On the Sturgeon
Muffin rolled onboard the steamer Sturgeon as roundly and gently as the little loaf he was named after. He had waited for a thick scrap of fog to creep across onto the quayside, then shrank and shriveled and made himself just like a little gray cloud too. A sudden dart to the very edge, then a hop and a skip up onto the cast-iron bollard. He tripped lightly along the mooring line stretched as taut as a bowstring (this was no great trick for Muffin—he once danced a jig on a cable for a bet). Nobody spotted a thing, and there you are now: welcome the new passenger onboard!
Of course, it wouldn’t have broken him to buy a deck ticket. Only thirty-five kopecks as far as the next mooring, the town of Ust- Sviyazhsk. But for a razin, buying a ticket would be an insult to his profession. Buying tickets was for the geese and the carp.
Muffin had got his nickname because he was small and nimble and he walked with short, springy steps, as if he were rolling along. And he had a round head, cropped close, with ears that stuck out at the sides like little shovels, but were remarkably keen of hearing.
What is known about the razins? A small group of river folk, inconspicuous, but without them the River would not be the River, like a swamp without mosquitoes. There are experts at cleaning out other people’s pockets onshore as well—“pinchers,” they’re called—but those folk are petty, ragged riffraff and for the most part homeless strays, so they aren’t paid much respect, but the razins are, because they’ve been around since time out of mind. As for the question of where the name came from, some claim that it must have come from the word “razor,” since the razins are so very sharp, but the razins themselves claim it comes from Ataman Stenka Razin, the river bandit, who also plucked fat geese on the great Mother River. The philistines, of course, claim that this is mere wishful thinking.
It was good work, and Muffin liked it exceptionally well. Get on the steamer without anyone noticing you, rub shoulders with the passengers until the next mooring, and then get off. What you’ve taken is yours, what you couldn’t take can go sailing on.
So what are the trump cards in this game?
Sailing airily down the river is good for the health. That’s the first thing. And then you see all different kinds of people, and sometimes they’ll start telling you something so amusing you clean forget about the job. That’s the second thing. But the most important thing of all is—you won’t do any time in jail or hard labor. Muffin had been working on the River for twenty years, and he had no idea what a prison even looked like, he’d never laid eyes on one. Just you try catching him with the swag. The slightest hitch, and it’s gone: “The rope ends are underwater.” And by the way, that old Russian saying was invented about the razins, only other folk never bother to think about it. “Ends” is what whey call their booty. And as for the water, there it is, splashing just over the side. Get spotted, and you just chuck the ends in the water, and there’s no way they can prove a thing. The Mother River will hide it all. Well, they’ll give you a thrashing, of course, that’s just the way of things. Only they won’t beat you really hard, because the public that sails on steamers is mostly cultured and delicate, not like in the villages by the river, where the peasants are so wild and ignorant they can easily flog a thief to death.
The razins call themselves “pike” as well, and they call the passengers “geese” and “carp.” As well as “the rope ends are underwater,” there’s another saying that everyone repeats all the time, but they don’t understand the real meaning: “The pike’s in the river to stop the carp dozing.”
The most important festival of all for a razin is the first steamer of spring, better than any saint’s day. During the winter you can turn as dull as lead for lack of work, and sometimes you can find yourself hungry too. Just sitting there doing nothing, cursing tedious old winter and waiting for the spring, your young bride. Sometimes your dear heart will play hard to get for a long time and there’ll be no steamers sailing until almost June, but this year spring had come calling on Muffin while she was still a pretty young thing and not been obstinate at all. So passionate and affectionate was she, the way she’d clung to him—he’d never known the like. Would you believe it, only the first of April and all the ice was gone already, and the shipping season had begun.
The River’s floodwaters spread out so far and wide you could scarcely even see the banks, but the Sturgeon was sticking strictly to the fairway, moving at her slowest speed. Because of the fog, the captain was being extremely cautious, and every two or three minutes he gave a hoarse blast on the whistle: “Oooh-dooo! Get out of the way—I’m coming!”
The fog was a nuisance to the captain, but it was Muffin’s trustiest comrade. If he could have cut a deal, he would have given it half the loot, just as long as it kept rolling in thick and heavy.
He certainly had nothing to complain about today—the fog had made a really first-rate effort, spreading itself thickest just above the river so that the lower deck, where the cabins were, was as good as smothered. The boat deck, where the lifeboats lay and the folks with sacks and bundles sat along the edge, was sometimes released from the fog’s grip and sometimes covered over: it was like in a fairy tale— the people were there, then suddenly they all disappeared and there was nothing left but white murk. Only the tall black funnel and the bridge were above the fog. Up there, the captain probably felt like he wasn’t a captain sailing on the Sturgeon at all, but more like the Lord God Sabaoth himself, floating on the clouds.
All the vessels in the river fleet of the Nord shipping line were named after some kind of fish, it was one of the owner’s whims. From the flagship, the triple-decked Great Sturgeon, with first-class cabins that cost ten rubles each, to the last little panting, puffing tug—the Gudgeon or the Blay.
The Sturgeon was not one of the biggest steamers in the line, but it was a good one, lucrative. It sailed from Moscow to Tsaritsyn. The passengers were mostly long-distance travelers, on their way to the Holy Land, some even going all the way to America. Many of them were traveling on special concessionary tickets from the Palestine Society. Muffin himself had never sailed the seas, because there was no point to it, but he knew the whole business backward and forward.
On the Nord Line’s tickets they traveled as follows: from Moscow along the Oka to Nizhni, and after that along the River to Tsaritsyn, then by train to Taganrog, and from there by steamer again, only this time it was a seagoing vessel, and they went on to wherever it was they wanted to go. Sailing third class to the Holy Land cost only 46 rubles and 50 kopecks. Of course, if you went to America, then it was more expensive.
muffin hadn’t fleeced anyone yet, he was keeping his hands in his pockets, only his eyes and his ears were at work. And his feet too, that goes without saying. The moment the fog thickened a bit, he shuffled along on his soft felt soles from one group to another, keeping his eyes peeled and his ears pricked. What kind of people are you? How good a watch are you keeping?
That was how it was done: first take a good look around, get the feel of things, and then, closer to the mooring, do the job, neat and clean. And the most important thing was to sniff out the “dashers.” They were bound to be hanging about, they’d been waiting for the shipping season too. Horses of altogether a different color from Muffin, they were. They didn’t often do any jobs onboard; in their trade there was no point. The only thing the dashers did on the water was select their goose; they plucked and fleeced him later, onshore.
Well, let them, it’s no skin off our nose; the only trouble is that the dashers don’t wander around with a Finnish knife clutched in their teeth, they blend in well, and you could make a mistake. Vasya Rybinsky, a well-respected razin, went and lifted a gold watch off a certain estate manager, and the manager turned out not to be a manager at all—he was a dasher, from the Kazan set. They found Vasya afterward and, of course, they busted his head for him, even though it wasn’t Vasya’s fault. That’s the way it is with the dashers—they simply can’t bear for anyone to filch anything from them. And they can’t show their faces in their own crowd again until they’ve got even, for the shame of it.
Muffin started with the boat deck. There were deck passengers there, mostly poor, but in the first place, a chicken pecks one grain at a time, and in the second place, it was in Muffin’s nature to leave the daintiest morsels to last. He ate his food the same way. For instance, if it was buckwheat with crackling, then first he would gather the grain together with his spoon and for the time being arrange the fatty bacon prettily around the edge of his plate. If it was cabbage soup with a marrowbone, he would first sup the broth, next gobble up the cabbage and carrot, then scrape up the meat, and only after that suck the marrow out of the bone.
Anyway, he gave the boat deck a thorough working over, from poop to waist to forecastle. Muffin knew all the shipboard words and fine details better than any sailor, because the sailor doesn’t love the steamer. Hard-drinking soul that he is, he can’t wait to get back ashore and into the tavern, but for a razin everything on a ship is useful, everything is interesting.
Sitting huddled together in the bow were people journeying to the Lord’s Sepulchre, about twenty men and women, each with a knotty stick —a pilgrim’s staff—proudly displayed beside himself or herself. The pilgrims were eating bread with salt, washing it down with hot water from tin kettles, and glancing haughtily at the other travelers.
Now, don’t you go putting on such airs, Muffin told them, speaking to himself. There’s others more pious than you. They say some pilgrims don’t make their way to Palestine on steamships—they use their own two feet. And once they reach the border of the Promised Land, they crawl the rest of the way on their knees. Now that’s real holiness for you.
But he left the godly travelers alone and moved on. What could you get from them anyway? Of course, each of them had five rubles tucked away, and getting it was an absolute cinch, but you had to be completely shameless to do that. And a man couldn’t live without a conscience, even in the thieving trade. Maybe you needed it even more in the thieving trade than in any other—otherwise you could go to the devil completely.
Muffin had long ago drawn up a rule for himself, so he could keep his peace of mind: if you can see someone’s a good person or in misfortune, don’t take anything from him, even if his wallet is sticking out and just begging to be pinched. It doesn’t make sense. You might end up thirty rubles richer, or even three hundred, but you’d lose your self-respect. Muffin had seen plenty of thieves who had lowered themselves like that. Human garbage who had sold their souls for crumpled banknotes. Is the price of self-respect three hundred rubles? You’ve got to be joking! There probably isn’t enough money in the entire world for that.
He hung around some German emigrants, eyeing them keenly. This group had to be on their way to Argentina—that was the fashion among the Germans now. Supposedly they were given as much land as they wanted there, and not taken for soldiers. Your German was like your Yid, he didn’t like to serve our tsar. And they’d taken deck tickets, the cheapskates. The sausage-eaters had plenty of money, but they were too tightfisted.
Muffin sat down under a lifeboat and listened to the German conversation for a while, but it just made him spit. They spoke just like they were deliberately playing the fool: Guk-mal-di-da.
One of them, with a red face, finished smoking his pipe and put it down on the deck, real close. Well, Muffin couldn’t resist it and he picked up the nice little thing right away, didn’t put it off. It was foggy now, but who knew how things would turn out later?
He inspected the pipe (porcelain, with little figures—a real sight for sore eyes) and stuck it in his swag bag, a small canvas sack with a string for hanging it over his shoulder.
A good start.
Sitting farther on were some Dukhobors, reading a godly book out loud. Muffin left them alone. He knew they were traveling to Canada. Quiet people, they never gave offense to anyone, they suffered for the truth. The writer Count Tolstoy was for them. Muffin had read one of his books—“How much land does a man need?” It was funny, about what fools the peasants were.
All right then, Dukhobors, sail on, and God be with you.
From the waist deck all the way to the poop deck it was nothing but Yids, but they weren’t in a crowd, either, they were in separate groups. That was no surprise to Muffin. He knew what this nation was like, always squabbling with one another.
It was the same as with the Russians: the ones most highly regarded were the ones sailing to Palestine. Muffin stood there for a while and listened to a “Palestinian” Yid boasting to an “American” one: “No offense intended,” he said, “but we’re traveling for the sake of our souls, not our bellies.” And the one going to America swallowed it, he didn’t try to talk back at all, just hung his head.
Muffin took a folding ruler, a tailor’s rule that is, out of the Palestinian’s pocket. It wasn’t a really fat prize, but he could give it to the widow Glasha, she sewed skirts for women, and she’d say thank you. He took the American’s watch. A rubbish watch it was too, brass, worth maybe a ruble and a half.
Excerpted from Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel by Boris Akunin. Copyright © 2009 by Boris Akunin. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.