In the pure light of dawn the sea slumbered softly, reflecting the
pearly clouds. At the cape, the half-awakened fishermen were moving
about arranging the nets in the boats.
This every-day work was executed rapidly and in silence. The grey mass
of the nets seemed to crawl from the sand into the boats, where it lay
heaped at the bottom.
Sereja, as usual bare-headed and scantily clothed, was in the bows,
shouting directions about the work in a hoarse voice, that betrayed
last night’s over-indulgence in vodka. The wind played with his ragged
clothing, and his unkempt hair.
“Vassili, where are the green oars?” cried some one.
Vassili, as gloomy as a late autumn day, was arranging the net in the
boat, and Sereja was watching him from behind. He was licking his lips,
which meant that he was thirsty, and wanted a drink.
“Have you got any vodka?” he asked.
“Yes,” muttered Vassili.
“All right! then I shall stay on dry land.”
“All aboard?” they called out from the cape.
“Shove her off!” ordered Sereja, as he got out of the boat “Off you
go!… I stay behind. Look out there!… Full ahead into the open, so
as not to tangle the net … and tell it out carefully. Don’t make any
knots…. Go ahead!”
They pushed off the boat; the fishermen climbed in, and each taking an
oar, raised them in the air, ready for the word of command.
The oars struck the water together; the boat swept forward into the
vast plane of glistening water.
“Two!” sang out the steersman.
And like the legs of an enormous tortoise the oars moved in the
On the shore, at the dry end of the nets, there remained five
men–Sereja, Vassili, and three others. One of the three stretched
himself on the sand, and said–
“We might perhaps get a nap.”
The two others followed his example, and three ragged bodies threw
themselves down in a heap.
“Why did you not come Sunday?” Vassili asked Sereja, as he led him
towards the hut.
“I couldn’t come.”
“You were drunk?”
“No, I was watching your son and his mother-in-law,” said Sereja,
“That’s new sort of work for you,” said Vassili, with a constrained
smile. “After all, they are not children!”
“They are worse; one is a fool, and the other is mad.”
“Is it Malva who is the mad one?” asked Vassili.
And his eyes shone with sad anger.
“She has always been mad. She has, brother Vassili, a soul which does
not fit her body. Can you understand that?”
“It’s not difficult to understand!… Her soul is vile.”
Sereja glanced obliquely at him, and replied with an accent of
“Vile? Oh! you earth-grubbers!… you!… you understand nothing of
life. All you want in a woman is great fat bosoms; her temperament does
not matter to you in the least But it’s in the temperament that one
finds all the colour of a human being. A woman without temperament is
like bread without salt Can you get any pleasure out of a balalaika
without strings? You dog!”
“It’s yesterday’s wine that makes you talk so well!” Interjected
He longed to know where and how Sereja had seen Malva and Jakoff the
day before, but a feeling of shame prevented him from asking. In the
hut he poured out a full glass of vodka for Sereja, in the hope that
the fellow might get drunk and would himself tell him all, without
waiting to be questioned. But Sereja drank, coughed, and, as if
refreshed, sat down at the open door, stretching himself and yawning.
“Drinking is like swallowing fire,” he said.
“At all events, you know how to drink!” replied Vassili, astonished
with the rapidity with which Sereja had swallowed the vodka.
“Ah! yes,” said the other, shaking his tawny head; he wiped his
moustache with the back of his hand, and began talking in a confident,
didactic tone–“I know how to drink, brother! I do everything short and
quick, that’s all about it!… Make no mistake, I go straight ahead!…
It doesn’t matter what happens!… If you start from the ground, you
can only fall on the ground….”
“I thought you were going into the Caucasus?” questioned Vassili, who
was trying carefully to work round towards his object.
“Yes, I shall go when I want to. When I have quite made up my mind….
Then I go straight ahead: one, two! and it’s done…. Either I
succeed, or else I come a cropper…. It’s all as plain as a pikestaff.”
“Yes, very plain; you might as well have no brain.” Sereja continued in
a mocking tone–
“And you, who are so intelligent!… How many times have you been
beaten with birch-rods in the village?”
Vassili glanced at him and remained silent “Very often I should
think…. And it’s a capital idea of your village authorities to drive
wisdom upwards, from down below…. And you, what can you do with
your brain? Where would you go? What would you invent? Say! Whereas
I, without bothering myself about anything, I go straight ahead, and
there’s an end of it. And I believe I shall go further than you.”
“It’s possible,” Vassili agreed. “Perhaps you will even go as far as
“Ah! no fear!”
And Sereja burst into a frank laugh.
In spite of Vassili’s hope, Sereja did not lose his head; and that
vexed the elder man, who would not offer him a second glass; but Sereja
himself solved the difficulty.
“Why don’t you ask me news of Malva?”
“What can it matter to me?” said Vassili indifferently, although he
felt a secret presentiment. “As she did not come here on Sunday, you
ought to inquire what she was up to. I know you are jealous, you old
“There are plenty like her,” said Vassili carelessly.
“Many indeed!” said Sereja, imitating him. “Ah! you brutal peasants!
Whether you get honey or tar it’s all the same to you!”
“What do you want to praise her up for? Have you come to offer her to
me in marriage? But I married her long ago on my own account!” said
Sereja looked at him, was silent a moment, and then placing his hand on
Vassili’s shoulder began speaking to him seriously.
“I know that … I know very well what she is with you. I did not get
in your way…. I neither tried to get her nor wanted her. But now
this Jakoff, your son, is hanging round her all day; beat him till
you make the blood come; do you hear me? If not, it’s I who will do
the beating…. You are a strong fellow, although you are a regular
fool…. But just remember this, I never got in your way.”
“That’s what’s the matter then! It’s you now who are in love with her?”
Vassili questioned, in a thick voice.
“Get along with you; if I were sure of myself I would have kicked you
all out of the way long ago! But what could I want with her?”
“Then why are you meddling?”
Sereja opened his eyes wide and laughed.
“Why am I meddling?… The devil only knows…. She’s a woman, and a
spicy one. She pleases me. Or, perhaps, I pity her….”
Vassili felt uncomfortable. He realized by the frank laughter of Sereja
that the lad was sincere, and that he was not himself running after
Malva. But he said–
“If she were a virtuous girl one might pity her. But as it is … it
seems rather queer, doesn’t it?” The other man did not answer; he
watched the boat making a circle, and turning its bows towards land.
Sereja’s ruddy face wore an open, good, and simple expression.
As he watched him, Vassili’s feelings grew softer.
“You are right, she is a good woman … she is only light-hearted; I
shall have something to say to Jakoff, the young dog!”
“I can’t stand him…. He smells of the village, and that’s a smell I
can’t put up with!” Sereja declared.
“Is he running after her?” Vassili asked between his teeth, whilst he
stroked his beard.
“I should rather think so! You’ll see, he’ll put himself between you
two like a wall.”
“I would not advise him to try!”
Far out over the sea the rosy rays of the morning sun opened out
fan-shaped, as the sun rose from the gilded water. Over the noise of
the waves a faint cry came from the boat “Heave!… Ahoy!..
“Up with you, lads! Give way with the rope!” cried Sereja, jumping
to his feet And soon all the five were hauling at their end of the
net There stretched from the water to the shore a long rope, supple
and vibrating, at which the fishermen, holding on to the extreme end,
pulled and shouted.
The other end of the net was being drawn ashore by the boat which
glided through the waves, whilst the mast as it swung from side to
side seemed to cut the air to right and left The sun, brilliant and
dazzling, shed its beams across the sea.
“When you see Jakoff, tell him to come and see me to-morrow,” said
Vassili to Sereja.
The boat ran up on the beach, and the fishermen, jumping on to the
sand, pulled up their end of the net The two groups were gradually
merged one in the other, whilst the cork floats, bobbing about on the
waves, showed a regular outline in the water.