise wish to depart.”

“But a task ought not to be left unfinished. At dinner-time I
sent Olesha to say that none of those fellows had better be
released from work; but released they have been, and now the
result is apparent! Presently, when they have drunk a little more
of their poison, they will fire the barraque.”

Every time that the first of the two carpenters inhaled the smoke
of my cigarette he spat into the embers, while the other man, a
young fellow as plump as a female baker, sank his towsled head
upon his breast as soon as he sat down, and fell asleep.

Next, the clamour across the rivulet subsided for awhile. But
suddenly I heard the ex-soldier exclaim in drunken, singsong
accents which came from the very centre of the tumult:

“Hi, do you answer me! How comes it that you have no respect for
Russia? Is not Riazan a part of Russia? What is Russia, then, I
should like to know? ”

“A tavern,” the foreman commented quietly; whereafter, turning
to me, he added more loudly:

“I say this of such fellows– that a tavern… But what a noise
those roisterers are making, to be sure!”

The young fellow in the red shirt had just shouted:

“Hi, there, soldier! Seize him by the throat! Seize him, seize

While from Silantiev had come the gruff retort:

“What? Do you suppose that you are hunting a pack of hounds?”

“Here, answer me!” was the next shouted utterance–it came from
the ex-soldier– whereupon the old man remarked to me in an

“It would seem that a fight is brewing.”

Rising, I moved in the direction of the uproar. As I did so, I
heard the old man say softly to his companions:

“He too is gone, thank God!”

Suddenly there surged towards me from the opposite bank a crowd
of men. Belching, hiccuping, and grunting, they seemed to be
carrying or dragging in their midst some heavy weight. Presently
a woman’s voice screamed, “Ya-av-sha!” and other voices raised
mingled shouts of “Throw him in! Give him a thrashing!” and
“Drag him along!”

The next moment we saw Silantiev break out of the crowd,
straighten himself, swing his right fist in the air, and hurl
himself at the crowd again. As he did so the young fellow in the
red shirt raised a gigantic arm, and there followed the sound of
a muffled, grisly blow. Staggering backwards, Silantiev slid
silently into the water, and lay there at my feet.

“That’s right!” was the comment of someone.

For a moment or two the clamour subsided a little, and during
that moment or two one’s ears once more became laved with the
sweet singsong of the river. Shortly afterwards someone threw
into the water a huge stone, and someone else laughed in a dull

As I was bending to look at Silantiev some of the men jostled me.
Nevertheless, I continued to struggle to raise him from the spot
where, half in and half out of the water, he lay with his head
and breast resting against the stepping-stones.

“You have killed him!” next I shouted–not because I believed
the statement to be true, but because I had a mind to frighten
into sobriety the men who were impeding me.

Upon this someone exclaimed in a faltering, sobered tone:

“Surely not?”

As for the young fellow in the red shirt, he passed me by with a
braggart, resentful shout of:

“Well? He had no right to insult me. Why should he have said
that I was a nuisance to the whole country?”

And someone else shouted:

“Where is the ex-soldier? Who is the watchman here?”

“Bring a light,” was the cry of a third.

Yet all these voices were more sober, more subdued, more
restrained than they had been, and presently a little muzhik
whose poll was swathed in a red handkerchief stooped and raised
Silantiev’s head. But almost as instantly he let it fall again,
and, dipping his hands into the water, said gravely:

“You have killed him. He is dead.”

At the moment I did not believe the words; but presently, as I
stood watching how the water coursed between Silantiev’s legs,
and turned them this way and that, and made them stir as though
they were striving to divest themselves of the shabby old boots,
I realised with all my being that the hands which were resting in
mine were the hands of a corpse. And, true enough, when I
released them they slapped down upon the surface like wet dish-

Until now, about a dozen men had been standing on the bank to
observe what was toward, but as soon as the little muzhik’s words
rang out these men recoiled, and, with jostlings, began to vent,
in subdued, uneasy tones, cries of:

“Who was it first struck him?”

“This will lose us our jobs.”

“It was the soldier that first started the racket.”

“Yes, that is true.”

“Let us go and denounce him.”

As for the young fellow in the red shirt, he cried:

“I swear on my honour, mates, that the affair was only a

“To hit a man with a bludgeon is more than a quarrel.”

“It was a stone that was used, not a bludgeon.”

“The soldier ought to–”

A woman’s high-pitched voice broke in with a plaintive cry of:

“Good Lord! Always something happens to us! ”

As for myself, I felt stunned and hurt as I seated myself upon
the stepping-stones; and though everything was plain to my sight,
nothing was plain to my understanding, while in my breast a
strange emptiness was present, save that the clamour of the
bystanders aroused me to a certain longing to outshout them all,
to send forth my voice into the night like the voice of a brazen

Presently two other men approached us. In the hand of the first
was a torch which he kept waving to and fro to prevent its being
extinguished, and whence, therefore, he kept strewing showers of
golden sparks. A fair-headed little fellow, he had a body as thin
as a pike when standing on its tail, a grey, stonelike
countenance that was deeply sunken between the shoulders, a mouth
perpetually half-agape, and round, owlish-looking eyes.

As he approached the corpse he bent forward with one hand upon
his knee to throw the more light upon Silantiev’s bruised head
and body. That head was resting turned upon the shoulder, and no
longer could I recognise the once handsome Cossack face, so
buried was the jaunty forelock under a clot of black-red mud, and
concealed by a swelling which had made its appearance above the
left ear. Also, since the mouth and moustache had been bashed
aside the teeth lay bared in a twisted, truly horrible smile,
while, as the most horrible point of all, the left eye was
hanging from its socket, and, become hideously large, gazing,
seemingly, at the inner pocket of the flap of Silantiev’s pea-
jacket, whence there was protruding a white edging of paper.

Slowly the torch holder described a circle of fire in the air,
and thereby sprinkled a further shower of sparks over the poor
mutilated face, with its streaks of shining blood. Then he
muttered with a smack of the lips:

“You can see for yourselves who the man is.”

As he spoke a few more sparks descended upon Silantiev’s scalp
and wet cheeks, and went out, while the flare’s reflection so
played in the ball of Silantiev’s eye as to communicate to it an
added appearance of death.

Finally the torch holder straightened his back, threw his torch
into the river, expectorated after it, and said to his companion
as he smoothed a flaxen poll which, in the darkness, looked
almost greenish:

“Do you go to the barraque, and tell them that a man has been
done to death.”

“No; I should be afraid to go alone.”

“Come, come! Nothing is there to be afraid of. Go, I tell you.”

“But I would much rather not.”

“Don’t be such a fool!”

Suddenly there sounded over my head the quiet voice of the

“I will accompany you,” he said. Then he added disgustedly as he
scraped his foot against a stone:

“How horrible the blood smells! It would seem that my very foot
is smeared with it.”

With a frown the fair-headed muzhik eyed him, while the foreman
returned the muzhik’s gaze with a scrutiny that never wavered.
Finally the elder man commented with cold severity:

“All the mischief has come of vodka and tobacco, the devil’s

Not only were the pair strangely alike, but both of them
strangely resembled wizards, in that both were short of stature,
as sharp-finished as gimlets, and as green-tinted by the darkness
as tufts of lichen.

“Let us go, brother,” the foreman said. “Go we with the Holy

And, omitting even to inquire who had been killed, or even to
glance at the corpse, or even to pay it the last salute demanded
of custom, the foreman departed down the stream, while in his
wake followed the messenger, a man who kept stumbling as he
picked his way from stone to stone. Amid the gloom the pair moved
as silently as ghosts.

The narrow-chested, fair-headed little muzhik then raked me with
his eyes; whereafter he produced a cigarette from a tin box,
snapped-to the lid of the box, struck a match (illuminating once
more the face of the dead man), and applied the flame to the
cigarette. Lastly he said:

“This is the sixth murder which I have seen one thing and
another commit.”

“One thing and another commit?” I queried.

The reply came only after a pause; when the little muzhik asked:
” What did you say? I did not quite catch it.”

I explained that human beings, not inanimate entities, murdered
human beings.

“Well, be they human beings or machinery or lightning or
anything else, they are all one. One of my mates was caught in
some machinery at Bakhmakh. Another one had his throat cut in a
brawl. Another one was crushed against the bucket in a coal mine.
Another one was–”

Carefully though the man counted, he ended by erring in his
reckoning to the extent of making his total “five.” Accordingly
he re-computed the list–and this time succeeded in making the
total amount to “seven.”

“Never mind,” he remarked with a sigh as he blew his cigarette
into a red glow which illuminated the whole of his face. “The
truth is that I cannot always repeat the list correctly, just as
I should like. Were I older than I am, I too should contrive to
get finished off; for old-age is a far from desirable thing. Yes,
indeed! But, as things are, I am still alive, nor, thank the
Lord, does anything matter very much.”

Presently, with a nod towards Silantiev, he continued:

“Even now HIS kinsfolk or his wife may be looking for news of
him, or a letter from him. Well, never again will he write, and
as likely as not his kinsfolk will end by saying to themselves:
‘He has taken to bad ways, and forgotten his family.’ Yes, good

By this time the clamour around the barraque had ceased, and the
two fires had burnt themselves out, and most of the men
dispersed. From the smooth yellow walls of the barraque dark,
round, knot-holes were gazing at the rivulet like eyes. Only in a
single window without a frame was there visible a faint light,
while at intervals there issued thence fragmentary, angry
exclamations such as:

“Look sharp there, and deal! Clubs will be the winners.”

“Ah! Here is a trump!”

“Indeed? What luck, damn it!”

The fair-headed muzhik blew the ashes from his cigarette, and

“No such thing is there at cards as luck–only skill.”

At this juncture we saw approaching us softly from across the
rivulet a young carpenter who wore a moustache. He halted beside
us, and drew a deep breath.

“Well, mate?” the fair-headed muzhik inquired.

“Would you mind giving me something to smoke?” the carpenter
asked. The obscurity caused him to look large and shapeless,
though his manner of speaking was bashful and subdued.

“Certainly. Here is a cigarette.”

“Christ reward you! Today my wife forgot to bring my tobacco,
and my grandfather has strict ideas on the subject of smoking.”

“Was it he who departed just now? It was.”

As the carpenter inhaled a whiff he continued:

“I suppose that man was beaten to death?”

“He was–to death.”

For a while the pair smoked in silence. The hour was past

Over the defile the jagged strip of sky which roofed it looked
like a river of blue flowing at an immense height above the
night-enveloped earth, and bearing the brilliant stars on its
smooth current.

Quieter and quieter was everything growing; more and more was
everything becoming part of the night….

One might have thought that nothing particular had happened.

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