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Creatures That Once Were Men

On A Raft
Heavy clouds drift slowly across the sleepy river and hang every moment lower and
thicker. In the distance their ragged gray edges seem almost to touch the surface of the
rapid and muddy waters, swollen by the floods of spring, and there, where they touch, an
impenetrable wall rises to the skies, barring the flow of the river and the passage of the
The stream, swirling against this wall--washing vainly against it with a wistful wailing
swish--seems to be thrown back on itself, and then to hasten away on either side, where
lies the moist fog of a dark spring night.
The raft floats onward, and the distance opens out before it into heavy cloud--massed
space. The banks of the rivers are invisible; darkness covers them, and the lapping waves
of a spring flood seem to have washed them into space.
The river below has spread into a sea; while the heavens above, swatched in cloud
masses, hang heavy, humid, and leaden.*
There is no atmosphere, no color in this gray blurred picture.
The raft glides down swiftly and noiselessly, while out of the darkness appears, suddenly
bearing down on it, a steamer, pouring from its funnels a merry crowd of sparks, and
churning up the water with the paddles of its great revolving wheels.
The two red forward lights gleam every moment larger and brighter, and the mast-head
lantern sways slowly from side to side, as if winking mysteriously at the night. The
distance is filled with the noise of the troubled water, and the heavy thud-thud of the
"Look ahead!" is heard from the raft. The voice is that of a deep-chested man.
* The river is the volga, and the passage of strings of rafts down its stream in early spring
is being described by the author. The allusion later on to the Brotherhood living in the
Caucasus, refers to the persecuted Doukhobori, who have since been driven from their
homes by the Russian authorities and have taken refuge in Canada.
In order to enter into the sociology of this story of Gorkv's it must be explained that
among ancient Russian folk-customs, as the young peasants were married at a very early
age, the father of the bridegroom considered he had rights over his daughter-in-law. In
later times, this custom although occasionally continued, was held in disrepute among the
peasantry; but that it has not entirely died out is proved by the little drama sketched in by
the hand of a genius in "On a Raft."