The River of Life

by


The River of Life was published in The River of Life and Other Stories, translated from the Russian by S. Koteliansky and J.M. Murry in the 1916 edition.

I

The landlady’s room in the ‘Serbia.’ Yellow wallpaper; two windows with dirty muslin curtains; between them an oval squinting mirror, stuck at an angle of forty-five degrees, reflects a painted floor and chair legs; on the window-sills dusty, pimply cactuses; a cage with a canary hangs from the ceiling. The room is partitioned off by red screens of printed calico: the smaller part on the left is the bedroom of the landlady and her children; that on the right is blocked up with varied odds and ends of furniture—bedridden, rickety, and lame. In the corners all kinds of rubbish are in chaotic cobwebbed heaps: a sextant in a ginger leather case, and with it a tripod and a chain, some old trunks and boxes, a guitar without strings, hunting boots, a sewing machine, a ‘Monopan’ musical box, a camera, about five lamps, piles of books, dresses, bundles of linen, and a great many things besides. All these things had been detained at various times by the landlady for rent unpaid, or left behind by runaway lodgers. You cannot move in the room because of them.

The ‘Serbia’ is a third-rate hotel. Permanent lodgers are a rarity, and those are4 prostitutes. Mostly they are casual passengers who float up to town on the Dnieper: small farmers, Jewish commission agents, distant provincials, pilgrims, and village priests who come to town to inform, or are returning home when the information has been lodged. Rooms in the ‘Serbia’ are also occupied by couples from the town for the night or a few days.

Spring. About three in the afternoon. The curtains of the open windows stir gently, and the room smells of kerosene and baked cabbage. It is the landlady warming up on her stove a bigoss à la Polonaise of cabbage, pork fat, and sausage, with a great deal of pepper and bay leaves. She is a widow between thirty-six and forty, a strong, quick, good-looking woman. The hair that she wears in curls over her forehead has a strong tinge of grey; but her face is fresh, her big sensual mouth red, and her young dark eyes moist and playfully sly. Her name is Anna Friedrichovna. She is half German, half Pole, and comes from the Baltic Provinces; but her close friends call her Friedrich simply, which suits her determined character better. She is quick-tempered, scolds and talks bawdy. Sometimes she fights with her porters and the lodgers who have been on the spree; she drinks as well as any man, and has a mad passion for dancing. She changes from abuse to laughing in a second. She has but small respect for the law, receives lodgers without passports, and with her own hands, as she says, ‘chucks into the street’ those who5 don’t pay up—that is, she unlocks his door while he is out, and puts all his things in the passage or on the stairs, and sometimes in her own room. The police are friendly with her for her hospitality, her cheerful character, and particularly for the gay, easy, unceremonious, disinterested complaisance with which she responds to man’s passing emotions.

She has four children. The two eldest, Romka and Alychka, have not yet come back from school, and the younger, Adka, seven, and Edka, five, strong brats with cheeks mottled with mud, blotches, tear-stains, and the sunburn of early spring, are always to be found near their mother. Both of them hold on to the table leg and beg. They are perpetually hungry, because their mother does not pay much attention to food; they eat anyhow, at different times, sending into a little general shop for anything they want. Sticking out his lips in a circle, frowning, and looking out under his forehead, Adka roars in a loud bass: ‘That’s what you’re like. You won’t give me a taste.’ ‘Let me try,’ Edka speaks through his nose, scratching his calf with his bare foot.

At the table by the window sits Lieutenant Valerian Ivanovich Tchijhevich of the Army Reserve. Before him is the register, in which he enters the lodgers’ passports. But after yesterday’s affair the work goes badly; the letters wave about and crawl away. His trembling fingers quarrel with the pen. There is a roaring in his ears like the telegraph poles in6 autumn. At times it seems to him that his head is beginning to swell, to swell ... and the table, the book, the inkstand, and the lieutenant’s hand go terribly far away and become quite tiny. Then again the book comes up to his very eyes, the inkstand grows and repeats itself, and his head grows small, turns to queer strange sizes.

Lieutenant Tchijhevich’s appearance speaks of former beauty and lost position; his black hair bristles, and a bald patch shows on the nape of his neck. His beard is fashionably trimmed to a sharp point. His face is lean, dirty, pale, dissipated. On it is, as it were written, the full history of the lieutenant’s obvious weaknesses and secret diseases.

His situation in the ‘Serbia’ is complicated. He goes to the magistrates on Anna Friedrichovna’s behalf. He hears the children’s lessons and teaches them deportment, keeps the house register, makes out the lodgers’ accounts, reads the newspaper aloud in the morning and talks of politics. He usually sleeps in one of the vacant rooms and, in case of an influx of guests, in the passage on an ancient sofa, whose springs and stuffing stick out together. When this happens the lieutenant carefully hangs all his property on nails above the sofa: his overcoat, cap, his morning coat, shiny with age and white in the seams but tolerably clean, a ‘Monopole’ paper collar, an officer’s cap with a blue band; but he puts his notebook and his handkerchief with some one else’s initials under his pillow.

The widow keeps her lieutenant under her thumb. ‘Marry me and I’ll do anything for you,’ she promises. ‘Full equipment, all the linen you want, a fine pair of boots and goloshes as well. You’ll have everything, and on holidays I’ll let you wear my late husband’s watch with the chain.’ But the lieutenant is still thinking about it. He values his freedom, and sets high store by his former dignity as an officer. However, he is wearing out some of the older portions of the deceased’s linen.

II

From time to time storms break out in the landlady’s room. Sometimes it happens that the lieutenant, with the assistance of his pupil Romka, sells a heap of somebody else’s books to a second-hand dealer. Sometimes he takes advantage of the landlady’s absence to intercept the payment for a room by day. Or he secretly begins to have playful relations with the servant-maid. Just the other day the lieutenant abused Anna Friedrichovna’s credit in the public-house over the way. This came to light, and a quarrel raged, with abuse and a fight in the corridor. The doors of all the rooms opened, and men and women poked their heads out in curiosity. Anna Friedrichovna shouted so loud that she was heard in the street:

‘You get out of here, you blackguard, get out, you tramp! I’ve spent on you every penny of the money I’ve earned by sweating blood. You fill your belly with the farthings I sweat for my children!’

‘You fill your belly with our farthings,’ squalled the schoolboy Romka, making faces at him from behind his mother’s skirt.

‘You fill your belly!’ Adka and Edka accompanied from a distance.

Arseny the porter, in stony silence, pressed9 his chest against the lieutenant. From room No. 9, the valiant possessor of a magnificently parted black beard leaned out to his waist in his underclothes, with a round hat for some reason perched on his head, and resolutely gave his advice:

‘Arseny, give him one between the eyes.’

Thus the lieutenant was driven to the stairs; but there was a broad window opening on to these very stairs from the corridor. Anna Friedrichovna hung out of it and still went on shouting after the lieutenant:

‘You dirty beast ... you murderer ... scoundrel ... Kiev gutter-sweeping!’

‘Gutter-sweeping!’ ‘Gutter-sweeping!’ the brats in the corridor strained their voices, shouting.

‘Don’t come eating here any more! Take your filthy things away with you. Take them. Take them!’

The things the lieutenant had left upstairs in his haste descended on him: a stick, his paper collar, and his notebook. The lieutenant halted on the bottom stair, raised his head, and brandished his fist. His face was pale, a bruise showed red beneath his left eye.

‘You just wait, you scum. I tell everything in the proper quarter. Ah! ah.... They’re a lot of pimps, robbing the lodgers!’

‘You just sling your hook while you’ve got a whole skin,’ said Arseny sternly, pressing on the lieutenant from behind and pushing him with his shoulder.

‘Get away, you swine! You’ve not the right to lay a finger on an officer,’ the lieutenant proudly exclaimed. ‘I know about everything! You let people in here without passports! You receive—you receive stolen goods.... You keep a broth——’

At this point Arseny seized the lieutenant adroitly from behind. The door slammed with a shattering noise. The two men rolled out into the street together like a ball, and thence came an angry: ‘Brothel!’

This morning, as it had always happened before, Lieutenant Tchijhevich came back penitent, with a bouquet of lilac torn out of somebody’s garden. His face was weary. A dim blue surrounded his hollow eyes. His forehead was yellow, his clothes unbrushed, and there were feathers in his hair. The reconciliation goes slowly. Anna Friedrichovna hasn’t yet had her fill of her lover’s submissive look and repentant words. Besides, she is a little jealous of the three nights her Valerian has passed, she knows not where.

‘Anna, darling, ... where ...’ the lieutenant began in an extraordinarily meek and tender falsetto, slightly tremulous even.

‘Wha-at! Who’s Anna darling, I’d like to know,’ the landlady contemptuously cut him short. ‘I’m not Anna darling to any scum of a road sweeper!’

‘But I only wanted to ask what address I was to write for “Praskovia Uvertiesheva, 34 years old,” there’s nothing written down here.’

‘Put her down at the Rag-market, and put yourself there, too. You’re a pretty pair. Or put yourself in a doss-house.’

‘Dirty beast,’ thinks the lieutenant, but he only gives a deep, submissive sigh. ‘You’re very nervous to-day, Anna, darling!’

‘Nervous! Whatever I am, I know I’m an honest, hard-working woman.... Get out of the way, you bastards,’ she shouts at the children, and suddenly, ‘Shlop, shlop’—two well-aimed smacks with the spoon come down on Adka’s and Edka’s foreheads. The boys begin to snivel.

‘There’s a curse on my business, and on me,’ the landlady growls angrily. ‘When I lived with my husband I never had any sorrows. Now, all the porters are drunkards, and all the maids are thieves. Sh! you cursed brats!... That Proska ... she hasn’t been here two days when she steals the stockings from the girl in No. 12. Other people go off to pubs with other people’s money, and never do a stroke....’

The lieutenant knew perfectly who Anna Friedrichovna was speaking about, but he maintained a concentrated silence. The smell of the bigoss inspired him with some faint hopes. Then the door opened and Arseny the porter entered without taking off his hat with the three gold braids. He looks like an Albino eunuch, and his dirty face is pitted. This is at least the fortieth time he has had this place with Anna Friedrichovna. He keeps it until the first fit12 of drinking, when the landlady herself beats him and puts him into the streets, first having taken away the symbol of his authority, his three-braided cap.

Then Arseny puts a white Caucasian fur hat on his head and a dark blue pince-nez on his nose, and swaggers in the public-house opposite until he’s drunk everything on him away, and at the end of his spree he will cry on the bosom of the indifferent waiter about his hopeless love for Friedrich and threaten to murder Lieutenant Tchijhevich. When he sobers down he comes to the ‘Serbia’ and falls at his landlady’s feet. And she takes him back again, because the porter who succeeded Arseny had already managed in this short time to steal from her, to get drunk, to make a row and be taken off to the police station.

‘You ... have you come from the steamer?’ Anna Friedrichovna asked.

‘Yes. I’ve brought half a dozen pilgrims. It was a job to get ’em away from Jacob—the “Commercial.” He was just leading them off, when I comes up to him and says, “It’s all the same to me, I says, go wherever you like. But as there are people who don’t know these places, and I’m very sorry for you, I tell you straight you’d better not go with that man. In their hotel last week they put some powder in a pilgrim’s food and robbed him.” So I got them away. Afterwards Jacob shook his fist at me in the distance, and called out: “You just wait, Arseny. I’ll get you. You won’t get away13 from me!” But when that happens, I’ll do it myself....’

‘All right,’ the landlady interrupted. ‘I don’t care twopence about your Jacob. What price did you fix?’

‘Thirty kopeks. I did my best, but I couldn’t make them give more.’

‘You fool. You can’t do anything.... Give them No. 2.’

‘All in the one room?’

‘You fool. Two rooms, each.... Of course, all in one room. Bring three mattresses from the old ones, and tell them that they’re not to lie on the sofa. These pilgrims have always got bugs. Get along!’

When he had gone the lieutenant said in a tender and solicitous undertone: ‘Anna, darling, I wonder why you allow him to enter the room in his hat. It is disrespectful to you, both as a lady and proprietress. And then—consider my position. I’m an officer in Reserve, and he is a private. It’s rather awkward.’

But Anna Friedrichovna leapt upon him in fresh exasperation: ‘Don’t you poke your nose in where it’s not wanted. Of-ficer indeed! There are plenty of officers like you spending the night in a shelter. Arseny’s a working man. He earns his bread ... not like.... Get away, you lazy brats, take your hands away!’

‘Ye-es, but give us something to eat,’ roars Adka.

‘Give us something to eat....’

Meanwhile the bigoss is ready. Anna Friedrichovna clatters the dishes on the table. The lieutenant keeps his head busily down over the register. He is completely absorbed in his business.

‘Well, sit down,’ the landlady abruptly invited him.

‘No thanks, Anna, darling. Eat, yourself. I’m not very keen,’ Tchijhevich said, without turning round, in a stifled voice, loudly swallowing.

‘You do what you are told.... He’s giving himself airs, too.... Come on!’

‘Immediately, this very minute. I’ll just finish the last page. “The certificate issued by the Bilden Rural District Council ... of the province ... number 2039....” Ready.’ The lieutenant rose and rubbed his hands. ‘I love working.’

‘H’m. You call that work,’ the landlady snorted in disdain. ‘Sit down.’

‘Anna, darling, just one ... little....’

‘You can manage without.’

But since peace is already almost restored, Anna Friedrichovna takes a small, fat-bodied cut-glass decanter from the cupboard, out of which the deceased’s father used to drink. Adka spreads his cabbage all over his plate and teases his brother because he has more. Edka is upset and screams:

‘Adka’s got more. You gave him——’

Shlop! Edka gets a sounding smack with15 the spoon upon his forehead. Immediately Anna Friedrichovna continues the conversation as if nothing had happened:

‘Tell us another of your lies. I bet you were with some woman.’

‘Anna, darling!’ the lieutenant exclaimed reproachfully. Then he stopped eating and pressed his hands—in one of which was a fork with a piece of sausage—to his chest. ‘I ... oh, how little you know me. I’d rather have my head cut off than let such a thing happen. When I went away that time, I felt so bitter, so hard! I just walked in the street, and you can imagine, I was drowned in tears. My God,’ I thought, ‘and I’ve let myself insult that woman—the one woman whom I love sacredly, madly....’

‘That’s a pretty story,’ put in the landlady, gratified, but still somewhat suspicious.

‘You don’t believe me,’ the lieutenant replied in a quiet, deep, tragic voice. ‘Well, I’ve deserved it. Every night I came to your window and prayed for you in my soul.’ The lieutenant instantly tipped the glass into his mouth, took a bite, and went on with his mouth full and his eyes watering:

‘I was thinking that if a fire were to break out suddenly or murderers attack, I would prove to you then.... I’d have given my life joyfully. Alas! my life is short without that. My days are numbered....’

Meanwhile the landlady fumbled in her purse.

‘Go on!’ she replied, coquettishly. ‘Adka,16 here’s the money. Run to Vasily Vasilich’s and get a bottle of beer. But tell him it’s got to be fresh. Quick!’

Breakfast is finished, the bigoss eaten, and the beer all drunk, when Romka, the depraved member of the preparatory class of the gymnasium, appears covered in chalk and ink. Still standing at the door he pouts and looks angrily. Then he flings his satchel down on the floor and begins to howl:

‘There!... you’ve been and eaten everything without me. I’m as hungry as a do-og.’

‘I’ve got some more. But I shan’t give you any,’ Adka teases him, showing him his plate across the room.

‘There!... it’s a dirty trick,’ Romka drags out the words. ‘Mother, tell Adka——’

‘Be quiet!’ Anna Friedrichovna cries in a piercing voice. ‘Dawdle till it’s dark, why don’t you? Take twopence. Buy yourself some sausage. That’ll do for you.’

‘Ye-es, twopence! You and Valerian Ivanich eat bigoss, and you make me go to school. I’m just like a do-o-o-g.’

‘Get out!’ Anna Friedrichovna shouts in a terrible voice, and Romka precipitately disappears. Still he managed to pick his satchel up from the floor. A thought had suddenly come into his head. He would go and sell his books in the Rag-market. In the doorway he ran into his elder sister Alychka, and seized the opportunity to pinch her arm very hard. Alychka entered grumbling aloud:

‘Mamma! tell Romka not to pinch.’

She is a handsome girl of thirteen, beginning to develop early, a swarthy, olive brunette, with beautiful dark eyes, which are not at all childish. Her lips are red, full and shining, and on her upper lip, which is lightly covered with a fine black down, there are two delightful moles. She is a general favourite in the house. The men give her chocolates, often invite her into their rooms, kiss her and say impudent things to her. She knows as much as any grown-up, but in these cases she never blushes, but just casts down her long black eyelashes which throw a blue shade on her amber cheeks, and smiles with a strange, modest, tender yet voluptuous, and somehow expectant smile. Her best friend is the woman Eugenia who lives in No. 12—a quiet girl, punctual in paying for her room, a stout blonde, who is kept by a timber merchant, but on her free days invites her cavaliers from the street. Anna Friedrichovna holds her in high esteem, and says of her: ‘Well, what does it matter if Eugenia is not quite respectable, she’s an independent woman anyhow.’

Seeing that breakfast is over Alychka gives one of her constrained smiles and says aloud in her thin voice, rather theatrically: ‘Ah! you’ve finished already. I’m too late. Mamma! may I go to Eugenia Nicolaievna?’

‘Go wherever you like!’

‘Merci!’

She goes away. After breakfast complete18 peace reigns. The lieutenant whispers the most ardent words into the widow’s ear, and presses her generous knee under the table. Flushing with the food and beer, she presses her shoulder close to him, then pushes him away and sighs with nervous laughter.

‘Yes, Valerian. You’re shameless. The children!’

Adka and Edka look at them, with their fingers in their mouths and their eyes wide open. Their mother suddenly springs upon them.

‘Go for a run, you ruffians. Sitting there like dummies in a museum. Quick march!’

‘But I don’t want to,’ roars Adka.

‘I don’ wan’——’

‘I’ll teach you “Don’t want to.” A half-penny for candy, and out you go.’

She locks the door after them, sits on the lieutenant’s knee, and they begin to kiss.

‘You’re not cross, my treasure?’ the lieutenant whispers in her ear.

But there is a knock at the door. They have to open. The new chambermaid enters, a tall, gloomy woman with one eye, and says hoarsely, with a ferocious look:

‘No. 12 wants a samovar, some tea, and some sugar.’

Anna Friedrichovna impatiently gives out what is wanted. The lieutenant says languidly, stretched on the sofa:

‘I would like to rest a bit, Anna, dear. Isn’t there a room empty? People are always knocking about here.’

There is only one room empty, No. 5, and19 there they go. Their room is long, narrow, and dark, like a skittle-alley, with one window. A bed, a chest of drawers, a blistered brown washstand, and a commode are all its furniture. The landlady and the lieutenant once more begin to kiss; and they moan like doves on the roof in springtime.

‘Anna, darling, if you love me, send for a packet of ten “Cigarettes Plaisir,” six kopeks,’ says the lieutenant coaxingly, while he undresses.

‘Later——’

* * * * *

The spring evening darkens quickly, and it is already night. Through the window comes the whistling of the steamers on the Dnieper, and with it creeps a faint smell of hay, dust, lilac and warm stone. The water falls into the washstand, dripping regularly. There is another knock.

‘Who’s there? What the devil are you prowling about for?’ cries Anna Friedrichovna awakened. She jumps barefoot from the bed and angrily opens the door. ‘Well, what do you want?’

Lieutenant Tchijhevich modestly pulls the blanket over his head.

‘A student wants a room,’ Arseny says behind the door in a stage whisper.

‘What student? Tell him there’s only one room, and that’s two roubles. Is he alone, or with a woman?’

‘Alone.’

‘Tell him then: passport and money in advance. I know these students.’

The lieutenant dressed hurriedly. From habit he takes ten seconds over his toilette. Anna Friedrichovna tidies the bed quickly and cleverly. Arseny returns.

‘He’s paid in advance,’ he said gloomily. ‘And here’s the passport.’

The landlady went out into the corridor. Her hair was dishevelled and a fringe was sticking to her forehead. The folds of the pillow were imprinted on her crimson cheeks. Her eyes were unnaturally brilliant. The lieutenant, under cover of her back, slipped into the landlady’s room as noiseless as a shadow.

The student was waiting by the window on the stairs. He was already no longer a young man. He was thin and fair-haired, and his face was long and pale, tender and sickly. His good-natured, short-sighted blue eyes, with the faintest shade of a squint, look out as through a mist. He bowed politely to the landlady, at which she smiled in confusion and fastened the top hook of her blouse.

‘I should like a room,’ he said softly, as if his courage was ebbing. ‘I have to go on from here. But I should be obliged for a candle and pen and ink.’

He was shown the skittle-alley.

‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t want anything better. It’s wonderful here. Just let me have a pen and ink, please.’ He did not require tea or bed-linen.

III

The lamp was burning in the landlady’s room. Alychka sat Turkish fashion in the open window, watching the dark heavy mass of water, lit by electric lamps, wavering below, and the gentle motion of the scant dead green of the poplars along the quay. Two round spots of bright red were burning in her cheeks, and there was a moist and weary light in her eyes. In the cooling air the petulant sound of a valse graciously floated from far away on the other side of the river, where the lights of the café chantant were shining.

They were drinking tea with shop bought raspberry jam. Adka and Edka crumbled pieces of black bread into their saucers, and made a kind of porridge. They smeared their faces, foreheads, and noses with it. They blew bubbles in their saucers. Romka, returned with a black eye, was hastily taking noisy sups of tea from a saucer. Lieutenant Tchijhevich had unbuttoned his waistcoat, extruding his paper dickey, and half lay on the sofa, perfectly happy in this domestic idyll.

‘Thank God, all the rooms are taken,’ Anna Friedrichovna sighed dreamily.

‘You see, it’s all due to my lucky touch,’ said the lieutenant. ‘When I came back, everything began to look up.’

‘There, tell us another.’

‘No, really, my touch is amazingly lucky. By God, it is! In the regiment, when Captain Gorojhevsky took the bank, he always used to make me sit beside him. My God! how those men used to play! That same Gorojhevsky, when he was still a subaltern, at the time of the Turkish War, won twelve thousand. Our regiment came to Bukarest. Of course, the officers had pots of money—nothing to do with it—no women. They began cards. Suddenly, Gorojhevsky pounced on a sharp. You could see he was a crook by the cut of his lug. But he faked the cards so cleverly that you couldn’t possibly get hold of him....’

‘Wait a second. I’ll be back in a moment,’ interrupted the landlady. ‘I only want to give out a towel.’

She went out. The lieutenant stealthily came near to Alychka and bent close to her. Her beautiful profile, dark against the background of night, took on a subtle, tender outline of silver in the radiance of the electric lamps.

‘What are you thinking about, Alychka—perhaps I should say, whom?’ he asked in a sweet tremolo.

She turned away from him. But he quickly lifted the thick plait of her hair and kissed her beneath her hair on her warm thin neck, greedily smelling the perfume of her skin.

‘I’ll tell mother,’ whispered Alychka, without drawing away.

The door opened. It was Anna Friedrichovna23 returned. Immediately the lieutenant began to talk, unnaturally loud and free.

‘Really, it would be wonderful to be on a boat with your beloved or your dearest friend on a spring night like this.... Well, to continue, Anna, darling. So Gorojhevsky dropped a cool six thousand, if you’ll believe me! At last some one gave him a word of advice. He said: “Basta—I’m not having any more of this. You won’t mind if we put a nail through the pack to the table and tear off our cards?” The fellow wanted to get out of it. Gorojhevsky took out his revolver: “You’ll play, you dog, or I’ll blow a hole in your head!” There was nothing for it. The crook sat down, so flustered that he clean forgot there was a mirror behind him. Gorojhevsky could see every one of his cards. So Gorojhevsky not only got his own back, but raked in a clear eleven thousand into the bargain. He even had the nail mounted in gold, and he wears it as a charm on his watch chain.’

IV

At the moment the student was sitting on the bed in No. 5. On the commode before him stood a candle and a sheet of writing paper. The student was writing quickly; then he stopped for a moment, whispered to himself, shook his head, smiled a constrained smile and wrote again. He had just dipped his pen deep in the ink. He spooned up the liquid wax round the wick with it and poked the mixture into the flame. It crackled and splashed about everywhere with little blue darting flames. The firework reminded the student of something funny, dimly remembered from his distant childhood. He looked at the flame of the candle, his eyes narrowed, and a sad, distracted smile formed upon his lips. Then suddenly as though awakened he shook his head, sighed, wiped his pen on the sleeve of his blue blouse, and continued to write:

‘Tell them everything in my letter, which you will believe, I know. They will not understand me all the same; but you will have simple words that will be intelligible to them. One thing is very strange. Here am I writing to you, yet I know that in ten or fifteen minutes I shall shoot myself—and the thought does not frighten me at all. But when that huge grey colonel of the gendarmes went red all over and25 stamped his feet and swore, I was quite lost. When he cried that my obstinacy was useless, and only ruined my comrades and myself, that Bieloussov as well as Knigge and Soloveitchik had confessed, I confessed too. I, who am not afraid of death, was afraid of the shouting of this dull, narrow-minded clod, petrified with professional conceit. What is more disgusting still, he dared not shout at the others. He was courteous, obliging, and sugary to them, like a suburban dentist. He was even a Liberal. But in me he saw at once a weak, yielding will. You can feel it in people at a mere glance—there’s no need of words.

‘Yes, I confess that it was all mad and contemptible and ridiculous and loathsome. But it could not be otherwise. And if it were to be again, it would happen as before. Desperately brave generals are often frightened of mice. Sometimes they even boast of their little weakness. But I say with sorrow that I fear these wooden people, whose view of the world is rigid and unchangeable, who are stupidly self-confident, and have no hesitations, worse than death. If you knew how timid and uncomfortable I am before huge policemen, ugly Petersburg porters, typists in the editorial offices of magazines, magistrates’ clerks, and snarling stationmasters! Once I had to have my signature witnessed at the police station, and the mere look of the fat inspector, with his ginger moustache as big as a palm tree, his important chest and his fish eyes, who interrupted me continually, would not hear me26 out, forgot me altogether for minutes on end, or suddenly pretended that he could not understand the simplest Russian words—his mere look made me so disgustingly frightened that I could catch an insinuating, servile inflection in my voice.

‘Who’s to blame for it? I’ll tell you. My mother. She was the original cause of the fouling and corruption of my soul with a vile cowardice. She became a widow when she was still young, and my first impressions as a child are indissolubly mixed up with wandering in other people’s houses, servile smiles, petty intolerable insults, complaisance, lying, whining pitiful grimaces, the vile phrases: “a little drop, a little bit, a little cup of tea.” ... I was made to kiss my benefactors’ hands—men and women. My mother protested that I did not like this dainty or that; she lied that I had a weak stomach, because she knew that the children of the house would have more, and the host would like it. The servants sneered at us on the sly. They called me hunchback, because I had a stoop from childhood. They called my mother a hanger-on and a beggar in my presence. And to make the kind people laugh my mother herself would put her shabby old leather cigarette case to her nose and bend it double: “That’s my darling Levoushka’s nose.” They laughed, and I blushed and suffered endlessly for her and for myself; but I kept silent, because I must not speak in the presence of my benefactors. I hated them, for looking at me as though I were a stone, idly and lazily thrusting their hand to my mouth for me to27 kiss. I hated and feared them, as I still hate and fear all decided, self-satisfied, rigid, sober people, who know everything beforehand—club orators; old red-faced hairy professors, who flirt with their harmless Liberalism; imposing, anointed canons of cathedrals; colonels of the gendarmerie; radical lady-doctors, who everlastingly repeat bits out of manifestoes, whose soul is as cold, as cruel, and as flat as a marble table-top. When I speak to them I feel that there is on my face a loathsome mark, a servile officious smile that is not mine, and I despise myself for my thin wheedling voice, in which I can catch the echo of my mother’s note. These people’s souls are dead: their thoughts are fixed in straight inflexible lines; and they are merciless as only a convinced and stupid man can be.

‘I spent the years between seven and ten in a state charity school on the Froebel system. The mistresses were all soured old maids, all suffering from inflammations, and they instilled into us respect for the generous authorities, taught us how to spy on each other and tell tales, how to envy the favourites, and, most important of all, how to behave as quietly as possible. But we boys educated ourselves in thieving and abuses. Later on—still charity—I was taken as a state boarder into a gymnasium. The inspectors visited and spied on us. We learnt like parrots: smoking in the third form; drinking in the fourth; in the fifth, the first prostitute and the first vile disease.

‘Then suddenly there arose new, young words like a wind, impetuous dreams, free, fiery,28 thoughts. My mind opened eagerly to meet them, but my soul was already ruined for ever, soiled and dead. It had been bitten by a mean, weak-nerved timidity, like a tick in a dog’s ear: you tear it off, but the small head remains to grow again into a complete, loathsome insect.

‘I was not the only one to die of the moral contagion, though perhaps I was the weakest of all. But all the past generation has grown up in an atmosphere of sanctimonious tranquillity, of forced respect to its elders, of lack of all individuality and dumbness. A curse on this vile age, of silence and poverty, this peaceful prosperous life under the dumb shadow of pious reaction: for the quiet degradation of the human soul is more horrible than all the barricades and slaughter in the world.

‘Strange that when I am alone with my own will, I am not only no coward, but there are few people I know who are more ready to risk their lives. I have walked from one window-sill to another five stories above ground and looked down below; I’ve swum so far out into the sea that my hands and feet would move no more, and I had to lie on my back and rest to avoid cramp. And many things besides. Finally, in ten minutes I shall kill myself—and that is something. But I am afraid of people. I fear people! When from my room I hear drunken men swearing and fighting in the street I go pale with terror. When I imagine at night as I lie in bed, an empty square with a squadron of Cossacks galloping in with a roar, my heart stops beating, my body grows cold all over, and29 my fingers contract convulsively. I am always frightened of something which exists in the majority of people, but which I cannot explain. The young generation of the period of transition were like me. In our mind we despised our slavery, but we ourselves became cowardly slaves. Our hatred was deep and passionate, but barren, like the mad love of a eunuch.

‘But you will understand everything, and explain it all to the comrades to whom I say before I die, that in spite of all, I love and respect them. Perhaps they will believe you when you tell them that I did not die wholly because I had betrayed them vilely and against my will. I know that there is in the world nothing more horrible than the horrible word “Traitor.” It moves from lips to ears, from lips to ears, and kills a man alive. Oh, I could set right my mistake were I not born and bred a slave of human impudence, cowardice, and stupidity. But because I am this slave, I die. In these great fiery days it is disgraceful, difficult, no, quite impossible for men like me to live.

‘Yes, my darling, I have heard, seen, and read much in the last year. I tell you there came a moment of awful volcanic eruption. The flame of long pent-up anger broke out and overwhelmed everything: fear of the morrow, respect for parents, love of life, peaceful joys of family happiness. I know of boys, hardly more than children, who refused to have a bandage on their eyes when they were executed. I myself saw people who underwent tortures, yet uttered not a word. It was all born suddenly,30 in a tempestuous wind. Eagles awoke out of turkey eggs. Let who will arrest their flight!

‘I am quite certain that a sixth-form boy of to-day would proclaim the demands of his party, firmly, intelligently, perhaps with a touch of arrogance, in the presence of all the crowned heads and all the chiefs of police in Europe, in any throne room. It is true the precious schoolboy is very nearly ridiculous, but a sacred respect for his proud free self is already growing up within him, a respect for everything that has been corroded in us by spiritual poverty and anxious paternal morality. We must go to the devil.

‘It is just eight minutes to nine. At nine exactly it will be all over with me. A dog barks outside—one, two—then is silent for a little and—one, two, three. Perhaps, when my consciousness has been put out, and with it everything has disappeared from me for ever: towns, public squares, hooting steamers, mornings and nights, apartment rooms, ticking clocks, people, animals, the air the light and dark, time and space, and there is nothing—then there will be no thought of this “nothing”! Perhaps the dog will go on barking for a long while to-night, first twice, then three times....

‘Five minutes to nine. A funny idea is occupying me. I think that a human thought is like a current from some electric centre, an intense, radiating vibration of the imponderable ether, poured out in the spaces of the world, and passing with equal ease through the atoms of stone, iron, and air. A thought springs from my brain and all the sphere of the universe begins to31 tremble, to ripple round me like water into which a stone is flung, like a sound about a vibrating string. And I think that when a man passes away his consciousness is put out, but his thought still remains, trembling in its former place. Perhaps the thoughts and dreams of all the people who were before me in this long, gloomy room are still hovering round me, directing my will in secret; and perhaps to-morrow a casual tenant of this room will suddenly begin to think of life, of death, and suicide, because I leave my thoughts behind me here. And who can say whether my thoughts, independent of weight and time and the obstacles of matter, are not at the same moment being caught by mysterious, delicate, but unconscious receivers in the brain of an inhabitant of Mars as well as in the brain of the dog who barks outside? Ah, I think that nothing in the world vanishes utterly—nothing—not only what is said, but what is thought. All our deeds and words and thoughts are little streams, trickling springs underground. I believe, I see, they meet, flow together into river-heads, ooze to the surface, run into rivulets, and now they rush in the wild, broad stream of the harmonious River of Life. The River of Life—how great it is! Sooner or later it will bear everything away, and wash down all the strongholds which imprisoned the freedom of the spirit. Where a shoal of triviality was before, there will be the profoundest depth of heroism. In a moment it will bear me away to a cold, remote, and inconceivable land, and perhaps within a year32 it will pour in torrents over all this mighty town and flood it and carry away in its waters not merely its ruins, but its very name.

‘Perhaps what I am writing is all ridiculous. I have two minutes left. The candle is burning and the clock ticking hurriedly in front of me. The dog is still barking. What if there remain nothing of me—nothing of me, or in me, but one thing only, the last sensation, perhaps pain, perhaps the sound of the pistol, perhaps wild naked terror; but it will remain for ever, for thousands of millions of centuries, in the millionth degree.

‘The hand has reached the hour. We’ll know it all now. No, wait. Some ridiculous modesty made me get up and lock the door. Good-bye. One word more. Surely the obscure soul of the dog must be far more susceptible to the vibrations of thought than the human.... Do they not bark because they feel the presence of a dead man? This dog that barks downstairs too. But in a second, new monstrous currents will rush out of the central battery of my brain and touch the poor brain of the dog. It will begin to howl with a queer, intolerable terror.... Good-bye, I’m going!’

The student sealed the letter—for some reason he carefully closed the ink-pot with a cork—and took a Browning out of his jacket pocket. He turned the safety catch from sur to feu. He put his legs apart so that he could stand firm, and closed his eyes. Suddenly, with both hands he swiftly raised the revolver to his right temple and pulled the trigger.

33 ‘What’s that?’ Anna Friedrichovna asked in alarm.

‘That’s your student shooting himself,’ the lieutenant said carelessly. ‘They’re such canaille—these students....’

But Anna Friedrichovna jumped up and ran into the corridor, the lieutenant following at his leisure. From room No. 5 came a sour smell of gas and smokeless powder. They looked through the keyhole. The student lay on the floor.

Within five minutes there was a thick, black, eager crowd standing in the street outside the hotel. In exasperation Arseny drove the outsiders away from the stairs. Commotion was everywhere in the hotel. A locksmith broke open the door of the room. The caretaker ran for the police; the chambermaid for the doctor. After some time appeared the police inspector, a tall thin young man with white hair, white eyelashes, and a white moustache. He was in uniform. His wide trousers were so full that they fell half way down over his polished jack-boots. Immediately he pressed his way through the public, and roared with the voice of authority, sticking out his bright eyes:

‘Get back! Clear off! I can’t understand what it is you find so curious here. Nothing at all. You, sir!... I ask you once more. And he looks like an intellectual, in a bowler hat.... What’s that? I’ll show you “police tyranny.” Mikhailtchuk, just take note of that man! Hi, where are you crawling to, boy? I’ll——’

The door was broken open. Into the room34 burst Anna Friedrichovna, the police inspector, the lieutenant, the four children; for witnesses, one policeman and two caretakers; and after them, the doctor. The student lay on the floor, with his face buried in the strip of grey carpet by the bed. His left arm was bent beneath his chest, his right flung out. The pistol lay on one side. Under his head was a pool of dark blood, and a little round hole in his left temple. The candle was still burning, and the clock on the commode ticked hurriedly.

A short procès-verbal was composed in wooden official terms, and the suicide’s letter attached to it.... The two caretakers and the policeman carried the corpse downstairs. Arseny lighted the way, lifting the lamp above his head. Anna Friedrichovna, the police inspector and the lieutenant looked on through the window in the corridor upstairs. The bearers’ movements got out of step at the turning; they jammed between the wall and the banisters, and the one who was supporting the head from behind let go his hands. The head knocked sharply against the stairs—one, two, three....

‘Serves him right, serves him right,’ angrily cried the landlady from the window. ‘Serves him right, the scoundrel! I’ll give you a good tip for that!’

‘You’re very bloodthirsty, Madame Siegmayer,’ the police inspector remarked playfully, twisting his moustache, and looking sideways at the end of it.

35 ‘Why, he’ll get me into the papers, now. I’m a poor working woman; and now, all along of him, people will keep away from my hotel.’

‘Naturally,’ the inspector kindly agreed. ‘I can’t understand these student fellows. They don’t want to study. They brandish a red flag, and then shoot themselves. They don’t want to understand what their parents must feel. They’re bought by Jewish money, damn them! But there are decent men at the same game, sons of noblemen, priests, merchants.... A nice lot! However, I give you my compliments....’

‘No, no, no, no! Not for anything in the world!’ The landlady pulled herself together. ‘We’ll have supper in a moment. A nice little bit of herring. Otherwise, I won’t let you go, for anything.’

‘To tell the truth——’ The inspector spoke in perplexity. ‘Very well. As a matter of fact, I was going to drop in to Nagourno’s opposite for something. Our work,’ he said, politely making way for the landlady through the door, ‘is hard. Sometimes we don’t get a bite all day long.’

All three had a good deal of vodka at supper. Anna Friedrichovna, red all over, with shining eyes and lips like blood, slipped off one of her shoes beneath the table and pressed the inspector’s foot. The lieutenant frowned, became jealous, and all the while tried to begin a story of ‘In the regiment——’ The inspector did not listen, but interrupted with terrific tales of ‘In the police——’ Each tried to be as36 contemptuous of and inattentive to the other as he could. They were both like a couple of young dogs that have just met in the yard.

‘You’re everlastingly talking of “In the regiment,”’ said the inspector, looking not at the lieutenant, but the landlady. ‘Would you mind my asking what was the reason why you left the service?’

‘Well, ...’ the lieutenant replied, offended. ‘Would you like me to ask you how you came to be in the police; how you came to such a life?’

Here Anna Friedrichovna brought the ‘Monopan’ musical box out of the corner and made Tchijhevich turn the handle. After some invitation the inspector danced a polka with her—she jumped about like a little girl, and the curls on her forehead jumped with her. Then the inspector turned the handle while the lieutenant danced, pressing the landlady’s arm to his left side, with his head flung back. Alychka also danced with downcast eyes, and her tender dissipated smile on her lips. The inspector was saying his last good-bye, when Romka appeared.

‘There, I’ve been seeing the student off, and while I was away you’ve been—— I’m treated like a do-o-og.’

And what was once a student now lay in the cold cellar of an anatomical theatre, in a zinc box, standing on ice—lit by a yellow gas flame, yellow and repulsive. On his bare right leg above the knee in gross ink figures was written ‘14.’ That was his number in the anatomical theatre.


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