Semyon Ivanov was a track-walker. His hut was ten versts away from a railroad station in one direction and twelve versts away in the other. About four versts away there was a cotton mill that had opened the year before, and its tall chimney rose up darkly from behind the forest. The only dwellings around were the distant huts of the other track-walkers.
Semyon Ivanov’s health had been completely shattered. Nine years before he had served right through the war as servant to an officer. The sun had roasted him, the cold frozen him, and hunger famished him on the forced marches of forty and fifty versts a day in the heat and the cold and the rain and the shine. The bullets had whizzed about him, but, thank God! none had struck him.
Semyon’s regiment had once been on the firing line. For a whole week there had been skirmishing with the Turks, only a deep ravine separating the two hostile armies; and from morn till eve there had been a steady cross-fire. Thrice daily Semyon carried a steaming samovar and his officer’s meals from the camp kitchen to the ravine. The bullets hummed about him and rattled viciously against the rocks. Semyon was terrified and cried sometimes, but still he kept right on. The officers were pleased with him, because he always had hot tea ready for them.
He returned from the campaign with limbs unbroken but crippled with rheumatism. He had experienced no little sorrow since then. He arrived home to find that his father, an old man, and his little four-year-old son had died. Semyon remained alone with his wife. They could not do much. It was difficult to plough with rheumatic arms and legs. They could no longer stay in their village, so they started off to seek their fortune in new places. They stayed for a short time on the line, in Kherson and Donshchina, but nowhere found luck. Then the wife went out to service, and Semyon continued to travel about. Once he happened to ride on an engine, and at one of the stations the face of the station-master seemed familiar to him. Semyon looked at the station-master and the station-master looked at Semyon, and they recognised each other. He had been an officer in Semyon’s regiment.
“You are Ivanov?” he said.
“Yes, your Excellency.”
“How do you come to be here?”
Semyon told him all.
“Where are you off to?”
“I cannot tell you, sir.”
“Idiot! What do you mean by ‘cannot tell you?’”
“I mean what I say, your Excellency. There is nowhere for me to go to. I must hunt for work, sir.”
The station-master looked at him, thought a bit, and said: “See here, friend, stay here a while at the station. You are married, I think. Where is your wife?”
“Yes, your Excellency, I am married. My wife is at Kursk, in service with a merchant.”
“Well, write to your wife to come here. I will give you a free pass for her. There is a position as track-walker open. I will speak to the Chief on your behalf.”
“I shall be very grateful to you, your Excellency,” replied Semyon.
He stayed at the station, helped in the kitchen, cut firewood, kept the yard clean, and swept the platform. In a fortnight’s time his wife arrived, and Semyon went on a hand-trolley to his hut. The hut was a new one and warm, with as much wood as he wanted. There was a little vegetable garden, the legacy of former track-walkers, and there was about half a dessiatin of ploughed land on either side of the railway embankment. Semyon was rejoiced. He began to think of doing some farming, of purchasing a cow and a horse.
He was given all necessary stores—a green flag, a red flag, lanterns, a horn, hammer, screw-wrench for the nuts, a crow-bar, spade, broom, bolts, and nails; they gave him two books of regulations and a time-table of the train. At first Semyon could not sleep at night, and learnt the whole time-table by heart. Two hours before a train was due he would go over his section, sit on the bench at his hut, and look and listen whether the rails were trembling or the rumble of the train could be heard. He even learned the regulations by heart, although he could only read by spelling out each word.
It was summer; the work was not heavy; there was no snow to clear away, and the trains on that line were infrequent. Semyon used to go over his verst twice a day, examine and screw up nuts here and there, keep the bed level, look at the water-pipes, and then go home to his own affairs. There was only one drawback—he always had to get the inspector’s permission for the least little thing he wanted to do. Semyon and his wife were even beginning to be bored.
Two months passed, and Semyon commenced to make the acquaintance of his neighbours, the track-walkers on either side of him. One was a very old man, whom the authorities were always meaning to relieve. He scarcely moved out of his hut. His wife used to do all his work. The other track-walker, nearer the station, was a young man, thin, but muscular. He and Semyon met for the first time on the line midway between the huts. Semyon took off his hat and bowed. “Good health to you, neighbour,” he said.
The neighbour glanced askance at him. “How do you do?” he replied; then turned around and made off.
Later the wives met. Semyon’s wife passed the time of day with her neighbour, but neither did she say much.
On one occasion Semyon said to her: “Young woman, your husband is not very talkative.”
The woman said nothing at first, then replied: “But what is there for him to talk about? Every one has his own business. Go your way, and God be with you.”
However, after another month or so they became acquainted. Semyon would go with Vasily along the line, sit on the edge of a pipe, smoke, and talk of life. Vasily, for the most part, kept silent, but Semyon talked of his village, and of the campaign through which he had passed.
“I have had no little sorrow in my day,” he would say; “and goodness knows I have not lived long. God has not given me happiness, but what He may give, so will it be. That’s so, friend Vasily Stepanych.”
Vasily Stepanych knocked the ashes out of his pipe against a rail, stood up, and said: “It is not luck which follows us in life, but human beings. There is no crueller beast on this earth than man. Wolf does not eat wolf, but man will readily devour man.”
“Come, friend, don’t say that; a wolf eats wolf.”
“The words came into my mind and I said it. All the same, there is nothing crueller than man. If it were not for his wickedness and greed, it would be possible to live. Everybody tries to sting you to the quick, to bite and eat you up.”
Semyon pondered a bit. “I don’t know, brother,” he said; “perhaps it is as you say, and perhaps it is God’s will.”
“And perhaps,” said Vasily, “it is waste of time for me to talk to you. To put everything unpleasant on God, and sit and suffer, means, brother, being not a man but an animal. That’s what I have to say.” And he turned and went off without saying good-bye.
Semyon also got up. “Neighbour,” he called, “why do you lose your temper?” But his neighbour did not look round, and kept on his way.
Semyon gazed after him until he was lost to sight in the cutting at the turn. He went home and said to his wife: “Arina, our neighbour is a wicked person, not a man.”
However, they did not quarrel. They met again and discussed the same topics.
“All, mend, if it were not for men we should not be poking in these huts,” said Vasily, on one occasion.
“And what if we are poking in these huts? It’s not so bad. You can live in them.”
“Live in them, indeed! Bah, you!… You have lived long and learned little, looked at much and seen little. What sort of life is there for a poor man in a hut here or there? The cannibals are devouring you. They are sucking up all your life-blood, and when you become old, they will throw you out just as they do husks to feed the pigs on. What pay do you get?”
“Not much, Vasily Stepanych—twelve rubles.”
“And I, thirteen and a half rubles. Why? By the regulations the company should give us fifteen rubles a month with firing and lighting. Who decides that you should have twelve rubles, or I thirteen and a half? Ask yourself! And you say a man can live on that? You understand it is not a question of one and a half rubles or three rubles—even if they paid us each the whole fifteen rubles. I was at the station last month. The director passed through. I saw him. I had that honour. He had a separate coach. He came out and stood on the platform… I shall not stay here long; I shall go somewhere, anywhere, follow my nose.”
“But where will you go, Stepanych? Leave well enough alone. Here you have a house, warmth, a little piece of land. Your wife is a worker.”
“Land! You should look at my piece of land. Not a twig on it—nothing. I planted some cabbages in the spring, just when the inspector came along. He said: ‘What is this? Why have you not reported this? Why have you done this without permission? Dig them up, roots and all.’ He was drunk. Another time he would not have said a word, but this time it struck him. Three rubles fine!…”
Vasily kept silent for a while, pulling at his pipe, then added quietly: “A little more and I should have done for him.”
“You are hot-tempered.”
“No, I am not hot-tempered, but I tell the truth and think. Yes, he will still get a bloody nose from me. I will complain to the Chief. We will see then!” And Vasily did complain to the Chief.
Once the Chief came to inspect the line. Three days later important personages were coming from St. Petersburg and would pass over the line. They were conducting an inquiry, so that previous to their journey it was necessary to put everything in order. Ballast was laid down, the bed was levelled, the sleepers carefully examined, spikes driven in a bit, nuts screwed up, posts painted, and orders given for yellow sand to be sprinkled at the level crossings. The woman at the neighbouring hut turned her old man out to weed. Semyon worked for a whole week. He put everything in order, mended his kaftan, cleaned and polished his brass plate until it fairly shone. Vasily also worked hard. The Chief arrived on a trolley, four men working the handles and the levers making the six wheels hum. The trolley travelled at twenty versts an hour, but the wheels squeaked. It reached Semyon’s hut, and he ran out and reported in soldierly fashion. All appeared to be in repair.
“Have you been here long?” inquired the Chief.
“Since the second of May, your Excellency.”
“All right. Thank you. And who is at hut No. 164?”
The traffic inspector (he was travelling with the Chief on the trolley) replied: “Vasily Spiridov.”
“Spiridov, Spiridov… Ah! is he the man against whom you made a note last year?”
“Well, we will see Vasily Spiridov. Go on!” The workmen laid to the handles, and the trolley got under way. Semyon watched it, and thought, “There will be trouble between them and my neighbour.”
About two hours later he started on his round. He saw some one coming along the line from the cutting. Something white showed on his head. Semyon began to look more attentively. It was Vasily. He had a stick in his hand, a small bundle on his shoulder, and his cheek was bound up in a handkerchief.
“Where are you off to?” cried Semyon.
Vasily came quite close. He was very pale, white as chalk, and his eyes had a wild look. Almost choking, he muttered: “To town—to Moscow—to the head office.”
“Head office? Ah, you are going to complain, I suppose. Give it up! Vasily Stepanych, forget it.”
“No, mate, I will not forget. It is too late. See! He struck me in the face, drew blood. So long as I live I will not forget. I will not leave it like this!”
Semyon took his hand. “Give it up, Stepanych. I am giving you good advice. You will not better things…”
“Better things! I know myself I shan’t better things. You were right about Fate. It would be better for me not to do it, but one must stand up for the right.”
“But tell me, how did it happen?”
“How? He examined everything, got down from the trolley, looked into the hut. I knew beforehand that he would be strict, and so I had put everything into proper order. He was just going when I made my complaint. He immediately cried out: ‘Here is a Government inquiry coming, and you make a complaint about a vegetable garden. Here are privy councillors coming, and you annoy me with cabbages!’ I lost patience and said something—not very much, but it offended him, and he struck me in the face. I stood still; I did nothing, just as if what he did was perfectly all right. They went off; I came to myself, washed my face, and left.”
“And what about the hut?”
“My wife is staying there. She will look after things. Never mind about their roads.”
Vasily got up and collected himself. “Good-bye, Ivanov. I do not know whether I shall get any one at the office to listen to me.”
“Surely you are not going to walk?”
“At the station I will try to get on a freight train, and to-morrow I shall be in Moscow.”
The neighbours bade each other farewell. Vasily was absent for some time. His wife worked for him night and day. She never slept, and wore herself out waiting for her husband. On the third day the commission arrived. An engine, luggage-van, and two first-class saloons; but Vasily was still away. Semyon saw his wife on the fourth day. Her face was swollen from crying and her eyes were red.
“Has your husband returned?” he asked. But the woman only made a gesture with her hands, and without saying a word went her way.
Semyon had learnt when still a lad to make flutes out of a kind of reed. He used to burn out the heart of the stalk, make holes where necessary, drill them, fix a mouthpiece at one end, and tune them so well that it was possible to play almost any air on them. He made a number of them in his spare time, and sent them by his friends amongst the freight brakemen to the bazaar in the town. He got two kopeks apiece for them. On the day following the visit of the commission he left his wife at home to meet the six o’clock train, and started off to the forest to cut some sticks. He went to the end of his section—at this point the line made a sharp turn—descended the embankment, and struck into the wood at the foot of the mountain. About half a verst away there was a big marsh, around which splendid reeds for his flutes grew. He cut a whole bundle of stalks and started back home. The sun was already dropping low, and in the dead stillness only the twittering of the birds was audible, and the crackle of the dead wood under his feet. As he walked along rapidly, he fancied he heard the clang of iron striking iron, and he redoubled his pace. There was no repair going on in his section. What did it mean? He emerged from the woods, the railway embankment stood high before him; on the top a man was squatting on the bed of the line busily engaged in something. Semyon commenced quietly to crawl up towards him. He thought it was some one after the nuts which secure the rails. He watched, and the man got up, holding a crow-bar in his hand. He had loosened a rail, so that it would move to one side. A mist swam before Semyon’s eyes; he wanted to cry out, but could not. It was Vasily! Semyon scrambled up the bank, as Vasily with crow-bar and wrench slid headlong down the other side.
“Vasily Stepanych! My dear friend, come back! Give me the crow-bar. We will put the rail back; no one will know. Come back! Save your soul from sin!”
Vasily did not look back, but disappeared into the woods.
Semyon stood before the rail which had been torn up. He threw down his bundle of sticks. A train was due; not a freight, but a passenger-train. And he had nothing with which to stop it, no flag. He could not replace the rail and could not drive in the spikes with his bare hands. It was necessary to run, absolutely necessary to run to the hut for some tools. “God help me!” he murmured.
Semyon started running towards his hut. He was out of breath, but still ran, falling every now and then. He had cleared the forest; he was only a few hundred feet from his hut, not more, when he heard the distant hooter of the factory sound—six o’clock! In two minutes’ time No. 7 train was due. “Oh, Lord! Have pity on innocent souls!” In his mind Semyon saw the engine strike against the loosened rail with its left wheel, shiver, careen, tear up and splinter the sleepers—and just there, there was a curve and the embankment seventy feet high, down which the engine would topple—and the third-class carriages would be packed … little children… All sitting in the train now, never dreaming of danger. “Oh, Lord! Tell me what to do!… No, it is impossible to run to the hut and get back in time.”
Semyon did not run on to the hut, but turned back and ran faster than before. He was running almost mechanically, blindly; he did not know himself what was to happen. He ran as far as the rail which had been pulled up; his sticks were lying in a heap. He bent down, seized one without knowing why, and ran on farther. It seemed to him the train was already coming. He heard the distant whistle; he heard the quiet, even tremor of the rails; but his strength was exhausted, he could run no farther, and came to a halt about six hundred feet from the awful spot. Then an idea came into his head, literally like a ray of light. Pulling off his cap, he took out of it a cotton scarf, drew his knife out of the upper part of his boot, and crossed himself, muttering, “God bless me!”
He buried the knife in his left arm above the elbow; the blood spurted out, flowing in a hot stream. In this he soaked his scarf, smoothed it out, tied it to the stick and hung out his red flag.
He stood waving his flag. The train was already in sight. The driver would not see him—would come close up, and a heavy train cannot be pulled up in six hundred feet.
And the blood kept on flowing. Semyon pressed the sides of the wound together so as to close it, but the blood did not diminish. Evidently he had cut his arm very deep. His head commenced to swim, black spots began to dance before his eyes, and then it became dark. There was a ringing in his ears. He could not see the train or hear the noise. Only one thought possessed him. “I shall not be able to keep standing up. I shall fall and drop the flag; the train will pass over me. Help me, oh Lord!”
All turned black before him, his mind became a blank, and he dropped the flag; but the blood-stained banner did not fall to the ground. A hand seized it and held it high to meet the approaching train. The engineer saw it, shut the regulator, and reversed steam. The train came to a standstill.
People jumped out of the carriages and collected in a crowd. They saw a man lying senseless on the footway, drenched in blood, and another man standing beside him with a blood-stained rag on a stick.
Vasily looked around at all. Then, lowering his head, he said: “Bind me. I tore up a rail!”