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Friday, March 10, 2017

"In Exile" by Anton Chekhov, Full Text in English; from "The Schoolmistress and Other Stories" (1897) by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

Anton Chekhov, Russian physician short story writer and playwright (1860-1904), postage stamp, USSR, 1960
 

 IN EXILE 

 
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 roubles 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 li-ive!”

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 always 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, it’s 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.

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