Upton Sinclair, ed. (18781968). The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest. 1915.
Tales of Two Countries
By Maxim Gorky
(A volume of short stories representing the later work of the Russian novelist, the fruit of his sojourn in Capri. It is interesting to note how this change of environment altered not merely his point of view, but even his literary style. The following narrative has the clarity and delicacy of the best French prose. It is the story of an Italian workingman)
I WAS born naked and stupid, like you and everybody else; in my youth I dreamed of a rich wife; when I was a soldier I studied in order to pass the examination for an officers rank. I was twenty-three when I felt that all was not as it should be in this world, and that it was a shame to live as if it were.
We, our whole regiment, were sent to Bologna. The peasantry there were in revolt, some demanding that the rent of land should be lowered, others shouting about the necessity for raising wages: both parties seemed to be in the wrong. To lower rents and increase wages, what nonsense! thought I. That would ruin the landowners. To me, who was a town-dweller, it seemed utter foolishness. I was very indignantthe heat helped to make one so, and the constant travelling from place to place and the mounting guard at night. For, you know, these fine fellows were breaking the machinery belonging to the landowners; and it pleased them to burn the corn and to try to spoil everything that did not belong to them. Just think of it!
He sipped his wine and, becoming more animated, went on: They roamed about the fields in droves like sheep, always silently, and as if they meant business. We used to scatter them, threatening them with our bayonets sometimes. Now and then we struck them with the butts of our rifles. Without showing much fear, they dispersed in leisurely fashion, but always came together again. It was a tedious business, like mass, and it lasted for days, like an attack of fever. Luoto, our non-commissioned officer, a fine fellow from Abruzzi, himself a peasant, was anxious and troubled: he turned quite yellow and thin, and more than once he said to us:
His grumbling upset us still more; and then, you know, from every corner, from every hillock and tree we could see peeping the obstinate heads of the peasants; their angry eyes seemed to pierce us. For these people, naturally enough, did not regard us in a very friendly light.
Once I stood on a small hillock near an olive grove, guarding some trees which the peasants had been injuring. At the bottom of the hill two men were at work, an old man and a youth. They were digging a ditch. It was very hot, the sun burnt like fire, one felt irritable, longed to be a fish, and I remember I eyed them angrily. At noon they both left off work, and got out some bread and cheese and a jug of wine. Oh, devil take them! thought I to myself. Suddenly the old man, who previously had not once looked at me, said something to the youth, who shook his head disapprovingly, but the old man shouted: Go on! He said this very sternly.
I felt embarrassed, but I was pleased. I refused, nodding at the same time to the old man and thanking him. He responded by looking at the sky. Drink it, signor, drink it. We offer this to you as a man, not as a soldier. We do not expect a soldier to become kinder because he has drunk our wine!
D you, dont get nasty, I thought to myself, and having drunk about three mouthfuls I thanked him. Then they began to eat down below. A little later I was relieved by Ugo from Salertino. I told him quietly that these two peasants were good fellows. The same night, as I stood at the door of a barn where the machinery was kept, a slate fell on my head from the roof. It did not do much damage, but another slate, striking my shoulder edgewise, hurt me so severely that my left arm dropped benumbed.
The speaker burst into a loud laugh, his mouth wide open, his eyes half-closed. Slates, stones, sticks, said he, through his laughter, in those days and at that place were alive. This independent action of lifeless things made some pretty big bumps on our heads. Wherever a soldier stood or walked, a stick would suddenly fly at him from the ground, or a stone fall upon him from the sky. It made us savage, as you can guess.
What is one to do? People take time to get wise. Then I called for help. I was led into a house where another fellow lay, his face cut by a stone. When I asked him how it happened he said, smiling, but not with mirth:
I said that I had done it myself, that I had fallen and hurt myself. The commander did not believe it, I could see it by his eyes. But, dont you see, it was awkward to confess that I had been wounded by an old woman. Eh? The devil! Of course they are hard pressed, and one can understand that they do not love us!
Hm! thought I. The doctor came and two ladies with him, one of them fair and very pretty, evidently a Venetian. I dont remember the other. They looked at my wound. It was slight, of course. They applied a poultice and went away.
My comrade and I used to sit at the window. We sat in such a way that the light did not fall on us, and there once we heard the charming voice of this fair lady. She and her companion were walking with the doctor in the garden outside the window and talking in French, which I understand very well.
Did you notice the color of his eyes? she asked. He is a peasant of course, and once he has taken off his uniform will no doubt become a Socialist, like all of them here. People with eyes like that want to conquer the whole of life, to drive us out, to destroy us in order that some blind, tedious justice should triumph!
Yes, just imagine it. The fellow with the eyes of an ox, and the other with the face of a birdour equals! You and I their equals, the equals of these people of inferior blood! People who can be bidden to come and kill their fellows, brutes like them.
She spoke much and vehemently. I listened and thought: Quite right, signora. I had seen her more than once; and you know, of course, that no one dreams more ardently of a woman than a soldier. I imagined her to be kind and clever and warm-hearted; and at that time I had an idea that the landed nobility were especially clever, or gifted, or something of the kind. I dont know why!
Is that so? he murmured. Is that possible? She makes use of me and does not look upon me as a man. For her sake I allow my dignity to be offended and she denies it. For the sake of guarding her property I risk losing my soul.
No, we did not forget it. But many of us, almost all, to tell you the truth, became deaf and blind, and these young peasants made use of our deafness and blindness to very good purpose. They won. They treated us very well indeed. The fair lady could have learnt from them: for instance, they could have taught her very convincingly how honest people should be valued. When we left the place whither we had come with the idea of shedding blood, many of us were given flowers. As we marched along the streets of the village, not stones and slates but flowers were thrown at us, my friend. I think we had deserved it. One may forget a cool reception when one has received such a good send-off.