Old Semyon, nicknamed Canny, and a young Tatar, whom no one knew by name, were sitting on the river-bank by the camp-fire; the other three ferrymen were in the hut. Semyon, an old man of sixty, lean and toothless, but broad shouldered and still healthy-looking, was drunk; he would have gone in to sleep long before, but he had a bottle in his pocket and he was afraid that the fellows in the hut would ask him for vodka. The Tatar was ill and weary, and wrapping himself up in his rags was describing how nice it was in the Simbirsk province, and what a beautiful and clever wife he had left behind at home. He was not more than twenty five, and now by the light of the camp-fire, with his pale and sick, mournful face, he looked like a boy.
“To be sure, it is not paradise here,” said Canny. “You can see for yourself, the water, the bare banks, clay, and nothing else. . . . Easter has long passed and yet there is ice on the river, and this morning there was snow. . .”
“It’s bad! it’s bad!” said the Tatar, and looked round him in terror.
The dark, cold river was flowing ten paces away; it grumbled, lapped against the hollow clay banks and raced on swiftly towards the far-away sea. Close to the bank there was the dark blur of a big barge, which the ferrymen called a “karbos.” Far away on the further bank, lights, dying down and flickering up again, zigzagged like little snakes; they were burning last year’s grass. And beyond the little snakes there was darkness again. There little icicles could be heard knocking against the barge It was damp and cold. . . .
The Tatar glanced at the sky. There were as many stars as at home, and the same blackness all round, but something was lacking. At home in the Simbirsk province the stars were quite different, and so was the sky.
“It’s bad! it’s bad!” he repeated.
“You will get used to it,” said Semyon, and he laughed. “Now you are young and foolish, the milk is hardly dry on your lips, and it seems to you in your foolishness that you are more wretched than anyone; but the time will come when you will say to yourself: ‘I wish no one a better life than mine.’ You look at me. Within a week the floods will be over and we shall set up the ferry; you will all go wandering off about Siberia while I shall stay and shall begin going from bank to bank. I’ve been going like that for twenty-two years, day and night. The pike and the salmon are under the water while I am on the water. And thank God for it, I want nothing; God give everyone such a life.”
The Tatar threw some dry twigs on the camp-fire, lay down closer to the blaze, and said:
“My father is a sick man. When he dies my mother and wife will come here. They have promised.”
“And what do you want your wife and mother for?” asked Canny. “That’s mere foolishness, my lad. It’s the devil confounding you, damn his soul! Don’t you listen to him, the cursed one. Don’t let him have his way. He is at you about the women, but you spite him; say, ‘I don’t want them!’ He is on at you about freedom, but you stand up to him and say: ‘I don’t want it!’ I want nothing, neither father nor mother, nor wife, nor freedom, nor post, nor paddock; I want nothing, damn their souls!”
Semyon took a pull at the bottle and went on:
“I am not a simple peasant, not of the working class, but the son of a deacon, and when I was free I lived at Kursk; I used to wear a frockcoat, and now I have brought myself to such a pass that I can sleep naked on the ground and eat grass. And I wish no one a better life. I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody, and the way I look at it is that there is nobody richer and freer than I am.
When they sent me here from Russia from the first day I stuck it out; I want nothing! The devil was at me about my wife and about my home and about freedom, but I told him: ‘I want nothing.’ I stuck to it, and here you see I live well, and I don’t complain, and if anyone gives way to the devil and listens to him, if but once, he is lost, there is no salvation for him: he is sunk in the bog to the crown of his head and will never get out.
“It is not only a foolish peasant like you, but even gentlemen, well-educated people, are lost. Fifteen years ago they sent a gentleman here from Russia. He hadn’t shared something with his brothers and had forged something in a will. They did say he was a prince or a baron, but maybe he was simply an official — who knows? Well, the gentleman arrived here, and first thing he bought himself a house and land in Muhortinskoe. ‘I want to live by my own work,’ says he, ‘in the sweat of my brow, for I am not a gentleman now,’ says he, ‘but a settler.’ ‘Well,’ says I, ‘God help you, that’s the right thing.’ He was a young man then, busy and careful; he used to mow himself and catch fish and ride sixty miles on horseback.
Only this is what happened: from the very first year he took to riding to Gyrino for the post; he used to stand on my ferry and sigh: ‘Ech, Semyon, how long it is since they sent me any money from home!’ ‘You don’t want money, Vassily Sergeyitch,’ says I. ‘What use is it to you? You cast away the past, and forget it as though it had never been at all, as though it had been a dream, and begin to live anew.
Don’t listen to the devil,’ says I; ‘he will bring you to no good, he’ll draw you into a snare. Now you want money,’ says I, ‘ but in a very little while you’ll be wanting something else, and then more and more. If you want to be happy,’ says I, the chief thing is not to want anything. Yes. . . . If,’ says I, ‘if Fate has wronged you and me cruelly it’s no good asking for her favor and bowing down to her, but you despise her and laugh at her, or else she will laugh at you.’ That’s what I said to him. . . .
“Two years later I ferried him across to this side, and he was rubbing his hands and laughing. ‘ I am going to Gyrino to meet my wife,’ says he. ‘She was sorry for me,’ says he; ‘she has come. She is good and kind.’ And he was breathless with joy. So a day later he came with his wife. A beautiful young lady in a hat; in her arms was a baby girl. And lots of luggage of all sorts. And my Vassily Sergeyitch was fussing round her; he couldn’t take his eyes off her and couldn’t say enough in praise of her. ‘Yes, brother Semyon, even in Siberia people can live!’ ‘Oh, all right,’ thinks I, ‘it will be a different tale presently.’ And from that time forward he went almost every week to inquire whether money had not come from Russia. He wanted a lot of money. ‘She is losing her youth and beauty here in Siberia for my sake,’ says he, ‘and sharing my bitter lot with me, and so I ought,’ says he, ‘to provide her with every comfort. . . .’
“To make it livelier for the lady he made acquaintance with the officials and all sorts of riff-raff. And of course he had to give food and drink to all that crew, and there had to be a piano and a shaggy lapdog on the sofa — plague take it! . . . Luxury, in fact, self-indulgence. The lady did not stay with him long. How could she? The clay, the water, the cold, no vegetables for you, no fruit. All around you ignorant and drunken people and no sort of manners, and she was a spoilt lady from Petersburg or Moscow. . . . To be sure she moped. Besides, her husband, say what you like, was not a gentleman now, but a settler — not the same rank.
“Three years later, I remember, on the eve of the Assumption, there was shouting from the further bank. I went over with the ferry, and what do I see but the lady, all wrapped up, and with her a young gentleman, an official. A sledge with three horses. . . . I ferried them across here, they got in and away like the wind. They were soon lost to sight. And towards morning Vassily Sergeyitch galloped down to the ferry. ‘Didn’t my wife come this way with a gentleman in spectacles, Semyon?’ ‘She did,’ said I; ‘you may look for the wind in the fields!’ He galloped in pursuit of them.
For five days and nights he was riding after them. When I ferried him over to the other side afterwards, he flung himself on the ferry and beat his head on the boards of the ferry and howled. ‘So that’s how it is,’ says I. I laughed, and reminded him ‘people can live even in Siberia!’ And he beat his head harder than ever. . . .
“Then he began longing for freedom. His wife had slipped off to Russia, and of course he was drawn there to see her and to get her away from her lover. And he took, my lad, to galloping almost every day, either to the post or the town to see the commanding officer; he kept sending in petitions for them to have mercy on him and let him go back home; and he used to say that he had spent some two hundred rubles on telegrams alone.
He sold his land and mortgaged his house to the Jews. He grew gray and bent, and yellow in the face, as though he was in consumption. If he talked to you he would go, khee–khee–khee,. . . and there were tears in his eyes. He kept rushing about like this with petitions for eight years, but now he has grown brighter and more cheerful again: he has found another whim to give way to. You see, his daughter has grown up. He looks at her, and she is the apple of his eye. And to tell the truth she is all right, good-looking, with black eyebrows and a lively disposition.
Every Sunday he used to ride with her to church in Gyrino. They used to stand on the ferry, side by side, she would laugh and he could not take his eyes off her. ‘Yes, Semyon,’ says he, ‘people can live even in Siberia. Even in Siberia there is happiness. Look,’ says he, ‘what a daughter I have got! I warrant you wouldn’t find another like her for a thousand versts round.’ ‘Your daughter is all right,’ says I, ‘that’s true, certainly.’ But to myself I thought: ‘Wait a bit, the wench is young, her blood is dancing, she wants to live, and there is no life here.’ And she did begin to pine, my lad. . . . She faded and faded, and now she can hardly crawl about. Consumption.
“So you see what Siberian happiness is, damn its soul! You see how people can live in Siberia. . . . He has taken to going from one doctor to another and taking them home with him. As soon as he hears that two or three hundred miles away there is a doctor or a sorcerer, he will drive to fetch him. A terrible lot of money he spent on doctors, and to my thinking he had better have spent the money on drink. . . . She’ll die just the same. She is certain to die, and then it will be all over with him. He’ll hang himself from grief or run away to Russia — that’s a sure thing. He’ll run away and they’ll catch him, then he will be tried, sent to prison, he will have a taste of the lash. . . .”
“Good! good!” said the Tatar, shivering with cold.
“What is good?” asked Canny.
“His wife, his daughter. . . . What of prison and what of sorrow! — anyway, he did see his wife and his daughter. . . . You say, want nothing. But ‘nothing’ is bad! His wife lived with him three years — that was a gift from God. ‘Nothing’ is bad, but three years is good. How not understand?”
Shivering and hesitating, with effort picking out the Russian words of which he knew but few, the Tatar said that God forbid one should fall sick and die in a strange land, and be buried in the cold and dark earth; that if his wife came to him for one day, even for one hour, that for such happiness he would be ready to bear any suffering and to thank God. Better one day of happiness than nothing.
Then he described again what a beautiful and clever wife he had left at home. Then, clutching his head in both hands, he began crying and assuring Semyon that he was not guilty, and was suffering for nothing. His two brothers and an uncle had carried off a peasant’s horses, and had beaten the old man till he was half dead, and the commune had not judged fairly, but had contrived a sentence by which all the three brothers were sent to Siberia, while the uncle, a rich man, was left at home.
“You will get used to it!” said Semyon.
The Tatar was silent, and stared with tear-stained eyes at the fire; his face expressed bewilderment and fear, as though he still did not understand why he was here in the darkness and the wet, beside strangers, and not in the Simbirsk province.
Canny lay near the fire, chuckled at something, and began humming a song in an undertone.
“What joy has she with her father?” he said a little later. “He loves her and he rejoices in her, that’s true; but, mate, you must mind your ps and qs with him, he is a strict old man, a harsh old man. And young wenches don’t want strictness. They want petting and ha-ha-ha! and ho-ho-ho! and scent and pomade. Yes. . . . Ech! life, life,” sighed Semyon, and he got up heavily. “The vodka is all gone, so it is time to sleep. Eh? I am going, my lad. . . .”
Left alone, the Tatar put on more twigs, lay down and stared at the fire; he began thinking of his own village and of his wife. If his wife could only come for a month, for a day; and then if she liked she might go back again. Better a month or even a day than nothing. But if his wife kept her promise and came, what would he have to feed her on? Where could she live here?
“If there were not something to eat, how could she live?” the Tatar asked aloud.
He was paid only ten kopecks for working all day and all night at the oar; it is true that travelers gave him tips for tea and for vodkas but the men shared all they received among themselves, and gave nothing to the Tatar, but only laughed at him. And from poverty he was hungry, cold, and frightened. . . . Now, when his whole body was aching and shivering, he ought to go into the hut and lie down to sleep; but he had nothing to cover him there, and it was colder than on the river-bank; here he had nothing to cover him either, but at least he could make up the fire. . . .
In another week, when the floods were quite over and they set the ferry going, none of the ferrymen but Semyon would be wanted, and the Tatar would begin going from village to village begging for alms and for work. His wife was only seventeen; she was beautiful, spoilt, and shy; could she possibly go from village to village begging alms with her face unveiled? No, it was terrible even to think of that. . . .
It was already getting light; the barge, the bushes of willow on the water, and the waves could be clearly discerned, and if one looked round there was the steep clay slope; at the bottom of it the hut thatched with dingy brown straw, and the huts of the village lay clustered higher up. The cocks were already crowing in the village.
The rusty red clay slope, the barge, the river, the strange, unkind people, hunger, cold, illness, perhaps all that was not real. Most likely it was all a dream, thought the Tatar. He felt that he was asleep and heard his own snoring. . . . Of course he was at home in the Simbirsk province, and he had only to call his wife by name for her to answer; and in the next room was his mother. . . . What terrible dreams there are, though! What are they for? The Tatar smiled and opened his eyes. What river was this, the Volga?
Snow was falling.
“Boat!” was shouted on the further side. “Boat!”
The Tatar woke up, and went to wake his mates and row over to the other side. The ferrymen came on to the river-bank, putting on their torn sheepskins as they walked, swearing with voices husky from sleepiness and shivering from the cold. On waking from their sleep, the river, from which came a breath of piercing cold, seemed to strike them as revolting and horrible.
They jumped into the barge without hurrying themselves. . . . The Tatar and the three ferrymen took the long, broad-bladed oars, which in the darkness looked like the claws of crabs; Semyon leaned his stomach against the tiller. The shout on the other side still continued, and two shots were fired from a revolver, probably with the idea that the ferrymen were asleep or had gone to the pot-house in the village.
“All right, you have plenty of time,” said Semyon in the tone of a man convinced that there was no necessity in this world to hurry — that it would lead to nothing, anyway.
The heavy, clumsy barge moved away from the bank and floated between the willow-bushes, and only the willows slowly moving back showed that the barge was not standing still but moving. The ferrymen swung the oars evenly in time; Semyon lay with his stomach on the tiller and, describing a semicircle in the air, flew from one side to the other. In the darkness it looked as though the men were sitting on some antediluvian animal with long paws, and were moving on it through a cold, desolate land, the land of which one sometimes dreams in nightmares.
They passed beyond the willows and floated out into the open. The creak and regular splash of the oars was heard on the further shore, and a shout came: “Make haste! make haste!”
Another ten minutes passed, and the barge banged heavily against the landing-stage.
“And it keeps sprinkling and sprinkling,” muttered Semyon, wiping the snow from his face; “and where it all comes from God only knows.”
On the bank stood a thin man of medium height in a jacket lined with fox fur and in a white lambskin cap. He was standing at a little distance from his horses and not moving; he had a gloomy, concentrated expression, as though he were trying to remember something and angry with his untrustworthy memory. When Semyon went up to him and took off his cap, smiling, he said:
“I am hastening to Anastasyevka. My daughter’s worse again, and they say that there is a new doctor at Anastasyevka.”
They dragged the carriage on to the barge and floated back. The man whom Semyon addressed as Vassily Sergeyitch stood all the time motionless, tightly compressing his thick lips and staring off into space; when his coachman asked permission to smoke in his presence he made no answer, as though he had not heard. Semyon, lying with his stomach on the tiller, looked mockingly at him and said:
“Even in Siberia people can live — can live!”
There was a triumphant expression on Canny’s face, as though he had proved something and was delighted that things had happened as he had foretold. The unhappy helplessness of the man in the foxskin coat evidently afforded him great pleasure.
“It’s muddy driving now, Vassily Sergeyitch,” he said when the horses were harnessed again on the bank. “You should have put off going for another fortnight, when it will be drier. Or else not have gone at all. . . . If any good would come of your going — but as you know yourself, people have been driving about for years and years, day and night, and it’s alway’s been no use. That’s the truth.”
Vassily Sergeyitch tipped him without a word, got into his carriage and drove off.
“There, he has galloped off for a doctor!” said Semyon, shrinking from the cold. “But looking for a good doctor is like chasing the wind in the fields or catching the devil by the tail, plague take your soul! What a queer chap, Lord forgive me a sinner!”
The Tatar went up to Canny, and, looking at him with hatred and repulsion, shivering, and mixing Tatar words with his broken Russian, said: “He is good . . . good; but you are bad! You are bad! The gentleman is a good soul, excellent, and you are a beast, bad! The gentleman is alive, but you are a dead carcass. . . . God created man to be alive, and to have joy and grief and sorrow; but you want nothing, so you are not alive, you are stone, clay! A stone wants nothing and you want nothing. You are a stone, and God does not love you, but He loves the gentleman!”
Everyone laughed; the Tatar frowned contemptuously, and with a wave of his hand wrapped himself in his rags and went to the campfire. The ferrymen and Semyon sauntered to the hut.
“It’s cold,” said one ferryman huskily as he stretched himself on the straw with which the damp clay floor was covered.
“Yes, its not warm,” another assented. “It’s a dog’s life. . . .”
They all lay down. The door was thrown open by the wind and the snow drifted into the hut; nobody felt inclined to get up and shut the door: they were cold, and it was too much trouble.
“I am all right,” said Semyon as he began to doze. “I wouldn’t wish anyone a better life.”
“You are a tough one, we all know. Even the devils won’t take you!”
Sounds like a dog’s howling came from outside.
“What’s that? Who’s there?”
“It’s the Tatar crying.”
“I say. . . . He’s a queer one!”
“He’ll get u-used to it!” said Semyon, and at once fell asleep.
The others were soon asleep too. The door remained unclosed.