The Steppe by
On the following night the waggoners had halted and were cooking
their porridge. On this occasion there was a sense of
overwhelming oppression over everyone. It was sultry; they all
drank a great deal, but could not quench their thirst. The moon
was intensely crimson and sullen, as though it were sick. The
stars, too, were sullen, the mist was thicker, the distance more
clouded. Nature seemed as though languid and weighed down by
There was not the same liveliness and talk round the camp fire
as there had been the day before. All were dreary and spoke
listlessly and without interest. Panteley did nothing but sigh
and complain of his feet, and continually alluded to impenitent
Dymov was lying on his stomach, chewing a straw in silence;
there was an expression of disgust on his face as though the
straw smelt unpleasant, a spiteful and exhausted look. . . .
Vassya complained that his jaw ached, and prophesied bad
weather; Emelyan was not waving his arms, but sitting still and
looking gloomily at the fire. Yegorushka, too, was weary. This
slow travelling exhausted him, and the sultriness of the day had
given him a headache.
While they were cooking the porridge, Dymov, to relieve his
boredom, began quarrelling with his companions.
"Here he lolls, the lumpy face, and is the first to put his
spoon in," he said, looking spitefully at Emelyan. "Greedy!
always contrives to sit next the cauldron. He's been a
church-singer, so he thinks he is a gentleman! There are a lot
of singers like you begging along the highroad!"
"What are you pestering me for?" asked Emelyan, looking at him
"To teach you not to be the first to dip into the cauldron.
Don't think too much of yourself!"
"You are a fool, and that is all about it!" wheezed out Emelyan.
Knowing by experience how such conversations usually ended,
Panteley and Vassya intervened and tried to persuade Dymov not
to quarrel about nothing.
"A church-singer!" The bully would not desist, but laughed
contemptuously. "Anyone can sing like that -- sit in the church
porch and sing 'Give me alms, for Christ's sake!' Ugh! you are a
Emelyan did not speak. His silence had an irritating effect on
Dymov. He looked with still greater hatred at the ex-singer and
"I don't care to have anything to do with you, or I would show
you what to think of yourself."
"But why are you pushing me, you Mazeppa?" Emelyan cried,
flaring up. "Am I interfering with you?"
"What did you call me?" asked Dymov, drawing himself up, and his
eyes were suffused with blood. "Eh! I am a Mazeppa? Yes? Take
that, then; go and look for it."
Dymov snatched the spoon out of Emelyan's hand and flung it far
away. Kiruha, Vassya, and Styopka ran to look for it, while
Emelyan fixed an imploring and questioning look on Panteley. His
face suddenly became small and wrinkled; it began twitching, and
the ex-singer began to cry like a child.
Yegorushka, who had long hated Dymov, felt as though the air all
at once were unbearably stifling, as though the fire were
scorching his face; he longed to run quickly to the waggons in
the darkness, but the bully's angry bored eyes drew the boy to
him. With a passionate desire to say something extremely
offensive, he took a step towards Dymov and brought out, gasping
"You are the worst of the lot; I can't bear you!"
After this he ought to have run to the waggons, but he could not
stir from the spot and went on:
"In the next world you will burn in hell! I'll complain to Ivan
Ivanitch. Don't you dare insult Emelyan!"
"Say this too, please," laughed Dyrnov: " 'every little
sucking-pig wants to lay down the law.' Shall I pull your ear?"
Yegorushka felt that he could not breathe; and something which
had never happened to him before -- he suddenly began shaking
all over, stamping his feet and crying shrilly:
"Beat him, beat him!"
Tears gushed from his eyes; he felt ashamed, and ran staggering
back to the waggon. The effect produced by his outburst he did
not see. Lying on the bales and twitching his arms and legs, he
And these men and the shadows round the camp fire, and the dark
bales and the far-away lightning, which was flashing every
minute in the distance -- all struck him now as terrible and
unfriendly. He was overcome with terror and asked himself in
despair why and how he had come into this unknown land in the
company of terrible peasants? Where was his uncle now, where was
Father Christopher, where was Deniska? Why were they so long in
coming? Hadn't they forgotten him? At the thought that he was
forgotten and cast out to the mercy of fate, he felt such a cold
chill of dread that he had several times an impulse to jump off
the bales of wool, and run back full speed along the road; but
the thought of the huge dark crosses, which would certainly meet
him on the way, and the lightning flashing in the distance,
stopped him. . . . And only when he whispered, "Mother, mother!"
he felt as it were a little better.
The waggoners must have been full of dread, too. After
Yegorushka had run away from the camp fire they sat at first for
a long time in silence, then they began speaking in hollow
undertones about something, saying that it was coming and that
they must make haste and get away from it. . . . They quickly
finished supper, put out the fire and began harnessing the
horses in silence. From their fluster and the broken phrases
they uttered it was apparent they foresaw some trouble. Before
they set off on their way, Dymov went up to Panteley and asked
"What's his name?"
"Yegory," answered Panteley.
Dymov put one foot on the wheel, caught hold of the cord which
was tied round the bales and pulled himself up. Yegorushka saw
his face and curly head. The face was pale and looked grave and
exhausted, but there was no expression of spite in it.
"Yera!" he said softly, "here, hit me!"
Yegorushka looked at him in surprise. At that instant there was
a flash of lightning.
"It's all right, hit me," repeated Dymov. And without waiting
for Yegorushka to hit him or to speak to him, he jumped down and
said: "How dreary I am!"
Then, swaying from one leg to the other and moving his
shoulder-blades, he sauntered lazily alongside the string of
waggons and repeated in a voice half weeping, half angry:
"How dreary I am! O Lord! Don't you take offence, Emelyan," he
said as he passed Emelyan. "Ours is a wretched cruel life!"
There was a flash of lightning on the right, and, like a
reflection in the looking-glass, at once a second flash in the
"Yegory, take this," cried Panteley, throwing up something big
"What is it?" asked Yegorushka.
"A mat. There will be rain, so cover yourself up."
Yegorushka sat up and looked about him. The distance had grown
perceptibly blacker, and now oftener than every minute winked
with a pale light. The blackness was being bent towards the
right as though by its own weight.
"Will there be a storm, Grandfather?" asked Yegorushka.
"Ah, my poor feet, how they ache!" Panteley said in a
high-pitched voice, stamping his feet and not hearing the boy.
On the left someone seemed to strike a match in the sky; a pale
phosphorescent streak gleamed and went out. There was a sound as
though someone very far away were walking over an iron roof,
probably barefoot, for the iron gave a hollow rumble.
"It's set in!" cried Kiruha.
Between the distance and the horizon on the right there was a
flash of lightning so vivid that it lighted up part of the
steppe and the spot where the clear sky met the blackness. A
terrible cloud was swooping down, without haste, a compact mass;
big black shreds hung from its edge; similar shreds pressing one
upon another were piling up on the right and left horizon. The
tattered, ragged look of the storm-cloud gave it a drunken
disorderly air. There was a distinct, not smothered, growl of
thunder. Yegorushka crossed himself and began quickly putting on
"I am dreary!" Dymov's shout floated from the foremost waggon,
and it could be told from his voice that he was beginning to be
ill-humoured again. "I am so dreary!"
All at once there was a squall of wind, so violent that it
almost snatched away Yegorushka's bundle and mat; the mat
fluttered in all directions and flapped on the bale and on
Yegorushka's face. The wind dashed whistling over the steppe,
whirled round in disorder and raised such an uproar from the
grass that neither the thunder nor the creaking of the wheels
could be heard; it blew from the black storm-cloud, carrying
with it clouds of dust and the scent of rain and wet earth. The
moonlight grew mistier, as it were dirtier; the stars were even
more overcast; and clouds of dust could be seen hurrying along
the edge of the road, followed by their shadows. By now, most
likely, the whirlwind eddying round and lifting from the earth
dust, dry grass and feathers, was mounting to the very sky;
uprooted plants must have been flying by that very black
storm-cloud, and how frightened they must have been! But through
the dust that clogged the eyes nothing could be seen but the
flash of lightning.
Yegorushka, thinking it would pour with rain in a minute, knelt
up and covered himself with the mat.
"Panteley-ey!" someone shouted in the front. "A. . . a. . . va!"
"I can't!" Panteley answered in a loud high voice. "A . . . a .
. . va! Arya . . . a!"
There was an angry clap of thunder, which rolled across the sky
from right to left, then back again, and died away near the
"Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth," whispered Yegorushka,
crossing himself. "Fill heaven and earth with Thy glory."
The blackness in the sky yawned wide and breathed white fire. At
once there was another clap of thunder. It had scarcely ceased
when there was a flash of lightning so broad that Yegorushka
suddenly saw through a slit in the mat the whole highroad to the
very horizon, all the waggoners and even Kiruha's waistcoat. The
black shreds had by now moved upwards from the left, and one of
them, a coarse, clumsy monster like a claw with fingers,
stretched to the moon. Yegorushka made up his mind to shut his
eyes tight, to pay no attention to it, and to wait till it was
The rain was for some reason long in coming. Yegorushka peeped
out from the mat in the hope that perhaps the storm-cloud was
passing over. It was fearfully dark. Yegorushka could see
neither Panteley, nor the bale of wool, nor himself; he looked
sideways towards the place where the moon had lately been, but
there was the same black darkness there as over the waggons. And
in the darkness the flashes of lightning seemed more violent and
blinding, so that they hurt his eyes.
"Panteley!" called Yegorushka.
No answer followed. But now a gust of wind for the last time
flung up the mat and hurried away. A quiet regular sound was
heard. A big cold drop fell on Yegorushka's knee, another
trickled over his hand. He noticed that his knees were not
covered, and tried to rearrange the mat, but at that moment
something began pattering on the road, then on the shafts and
the bales. It was the rain. As though they understood one
another, the rain and the mat began prattling of something
rapidly, gaily and most annoyingly like two magpies.
Yegorushka knelt up or rather squatted on his boots. While the
rain was pattering on the mat, he leaned forward to screen his
knees, which were suddenly wet. He succeeded in covering his
knees, but in less than a minute was aware of a penetrating,
unpleasant dampness behind on his back and the calves of his
legs. He returned to his former position, exposing his knees to
the rain, and wondered what to do to rearrange the mat which he
could not see in the darkness. But his arms were already wet,
the water was trickling up his sleeves and down his collar, and
his shoulder-blades felt chilly. And he made up his mind to do
nothing but sit motionless and wait till it was all over.
"Holy, holy, holy!" he whispered.
Suddenly, exactly over his head, the sky cracked with a fearful
deafening din; he huddled up and held his breath, waiting for
the fragments to fall upon his head and back. He inadvertently
opened his eyes and saw a blinding intense light flare out and
flash five times on his fingers, his wet sleeves, and on the
trickles of water running from the mat upon the bales and down
to the ground. There was a fresh peal of thunder as violent and
awful; the sky was not growling and rumbling now, but uttering
short crashing sounds like the crackling of dry wood.
"Trrah! tah! tah! tah!" the thunder rang out distinctly, rolled
over the sky, seemed to stumble, and somewhere by the foremost
waggons or far behind to fall with an abrupt angry "Trrra!"
The flashes of lightning had at first been only terrible, but
with such thunder they seemed sinister and menacing. Their magic
light pierced through closed eyelids and sent a chill all over
the body. What could he do not to see them? Yegorushka made up
his mind to turn over on his face. Cautiously, as though afraid
of being watched, he got on all fours, and his hands slipping on
the wet bale, he turned back again.
"Trrah! tah! tah!" floated over his head, rolled under the
waggons and exploded "Kraa!"
Again he inadvertently opened his eyes and saw a new danger:
three huge giants with long pikes were following the waggon! A
flash of lightning gleamed on the points of their pikes and
lighted up their figures very distinctly. They were men of huge
proportions, with covered faces, bowed heads, and heavy
footsteps. They seemed gloomy and dispirited and lost in
thought. Perhaps they were not following the waggons with any
harmful intent, and yet there was something awful in their
Yegorushka turned quickly forward, and trembling all over cried:
"Trrah! tah! tah!" the sky answered him.
He opened his eyes to see if the waggoners were there. There
were flashes of lightning in two places, which lighted up the
road to the far distance, the whole string of waggons and all
the waggoners. Streams of water were flowing along the road and
bubbles were dancing. Panteley was walking beside the waggon;
his tall hat and his shoulder were covered with a small mat; his
figure expressed neither terror nor uneasiness, as though he
were deafened by the thunder and blinded by the lightning.
"Grandfather, the giants!" Yegorushka shouted to him in tears.
But the old man did not hear. Further away walked Emelyan. He
was covered from head to foot with a big mat and was triangular
in shape. Vassya, without anything over him, was walking with
the same wooden step as usual, lifting his feet high and not
bending his knees. In the flash of lightning it seemed as though
the waggons were not moving and the men were motionless, that
Vassya's lifted foot was rigid in the same position. . . .
Yegorushka called the old man once more. Getting no answer, he
sat motionless, and no longer waited for it all to end. He was
convinced that the thunder would kill him in another minute,
that he would accidentally open his eyes and see the terrible
giants, and he left off crossing himself, calling the old man
and thinking of his mother, and was simply numb with cold and
the conviction that the storm would never end.
But at last there was the sound of voices.
"Yegory, are you asleep?" Panteley cried below. "Get down! Is he
deaf, the silly little thing? . . ."
"Something like a storm!" said an unfamiliar bass voice, and the
stranger cleared his throat as though he had just tossed off a
good glass of vodka.
Yegorushka opened his eyes. Close to the waggon stood Panteley,
Emelyan, looking like a triangle, and the giants. The latter
were by now much shorter, and when Yegorushka looked more
closely at them they turned out to be ordinary peasants,
carrying on their shoulders not pikes but pitchforks. In the
space between Panteley and the triangular figure, gleamed the
window of a low-pitched hut. So the waggons were halting in the
village. Yegorushka flung off the mat, took his bundle and made
haste to get off the waggon. Now when close to him there were
people talking and a lighted window he no longer felt afraid,
though the thunder was crashing as before and the whole sky was
streaked with lightning.
"It was a good storm, all right, . . ." Panteley was muttering.
"Thank God, . . . my feet are a little softened by the rain. It
was all right. . . . Have you got down, Yegory? Well, go into
the hut; it is all right. . . ."
"Holy, holy, holy!" wheezed Emelyan, "it must have struck
something. . . . Are you of these parts?" he asked the giants.
"No, from Glinovo. We belong to Glinovo. We are working at the
"All sorts. Just now we are getting in the wheat. The lightning,
the lightning! It is long since we have had such a storm. . . ."
Yegorushka went into the hut. He was met by a lean hunchbacked
old woman with a sharp chin. She stood holding a tallow candle
in her hands, screwing up her eyes and heaving prolonged sighs.
"What a storm God has sent us!" she said. "And our lads are out
for the night on the steppe; they'll have a bad time, poor
dears! Take off your things, little sir, take off your things."
Shivering with cold and shrugging squeamishly, Yegorushka pulled
off his drenched overcoat, then stretched out his arms and
straddled his legs, and stood a long time without moving. The
slightest movement caused an unpleasant sensation of cold and
wetness. His sleeves and the back of his shirt were sopped, his
trousers stuck to his legs, his head was dripping.
"What's the use of standing there, with your legs apart, little
lad?" said the old woman. "Come, sit down."
Holding his legs wide apart, Yegorushka went up to the table and
sat down on a bench near somebody's head. The head moved, puffed
a stream of air through its nose, made a chewing sound and
subsided. A mound covered with a sheepskin stretched from the
head along the bench; it was a peasant woman asleep.
The old woman went out sighing, and came back with a big water
melon and a little sweet melon.
"Have something to eat, my dear! I have nothing else to offer
you, . . ." she said, yawning. She rummaged in the table and
took out a long sharp knife, very much like the one with which
the brigands killed the merchants in the inn. "Have some, my
Yegorushka, shivering as though he were in a fever, ate a slice
of sweet melon with black bread and then a slice of water melon,
and that made him feel colder still.
"Our lads are out on the steppe for the night, . . ." sighed the
old woman while he was eating. "The terror of the Lord! I'd
light the candle under the ikon, but I don't know where
Stepanida has put it. Have some more, little sir, have some
more. . . ."
The old woman gave a yawn and, putting her right hand behind
her, scratched her left shoulder.
"It must be two o'clock now," she said; "it will soon be time to
get up. Our lads are out on the steppe for the night; they are
all wet through for sure. . . ."
"Granny," said Yegorushka. "I am sleepy."
"Lie down, my dear, lie down," the old woman sighed, yawning.
"Lord Jesus Christ! I was asleep, when I heard a noise as though
someone were knocking. I woke up and looked, and it was the
storm God had sent us. . . . I'd have lighted the candle, but I
couldn't find it."
Talking to herself, she pulled some rags, probably her own bed,
off the bench, took two sheepskins off a nail by the stove, and
began laying them out for a bed for Yegorushka. "The storm
doesn't grow less," she muttered. "If only nothing's struck in
an unlucky hour. Our lads are out on the steppe for the night.
Lie down and sleep, my dear. . . . Christ be with you, my child.
. . . I won't take away the melon; maybe you'll have a bit when
you get up."
The sighs and yawns of the old woman, the even breathing of the
sleeping woman, the half-darkness of the hut, and the sound of
the rain outside, made one sleepy. Yegorushka was shy of
undressing before the old woman. He only took off his boots, lay
down and covered himself with the sheepskin.
"Is the little lad lying down?" he heard Panteley whisper a
"Yes," answered the old woman in a whisper. "The terror of the
Lord! It thunders and thunders, and there is no end to it."
"It will soon be over," wheezed Panteley, sitting down; "it's
getting quieter. . . . The lads have gone into the huts, and two
have stayed with the horses. The lads have. . . . They can't; .
. . the horses would be taken away. . . . I'll sit here a bit
and then go and take my turn. . . . We can't leave them; they
would be taken. . . ."
Panteley and the old woman sat side by side at Yegorushka's
feet, talking in hissing whispers and interspersing their speech
with sighs and yawns. And Yegorushka could not get warm. The
warm heavy sheepskin lay on him, but he was trembling all over;
his arms and legs were twitching, and his whole inside was
shivering. . . . He undressed under the sheepskin, but that was
no good. His shivering grew more and more acute.
Panteley went out to take his turn with the horses, and
afterwards came back again, and still Yegorushka was shivering
all over and could not get to sleep. Something weighed upon his
head and chest and oppressed him, and he did not know what it
was, whether it was the old people whispering, or the heavy
smell of the sheepskin. The melon he had eaten had left an
unpleasant metallic taste in his mouth. Moreover he was being
bitten by fleas.
"Grandfather, I am cold," he said, and did not know his own
"Go to sleep, my child, go to sleep," sighed the old woman.
Tit came up to the bedside on his thin little legs and waved his
arms, then grew up to the ceiling and turned into a windmill. .
. . Father Christopher, not as he was in the chaise, but in his
full vestments with the sprinkler in his hand, walked round the
mill, sprinkling it with holy water, and it left off waving.
Yegorushka, knowing this was delirium, opened his eyes.
"Grandfather," he called, "give me some water."
No one answered. Yegorushka felt it insufferably stifling and
uncomfortable lying down. He got up, dressed, and went out of
the hut. Morning was beginning. The sky was overcast, but it was
no longer raining. Shivering and wrapping himself in his wet
overcoat, Yegorushka walked about the muddy yard and listened to
the silence; he caught sight of a little shed with a half-open
door made of reeds. He looked into this shed, went into it, and
sat down in a dark corner on a heap of dry dung.
There was a tangle of thoughts in his heavy head; his mouth was
dry and unpleasant from the metallic taste. He looked at his
hat, straightened the peacock's feather on it, and thought how
he had gone with his mother to buy the hat. He put his hand into
his pocket and took out a lump of brownish sticky paste. How had
that paste come into his pocket? He thought a minute, smelt it;
it smelt of honey. Aha! it was the Jewish cake! How sopped it
was, poor thing!
Yegorushka examined his coat. It was a little grey overcoat with
big bone buttons, cut in the shape of a frock-coat. At home,
being a new and expensive article, it had not been hung in the
hall, but with his mother's dresses in her bedroom; he was only
allowed to wear it on holidays. Looking at it, Yegorushka felt
sorry for it. He thought that he and the great-coat were both
abandoned to the mercy of destiny; he thought that he would
never get back home, and began sobbing so violently that he
almost fell off the heap of dung.
A big white dog with woolly tufts like curl-papers about its
face, sopping from the rain, came into the shed and stared with
curiosity at Yegorushka. It seemed to be hesitating whether to
bark or not. Deciding that there was no need to bark, it went
cautiously up to Yegorushka, ate the sticky plaster and went out
"There are Varlamov's men!" someone shouted in the street.
After having his cry out, Yegorushka went out of the shed and,
walking round a big puddle, made his way towards the street. The
waggons were standing exactly opposite the gateway. The drenched
waggoners, with their muddy feet, were sauntering beside them or
sitting on the shafts, as listless and drowsy as flies in
autumn. Yegorushka looked at them and thought: "How dreary and
comfortless to be a peasant!" He went up to Panteley and sat
down beside him on the shaft.
"Grandfather, I'm cold," he said, shivering and thrusting his
hands up his sleeves.
"Never mind, we shall soon be there," yawned Panteley. "Never
mind, you will get warm."
It must have been early when the waggons set off, for it was not
hot. Yegorushka lay on the bales of wool and shivered with cold,
though the sun soon came out and dried his clothes, the bales,
and the earth. As soon as he closed his eyes he saw Tit and the
windmill again. Feeling a sickness and heaviness all over, he
did his utmost to drive away these images, but as soon as they
vanished the dare-devil Dymov, with red eyes and lifted fists,
rushed at Yegorushka with a roar, or there was the sound of his
complaint: "I am so dreary!" Varlamov rode by on his little
Cossack stallion; happy Konstantin passed, with a smile and the
bustard in his arms. And how tedious these people were, how
sickening and unbearable!
Once -- it was towards evening -- he raised his head to ask for
water. The waggons were standing on a big bridge across a broad
river. There was black smoke below over the river, and through
it could be seen a steamer with a barge in tow. Ahead of them,
beyond the river, was a huge mountain dotted with houses and
churches; at the foot of the mountain an engine was being
shunted along beside some goods trucks.
Yegorushka had never before seen steamers, nor engines, nor
broad rivers. Glancing at them now, he was not alarmed or
surprised; there was not even a look of anything like curiosity
in his face. He merely felt sick, and made haste to turn over to
the edge of the bale. He was sick. Panteley, seeing this,
cleared his throat and shook his head.
"Our little lad's taken ill," he said. "He must have got a chill
to the stomach. The little lad must. . . away from home; it's a