by Maxim Gorky
Translated by Margaret Wettlin
( Photo by Oleg Salomakin )
Semaga was sitting all by himself at a table in a tavern with a pint bottle of vodka and fifteen-kopeks worth of stew in front of him.
The basement room with its smoke-blackened vaulted ceiling was lighted by one lamp over the bar and two in the middle of the room. The air was dense with smoke in whose billows floated vague dark forms that talked and sang and swore boisterously, knowing that here they were beyond the law.
One of those fierce storms of late autumn was raging outside, with big stickly snowflakes coming down heavily, but inside it was warm and noisy and had a good familiar smell.
Semaga sat gazing intently through the smoke at the door, his eyes growing sharper every time it opened to let someone in. When this happened he would lean forward slightly and might even raise a hand to shield his face as he scrutinized the features of whoever had entered. And he had good reason to do this.
When he had studied the newcomer in detail and convinced himself of whatever it was he wished to be convinced of, he would pour himself out another glass of vodka, gulp it down, fork half a dozen pieces of meat and potatoes and sit there munching slowly, smacking his lips and licking his bristling soldier-moustache.
A curiously shaggy shadow was cast upon the damp grey wall by his big tousled head, and it bobbed as he chewed, as if it were insistently nodding to someone who made no response.
Semaga’s face was broad, high-cheekboned, and beardless; his eyes were big and grey and he had a habit of screwing them up; dark bushy eyebrows shaded his eyes and a curly lock of no-colour hair hung down over the left eyebrow, almost touching it.
On the whole, Semaga’s face was not one to inspire trust; there was something disconcerting about the expression of strained determination it wore, an expression out of place even among these people and in this place.
He was wearing a ragged woollen coat tied at the waist with a piece of cord, beside him lay his cap and mittens, and leaning against the back of his chair was a club of impressive dimensions with a bulge at one end formed by the root.
And so he sat on enjoying his meal and was just about to ask for more vodka when the door was thrown open with a bang, and into the tavern rolled something round and ragged that looked for all the world like a big ball of tow coming unwound.
“Beat it, men! A raid!” it cried excitedly in a high childish voice.
The men instantly sat back, fell silent, began to confer anxiously, while from their midst came a few questions in hoarse uneasy voices:
“D’ye mean it?”
“So strike me dead! They’re coming from both sides. On horses and on foot. Two officers and ever so many policemen.”
“Who are they after, have you heard?”
“Semaga, I guess. They questioned Nikiforich about him,” piped the childish voice while the ball-like figure of its owner rolled in the direction of the bar.
“Why, have they caught Nikiforich?” asked Semaga, clapping his cap on to his matted hair and getting up unhurriedly.
“Yes, they just caught him.”
“At Aunt Maria’s, in Stenka Street.”
“You just come from there?”
“Uh-huh. I came rushing here over the garden fences and now I’m off to ‘The Barge’; they’ll be wanting to know there, too, I guess.”
The boy was out of the tavern in a trice. No sooner had the door closed behind him than skinny old Iona Petrovich, the proprietor, a God-fearing man in big spectacles and black skull-cap, called after him:
“Hey, you little imp, you son of Satan! What’s this you’ve done, you accursed offspring of Ham! Gobbled up a whole plateful!”
“Of what?” asked Semaga, who was now making his way to the door.
“Liver. Licked the plate clean. How he ever did it so quick is more than I can see, the scamp! All in one go!”
“So now you’ll have to go begging, I suppose,” observed Semaga dryly as he went out of the door.
A wet, buffeting wind made little sounds as it swirled above and along the street, and the air was like a mass of boiling porridge, so thickly fell the wet snowflakes.
Semaga stood there listening a moment, but nothing was to be heard but the swish of the wind and the rustly of the snow falling on the walls and roofs of the houses.
He walked off, and when he had taken about ten steps, he climbed over a fence and found himself in somebody’s back garden.
A dog barked and in reply a horse neighed and stamped on the floor. Semaga quickly climbed back into the street and set out towards the centre of town, walking faster now.
A few minutes later he heard a noise in front of him that sent him over anotehr fence. This time he crossed the front yard without mishap, went through the open gate into the garden, climbed other fences and crossed other gardens until he found himself in a street running parallel to the one on which Iona Petrovich’s tavern stood.
As he walked he tried to think of a safe place to hide in, but he could not.
All the safe places had become unsafe now that the police had taken it into their heads to make a raid, and the prospect of spending the night outside in such a storm and with the danger of being caught by the raiders or a night watchman was not very cheerful.
He walked on slowly, peering ahead into the white murk of the storm out of which, soundlessly, rose houses, hitching posts, street lamps, trees, all of them plastered with soft clumps of snow.
Above the noise of the storm he caught a strange noice coming from somewhere in front of him. It resembled the soft crying of a baby. He stopped with his neck thrust out in the attitude of a wild animal sensing danger.
The sound died away.
Semaga shook his head and went on, pulling his cap further down over his eyes and hunching up his shoulders to keep the snow out of his neck.
Again he heard a wail, and this time it came from under his very feet. He started, stopped, bent down, felt the ground with his hands, stood up and shook the snow off the bundle he had found.
“A fine how-d’ye-do! A baby! What d’ye think of that!” he muttered to himself as he studied the infant.
It was warm, it wriggled and was all wet with melted snow. Its face, not quite as big as Semaga’s fist, was red and wrinkled, its eyes were closed and its tiny mouth kept opening and making little sucking movements. Water dripped off the rags round its face into its tiny toothless mouth.
Dumbstruck as he was, Semaga realized that the baby ought not to swallow the water dripping off these rags, and so he turned the bundle upside down and shook it.
This, it seems, was not to the baby’s liking, for it let out a squeal of protest.
“Tut-tut!” said Semaga severely. “Tut-tut! Not a word, or you’ll get it from me! What am I fussing with you for anyway, eh? As if I had any need of you! And you go and cry, you little simpleton!”
But Semaga’s words had not the least effect on the baby, which kept on squealing so softly and plaintively that Semaga was very much put out.
“Come, matey, that’s not nice. I know you’re cold and wet – and that you’re just a little shaver, but what the deuce am I to do with you?”
Still the baby squealed.
“There’s just nothing I can do with you,” said Semaga conclusively, pulling the wrappings tighter round his find and putting it back on the ground.
“Can’t be helped. You can see for yourself there’s nothing I can do with you. I’m a sort of a foundling myself. So it’s good-bye to you and that’s that.”
And with a wave of his hand Semaga walked off, muttering the while:
“If it wasn’t for the raid, maybe I’d find a place to stick you in. But there is a raid. What can I do about it? Nothing, matey. You’ll just have to forgive me. It’s an innocent soul you are, and your mother’s a fiend. If I ever find out who you are, you hussy, I’ll break your ribs and knock the stuffings out of you. That’ll teach you how to behave next time! Go just so far and no further. O-o-o, you she-devil, you heartless cow! May you die in misery, and may the earth vomit you up. So you think you can go about having babies and throwing them away, do you? And if I drag you through the street by the hair? Oh, I’d do it all right, you strubpet! Don’t you know you can’t go tossing babies around in a storm like this? They’re weak and helpless and they can die from swallowing this snow. Want to pick a nice dry night to throw your babies away in, you fool. They’ll live longer on a dry night, and people are more apt to find ’em. As if anybody was out on a night like this!”
At just what point in his reflections Semaga returned to his find and picked it up again he himself did not notice, so engrossed was he in his conversation with its mother. But he did pick it up and put it inside his coat, and after one last withering blast at its mother, he went on his way with a heavy heart, as pitiable as the baby for whom he felt such pity.
His find wriggled feebly and lt out faint peeps that were smothered by the heavy woolen coat and Semaga’s enormous paw. Semaga had on nothing but a torn shirt under his coat, and so he soon felt the warmth of the baby’s tiny body.
“You little brat!” muttered Semaga as he made his way through the snow. “Your affairs look pretty bad, matey, because what am I supposed to do with you? Tell me that. As for that mother of yours – come, now, lie quiet! You’ll fall out.”
But the infant kept on wriggling and Semaga felt its warm face rubbing against his breast through a hole in his shirt.
Suddenly Semaga stopped dead in his tracks and exclaimed in a loud voice:
“Why it’s the breast he’s after! His mother’s breast! Good God! His mother’s breast!”
And for some reason Semaga began to tremble all over, perhaps from shame, perhaps from fear – from some emotion that was strange, powerful, painful and heart-breaking.
“It takes me for its mother! Ekh, you poor little beastie! What d’ye want of me? And what are you doing to me? I’m a soldier, matey, and a thief, if you must know.”
The wind whistled desolately.
“You’d ought to go to sleep. Go to sleep, now. Hush-a-bye. Go to sleep. You’ll not get a drop out of me. Sleepy-bye. I’ll sing you a song, though it’s your ma as ought to be doing that. Come, now, come; lulla-lulla-lullaby. I’m no nursemaid – go to sleep.”
And suddenly Semaga, his head bent low over the baby, sang in soft long-drawn tones, as tenderly as he could:
You’re a whore and you’re a bore,
There’s nothing much to love you for.
These words he sang to the tune of a lullaby.
The milky murk kept seething all around and Semaga walked down the pavement with the baby inside his coat, and while the baby kept up its squealing, the thief sang tenderly:
I’ll come and see you one fine night,
And when I leave you’ll look a fright.
And down his cheeks stole drops of what must have been melting snow. From time to time the thief gave a little shudder, there was a lump in his throat and a weight on his heart, and never had he felt so desolate as while walking down that empty street in the storm with the baby squealing inside his coat.
But he went on just the same.
Behind him he heard dull hoof-beats. The silhouettes of mounted policemen loomed out of the darkness and soon they were beside him.
Two voices asked simultaneously:
“Who goes there?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s that you’re carrying? Out with it!” ordered on of the policemen, leading his horse straight up the pavement.”
“This? A baby.”
“Semaga – from Akhtyr.”
“Oho! The very man we’re looking for! Get up there in front of my horse!”
“Me and the baby’d better hug the houses. The wind’s not so strong there. The middle of the street’s not place for us – we’re froze as it is.”
The policemen did not grasp what he was saying, but they let him keep to the shelter of the houses while they rode as close as possible and did not take their eyes off him.
With such an escort Semaga walked all the way to the police-station.
“So you’ve caught him, have you? That’s fine,” said the Chief of Police as they entered his office.
“What about the baby? What am I to do with it?” asked Semaga with a toss of his head.
“What’s that? What baby?”
“This one. I found it in the street. Here.”
And Semaga pulled his find out of his coat. The baby hung limp in his hands.
“But it’s dead!” exclaimed the Chief of Police.
“Dead?” echoed Semaga. He stared down at the little bundle and laid it on the desk.
“Funny,” he observed, adding with a sigh: “I’d ought to have picked it up straight away. Maybe if I had – But I didn’t. I picked it up and then put it down again.”
“What’s that you’re muttering?” asked the Chief.
Semaga cast a forlorn look about him.
With the death of the baby had died most of the sentiments he had felt while walking down the street.
Here he was surrounded by cold officialdom, with nothing to look forward to but jail and a trial. A sense of injury welled up within him. He glanced reproachfully at the body of the baby and said with a sigh:
“A fine one you are? I let myself get caught on account of you, and all for nothing it turns out. And here I was thinking – But you went and died on me. Humph!”
And Semaga scratched the back of his neck vigorously.
“Lead him away,” said the Chief, nodding towards Semaga.
So they led him away.
And that’s all.
( Photo by igor37rus )