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My Fellow-Traveller Maxim Gorky

Chapter VIII

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"Why are you laughing?" I asked.

The old shepherd and his ethics of life had charmed and delighted me. I felt refreshed by the pure air of early morning, blowing straight into my face. I rejoiced, as I watched the sky gradually clearing, and felt that daylight was not far off. Before long the morning sun would rise in a clear sky, and we could look forward to a brilliantly fine day.

Shakro winked slyly at me, and burst out into a fresh fit of laughter. The hearty, buoyant ring in his laugh made me smile also. The few hours rest we had taken by the side of the shepherd's fire, and their excellent bread and bacon, had helped us to forget our exhausting voyage. Our bones still ached a little, but that would pass off with walking.

"Well, what are you laughing at? Are you glad that you are alive? Alive and not even hungry?"

Shakro shook his head, nudged me in the ribs, made a grimace, burst out laughing again, and at last said in his broken Russian: "You don't see what it is that makes me laugh? Well, I'll tell you in a minute. Do you know what I should have done if we had been taken before the ataman? You don't know? I'd have told him that you had tried to drown me, and I should have begun to cry. Then they would have been sorry for me, and wouldn't have put me in prison! Do you see?"

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At first I tried to make myself believe that it was a joke; but, alas! he succeeded in convincing me he meant it seriously. So clearly and completely did he convince me of it, that, instead of being furious with him for such naive cynicism, I was filled with deep pity for him and incidentally for myself as well.

What else but pity can one feel for a man who tells one in all sincerity, with the brightest of smiles, of his intention to murder one? What is to be done with him if he looks upon such an action as a clever and delightful joke?

I began to argue warmly with him, trying to show him all the immorality of his scheme. He retorted very candidly that I did not see where his interests lay, and had forgotten he had a false passport and might get into trouble in consequence. Suddenly a cruel thought flashed through my mind.

"Stay," said I, "do you really believe that I wanted to drown you?"

"No! When you were pushing me into the water I did think so; but when you got in as well, then I didn't!"

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Creatures That Once Were Men
Maxim Gorky

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