The sea laughed.
It trembled at the warm and light breath of the wind and became covered with tiny wrinkles that reflected the sun in blinding fashion and laughed at the sky with its thousands of silvery lips. In the deep space between sea and sky buzzed the deafening and joyous sound of the waves chasing each other on the flat beach of the sandy promontory. This noise and brilliancy of sunlight, reverberated a thousand times by the sea, mingled harmoniously in ceaseless and joyous agitation. The sky was glad to shine; the sea was happy to reflect the glorious light.
The wind caressed the powerful and satin-like breast of the sea, the sun heated it with its rays and it sighed as if fatigued by these ardent caresses; it filled the burning air with the salty aroma of its emanations. The green waves, coursing up the yellow sand, threw on the beach the white foam of their luxurious crests which melted with a gentle murmur, and wet it.
At intervals along the beach, scattered with shells and sea weed, were stakes of wood driven into the sand and on which hung fishing nets, drying and casting shadows as fine as cobwebs. A few large boats and a small one were drawn up beyond high-water mark, and the waves as they ran up towards them seemed as if they were calling to them. Gaffs, oars, coiled ropes, baskets and barrels lay about in disorder and amidst it all was a cabin built of yellow branches, bark and matting. Above the general chaos floated a red rag at the extremity of a tall mast.
Under the shade of a boat lay Vassili Legostev, the watchman at this outpost of the Grebentchikov fishing grounds. Lying on his stomach, his head resting on his hands, he was gazing fixedly out to sea, where away in the distance danced a black spot. Vassili saw with satisfaction that it grew larger and was drawing nearer.
Screwing up his eyes on account of the glare caused by the reflection on the water, he grunted with pleasure and content. Malva was coming. A few minutes more and she would be there, laughing so heartily as to strain every stitch of her well-filled bodice. She would throw her robust and gentle arms around him and kiss him, and in that rich sonorous voice that startles the sea gulls would give him the news of what was going on yonder. They would make a good fish soup together, and drink brandy as they chatted and caressed each other. That is how they spent every Sunday and holiday. And at daylight he would row her back over the sea in the sharp morning air. Malva, still nodding with sleep, would hold the tiller and he would watch her as he pulled. She was amusing at those times, funny and charming both, like a cat which had eaten well. Sometimes she would slip from her seat and roll herself up at the bottom of the boat like a ball.
As Vassili watched the little black spot grow larger it seemed to him that Malva was not alone in the boat. Could Serejka have come along with her? Vassili moved heavily on the sand, sat up, shaded his eyes with his hands, and with a show of ill humor began to strain his eyes to see who was coming. No, the man rowing was not Serejka. He rows strong but clumsily. If Serejka were rowing Malva would not take the trouble to hold the rudder.
“Hey there!” cried Vassili impatiently.
The sea gulls halted in their flight and listened.
“Hallo! Hallo!” came back from the boat. It was Malva’s sonorous voice.
“Who’s with you?”
A laugh replied to him.
“Jade!” swore Vassili under his breath.
He spat on the ground with vexation.
He was puzzled. While he rolled a cigarette he examined the neck and back of the rower who was rapidly drawing nearer. The sound of the water when the oars struck it resounded in the still air, and the sand crunched under the watchman’s bare feet as he stamped about in his impatience.
“Who’s with you?” he cried, when he could discern the familiar smile on Malva’s pretty plump face.
“Wait. You’ll know him all right,” she replied laughing.
The rower turned on his seat and, also laughing, looked at Vassili.
The watchman frowned. It seemed to him that he knew the fellow.
“Pull harder!” commanded Malva.
The stroke was so vigorous that the boat was carried up the beach on a wave, fell over on one side and then righted itself while the wave rolled back laughing into the sea. The rower jumped out on the beach, and going up to Vassili said:
“How are you, father?”
“Iakov!” cried Vassili, more surprised than pleased.
They embraced three times. Afterwards Vassili’s stupor became mingled with both joy and uneasiness. The watchman stroked his blond beard with one hand and with the other gesticulated:
“I knew something was up; my heart told me so. So it was you! I kept asking myself if it was Serejka. But I saw it was not Serejka. How did you come here?”
Vassili would have liked to look at Malva, but his son’s rollicking eyes were upon him and he did not dare. The pride he felt at having a son so strong and handsome struggled in him with the embarrassment caused by the presence of Malva. He shuffled about and kept asking Iakov one question after another, often without waiting for a reply. His head felt awhirl, and he felt particularly uneasy when he heard Malva say in a mocking tone.
“Don’t skip about—for joy. Take him to the cabin and give him something to eat.”
The father examined his son from head to foot. On the latter’s lips hovered that cunning smile Vassili knew so well. Malva turned her green eyes from the father to the son and munched melon seeds between her small white teeth. Iakov smiled and for a few seconds, which were painful to Vassili, all three were silent.
“I’ll come back in a moment,” said Vassili suddenly going towards the cabin. “Don’t stay there in the sun, I’m going to fetch some water. We’ll make some soup. I’ll give you some fish soup, Iakov.”
He seized a saucepan that was lying on the ground and disappeared behind the fishing nets.
Malva and the peasant followed him.
“Well, my fine young fellow, I brought you to your father, didn’t I?” said Malva, brushing up against Iakov’s robust figure.
He turned towards her his face framed in its curled blond beard, and with a brilliant gleam in his eyes said:
“Yes, here we are—It’s fine here, isn’t it? What a stretch of sea!”
“The sea is great. Has the old man changed much?”
“No, not much. I expected to find him more grey. He’s still pretty solid.”
“How long is it since you saw him?”
“About five years. I was nearly seventeen when he left the village.”
They entered the cabin, the air of which was suffocating from the heat and the odor of cooking fish. They sat down. Between them there was a roughly-hewn oak table. They looked at each other for a long time without speaking.
“So you want to work here?” said Malva at last.
“I don’t know. If I find something, I’ll work.”
“You’ll find work,” replied Malva with assurance, examining him critically with her green eyes.
He paid no attention to her, and with his sleeve wiped away the perspiration that covered his face.
She suddenly began to laugh.
“Your mother probably sent messages for your father by you?”
Iakov gave a shrug of ill humor and replied:
“Of course. What if she did?”
And she laughed the louder.
Her laugh displeased Iakov. He paid no attention to her and thought of his mother’s instructions. When she accompanied him to the end of the village she had said quickly, blinking her eyes:
“In Christ’s name, Iakov say to him: ‘Father, mother is alone yonder. Five years have gone by and she is always alone. She is getting old.’ Tell him that, Iakov, my little Iakov, for the love of God. Mother will soon be an old woman. She’s always alone, always at work. In Christ’s name, tell him that.”
And she had wept silently, hiding her face in her apron.
Iakov had not pitied her then, but he did now. And his face took on a hard expression before Malva, as if he were about to abuse her.
“Here I am!” cried Vassili, bursting in on them with a wriggling fish in one hand and a knife in the other.
He had not got over his uneasiness, but had succeeded in dissimulating it deep within him. Now he looked at his guests with serenity and good nature; only his manner was more agitated than usual.
“I’ll make a bit of a fire in a minute, and we’ll talk. Why, Iakov, what a fine fellow you’ve grown!”
Again he disappeared.
Malva went on munching her melon seeds. She stared familiarly at Iakov. He tried not to meet her eyes, although he would have liked to, and he thought to himself:
“Life must come easy here. People seem to eat as much as they want to. How strong she is and father, too!”
Then intimidated by the silence, he said aloud:
“I forgot my bag in the boat. I’ll go and get it.”
Iakov rose leisurely and went out. Vassili appeared a moment later. He bent down towards Malva and said rapidly with anger:
“What did you want to bring him for? What shall I tell him about you?”
“What’s that to me? Am I afraid of him? Or of you?” she asked, closing her green eyes with disdain. Then she laughed: “How you went on when you saw him. It was so funny!”
The sand crunched under Iakov’s steps and they had to suspend their conversation. Iakov had brought a bag which he threw into a corner. He cast a hostile look at the young woman.
She went on munching her seeds. Vassili, seating himself on the woodbin, said with a forced smile:
“What made you think of coming?”
“Why, I just came. We wrote you.”
“When? I haven’t received any letter.”
“Really? We wrote often.”
“The letter must have got lost,” said Vassili regretfully. “It always does when it’s important.”
“So you don’t know how things are at home?” asked Iakov, suspiciously.
“How should I know? I received no letter.”
Then Iakov told him that the horse was dead, that all the corn had been eaten before the beginning of February, and that he himself had been unable to find any work. Hay was also short, and the cow had almost perished from hunger. They had managed as best they could until April and then they decided that Iakov should join the father far away and work three months with him. That is what they had written. Then they sold three sheep, bought flour and hay and Iakov had started.
“How is that possible?” cried Vassali. “I sent you some money.”
“Your money didn’t go far. We repaired the cottage, we had to marry sister off and I bought a plough. You know five years is a long time.”
“Hum,” said Vassili, “wasn’t it enough? What a tale of woe! Ah, there’s my soup boiling over!”
He rose and stooping before the fire on which was the saucepan, Vassili meditated while throwing the scum into the flame. Nothing in his son’s recital had touched him particularly, and he felt irritated against his wife and Iakov. He had sent them a great deal of money during the last five years, and yet they had not been able to manage. If Malva had not been present he would have told his son what he thought about it. Iakov was smart enough to leave the village on his own responsibility and without the father’s permission, but he had not been able to get a living out of the soil. Vassili sighed as he stirred the soup, and as he watched the blue flames he thought of his son and Malva. Henceforward, he thought, his life would be less agreeable, less free. Iakov had surely guessed what Malva was.
Meanwhile Malva, in the cabin, was trying to arouse the rustic with her bold eyes.
“Perhaps you left a girl in the village?” she asked suddenly.
“Perhaps,” he responded surlily.
Inwardly he was abusing Malva.
“Is she pretty?” she asked with indifference.
Iakov made no reply.
“Why don’t you answer? Is she better looking than I, or no?”
He looked at her in spite of himself. Her cheeks were sunburnt and plump, her lips red and tempting and now, parted in a malicious smile, showing the white even teeth, they seemed to tremble. Her bust was full and firm under a pink cotton waist that set off to advantage her trim waist and well-rounded arms. But he did not like her green and cynical eyes.
“Why do you talk like that?” he asked.
He sighed without reason and spoke in a beseeching tone, yet he wanted to speak brutally to her.
“How shall I talk?” she asked laughing.
“There you are, laughing—at what?”
“What have I done to you?” he said with irritation. And once more he lowered his eyes under her gaze.
She made no reply.
Iakov understood her relations towards his father perfectly well and that prevented him from expressing himself freely. He was not surprised. It would have been difficult for a man like his father to have been long without a companion.
“The soup is ready,” announced Vassili, at the threshold of the cabin. “Get the spoons, Malva.”
When she found the spoons she said she must go down to the sea to wash them.
The father and son watched her as she ran down the sands and both were silent.
“Where did you meet her?” asked Vassili, finally.
“I went to get news of you at the office. She was there. She said to me: ‘Why go on foot along the sand? Come in the boat. I’m going there.’ And so we started.”
“And—what do you think of her?”
“Not bad,” said Iakov, vaguely, blinking his eyes.
“What could I do?” asked Vassili. “I tried at first. But it was impossible. She mends my clothes and so on. Besides it’s as easy to escape from death as from a woman when once she’s after you.”
“What’s it to me?” said Iakov. “It’s your affair. I’m not your judge.”
Malva now returned with the spoons, and they sat down to dinner. They ate without talking, sucking the bones noisily and spitting them out on the sand, near the door. Iakov literally devoured his food, which seemed to please Malva vastly; she watched with tender interest his sunburnt cheeks extend and his thick humid lips moving quickly. Vassili was not hungry. He tried, however, to appear absorbed in the meal so as to be able to watch Malva and Iakov at his ease.
After awhile, when Iakov had eaten his fill he said he was sleepy.
“Lie down here,” said Vassili. “We’ll wake you up.”
“I’m willing,” said Iakov, sinking down on a coil of rope. “And what will you do?”
Embarrassed by his son’s smile, Vassili left the cabin hastily, Malva frowned and replied to Iakov:
“What’s that to you? Learn to mind your own business, my lad.”
Then she went out.
Iakov turned over and went to sleep.
Vassili had fixed three stakes in the sand, and with a piece of matting had rigged up a shelter from the sun. Then he lay down flat on his back and contemplated the sky. When Malva came up and dropped on the sand by his side he turned towards her with vexation plainly written on his face.
“Well, old man,” she said laughing, “you don’t seem pleased to see your son.”
“He mocks me. And why? Because of you,” replied Vassili testily.
“Oh, I am sorry. What can we do? I mustn’t come here again, eh? All right. I’ll not come again.”
“Siren that you are! Ah, you women! He mocks me and you too—and yet you are what I have dearest to me.”
He moved away from her and was silent. Squatting on the sand, with her legs drawn up to her chin, Malva balanced herself gently to and fro, idly gazing with her green eyes over the dazzling joyous sea, and she smiled with triumph as all women do when they understand the power of their beauty.
“Why don’t you speak?” asked Vassili.
“I’m thinking,” said Malva. Then after a pause she added:
“Your son’s a fine fellow.”
“What’s that to you?” cried Vassili, jealously.
He glanced at her suspiciously. “Take care,” he said, menacingly. “Don’t play the imbecile. I’m a patient man, but I mustn’t be crossed.”
He ground his teeth and clenched his fists.
“Don’t frighten me, Vassili,” she said indifferently, without looking up at him.
“Well, stop your joking.”
“Don’t try to frighten me.”
“I’ll soon make you dance if you begin any foolishness.”
“Would you beat me?”
She went up to him and gazed with curiosity at his frowning face.
“One would think you were a countess. Yes, I would beat you.”
“Yet I’m not your wife,” said Malva, calmly. “You have been accustomed to beat your wife for nothing, and you imagine that you can do the same with me. No, I am free. I belong only to myself, and I am afraid of no one. But you are afraid of your son, and now you dare threaten me.”
She shook her head with disdain. Her careless manner cooled Vassili’s anger. He had never seen her look so beautiful.
“I have something else to tell you,” she went on. “You boasted to Serejka that I could no more get along without you than without bread, and that I cannot live without you. You are mistaken. Perhaps it is not you that I love and not for you that I come. Perhaps I love the peace of this deserted beach. (Here she made a wide gesture with her arms.) Perhaps I love these lonely sands, with their vast stretch of sea and sky, and to be away from vile beings. Because you are here is nothing to me. If this were Serejka’s place I should come here. If your son lived here, I should come too. It would be better still if no one were here, for I am disgusted with you all. But if I take it into my head one day—beautiful as I am—I can always choose a man, and one who’ll please me better than you.”
“So, so!” hissed Vassili, furiously, and he seized her by the throat. “So that’s your game, is it?”
He shook her, and she did not strive to get away from his grasp, although her face was congested and her eyes bloodshot. She merely placed her two hands on the rough hands that were around her throat.
“Ah, now I know you!” Vassili was hoarse with rage. “And yet you said you loved me, and you kissed me and caressed me? Ah, I’ll show you!”
Holding her down to the ground, he struck her repeatedly with his clenched fist. Finally, fatigued with the exertion, he pushed her away from him crying:
“There, serpent. Now you’ve got what you deserved.”
Without a complaint, silent and calm, Malva fell back on her back, all crumpled, red and still beautiful. Her green eyes watched him furtively under the lashes, and burned with a cold flame full of hatred, but he, gasping with excitement and satisfied with the punishment he had inflicted, did not notice the look, and when he stooped down towards her to see if she was crying, she smiled up at him gently.
He looked at her, not understanding and not knowing what to do next. Should he beat her again? But his fury was appeased, and he had no desire to recommence.
“How you love me!” she whispered.
Vassili felt hot all over.
“All right! all right! the devil take you,” he said gloomily. “Are you satisfied now?”
“Was I not foolish, Vassili? I thought you no longer loved me! I said to myself, ‘now his son is here he will neglect me for him.'”
And she burst out laughing, a strange forced laugh.
“Foolish girl!” said Vassili, smiling in spite of himself.
He felt himself at fault, and was sorry for her, but remembering what she had said, he went on crossly:
“My son has nothing to do with it. If I beat you it was your own fault.
Why did you cross me?”
“I did it on purpose to try you.”
And purring like a cat she rubbed herself against his shoulder.
He glanced furtively towards the cabin and bending down embraced the young woman.
“To try me?” he repeated. “As if you wanted to do that? You see the result?”
“Oh, that’s nothing!” said Malva, half closing her eyes. “I’m not angry. You beat me only because you loved me. You’ll make it up to me.”
She gave him a long look, trembled and lowering her voice repeated:
“Oh, yes, you’ll make it up to me.”
Vassili interpreted her words in a sense agreeable to him.
“How?” he asked.
“You’ll see,” replied Malva calmly, very calmly, but her lips trembled.
“Ah, my darling!” cried Vassili, clasping her close in his arms. “Do you know that since I have beaten you I love you better.” Her head fell back on his shoulders and he placed his lips on her trembling mouth.
The sea gulls whirled about over their heads uttering hoarse cries. From the distance came the regular and gentle splash of the tiny waves breaking on the sand.
When, at last, they broke from their long embrace, Malva sat up on Vassili’s knee. The peasant’s face, tanned by wind and sun, was bent close to hers and his great blond beard tickled her neck. The young woman was motionless; only the gradual and regular rise and fall of her bosom showed her to be alive. Vassili’s eyes wandered in turn from the sea to this woman by his side. He told Malva how tired he was of living alone and how painful were his sleepless nights filled with gloomy thoughts. Then he kissed her again on the mouth with the same sound that he might have made in chewing a hot piece of meat.
They stayed there three hours in this way, and finally, when he saw the sun setting, Vassili said with a bored look:
“I must go and make some tea. Our guest will soon he awake.”
Malva rose with the indolent gesture of a languorous cat, and with a gesture of regret he started towards the cabin. Through her half-open lids the young woman watched him as he moved away, and sighed as people sigh when they have borne too heavy a burden.
Fifteen days later it was again Sunday and again Vassili Legostev, stretched out on the sand near his hut, was gazing out to sea, waiting for Malva. And the deserted sea laughed, playing with the reflections of the sun, and legions of waves were born to run on the sand, deposit the foam of their crests and return to the sea, where they melted.
All was as before. Only Vassili, who the last time awaited her coming with peaceful security, was now filled with impatience. Last Sunday she had not come; to-day she would surely come. He did not doubt it for a moment, but he wanted to see her as soon as possible. Iakov, at least, would not be there to embarrass them. The day before yesterday, as he passed with the other fishermen, he said he would go to town on Sunday to buy a blouse. He had found work at fifteen roubles a month.
Except for the gulls, the sea was still deserted. The familiar little black spot did not appear,
“Ah, you’re not coming!” said Vassili, with ill humor. “All right, don’t. I don’t want you.”
And he spat with disdain in the direction of the water.
The sea laughed.
“If, at least, Serejka would come,” he thought. And he tried to think only of Serejka. “What a good-for-nothing the fellow is! Robust, able to read, seen the world—but what a drunkard! Yet good company. One can’t feel dull in his company. The women are mad for him; all run after him. Malva’s the only one that keeps aloof. No, no sign of her! What a cursed woman! Perhaps she’s angry because I beat her.”
Thus, thinking of his son, of Serejka, but more often of Malva, Vassili paced up and down the sandy beach, turning every now and then to look anxiously out to sea. But Malva did not come.
This is what had happened.
Iakov rose early, and on going down to the beach as usual to wash himself, he saw Malva. She was seated on the bow of a large fishing boat anchored in the surf and letting her bare feet hang, sat combing her damp hair.
Iakov stopped to watch her.
“Have you had a bath?” he cried.
She turned to look at him, and glanced down at her feet: then, continuing to comb herself, she replied:
“Yes, I took a bath. Why are you up so early?”
“Aren’t you up early?”
“I am not an example for you. If you did all I do, you’d be in all kinds of trouble.”
“Why do you always wish to frighten me?” he asked.
“And you, why do you make eyes at me?”
Iakov had no recollection of having looked at her more than at the other women on the fishing grounds, but now he said to her suddenly:
“Because you are so—appetizing.”
“If your father heard you, he’d give you an appetite! No, my lad, don’t run after me, because I don’t want to be between you and Vassili. You understand?”
“What have I done?” asked Iakov. “I haven’t touched you.”
“You daren’t touch me,” retorted Malva.
There was such a contemptuous tone in her voice that he resented this.
“So I dare not?” he replied, climbing up on the boat and seating himself at her side.
“No, you dare not.”
“And if I touch you?”
“What would you do?”
“I’d give you such a box on the ear that you would fall into the water.”
“Let’s see you do it”
“Touch me if you dare!”
Throwing his arm around her waist, he pressed her to his breast.
“Here I am. Now box my ears.”
“Let me be, Iakov,” she said, quickly, trying to disengage herself from his arms which trembled.
“Where is the punishment you promised me?”
“Let go or take care!”
“Oh, stop your threats—luscious strawberry that you are!”
He drew her to him and pressed his thick lips into her sunburnt cheek.
She gave a wild laugh of defiance, seized Iakov’s arms and suddenly, with a quick movement of her whole body threw herself forward. They fell into the water enlaced, forming a single heavy mass, and disappeared under the splashing foam. Then from beneath the agitated water Iakov appeared, looking half drowned. Malva, at his side swimming like a fish, eluded his grasp, and tried to prevent him regaining the boat. Iakov struggled desperately, striking the water and roaring like a walrus, while Malva, screaming with laughter, swam round and round him, throwing the salt water in his face, and then diving to avoid his vigorous blows.
At last he caught her and pulled her under the water, and the waves passed over both their heads. Then they came to the surface again both panting with the exertion. Thus they played like two big fish until, finally, tired out and full of salt water, they climbed up the beach and sat down in the sun to dry.
Malva laughed and twisted her hair to get the water out.
The day was growing. The fishermen, after their night of heavy slumber, were emerging from their huts, one by one. From the distance all looked alike. One began to strike blows on an empty barrel at regular intervals. Two women were heard quarrelling. Dogs barked.
“They are getting up,” said Iakov. “And I wanted to start to town early. I’ve lost time with you.”
“One does nothing good in my company,” she said, half in jest, half seriously.
“What a habit you have of scaring people,” replied Iakov.
“You’ll see when your father—.”
This allusion to his father angered him.
“What about my father? I’m not a boy. And I’m not blind, either. He’s not a saint, either; he deprives himself of nothing. If you don’t mind I’ll steal you from my father.”
“Do you think I wouldn’t dare?”
“Now, look you,” he began furiously, “don’t defy me. I—.”
“What now?” she asked with indifference.
He turned away with a determined look on his face.
“How brave you are,” she said, tauntingly. “You remind me of the inspector’s little dog. At a distance he barks and threatens to bite, but when you get near him he puts his tail between his legs and runs away.”
“All right,” cried Iakov, angrily. “Wait! you’ll see what I am.”
Advancing towards them came a sunburnt, tattered and muscular-looking individual. He wore a ragged red shirt, his trousers were full of holes, and his feet were bare. His face was covered with freckles and he had big saucy blue eyes and an impertinent turned-up nose. When he came up he stopped and made a grimace.
“Serejka drank yesterday, and today Serejka’s pocket is empty. Lend me twenty kopeks. I’ll not return them.”
Iakov burst out laughing; Malva smiled.
“Give me the money,” went on the tramp. “I’ll marry you for twenty kopeks if you like.”
“You’re an odd fellow,” said Iakov, “are you a priest?”
“Imbecile question,” replied Serejka. “Wasn’t I servant to a priest at Ouglitch?”
“I don’t want to get married,” said Iakov.
“Give the money all the same, and I won’t tell your father you’re paying court to his queen,” replied Serejka, passing his tongue over his dry and cracked lips.
Iakov did not want to give twenty kopeks, but they had warned him to be on his guard when dealing with Serejka, and to put up with his whims. The tramp never demanded much, but if he was refused he spread evil tales about you or else he would beat you. So Iakov, sighing, put his hand in his pocket.
“That’s right,” said Serejka, with a tone of encouragement, and he sat down beside them on the sand. “Always do what I tell you and you’ll be happy. And you,” he went on, turning to Malva—”when are you going to marry me? Better be quick. I don’t like to wait long.”
“You are too ragged. Begin by sewing up your holes and then we’ll see,” replied Malva.
Serejka regarded his rents with a reproachful air and shook his head.
“Give me one of your skirts, that’ll be better.”
“Yes, I can,” said Malva, laughing.
“I’m serious. You must have an old one you don’t want.”
“You’d do better to buy yourself a pair of trousers.”
“I prefer to drink the money.”
Serejka rose and, jingling his twenty kopeks, shuffled off, followed by a strange smile from Malva.
When he was some distance away, Iakov said:
“In our village such a braggart would goon have been put in his place. Here, every one seems afraid of him.”
Malva looked at Iakov and replied, disdainfully:
“You don’t know his worth.”
“There’s nothing to know. He’s worth five kopeks a hundred.”
She did not reply, but watched the play of the waves as they chased one after the other, swaying the fishing boat. The mast inclined now to right, now to left, and the bow rose and then fell suddenly, striking the water with a loud splash.
“Why don’t you go?” asked Malva.
“Where?” he asked.
“You wanted to go to town.”
“I shan’t go now.”
“Well, go to your father’s.”
“Shall you go, too?”
“Then I shan’t either.”
“Are you going to stay round me all day?”
“I don’t want your company so much as that,” replied Iakov, offended.
He rose and moved away. But he was mistaken in saying that he did not need her, for when away from her he felt lonely. A strange feeling had come to him after their conversation, a secret desire to protest against the father. Only yesterday this feeling had not existed, nor even to-day, before he saw Malva. Now it seemed to him that his father embarrassed him and stood in his way, although he was far away over the sea yonder, on a narrow tongue of sand almost invisible to the eye. Then it seemed to him, too, that Malva was afraid of the father; if she were not afraid she would talk differently. Now she was missing in his life while only that morning he had not thought of her.
And so he wandered for several hours along the beach, stopping here and there to chat with fishermen he knew. At noon he took a siesta under the shade of an upturned boat. When he awoke he took another stroll and came across Malva far from the fishing ground, reading a tattered book under the shade of the willows.
She looked up at Iakov and smiled.
“Ah, there you are,” he said, sitting down beside her.
“Have you been looking for me long?” she asked, demurely.
“Looking for you? What an idea?” replied Iakov, who was only just beginning to realize that it was the truth.
“Do you know how to read?” she asked.
“Yes—I used to, but I’ve forgotten everything.”
“So have I.”
“Why didn’t you go to the headland to-day?” asked Iakov, suddenly.
“What’s that to you?”
Iakov plucked a leaf and chewed it.
“Listen,” he said in a low tone and drawing near her. “Listen to what I’m going to say. I’m young and I love you.”
“You’re a silly lad, very silly,” said Malva, shaking her head.
“I may be a fool,” cried Iakov, passionately. “But I love you, I love you.”
“Be silent! Go away!”
“Don’t be obstinate.” He took her gently by the shoulders. “Can’t you understand?”
“Go away, Iakov,” she cried, severely. “Go away!”
“Oh, if that’s the tone you take I don’t care a rap. You’re not the only woman here. You imagine that you are better than the others.”
She made no reply, rose and brushed the dust off her skirt.
“Come,” she said.
And they went back to the fishing grounds side by side.
They walked slowly on account of the soft sand. Suddenly, as they were nearing the boats, Iakov stopped short and seized Malva by the arms.
“Are you driving me desperate on purpose? Why do you play with me like this?” he demanded.
“Leave me alone, I tell you,” she said, calmly disengaging herself from his grasp.
Serejka appeared from behind a boat. He shook his fist at the couple, and said, threateningly:
“So, that’s how you go off together. Vassili shall know of this.”
“Go to the devil, all of you!” cried Malva. And she left them, disappearing among the boats.
Iakov stood facing Serejka, and looked him square in the face. Serejka boldly returned the stare and so they remained for a minute or two, like two rams ready to charge on each other. Then without a word each turned away and went off in a different direction.
The sea was calm and crimson with the rays of the setting sun. A confused sound hovered over the fishing ground. The voice of a drunken woman sang hysterically words devoid of sense.
In the dawn’s pure light the sea still slumbered, reflecting the pearl-like clouds. On the headland a party of fishermen still only half awake moved slowly about, getting ready the rigging of their boat.
Serejka, bareheaded and tattered as usual, stood in the bow hurrying the men on with a hoarse voice, the result of his drunken orgy of the previous night.
“Where are the oars, Vassili?”
Vassili, moody as a dark autumn day, was arranging the net at the bottom of the boat. Serejka watched him and, when he looked his way, smacked his lips, signifying that he wanted to drink.
“Have you any brandy,” he asked.
“Yes,” growled Vassili.
“Good. I’ll take a nip when they’ve gone.”
“Is all ready?” cried the fishermen.
“Let go!” commanded Serejka, jumping to the ground. “Be careful. Go far out so as not to entangle the net.”
The big boat slid down the greased planks to the water, and the fishermen, jumping in as it went, seized the oars, ready to strike the water directly she was afloat. Then with a big splash the graceful bark forged ahead through the great plain of luminous water.
“Why didn’t you come Sunday?” said Vassili, as the two men went back to the cabin.
“You were drunk?”
“No, I was watching your son and his step-mother,” said Serejka, phlegmatically.
“A new worry on your shoulders,” said Vassili, sarcastically and with a forced smile. “They are only children.” He was tempted to learn where and how Serejka had seen Malva and Iakov the day before, but he was ashamed.
“Why don’t you ask news of Malva?” asked Serejka, as he gulped down a glass of brandy.
“What do I care what she does?” replied Vassili, with indifference, although he trembled with a secret presentiment.
“As she didn’t come Sunday, you should ask what she was doing. I know you are jealous, you old dog!”
“Oh, there are many like her,” said Vassili, carelessly.
“Are there?” said Serejka, imitating him. “Ah, you peasants, you’re all alike. As long as you gather your honey, it’s all one to you.”
“What’s she to you?” broke in Vassili with irritation. “Have you come to ask her hand in marriage?”
“I know she’s yours,” said Serejka. “Have I ever bothered you? But now Iakov, your son, is all the time dancing around her, it’s different. Beat him, do you hear? If not, I will. You’ve got a strong fist if you are a fool.”
Vassili did not reply, but watched the boat as it turned about and made toward the beach again.
“You are right,” he said finally. “Iakov will hear from me.”
“I don’t like him. He smells too much of the village,” said Serejka.
In the distance, on the sea, was opening out the pink fan formed by the rays of the rising sun. The glowing orb was already emerging from the water. Amid the noise of the waves was heard from the boat the distant cry:
“Come, boys!” cried Serejka, to the other fishermen on the beach. “Let’s pull together.”
“When you see Iakov tell him to come here to-morrow,” said Vassili.
The boat grounded on the beach and the fishermen, jumping out, pulled their end of the net so that the two groups gradually met, the cork floats bobbing up and down on the water forming a perfect semi-circle.
Very late on the evening of the same day, when the fishermen had finished their dinner, Malva, tired and thoughtful, had seated herself on an old boat turned upside down and was watching the sea, already screened in twilight. In the distance a fire was burning, and Malva knew that Vassili had lighted it. Solitary and as if lost in the darkening shadows, the flame leaped high at times and then fell back as if broken. And Malva felt a certain sadness as she watched that red dot abandoned in the desert of ocean, and palpitating feebly among the indefatigable and incomprehensible murmur of the waves.
“What are you doing there?” asked Serejka’s voice behind her.
“What’s that to you?” she replied dryly, without stirring.
He lighted a cigarette, was silent a moment and then said in a friendly tone:
“What a funny woman you are! First you run away from everybody, and then you throw yourself round everyone’s neck.”
“Not round yours,” said Malva, carelessly.
“Not mine, perhaps, but round Iakov’s.”
“It makes you envious.”
“Hum! do you want me to speak frankly?”
“Have yon broken off with Vassili?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, after a silence. “I am vexed with him.”
“He beat me.”
“Really? And you let him?”
Serejka could not understand it. He tried to catch a glimpse of Malva’s face, and made an ironical grimace.
“I need not have let him beat me,” she said. “I did not want to defend myself.”
“So you love the old grey cat as much as that?” grinned Serejka, puffing out a cloud of smoke. “I thought better of you than that.”
“I love none of you,” she said, again indifferent and wafting the smoke away with her hand.
“But if you don’t love him, why did you let him beat you?”
“Do you suppose I know? Leave me alone.”
“It’s funny,” said Serejka, shaking his head.
Both remained silent.
Night was falling. The shadows came down from the slow-moving clouds to the seas beneath. The waves murmured.
Vassili’s fire had gone out on the distant headland, but Malva continued to gaze in that direction.
The father and son were seated in the cabin facing each other, and drinking brandy which the youth had brought with him to conciliate the old man and so as not to be weary in his company.
Serejka had told Iakov that his father was angry with him on account of Malva, and that he had threatened to beat Malva until she was half dead. He also said that was the reason she resisted Iakov’s advances.
This story had excited Iakov’s resentment against his father. He now looked upon him as an obstacle in his road that he could neither remove nor get around.
But feeling himself of equal strength as his adversary, Iakov regarded his father boldly, with a look that meant: “Touch me if you dare!”
They had both drunk two glasses without exchanging a word, except a few commonplace remarks about the fisheries. Alone amidst the deserted waters each nursed his hatred, and both knew that this hate would soon burst forth into flame.
“How’s Serejka?” at last Vassili blurted out.
“Drunk as usual,” replied Iakov, pouring our some more brandy for his father.
“He’ll end badly—and if you don’t take care you’ll do the same.”
“I shall never become like him,” replied Iakov, surlily.
“No?” said Vassili, frowning. “I know what I’m talking about. How long are you here already? Two months. You must soon think of going back. How much money have you saved?”
“In so little time I’ve not been able to save any,” replied Iakov.
“Then you don’t want to stay here any longer, my lad, go back to the village.”
“Why these grimaces?” cried Vassili threateningly, and impatient at his son’s coolness. “Your father’s advising you and you mock him. You’re in too much of a hurry to play the independent. You want to be put in the traces again.”
Iakov poured out some more brandy and drank it. These coarse reproaches offended him, but he mastered himself, not wanting to arouse his father’s anger.
Seeing that his son had drunk again, alone, without filling his glass, made Vassili more angry than ever.
“Your father says to you, ‘Go home,’ and you laugh at him. Very well, I’ll speak differently. You’ll get your pay Saturday and trot—home to the village—do you understand?”
“I won’t go,” said Iakov, firmly.
“What!” cried Vassili, and leaning his two hands on the edge of the table he rose to his feet. “Have I spoken, yes or no? You dog, barking at your father! Do you forget that I can do what I please with you?”
His mouth trembled with passion, his face was convulsed, and two swollen veins stood out on his temples.
“I forget nothing,” said Iakov, in a low tone and not looking at his father. “And you—have you forgotten nothing?”
“It’s not your place to preach to me. I’ll break every bone in your body.”
Iakov avoided the hand that his father raised over his head and a feeling of savage hatred arose in him. He said, between his clenched teeth:
“Don’t touch me. We’re not in the village now.”
“Be silent. I’m your father everywhere.”
They stood facing each other, Vassili, his eyes bloodshot, his neck outstretched, his fists clenched, panted his brandy-smelling breath in his son’s face. Iakov stepped back. He was watching his father’s movements, ready to ward off blows, peaceful outwardly, but steaming with perspiration. Between them was the table.
“Perhaps I won’t give you a good beating?” cried Vassili hoarsely, and bending his back like a cat about to make a spring.
“Here we are equal,” said Iakov, watching him warily. “You are a fisherman, I too. Why do you attack me like this? Do you think I do not understand? You began.”
Vassili howled with passion, and raised his arm to strike so rapidly that Iakov had no time to avoid it. The blow fell on his head. He staggered and ground his teeth in his father’s face.
“Wait!” cried the latter, clenching his fists and again threatening him.
They were now at close quarters, and their feet were entangled in the empty sacks and cordage on the floor. Iakov, protecting himself as best he could against his father’s blows, pale and bathed in perspiration, his teeth clenched, his eyes brilliant as a wolf’s, slowly retreated, and as his father charged upon him, gesticulating with ferocity and blind with rage, like a wild boar, he turned and ran out of the cabin, down towards the sea.
Vassili started in pursuit, his head bent, his arms extended, but his foot caught in some rope, and he fell all his length on the sand. He tried to rise, but the fall had taken all the fight out of him and he sank back on the beach, shaking his fist at Iakov, who remained grinning at a safe distance. He shouted:
“Be cursed! I curse you forever!”
Bitterness came into Vassili’s soul as he realized his own position. He sighed heavily. His head bent low as if an immense weight had crushed him. For an abandoned woman he had deserted his wife, with whom he had lived faithfully for fifteen years, and the Lord had punished him by this rebellion of his son. His son had mocked him and trampled on his heart. Yes, he was punished for the past. He made the sign of the cross and remained seated, blinking his eyes to free them from the tears that were blinding them.
And the sun went down into the sea, and the crimson twilight faded away in the sky. A warm wind caressed the face of the weeping peasant. Deep in his resolutions of repentance he stayed there until he fell asleep shortly before dawn.
The day following the quarrel, Iakov went off with a party to fish thirty miles out at sea. He returned alone five days later for provisions. It was midday when he arrived, and everyone was resting after dinner. It was unbearably hot. The sand burned his feet and the shells and fish bones pricked them. As Iakov carefully picked his way along the beach he regretted he had no boots on. He did not want to return to the bark as he was in a hurry to eat and to see Malva. Many a time had he thought of her during the long lonely hours on the sea. He wondered if she and his father had seen each other again and what they had said. Perhaps the old man had beaten her.
The deserted fisheries were slumbering, as if overcome by the heat. In the inspector’s office a child was crying. From behind a heap of barrels came the sound of voices.
Iakov turned his steps in that direction. He thought he recognised Malva’s voice, but when he arrived at the barrels he recoiled a step and stopped.
In the shade, lying on his back, with his arms under his head, was Serejka. Near him were, on one side, Vassili and, on the other, Malva.
Iakov thought to himself: “Why is father here. Has he left his post so as to be nearer Malva and to watch her? Should he go up to them or not.”
“So, you’ve decided!” said Serejka to Vassili. “It’s goodbye to us all?
Well, go your way and scratch the soil.”
A thrill went through Iakov and he made a joyous grimace.
“Yes, I’m going;” said Vassili.
Then Iakov advanced boldly.
The father gave him a rapid glance and then turned away his eyes. Malva did not stir. Serejka moved his leg and raising his voice said:
“Here’s our dearly beloved son, Iakov, back from a distant shore.”
Then he added in his ordinary voice:
“You should flay him alive and make drums with his skin.”
“It’s hot,” said Iakov, sitting beside them.
“I’ve been waiting for you since this morning, Iakov. The inspector told me you were coming.”
The young man thought his voice seemed weaker than usual and his face seemed changed. He asked Serejka for a cigarette.
“I have no tobacco for an imbecile like you,” replied the latter, without stirring.
“I’m going back home, Iakov,” said Vassili, gravely digging into the sand with his fingers.
“Why,” asked the son, innocently.
“Never mind why, shall you stay?”
“Yes. I’ll remain. What should we both do at home?”
“Very well. I have nothing to say. Do as you please. You are no longer a child. Only remember that I shall not get about long. I shall live, perhaps, but I do not know how long I shall work. I have lost the habit of the soil. Remember, too, that your mother is there.”
Evidently it was difficult for him to talk. The words stuck between his teeth. He stroked his beard and his hand trembled.
Malva eyed him. Serejka had half closed one eye and with the other watched Iakov. Iakov was jubilant, but afraid of betraying himself; he was silent and lowered his head.
“Don’t forget your mother, Iakov. Remember, you are all she has.”
“I know,” said Iakov, shrugging his shoulders.
“It is well if you know,” said the father, with a look of distrust. “I only warn you not to forget it.”
Vassili sighed deeply. For a few minutes all were silent.
Then Malva said:
“The work bell will soon ring.”
“I’m going,” said Vassili, rising.
And all rose.
“Goodbye, Serejka. If you happen to be on the Volga, maybe you’ll drop in to see me.”
“I’ll not fail,” said Serejka.
“Goodbye, dear friend.”
“Goodbye, Malva,” said Vassili, not raising his eyes.
She slowly wiped her lips with her sleeve, threw her two white arms round his neck and kissed him three times on the lips and cheeks.
He was overcome with emotion and uttered some indistinct words. Iakov lowered his head, dissimulating a smile. Serejka was impassible, and he even yawned a little, at the same time gazing at the sky.
“You’ll find it hot walking,” he said.
“No matter. Goodbye, you too, Iakov.”
They stood facing each other, not knowing what to do. The sad word “goodbye” aroused in Iakov a feeling of tenderness for his father, but he did not know how to express it. Should he embrace his father as Malva had done or shake his hand like Serejka? And Vassili felt hurt at this hesitation, which was visible in his son’s attitude.
“Remember your mother,” said Vassili, finally.
“Yes, yes,” replied Iakov, cordially. “Don’t worry. I know.”
“That’s all. Be happy. God protect you. Don’t think badly of me. The kettle, Serejka, is buried in the sand near the bow of the green boat.”
“What does he want with the kettle?” asked Iakov.
“He has taken my place yonder on the headland,” explained Vassili.
Iakov looked enviously at Serejka, then at Malva.
“Farewell, all! I’m going.”
Vassili waved his hand to them and moved away. Malva followed him.
“I’ll accompany you a bit of the road.”
Serejka sat down on the ground and seized the leg of Iakov, who was preparing to accompany Malva.
“Stop! where are you going?”
“Let me alone,” said Iakov, making a forward movement. But Serejka had seized his other leg.
“Sit down by my side.”
“Why? What new folly is this?”
“It is not folly. Sit down.”
Iakov obeyed, grinding his teeth.
“What do you want?”
“Wait. Be silent, and I’ll think, and then I’ll talk.”
He began staring at Iakov, who gave way.
Malva and Vassili walked for a few minutes in silence. Malva’s eyes shone strangely. Vassili was gloomy and preoccupied. Their feet sank in the sand and they advanced slowly.
He turned and looked at her.
“I made you quarrel with Iakov on purpose. You might both have lived here without quarrelling,” she said in a calm tone.
There was not a shade of repentance in her words.
“Why did you do that?” asked Vassili, after a silence.
“I do not know—for nothing.”
She shrugged her shoulders and smiled.
“What you have done was noble!” he said, with irritation.
She was silent.
“You will ruin my boy, ruin him entirely. You do not fear God, you have no shame! What are you going to do?”
“What should I do?” she said.
There was a ring of anguish, or vexation, in her voice.
“What you ought to do!” cried Vassili, seized suddenly with a fierce rage.
He felt a passionate desire to strike her, to knock her down and bury her in the sand, to kick her in the face, in the breast. He clenched his fists and looked back.
Yonder, near the barrels, he saw Iakov and Serejka. Their faces were turned in his direction.
“Get away with you! I could crush you!”
He stopped and hissed insults in her face. His eyes were bloodshot, his beard trembled and his hands seemed to advance involuntarily towards Malva’s hair, which emerged from beneath her shawl.
She fixed her green eyes on him.
“You deserve killing,” he said. “Wait, some one will break your head yet.”
She smiled, still silent. Then she sighed deeply and said:
“That’s enough! now farewell!”
And suddenly turning on her heels she left him and came back.
Vassili shouted after her and shook his fists. Malva, as she walked, took pains to place each foot in the deep impressions of Vassili’s feet, and when she succeeded she carefully effaced the traces. Thus she continued on until she came to the barrels where Serejka greeted her with this question:
“Well, have you seen the last of him?”
She gave an affirmative sign, and sat down beside him. Iakov looked at her and smiled, gently moving his lips as if he were saying things that he alone heard.
“When will you go to the headland?” she asked Serejka, indicating the sea with a movement of her head.
“I will go with you.”
“Bravo, that suits me.”
“And I, too—I’ll go,” cried Iakov.
“Who invited you?” asked Serejka, screwing up his eyes.
The sound of a cracked bell called the men to work.
“She will invite me,” said Iakov.
He looked defiantly at Malva.
“I? what need have I of you?” she replied, surprised.
“Let us he frank, Iakov,” said Serejka. “If you annoy her, I’ll beat you to a jelly. And if you as much as touch her with a finger, I’ll kill you like a fly. I am a simple man.”
His face, all his person, his knotty and muscular arms proved eloquently that killing a man would be a very simple thing for him.
Iakov recoiled a step and said, in a choking voice:
“Wait! That is for Malva to—”
“Keep quiet, that’s all. You are not the dog that will eat the lamb.
If you get the bones you may be thankful.”
Iakov looked at Malva. Her green eyes laughed in a humiliating way at him and she fondled Serejka so that Iakov felt himself grow hot and cold.
Then they went away side by side and both burst out laughing. Iakov dug his foot deep in the sand and remained glued to the spot, his body stretched forward, his face red, his heart beating wildly.
In the distance, on the dead waves of sand, was a small dark human figure moving slowly away; on his right beamed the sun and the powerful sea, and on the left, to the horizon, there was sand, nothing but sand, uniform, deserted,—gloomy. Iakov watched the receding figure of the lonely man and blinked his eyes, filled with tears—tears of humiliation and painful uncertainty.
On the fishing grounds everyone was busy at work. Iakov heard Malva’s sonorous voice ask, angrily:
“Who has taken my knife?”
The waves murmured, the sun shone and the sea laughed.