Goussiev by Anton Chekhov

IT was already dark and would soon be night.

Goussiev, a private on long leave, raised himself a little in his hammock and said in a whisper:

"Can you hear me, Pavel Ivanich? A soldier at Souchan told me that their boat ran into an enormous fish and knocked a hole in her bottom."

The man of condition unknown whom he addressed, and whom everybody in the hospital-ship called Pavel Ivanich, was silent, as if he had not heard.

And once more there was silence.... The wind whistled through the rigging, the screw buzzed, the waves came washing, the hammocks squeaked, but to all these sounds their ears were long since accustomed and it seemed as though everything were wrapped in sleep and silence. It was very oppressive. The three patients—two soldiers and a sailor—who had played cards all day were now asleep and tossing to and fro.

The vessel began to shake. The hammock under Goussiev slowly heaved up and down, as though it were breathing—one, two, three.... Something crashed on the floor and began to tinkle: the jug must have fallen down.

"The wind has broken loose...." said Goussiev, listening attentively.

This time Pavel Ivanich coughed and answered irritably:

"You spoke just now of a ship colliding with a large fish, and now you talk of the wind breaking loose.... Is the wind a dog to break loose?"

"That's what people say."

"Then people are as ignorant as you.... But what do they not say? You should keep a head on your shoulders and think. Silly idiot!"

Pavel Ivanich was subject to seasickness. When the ship rolled he would get very cross, and the least trifle would upset him, though Goussiev could never see anything to be cross about. What was there unusual in his story about the fish or in his saying that the wind had broken loose? Suppose the fish were as big as a mountain and its back were as hard as a sturgeon's, and suppose that at the end of the wood there were huge stone walls with the snarling winds chained up to them.... If they do not break loose, why then do they rage over the sea as though they were possessed, and rush about like dogs? If they are not chained, what happens to them when it is calm?

Goussiev thought for a long time of a fish as big as a mountain, and of thick rusty chains; then he got tired of that and began to think of his native place whither he was returning after five years' service in the Far East. He saw with his mind's eye the great pond covered with snow.... On one side of the pond was a brick-built pottery, with a tall chimney belching clouds of black smoke, and on the other side was the village.... From the yard of the fifth house from the corner came his brother Alency in a sledge; behind him sat his little son Vanka in large felt boots, and his daughter Akulka, also in felt boots. Alency is tipsy, Vanka laughs, and Akulka's face is hidden—she is well wrapped up.

"The children will catch cold ..." thought Goussiev. "God grant them," he whispered, "a pure right mind that they may honour their parents and be better than their father and mother...."

"The boots want soling," cried the sick sailor in a deep voice. "Aye, aye."

The thread of Goussiev's thoughts was broken, and instead of the pond, suddenly—without rhyme or reason—he saw a large bull's head without eyes, and the horse and sledge did not move on, but went round and round in a black mist. But still he was glad he had seen his dear ones. He gasped for joy, and his limbs tingled and his fingers throbbed.

"God suffered me to see them!" he muttered, and opened his eyes and looked round in the darkness for water.

He drank, then lay down again, and once more the sledge skimmed along, and he saw the bull's head without eyes, black smoke, clouds of it. And so on till dawn.

II

At first through the darkness there appeared only a blue circle, the port-hole, then Goussiev began slowly to distinguish the man in the next hammock, Pavel Ivanich. He was sleeping in a sitting position, for if he lay down he could not breathe. His face was grey; his nose long and sharp, and his eyes were huge, because he was so thin; his temples were sunk, his beard scanty, the hair on his head long.... By his face it was impossible to tell his class: gentleman, merchant, or peasant; judging by his appearance and long hair he looked almost like a recluse, a lay-brother, but when he spoke—he was not at all like a monk. He was losing strength through his cough and his illness and the suffocating heat, and he breathed heavily and was always moving his dry lips. Noticing that Goussiev was looking at him, he turned toward him and said:

"I'm beginning to understand.... Yes.... Now I understand."

"What do you understand, Pavel Ivanich?"

"Yes.... It was strange to me at first, why you sick men, instead of being kept quiet, should be on this steamer, where the heat is stifling, and stinking, and pitching and tossing, and must be fatal to you; but now it is all clear to me.... Yes. The doctors sent you to the steamer to get rid of you. They got tired of all the trouble you gave them, brutes like you.

...You don't pay them; you only give a lot of trouble, and if you die you spoil their reports. Therefore you are just cattle, and there is no difficulty in getting rid of you.... They only need to lack conscience and humanity, and to deceive the owners of the steamer. We needn't worry about the first, they are experts by nature; but the second needs a certain amount of practice. In a crowd of four hundred healthy soldiers and sailors—five sick men are never noticed; so you were carried up to the steamer, mixed with a healthy lot who were counted in such a hurry that nothing wrong was noticed, and when the steamer got away they saw fever-stricken and consumptive men lying helpless on the deck...."

Goussiev could not make out what Pavel Ivanich was talking about; thinking he was being taken to task, he said by way of excusing himself:

"I lay on the deck because when we were taken off the barge I caught a chill."

"Shocking!" said Pavel Ivanich. "They know quite well that you can't last out the voyage, and yet they send you here! You may get as far as the Indian Ocean, but what then? It is awful to think of.... And that's all the return you get for faithful unblemished service!"

Pavel Ivanich looked very angry, and smote his forehead and gasped:

"They ought to be shown up in the papers. There would be an awful row."

The two sick soldiers and the sailor were already up and had begun to play cards, the sailor propped up in his hammock, and the soldiers squatting uncomfortably on the floor. One soldier had his right arm in a sling and his wrist was tightly bandaged so that he had to hold the cards in his left hand or in the crook of his elbow. The boat was rolling violently so that it was impossible to get up or to drink tea or to take medicine.

"You were an orderly?" Pavel Ivanich asked Goussiev.

"That's it. An orderly."

"My God, my God!" said Pavel Ivanich sorrowfully. "To take a man from his native place, drag him fifteen thousand miles, drive him into consumption ... and what for? I ask you. To make him an orderly to some Captain Farthing or Midshipman Hole! Where's the sense of it?"

"It's not a bad job, Pavel Ivanich. You get up in the morning, clean the boots, boil the samovar, tidy up the room, and then there is nothing to do. The lieutenant draws plans all day long, and you can pray to God if you like—or read books—or go out into the streets. It's a good enough life."

"Yes. Very good! The lieutenant draws plans, and you stay in the kitchen all day long and suffer from homesickness.... Plans.... Plans don't matter. It's human life that matters! Life doesn't come again. One should be sparing of it."

"Certainly Pavel Ivanich. A bad man meets no quarter, either at home, or in the army, but if you live straight, and do as you are told, then no one will harm you. They are educated and they understand.... For five years now I've never been in the cells and I've only been thrashed once—touch wood!"

"What was that for?"

"Fighting. I have a heavy fist, Pavel Ivanich. Four Chinamen came into our yard: they were carrying wood, I think, but I don't remember. Well, I was bored. I went for them and one of them got a bloody nose. The lieutenant saw it through the window and gave me a thick ear."

"You poor fool," muttered Pavel Ivanich. "You don't understand anything."

He was completely exhausted with the tossing of the boat and shut his eyes; his head fell back and then flopped forward onto his chest. He tried several times to lie down, but in vain, for he could not breathe.

"And why did you go for the four Chinamen?" he asked after a while.

"For no reason. They came into the yard and I went for them."

Silence fell.... The gamblers played for a couple of hours, absorbed and cursing, but the tossing of the ship tired even them; they threw the cards away and laid down. Once more Goussiev thought of the big pond, the pottery, the village. Once more the sledges skimmed along, once more Vanka laughed, and that fool of an Akulka opened her fur coat, and stretched out her feet; look, she seemed to say, look, poor people, my felt boots are new and not like Vanka's.

"She's getting on for six and still she has no sense!" said Goussiev. "Instead of showing your boots off, why don't you bring some water to your soldier-uncle? I'll give you a present."

Then came Andrea, with his firelock on his shoulder, carrying a hare he had shot, and he was followed by Tsaichik the cripple, who offered him a piece of soap for the hare; and there was the black heifer in the yard, and Domna sewing a shirt and crying over something, and there was the eyeless bull's head and the black smoke....

Overhead there was shouting, sailors running; the sound of something heavy being dragged along the deck, or something had broken.... More running. Something wrong? Goussiev raised his head, listened and saw the two soldiers and the sailor playing cards again; Pavel Ivanich sitting up and moving his lips. It was very close, he could hardly breathe, he wanted a drink, but the water was warm and disgusting.... The pitching of the boat was now better.

Suddenly something queer happened to one of the soldiers.... He called ace of diamonds, lost his reckoning and dropped his cards. He started and laughed stupidly and looked round.

"In a moment, you fellows," he said and lay down on the floor.

All were at a loss. They shouted at him but he made no reply.

"Stiepan, are you ill?" asked the other soldier with the bandaged hand. "Perhaps we'd better call the priest, eh?"

"Stiepan, drink some water," said the sailor. "Here, mate, have a drink."

"What's the good of breaking his teeth with the jug," shouted Goussiev angrily. "Don't you see, you fatheads?"

"What."

"What!" cried Goussiev. "He's snuffed it, dead. That's what! Good God, what fools!..."

III

The rolling stopped and Pavel Ivanich cheered up. He was no longer peevish. His face had an arrogant, impetuous, and mocking expression. He looked as if he were on the point of saying: "I'll tell you a story that will make you die of laughter." Their port-hole was open and a soft wind blew in on Pavel Ivanich. Voices could be heard and the splash of oars in the water.... Beneath the window some one was howling in a thin, horrible voice; probably a Chinaman singing.

"Yes. We are in harbour," said Pavel Ivanich, smiling mockingly. "Another month and we shall be in Russia. It's true; my gallant warriors, I shall get to Odessa and thence I shall go straight to Kharkhov. At Kharkhov I have a friend, a literary man. I shall go to him and I shall say, 'now, my friend, give up your rotten little love-stories and descriptions of nature, and expose the vileness of the human biped.... There's a subject for you.'"

He thought for a moment and then he said:

"Goussiev, do you know how I swindled them?"

"Who, Pavel Ivanich?"

"The lot out there.... You see there's only first and third class on the steamer, and only peasants are allowed to go third. If you have a decent suit, and look like a nobleman or a bourgeois, at a distance, then you must go first. It may break you, but you have to lay down your five hundred roubles. 'What's the point of such an arrangement?' I asked. 'Is it meant to raise the prestige of Russian intellectuals?' 'Not a bit,' said they. 'We don't let you go, simply because it is impossible for a decent man to go third. It is so vile and disgusting.' 'Yes,' said I. 'Thanks for taking so much trouble about decent people. Anyhow, bad or no, I haven't got five hundred roubles as I have neither robbed the treasury nor exploited foreigners, nor dealt in contraband, nor flogged any one to death, and, therefore, I think I have a right to go first-class and to take rank with the intelligentsia of Russia.' But there's no convincing them by logic.... I had to try fraud. I put on a peasant's coat and long boots, and a drunken, stupid expression and went to the agent and said: 'Give me a ticket, your Honour.'

"'What's your position?' says the agent.

"'Clerical,' said I. 'My father was an honest priest. He always told the truth to the great ones of the earth, and so he suffered much.'"

Pavel Ivanich got tired with talking, and his breath failed him, but he went on:

"Yes. I always tell the truth straight out.... I am afraid of nobody and nothing. There's a great difference between myself and you in that respect. You are dull, blind, stupid, you see nothing, and you don't understand what you do see. You are told that the wind breaks its chain, that you are brutes and worse, and you believe; you are thrashed and you kiss the hand that thrashes you; a swine in a raccoon pelisse robs you, and throws you sixpence for tea, and you say: 'Please, your Honour, let me kiss your hand.' You are pariahs, skunks.... I am different. I live consciously. I see everything, as an eagle or a hawk sees when it hovers over the earth, and I understand everything. I am a living protest. I see injustice—I protest; I see bigotry and hypocrisy—I protest; I see swine triumphant—I protest, and I am unconquerable. No Spanish inquisition can make me hold my tongue. Aye.... Cut my tongue out. I'll protest by gesture.... Shut me up in a dungeon—I'll shout so loud that I shall be heard for a mile round, or I'll starve myself, so that there shall be a still heavier weight on their black consciences. Kill me—and my ghost will return. All my acquaintances tell me: 'You are a most insufferable man, Pavel Ivanich!' I am proud of such a reputation. I served three years in the Far East, and have got bitter memories enough for a hundred years. I inveighed against it all. My friends write from Russia: 'Do not come.' But I'm going, to spite them.... Yes.... That is life. I understand. You can call that life."

Goussiev was not listening, but lay looking out of the port-hole; on the transparent lovely turquoise water swung a boat all shining in the shimmering light; a fat Chinaman was sitting in it eating rice with chop-sticks. The water murmured softly, and over it lazily soared white sea-gulls.

"It would be fun to give that fat fellow one on the back of his neck...." thought Goussiev, watching the fat Chinaman and yawning.

He dozed, and it seemed to him that all the world was slumbering. Time slipped swiftly away. The day passed imperceptibly; imperceptibly the twilight fell.... The steamer was still no longer but was moving on.

IV

Two days passed. Pavel Ivanich no longer sat up, but lay full length; his eyes were closed and his nose seemed to be sharper than ever.

"Pavel Ivanich!" called Goussiev, "Pavel Ivanich."

Pavel Ivanich opened his eyes and moved his lips.

"Aren't you well?"

"It's nothing," answered Pavel Ivanich, breathing heavily. "It's nothing. No. I'm much better. You see I can lie down now. I'm much better."

"Thank God for it, Pavel Ivanich."

"When I compare myself with you, I am sorry for you ... poor devils. My lungs are all right; my cough comes from indigestion ... I can endure this hell, not to mention the Red Sea! Besides, I have a critical attitude toward my illness, as well as to my medicine. But you ... you are ignorant.... It's hard lines on you, very hard."

The ship was running smoothly; it was calm but still stifling and hot as a Turkish bath; it was hard not only to speak but even to listen without an effort. Goussiev clasped his knees, leaned his head on them and thought of his native place. My God, in such heat it was a pleasure to think of snow and cold! He saw himself driving on a sledge, and suddenly the horses were frightened and bolted.... Heedless of roads, dikes, ditches they rushed like mad through the village, across the pond, past the works, through the fields.... "Hold them in!" cried the women and the passers-by. "Hold them in!" But why hold them in? Let the cold wind slap your face and cut your hands; let the lumps of snow thrown up by the horses' hoofs fall on your hat, down your neck and chest; let the runners of the sledge be buckled, and the traces and harness be torn and be damned to it! What fun when the sledge topples over and you are flung hard into a snow-drift; with your face slap into the snow, and you get up all white with your moustaches covered with icicles, hatless, gloveless, with your belt undone.... People laugh and dogs bark....

Pavel Ivanich, with one eye half open looked at Goussiev and asked quietly:

"Goussiev, did your commander steal?"

"How do I know, Pavel Ivanich? The likes of us don't hear of it."

A long time passed in silence. Goussiev thought, dreamed, drank water; it was difficult to speak, difficult to hear, and he was afraid of being spoken to. One hour passed, a second, a third; evening came, then night; but he noticed nothing as he sat dreaming of the snow.

He could hear some one coming into the ward; voices, but five minutes passed and all was still.

"God rest his soul!" said the soldier with the bandaged hand. "He was a restless man."

"What?" asked Goussiev. "Who?"

"He's dead. He has just been taken up-stairs."

"Oh, well," muttered Goussiev with a yawn. "God rest his soul."

"What do you think, Goussiev?" asked the bandaged soldier after some time. "Will he go to heaven?"

"Who?"

"Pavel Ivanich."

"He will. He suffered much. Besides, he was a priest's son, and priests have many relations. They will pray for his soul."

The bandaged soldier sat down on Goussiev's hammock and said in an undertone:

"You won't live much longer, Goussiev. You'll never see Russia."

"Did the doctor or the nurse tell you that?" asked Goussiev.

"No one told me, but I can see it. You can always tell when a man is going to die soon. You neither eat nor drink, and you have gone very thin and awful to look at. Consumption. That's what it is. I'm not saying this to make you uneasy, but because I thought you might like to have the last sacrament. And if you have any money, you had better give it to the senior officer."

"I have not written home," said Goussiev. "I shall die and they will never know."

"They will know," said the sailor in his deep voice. "When you die they will put you down in the log, and at Odessa they will give a note to the military governor, and he will send it to your parish or wherever it is...."

This conversation made Goussiev begin to feel unhappy and a vague desire began to take possession of him. He drank water—it was not that; he stretched out to the port-hole and breathed the hot, moist air—it was not that; he tried to think of his native place and the snow—it was not that.... At last he felt that he would choke if he stayed a moment longer in the hospital.

"I feel poorly, mates," he said. "I want to go on deck. For Christ's sake take me on deck."

Goussiev flung his arms round the soldier's neck and the soldier held him with his free arm and supported him up the gangway. On deck there were rows and rows of sleeping soldiers and sailors; so many of them that it was difficult to pick a way through them.

"Stand up," said the bandaged soldier gently. "Walk after me slowly and hold on to my shirt...."

It was dark. There was no light on deck or on the masts or over the sea. In the bows a sentry stood motionless as a statue, but he looked as if he were asleep. It was as though the steamer had been left to its own sweet will, to go where it liked.

"They are going to throw Pavel Ivanich into the sea," said the bandaged soldier. "They will put him in a sack and throw him overboard."

"Yes. That's the way they do."

"But it's better to lie at home in the earth. Then the mother can go to the grave and weep over it."

"Surely."

There was a smell of dung and hay. With heads hanging there were oxen standing by the bulwark—one, two, three ... eight beasts. And there was a little horse. Goussiev put out his hand to pat it, but it shook its head, showed its teeth and tried to bite his sleeve.

"Damn you," said Goussiev angrily.

He and the soldier slowly made their way to the bows and stood against the bulwark and looked silently up and down. Above them was the wide sky, bright with stars, peace and tranquillity—exactly as it was at home in his village; but below—darkness and turbulence. Mysterious towering waves. Each wave seemed to strive to rise higher than the rest; and they pressed and jostled each other and yet others came, fierce and ugly, and hurled themselves into the fray.

There is neither sense nor pity in the sea. Had the steamer been smaller, and not made of tough iron, the waves would have crushed it remorselessly and all the men in it, without distinction of good and bad. The steamer too seemed cruel and senseless. The large-nosed monster pressed forward and cut its way through millions of waves; it was afraid neither of darkness, nor of the wind, nor of space, nor of loneliness; it cared for nothing, and if the ocean had its people, the monster would crush them without distinction of good and bad.

"Where are we now?" asked Goussiev.

"I don't know. Must be the ocean."

"There's no land in sight."

"Why, they say we shan't see land for another seven days."

The two soldiers looked at the white foam gleaming with phosphorescence. Goussiev was the first to break the silence.

"Nothing is really horrible," he said. "You feel uneasy, as if you were in a dark forest. Suppose a boat were lowered and I was ordered to go a hundred miles out to sea to fish—I would go. Or suppose I saw a soul fall into the water—I would go in after him. I wouldn't go in for a German or a Chinaman, but I'd try to save a Russian."

"Aren't you afraid to die?"

"Yes. I'm afraid. I'm sorry for the people at home. I have a brother at home, you know, and he is not steady; he drinks, beats his wife for nothing at all, and my old father and mother may be brought to ruin. But my legs are giving way, mate, and it is hot here.... Let me go to bed."

V

Goussiev went back to the ward and lay down in his hammock. As before, a vague desire tormented him and he could not make out what it was. There was a congestion in his chest; a noise in his head, and his mouth was so dry that he could hardly move his tongue. He dozed and dreamed, and, exhausted by the heat, his cough and the nightmares that haunted him, toward morning he fell into a deep sleep. He dreamed he was in barracks, and the bread had just been taken out of the oven, and he crawled into the oven and lathered himself with a birch broom. He slept for two days and on the third day in the afternoon two sailors came down and carried him out of the ward.

He was sewn up in sail-cloth, and to make him heavier two iron bars were sewn up with him. In the sail-cloth he looked like a carrot or a radish, broad at the top, narrow at the bottom.... Just before sunset he was taken on deck and laid on a board one end of which lay on the bulwark, the other on a box, raised up by a stool. Round him stood the invalided soldiers.

"Blessed is our God," began the priest; "always, now and for ever and ever."

"Amen!" said three sailors.

The soldiers and the crew crossed themselves and looked askance at the waves. It was strange that a man should be sewn up in sail-cloth and dropped into the sea. Could it happen to any one?

The priest sprinkled Goussiev with earth and bowed. A hymn was sung.

The guard lifted up the end of the board, Goussiev slipped down it; shot headlong, turned over in the air, then plop! The foam covered him, for a moment it looked as though he was swathed in lace, but the moment passed—and he disappeared beneath the waves.

He dropped down to the bottom. Would he reach it? The bottom is miles down, they say. He dropped down almost sixty or seventy feet, then began to go slower and slower, swung to and fro as though he were thinking; then, borne along by the current; he moved more sideways than downward.

But soon he met a shoal of pilot-fish. Seeing a dark body, the fish stopped dead and sudden, all together, turned and went back. Less than a minute later, like arrows they darted at Goussiev, zigzagging through the water around him....

Later came another dark body, a shark. Gravely and leisurely, as though it had not noticed Goussiev, it swam up under him, and he rolled over on its back; it turned its belly up, taking its ease in the warm, translucent water, and slowly opened its mouth with its two rows of teeth. The pilot-fish were wildly excited; they stopped to see what was going to happen. The shark played with the body, then slowly opened its mouth under it, touched it with its teeth, and the sail-cloth was ripped open from head to foot; one of the bars fell out, frightening the pilot-fish and striking the shark on its side, and sank to the bottom.

And above the surface, the clouds were huddling up about the setting sun; one cloud was like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, another like a pair of scissors.... From behind the clouds came a broad green ray reaching up to the very middle of the sky; a little later a violet ray was flung alongside this, and then others gold and pink.... The sky was soft and lilac, pale and tender. At first beneath the lovely, glorious sky the ocean frowned, but soon the ocean also took on colour—sweet, joyful, passionate colours, almost impossible to name in human language.