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The Icebreaker
by [?]

On a frozen river near a certain Russian town, a gang of seven carpenters were hastily repairing an icebreaker which the townsfolk had stripped for firewood.

That year spring happened to be late in arriving, and youthful March looked more like October, and only at noon, and that not on every day, did the pale, wintry sun show himself in the overcast heavens, or, glimmering in blue spaces between clouds, contemplate the earth with a squinting, malevolent eye.

The day in question was the Friday in Holy Week, and, as night drew on, drippings were becoming congealed into icicles half an arshin long, and in the snow-stripped ice of the river only the dun hue of the wintry clouds was reflected.

As the carpenters worked there kept mournfully, insistently echoing from the town the coppery note of bells; and at intervals heads would raise themselves, and blue eyes would gleam thoughtfully through the same grey fog in which the town lay enveloped, and an axe uplifted would hover a moment in the air as though fearing with its descent to cleave the luscious flood of sound.

Scattered over the spacious river-track were dark pine branches, projecting obliquely from the ice, to mark paths, open spaces, and cracks on the surface; and where they reared themselves aloft, these branches looked like the cramped, distorted arms of drowning men.

From the river came a whiff of gloom and depression. Covered over with sodden slush, it stretched with irksome rigidity towards the misty quarter whence blew a languid, sluggish, damp, cold wind.

Suddenly the foreman, one Ossip, a cleanly built, upright little peasant with a neatly curling, silvery beard, ruddy cheeks, and a flexible neck, a man everywhere and always in evidence, shouted:

“Look alive there, my hearties!”

Presently he turned his attention to myself, and smiled insinuatingly.

“Inspector,” he said, “what are you trying to poke out of the sky with that squat nose of yours? And why are you here at all? You come from the contractor, you say? — from Vasili Sergeitch? Well, well! Then your job is to hurry us up, to keep barking out,’ Mind what you are doing, such-and-such gang! ‘ Yet there you stand-blinking over your task like an object dried stiff! It’s not to blink that you’re here, but to play the watchdog upon us, and to keep an eye open, and your tongue on the wag. So issue your commands, young cockerel.”

Then he shouted to the workmen:

“Now, then! No shirking! Is the job going to be finished tonight, or is it not? “

As a matter of fact, he himself was the worst shirker in the artel [Workman’s union]. True, he was also a first-rate hand at his trade, and a man who could work quickly and well and with skill and concentration; but, unfortunately, he hated putting himself out, and preferred to spend his time spinning arresting yarns. For instance, on the present occasion he chose the moment when work was proceeding with a swing, when everyone was busily and silently and wholeheartedly labouring with the object of running the job through to the end, to begin in his musical voice:

“Look here, lads. Once upon a time–“

And though for the first two or three minutes the men appeared not to hear him, and continued their planing and chopping as before, the moment came when the soft tenor accents caught and held the men’s attention, as they trickled and burbled forth. Then, screwing up his bright eyes with a humorous air, and twisting his curly beard between his fingers, Ossip gave a complacent click of his tongue, and continued measuredly, and with deliberation:

“So he seized hold of the tench, and thrust it back into the cave. And as he turned to proceed through the forest he thought to himself: ‘Now I must keep my eyes about me.’ And suddenly, from somewhere (no one could have said where), a woman’s voice shrieked: ‘Elesi-a-ah! Elesia-ah!'”