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Evil Doers by Maksim Gorky

 

Once at dinner Vanyushka Kuzin's mother said to him:

"Why don't you go to the city, Vanya?"

Vanya said nothing. He was peeling hot potatoes, blowing noisily on his fingers, his lips thrust out like a trumpet, and twitching his eyebrows angrily.

His mother looked at his round, boyish face, sighed, and repeated more quietly:

"Really, why don't you?"

"What for?" asked Vanya, tossing a potato from one hand to the other.

"Take the ax, and go."

"There are a lot like me there with axes already."

"Well, take a shovel.They will soon be digging cellars. You will chop some wood here, you will do something else there, and so you'll earn your bread somehow. Why don't you go, Vanya?"

He wanted to go to the city, but he didn't say a word to the old woman. In the two weeks that had passed since his father's death, Vanya had come to consider himself completely independent. At the funeral feast he had drunk vodka for the first time with impunity, and now he walked through the village with his chest thrown out, his eyebrows knitted thoughtfully, and he talked to his mother curtly and abruptly, in imitation of his father.

After dinner the old woman busied herself with the mending of her fur-coat, while Vanyushka climbed up onto the stove, and after lying there for a short half-hour, asked his mother:

"How much money have you?"

"A ruble and six ten-kopeck pieces."

"Give me the sixty kopecks."

"What for?"

"To take along."

"You're going then?"

"It looks as though I am."

"That's good. You go, sonny.When will you start out?"

"Tomorrow."

At dawn his mother blessed him with a copper icon of St. Nicholas, Vanya drew his belt tight, stuck the ax into it, pulled his cap over his ears, and slapping his thighs with his mittened hands, said:

"I'm off. Good-by."

"God be with you, Vanya. Be on your guard against city folk. Take care how you behave with them--they're sly ones! And no drinking, do you hear?"

"All right," said Vanyushka, and tilting his cap at a dashing angle, he went out into the street.

It was still dark. He walked no more than ten steps away from the cottage, and when he turned, hearing the voice of his mother, who stood at the gate, he could no longer see her in the murk, and could only hear broken words which resounded anxiously in the stillness:

"City girlsbad sickness"

"Good-by!" shouted Vanka.

And suddenly he felt sad about his mother, about the village, about his poor old cottage. He stopped, listened.But already everything was quiet again, his mother had gone in. With a sigh he moved to meet the unstirring silent darkness, still untouched by dawn.

As he strode through the fields he was thinking of how he might earn good money in the city, and come home towards spring to marry Vasilisa Shamova. And he pictured Vasilisa, plump, sturdy, and cleanly. Or perhaps he might find a position as a porter with some kind, rich merchant, and then he would marry not Vasilisa but a city girl. He was walking along, and behind him dawn was gently breaking, all around night's shadows were vanishing unseen, and the pale yellow rays of the winter sun were beginning to fall on the snow. Underfoot the snow creaked more loudly and cheerfully, and Vanyushka began singing. Three twenty-kopeck pieces were jingling in the pocket of his trousers, and thoughts and guesses about the future were slowly moving through his head, to the sound of the tune.

It was easy, pleasant walking; his feet did not stick in the packed snow of the road. The frosty air filled his lungs and gave him a sense of well-being. The blue haze of the distance was beautiful and inviting. Hoar-frost feathered Vanya's budding mustache, and he thrust out his upper lip, looking at it with pleasure--his mustache seemed to him long and handsome.A large crow, black as a charred ember, was stepping heavily on the snow beside the road. Vanyushka whistled. But the gloomy bird only looked at him with one eye and waddled even nearer to the road. Then he slapped his mittens, making a sound like a rifle-shot, but even that did not frighten the bird.

"You devil!" Kuzin muttered, and walked faster.

By mid-day, when he had covered more than half the distance, a snow-storm set in. Light, transparent puffs of snow, torn from the hillocks by the wind, flung a cold, white dust into his face. At times a flock of snowflakes rose from under his feet, as if wanting to stop the boy, while the wind pushed him in the back as though hurrying him on. The far-off distance was blotted out by murky clouds. The wind shrieked, as it touched the ground, covering up all traces, and wailed in a sad, long-drawn-out manner. The people and horses that he encountered appeared before his eyes and vanished like stones thrown into water. Vanyushka closed his eyes and walked with a swaying gait amidst the noises and sad songs of the storm. His thighs ached, his feet were heavy, he thought angrily of his mother: "She is sitting there, and here am I walking!"

And then he grew so tired that he could think of nothing. The only thing he wanted was to get to the city, to rest in a warm room, to drink tea. His back bent, his head down, he walked without noticing anything around him until, through the thunder of the storm, he heard the sullen roar of a factory siren. He halted and, straightening up, sighed deeply. Then he pulled the three coins out of his pocket, and put them in his mouth, thrusting them into his cheek, so that he might not tempt city folk with their jingling.

Seen through the gray curtain of snow, the city looked like a heavy cloud that had settled on the ground. Vanyushka took off his cap, crossed himself, and said to himself: "Here I am!"

II

When he entered the tea-house, the thick, damp air touched his face and like a warm, wet rag wiped from his cheeks the stinging sensation of cold. A bluish, acrid smoke wavered under the low, vaulted ceiling and stung the eyes; the smell of vodka, tobacco, and burnt oil tickled the nose; the noise in the tea-house was dull and muffled, and made Vanya pleasantly dizzy. Making his way slowly among the tables, he was looking for a place, and could not find one. All the seats were occupied by red-faced cabbies, and hollow-cheeked, half-naked artisans. Ragged roughs with thievish eyes were sullenly scrutinizing Ivan. One of them, a tall, lean fellow with red mustaches, winked at him and said, thrusting out his hand:

"Hello, greenhorn! Come here!"

Vanya lunged away from him and brushed against a small, rotund girl. Her face was a bright red and her black eyebrows were as large as mustaches.

"Look out, you booby!" she shouted in a hoarse voice.

In the corner of the room under the burning icon-lamp a man sat alone at a table. Vanyushka went over to him.

"May I sit down here?"

"Suit yourself."

Kuzin sat down at the table, undid the collar of his caftan, and said:

"Lots of people here!"

"A place like this is never empty. You from the country?"

"Yes."

"Looking for work?"

"Why, yes."

"Nothing much doing here."

"That so?"

"It's the truth. This is my third week here."

"No work?"

"Fact is--you starve."

A waiter dashed past the table.

"I'd like tea!" Vanyushka shouted at him, and began to examine his companion.

He was a man of about twenty-five, wearing a woman's quilted jacket, greasy and ragged. Tall and thin, he was bent low over the table as though he were trying to hide from people his pock-marked, hairless face. At times, with a swift, strong movement of his neck, he lifted his close-cropped head and looked at Kuzin uneasily with his large, gray eyes, as though he were speculating about something. When he noticed that Vanyushka was scrutinizing him, he gave him a thin-lipped smile, and said in a whisper:

"I had an overcoat: I ate it up. I had a cap: I ate it up. What's left are my boots."

He thrust out from under the table a long leg in a sturdy leather boot, and added:

"Soon I'll have to sell these too. I'll trade them in."

Vanyushka pitied both the stranger and himself.

"But maybe you'll find something," he said.

"Small chance. There are as many of us around here as there are yellow leaves in autumn. Just look about you--so many people, and they all want to eat."

"Let's have tea together," Vanyushka offered.

"Thanks. I thank you very much. I've had tea. But if we could have a little glass of something" He sighed heavily.

Vanyushka felt the money in his mouth with his tongue, deliberated a moment, beckoned to the waiter with his finger, and gave his order with an air of importance:

"See that we get a half-bottle--for two."

The pock-marked fellow smiled gaily, but said not a word.

"Where do you sleep?" asked Vanyushka.

"Not far from here, it costs three kopecks a night. And you?"

"But I've just arrived."

"Well, then, why don't we sleep in the same place?"

"Let's!"

"Good. What's your name?"

"IvanKuzin."

"My name is Yeremey Salakin."

They grew silent and looked at each other, smiling. And when the waiter brought the vodka and Vanyushka poured out a glass for Salakin, the latter half rose, took the glass, and holding it towards Kuzin, said:

"Well, let's drink in token of the commencement of our friendship!"

Vanyushka liked these words very much. He dashingly emptied his glass at a gulp, made a sound of satisfaction, and said gaily:

"Two are better off than one."

"Of course."

"I've come to the city to work for the first time. I used to come here on business, but not stay," Vanya was saying, refilling the glasses.

"I am here for the first time, too. I used to work on estates mostly. But I fell out with the steward at the last place, and he sacked me. The red-headed bastard!"

"My father died a little while ago. Now I am my own master."

At a table near them sat two truck drivers, both covered with a white dust. They were engaged in a loud argument, and one of them, a huge old man, kept striking the table with his fist and shouting:

"Serves him right then!"

"Why?" the other kept asking. He was a black-bearded man with a scar on his forehead.

"Because--he ought to understand! What kind of a worker was he? Workers--they're, you see, dough, God's bread! The others, good-for-nothings that is, they're offal, bran! Their end, you see, is to serve as food for the beasts!"

"All alike are to be pitied," said the black-bearded driver.

Salakin, who was lending an ear to the argument, said:

"It isn't true."

"What?"

"About pity. Take me, for instance: Matvey Ivanovich, the steward, is my enemy! Why did he sack me? I had worked two years, everything was as it should be! Suddenly he got furious with me, said that the cook Marya and meAnd things like that. And then about the reinsthat was my fault, too. The reins got lost. Look for them! Then he says to me: 'Go!' How's that? I'm no use to him, but I'm certainly of use to myself! I must live. And now--can I pity him, the steward?"

Salakin was silent for a while, and then declared with deep conviction:

"I can pity myself only, and no one else!"

"Of course," said Vanyushka.

After the third glass both of them leaned on the table, face to face, heated by the vodka and the noise. And Salakin began to tell Vanyushka his life-story in a long-winded, incoherent, and vehement manner.

"I am a foundling!" he said. "My life is a burden to me because of my mother's sin."

Vanyushka looked at his friend's excited, pock-marked face, and nodded in agreement so often that he was dizzy.

"Vanya! Order another half-bottle! It's all one!" shouted Salakin, waving his arm in despair.

"It c-can be done" replied Vanyushka.

III

When Vanyushka woke up, he found himself lying on a plank bed in a dusky cellar with a vaulted ceiling as badly pitted as Salakin's face. He moved his tongue about in his mouth: there was no money, but only bitter, hot saliva. Vanyushka sighed deeply and looked around.

The entire cellar was occupied by low plank beds, and on them lay, like heaps of mud, ragged, dingy men. Some of them had awakened, and, moving heavily, were sliding onto the brick floor. Others were still asleep. The subdued hubbub of voices mingled with the snoring of the sleepers; the splashing of water could be heard. In the gray murk of early morning the men's disheveled figures resembled tatters of autumn clouds.

"You awake?"

Next to Vanyushka stood Salakin. His face was red, apparently because he had just washed it with cold water. In his hands was a copper box with a number of wheels in it. With one eye he examined the wheels and with the other he looked at Vanyushka, smiling.

"We went the limit last night," said Kuzin, looking at his chum reproachfully.

"Yes, we wet our whistles plenty," the other replied with relish.

"I blew in all my dough!"

"That's nothing. We'll get along!"

"Yes, it's all right for you"

"Don't worry. I have seventeen kopecks, and then I'll sell my boots. We'll get along."

"Well, if that's how it is" said Vanyushka, looking distrustfully into his chum's face, and seeing that Salakin was silent, he added:

"You've got to help me now, I spent my money drinking with you, so you must"

"That's all right. 'Goes without saying. Laugh together, cry together. We're no rich folk to quarrel over who should get what. There's not much to divide."

His eyes and voice reassured Vanyushka, and he said:

"What have you got in your hand?"

"Guess."

Kuzin glanced about and asked under his breath:

"Counterfeiting tools, eh?"

"You queer fish!" exclaimed Salakin, laughing. "The idea! What do you know about counterfeiting?"

"I know. Not far from our village there was a peasant in this business.Well, he landed in Siberia."

Salakin grew thoughtful, was silent for a while, and turning the box about in his hands, said with a sigh:

"Yes, they deport you for it."

"So that's what it is?" asked Vanyushka quietly, nodding towards the box.

"Oh, no. That's the inside of a watch.Get up, let's go and have tea."

Vanyushka climbed off the bed, smoothed his hair with his hand, and said:

"Let's."

But the copper box fascinated him and filled him with a kind of fear. Seeing that Salakin thrust it in his bosom, he asked him:

"Where did you get it?"

"I bought it at the marketplace, when I was selling my overcoat. I paid seventy kopecks"

"What do you want it for?" Vanyushka pressed him.

"You see--" bending toward his ear, Salakin spoke mysteriously--"for a long time I've wanted to understand how the clock knows what time it is. Midday, and it strikes twelve! How's that? Plain copper and yet made so that it knows what time it is! A man can guess the time by the sun, and an animal is a living thing. But these are wheels, copper!"

Vanyushka's head was aching. He walked beside his chum, listened to his cryptic words, and tried to figure out with difficulty what Salakin would do after he had sold his boots. Would he pay back at least half the money that had been spent on drink, or wouldn't he? And looking up into Salakin's eyes, he asked him:

"When are you going to sell your boots?"

"As soon as we've drunk our tea, we'll go. I've been thinking about clocks for a long time, brother. I've asked many people, intelligent people, too. One says this, another says that--impossible to make it out."

"And why do you want to know?" asked Vanyushka, curiously.

"It's interesting. How can it be? Now take a human being, he moves, but then he's alive, that's simple."

Salakin spoke of the mystery of clocks so long and so vehemently that Vanyushka involuntarily was infected by his enthusiasm, and himself began to wonder how it was that a clock knew the time. And while the friends drank tea, they kept up persistently the discussion of clocks.

Then they went to sell the boots, and sold them for two rubles and forty kopecks. Salakin was chagrined by the low price the boots had fetched. Right there on the market square he invited Vanyushka into an eating-place and in despair spent a whole ruble at one stroke. And late at night, when both of them, unsteady on their feet and talking loudly, were on their way to the doss-house, only four five-kopeck pieces were jingling in Salakin's pocket. Vanyushka held him by the arm, pushed him with his shoulder, and spoke elatedly:

"Brother, I love you like one of my own people.Honest! You're a brick! You can have the whole of me, there it is! Honest! Get on my back if you like, I'll carry you."

"L-little fool!" muttered Salakin. "Don't worry, we'll get along! Tomorrow we'll go and sell the clock's guts, the whole business. To the devil with it, eh!"

"Damn it all!" shouted Vanyushka, waving his arm, and in a thin voice he began singing:

              I'm ho-omely, I'm po-or.

Salakin halted, and joined in:

              My clothes are all o-old.

And tightly pressed against each other, they howled together savagely:

              That's why the poor gi-irl
              Is left out in the co-old.

"And Matveyka, the red-headed devil! I'll show him!" Salakin concluded suddenly, and raising his arm high, he shook his fist in the air ferociously.

IV

A week passed.

One night the friends, hungry and full of rancor, were lying side by side on their plank beds in the doss-house, and Vanyushka was quietly reproaching Salakin:

"It's all your fault! If it weren't for you, I would be working somewhere by this time."

"Go to the devil," Salakin curtly advised his friend.

"Shut up! I'm telling the truth: What's to be done now? Starve"

"Go, marry a merchant's widow, and your belly will be full.Milk-sop!"

"You pock-marked mug! You stitched nose!"

It wasn't the first time that they used such language to each other.

During the day, half-naked, blue with cold, they roamed the streets, but very rarely succeeded in earning something. They hired themselves out to split wood, to chop away the dirty ice in court-yards, and receiving twenty kopecks a-piece, they immediately spent the money on food. Sometimes on the market-place a lady would hand Vanyushka her basket, heavily laden with meat and vegetables, and pay him five kopecks to trail after her through the market for an hour carrying it for her. On such occasions Vanyushka, so hungry he had cramps, always felt that he hated the lady, but fearing to show this feeling, he made a pretense of being deferential towards her and indifferent to the things in her basket that were rousing his hunger.

Sometimes Vanyushka begged alms, trying to keep out of sight of the police, while Salakin knew how to steal a piece of meat, a slab of butter, a head of cabbage, a weight from scales. On such occasions Vanyushka would tremble with fear and say to his comrade:

"You'll ruin me! They'll clap us into jail."

"In jail we'll be fed and clothed," Salakin would retort, reasonably enough. "Is it my fault that it is easier to steal than to find work?"

That day they were just able to scrape together six kopecks for the doss-house; Salakin had stolen a French bread and a small bunch of carrots, and they had nothing more to eat that day. Hunger was consuming their vitals, and, preventing sleep, exasperated them.

"How much did I spend on you?" Salakin asked Vanyushka reproachfully. "All you had to your name was an ax and a kaftan."

"And what about the six ten-kopeck pieces? You've forgotten!"

They growled at each other like two vicious dogs, and more than once Vanyushka gave Salakin a shove as though by accident. But he did not wish to quarrel with his comrade openly: during these days he had grown used to him, and he knew that without Salakin he would have an even harder time.

It was frightful to live alone in the city. And he was ashamed to return to the village ragged and half-naked, ashamed before his mother, and before the girls, before all. Besides, Salakin jeered at him every time Vanyushka spoke of returning to the village.

"Go, go!" he would say, baring his teeth. "Make your mother happy: 'I've earned a pile, I'm dressed like a gentleman!' "

Moreover, Vanyushka was kept in the city by a vague hope that his luck would turn. Sometimes he thought that a rich man would take pity on him and hire him as a handy man, or else he imagined that Salakin would find some way out of this painful, hungry life. Faith in his comrade's cleverness was supported by Salakin himself, who would often say:

"Don't worry. We'll get along. Just you wait, we'll make our way yet."

He spoke with great assurance, and he looked at Vanyushka with peculiar attentiveness. At such times it seemed to Vanyushka that his comrade knew a way out.

Nevertheless, that night, as he lay beside his comrade, it occurred to him that if a brick were to fall out of the ceiling and land on Salakin's head, it would be a good thing. And he recalled that a few days ago, in the dead of night there had been a wild scream that had frightened everybody, and he remembered a man's bloody face flattened by a brick that had fallen from the ceiling.

"That's a great fortune, your six ten-kopeck pieces!" Salakin muttered. "But, now, if you"

"If I what?"

"If you had guts"

"Well?"

"Well, never mind."

Vanyushka reflected, and said:

"You can't do anything. You just like to hear yourself talk."

"Me?"

"You."

"Oh, I could say something."

"What?"

"Suppose I were ready for anything, then what?"

"Then what?"

"Yes, I want to know."

"I will tell you."

"Go ahead, say it."

"I will, only"

"You have nothing to say!" Vanyushka muttered with finality.

Salakin stirred on his bed, while Vanyushka, turning his back on him and sighing with desperate anguish, whispered:

"God, if there were at least a crust!"

For a few moments both were silent. Then Salakin half-raised himself, bent his head over Vanyushka, and almost touching his ear with his own lips, said nearly inaudibly:

"Ivan, listen. Come with me."

"Where?" asked Vanyushka, also under his breath.

"To Borisovo."

"What for?"

"I'll tell you on the way."

"Tell me now."

"Well, let's go. I will tell you.We'll get there, andwe'll rob Matvey Ivanovich. Honest!"

"Go to the devil!" said Vanyushka with fear and irritation.

But Salakin, pressed tight against him, began to whisper into his ear:

"Listen. It's simple enough. We'll do what has to be done and get back here. Who will suspect us? I know everything there, all the ins and outs. And where the money is kept. And there is silver. Spoons. Goblets in a cabinet behind glass."

Salakin's hot breath warmed Vanyushka's cheek and his terror began to melt away. Nevertheless, he repeated quietly:

"Get out, I say, you devil!"

"No, but wait!What a life we could have! Just think! First of all, we eat, we have shoes, we have clothes!"

Vanyushka lay silent, and Salakin kept breathing into his ear and into his brain hot, confident words.

Finally, Vanyushka asked him:

"Is there much money in it?"

V

Two days later, early in the morning, they were walking along the highroad, shoulder to shoulder, and Salakin was talking excitedly to his companion, looking into his eyes.

"You understand? First thing we do, we set fire to the shed! And when it catches, everybody will run to the fire, and he too, Matvey, that is! He will run off, and we'll get into his house! And we'll clean him out."

"And if they catch us?" asked Vanyushka reflectively.

"They can't!" said Salakin. "Who would catch us?" And he added in a severe tone of voice: "You have to put out the fire, not catch thieves! Understand?"

Vanyushka nodded.

This was at the beginning of March. Soft, fluffy, heavy snowflakes were lazily dropping from the invisible sky and were fast obliterating the footsteps of the men, who were walking on the road between two rows of aged birches with broken boughs.

"If only we could do it!" said Vanyushka, sighing heavily.

"You'll see, we'll have it our way!" Salakin promised confidently.

"God grant it! I mean, if only we succeeded--Lord, I would never undertake anything like that again."

The comrades walked fast, because they were very poorly clothed. Salakin wore his woman's jacket embellished with innumerable holes from which dirty cotton peeped out; his feet swam in huge felt boots; and on his head was a cap gray with age. Vanyushka had acquired, instead of a kaftan, a brown woolen pea-jacket, but for some reason its right sleeve was black. Bast shoes, a cap with a broken visor, a cord for a belt, gave Vanyushka the appearance not of a peasant, but of an artisan who had drunk all his earnings.

On the eve of the day when they decided to do the job, Salakin succeeded in hooking a copper pan and an iron, and sold them for eighty kopecks to a dealer in scrap-iron, and now he had a fifty-kopeck piece in his pocket.

"If only we could meet someone with a horse and get a lift," said Salakin. "Otherwise we won't get there before dark--it's a distance of over forty versts! We could even pay five kopecks apiece, for the lift."

The snow dropped on their heads, fell on their cheeks, pasted up their eyes, formed white epaulettes on their shoulders, stuck to their feet. Around them and above them a white porridge was seething, and they could see nothing in front of them. Vanyushka walked silently, like a sick old jade which is being led to the slaughter-house, while the lively, talkative Salakin kept glancing about him and chattered ceaselessly.

"I wonder how far we've gone! And there's no seeing what's in front of us! What a snow-fall.Of course, the snow plays into our hands: there will be no traces.If only it kept coming down! Only then it will be awkward to get the fire going! Well, you can't have everything."

The snowflakes were becoming smaller and drier. They did not fall slowly, straight to the ground, but circled uneasily and fussily in the air in larger quantities. Suddenly a rickety structure, looking as though it had been pressed into the ground by the heavy drifts on its roof, loomed before them like a dark, heavy cloud.

"That's Fokino," said Salakin. "Let's go into the pot-house and have a glass"

"Let's," Vanyushka agreed, shuddering all over.

Two horses, each hitched to a sledge, stood motionless before the pot-house. Small, shaggy, they gazed sadly out of their meek eyes, shaking off the snow from their eye-lashes. The unpainted shaft-bows were covered with black dust.

"Aha, a charcoal-burner!" said Salakin. "I hope he's going our way."

And indeed, in the pot-house, at a table near the window sat a young fellow drinking beer. Vanyushka was struck by his long funny nose on a thin face covered with black spots. The charcoal-burner was sprawling importantly on the chair with his legs wide apart, and sipping his beer slowly, but when he was through drinking, he started coughing, his whole body shook, and he at once lost his air of importance.

Vanyushka went over to the counter, swallowed a glass of fragrant, bitter vodka, and glanced from the charcoal-burner to Salakin with a wink.

"Going to town, my hearty?" asked Salakin, approaching the charcoal-burner.

The other looked at him and answered in a hollow voice:

"We don't go to town without a load."

"So you're coming from town?"

"What does it matter to you?"

"Me? Why, my chum and I, we're going to Borisovo, we've been hired by the oil-factory. Give us a lift, since we're going in the same direction!"

The man examined Salakin, then Vanyushka, poured himself some beer, and, fishing out pieces of cork with his finger, answered curtly:

"Doesn't suit me."

"Give us a lift, be a good fellow! We'll give you five kopecks apiece."

"I don't need it," said the young man, without looking at Salakin.

"Give us a lift, for Christ's sake!" begged Vanyushka gently and timidly.

The young man looked at them, frowned, and shook his head.

"What a fellow you are!" exclaimed Salakin. "Isn't it all one to you? We've a long way to go, we're tired, you can see what kind of clothes we have on."

"You should dress more warmly," the charcoal-burner said with a sneer.

"But if we haven't any money!" said Vanyushka persuasively. "You see, we're poor"

"And why are you poor?" asked the charcoal-burner unconcernedly, and returned to his beer.

Vanyushka exchanged glances with his comrade, both grew silent, and stood cap in hand before the charcoal-burner.

Then the old woman who kept the pot-house spoke up:

"Don't put on airs, Nikolai, give them a lift. What's the matter? The horse is going to go anyway, and besides, they offer five kopecks apiece! You ask to be paid in advance, and let them ride."

The charcoal-burner again examined the two friends in turn. Then he sighed and said:

"Ten kopecks apiece."

"Very well!" shouted Salakin, waving his arm. "Here, take it, make the most of it!"

"Take a look at the money first," the old woman advised.

The charcoal-burner threw the coin on the table, listened to the ring of it, then bit it with his teeth, and going over to the counter, threw it to the old woman, saying:

"This is for the beer."

"What a dog!" Salakin whispered to Vanyushka.

"You sit in the empty one," said the charcoal-burner to Vanyushka, having gotten the change from the old woman, "and you with me."

"Very well," agreed Salakin. "But why shouldn't we ride together?"

"And why together?" asked the charcoal-burner suspiciously.

"We'd be warmer."

"Well," the charcoal-burner sneered. "You do as I tell you. Because if your comrade gets it into his head to steal one of my horses, I'll knock you on the head with a weight, bind you, and"

Without finishing his speech, he laughed, then began to cough long and painfully.

VI

Having gone a distance of some five versts, the charcoal-burner at last spoke to his fare:

"Who are you?"

"A human being," said Salakin through his teeth.

It was cold, riding. Salakin was shivering all over. The snow had stopped falling, but a keen wind was blowing. Twice Salakin had jumped off the sledge and run alongside the road in the hope of getting warm. But it was difficult to run in the deep yielding snow, he tired quickly, piled into the sledge again, and after that felt even colder. And every time he jumped out of the sledge, the charcoal-burner, who was dressed in a sturdy sheepskin jacket and an overcoat, thrust out from the sleeve of the overcoat a short stout stick with a chain at one end, from which a pound weight was suspended. At the sight of this bludgeon a hatred as terrible as the cold crushed Salakin's heart.

"Everybody is a human being," said the charcoal-burner. "But I'm asking you, where do you belong?"

"I belong nowhere. I am without kith or kin," answered Salakin, and shouted:

"Vanya, are you alive?"

"Alive," answered Vanyushka rather softly.

"Are you cold?"

"Sort of"

"I look at you--" the charcoal-burner spoke grumblingly--"I can see, you're unfortunates. Both in rags, queer fellowsloafers, I suppose."

Salakin sat hunched together and said nothing, trying to keep his teeth from chattering.

Looking back, he saw through the snowflakes, which were now few, a deserted, bluish waste. The sight pierced him with cold and anguish. There was nothing on it to arrest the eye.

"Take us, the Semakins, we are three brothers. We burn charcoal, understand, and take it to town, to the distillery. We live at peace. We have enough to eat, we have something to wear, shoes to our feet.Everything is as it should be, thank God! A man who knows how to work, who isn't lazy, doesn't loaf, always lives well.The older brothers are married, and I'm going to get married after the holidays.That's how it is. A man who works can get along."

The horse moved with difficulty, straining against the collar; the sledge jerked; and Salakin was jolted like a nut held in the palm of the hand.

The charcoal-burner's dull, obtuse, heavy words dropped upon Salakin's soul like so many cold bricks, crushing it, and it was both painful and humiliating for him to listen to this man's hollow voice.

"Vanyushka!" he shouted.

"Eh?"

"Why don't you get down and run a bit?"

"What for?" asked Kuzin in a weak voice.

"So you don't freeze to death."

"Never mind."

The charcoal-burner sighed. Then he smiled sneeringly, wiped his nose with his sleeve, and spoke again:

"What people! What people! Why do you want to live? You're cold, hungryIt's crazy. Is that the way people should live? A man should live well."

"You share your money with me, and I'll live well," said Salakin viciously.

"What!"

"I say, share your money"

"I'll share you! Did you see this?"

Before Salakin's eyes dangled the weight hanging at the end of the chain. He saw the charcoal-burner's face, black as the devil's, and twisted by his smirk. And suddenly it was as though Salakin had been set a-fire, as though the heart in his breast had burst and were shooting out flame, and this flame leapt to his head and colored everything before his eyes blood-red. He swung his right hand with all his might, and striking the charcoal-burner in the face with his elbow, threw him on his back. At the same time the weight struck Salakin between the shoulder-blades. A sharp pain entered his body and crushed the breath out of him.

"Help! Murder!" shouted the charcoal-burner.

But Salakin fell upon him with his whole weight, seized the charcoal-burner's throat with his fingers, and squeezing it, jammed his knees into the charcoal-burner's stomach.

"Now talk! Shout! Talk!"

The charcoal-burner's throat rattled; his teeth bit into Salakin's shoulder. He was writhing under him like a fish under a knife and was groping with his hands for Salakin's throat. The bludgeon fell out of his fingers and hung from a strap at his wrist. Now and then it touched Salakin's body, and every contact, though not painful, roused fear.

"Vanyushka, help!" shouted Salakin wildly.

Vanyushka, crushed by the cold, lay in the sledge, buried under empty coal-sacks, and when he heard the charcoal-burner's cry he was seized by terror. Instinctively he at once understood what was going on, and burrowed deeper into the sacks.

"I'll say I was asleep, I didn't hear anything," he said to himself quickly.

But when he heard his comrade's shout for help he shuddered and flung out of the sledge like a clod of snow from under a horse's hoof. The thought shot through his brain that should the charcoal-burner get the better of Salakin, he would kill him too. And when he found himself near the two human bodies twisted in a huge knot, when he saw the charcoal-burner's face streaked with blood and yet still black, and the bludgeon that dangled from his right wrist while his hand convulsively tried to grasp it, Vanyushka seized his hand and began to turn and twist it.

The small, shaggy horse with sad eyes trotted quietly along the road, shaking its head. It was carrying into the cold, dead distance three men who, grunting and grinding their teeth, were meaninglessly struggling in the sledge. The other horse, afraid that the men's feet would hit it on the muzzle, began to lag.

VII

When Vanyushka, tired and sweating, came to himself after the struggle, he whispered to Salakin fear in his eyes:

"Look! Where's the horse? It's gone."

"It won't blab," mumbled Salakin, wiping the blood from his face.

His comrade's calm voice lessened Vanyushka's fear.

"We've done it now!" he said, looking at the charcoal-burner out of the corner of his eye.

"It was better to kill him than to have him kill us," observed Salakin with the same calmness, and forthwith added in a businesslike manner:

"Come, let's strip him! You get the sheepskin jacket, I the overcoat. We must hurry, or we may meet somebody, or be overtaken."

Vanyushka silently turned the charcoal-burner over and began taking off his clothes. He kept glancing at his chum. He was thinking: "Can it be that he isn't afraid?"

Salakin's calm and businesslike attitude toward the murdered man aroused Vanyushka's astonishment and made him timid in his comrade's presence. What amazed him even more was Salakin's pock-marked, scratched face: it twitched and grimaced as though with silent laughter, and his eyes shone in a peculiar way, as if he had had a drop too much or were overjoyed by something. In the struggle Vanyushka had lost his cap, and now Salakin took the charcoal-burner's cap, handed it to Vanyushka, and said:

"Put it on, you'll be cold! Besides, it isn't right--a man without a cap. How did that happen?"

He proceeded to turn the murdered man's trouser-pockets inside out, and he did it as quickly and deftly as though all his life his sole occupation had been killing and robbing.

"You've got to watch out for everything," he said, unfastening the charcoal-burner's tobacco pouch. "No one goes around without a cap. Look at that: a gold coin, five rubles, no, seven and a half"

"Is" Vanyushka spoke timidly, looking at the coin with eyes that had blazed up.

"What is it?" asked Salakin, glancing at him rapidly. And then he grumbled disdainfully:

"We'll have enough dough. Gee-up, little one! Shake a leg." And Salakin struck the horse's rump with the flat of his hand.

"I didn't mean money," said Vanyushka. "I wanted to ask"

"What?"

"Is this the first time?" Vanyushka winked at the stripped corpse of the charcoal-burner.

"You fool!" exclaimed Salakin, smiling. "What! am I a bandit?"

"I asked because you undressed him so quickly."

"It's hard to strip a living man, but a dead one, that's plain sailing."

And suddenly Salakin, who was on his knees, swayed and fell heavily across Vanyushka's feet. The latter shuddered as though he had suddenly been plunged into cold water, screamed, and started pushing his comrade away, while the horse, frightened by the outcry, bolted.

"It's nothing, nothing," Salakin mumbled, groping for Vanyushka. His face turned blue, his eyes grew dull.

"He hit me between the shoulder-blades. I have a pain in my heart.It'll pass."

"Yeremey," said Vanyushka in a trembling voice, "let's go back, for Christ's sake!"

"Where?"

"To the city! I'm scared."

"To the city, no! We'll first sell the horse, and then we'll go on, to Matvey's."

"I'm scared," said Vanyushka mournfully.

"What of?"

"We're done for, brother. What's going to happen now? Was this what we were after?"

"Go to the devil!" shouted Salakin, and his eyes flashed angrily. "Done for! What do you mean, done for? Are we the only ones who ever killed man? Is this the first time this happened on earth?"

"Don't be angry," begged Vanyushka in a tearful voice, noticing that his comrade's face again wore a desperate, drunken look.

"How can I help getting angry!" exclaimed Salakin indignantly. "Here this thing has happened"

"Wait! What are we doing?" Vanyushka spoke up forcibly, shuddering violently and looking around him in fear. "Where are we taking him? We'll soon get to Vishenki, and think of the load we are carrying!"

"Whoa, you devil!" Salakin shouted at the horse, and swiftly and lightly as a ball he jumped out of the sledge onto the road.

"You're right, brother," he muttered, seizing the charcoal-burner's right hand. "Take him, drag him, get hold of his legs! Pull him out!"

Vanyushka, trying not to look at the face of the corpse, lifted it by the legs and did catch a glimpse of something blue, round, and terrible where the charcoal-burner's face should have been.

"Dig a pit!" commanded Salakin, and jumped about in the yielding snow, shoving it to either side with quick vigorous movements of his feet. He did it in such a curious fashion that Vanyushka, dropping the body of the charcoal-burner on the snow, stood over it and watched his comrade without helping him.

"Bury him, bury him!" Salakin was saying, swiftly and diligently covering the murdered man's head and chest with snow. The comrades were working two paces away from the sledge, and the horse, turning its head, looked at them with one eye, and was as motionless as though it were petrified.

"We're done. Let's go."

"It's no good," objected Vanyushka.

"Why?"

"You notice it--the hillock."

"It doesn't matter."

They got into the sledge and drove on, tightly pressed against each other. Vanyushka looked back and it seemed to him that they were going at a terribly slow pace, because the hillock of snow over the body continued to remain in sight.

"Hurry the horse," he begged Salakin, closing his eyes tightly and keeping them shut for a long time. When he opened them he still saw, far off, to the left of the road, a little mound on the level snow.

"Oh, we're done for, Yeremey," said Vanyushka almost in a whisper.

"Don't worry," Salakin answered in a hollow voice. "We'll sell the horse, and then we'll go back to the city. Go find us! And now, here's Vishenki."

The road led downhill into a shallow depression filled with snow. Bare black trees appeared on both sides of the road. A jackdaw screamed. The comrades shivered, and each looked silently at the other's face.

"Be careful," Vanyushka whispered to Salakin.

VIII

They entered the pot-house jauntily and noisily.

"Hey, old man, turn on the tap and give us a glass each."

"It can be done," said a tall, dark peasant with a bald spot, rising from behind the counter, and he looked at Vanyushka with such simple-hearted geniality that he stood still in the middle of the room and smiled guiltily.

"It's the custom here," said the tavern-keeper, setting the glasses down before Salakin, "that when a man comes into a place he says, 'Good day' or 'How are you?' Did you come a long way?"

"We? Oh, no, wewe don't hail from far away, about thirty versts," explained Salakin.

"In which direction?"

"This," and Salakin pointed to the door of the pot-house.

"So you're from near town?" asked the tavern-keeper.

"That's right.Come, Vanya, drink."

"That your brother?"

"No," Vanyushka answered quickly. "We're no brothers."

In the corner, beside the door, sat a peasant, a short man with a sharp, beaklike nose and keen, gray eyes. He got up, slowly walked to the counter and unceremoniously stared at the comrades.

"What is it?" asked the tavern-keeper.

"Nothing," said the peasant in a creaking voice. "I thought maybe I knew them."

"Let's sit here awhile and get warm," said Salakin, leaving the corner and pulling Vanyushka by the sleeve.

They stepped aside and sat down at a table. The peasant with the beaklike nose remained at the counter and said something under his breath to the tavern-keeper.

"Let's go. Let's be off," whispered Vanyushka to Salakin.

"Wait," Salakin said loudly.

Vanyushka looked reproachfully at his comrade and shook his head. It seemed to him that under the circumstances it was dangerous, wrong, awkward to speak aloud in the presence of strangers.

"Another glass for each of us," Salakin ordered.

The door of the pot-house creaked, and two more peasants entered: an old man with a long, gray beard and a stocky, big-headed man in a short sheepskin coat, which reached to his knees.

"May you be in good health," said the old man.

"A welcome to you," responded the tavern-keeper, and glanced at Salakin.

"Whose horse is that?" asked the stocky peasant, nodding toward the door.

"It belongs to these two," the sharp-nosed peasant declared slowly, pointing his finger at Salakin.

"It's ours," Salakin said in confirmation.

Vanyushka heard the voices, and fear kept clutching at his heart. It seemed to him that all these people were talking in a peculiar way, too plainly, as though they knew everything, were surprised at nothing, and were waiting for something.

"Let's drive off," he whispered to his comrade.

"And who are you?" the stocky peasant asked Salakin.

"We? We're butchers," Salakin answered suddenly, and smiled.

"What are you saying?" exclaimed Vanyushka uneasily, vainly trying to lower his voice.

All the four peasants heard his exclamation, and slowly turning their heads, they stared at him with inquisitive eyes. Salakin looked at them calmly, only his tightly compressed lips quivering. But Vanyushka bowed his head over the table and waited, feeling as though he could not breathe. The silence, heavy as a cloud, did not last long.

"So that's why," said the stocky peasant, "I noticed that the front of the sledge was stained with blood."

"What!" said Salakin boldly.

"As for me," said the old man, "I didn't notice any blood. Was there blood? I looked at the sledge and it was all black, so I thought to myself, these must be charcoal-burners. Pour me out a glass, Ivan Petrovich."

The tavern-keeper poured out a glass of vodka and slowly, like a well-fed tom-cat, walked out of the door. The peasant with the beaklike nose waited until he passed by him and then he also walked out of the door.

"Well," said Salakin, getting up from his chair, "well, Vanya, we must be off. Where's the tavern-keeper? Doesn't he want his money?"

"He'll be right back," said the stocky peasant, turning away from Salakin, and began to roll a cigarette. Vanyushka too rose, but immediately sat down again. His knees turned to water and refused to support his body. He looked stupidly into his comrade's face and seeing that Salakin's lips were trembling, he wailed softly in fear and anguish.

The tavern-keeper returned alone. He went behind the counter again as slowly and quietly as he had left it, and leaning on it, he said to the old man:

"It's getting warmer again."

"It's the time of year."

"Well, we must be driving off," said Salakin aloud, approaching the counter. "Here's your money."

"Wait a while," the tavern-keeper said, smiling lazily.

"We're in a hurry," said Salakin, more quietly, dropping his eyes.

"Well, wait anyway," repeated the tavern-keeper.

"What for?"

"I sent for the bailiff."

Vanyushka jumped to his feet and sat down again.

"Your bailiff's nothing to me," declared Salakin, shrugging his shoulders and putting on his cap.

"But you're something to him," said the tavern-keeper lazily, moving away from Salakin.

The old man and the stocky peasant became interested in the conversation, which was unintelligible to them, and moved over toward the counter.

"He wants to ask you a question: how is it that you sell meat, but you carry coal-sacks?"

"Ah," drawled the old man, moving away from Salakin.

"So that's the way of it!" exclaimed the stocky peasant. "They have stolen the horse!"

"No!" exclaimed Vanyushka in a shrill voice.

Salakin waved his arm, and turning to him, said with a crooked smile:

"Here we are, we're through!"

Five more peasants entered the pot-house noisily, one of them a tall, red-headed man, with a long staff in his hands. Vanyushka looked at them with wide-opened eyes. It seemed to him that they were all swaying on their feet like drunken men and were making the room sway, too.

"Good day, my hearties!" said the peasant with the staff. "Well, tell us who you are. And where do you come from? Take me, for instance, I am the bailiff, and who are you?"

Salakin looked at the bailiff and gave a laugh that resembled the barking of a dog. His face blanched.

"So you are laughing?" said one of the peasants sternly, and proceeded to tuck up his sleeves.

"Wait, Korney," the bailiff halted him. "Everything in its turn. You needn'tMake a clean breast of it, men, where did you get the horse? Eh?"

Heavily and slowly, like snow that, having thawed underneath, slides off a roof, Vanyushka slipped from his chair to the floor, and on his knees began to mumble stammeringly:

"Orthodox folks--it isn't me! It's him! We didn't steal the horse--we killed the charcoal-burner.He's there, not far away, buried in the snow. We didn't steal the horse--we were just driving along, honest! It's not me--all this! The horse itself dropped behind, it will come back! We didn't want to kill him--he was the one who started it--he used to bludgeon! We were on our way to Borisovo--we wanted to rob the steward--first set the house on fire--but we didn't touch the horses! He made me--he!"

"Fire away!" shouted Salakin. He tore his cap off his head and threw it down at the feet of the peasants who stood before him like a silent, thick, dark wall.

"Go to it, Vanka, bury me!"

Vanka stopped speaking, dropped his head on his chest, and let his arms hang down helplessly.

The peasants looked at them in sullen silence for a long time. At last one of them, the man with the beaklike nose and the creaking voice, sighed and said aloud with vexation:

"Such evil-doers--fools, ugh!"

1901.

 
 
 

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