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In A Mountain Defile
by [?]

In a mountain defile near a little tributary of the Sunzha, there was being built a workman’s barraque– a low, long edifice which reminded one of a large coffin lid.

The building was approaching completion, and, meanwhile, a score of carpenters were employed in fashioning thin planks into doors of equal thinness, knocking together benches and tables, and fitting window-frames into the small window-squares.

Also, to assist these carpenters in the task of protecting the barraque from tribesmen’s nocturnal raids, the shrill-voiced young student of civil engineering who had been set in charge of the work had sent to the place, as watchman, an ex-soldier named Paul Ivanovitch, a man of the Cossack type, and myself.

Yet whereas we were out-at-elbows, the carpenters were sleek, respectable, monied, well-clad fellows. Also, there was something dour and irritating about them, since, for one thing, they had failed to respond to our greeting on our first appearance, and eyed us with nothing but dislike and suspicion. Hence, hurt by their chilly attitude, we had withdrawn from their immediate neighbourhood, constructed a causeway of stepping stones to the eastern bank of the rivulet, and taken up our abode beneath the chaotic grey mists which enveloped the mountain side in that direction.

Also, over the carpenters there was a foreman–a man whose bony frame, clad in a white shirt and a pair of white trousers, looked always as though it were ready-attired for death. Moreover, he wore no cap to conceal the yellow patch of baldness which covered most of his head, and, in addition, his nose was squat and grey, his neck and face had over them skin of a porous, pumice-like consistency, his eyes were green and dim, and upon his features there was stamped a dead and disagreeable expression. To be candid, however, behind the dark lips lay a set of fine, close teeth, while the hairs of the grey beard (a beard trimmed after the Tartar fashion) were thick and, seemingly, soft.

Never did this man put a hand actually to the work; always he kept roaming about with the large, rigid-looking fingers of his hands tucked into his belt, and his fixed and expressionless eyes scanning the barraque, the men, and the work as his lips vented some such lines as:

Oh God our Father, bound hast Thou
A crown of thorns upon my brow!
Listen to my humble prayer!
Lighten the burden which I bear!

“What on earth can be in the man’s mind?” once remarked the ex- soldier, with a frowning glance at the singer.

As for our duties, my mates and I had nothing to do, and soon began to find the time tedious. For his part, the man with the Cossack physiognomy scaled the mountain side; whence he could be heard whistling and snapping twigs with his heavy feet, while the ex-soldier selected a space between two rocks for a shelter of ace-rose boughs, and, stretching himself on his stomach, fell to smoking strong mountain tobacco in his large meerschaum pipe as dimly, dreamily he contemplated the play of the mountain torrent. Lastly, I myself selected a seat on a rock which overhung the brook, dipped my feet in the coolness of the water, and proceeded to mend my shirt.

At intervals, the defile would convey to our ears a dull echo of sounds so wholly at variance with the locality as muffled hammer- blows, a screeching of saws, a rasping of planes, and a confused murmur of human voices.

Also, a moist breeze blew constantly from the dark-blue depths of the defile, and caused the stiff, upright larches on the knoll behind the barraque to rustle their boughs, and distilled from the rank soil the voluptuous scents of ace-rose and pitch-pine, and evoked in the trees’ quiet gloom a soft, crooning, somnolent lullaby.

About a sazhen [Fathom] below the level of the barraque there coursed noisily over its bed of stones a rivulet white with foam. Yet though of other sounds in the vicinity there were but few, the general effect was to suggest that everything in the neighbourhood was speaking or singing a tale of such sort as to shame the human species into silence.