- In Exile
OLD SEMYON, nicknamed Canny, and a young
Tatar, whom no one knew by name, were sitting on the river-bank
by the camp-fire; the other three ferrymen were in the hut.
Semyon, an old man of sixty, lean and toothless, but broad
shouldered and still healthy-looking, was drunk; he would have
gone in to sleep long before, but he had a bottle in his pocket
and he was afraid that the fellows in the hut would ask him for
vodka. The Tatar was ill and weary, and wrapping himself up in
his rags was describing how nice it was in the Simbirsk
province, and what a beautiful and clever wife he had left
behind at home. He was not more than twenty five, and now by the
light of the camp-fire, with his pale and sick, mournful face,
he looked like a boy.
"To be sure, it is not paradise here," said Canny. "You can see
for yourself, the water, the bare banks, clay, and nothing else.
. . . Easter has long passed and yet there is ice on the river,
and this morning there was snow. . ."
"It's bad! it's bad!" said the Tatar, and looked round him in
The dark, cold river was flowing ten paces away; it grumbled,
lapped against the hollow clay banks and raced on swiftly
towards the far-away sea. Close to the bank there was the dark
blur of a big barge, which the ferrymen called a "karbos." Far
away on the further bank, lights, dying down and flickering up
again, zigzagged like little snakes; they were burning last
year's grass. And beyond the little snakes there was darkness
again. There little icicles could be heard knocking against the
barge It was damp and cold. . . .
The Tatar glanced at the sky. There were as many stars as at
home, and the same blackness all round, but something was
lacking. At home in the Simbirsk province the stars were quite
different, and so was the sky.
"It's bad! it's bad!" he repeated.
"You will get used to it," said Semyon, and he laughed. "Now you
are young and foolish, the milk is hardly dry on your lips, and
it seems to you in your foolishness that you are more wretched
than anyone; but the time will come when you will say to
yourself: 'I wish no one a better life than mine.' You look at
me. Within a week the floods will be over and we shall set up
the ferry; you will all go wandering off about Siberia while I
shall stay and shall begin going from bank to bank. I've been
going like that for twenty-two years, day and night. The pike
and the salmon are under the water while I am on the water. And
thank God for it, I want nothing; God give everyone such a
The Tatar threw some dry twigs on the camp-fire, lay down closer
to the blaze, and said:
"My father is a sick man. When he dies my mother and wife will
come here. They have promised."
"And what do you want your wife and mother for?" asked Canny.
"That's mere foolishness, my lad. It's the devil confounding
you, damn his soul! Don't you listen to him, the cursed one.
Don't let him have his way. He is at you about the women, but
you spite him; say, 'I don't want them!' He is on at you about
freedom, but you stand up to him and say: 'I don't want it!' I
want nothing, neither father nor mother, nor wife, nor freedom,
nor post, nor paddock; I want nothing, damn their souls!"
Semyon took a pull at the bottle and went on:
"I am not a simple peasant, not of the working class, but the
son of a deacon, and when I was free I lived at Kursk; I used to
wear a frockcoat, and now I have brought myself to such a pass
that I can sleep naked on the ground and eat grass. And I wish
no one a better life. I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody,
and the way I look at it is that there is nobody richer and
freer than I am. When they sent me here from Russia from the
first day I stuck it out; I want nothing! The devil was at me
about my wife and about my home and about freedom, but I told
him: 'I want nothing.' I stuck to it, and here you see I live
well, and I don't complain, and if anyone gives way to the devil
and listens to him, if but once, he is lost, there is no
salvation for him: he is sunk in the bog to the crown of his
head and will never get out.
"It is not only a foolish peasant like you, but even gentlemen,
well-educated people, are lost. Fifteen years ago they sent a
gentleman here from Russia. He hadn't shared something with his
brothers and had forged something in a will. They did say he was
a prince or a baron, but maybe he was simply an official -- who
knows? Well, the gentleman arrived here, and first thing he
bought himself a house and land in Muhortinskoe. 'I want to live
by my own work,' says he, 'in the sweat of my brow, for I am not
a gentleman now,' says he, 'but a settler.' 'Well,' says I, 'God
help you, that's the right thing.' He was a young man then, busy
and careful; he used to mow himself and catch fish and ride
sixty miles on horseback. Only this is what happened: from the
very first year he took to riding to Gyrino for the post; he
used to stand on my ferry and sigh: 'Ech, Semyon, how long it is
since they sent me any money from home!' 'You don't want money,
Vassily Sergeyitch,' says I. 'What use is it to you? You cast
away the past, and forget it as though it had never been at all,
as though it had been a dream, and begin to live anew. Don't
listen to the devil,' says I; 'he will bring you to no good,
he'll draw you into a snare. Now you want money,' says I, 'but
in a very little while you'll be wanting something else, and
then more and more. If you want to be happy,' says I, the chief
thing is not to want anything. Yes. . . . If,' says I, 'if Fate
has wronged you and me cruelly it's no good asking for her favor
and bowing down to her, but you despise her and laugh at her, or
else she will laugh at you.' That's what I said to him. . . .
"Two years later I ferried him across to this side, and he was
rubbing his hands and laughing. 'I am going to Gyrino to meet my
wife,' says he. 'She was sorry for me,' says he; 'she has come.
She is good and kind.' And he was breathless with joy. So a day
later he came with his wife. A beautiful young lady in a hat; in
her arms was a baby girl. And lots of luggage of all sorts. And
my Vassily Sergeyitch was fussing round her; he couldn't take
his eyes off her and couldn't say enough in praise of her. 'Yes,
brother Semyon, even in Siberia people can live!' 'Oh, all
right,' thinks I, 'it will be a different tale presently.' And
from that time forward he went almost every week to inquire
whether money had not come from Russia. He wanted a lot of
money. 'She is losing her youth and beauty here in Siberia for
my sake,' says he, 'and sharing my bitter lot with me, and so I
ought,' says he, 'to provide her with every comfort. . . .'
"To make it livelier for the lady he made acquaintance with the
officials and all sorts of riff-raff. And of course he had to
give food and drink to all that crew, and there had to be a
piano and a shaggy lapdog on the sofa -- plague take it! . . .
Luxury, in fact, self-indulgence. The lady did not stay with him
long. How could she? The clay, the water, the cold, no
vegetables for you, no fruit. All around you ignorant and
drunken people and no sort of manners, and she was a spoilt lady
from Petersburg or Moscow. . . . To be sure she moped. Besides,
her husband, say what you like, was not a gentleman now, but a
settler -- not the same rank.
"Three years later, I remember, on the eve of the Assumption,
there was shouting from the further bank. I went over with the
ferry, and what do I see but the lady, all wrapped up, and with
her a young gentleman, an official. A sledge with three horses.
. . . I ferried them across here, they got in and away like the
wind. They were soon lost to sight. And towards morning Vassily
Sergeyitch galloped down to the ferry. 'Didn't my wife come this
way with a gentleman in spectacles, Semyon?' 'She did,' said I;
'you may look for the wind in the fields!' He galloped in
pursuit of them. For five days and nights he was riding after
them. When I ferried him over to the other side afterwards, he
flung himself on the ferry and beat his head on the boards of
the ferry and howled. 'So that's how it is,' says I. I laughed,
and reminded him 'people can live even in Siberia!' And he beat
his head harder than ever. . . .
"Then he began longing for freedom. His wife had slipped off to
Russia, and of course he was drawn there to see her and to get
her away from her lover. And he took, my lad, to galloping
almost every day, either to the post or the town to see the
commanding officer; he kept sending in petitions for them to
have mercy on him and let him go back home; and he used to say
that he had spent some two hundred roubles on telegrams alone.
He sold his land and mortgaged his house to the Jews. He grew
gray and bent, and yellow in the face, as though he was in
consumption. If he talked to you he would go, khee--khee--khee,.
. . and there were tears in his eyes. He kept rushing about like
this with petitions for eight years, but now he has grown
brighter and more cheerful again: he has found another whim to
give way to. You see, his daughter has grown up. He looks at
her, and she is the apple of his eye. And to tell the truth she
is all right, good-looking, with black eyebrows and a lively
disposition. Every Sunday he used to ride with her to church in
Gyrino. They used to stand on the ferry, side by side, she would
laugh and he could not take his eyes off her. 'Yes, Semyon,'
says he, 'people can live even in Siberia. Even in Siberia there
is happiness. Look,' says he, 'what a daughter I have got! I
warrant you wouldn't find another like her for a thousand versts
round.' 'Your daughter is all right,' says I, 'that's true,
certainly.' But to myself I thought: 'Wait a bit, the wench is
young, her blood is dancing, she wants to live, and there is no
life here.' And she did begin to pine, my lad. . . . She faded
and faded, and now she can hardly crawl about. Consumption.
"So you see what Siberian happiness is, damn its soul! You see
how people can live in Siberia. . . . He has taken to going from
one doctor to another and taking them home with him. As soon as
he hears that two or three hundred miles away there is a doctor
or a sorcerer, he will drive to fetch him. A terrible lot of
money he spent on doctors, and to my thinking he had better have
spent the money on drink. . . . She'll die just the same. She is
certain to die, and then it will be all over with him. He'll
hang himself from grief or run away to Russia -- that's a sure
thing. He'll run away and they'll catch him, then he will be
tried, sent to prison, he will have a taste of the lash. . . ."
"Good! good!" said the Tatar, shivering with cold.
"What is good?" asked Canny.
"His wife, his daughter. . . . What of prison and what of
sorrow! -- anyway, he did see his wife and his daughter. . . .
You say, want nothing. But 'nothing' is bad! His wife lived with
him three years -- that was a gift from God. 'Nothing' is bad,
but three years is good. How not understand?"
Shivering and hesitating, with effort picking out the Russian
words of which he knew but few, the Tatar said that God forbid
one should fall sick and die in a strange land, and be buried in
the cold and dark earth; that if his wife came to him for one
day, even for one hour, that for such happiness he would be
ready to bear any suffering and to thank God. Better one day of
happiness than nothing.
Then he described again what a beautiful and clever wife he had
left at home. Then, clutching his head in both hands, he began
crying and assuring Semyon that he was not guilty, and was
suffering for nothing. His two brothers and an uncle had carried
off a peasant's horses, and had beaten the old man till he was
half dead, and the commune had not judged fairly, but had
contrived a sentence by which all the three brothers were sent
to Siberia, while the uncle, a rich man, was left at home.
"You will get used to it!" said Semyon.
The Tatar was silent, and stared with tear-stained eyes at the
fire; his face expressed bewilderment and fear, as though he
still did not understand why he was here in the darkness and the
wet, beside strangers, and not in the Simbirsk province.
Canny lay near the fire, chuckled at something, and began
humming a song in an undertone.
"What joy has she with her father?" he said a little later. "He
loves her and he rejoices in her, that's true; but, mate, you
must mind your p's and q's with him, he is a strict old man, a
harsh old man. And young wenches don't want strictness. They
want petting and ha-ha-ha! and ho-ho-ho! and scent and pomade.
Yes. . . . Ech! life, life," sighed Semyon, and he got up
heavily. "The vodka is all gone, so it is time to sleep. Eh? I
am going, my lad. . . ."
Left alone, the Tatar put on more twigs, lay down and stared at
the fire; he began thinking of his own village and of his wife.
If his wife could only come for a month, for a day; and then if
she liked she might go back again. Better a month or even a day
than nothing. But if his wife kept her promise and came, what
would he have to feed her on? Where could she live here?
"If there were not something to eat, how could she live?" the
Tatar asked aloud.
He was paid only ten kopecks for working all day and all night
at the oar; it is true that travelers gave him tips for tea and
for vodkas but the men shared all they received among
themselves, and gave nothing to the Tatar, but only laughed at
him. And from poverty he was hungry, cold, and frightened. . . .
Now, when his whole body was aching and shivering, he ought to
go into the hut and lie down to sleep; but he had nothing to
cover him there, and it was colder than on the river-bank; here
he had nothing to cover him either, but at least he could make
up the fire. . . .
In another week, when the floods were quite over and they set
the ferry going, none of the ferrymen but Semyon would be
wanted, and the Tatar would begin going from village to village
begging for alms and for work. His wife was only seventeen; she
was beautiful, spoilt, and shy; could she possibly go from
village to village begging alms with her face unveiled? No, it
was terrible even to think of that. . . .
It was already getting light; the barge, the bushes of willow on
the water, and the waves could be clearly discerned, and if one
looked round there was the steep clay slope; at the bottom of it
the hut thatched with dingy brown straw, and the huts of the
village lay clustered higher up. The cocks were already crowing
in the village.
The rusty red clay slope, the barge, the river, the strange,
unkind people, hunger, cold, illness, perhaps all that was not
real. Most likely it was all a dream, thought the Tatar. He felt
that he was asleep and heard his own snoring. . . . Of course he
was at home in the Simbirsk province, and he had only to call
his wife by name for her to answer; and in the next room was his
mother. . . . What terrible dreams there are, though! What are
they for? The Tatar smiled and opened his eyes. What river was
this, the Volga?
Snow was falling.
"Boat!" was shouted on the further side. "Boat!"
The Tatar woke up, and went to wake his mates and row over to
the other side. The ferrymen came on to the river-bank, putting
on their torn sheepskins as they walked, swearing with voices
husky from sleepiness and shivering from the cold. On waking
from their sleep, the river, from which came a breath of
piercing cold, seemed to strike them as revolting and horrible.
They jumped into the barge without hurrying themselves. . . .
The Tatar and the three ferrymen took the long, broad-bladed
oars, which in the darkness looked like the claws of crabs;
Semyon leaned his stomach against the tiller. The shout on the
other side still continued, and two shots were fired from a
revolver, probably with the idea that the ferrymen were asleep
or had gone to the pot-house in the village.
"All right, you have plenty of time," said Semyon in the tone of
a man convinced that there was no necessity in this world to
hurry -- that it would lead to nothing, anyway.
The heavy, clumsy barge moved away from the bank and floated
between the willow-bushes, and only the willows slowly moving
back showed that the barge was not standing still but moving.
The ferrymen swung the oars evenly in time; Semyon lay with his
stomach on the tiller and, describing a semicircle in the air,
flew from one side to the other. In the darkness it looked as
though the men were sitting on some antediluvian animal with
long paws, and were moving on it through a cold, desolate land,
the land of which one sometimes dreams in nightmares.
They passed beyond the willows and floated out into the open.
The creak and regular splash of the oars was heard on the
further shore, and a shout came: "Make haste! make haste!"
Another ten minutes passed, and the barge banged heavily against
"And it keeps sprinkling and sprinkling," muttered Semyon,
wiping the snow from his face; "and where it all comes from God
On the bank stood a thin man of medium height in a jacket lined
with fox fur and in a white lambskin cap. He was standing at a
little distance from his horses and not moving; he had a gloomy,
concentrated expression, as though he were trying to remember
something and angry with his untrustworthy memory. When Semyon
went up to him and took off his cap, smiling, he said:
"I am hastening to Anastasyevka. My daughter's worse again, and
they say that there is a new doctor at Anastasyevka."
They dragged the carriage on to the barge and floated back. The
man whom Semyon addressed as Vassily Sergeyitch stood all the
time motionless, tightly compressing his thick lips and staring
off into space; when his coachman asked permission to smoke in
his presence he made no answer, as though he had not heard.
Semyon, lying with his stomach on the tiller, looked mockingly
at him and said:
"Even in Siberia people can live -- can li-ive!"
There was a triumphant expression on Canny's face, as though he
had proved something and was delighted that things had happened
as he had foretold. The unhappy helplessness of the man in the
foxskin coat evidently afforded him great pleasure.
"It's muddy driving now, Vassily Sergeyitch," he said when the
horses were harnessed again on the bank. "You should have put
off going for another fortnight, when it will be drier. Or else
not have gone at all. . . . If any good would come of your going
-- but as you know yourself, people have been driving about for
years and years, day and night, and it's alway's been no use.
That's the truth."
Vassily Sergeyitch tipped him without a word, got into his
carriage and drove off.
"There, he has galloped off for a doctor!" said Semyon,
shrinking from the cold. "But looking for a good doctor is like
chasing the wind in the fields or catching the devil by the
tail, plague take your soul! What a queer chap, Lord forgive me
The Tatar went up to Canny, and, looking at him with hatred and
repulsion, shivering, and mixing Tatar words with his broken
Russian, said: "He is good . . . good; but you are bad! You are
bad! The gentleman is a good soul, excellent, and you are a
beast, bad! The gentleman is alive, but you are a dead carcass.
. . . God created man to be alive, and to have joy and grief and
sorrow; but you want nothing, so you are not alive, you are
stone, clay! A stone wants nothing and you want nothing. You are
a stone, and God does not love you, but He loves the gentleman!"
Everyone laughed; the Tatar frowned contemptuously, and with a
wave of his hand wrapped himself in his rags and went to the
campfire. The ferrymen and Semyon sauntered to the hut.
"It's cold," said one ferryman huskily as he stretched himself
on the straw with which the damp clay floor was covered.
"Yes, its not warm," another assented. "It's a dog's life. . .
They all lay down. The door was thrown open by the wind and the
snow drifted into the hut; nobody felt inclined to get up and
shut the door: they were cold, and it was too much trouble.
"I am all right," said Semyon as he began to doze. "I wouldn't
wish anyone a better life."
"You are a tough one, we all know. Even the devils won't take
Sounds like a dog's howling came from outside.
"What's that? Who's there?"
"It's the Tatar crying."
"I say. . . . He's a queer one!"
"He'll get u-used to it!" said Semyon, and at once fell asleep.
The others were soon asleep too. The door remained unclosed.
Tatar: an ethnic group of Turkic-speaking, traditionally Moslem
karbos: a large rowed ferry boat with 4 to 10 oars
commune had not judged fairly: a village commune, mir, had the
right to exile any lawbreakers to Siberia