The Laestrygonians



At the end of October, or the beginning of November, the city of Balaklava, that most original corner of the variegated Russian Empire, begins to live a life all its own. The days are still warm and pleasant, as they sometimes are in the fall, but at night it grows cold and the ground resounds under your step. The last summer visitors have gone to Sebastopol with their bundles, suitcases, trunks, sickly children, and decadente young ladies. As mementos of the recent guests, there still remain grape-skins which the invalid summer visitors had scattered in abundant quantities on every pier and in every narrow street, all for the purpose of aiding their precious health, and piles of paper, refuse, cigarette stumps, scraps of letters and newspapers, which always remain behind when the summer visitors go away.

And immediately Balaklava becomes roomy, fresh, comfortable, and cozy, as though it were an apartment which had just been left by a crowd of noisy, smoking, arguing, uninvited guests. The old, native Greek population, which had until then concealed itself in back rooms and shacks, now creeps forth and takes possession of the streets.

On the street running along the shore fishing-nets are spread out, stretched across the whole width of the street. Against the rough cobbles of the street they seem thin and delicate as a cobweb, and the fishermen, creeping over them on all fours, appear like black spiders mending their broken, airy traps. Other fishermen are twisting the cord that they will use for catching the sturgeon and the flounder; with a serious and preoccupied air, they run back and forth with the cord thrown over their shoulders, twisting the thread without stopping.

The captains of the fishing-boats are sharpening the sturgeon-hooks, the old, dull copper hooks which, according to an old tradition of fishermen, are always preferred by the fish to the modern steel hooks of the English style. On the other side of the bay the boats, drawn on the shore and turned with the keel up, are being calked, tarred, and painted.

Around the stone fountains, where a thin stream of water runs and murmurs without stopping, the thin, dark-faced Greek women, with large eyes and long noses⁠—so strangely and touchingly like the representations of the Holy Virgin on the old Byzantine images⁠—chatter for hours at a time about their petty household affairs.

And all this is done without any undue haste, in a pleasant, neighborly way, with skill and deftness acquired by age-long habits, beneath the bright and pleasant autumn sun, on the shore of the merry blue bay, under the clear autumn sky, which rests so calmly upon the indented line of the low, bald mountains that surround the bay.

It seems that the summer guests have already been forgotten, as though they had never been there. Two or three rainy days, and the last vestige of their recent presence will be washed away from the streets. The whole senseless summer, passed in absurd haste, with its evening concerts, its dust raised by the women’s skirts, its pitiful flirtations and discussions of political subjects, now seems like a faraway, long-forgotten dream. The whole interest of the fishing town is concentrated upon the fish and their coming.

In the coffeehouses of Ivan Yuryich and Ivan Adamovich, the fishermen form into companies for their future work, while others play dominos. Captains are chosen here, too. The conversation in every corner of the room is concerned with the one subject of shares, fishing-nets, hooks, the possible catch, the mackerel, the flounder, the sturgeon, and other fish caught here. And at nine o’clock the whole town is plunged into profound slumber.

Nowhere in the whole of Russia, and I have travelled much through its width and length⁠—nowhere have I experienced the sensation of such deep, complete, and perfect silence as in Balaklava.

Sometimes I would go out on the balcony and feel immediately swallowed up by the darkness and the silence. The sky is black, the water in the bay is black, the mountains are black. The water is so thick, so heavy, and so calm that the stars reflected in it do not twinkle or break. Not a single human sound interrupts this silence. Now and then, perhaps once a minute, you can hear a tiny wavelet splash upon a rock. But this lonely, melodious sound only deepens, only accentuates the silence. You can hear the blood coursing through the veins in your ears. A rope holding a boat squeaks somewhere. And again everything is silent. You feel that the night and the silence are plunged in one black embrace.

I gaze to the left, where the narrow neck of the bay hemmed in by two mountains, disappears. A long, low mountain lies there, crowned by some ancient ruins. If you look at it attentively it will appear to you like a gigantic monster of the fairytale who lies with his breast on the shore of the bay and, thrusting his dark head with its upstanding ears deep into the water, greedily drinks it, unable to satiate his thirst.

At the very spot where the monster ought to have an eye burns a little red speck that represents the light of the customhouse. I know this light well, for I have passed it a hundred times, touching the lantern with my hand. But in the strange silence and the deep blackness of this autumn night I seem to see more and more distinctly the back and the head of the ancient monster, and I feel that its sly and wicked eye is watching me intently with a feeling of concealed hatred.

Suddenly I recall that verse from Homer in which Odysseus sees bloodthirsty Laestrygonians in a small, narrow-necked Black Sea bay. I also think of the enterprising, supple, handsome Genoese who erected their colossal fortifications upon the brow of this mountain. And in my mind rises the picture of a stormy winter night when a whole English squadron, headed by the haughty flagship, the Black Prince, was dashed to bits against the bosom of the old monster. The Black Prince is now lying on the bottom of the sea, not far away from the spot where I am standing, with its bars of gold still within its hold, that had carried down with it hundreds of human lives.

The old monster in its half-slumber gazes at me with its sharp little red eye. It appears to me like an old, old, forgotten divinity, which dreams its thousand-year-old dreams amidst this black silence. And I feel a strange disquiet.

The slow, lazy footsteps of the night-watchman are heard at a distance, and I distinguish clearly not only every sound of his heavy, iron-shod fisherman’s boots beating against the stones of the sidewalk, but also the shuffling of his heels at every second step. The sounds are so distinct amidst this silence that it seems to me as though I were walking together with him, although I am certain that he is more than a verst away from me. But now he has turned aside into some dark alley, or, perhaps, has sat down on a bench somewhere: his footsteps are heard no more. Everything is silent. Everything is dark.


The Mackerel

The autumn is coming fast. The water becomes colder and colder. Just now one can catch only small fish with dragnets, those large vases of netting which are thrown to the bottom from the boat. But suddenly a rumor is set afloat that Yura Paratino had rigged his boat and had sent it to the spot where his mackerel-nets were placed, between the Capes of Aya and Laspi.

Of course, Yura Paratino is not the Emperor of Germany, or a famous bass, or a fashionable writer, or a singer of gypsy songs, but when I think of the importance and respect that attach to his name along the whole shore of the Black Sea, I always recall his friendship with pleasure and pride.

Yura Paratino is a tall, strong Greek of about forty, with an appearance of having been steeped in brine and tar. He has a bull-neck, a dark complexion, black, curly hair, mustaches, a clean-shaven, square chin, with an indentation in the middle that reminds one of animals⁠—a chin that bespeaks enormous willpower and great cruelty⁠—and thin lips that indicate great energy, all the more so because the corners of his mouth are turned downward. There isn’t a single fisherman on the whole shore more skilful, clever, powerful, and courageous than Yura Paratino. No one could outdo Yura when it came to drinking, and yet he had never been seen drunk. No one had ever been as successful as Yura, not even the famous Theodore of Oleiza himself.

In him, more than in anyone else, was developed that special fisherman’s indifference to the unjust strokes of fate, an indifference which is so highly prized by these seafaring people.

When Yura would be told that the storm had torn to pieces the rigging of his boat, or that one of his boats filled to the top with precious fish had sunk in the storm, Yura would only say lightly, “Oh, let it go to the devil!” And immediately he would seem to have forgotten all about it.

The other fishermen say about Yura: “The mackerel have only begun coming here from Kerch, but Yura already knows where to put his nets.”

These nets are about seventy feet long and thirty-five feet wide. The details of their weaving and placing are hardly interesting. But when large schools of fish swimming along the shore at night are caught in what becomes a trap, because of the nets’ special inclination, the fish cannot get away without being thrown out of the net. The fishermen lift the net out of the water and empty the fish into their boats. It is highly important to note in time the moment when the water about the net begins to seethe as though it were boiling. If this moment is not anticipated, the fish are likely to break through the net and escape.

And now, when some mysterious premonition had informed Yura of the fish’s intentions, the whole of Balaklava was passing through disquieting, annoyingly tense days. Boys were stationed on the tops of the mountains to watch day and night, and the boats were kept in constant readiness. Numbers of fish-dealers had come from Sebastopol. The local canning factory was busily preparing its barns for enormous quantities of fish.

At last, early in the morning, the rumor flashed like lightning through the houses, the restaurants, and the streets.

“The fish have come! The fish have come! Mackerel are being caught in the nets of Ivan Yegorovich, Kota, Khristo, Spiro, Capitanaki, and, of course, of Yura Paratino.”

All the boats are now manned and go out of the harbor.

And the rest of the inhabitants of the town are on the shore. They are all there, the old men, the women, the children, the two fat saloon-keepers, the gray-haired coffeehouse keeper, Ivan Adamovich; the proprietor of the drugstore, who is a very busy man and has come out but for a moment, the good-natured assistant surgeon, Yevsey Markovich, and the two local physicians.

The most important circumstance is the fact that the first boat to enter the bay sells its fish at a higher price than the others, and so the feelings that agitate the crowd gathered on the shore spring from interest and sport and ambition and calculation.

Finally, at the spot where the neck of the bay narrows down between the two mountains, appears the first boat, making a sharp curve around the shore.

“It’s Yura.”

“No, it’s Kolya.”

“No; of course, it is Genali.”

The fishermen have an ambition peculiar to themselves. When the catch is particularly large they consider it a mark of special elegance fairly to fly into the bay instead of entering it slowly. And the three men at the oars, straining their back and arm muscles to the utmost, their necks bent forward, their bodies almost falling back at each of their frequent and measured strokes, send the boat flying across the smooth surface of the bay with short, rapid strokes. The captain, his face turned toward them, is standing up, guiding the direction of the boat.

Of course, it is Yura Paratino! The boat is brimful of white, silvery fish, and the feet of the oarsmen are above them, tramping them down. Carelessly, while the boat is still in motion and the oarsmen have scarcely begun to slow down the motion of the boat, Yura jumps upon the wooden pier.

The bargaining with the fish-dealers immediately begins.

“Thirty!” says Yura and slaps, with the palm of his hand, the long, bony hand of one of the fish-dealers.

This means that he wants to sell his fish at thirty roubles a thousand.

“Fifteen!” shouts the Greek and, in his turn, having liberated his hand, slaps Yura’s palm.



Slap, slap.⁠ ⁠…



“Twenty-five!” says Yura hoarsely. “There’s another of my boats coming along.”

And at that moment another boat appears through the neck of the bay, followed by a second, a third, then two together. They make every effort to overtake one another, as the price of fish is falling and falling. In another half-hour the fish will be worth no more than fifteen roubles a thousand; in an hour, ten roubles, and finally five, and even three.

Toward evening the whole of Balaklava is permeated with the odor of fish. Mackerel is fried or canned in every house. The wide mouths of bread-ovens are full of tile boards on which the fish are being fried in their own juice. This is considered the most delicious food by the local lovers of fish. And all the coffeehouses and saloons are filled with smoke and the odor of fried fish.

Yura Paratino, the most openhanded man in all Balaklava, goes into the coffeehouse where the Balaklava fishermen are gathered surrounded by its heavy clouds of tobacco and fish smoke; he shouts to the proprietor in a tone of command, his voice rising above the uproar:

“A cup of coffee for everybody!”

A moment of universal silence, amazement, and joy sets in.

“With sugar or without?” asks the proprietor of the coffeehouse, the immense and dark Ivan Yuryich.

Yura hesitates for a second: a cup of unsweetened coffee costs three copecks; with sugar it costs five. But Yura is far from being mean-spirited. The most unskilled laborer of his boat had earned no less than ten roubles that day.

He says contemptuously:

“With sugar. And let’s have some music, too!”

The musicians appear immediately: a man with a clarinet and one with a tambourine. Late into the night they play their monotonous, mournful Tartar melodies. Young wine appears on the table⁠—the pinkish wine that smells of fresh grapes and causes intoxication in a very short while, leaving you with a dreadful headache on the following morning.

And on the pier, also until late at night, the last boats are being unloaded. Bending down in the boat, two or three Greeks quickly and with easy skill take two fish in the right hand and three in the left and throw them in the basket, keeping an exact, rapid, and ceaseless count. And on the following day more boats come in from the sea.

It seems that the whole of Balaklava is full of fish.

The lazy cats, with their bellies swollen through overeating, are lying there on the sidewalks, and when you hit them with your foot, they open one eye lazily and then doze off again. The geese, also seeming half asleep, can be seen on the placid surface of the bay, and from their beaks stick the tails of some of the fish they had eaten.

For many days the air is full of the strong odor of fresh fish and the burning smell of fried fish. And the light, sticky fish-scales cover the wooden piers, the stones of the street, the hands and the clothes of the happy housewives, and the blue waters of the bay, lazily rippling under the autumn sun.



It is evening. We are sitting in Ivan Yuryich’s coffeehouse, that is lighted by two hanging lamps. Thick clouds of tobacco smoke hang in the air. All the tables are occupied. Some of us play cards or dominos, others sip their coffee, others again simply lounge about, revelling in the light and warmth and exchanging remarks. A long, lazy, cozy, pleasant evening ennui has taken hold of the entire coffeehouse.

By and by we begin a rather odd game which is a great favorite with the fishermen here. I must confess, in spite of the protests of my modesty, that the honor of having invented the game belongs to none but myself. In this game each of the participants in turn is blindfolded with a handkerchief tied with a sailor’s knot, and then a jacket is thrown over his head; two other participants take him by each arm, lead him all over the room, make him spin about several times, then take him outside, bring him in again and steer him in and out among the tables trying their best to confuse him as to his position. When, by general acclaim, enough has been done to confuse the victim, he is permitted to stop and is asked to point to the north.

Everyone is given three chances, and the one who shows the poorest sense of orientation has to treat the company to coffee or to young wine, each person present receiving a cup or a half-bottle. I must admit that I am the most frequent loser. As for Yura Paratino, he invariably points north with the accuracy of a magnetic needle. What a beast!

Suddenly I turn back involuntarily and note that Khristo Ambarzaki winks at me to approach him.

He is not alone; by his side sits Yani, my teacher and the head of our fishing crew.

I go over to them. Khristo, for appearance sake, asks for a set of dominos, and while we pretend to be playing he whispers to me, purposely rattling the dominos:

“Take your difans and come quietly to the landing-place together with Yani. The bay is chock-full of mullets, like a jar of olives. The swine drove them in.”

Difans are very thin fishing-nets, some one hundred and fifty yards long and about three yards wide. They consist of three walls, of which the two outer ones have larger meshes and the middle has narrow ones. The small mackerel will pass through the large-meshed walls, but will get entangled in the meshes of the inner net; on the other hand, large mullets which knock their heads against the middle net and turn back become entangled in the large outer meshes. I am the only man in Balaklava who owns such nets.

Quickly, and trying to keep in the shadows, Yani and I take the nets to the beach. The night is so dark that we are hardly able to descry Khristo, who is already waiting for us in a boat. Muffled sniffing, grunting, and heavy groans are heard from the bay. It is the dolphins, or sea-swine, as the fishermen call them. They have driven enormous shoals of fish into the narrow bay and are now darting across it, devouring the fish as they pass.

What we are getting ready to do is undoubtedly a crime. According to a peculiar ancient custom it is permitted to catch fish in the bay only with fishing-rods and trammels. Only once a year, and for no more than three days, are fish caught in municipal nets. This unwritten law is a sort of fisherman’s taboo.

But the night is so black, the groans and the grunting of the dolphins goad so violently the hunter’s curiosity in us, that, repressing an involuntary sigh of repentance, I cautiously leap into the boat, and, while Khristo rows noiselessly, I help Yani to get the nets in shape. He pays out the lower edge of the net laden with large leaden plummets, while I hand him quickly the upper edge, along which cork-floats are strung.

But suddenly a wonderful spectacle, which I had never seen before, fascinates me. Near by, to the left of the boat, sounds the snorting of the dolphin, and all of a sudden I notice a great number of sinuous silvery streamlets, resembling the rays of bursting fireworks, dashing around the boat with incredible speed. It is the frightened fish fleeing before the rapacious dolphin. And here I notice that the entire sea is ablaze with fire. Pale-blue jewels shimmer on the tops of small, scarcely rippling wavelets. Where the oars touch the water, deep, gleaming bands flame up in magic splendor. I dip my hand into the sea, and when I draw it out a handful of shimmering diamonds drips into the water, and for a long time delicate, bluish phosphoric lights glow on my fingers. This is one of those magic nights when, as the fishermen say, “the sea is ablaze.”

Another shoal of fish darts under the boat, furrowing the deep with short, silvery arrows. I hear the snorting of the dolphin near at hand. Here he is, at last! He appears alongside the boat, disappears for a second under the keel and immediately forges ahead. He swims deep under the water, but with extraordinary clearness I distinguish his powerful body, strained in the race. Wrapped in the shimmer of infusoria, his contours set off by myriads of spangles, he looks like a shining glass skeleton, darting at a terrific speed.

Khristo rows with absolute noiselessness, and Yani only once hits the side of the boat with the lead plummets. We have unwound the entire net, and now we can start.

We cross to the opposite shore. Yani plants himself firmly on the prow, his feet wide apart. A large, flat stone, tied to a rope, quietly slides from his hands and sinks to the bottom, hardly splashing the water. A big cork buoy rises to the surface, a scarcely visible black dot on the surface of the bay. Now we make our boat trace a half-circle, as far as the length of our net allows, then we come again to the shore and lower another buoy. We are inside a closed half-circle.

If, instead of poaching, we had been working openly and freely, the next thing to do would have been to make as much noise as possible with our oars and otherwise, so as to drive the fish within our half-circle, into the nets, where they would become entangled in the meshes. But our business needs secrecy, so that all we can do is to go twice from buoy to buoy, noiselessly churning the water with our oars and making it boil in beautiful pale-blue knolls. Then we return to the first buoy. Yani cautiously lifts up the stone which served us as an anchor and drops it without the slightest noise to the bottom of the boat. Standing on the prow and leaning on his left foot, which is put forward, he draws out the net, rhythmically raising and lowering his hands in turn. Slightly leaning overboard, I see the net emerging from the water, and I distinguish clearly every mesh of it, every thread, like an enchanting fiery web. Little, flickering lights slide down Yani’s fingers, and fall back into the water.

And I hear the fish, large and alive, fall to the bottom of the boat with a heavy, wet thud, writhe vigorously, and strike the boards with their tails. Gradually we come to the second buoy and cautiously raise it out of the water.

It is now my turn to row. Khristo and Yani again examine the nets and pick out the mullets from the meshes. Khristo cannot refrain from throwing a big, fat, silvery mullet to my feet over Yani’s head.

“Some fish!” he whispers in my ear, chuckling with bliss.

Yani quietly stops him.

When their work is done and the wet net again lies on the prow platform of the long boat, I see that the entire bottom is carpeted with fish, which are still alive and writhing. But we must make haste. We describe a few more circles, although prudence bids us return to town. Finally, we land in a spot which is but little frequented. Yani brings a basket, and armfuls of big, plump fish, which spread a fresh, delightful odor, fall into it with a savory smack.

Ten minutes later we come back to the coffeehouse, one after another. Everyone invents some pretext for his absence. But our trousers and jackets are wet, Yani has fish-scales in his mustache and beard, and we all smell of the sea and wet fish. Khristo, who cannot control the excitement he has just been through, now and then throws in an allusion to our adventure.

“I was just on the beach.⁠ ⁠… Lots of swine in the bay⁠—it’s simply terrible!” And he would dart a sly, mischievous glance at us.

Yani, who, with Khristo, had carried and hid the basket, sits near me and mumbles into his cup of coffee in a scarcely audible whisper:

“About two thousand, all big. I brought some thirty over to your place.”

This is my share of the booty. I nod. But now I am somewhat ashamed of my crime. Still there is comfort in catching quick, knowing glances around us. It seems that we were not the only ones poaching that night.


White Sturgeon

Winter is setting in. One evening it began to snow, and during the night everything had become white, the embankment, the boats on the beach, the roofs, the trees. Only the water of the bay remains black and sombre, and splashes restlessly in this calm white frame.

All along the shores of Crimea⁠—at Anapa, Sudak, Kerch, Theodosia, Yalta, Balaklava, and Sebastopol⁠—the fishermen prepare for the white-sturgeon season. They clean the fishing-boots, enormous horse-leather boots reaching to the thigh, each weighing some twenty pounds; they repair their waterproof coats painted with yellow oil-paint, and their leather trousers; they mend sails and knit seines.

Long before the beginning of the white-sturgeon season the devout fisherman Fyodor, from Oleiz, burns wax tapers and lamps filled with the finest olive-oil before the image of St. Nicholas, the miracle-worker of Myra in Lycia and the patron saint of seamen. When he will put out to sea with his crew of Tartars, the image of the sea saint will be taken from his shanty and nailed to the prow, as a guide and loadstar of luck. This is known to all the seamen of Crimea, because Fyodor does it every year and because he has the reputation of a brave and lucky fisherman.

At last, with a fair wand blowing, in the early dawn that is still a part of the dark night, hundreds of fishing-craft leave the Crimean peninsula and set sail for the open sea.

How glorious is the moment of departure! All five men sit on the prow of the long boat. “God speed! God’s help with you! God speed!”

The loosened sail falls, and, after flapping hesitatingly in the air for some moments, suddenly swells like a sharp, convex, upturned white wing. The boat, careening all the way to one side, gracefully moves out of the mouth of the bay into the open sea. The water sizzles and foams around the prow and the spray dashes into the boat, while one of the fishermen carelessly sits on the very gunwale, the lower hem of his jacket now and then skimming the surface of the water, and with a swaggering air lights a rolled cigarette. Beneath the grate of the prow is kept a small stock of provisions, consisting of strong whiskey, bread, smoked fish, and a barrel of water.

They sail away a distance of some thirty miles from shore. During this long journey, the leader of the crew and his assistant prepare the fishing implements. These consist of a strong rope about a mile long with bits of cord, about two yards long, tied to it at intervals of two or three yards. The pieces of cord are provided with hooks baited with small fish, and the whole thing is sunk to the bottom of the sea by means of two stones which are placed on the ends of the rope and which serve as anchors. Their position is indicated by two cork buoys floating above the anchors on the surface of the sea, and surmounted by small red flags.

The assistant baits the hooks with extraordinary dexterity and rapidity, while the leader carefully coils the rope into a round basket, arranging it in a neat spiral close to the side of the basket. The bait is put inside the circle. The work, done almost in absolute darkness, is not so easy as would appear at first glance. When the time comes for lowering the rope into the water, one carelessly adjusted hook may catch the main cable and hopelessly entangle the entire outfit.

At dawn the place is reached. Each ataman (head of a fishing-gang) has his favorite, “lucky” spots, and he finds them in the open, tens of miles off the coast, as easily as we find a box of steel pens on our desk. The only thing to do is to sail east until the Foros lighthouse is sighted, taking care that the polar star should be visible above the belfry of the monastery of St. George. Every ataman has his secret signs in the form of lighthouses, large rocks, houses, solitary pines on the mountains, or stars.

When the place is selected, the first stone is lowered, soundings are made, and a buoy tied to the anchor. Then the fishermen row the entire length of the rope while the leader pays it out from the basket with a fabulous speed. When the entire rope is in the sea, the second stone is lowered, the buoy adjusted, and the work is done. The fishermen row or sail back to shore, as the wind permits. A day or two later they return to their places and drag out the rope. If Providence wills or chance permits, the hooks with the bait will be swallowed by the sturgeon, and the fishermen will have a rich catch of this big, sharp-nosed fish, which normally weigh from 300 to 700 pounds, and in rare instances even as much as half a ton.

It was thus that, one night, Vanya Andrutzaki put out to sea in his long boat. To tell the truth, no one expected any good to come of his enterprise. Old Andrutzaki had died the preceding spring, and Vanya was much too young as yet. According to the opinion of experienced fishermen he should have served for two years more as a mere oarsman, and then worked another year as an assistant. But instead, he gathered a gang of green youngsters of the devil-may-care sort, rudely scolded his old mother who had begun to weep, abused the grumbling old fishermen with the profanest oaths, and had sailed off, he and his whole crew dead-drunk. His sheep-fur cap was rowdily tilted to the back of his head, and his curly hair, as black as a poodle’s, fell in disorder over his sunburnt forehead as he stood on the prow of his boat.

A stormy gale was blowing on the sea that night, and a thick snow fell. Several fishing-craft came back soon after leaving the bay, for Greek fishermen, in spite of their long experience, are exceedingly prudent, not to say cowardly. “Bad weather,” they said in explanation.

But Vanya Andrutzaki returned about noon, his long boat chock-full of the largest white sturgeon. In addition, he towed in a monstrous fish, a sturgeon weighing about 750 pounds, which the crew had to thump with mallets and oars for a long time before they could put it to death.

This monster had given the crew no little trouble. Fishermen say that, as a rule, it is enough to bring the sturgeon’s head to the level of the stern-board, and it will leap into the boat of its own accord. It is true that sometimes, while leaping into the boat, the sturgeon, with a powerful stroke of its tail, sends the careless fishermen flying into the sea. Besides, in catching sturgeon there are even more serious moments which threaten fishermen with real danger. That is exactly what had happened to Vanya Andrutzaki.

Standing on the very prow, which now rose to the foamy crest of broad waves and now sank into smooth, green water-pits, Vanya hauled in the rope with a rhythmical motion of his arms and back. Five small sturgeons, which had been taken off at the very beginning, lay motionless on the bottom of the boat. Then the catch became poorer: some hundred and fifty hooks were empty, with their bait untouched.

The men rowed in silence, with their eyes fixed on the two points of the beach indicated by their ataman. His assistant sat at his feet, taking the bait off the hooks and putting the rope into the basket in a neat bale. Suddenly one of the fish on the bottom of the boat began to writhe and shake.

“When a fish kicks, another is coming,” said the young fisher Pavel, repeating an old fishermen’s saying.

That very moment Vanya Andrutzaki felt, deep in the sea, an enormous living weight shaking and resisting and straining on the rope, which became taut like a string. Leaning over the side, he noticed under the water the long, silvery, floating, shimmering body of a monstrous white sturgeon, and, unable to restrain his feelings, he turned to the crew and whispered, his eyes shining with excitement:

“A large one! Like a bull! More than a thousand pounds, I guess.⁠ ⁠…”

That was just what he should not have done! God forbid that you anticipate events or express joy over your success while at sea! And the ancient, mysterious belief immediately proved true in the case of Vanya Andrutzaki. He saw clearly the fish’s long, sharp, bony head half a yard below the surface of the sea, and, stilling his wildly beating heart, he was getting ready to bring it to the board, when suddenly⁠ ⁠… the monster tossed up its tail above the wave and dashed into the depth of the sea, dragging along the rope with the bait-hooks.

Vanya did not lose his head. “Back astern!” he cried to the fishermen, swore savagely and elaborately, and started to pay out the rope after the disappearing fish. The hooks seemed to flash in the air from under his hands and whipped the water. The assistant helped him by throwing the rope out of the basket, and the oarsmen worked furiously, trying to overtake the monster. The work required extraordinary speed and perfect accuracy. A few hooks became entangled in the assistant’s hands. He shouted to Vanya to stop feeding the rope and started to set free the hooks with that speed and care which seamen alone manifest in moments of danger. In those few seconds the rope in Vanya’s hands became as taut as a string, and the boat leaped on the waves in fury, towed by the frantic fish and driven by the efforts of the oarsmen.

“Pay away!” finally cried out the assistant. The rope started again sliding at an incredible speed from the ataman’s dexterous hands, when suddenly the boat jerked and Vanya swore with a repressed groan: a copper hook pierced his palm, just below the little finger and stuck there its full length.⁠ ⁠… It is here that Vanya showed himself a real saltwater fisherman. Having wound the rope around the fingers of the wounded hand, he stopped feeding it for a second, and, producing a knife with his other hand, he cut the cord to which the hook was attached. The hook stuck fast in the palm, but Vanya tore it out with the flesh and threw it into the sea. And although both his hands and the rope were stained with his blood, although the boards of the boat and the water inside grew red, he did his work to the end and was the first to deal the obstinate monster a heavy blow with a mallet.

His was the first sturgeon catch of the season. The crew sold the fish at a very high price so that each member’s share amounted to no less than forty roubles. On this occasion a good bit of wine was drunk, and toward evening the entire crew of St. George the Conqueror⁠—as Vanya’s long boat was called⁠—set out with music for Sebastopol in a two-horse curricle. There the gallant Balaklava fishermen, together with some navy sailors, smashed the piano, the bedsteads, the chairs, and the windows in a house of ill fame; then they thrashed one another thoroughly and came back only at dawn, drunk, bruised, but singing. And as soon as they left the cab, they got into the boat, set sail, and put out to sea again.

From that day Vanya’s reputation as a real saltwater ataman was firmly established.


The Lord’s Fish

(An Apocryphal Tale)

This charming ancient legend was related to me at Balaklava by the ataman, Kolya Konstandi, a real saltwater Greek, an excellent seaman, and a heavy drinker.

At that time he was instructing me in all those wise and strange things which make up the fishermen’s lore. He showed me how to make sea knots and mend torn nets, how to bait hooks for white sturgeon, how to launch and clean seines, how to take out the mullet from the three-walled net, how to fry it, how to separate with a knife the petalide which grow on rocks, how to eat shrimps raw, how to forecast the night’s weather by the day’s surf, how to set sail, weigh anchor, and sound the depths of the sea.

He patiently explained to me the different directions and peculiarities of the winds: the levanter, the sirocco, the tramontane, the terrible bora, the propitious sea-wind, and the capricious land breeze.

To him I also owe my knowledge of fishermen’s customs and superstitions. It is not permissible, during the catch, to whistle aboard the craft or to spit except overboard; one should never mention the devil, though one is permitted to curse by faith, the grave, the coffin, the soul, one’s forefathers, their eyes, livers, spleen, and so on; it is well to leave in the net, as if by chance, a little fish: this brings luck, and God forbid that any article of food be thrown overboard while the boat is at sea. But the most terrible, unpardonable and objectionable breach of fishermen’s etiquette, is to ask a fisherman: “Where are you bound for?” For a question like this one is likely to be roundly thrashed.

It is from him that I learned about the poisonous fish drakus, that resembles a small mackerel, and about the manner in which it ought to be taken off the hook; also about the sea-gremille which causes sores by stinging with its fin, and the terrible double tail of the electric ray. He also told me how skilfully a sea-crab eats an oyster by first putting a pebble into its valve.

And many a strange and mysterious sea-tale did I hear from Kolya in those sweet, quiet hours of the night in early autumn, when our yawl rocked gently on the sea, far away from the unseen shores, and when the two or three of us, sitting by the yellow light of a hand-lantern, leisurely sipped the local pink wine, that smelled of freshly crushed grapes.

“There lives in the ocean a sea-serpent a verst long. Very seldom, not more than once in ten years, he comes up to the surface and breathes. He lives all alone. In former times there were many of them, males and females, but they did so much evil to the small fish, that God condemned them to sterility, and now only this thousand-year-old male serpent lives his last in loneliness. Seamen meet him occasionally, here and there, all over the world, in all the oceans.”

“There lives, somewheres in the sea, on a deserted island, in a deep, submerged cave, the king of sea-lobsters. When he strikes claw against claw, there arises a great turmoil on the surface of the water.”

“Fish converse among themselves⁠—this is known to every fisherman. They warn each other about various dangers and traps, and an inexperienced, awkward fisherman can spoil a lucky spot if he lets some fish out of the net.”

From Kolya I heard also about the Flying Dutchman, that eternal sea-wanderer, with black sails and a lifeless crew. This tale is known and believed all over the seashores of Europe.

But one old legend, told by him, especially touched me with its fresh and naive simplicity.

Once at dawn, when the sun had not yet risen but the sky was already orange-colored and a pink mist hovered over the sea, Kolya and I were hauling out a net which had been placed along the shore in the evening for mackerel. The catch was very poor. It consisted of about a hundred mackerels, five or six gremilles, a few dozen fat, golden crucians, and a lot of jellylike mother-of-pearl-colored medusas, that resembled huge, colorless, many-legged mushroom pileuses.

But we also caught a very queer fish which I had never seen before. It had a flat, oval shape and would scarcely cover a woman’s palm. Its edges were fringed with frequent, small, transparent hairs. Its head was small, and in it were set eyes that were not like those of a fish; they were black, rimmed with gold, and unusually lively. Its body was of an even, golden color. But most striking in this fish were two spots, one in the middle of each side. They were as large as a dime, but of an irregular shape and of a bright azure hue so remarkable that it is not found on any painter’s palette.

“Look,” said Kolya. “This is the Lord’s fish. It seldom gets into our nets.”

We placed it first into the boat pail, and later on, when we returned home, I poured some sea water into a big, enamelled basin, and put the Lord’s fish in it. The fish immediately began to swim round and round, along the sides of the basin, almost touching them, and all the time in one direction. When touched, it emitted a short, scarcely audible, rattling sound, and increased its speed. Its black eyes rolled around, and the wavering of the countless hairs set the water in swift, wavelike motion. I wanted to keep the Lord’s fish in order to take it later to the Aquarium of the Biological Station at Sebastopol, but Kolya said, waving his hand:

“It does not pay to bother. Anyway, it won’t live long enough. That’s the kind of fish it is. If you take it out of the sea even for a second, it won’t live. It is the Lord’s fish.”

Toward evening it died. And at night, while sitting in the yawl, I thought of it, and said:

“Kolya, why is this fish the Lord’s?”

“Well,” answered Kolya with devout earnestness, “our old men here tell the story this way: When our Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day after his burial, no one believed him. Many miracles wrought by him were witnessed while he was alive, but people could not believe this one and they were afraid.

“His disciples renounced him, his apostles denied him, the faithful women abandoned him. Then he comes to his mother. At that moment, she was standing at the fireplace, frying some fish, preparing dinner for herself and hers. Said the Lord to her: ‘Greetings! Here I am, thy Son, risen from the dead, as it is written in the Scriptures. Peace be with thee.’ But she shuddered and cried out in affright: ‘If thou art truly my Son, work thou a miracle, so I may be convinced.’

“The Lord smiled at her lack of faith and said: ‘I shall take this fish lying on the fire, and it will spring to life. Wouldst thou believe me then?’

“And barely did he touch the fish with his two fingers and lifted it up in the air, when it began to tremble and sprang to life.

“Then our Lord’s mother had faith in the miracle and joyfully worshipped her resurrected Son. And ever since then there remained on the fish the two spots of heavenly azure. These are the traces of our Lord’s fingers.”

That was how a plain, simple-minded fisherman related this naive, ancient tale. A few days later I learned that the Lord’s fish has also another name, that of the fish of Zeus. Who knows how far back into the womb of ages this apocryphal tale extends?



O dear, simple men, stout hearts, naive, primitive souls, strong bodies, swept by the salt-sea breezes, sinewy hands, sharp eyes, that have so often looked into the face of death, into its very pupils!

Bora has been blowing for three days. Bora⁠—also called the northeaster⁠—is a mysterious, fierce wind, born somewhere in the bald, peeled-off mountains near Novorossiysk, which swoops down upon the round bay and sets the entire Black Sea rolling heavily. Its violence is so great that it upsets loaded freightcars on the railways, uproots telegraph-posts, shatters freshly laid brick walls, and throws down solitary pedestrians. In the middle of the past century several warships, caught by the northeaster, found refuge against it in the Novorossiysk Bay: under full steam they strove against the wind, but could not advance an inch; then they cast double anchors, yet the gale tore them from the anchors, dragged them into the bay, and dashed them to splinters on the rocks near the shore.

This wind is terrible because of its unexpectedness: it is impossible to foresee it⁠—it is the most capricious of winds on the most capricious of seas.

Old fishermen say that the safest way of getting away from it is to “slip away into the open sea.” And there have been times when bora carried away some small bark or pale-blue Turkish felucca ornamented with silver stars, across the entire Black Sea, to the Anatolian coast, three hundred and fifty versts away.

Bora has been blowing for three days. It is the time of the new moon. The birth-throes of the moon are, as usual, painful. Experienced fishermen have given up all hope of setting out to sea, and have dragged their boats as far away from the shore as they could.

The desperate Fyodor from Oleiz alone, who for many days had been burning candles before the image of St. Nicholas, the miracle-worker, decided to put to sea in order to gather in his sturgeon line. With his gang, consisting entirely of Tartars, he set out three times, and each time, cursing and blaspheming, making no more than one-tenth of a sea knot an hour, he was forced to row back. Each time, in a fury which only a seaman can understand, he tore off the image of his saint nailed to the prow, hurled it to the bottom of the boat, trampled it under foot, and cursed fiercely, while the crew with their hats and hands baled out the water which dashed madly over the sides of the boats.

Meanwhile, the old, sly Balaklava Laestrygonians sat in the coffeehouses, rolled cigarettes, sipped strong thick coffee, played dominos, complained of the weather, and, revelling in the cozy warmth and in the light thrown by the hanging lamps, they recalled ancient, legendary tales inherited from fathers and grandfathers, of how, in such and such a year, the surf was so many hundred yards high and the spray reached to the very base of the half-ruined Genoese fortress.

In the meantime, a bark from Foros was lost at sea. It belonged to a band of eight flaxen-haired Ivans, who had come all the way from the interior of Russia to try their luck on the Black Sea. In the coffeehouse no one worried about them or pitied them. People smacked their lips over their liquor, laughed, and contented themselves with saying contemptuously: “The fools! In such weather! Oh, well, they’re only Russians.” On a dark, roaring night, in the hour preceding the dawn, all those poor Ivans from Ilmen Lake or from the Volga went to the bottom, like stones, with their horse-leather boots reaching to the waist, with their leather jackets and yellow-painted waterproof cloaks.

It was altogether different when Vanya Andrutzaki, in spite of all the warnings and persuasions of the old men, put to sea just before the bora set in. The Lord alone knows why he did it, most probably out of boyish bravado, goaded by his youthful impetuosity and ambition and also by wine. Perhaps some red-lipped, black-eyed Greek girl was gazing at him that moment.

He set sail⁠—the gale even then was quite strong⁠—and vanished from sight. The boat dashed out of the bay with the swiftness of a fine prize-horse; for five minutes the white sail flashed on the blue of the deep, and then it became impossible to distinguish it from the white froth that leaped from wave to wave.

Only three days later he returned home.⁠ ⁠…

Three days and three nights without food or sleep, in a tiny cockleshell amidst a furious sea⁠—with no coast in sight, no sail, no beckoning lighthouse, no steamer’s smoke on the horizon! But once back from his journey, Vanya forgot all about it, as though nothing had happened to him, as though he had taken a ride in a mail-coach to Sebastopol and bought a box of cigarettes there.

There were, however, several details which I squeezed with great difficulty out of Vanya’s memory. For instance, at the end of the second night Yura Lipiadi was overcome by some sort of hysteric fit: all of a sudden he broke out weeping and laughing, and would surely have jumped overboard had not Vanya hit him on the head with an oar. There was also a moment when the crew, frightened by the furious speed of the boat, wanted to lower the sails, and it must have cost Vanya tremendous effort to curb the will of these five men and subjugate them to his own in the very face of death. I also learned that the oarsmen worked so furiously that blood gushed from under their fingernails. But all this was related to me in fragments, reluctantly, incidentally. Yes, in those days of feverish, tense struggle with death, many things were said and done which the crew of the bark will never relate to anyone, not for the whole world!

During those three days and three nights no one at Balaklava closed his eyes except fat Petalidi, the owner of the hotel “Paris.” Young and old, women and children, roamed along the coast in anxiety, scaled the cliffs and climbed up the Genoese fortress which overshadows the city with its two ancient battlements. Telegrams were sent all over the world: to the commander of the Black Sea ports, the bishop of our diocese, the lighthouses, the lifesaving stations, the minister of the navy, the minister of ways of communication, to Yalta, Sebastopol, Constantinople, and Odessa, to the Patriarch of Greece, the governor, and also, for no earthly reason at all, to the Russian consul at Damascus, who happened to be an acquaintance of a Greek aristocrat of Balaklava, a dealer in flour and cement.

The ancient, immemorial ties which weld man with man came again to life, the deep feeling of comradeship, so little noticeable amidst the petty calculations and the bustle of everyday life, and the voice of the forebears rang again in every heart, of the forebears who, thousands of years ago, long before the time of Ulysses, stood out together against bora, on days and nights like these.

No one slept. At night the fishermen built a huge fire on the mountain, and people roamed about the coast with lanterns, as they do at Easter. But no one laughed or sang, and the coffeehouses were empty.

What a delightful, unforgetable moment it was, when, in the morning, at about eight o’clock, Yura Paratino, who stood on the summit of a cliff above the White Stones, screwed up his eyes, bent forward, bored the distance with his sharp gaze, and suddenly shouted:

“They’re coming!”

No one but Yura Paratino could have descried the boat on the blue-black sea, which was still rolling heavily and viciously, but was slowly calming down. But five, ten minutes later any boy could see clearly that St. George the Conqueror was making for the bay, tacking about and running under sail. A great joy welded together hundreds of human beings into one body and one soul!

Before entering the bay they lowered their sails and took to oars; their entry was at top speed, as triumphant as though they returned after an excellent catch of sturgeon. All around people wept with joy: mothers, wives, brides, sisters, little brothers. Do you think that even one of the crew softened, burst into tears, or wept on someone’s bosom? Not at all! Soaked, hoarse, and windswept, the six of them made straight for Yura’s coffeehouse, ordered wine and music, and for hours shouted songs and danced like madmen, leaving pools of salt water on the floor. Late at night their comrades carried them, drunk and exhausted, to their homes; there every one of them slept twenty hours at a stretch. And when they awoke, their journey appeared to them like a trip to Sebastopol, where they had had a good time, and then returned home.


The Divers


Probably since the Crimean War no steamer, except perhaps an occasional torpedo-boat on manoeuvres, has entered the narrow-mouthed, sinuous, and oblong Balaklava Bay. And really what business could bring steamers to this out-of-the-way fishing settlement, half village, half town? Its only cargo, fish, is bought up on the spot by middlemen and is carted to the markets of Sebastopol, thirteen versts away. It is also from Sebastopol that a few people come to spend the summer months at Balaklava, using for that purpose the mail-coach, which charges them fifty copecks for the trip. The small but desperately brave steam-tug, The Hero, which plies daily between Yalta and Alupka, panting like a fagged-out dog, and tossing and pitching in the slightest breeze as if caught in a hurricane, tried to establish passenger communication with Balaklava. But this attempt, repeated three or four times, resulted merely in a waste of time and coal. The Hero came and left empty. And the Balaklava Greeks, the distant descendants of the bloodthirsty Homeric Laestrygonians, standing on the landing-place with their hands in their pockets, greeted it and saw it off with cutting words, ambiguous advice, and stinging Godspeeds.

But during the siege of Sebastopol the charming pale-blue Balaklava Bay sheltered almost a quarter of the allied fleet. That heroic epoch has left some authentic traces at Balaklava, such as the steep road, which was cut by the English sappers in the ravine of Kefalo-Vrisi; the Italian cemetery, hidden among the vineyards on the top of the Balaklava hills, and the short plaster-of-Paris and bone pipes, which the allied soldiers smoked half a century ago, and which are unearthed from time to time by vineyard tillers.

But the legend blossoms forth more gorgeously. The Balaklava Greeks are even now convinced that it was only owing to the sturdy resistance of their own Balaklava battalion that Sebastopol was able to hold out so long? Yes, in former days Balaklava was inhabited by iron-hearted and proud men. Popular tradition has handed down the years a story which well illustrates their pride.

I do not know whether the late Emperor Nicholas I ever visited Balaklava. It stands to reason that during the Crimean War he had not the time to come to Balaklava. But the local annals relate, with a great deal of assurance, that during a military muster the terrible Emperor, having ridden up close to the Balaklava battalion, was struck by their martial air, fiery eyes, and huge black mustaches. In a thundering and joyous voice he shouted:

“Good morning, men!”

But the battalion kept silent.

The Tsar repeated his greeting several times, rapidly working up into a rage. Not a sound from the soldiers! Finally, quite beside himself, the Emperor dashed up to the officer who was in charge of the battalion, and exclaimed in his fearful voice:

“Why, the devil take them, don’t they answer? Haven’t I said in plain Russian: ‘Good morning, men!’ ”

“There are no men here,” answered the officer meekly. “They are all captains.”

Then Nicholas, so the story goes, laughed⁠—what else could he do?⁠—and shouted again:

“Good morning, captains!”

And the gallant Laestrygonians gayly responded:

Kále méra (Good day), your Majesty!”

Whether or not the event happened as related, or whether it took place at all, is hard to say in default of conclusive historical evidence. But up to this day a goodly portion of the brave Balaklavians bear the family name of Capitanaki, and if you ever run across a Greek with the name of Capitanaki, you may be sure that either he or his near ancestors come from Balaklava.

But the brightest and most dazzling flowers of imagination decorate the tale of the English squadron which sank off the coast of Balaklava. On a dark winter night several English ships were making for Balaklava Bay, seeking refuge from a storm. Among them was a magnificent three-mast frigate, The Black Prince, laden with money wherewith to pay the allied armies. Sixty million roubles in English gold were on board. Old men even know the precise amount.

The same old men say that nowadays there blow no longer such hurricanes as the one that raged on that terrible night. Monstrous waves, breaking upon the vertical cliffs, tossed up to the very foot of the Genoese tower⁠—fifty yards up!⁠—and washed its old gray walls. The fleet could not locate the narrow mouth of the bay, or probably, having found it, the men-of-war were not able to enter the inlet. All the ships were smashed on the cliffs, and together with the magnificent Black Prince and the English gold went down by the White Stones, which up to this very day emerge threateningly from the sea where the narrow mouth of the bay broadens out seaward, toward the right, as you leave Balaklava.

Nowadays steamers pass far away from the bay, fifteen to twenty versts off. From the Genoese fortress it is almost impossible to descry the dark, seemingly stationary body of the steamer, its long, trailing tail of gray, melting smoke, and its two masts gracefully bent backward. But the sharp eye of a fisherman almost unfailingly distinguishes these vessels by signs which are incomprehensible to both our sight and experience: Here is a freighter from Eupatoria.⁠ ⁠… And here a “Russian Company” steamer.⁠ ⁠… This is a “Russian” one⁠ ⁠… and there is one of Koshkin’s boats.⁠ ⁠… And here is the Pushkin, tossing on the ripples⁠—this one rocks even on a quiet sea.


One day, quite unexpectedly, a huge, old-fashioned, unusually dirty Italian steamer, the Genova, entered the bay. It happened late in the evening, during that part of autumn when all the summer visitors have left for the north, but the sea is still so warm that real fishing has not yet begun, and the fishermen mend their nets in leisurely fashion and prepare hooks, play dominos in the coffeehouses, drink wine, and, in general, enjoy their temporary leisure.

The evening was quiet and dark, with big calm stars twinkling both in the sky and in the slumbering water of the bay. Along the embankment the lanterns began to gleam, forming a chain of yellow dots. The bright rectangles of the stores were disappearing. Light, black silhouettes were slowly moving along the streets and sidewalks.⁠ ⁠… And then, I do not know who, perhaps the boys who were playing at the Genoese tower, brought the news that a steamer had turned in from the sea and was heading for the bay.

In a few minutes the entire native male population was on the quay. It is well known that a Greek is always a Greek, and, therefore, is curious first of all. It is true that in the Balaklava Greeks one senses, in addition to later admixtures of Genoese blood, some mysterious, immemorial, probably Scythian strain⁠—the blood of the aboriginal inhabitants of this nest of freebooters and fishermen. You will notice many tall, robust, and dignified figures; at times you run across regular, noble features; there are many fair-headed and even blue-eyed specimens among them. The Balaklava Greeks are neither greedy nor obsequious; they carry themselves with dignity; at sea they are daring, but without silly bravado; they are good comrades and keep their word. Really, they are a separate, exclusive branch of the Hellenic race, which has preserved itself mainly because of the fact that for many generations their ancestors came to life, lived, and died in their tiny town, marriages taking place among neighbors only. But the Greek colonizers had left in the psychic organization of the present-day inhabitants of Balaklava their own most typical trait which distinguished them even in the time of Pericles⁠—curiosity and eagerness for news.

Slowly, at first showing its tiny front light, the steamer turned the sharp bend and headed for the bay. In the thick, warm darkness of the night its outlines were invisible from a distance, but the lights high on the masts, the signal-lamps on the bridge, and a row of round lighted bull’s-eyes along the rail allowed one to guess at its size and shape. In the sight of hundreds of boats and smacks, which stood along the quay, the steamer was moving toward the beach almost imperceptibly, with that careful and awkward cautiousness with which a huge and powerful man passes through a nursery room with frail toys scattered all around it.

The fishermen were making guesses. Many of them had sailed on traders and, more frequently, on men-of-war.

“What are you talking about? Don’t I see? Of course, it is a freighter of the Russian Company.”

“No, it isn’t a Russian steamer.”

“Something must have gone wrong with the engine, and she is turning in for repairs.”

“Maybe it’s a battleship?”


Only Kolya Konstandi, who had sailed a long time on a gunboat on the Black Sea and on the Mediterranean, guessed correctly, declaring it an Italian vessel. And he did so only when the steamer had come very near the beach, and it was possible to make out her faded, peeled-off boards, the dirty streams running from the hatches, and the motley crew on the deck.

The end of a rope shot from the steamer in a spiral, and, uncoiling like a snake in the air, it flew at the spectators’ heads. To hurl the end from the steamer adroitly, and to catch it as skilfully, is, as everybody knows, the first requirement of sea chic. Young Apostolidi, without removing his cigarette from his mouth, caught the end of the rope with an air as if he were doing it for the hundredth time that day, and carelessly to all appearances, but firmly, he wound it around one of the two cast-iron cannon which, from time immemorial, have been standing on the embankment, dug upright in the ground.

A boat pulled off from the steamer. Three Italians leaped ashore and busied themselves with ropes. One of them wore a cloth biretta, the other, a cap with a straight quadrangular visor, the third had on a nondescript knitted cap. They were all small, robust, alert, and wiry, like monkeys. Unceremoniously they shoved the crowd with their shoulders, babbled something in their rapid, musical, tender Genoese dialect, and exchanged remarks with the men on the steamer. And all the time their big, black eyes smiled kindly and pleasantly, and their white, young teeth flashed from their sunburnt faces.

Bona sera.⁠ ⁠… Italiano.⁠ ⁠… Marinaro!” said Kolya approvingly.

Oh! Bona sera, signore!” answered the Italians gayly in a chorus.

The anchor chain rumbled and screamed. Something inside the steamer began to gurgle and hiss. The lights went out in the lanterns. In half an hour the Italian sailors were sent ashore.

The Italians, short, swarthy, and young, proved to be sociable and gay fellows. Full of light, charming ease, they made overtures that evening to the fishermen in the beer-halls and rathskellers. But the local people met them dryly and with reserve. They wanted, probably, to show these strangers that the visit of a foreign vessel was no rarity to them, that such things happened daily, and that, therefore, there was no reason for undue excitement or joy. Was it the voice of their local patriotism that spoke in them?

And⁠—oh! it was an unseemly trick that they played that evening on the good, gay, trusting Italians, when the latter pointed at bread, wine, cheese, and other objects and asked the Russian words for them, blandly showing their magnificent teeth. Such were the words which the fishermen taught their guests, that later on, whenever the Genoese tried to make themselves understood in Russian in the stores or on the marketplace, the salesmen roared with laughter and the women fled, covering up their faces in shame. That same evening the rumor spread all over the town with the speed of an electric message (the Lord knows how) that the Italians had come for the express purpose of raising the sunken frigate The Black Prince with its cargo of gold, and that the work was going to last the entire winter.


No one at Balaklava believed in the success of this undertaking. In the first place, of course, a mysterious spell lay on the sea treasure. Hoary, white old men, all bent with age, said that attempts to get the English gold from the bottom had already been made: Englishmen and also some fabulous Americans had come, wasted heaps of money, and had left Balaklava with empty hands. What, indeed, could such people as Englishmen or Americans do if the legendary Balaklava heroes of yore had failed here? Naturally, in those days the weather, the catch, the longboats, the sails, and the people were quite different from the small fry of today. In former days there lived the mythical Spiro. He was able to dive to any depth and stay under water a quarter of an hour. This very Spiro, holding between his feet a stone three pounds in weight, went down to the bottom, to a depth of a hundred yards, where the remnants of the sunken squadron had found their grave. And Spiro saw everything: the ship, the gold, but he could not take anything⁠ ⁠… it will not let you.

“Sashka the Messenger ought to try,” one of the listeners would remark slyly. “He is our best diver.”

Everybody laughed, and loudest of all⁠—displaying his beautiful, proud mouth⁠—laughed Sashka Argiridi, alias Sashka the Messenger.

This worthy⁠—a superb, blue-eyed man, with a hard classic profile⁠—is the greatest lazybones, cheat, and buffoon on the entire Crimean seacoast. He was nicknamed “the Messenger” because sometimes, at the very height of the summer season, he would sew a pair of gold stripes on the band of his cap and would seat himself on a chair in the street very near to the hotel. And if some giddy tourists had the misfortune of addressing a question to the self-styled commissionaire, no earthly power could save them from becoming Sashka’s victims. He would drag them over hills, through courtyards, vineyards, cemeteries, and regale them with all kinds of impossible stories. He would run into somebody’s courtyard, break into pieces a fragment of an old pot, and then coax the tourists into buying the potsherds⁠—the remnants, he would swear, of an ancient Greek vase dating to the time before Christ. At other times he would hold up in front of their noses an ordinary, thin, oval-shaped, and grooved pebble which the fishermen use as plummets for their nets, trying to persuade the poor tourists that no Greek fisherman ever goes to sea without such a talisman, which is hallowed at the shrine of St. Nicholas, and which saves them from storms.

But his most remarkable trick is diving. While accompanying a boating party of simple-minded tourists whom he bores with the inevitable “Our sea is deserted,” “Down Mother Volga,” and similar songs, he would skilfully and imperceptibly turn the conversation to the sunken squadron, the mythical Spiro, and the subject of diving in general. A quarter of an hour under water⁠—even to the credulous members of the boating party this sounded like a lie, like a specifically Greek lie. Two or three minutes, well, that may be possible.⁠ ⁠… But fifteen! Of course, Sashka is cut to the quick.⁠ ⁠… He frowns, offended.⁠ ⁠… Well, if people don’t believe him, he will personally and on the spot, this very minute, prove that he, Sashka, will dive and stay under water all of ten minutes.

“It is true that the job is not an easy one,” he says rather gloomily. “In the evening blood will come out of my ears and eyes.⁠ ⁠… But I will not let anybody say that Sashka Argiridi is a braggart.”

The tourists try to make him listen to reason and to dissuade from such a reckless undertaking, but to no avail, since the man is insulted in his tenderest spot. Quickly and angrily he takes off his coat and trousers, in a twinkling strips off the rest of his clothes, making the ladies turn away and screen themselves with umbrellas, and then with a noise and a splash he throws himself into the water, head first, without forgetting, however, to measure with his eye the distance between the boat and the nearby public baths for men.

Sashka is really an excellent swimmer and diver. Deep down in the water he turns about under the keel of the boat and heads straight for the baths. And while the holiday makers in the boat are greatly alarmed⁠—reproach one another and, in general, make much and noisy ado⁠—Sashka sits on one of the steps of the baths and hurriedly finishes smoking someone’s cigarette end. He returns in the same manner, and quite unexpectedly bobs up out of the water⁠—to everybody’s relief and delight⁠—close to the boat, trying his best to make his eyes bulge and his chest pant from the exertion.

Of course, all this hocus-pocus is for Sashka a source of income. But it must be recognized that what guides him in his tricks is not at all greed, but rather the imp of gay, boyish mischief that lives in him.


The Italians did not conceal the purpose of their visit: they came to Balaklava with the express intention of exploring the scene of the naval disaster, and, if circumstances permitted, to raise from the bottom all of the more valuable remnants⁠—mainly, of course, the legendary golden treasure. The expedition was headed by Giuseppe Restucci, an engineer and an inventor of a special diving apparatus. He was a middle-aged, tall, taciturn man, always dressed in gray, with a gray, oblong face and almost white hair, with a cataract on one eye⁠—in general, looking more like an Englishman than an Italian. He put up at the hotel on the beach, and of an evening, when you called on him, he treated you to Chianti and to the verses of his favorite poet, Steccheti:

“A woman’s love is like coal, which burns when aglow, and soils when cold.”

And although he recited the verses in Italian, with his soft and musical accent, their meaning was clear without translation, owing to his wonderfully expressive gestures: with such an air of sudden pain did he jerk away his hand, singed by the imaginary fire, and with such a mien of squeamish disgust did he spurn the cold coal!

There were also aboard the vessel a captain and two assistant officers. But the most remarkable member of the crew was, of course, the diver⁠—il palombaro⁠—a fine Genoese, by the name of Salvatore Trama.

Congested veins, like little, blue snakes, were seen on his big, round, dark-bronze face, studded with black dots which looked as if they were caused by a gunpowder burn. He was rather short, but because of the extraordinary volume of his chest, the breadth of his shoulders, and the massiveness of his powerful neck, he gave the impression of a very stout man. When he walked, with his lazy gait, along the embankment, his hands in his trousers pockets and his feet wide apart, he looked from afar like a walking square, his height not exceeding his breadth.

Salvatore Trama was an affable, indolently jovial, and trustful man, with a tendency toward apoplexy. He was not unwilling to relate strange, marvellous things about his professional experiences.

Once, in the Bay of Biscay, he went down to the bottom, fifty yards deep. Suddenly, amidst the greenish dusk of the deep, he noticed that a huge shadow was slowly moving from above straight toward him. Then the shadow halted. Through the round window of the diving-helmet Salvatore beheld right above his head, at the distance of about a yard, an enormous electric ray, about five yards in diameter, “as big as this room,” as Trama said. It stood motionless, waving the edges of its round, flat body. One slight contact with the diver’s body of its double tail, which carries a powerful electric charge, would mean death for brave Trama. Those two minutes of expectation, at the end of which the monster seemed to have changed its mind and slowly swam on, shaking its thin, waving sides, Trama considers the most horrible moments of his hard and dangerous life.

He spoke also of how he met under water dead sailors, who had been thrown overboard. In spite of the weight tied to their feet, and, owing to the decomposition of the body, they settle into a layer of water of such a density that they can neither sink nor rise. Standing upright, with the cannonball fastened to their feet, they travel in the water, carried by a gentle current.

Trama also related a mysterious accident which happened to another diver, his relative and teacher. He was an old, robust, cold-blooded, and daring man, who had searched the sea bottom of nearly all the seacoasts of the globe. His exceptional and dangerous trade he loved with all his heart, as does every true diver.

Once, this man, while engaged in laying a telegraph-cable at the bottom of the sea, had to go down to a comparatively slight depth. But as soon as he reached the bottom and signalled the fact, he gave the signal of alarm: “Lift me up. Am in danger.”

When he was hurriedly dragged out and freed from the brass helmet connected with the scaphander, everyone was struck by the expression of terror which had distorted his pale face and whitened his eyes. They stripped the diver of his clothes, made him swallow a few gulps of cognac, and did all they could to soothe him. For a long time his jaws clattered, and he could not say a word. Finally he came to himself and said:

“Basta! I don’t go down any more! I have seen.⁠ ⁠…”

Until his dying hour he told no one what sight or hallucination had shaken his mind so fearfully. If the conversation turned to that subject he became sulkily silent and left the company at once.⁠ ⁠… And he kept his word: never again did he go down to the bottom of the sea.


There were about fifteen sailors aboard the Genova. They all lived on the steamer and seldom went ashore. Their relations with the Balaklava fishermen remained distant and coldly polite. Only Kolya Konstandi greeted them good-naturedly from time to time:

Bona giorna, signori. Vino rosso.⁠ ⁠…

These gay young southern lads must have felt very lonesome at Balaklava after their visits to Rio Janeiro, Madagascar, Ireland, Africa, and many lively ports of the European Continent. At sea, constant danger and the straining of all one’s forces; ashore, wine, women, singing, dancing, and a good fight⁠—this is the life of a true seaman. But Balaklava is only a tiny, quiet place, a narrow, pale-blue inlet, lost amidst naked cliffs, with several dozen shanties perched on them. The wine here is sour and strong⁠—as for women, there are none for the amusement of a gallant seaman. The Balaklava wives and daughters lead a reserved and chaste life. Their only diversion is a leisurely chat at the fountain, where housewives come to fill their jars with water. Men, even close friends or relatives, avoid calling on one another at home, preferring to meet in a coffeehouse or on the landing.

Once, however, the fishermen rendered the Italians’ a small service. There was on the Genova a steam-launch with an old, very poor engine. Several sailors, under the command of the assistant captain, went out into the open sea in this launch. But, as often happens in the Black Sea, a strong gale began blowing from the land and drove the frail craft into the open sea with increasing speed. For a long time the Italians refused to give up: for an hour they struggled with the wind and the waves, and it was nerve-racking to watch from the rocks the tiny cockleshell, crowned with a tail of smoke; now it appeared on the crests of the waves, now it disappeared completely, as if foundering in the waves. The launch could not overcome the wind, and it was driven farther and farther out to sea. At last, those who watched the boat from the Genoese fortress noticed a white rag hoisted on the smokestack. In the language of signals it meant: “Am in danger.” Two of the best Balaklava barks, Russia’s Glory and Svyetlana, at once set sail and made seaward.

Two hours later they towed in the launch. The Italians were somewhat crestfallen, and poked fun at their own situation in a rather constrained manner. The fishermen, too, cracked jokes, but with an air of marked superiority.

Sometimes, while catching flat fish or white sturgeon, the fishermen happened to hook a sea-cat⁠—a species of electric ray. With all necessary precaution, the fishermen would take it off and throw it overboard. But someone, probably that student of the Italian language, Kolya, spread a rumor that Italians consider the sea-cat one of the choicest of dainties. Frequently after that, a fisherman on his way back from the sea would shout as he passed the steamer:

Italiano, signoro! Take this for your lunch!”

The round, flat electric ray would shoot through the air and fall on the deck with a heavy thud. The Italians laughed, showing their magnificent teeth, shook their heads good-naturedly, and mumbled something in their own tongue. They probably thought that the sea-cat is considered the finest local dainty and they did not wish to insult the good fishermen by rejecting their offering.⁠ ⁠…


Two weeks after their arrival, the Italians built and launched a large raft, on which they placed a steam-engine, an air-pumping machinery. The long shaft of a crane, like a huge fishing-rod, rose slantingly over the raft. Once, on a Sunday, Salvatore Trama was lowered for the first time into the water of the bay. He wore the ordinary gray rubber suit of a diver, in which he appeared larger than usual, shoes with leaden soles, and iron shirtfront on his chest, and a round brass helmet which encased his head. He walked on the bottom of the bay for about half an hour, and his road was marked by a mass of air-bubbles which welled up to the surface. And a week later all Balaklava learned that on the following day the diver was to go down at the White Stones, to the depth of a hundred yards. And when on that morrow the small, miserable launch towed the raft to the mouth of the bay, almost all the fishermen’s barks which were stationed in the bay were waiting at the White Stones.

The main advantage of Mr. Restucci’s invention was that it enabled a diver to reach a depth at which a man in an ordinary scaphander would be crushed by the tremendous pressure of the water. It was with surprise and, at any rate, with a feeling of deep respect that our fishermen watched the preparations which were being made before their eyes. First the steam crane lifted up and set down a strange case which resembled slightly the human figure deprived of its head and arms. It was made of a thick sheet of copper, on the outside covered with pale-blue enamel. Then this scaphander was opened like a gigantic cigar-case, in which, instead of a cigar, a human body was to be placed. Salvatore Trama, smoking a cigarette, calmly watched these preparations and lazily smiled, passing careless remarks from time to time. Then he flung the cigarette end overboard, waddled over to the case, and slid into it. Several mechanics busied themselves over him for a long time, setting up all sorts of apparatus, and it must be said that when the work was done, the diver presented quite a dreadful spectacle. Only his arms remained outside, the rest of his body being shut up in a solid pale-blue enamelled coffin of tremendous weight. A huge pale-blue ball, with three bull’s-eyes⁠—one in the front and two on the sides⁠—and with an electric lantern in the forehead, hid his head; the main cable, a rubber pipe for air, a signalling rope, a telephone wire, and a light-conducting wire seemed to cover the apparatus with a net, increasing the air of oddity and dread which rested on this pale-blue massive mummy, provided with living human arms.

The steam-engine gave a signal, and the air resounded with the clatter of chains. The bizarre, pale-blue box separated itself from the deck of the raft and it sailed through the air calmly, twirling on its vertical axis, then started downward slowly. First it touched the surface of the water, then plunged down to its feet, its waist, its shoulders.⁠ ⁠… Presently the head, too, disappeared, and finally nothing was seen except the steel cable, slowly descending into the water. Silently and seriously the fishermen exchanged glances and shook their heads.⁠ ⁠…

Engineer Restucci is at the telephone. From time to time he flings short commands to the mechanic who regulates the movements of the rope. All around in the boats reigns complete, deep silence, interrupted only by the hissing of the air-pumping machine, the noise of pinions, the whizzing of the steel cable on the pulleys, and the abrupt words of the engineer. All eyes are fixed on the spot where the terrible ball-like head had disappeared.

The descent is painfully long. It lasts more than an hour. But finally Restucci becomes animated, speaks several times into the telephone receiver, and suddenly utters a short command:

“Stop!⁠ ⁠…”

Now all the spectators understand that the diver has reached the bottom, and everyone heaves a sigh of relief. The most terrible part is over.⁠ ⁠…

Squeezed into his metallic case, with only his arms free, Trama was unable to move on the sea bottom. The only thing he could do was to order through the telephone that he be transported forward together with the raft or moved to the side by means of the crane, lifted up, or lowered down. Without leaving the telephone, Restucci calmly and imperiously repeated his orders and it seemed as if the raft, the crane, and all the machines were set in motion by the will of an invisible, mysterious being under the water.

Twenty minutes later Salvatore Trama gave a signal that he be lifted up. Slowly, as before, he was dragged up to the surface, and when he was again suspended in the air, he gave the odd impression of a terrible and at the same time helpless animal, miraculously extracted from the deep.

At last the case stood on the deck. The sailors quickly and adroitly took off the helmet and unpacked the case. Trama emerged from it sweating, choking, his face almost black with blood congestion. He seemed to make an effort to smile, but the result was a grimace of suffering and weariness. The fishermen in their boats remained respectfully silent and shook their heads as a sign of amazement and, according to the Greek custom, clacked their tongues significantly.

An hour later all Balaklava knew what the diver had seen on the sea bottom, at the White Stones. Most of the ships were so thoroughly buried in mud and all sorts of dirt, that there was no hope of lifting them up. As for the three-mast frigate with gold, which had been sucked in by the sea bottom, the only part of it which was still visible was a bit of the prow on which were the green copper letters: “… ck Pr.⁠ ⁠…

Trama also told that around the sunken squadron he saw many boat anchors, and this news moved the fishermen, because each of them, at least once in his life, had to leave his anchor there, caught in the rocks and the fragments of the ill-fated fleet.


The Balaklava fishermen, too, once succeeded in offering the Italians an extraordinary and, in a sense, magnificent spectacle. It was on the 6th of January, on the day of our Lord’s baptism, which at Balaklava is celebrated in quite a peculiar manner.

By this time the Italian divers were completely convinced of the uselessness of further efforts to lift up the squadron. In a few days they were to sail home to their beloved gay Genoa, and they were hastily putting the steamer in order, scrubbing and washing the deck, and cleaning the engines.

The church procession, the clergy in gold-wrought vestures, the banners, the cross, and the saints’ images, the church singing⁠—all this attracted their attention and they stood on the deck, leaning over its railing.

The clergy ascended the boards of the landing-place. Behind them women, old men, and children were crowded together. As for the younger men, they sat in their boats, which formed a narrow semicircle around the landing-place.

The day was sunny, transparent, and cold. The snow which had fallen the night before covered the streets, roofs, and the bald, brown hills; the water in the bay was an amethyst blue, and the azure of the heavens smiled festively.

The young fishermen wore underwear merely for the sake of decorum, and many of them were stripped to the waist. They all shivered with cold, and rubbed their frozen hands and chests. The singing of the chorus, harmonious and sweet, floated over the motionless stretch of the clear waters.

“On the river Jordan⁠ ⁠…” sang the priest in a thin falsetto, and the cross, raised high, sparkled in his hand.⁠ ⁠… The most critical moment had arrived. The fishermen stood each on the prow of his boat, all half-naked, bending forward in impatient expectation.

The priest again raised his voice and the chorus joined in harmoniously and joyfully: “On the river Jordan.” At last, the cross rose for the third time above the crowd, and suddenly, sent flying by the priest’s hand, it described a shining arc in the air and fell into the sea with a splash.

At the same moment dozens of strong, muscular bodies leaped from the boats into the sea, head first, shouting and splashing the water. Three, four seconds passed. The empty boats rocked and bowed; the churned-up water pitched and tossed.⁠ ⁠… Then one after the other, shaking, snorting heads, with hair falling over their eyes, began to appear above the water. The last one to emerge was young Yani Lipiadi. He held the cross in his hand.

The gay Italians could not remain serious at the sight of this extraordinary, half-sportlike, half-religious rite, hallowed by immemorial antiquity. They met the winner with such noisy applause that even the kindly priest shook his head disapprovingly:

“Very unseemly.⁠ ⁠… Very unseemly, indeed.⁠ ⁠… Is this a theatrical performance for them?”

The snow sparkled dazzlingly, the blue water caressed the eye, the sun flooded with its gold the bay, the hills, and the people, and the sea exhaled a strong, thick, and powerful odor. Fine!