Maxim Gorky – The Man Who Was Afraid

ABOUT sixty years ago, when fortunes of millions had been made on the Volga with fairy-tale rapidity, Ignat Gordyeeff, a young fellow, was working as water-pumper on one of the barges of the wealthy merchant Zayev. Built like a giant, handsome and not at all stupid, he was one of those people whom luck always follows everywhere—not because they are gifted and industrious, but rather because, having an enormous stock of energy at their command, they cannot stop to think over the choice of means when on their way toward their aims, and, excepting their own will, they know no law. Sometimes they speak of their conscience with fear, sometimes they really torture themselves struggling with it, but conscience is an unconquerable power to the faint-hearted only; the strong master it quickly and make it a slave to their desires, for they unconsciously feel that, given room and freedom, conscience would fracture life. They sacrifice days to it; and if it should happen that conscience conquered their souls, they are never wrecked, even in defeat—they are just as healthy and strong under its sway as when they lived without conscience. At the age of forty Ignat Gordyeeff was himself the owner of three steamers and ten barges. On the Volga he was respected as a rich and clever man, but was nicknamed “Frantic,” because his life did not flow along a straight channel, like that of other people of his kind, but now and again, boiling up turbulently, ran out of its rut, away from gain—the prime aim of his existence. It looked as though there were three Gordyeeffs in him, or as though there were three souls in Ignat’s body. One of them, the mightiest, was only greedy, and when Ignat lived according to its commands, he was merely a man seized with untamable passion for work. This passion burned in him by day and by night, he was completely absorbed by it, and, grabbing everywhere hundreds and thousands of roubles, it seemed as if he could never have enough of the jingle and sound of money. He worked about up and down the Volga, building and fastening nets in which he caught gold: he bought up grain in the villages, floated it to Rybinsk on his barges; he plundered, cheated, sometimes not noticing it, sometimes noticing, and, triumphant, be openly laughed at by his victims; and in the senselessness of his thirst for money, he rose to the heights of poetry. But, giving up so much strength to this hunt after the rouble, he was not greedy in the narrow sense, and sometimes he even betrayed an inconceivable but sincere indifference to his property. Once, when the ice was drifting down the Volga, he stood on the shore, and, seeing that the ice was breaking his new barge, having crushed it against the bluff shore, he ejaculated: “That’s it. Again. Crush it! Now, once more! Try!” “Well, Ignat,” asked his friend Mayakin, coming up to him, “the ice is crushing about ten thousand out of your purse, eh?” “That’s nothing! I’ll make another hundred. But look how the Volga is working! Eh? Fine? She can split the whole world, like curd, with a knife.


Look, look! There you have my ‘Boyarinya!’ She floated but once. Well, we’ll have mass said for the dead.” The barge was crushed into splinters. Ignat and the godfather, sitting in the tavern on the shore, drank vodka and looked out of the window, watching the fragments of the “Boyarinya” drifting down the river together with the ice. “Are you sorry for the vessel, Ignat?” asked Mayakin. “Why should I be sorry for it? The Volga gave it to me, and the Volga has taken it back. It did not tear off my hand.” “Nevertheless.” “What—nevertheless? It is good at least that I saw how it was all done. It’s a lesson for the future. But when my ‘Volgar’ was burned—I was really sorry—I didn’t see it. How beautiful it must have looked when such a woodpile was blazing on the water in the dark night! Eh? It was an enormous steamer.” “Weren’t you sorry for that either?” “For the steamer? It is true, I did feel sorry for the steamer. But then it is mere foolishness to feel sorry! What’s the use? I might have cried; tears cannot extinguish fire. Let the steamers burn.

And even though everything be burned down, I’d spit upon it! If the soul is but burning to work, everything will be erected anew. Isn’t it so?” “Yes,” said Mayakin, smiling. “These are strong words you say. And whoever speaks that way, even though he loses all, will nevertheless be rich.” Regarding losses of thousands of roubles so philosophically, Ignat knew the value of every kopeika; he gave to the poor very seldom, and only to those that were altogether unable to work. When a more or less healthy man asked him for alms, Ignat would say, sternly: “Get away! You can work yet. Go to my dvornik and help him to remove the dung. I’ll pay you for it.” Whenever he had been carried away by his work he regarded people morosely and piteously, nor did he give himself rest while hunting for roubles. And suddenly—it usually happened in spring, when everything on earth became so bewitchingly beautiful and something reproachfully wild was breathed down into the soul from the clear sky—Ignat Gordyeeff would feel that he was not the master of his business, but its low slave. He would lose himself in thought and, inquisitively looking about himself from under his thick, knitted eyebrows, walk about for days, angry and morose, as though silently asking something, which he feared to ask aloud. They awakened his other soul, the turbulent and lustful soul of a hungry beast. Insolent and cynical, he drank, led a depraved life, and made drunkards of other people. He went into ecstasy, and something like a volcano of filth boiled within him. It looked as though he was madly tearing the chains which he himself had forged and carried, and was not strong enough to tear them.

Excited and very dirty, his face swollen from drunkenness and sleeplessness, his eyes wandering madly, and roaring in a hoarse voice, he tramped about the town from one tavern to another, threw away money without counting it, cried and danced to the sad tunes of the folk songs, or fought, but found no rest anywhere—in anything. It happened one day that a degraded priest, a short, stout little bald-headed man in a torn cassock, chanced on Ignat, and stuck to him, just as a piece of mud will stick to a shoe. An impersonal, deformed and nasty creature, he played the part of a buffoon: they smeared his bald head with mustard, made him go upon all-fours, drink mixtures of different brandies and dance comical dances; he did all this in silence, an idiotic smile on his wrinkled face, and having done what he was told to do, he invariably said, outstretching his hand with his palm upward: “Give me a rouble.” They laughed at him and sometimes gave him twenty kopeiks, sometimes gave him nothing, but it sometimes happened that they threw him a ten-rouble bill and even more. “You abominable fellow,” cried Ignat to him one day. “Say, who are you?” The priest was frightened by the call, and bowing low to Ignat, was silent. “Who? Speak!” roared Ignat. “I am a man—to be abused,” answered the priest, and the company burst out laughing at his words. “Are you a rascal?” asked Ignat, sternly. “A rascal? Because of need and the weakness of my soul?” “Come here!” Ignat called him. “Come and sit down by my side.” Trembling with fear, the priest walked up to the intoxicated merchant with timid steps and remained standing opposite him. “Sit down beside me!” said Ignat, taking the frightened priest by the hand and seating him next to himself. “You are a very near man to me. I am also a rascal! You, because of need; I, because of wantonness.

I am a rascal because of grief! Understand?” “I understand,” said the priest, softly. All the company were giggling. “Do you know now what I am?” “I do.” “Well, say, ‘You are a rascal, Ignat!'” The priest could not do it. He looked with terror at the huge figure of Ignat and shook his head negatively. The company’s laughter was now like the rattling of thunder. Ignat could not make the priest abuse him. Then he asked him: “Shall I give you money?” “Yes,” quickly answered the priest. “And what do you need it for?” He did not care to answer. Then Ignat seized him by the collar, and shook out of his dirty lips the following speech, which he spoke almost in a whisper, trembling with fear: “I have a daughter sixteen years old in the seminary. I save for her, because when she comes out there won’t be anything with which to cover her nakedness.” “Ah,” said Ignat, and let go the priest’s collar. Then he sat for a long time gloomy and lost in thought, and now and again stared at the priest. Suddenly his eyes began to laugh, and he said: “Aren’t you a liar, drunkard?” The priest silently made the sign of the cross and lowered his head on his breast. “It is the truth!” said one of the company, confirming the priest’s words.

“True? Very well!” shouted Ignat, and, striking the table with his fist, he addressed himself to the priest: “Eh, you! Sell me your daughter! How much will you take?” The priest shook his head and shrank back. “One thousand!” The company giggled, seeing that the priest was shrinking as though cold water was being poured on him. “Two!” roared Ignat, with flashing eyes. “What’s the matter with you? How is it?” muttered the priest, stretching out both hands to Ignat. “Three!” “Ignat Matveyich!” cried the priest, in a thin, ringing voice. “For God’s sake! For Christ’s sake! Enough! I’ll sell her! For her own sake I’ll sell her!” In his sickly, sharp voice was heard a threat to someone, and his eyes, unnoticed by anybody before, flashed like coals. But the intoxicated crowd only laughed at him foolishly. “Silence!” cried Ignat, sternly, straightening himself to his full length and flashing his eyes. “Don’t you understand, devils, what’s going on here? It’s enough to make one cry, while you giggle.” He walked up to the priest, went down on his knees before him, and said to him firmly: “Father now you see what a rascal I am. Well, spit into my face!” Something ugly and ridiculous took place. The priest too, knelt before Ignat, and like a huge turtle, crept around near his feet, kissed his knees and muttered something, sobbing. Ignat bent over him, lifted him from the floor and cried to him, commanding and begging: “Spit! Spit right into my shameless eyes!” The company, stupefied for a moment by Ignat’s stern voice, laughed again so that the panes rattled in the tavern windows. “I’ll give you a hundred roubles. Spit!” And the priest crept over the floor and sobbed for fear, or for happiness, to hear that this man was begging him to do something degrading to himself.

Finally Ignat arose from the floor, kicked the priest, and, flinging at him a package of money, said morosely, with a smile: “Rabble! Can a man repent before such people? Some are afraid to hear of repentance, others laugh at a sinner. I was about to unburden myself completely; the heart trembled. Let me, I thought. No, I didn’t think at all. Just so! Get out of here! And see that you never show yourself to me again. Do you hear?” “Oh, a queer fellow!” said the crowd, somewhat moved. Legends were composed about his drinking bouts in town; everybody censured him strictly, but no one ever declined his invitation to those drinking bouts. Thus he lived for weeks. And unexpectedly he used to come home, not yet altogether freed from the odour of the kabaks, but already crestfallen and quiet. With humbly downcast eyes, in which shame was burning now, he silently listened to his wife’s reproaches, and, humble and meek as a lamb, went away to his room and locked himself in. For many hours in succession he knelt before the cross, lowering his head on his breast; his hands hung helplessly, his back was bent, and he was silent, as though he dared not pray. His wife used to come up to the door on tiptoe and listen. Deep sighs were heard from behind the door—like the breathing of a tired and sickly horse. “God! You see,” whispered Ignat in a muffled voice, firmly pressing the palms of his hands to his broad breast. During the days of repentance he drank nothing but water and ate only rye bread.

In the morning his wife placed at the door of his room a big bottle of water, about a pound and a half of bread, and salt. He opened the door, took in these victuals and locked himself in again. During this time he was not disturbed in any way; everybody tried to avoid him. A few days later he again appeared on the exchange, jested, laughed, made contracts to furnish corn as sharp-sighted as a bird of prey, a rare expert at anything concerning his affairs. But in all the moods of Ignat’s life there was one passionate desire that never left him—the desire to have a son; and the older he grew the greater was this desire. Very often such conversation as this took place between him and his wife. In the morning, at her tea, or at noon during dinner hour he gloomily glared at his wife, a stout, well-fed woman, with a red face and sleepy eyes, and asked her: “Well, don’t you feel anything?” She knew what he meant, but she invariably replied: “How can I help feeling? Your fists are like dumb-bells.” “You know what I’m talking about, you fool.” “Can one become pregnant from such blows?” “It’s not on account of the blows that you don’t bear any children; it’s because you eat too much. You fill your stomach with all sorts of food—and there’s no room for the child to engender.” “As if I didn’t bear you any children?” “Those were girls,” said Ignat, reproachfully. “I want a son! Do you understand? A son, an heir! To whom shall I give my capital after my death? Who shall pray for my sins? Shall I give it to a cloister? I have given them enough! Or shall I leave it to you? What a fine pilgrim you are! Even in church you think only of fish pies. If I die, you’ll marry again, and my money will be turned over to some fool. Do you think this is what I am working for?” And he was seized with sardonic anguish, for he felt that his life was aimless if he should have no son to follow him. During the nine years of their married life his wife had borne him four daughters, all of whom had passed away.

While Ignat had awaited their birth tremblingly, he mourned their death but little—at any rate they were unnecessary to him. He began to beat his wife during the second year of their married life; at first he did it while being intoxicated and without animosity, but just according to the proverb: “Love your wife like your soul and shake her like a pear-tree;” but after each confinement, deceived in his expectation, his hatred for his wife grew stronger, and he began to beat her with pleasure, in revenge for not bearing him a son. Once while on business in the province of Samarsk, he received a telegram from relatives at home, informing him of his wife’s death. He made the sign of the cross, thought awhile and wrote to his friend Mayakin: “Bury her in my absence; look after my property.” Then he went to the church to serve the mass for the dead, and, having prayed for the repose of the late Aquilina’s soul, he began to think that it was necessary for him to marry as soon as possible. He was then forty-three years old, tall, broad-shouldered, with a heavy bass voice, like an archdeacon; his large eyes looked bold and wise from under his dark eyebrows; in his sunburnt face, overgrown with a thick, black beard, and in all his mighty figure there was much truly Russian, crude and healthy beauty; in his easy motions as well as in his slow, proud walk, a consciousness of power was evident—a firm confidence in himself. He was liked by women and did not avoid them. Ere six months had passed after the death of his wife, he courted the daughter of an Ural Cossack. The father of the bride, notwithstanding that Ignat was known even in Ural as a “pranky” man, gave him his daughter in marriage, and toward autumn Ignat Gordyeeff came home with a young Cossackwife. Her name was Natalya. Tall, well-built, with large blue eyes and with a long chestnut braid, she was a worthy match for the handsome Ignat. He was happy and proud of his wife and loved her with the passionate love of a healthy man, but he soon began to contemplate her thoughtfully, with a vigilant eye. Seldom did a smile cross the oval, demure face of his wife—she was always thinking of something foreign to life, and in her calm blue eyes something dark and misanthropic was flashing at times. Whenever she was free from household duties she seated herself in the most spacious room by the window, and sat there silently for two or three hours. Her face was turned toward the street, but the look of her eyes was so indifferent to everything that lived and moved there beyond the window, and at the same time it was so fixedly deep, as though she were looking into her very soul.

And her walk, too, was queer. Natalya moved about the spacious room slowly and carefully, as if something invisible restrained the freedom of her movements. Their house was filled with heavy and coarsely boastful luxury; everything there was resplendent, screaming of the proprietor’s wealth, but the Cossack-wife walked past the costly furniture and the silverware in a shy and somewhat frightened manner, as though fearing lest they might seize and choke her. Evidently, the noisy life of the big commercial town did not interest this silent woman, and whenever she went out driving with her husband, her eyes were fixed on the back of the driver. When her husband took her visiting she went and behaved there just as queerly as at home; when guests came to her house, she zealously served them refreshments, taking no interest whatever in what was said, and showing preference toward none. Only Mayakin, a witty, droll man, at times called forth on her face a smile, as vague as a shadow. He used to say of her: “It’s a tree—not a woman! But life is like an inextinguishable wood-pile, and every one of us blazes up sometimes. She, too, will take fire; wait, give her time. Then we shall see how she will bloom.” “Eh!” Ignat used to say to her jestingly. “What are you thinking about? Are you homesick? Brighten up a bit!” She would remain silent, calmly looking at him. “You go entirely too often to the church. You should wait. You have plenty of time to pray for your sins. Commit the sins first.

You know, if you don’t sin you don’t repent; if you don’t repent, you don’t work out your salvation. You better sin while you are young. Shall we go out for a drive?” “I don’t feel like going out.” He used to sit down beside her and embrace her. She was cold, returning his caresses but sparingly. Looking straight into her eyes, he used to say: “Natalya! Tell me—why are you so sad? Do you feel lonesome here with me?” “No,” she replied shortly. “What then is it? Are you longing for your people?” “No, it’s nothing.” “What are you thinking about?” “I am not thinking.” “What then?” “Oh, nothing!” Once he managed to get from her a more complete answer: “There is something confused in my heart. And also in my eyes. And it always seems to me that all this is not real.” She waved her hand around her, pointing at the walls, the furniture and everything. Ignat did not reflect on her words, and, laughing, said to her: “That’s to no purpose! Everything here is genuine. All these are costly, solid things. If you don’t want these, I’ll burn them, I’ll sell them, I’ll give them away—and I’ll get new ones! Do you want me to?” “What for?” said she calmly.

He wondered, at last, how one so young and healthy could live as though she were sleeping all the time, caring for nothing, going nowhere, except to the church, and shunning everybody. And he used to console her: “Just wait. You’ll bear a son, and then an altogether different life will commence. You are so sad because you have so little anxiety, and he will give you trouble. You’ll bear me a son, will you not? “If it pleases God,” she answered, lowering her head. Then her mood began to irritate him. “Well, why do you wear such a long face? You walk as though on glass. You look as if you had ruined somebody’s soul! Eh! You are such a succulent woman, and yet you have no taste for anything. Fool!” Coming home intoxicated one day, he began to ply her with caresses, while she turned away from him. Then he grew angry, and exclaimed: “Natalya! Don’t play the fool, look out!” She turned her face to him and asked calmly: “What then?”

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Updated: 14 December 2020 — 19:20

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