In front of you is the main street, with two rows of miserable-looking huts with shuttered windows and old walls pressing on each other and leaning forward. The roofs of these time-worn habitations are full of holes, and have been patched here and there with laths; from underneath them project mildewed beams, which are shaded by the dusty-leaved elder-trees and crooked white willow— pitiable flora of those suburbs inhabited by the poor.
The dull green time-stained panes of the windows look upon each other with the cowardly glances of cheats. Through the street and toward the adjacent mountain runs the sinuous path, winding through the deep ditches filled with rain-water. Here and there are piled heaps of dust and other rubbish— either refuse or else put there purposely to keep the rain-water from flooding the houses. On the top of the mountain, among green gardens with dense foliage, beautiful stone houses lie hidden; the belfries of the churches rise proudly toward the sky, and their gilded crosses shine beneath the rays of the sun. During the rainy weather the neighboring town pours its water into this main road, which, at other times, is full of its dust, and all these miserable houses seem, as it were, thrown by some powerful hand into that heap of dust, rubbish, and rainwater.
They cling to the ground beneath the high mountain, exposed to the sun, surrounded by decaying refuse, and their sodden appearance impresses one with the same feeling as would the half-rotten trunk of an old tree.
At the end of the main street, as if thrown out of the town, stood a two-storied house, which had been rented from Petunikoff, a merchant and resident of the town. It was in comparatively good order, being farther from the mountain, while near it were the open fields, and about half-a-mile away the river ran its winding course.
This large old house had the most dismal aspect amid its surroundings. The walls bent outward, and there was hardly a pane of glass in any of the windows, except some of the fragments, which looked like the water of the marshes—dull green. The spaces of wall between the windows were covered with spots, as if time were trying to write there in hieroglyphics the history of the old house, and the tottering roof added still more to its pitiable condition. It seemed as if the whole building bent toward the ground, to await the last stroke of that fate which should transform it into a chaos of rotting remains, and finally into dust.
The gates were open, one-half of them displaced and lying on the ground at the entrance, while between its bars had grown the grass, which also covered the large and empty court-yard. In the depths of this yard stood a low, iron-roofed, smoke-begrimed building. The house itself was of course unoccupied, but this shed, formerly a blacksmith's forge, was now turned into a "dosshouse," kept by a retired captain named Aristid Fomich Kuvalda.
In the interior of the dosshouse was a long, wide and grimy board, measuring some 28 by 70 feet. The room was lighted on one side by four small square windows, and on the other by a wide door. The unpainted brick walls were black with smoke, and the ceiling, which was built of timber, was almost black. In the middle stood a large stove, the furnace of which served as its foundation, and around this stove and along the walls were also long, wide boards, which served as beds for the lodgers. The walls smelt of smoke, the earthen floor of dampness, and the long, wide board of rotting rags.
The place of the proprietor was on the top of the stove, while the boards surrounding it were intended for those who were on good terms with the owner, and who were honored by his friendship. During the day the captain passed most of his time sitting on a kind of bench, made by himself by placing bricks against the wall of the court-yard, or else in the eating-house of Egor Yavilovitch, which was opposite the house, where he took all his meals and where he also drank vodki.
Before renting this house, Aristid Kuvalda had kept a registry office for servants in the town. If we look further back into his former life, we shall find that he once owned printing works, and previous to this, in his own words, he "just lived! And lived well too, Devil take it, and like one who knew how!"
He was a tall, broad-shouldered man of fifty, with a raw-looking face, swollen with drunkenness, and with a dirty yellowish beard.
His eyes were large and gray, with an insolent expression of happiness. He spoke in a bass voice and with a sort of grumbling sound in his throat, and he almost always held between his teeth a German china pipe with a long bowl. When he was angry the nostrils of his big, crooked red nose swelled, and his lips trembled, exposing to view two rows of large and wolf-like yellow teeth. He had long arms, was lame, and always dressed in an old officer's uniform, with a dirty, greasy cap with a red band, a hat without a brim, and ragged felt boots which reached almost to his knees. In the morning, as a rule, he had a heavy drunken headache, and in the evening he caroused. However much he drank, he was never drunk, and so was always merry.
In the evenings he received lodgers, sitting on his brick-made bench with his pipe in his mouth.
"Whom have we here?" he would ask the ragged and tattered object approaching him, who had probably been chucked out of the town for drunkenness, or perhaps for some other reason not quite so simple. And after the man had answered him, he would say, "Let me see legal papers in confirmation of your lies." And if there were such papers they were shown. The captain would then put them in his bosom, seldom taking any interest in them, and would say: "Everything is in order. Two kopecks for the night, ten kopecks for the week, and thirty kopecks for the month. Go and get a place for yourself, and see that it is not other people's, or else they will blow you up. The people that live here are particular."
"Don't you sell tea, bread, or anything to eat?"
"I trade only in walls and roofs, for which I pay to the swindling proprietor of this hole—Judas Petunikoff, merchant of the second guild— five roubles a month," explained Kuvalda in a business-like tone. "Only those come to me who are not accustomed to comfort and luxuries. . .but if you are accustomed to eat every day, then there is the eating-house opposite. But it would be better for you if you left off that habit. You see you are not a gentleman. What do you eat? You eat yourself!"
For such speeches, delivered in a strictly business-like manner, and always with smiling eyes, and also for the attention he paid to his lodgers, the captain was very popular among the poor of the town. It very often happened that a former client of his would appear, not in rags, but in something more respectable and with a slightly happier face.
"Good-day, your honor, and how do you do?"
"Alive, in good health! Go on."
"Don't you know me?"
"I did not know you."
"Do you remember that I lived with you last winter for nearly a month . . . when the fight with the police took place, and three were taken away?"
"My brother, that is so. The police do come even under my hospitable roof!"
"My God! You gave a piece of your mind to the police inspector of this district!"
"Wouldn't you accept some small hospitality from me? When I lived with you, you were. . . ." "Gratitude must be encouraged because it is seldom met with. You seem to be a good man, and, though I don't remember you, still I will go with you into the public-house and drink to your success and future prospects with the greatest pleasure."
"You seem always the same . . . Are you always joking?"
"What else can one do, living among you unfortunate men?"
They went. Sometimes the Captain's former customer, uplifted and unsettled by the entertainment, returned to the dosshouse, and on the following morning they would again begin treating each other till the Captain's companion would wake up to realize that he had spent all his money in drink.
"Your honor, do you see that I have again fallen into your hands? What shall we do now?" "The position, no doubt, is not a very good one, but still you need not trouble about it," reasoned the Captain. "You must, my friend, treat everything indifferently, without spoiling yourself by philosophy, and without asking yourself any question. To philosophize is always foolish; to philosophize with a drunken headache, ineffably so. Drunken headaches require vodki, and not the remorse of conscience or gnashing of teeth . . . save your teeth, or else you will not be able to protect yourself. Here are twenty kopecks. Go and buy a bottle of vodki for five kopecks, hot tripe or lungs, one pound of bread and two cucumbers. When we have lived off our drunken headache we will think of the condition of affairs. . . ."
As a rule the consideration of the "condition of affairs" lasted some two or three days, and only when the Captain had not a farthing left of the three roubles or five roubles given him by his grateful customer did he say: "You came! Do you see? Now that we have drunk everything with you, you fool, try again to regain the path of virtue and soberness. It has been truly said that if you do not sin, you will not repent, and, if you do not repent, you shall not be saved. We have done the first, and to repent is useless. Let us make direct for salvation. Go to the river and work, and if you think you cannot control yourself, tell the contractor, your employer, to keep your money, or else give it to me. When you get sufficient capital, I will get you a pair of trousers and other things necessary to make you seem a respectable and hard-working man, persecuted by fate. With decent-looking trousers you can go far. Now then, be off!"
Then the client would go to the river to work as a porter, smiling the while over the Captain's long and wise speeches. He did not distinctly understand them, but only saw in front of him two merry eyes, felt their encouraging influence, and knew that in the loquacious Captain he had an arm that would assist him in time of need.
And really it happened very often that, for a month or so, some ticket-of-leave client, under the strict surveillance of the Captain, had the opportunity of raising himself to a condition better than that to which, thanks to the Captain's cooperation, he had fallen.
"Now, then, my friend!" said the Captain, glancing critically at the restored client, "we have a coat and jacket. When I had respectable trousers I lived in town like a respectable man. But when the trousers wore out, I, too, fell off in the opinion of my fellow-men and had to come down here from the town. Men, my fine mannikin, judge everything by the outward appearance, while, owing to their foolishness, the actual reality of things is incomprehensible to them. Make a note of this on your nose, and pay me at least half your debt. Go in peace; seek, and you may find."
"How much do I owe you, Aristid Fomich?" asks the client, in confusion.
"One rouble and 70 kopecks . . . Now, give me only one rouble, or, if you like, 70 kopecks, and as for the rest, I shall wait until you have earned more than you have now by stealing or by hard work, it does not matter to me."
"I thank you humbly for your kindness!" says the client, touched to the heart. "Truly you are a kind man . . .; Life has persecuted you in vain . . . What an eagle you would have been in your own place!"
The Captain could not live without eloquent speeches.
"What does 'in my own place' mean? No one really knows his own place in life, and every one of us crawls into his harness. The place of the merchant Judas Petunikoff ought to be in penal servitude, but he still walks through the streets in daylight, and even intends to build a factory. The place of our teacher ought to be beside a wife and half-a-dozen children, but he is loitering in the public-house of Vaviloff.
"And then, there is yourself. You are going to seek a situation as a hall porter or waiter, but I can see that you ought to be a soldier in the army, because you are no fool, are patient and understand discipline. Life shuffles us like cards, you see, and it is only accidentally, and only for a time, that we fall into our own places!"
Such farewell speeches often served as a preface to the continuation of their acquaintance, which again began with drinking and went so far that the client would spend his last farthing. Then the Captain would stand him treat, and they would drink all they had.
A repetition of similar doings did not affect in the least the good relations of the parties.
The teacher mentioned by the Captain was another of those customers who were thus reformed only in order that they should sin again. Thanks to his intellect, he was the nearest in rank to the Captain, and this was probably the cause of his falling so low as dosshouse life, and of his inability to rise again. It was only with him that Aristid Kuvalda could philosophize with the certainty of being understood. He valued this, and when the reformed teacher prepared to leave the dosshouse in order to get a corner in town for himself, then Aristid Kuvalda accompanied him so sorrowfully and sadly that it ended, as a rule, in their both getting drunk and spending all their money. Probably Kuvalda arranged the matter intentionally so that the teacher could not leave the dosshouse, though he desired to do so with all his heart. Was it possible for Aristid Kuvalda, a nobleman (as was evident from his speeches), one who was accustomed to think, though the turn of fate may have changed his position, was it possible for him not to desire to have close to him a man like himself? We can pity our own faults in others.
This teacher had once taught at an institution in one of the towns on the Volga, but in consequence of some story was dismissed. After this he was a clerk in a tannery, but again had to leave. Then he became a librarian in some private library, subsequently following other professions. Finally, after passing examinations in law he became a lawyer, but drink reduced him to the Captain's dosshouse. He was tall, round-shouldered, with a long, sharp nose and bald head. In his bony and yellow face, on which grew a wedge-shaped beard, shone large, restless eyes, deeply sunk in their sockets, and the corners of his mouth drooped sadly down. He earned his bread, or rather his drink, by reporting for the local papers. He sometimes earned as much as fifteen roubles. These he gave to the Captain and said:
"It is enough. I am going back into the bosom of culture. Another week's hard work and I shall dress respectably, and then Addio, mio caro!"
"Very exemplary! As I heartily sympathize with your decision, Philip, I shall not give you another glass all this week," the Captain warned him sternly.
"I shall be thankful! . . . You will not give me one drop?"
The Captain beard in his voice a beseeching note to which he turned a deaf ear.
"Even though you roar, I shall not give it you!"
"As you like, then," sighed the teacher, and went away to continue his reporting.
But after a day or two he would return tired and thirsty, and would look at the Captain with a beseeching glance out of the corners of his eyes, hoping that his friend's heart would soften.
The Captain in such cases put on a serious face and began speaking with killing irony on the theme of weakness of character, of the animal delight of intoxication, and on such subjects as suited the occasion. One must do him justice: he was captivated by his role of mentor and moralist, but the lodgers dogged him, and, listening sceptically to his exhortations to repentance, would whisper aside to each other:
"Cunning, skilful, shifty rogue! I told you so, but you would not listen. It's your own fault!"
"His honor is really a good soldier. He goes first and examines the road behind him!"
The teacher then hunted here and there till he found his friend again in some corner, and grasping his dirty coat, trembling and licking his dry lips, looked into his face with a deep, tragic glance, without articulate words.
"Can't you?" asked the Captain sullenly.
The teacher answered by bowing his head and letting it fall on his breast, his tall, thin body trembling the while.
"Wait another day . . . perhaps you will be all right then," proposed Kuvalda. The teacher sighed, and shook his head hopelessly.
The Captain saw that his friend's thin body trembled with the thirst for the poison, and took some money from his pocket.
"In the majority of cases it is impossible to fight against fate," said he, as if trying to justify himself before someone.
But if the teacher controlled himself for a whole week, then there was a touching farewell scene between the two friends, which ended as a rule in the eating-house of Vaviloff. The teacher did not spend all his money, but spent at least half on the children of the main street. The poor are always rich in children, and in the dirt and ditches of this street there were groups of them from morning to night, hungry, naked and dirty. Children are the living flowers of the earth, but these had the appearance of flowers that have faded prematurely, because they grew in ground where there was no healthy nourishment. Often the teacher would gather them round him, would buy them bread, eggs, apples and nuts, and take them into the fields by the river side. There they would sit and greedily eat everything he offered them, after which they would begin to play, filling the fields for a mile around with careless noise and laughter. The tall, thin figure of the drunkard towered above these small people, who treated him familiarly, as if he were one of their own age. They called him "Philip," and did not trouble to prefix "Uncle" to his name. Playing around him, like little wild animals, they pushed him, jumped upon his back, beat him upon his bald head, and caught hold of his nose. All this must have pleased him, as he did not protest against such liberties. He spoke very little to them, and when he did so he did it cautiously as if afraid that his words would hurt or contaminate them. He passed many hours thus as their companion and plaything, watching their lively faces with his gloomy eyes.
Then he would thoughtfully and slowly direct his steps to the eating-house of Vaviloff, where he would drink silently and quickly till all his senses left him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Almost every day after his reporting he would bring a newspaper, and then gather round him all these creatures that once were men. On seeing him, they would come forward from all corners of the court-yard, drunk, or suffering from drunken headache, dishevelled, tattered, miserable, and pitiable. Then would come the barrel-like, stout Aleksei Maksimoviteh Simtsoff, formerly Inspector of Woods and Forests, under the Department of Appendages, but now trading in matches, ink, blacking, and lemons. He was an old man of sixty, in a canvas overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat, the greasy borders of which hid his stout, fat, red face. He had a thick white beard, out of which a small red nose turned gaily heavenward. He had thick, crimson lips and watery, cynical eyes. They called him "Kubar", a name which well described his round figure an buzzing speech. After him, Kanets appeared from some corner—a dark, sad-looking, silent drunkard: then the former governor of the prison, Luka Antonovitch Martyanoff, a man who existed on "remeshok," "trilistika" and "bankovka," * and many such cunning games, not much appreciated by the police.
Note by translator.—Well-known games or chance, played by the lower classes. The police specially endeavor to stop them, but unsuccessfully.
He would throw his hard and oft-scourged body on the grass beside the teacher, and, turning his eyes round and scratching his head, would ask in a hoarse, bass voice, "May I?"
Then appeared Pavel Solntseff, a man of thirty years of age, suffering from consumption. The ribs of his left side had been broken in a quarrel, and the sharp, yellow face, like that of a fox, always wore a malicious smile. The thin lips, when opened, exposed two rows of decayed black teeth, and the rags on his shoulders swayed backward and forward as if they were hung on a clothes pole. They called him "Abyedok." He hawked brushes and bath brooms of his own manufacture, good, strong brushes made from a peculiar kind of grass.
Then followed a lean and bony man of whom no one knew anything, with a frightened expression in his eyes, the left one of which had a squint. He was silent and timid, and had been imprisoned three times for theft by the High Court of Justice and the Magisterial Courts. His family name was Kiselnikoff, but they called him Paltara Taras, because he was a head and shoulders taller than his friend, Deacon Taras, who had been degraded from his office for drunkenness and immorality. The Deacon was a short, thick-set person, with the chest of an athlete and a round, strong head. He danced skilfully, and was still more skilful at swearing. He and Paltara Taras worked in the wood on the banks of the river, and in free hours he told his friend or any one who would listen, "Tales of my own composition," as he used to say. On hearing these stories, the heroes of which always seemed to be saints, kings, priests, or generals, even the inmates of the dosshouse spat and rubbed their eyes in astonishment at the imagination of the Deacon, who told them shameless tales of lewd, fantastic adventures, with blinking eyes and a passionless expression of countenance.
The imagination of this man was powerful and inexhaustible; he could go on relating and composing all day, from morning to night, without once repeating what he had said before. In his expression you sometimes saw the poet gone astray, sometimes the romancer, and he always succeeded in making his tales realistic by the effective and powerful words in which he told them.
There was also a foolish young man called Kuvalda Meteor. One night he came to sleep in the dosshouse, and had remained ever since among these men, much to their astonishment. At first they did not take much notice of him. In the daytime, like all the others, he went away to find something to eat, but at nights he always loitered around this friendly company till at last the Captain took notice of him.
"Boy! What business have you here on this earth?"
The boy answered boldly and stoutly:
"I am a barefooted tramp. . . ."
The Captain looked critically at him. This youngster had long hair and a weak face, with prominent cheekbones and a turned-up nose. He was dressed in a blue blouse without a waistband, and on his head he wore the remains of a straw hat, while his feet were bare.
"You are a fool!" decided Aristid Kuvalda. "what are you knocking about here for? You are of absolutely no use to us . . . Do you drink vodki? . . . No? . . . Well, then, can you steal?" Again, "No." "Go away, learn, and come back again when you know something, and are a man. . . ."
The youngster smiled. "No. I shall live with you."
"Just because. . . ."
"Oh, you . . . Meteor!" said the Captain.
"I will break his teeth for him," said Martyanoff.
"And why?" asked the youngster.
"Just because. . . ."
"And I will take a stone and hit you on the head," the young man answered respectfully.
Martyanoff would have broken his bones, had not Kuvalda interrupted with: "Leave him alone. . .Is this a home to you or even to us? You have no sufficient reason to break his teeth for him. You have no better reason than he for living with us." "Well, then, Devil take him! . . . We all live in the world without sufficient reason . . . We live, and why? Because! He also because . . . let him alone. . . ."
"But it is better for you, young man, to go away from us," the teacher advised him, looking him up and down with his sad eyes. He made no answer, but remained. And they soon became accustomed to his presence, and ceased to take any notice of him. But he lived among them, and observed everything.
The above were the chief members of the Captain's company, and he called them with kind-hearted sarcasm "Creatures that once were Men." For though there were men who had experienced as much of the bitter irony of fate as these men; yet they were not fallen so low.
Not infrequently, respectable men belonging to the cultured classes are inferior to those belonging to the peasantry, and it is always a fact that the depraved man from the city is immeasurably worse than the depraved man from the village. This fact was strikingly illustrated by the contrast between the formerly well-educated men and the mujiks who were living in Kuvalda's shelter.
The representative of the latter class was an old mujik called Tyapa. Tall and angular, he kept his head in such a position that his chin touched his breast. He was the Captain's first lodger, and it was said of him that he had a great deal of money hidden somewhere, and for its sake had nearly had his throat cut some two years ago: ever since then he carried his head thus. Over his eyes hung grayish eyebrows, and, looked at in profile, only his crooked nose was to be seen. His shadow reminded one of a poker. He denied that he had money, and said that they "only tried to cut his throat out of malice," and from that day he took to collecting rags, and that is why his head was always bent as if incessantly looking on the ground. When he went about shaking his head, and minus a walking-stick in his hand, and a bag on his back—the signs of his profession— he seemed to be thinking almost to madness, and, at such times, Kuvalda spoke thus, pointing to him with his finger:
"Look, there is the conscience of Merchant Judas Petunikoff. See how disorderly, dirty, and low is the escaped conscience." Tyapa, as a rule, spoke in a hoarse and hardly audible voice, and that is why he spoke very little, and loved to be alone. But whenever a stranger, compelled to leave the village, appeared in the dosshouse, Tyapa seemed sadder and angrier, and followed the unfortunate about with biting jeers and a wicked chuckling in his throat. He either put some beggar against him, or himself threatened to rob and beat him, till the frightened mujik would disappear from the dosshouse and never more be seen. Then Tyapa was quiet again, and would sit in some corner mending his rags, or else reading his Bible, which was as dirty, worn, and old as himself. Only when the teacher brought a newspaper and began reading did he come from his corner once more. As a rule, Tyapa listened to what was read silently and sighed often, without asking anything of anyone. But once when the teacher, having read the paper, wanted to put it away, Tyapa stretched out his bony hand, and said, "Give it to me. . . ."
"What do you want it for?"
"Give it to me . . . Perhaps there is something in it about us. . . ."
"About the village."
They laughed at him, and threw him the paper. He took it, and read in it how in the village the hail had destroyed the cornfields, how in another village fire destroyed thirty houses, and that in a third a woman had poisoned her family—in fact, everything that it is customary to write of—everything, that is to say, which is bad, and which depicts only the worst side of the unfortunate village.
Tyapa read all this silently and roared, perhaps from sympathy, perhaps from delight at the sad news.
He passed the whole Sunday in reading his Bible, and never went out collecting rags on that day. While reading, he groaned and sighed continually. He kept the book close to his breast, and was angry with any one who interrupted him or who touched his Bible.
"Oh, you drunken blackguard," said Kuvalda to him, "what do you understand of it?"
"Nothing, wizard! I don't understand anything, and I do not read any books . . . But I read. . . ."
"Therefore you are a fool . . ." said the Captain, decidedly. "When there are insects in your head, you know it is uncomfortable, but if some thoughts enter there too, how will you live then, you old toad?"
"I have not long to live," said Tyapa, quietly.
Once the teacher asked how he had learned to read.
"In prison," answered Tyapa shortly.
"Have you been there?"
"I was there."
"Just so . . . It was a mistake . . . But I brought the Bible out with me from there. A lady gave it to me . . . It is good in prison, brother."
"Is that so? And why?"
"It teaches one . . . I learned to read there . . . I also got this book . . . And all these you see, free. . . ."
When the teacher appeared in the dosshouse, Tyapa had already lived there for some time. He looked long into the teacher's face, as if to discover what kind of a man he was.
Tyapa often listened to his conversation, and once, sitting down beside him, said:
"I see you are very learned . . . Have you read the Bible?"
"I have read it. . . ."
"I see; I see . . . Can you remember it?"
"Yes . . . I remember it. . . ."
Then the old man leaned to one side and gazed at the other with a serious, suspicious glance.
"There were the Amalekites, do you remember?"
"Where are they now?"
"Disappeared . . . Tyapa . . . died out. . . ."
The old man was silent, then asked again: "And where are the Philistines?"
"These also. . . ."
"Have all these died out?"
"Yes . . . all. . . ."
"And so . . . we also will die out?"
"There will come a time when we also will die," said the teacher indifferently.
"And to what tribe of Israel do we belong?"
The teacher looked at him, and began telling him about Scythians and Slavs. . . . The old man became all the more frightened, and glanced at his face.
"You are lying!" he said scornfully, when the teacher had finished.
"What lie have I told?" asked the teacher.
"You mentioned tribes that are not mentioned in the Bible."
He got up and walked away, angry and deeply insulted.
"You will go mad, Tyapa," called the teacher after him with conviction.
Then the old man came back again, and stretching out his hand, threatened him with his crooked and dirty finger.
"God made Adam—from Adam were descended the Jews, that means that all people are descended from Jews . . . and we also. . . ."
"Tartars are descended from Ishmael, but he also came of the Jews. . . ."
"What do you want to tell me all this for?"
"Nothing! Only why do you tell lies?" Then he walked away, leaving his companion in perplexity. But after two days he came again and sat by him.
"You are learned . . . Tell me, then, whose descendants are we? Are we Babylonians, or who are we?" "We are Slavs, Tyapa," said the teacher, and attentively awaited his answer, wishing to understand him.
"Speak to me from the Bible. There are no such men there."
Then the teacher began criticizing the Bible. The old man listened, and interrupted him after a long while.
"Stop . . . Wait! That means that among people known to God there are no Russians? We are not known to God? Is it so? God knew all those who are mentioned in the Bible . . . He destroyed them by sword and fire, He destroyed their cities; but He also sent prophets to teach them.
"That means that He also pitied them. He scattered the Jews and the Tartars . . . But what about us? Why have we prophets no longer?"
"Well, I don't know!" replied the teacher, trying to understand the old man. But the latter put his hand on the teacher's shoulder, and slowly pushed him backward and forward, and his throat made a noise as if he were swallowing something. . . .
"Tell me! You speak so much . . . as if you knew everything. It makes me sick to listen to you . . . you darken my soul . . . I should be better pleased if you were silent. Who are we, eh? Why have we no prophets? Ha, ha! . . . Where were we when Christ walked on this earth? Do you see? And you too, you are lying . . . Do you think that all die out? The Russian people will never disappear . . . You are lying. It has been written in the Bible, only it is not known what name the Russians are given. Do you see what kind of people they are? They are numberless . . . How many villages are there on the earth? Think of all the people who live on it, so strong, go numerous I And you say that they will die out; men shall die, but God wants the people, God the Creator of the earth! The Amalekites did not die out. They are either German or French . . . But you, eh, you! Now then, tell me why we are abandoned by God? Have we no punishments nor prophets from the Lord? Who then will teach us?" Tyapa spoke strongly and plainly, and there was faith in his words.
He had been speaking a long time, and the teacher, who was generally drunk and in a speechless condition, could not stand it any longer. He looked at the dry, wrinkled old man, felt the great force of these words, and suddenly began to pity himself. He wished to say something so strong and convincing to the old man that Tyapa would be disposed in his favor; he did not wish to speak in such a serious, earnest way, but in a soft and fatherly tone. And the teacher felt as if something were rising from his breast into his throat . . . But he could not find any powerful words.
"What kind of a man are you? . . . Your soul seems to be torn away— and you still continue speaking . . . as if you knew something . . . It would be better if you were silent."
"Ah, Tyapa, what you say is true," replied the teacher sadly. "The people . . . you are right . . . they are numberless . . . but I am a stranger to them . . . and they are strangers to me . . . Do you see where the tragedy of my life is hidden? . . . But let me alone! I shall suffer . . . and there are no prophets also . . . No. You are right, I speak a great deal . . . But it is no good to anyone. I shall be always silent . . . Only don't speak with me like this . . . Ah, old man, you do not know . . . You do not know . . . And you cannot understand."
And in the end the teacher cried. He cried so easily and so freely, with such torrents of flowing tears, that he soon found relief. "You ought to go into a village . . . become a clerk or a teacher . . . You would be well fed there. What are you crying for?" asked Tyapa sadly.
But the teacher was crying as if the tears quieted and comforted him.
From this day they became friends, and the "creatures that once were men," seeing them together, said: "The teacher is friendly with Tyapa . . . He wishes his money. Kuvalda must have put this into his head . . . To look about to see where the old man's fortune is. . . ."
Probably they did not believe what they said. There was one strange thing about these men, namely, that they painted themselves to others worse than they actually were. A man who has good in him does not mind sometimes showing his worse nature.
* * * * * * * * * *
When all these people were gathered round the teacher, then the reading of the newspaper would begin.
"Well, what does the newspaper discuss to-day? Is there any feuilleton?"
"No," the teacher informs him.
"Your publisher seems greedy . . . but is there any leader?"
"There is one to-day . . . It appears to be by Gulyaeff."
"Aha! Come, out with it! He writes cleverly, the rascal."
"'The taxation of immovable property,'" reads the teacher, "It was introduced some fifteen years ago, and up to the present it has served as the basis for collecting these taxes in aid of the city revenue. . . .'"
"That is simple," comments Captain Kuvalda. "It continues to serve. That is ridiculous. To the merchant who is moving about in the city, it is profitable that it should continue to serve. Therefore it does continue."
"The article, in fact, is written on the subject," says the teacher.
"Is it? That is strange, it is more a subject for a feuilleton."
"Such a subject must be treated with plenty of pepper. . . ."
Then a short discussion begins. The people listen attentively, as only one bottle of vodki has been drunk.
After the leader, they read the local events, then the court proceedings, and, if in the police court it reports that the defendant or plaintiff is a merchant, then Aristid Kuvalda sincerely rejoices. If someone has robbed the merchant, "That is good," says he. "Only it is a pity they robbed him of so little." If his horses have broken down, "It is sad that he is still alive." If the merchant has lost his suit in court, "It is a pity that the costs were not double the amount."
"That would have been illegal," remarks the teacher.
"Illegal! But is the merchant himself legal?" inquires Kuvalda bitterly. "What is the merchant? Let us investigate this rough and uncouth phenomenon. First of all, every merchant is a mujik. He comes from a village, and in course of time becomes a merchant. In order to be a merchant, one must have money.
"Where can the mujik get the money from? It is well known that he does not get it by honest hard work, and that means that the mujik, somehow or other, has been swindling. That is to say, a merchant is simply a dishonest mujik."
"Splendid!" cry the people, approving the orator's deduction, and Tyapa bellows all the time, scratching his breast. He always bellows like this as he drinks his first glass of vodki, when he has a drunken headache. The Captain beams with joy. They next read the correspondence. This is, for the Captain, "an abundance of drinks," as he himself calls it. He always notices how the merchants make this life abominable, and how cleverly they spoil everything. His speeches thunder at and annihilate merchants. His audience listens to him with the greatest pleasure, because he swears atrociously. "If I wrote for the papers," he shouts, "I would show up the merchant in his true colors . . . I would show that he is a beast, playing for a time the role of a man. I understand him! He is a rough boor, does not know the meaning of the words 'good taste,' has no notion of patriotism, and his knowledge is not worth five kopecks."
Abyedok, knowing the Captain's weak point, and fond of making other people angry, cunningly adds:
"Yes, since the nobility began to make acquaintance with hunger, men have disappeared from the world. . . ."
"You are right, you son of a spider and a toad. Yes, from the time that the noblemen fell, there have been no men. There are only merchants, and I hate them."
"That is easy to understand, brother, because you too, have been brought down by them. . . ."
"I? I was ruined by love of life . . . Fool that I was, I loved life, but the merchant spoils it, and I cannot bear it, simply for this reason, and not because I am a nobleman. But if you want to know the truth, I was once a man, though I was not noble. I care now for nothing and nobody . . . and all my life has been tame—a sweetheart who has jilted me— therefore I despise life, and am indifferent to it."
"You lie!" says Abyedok.
"I lie?" roars Aristid Kuvalda, almost crimson with anger.
"Why shout?" comes in the cold sad voice of Martyanoff.
"Why judge others? Merchants, noblemen. . .what have we to do with them?"
"Seeing what we are" . . . puts in Deacon Taras.
"Be quiet, Abyedok," says the teacher good-naturedly.
"Why do you provoke him?" He does not love either discussion or noise, and when they quarrel all around him his lips form into a sickly grimace, and he endeavors quietly and reasonably to reconcile each with the other, and if he does not succeed in this he leaves the company. Knowing this, the Captain, if he is not very drunk, controls himself, not wishing to lose, in the person of the teacher, one of the best of his listeners.
"I repeat," he continues, in a quieter tone, "that I see life in the hands of enemies, not only enemies of the noble but of everything good, avaricious and incapable of adorning existence in any way."
"But all the same, says the teacher, "merchants, so to speak, created Genoa, Venice, Holland—and all these were merchants, merchants from England, India, the Stroyanoff merchants. . . ."
"I do not speak of these men, I am thinking of Judas Petunikoff, who is one of them. . . ."
"And you say you have nothing to do with them?" asks the teacher quietly.
"But do you think that I do not live? Aha! I do live, but I suppose I ought not to be angry at the fact that life is desecrated and robbed of all freedom by these men."
"And they dare to laugh at the kindly anger of the Captain, a man living in retirement?" says Abyedok teasingly.
"Very well! I agree with you that I am foolish. Being a creature who was once a man, I ought to blot out from my heart all those feelings that once were mine. You may be right, but then how could I or any of you defend ourselves if we did away with all these feelings?"
"Now then, you are talking sense," says the teacher encouragingly.
"We want other feelings and other views on life . . . We want something new. . .because we ourselves are a novelty in this life. . . ."
"Doubtless this is most important for us," remarks the teacher.
"Why?" asks Kanets. "Is it not all the same whatever we say or think? We have not got long to live I am forty, you are fifty . . . there is no one among us younger than thirty, and even at twenty one cannot live such a life long."
"And what kind of novelty are we?" asked Abyedok mockingly.
"Since nakedness has always existed"
"Yes, and it created Rome," said the teacher.
"Yes, of course," says the Captain, beaming with joy.
"Romulus and Remus, eh? We also shall create when our time comes. . . ."
"Violation of public peace," interrupts Abyedok. He laughs in a self-satisfied way. His laughter is impudent and insolent, and is echoed by Simtsoff, the Deacon and Paltara Taras. The naive eyes of young Meteor light up, and his cheeks flush crimson.
Kanets speaks, and it seems as if he were hammering their heads.
"All these are foolish illusions . . . fiddlesticks!"
It was strange to see them reasoning in this manner, these outcasts from life, tattered, drunken with vodki and wickedness, filthy and forlorn. Such conversations rejoiced the Captain's heart. They gave him an opportunity of speaking more, and therefore he thought himself better than the rest. However low he may fall, a man can never deny himself the delight of feeling cleverer, more powerful, or even better fed than his companions. Aristid Kuvalda abused this pleasure, and never could have enough of it, much to the disgust of Abyedok, Kubar, and others of these creatures that once were men, who were less interested in such things.
Politics, however, were more to the popular taste. The discussions as to the necessity of taking India or of subduing England were lengthy and protracted.
Nor did they speak with less enthusiasm of the radical measure of clearing Jews off the face of the earth. On this subject Abyedok was always the first to propose dreadful plans to effect the desired end, but the Captain, always first in every other argument, did not join in this one. They also spoke much and impudently about women, but the teacher always defended them, and sometimes was very angry when they went so far as to pass the limits of decency. They all, as a rule, gave in to him, because they did not look upon him as a common person, and also because they wished to borrow from him on Saturdays the money which he had earned during the week. He had many privileges. They never beat him, for instance, on these occasions when the conversation ended in a free fight. He had the right to bring women into the dosshouse; a privilege accorded to no one else, as the Captain had previously warned them.
"No bringing of women to my house," he had said. "Women, merchants and philosophers, these are the three causes of my ruin. I will horsewhip anyone bringing in women. I will horsewhip the woman also . . . And as to the philosopher, I'll knock his head off for him." And notwithstanding his age he could have knocked anyone's head off, for he possessed wonderful strength. Besides that, whenever he fought or quarrelled, he was assisted by Martyanoff, who was accustomed during a general fight to stand silently and sadly back to back with Kuvalda, when he became an all destroying and impregnable engine of war. Once when Simtsoff was drunk, he rushed at the teacher for no reason whatever, and getting hold of his head tore out a bunch of hair.
Kuvalda, with one stroke of his fist in the other's chest, sent him spinning, and he fell to the ground. He was unconscious for almost half-an-hour, and when he came to himself Kuvalda compelled him to eat the hair he had torn from the teacher's head. He ate it, preferring this to being beaten to death.
Besides reading newspapers, fighting and indulging in general conversation, they amused themselves by playing cards. They played without Martyanoff because he could not play honestly. After cheating several times, he openly confessed: "I cannot play without cheating . . . it is a habit of mine."
"Habits do get the better of you," assented Deacon Taras. "I always used to beat my wife every Sunday after Mass, and when she died I cannot describe how extremely dull I felt every Sunday. I lived through one Sunday—it was dreadful, the second I still controlled myself, the third Sunday I struck my Asok. . . . She was angry and threatened to summon me. Just imagine if she had done so! On the fourth Sunday, I beat her just as if she were my own wife! After that I gave her ten roubles, and beat her according to my own rules till I married again!"
"You are lying, Deacon! How could you marry a second time?" interrupted Abyedok.
"Ay, just so . . . She looked after my house . . ."
"Did you have any children?" asked the teacher.
"Five of them . . . One was drowned . . . the oldest . . . he was an amusing boy! Two died of diphtheria . . . One of the daughters married a student and went with him to Siberia.
"The other went to the University of St. Petersburg and died there . . . of consumption they say. Ye—es, there were five of them . . . Ecclesiastics are prolific, you know." He began explaining why this was so, and they laughed till they nearly burst at his tales. When the laughter stopped, Aleksei Maksimovitch Simtsoff remembered that he too had once had a daughter.
"Her name was Lidka . . . she was very stout. . . ."
More than this he did not seem to remember, for he looked at them all, was silent and smiled . . . in a guilty way. Those men spoke very little to each other about their past, and they recalled it very seldom, and then only its general outlines. When they did mention it, it was in a cynical tone. Probably, this was just as well, since, in many people, remembrance of the past kills all present energy and deadens all hope for the future.
* * * * * * * * * *
On rainy, cold, or dull days in the late autumn, these "creatures that once were men" gathered in the eating-house of Vaviloff. They were well known there, where some feared them as thieves and rogues, and some looked upon them contemptuously as hard drinkers, although they respected them, thinking that they were clever.
The eating-house of Vaviloff was the club of the main street, and the "creatures that once were men" were its most intellectual members.
On Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings, when the eating-house was packed, the "creatures that once were men" were only too welcome guests. They brought with them, besides the forgotten and poverty-stricken inhabitants of the street, their own spirit, in which there was something that brightened the lives of men exhausted and worn out in the struggle for existence, as great drunkards as the inhabitants of Kuvalda's shelter, and, like them, outcasts from the town. Their ability to speak on all subjects, their freedom of opinion, skill in repartee, courage in the presence of those of whom the whole street was in terror, together with their daring demeanor, could not but be pleasing to their companions. Then, too, they were well versed in law, and could advise, write petitions, and help to swindle without incurring the risk of punishment. For all this they were paid with vodki and flattering admiration of their talents.
The inhabitants of the street were divided into two parties according to their sympathies. One was in favor of Kuvalda, who was thought "a good soldier, clever, and courageous"; the other was convinced of the fact that the teacher was "superior" to Kuvalda. The latter's admirers were those who were known to be drunkards, thieves, and murderers, for whom the road from beggary to prison was inevitable. But those who respected the teacher were men who still had expectations, still hoped for better things, who were eternally occupied with nothing, and who were nearly always hungry.
The nature of the teacher's and Kuvalda's relations toward the street may be gathered from the following:
Once in the eating-house they were discussing the resolution passed by the Corporation regarding the main street, viz., that the inhabitants were to fill up the pits and ditches in the street, and that neither manure nor the dead bodies of domestic animals should be used for the purpose, but only broken tiles, etc., from the ruins of other houses.
"Where am I going to get these same broken tiles and bricks? I could not get sufficient bricks together to build a hen-house," plaintively said Mokei Anisimoff, a man who hawked kalaches (a sort of white bread) which were baked by his wife.
"Where can you get broken bricks and lime rubbish? Take bags with you, and go and remove them from the Corporation buildings. They are so old that they are of no use to anyone, and you will thus be doing two good deeds; firstly, by repairing the main street; and secondly, by adorning the city with a new Corporation building."
"If you want horses, get them from the Lord Mayor, and take his three daughters, who seem quite fit for harness. Then destroy the house of Judas Petunikoff and pave the street with its timbers. By the way, Mokei, I know out of what your wife baked to-day's kalaches; out of the frames of the third window and the two steps from the roof of Judas' house."
When those present had laughed and joked sufficiently over the Captain's proposal, the sober market gardener, Pavlyugus asked: "But seriously, what are we to do, your honor? . . . Eh? What do you think?"
"I? I shall neither move hand nor foot. If they wish to clean the street, let them do it."
"Some of the houses are almost coming down. . . ."
"Let them fall; don't interfere; and when they fall ask help from the city. If they don't give it you, then bring a suit in court against them! Where does the water come from? From the city! Therefore let the city be responsible for the destruction of the houses."
"They will say it is rain-water."
"Does it destroy the houses in the city? Eh? They take taxes from you, but they do not permit you to speak! They destroy your property and at the same time compel you to repair it!" And half the radicals in the street, convinced by the words of Kuvalda, decided to wait till the rain-water came down in huge streams and swept away their houses. The others, more sensible, found in the teacher a man who composed for them an excellent and convincing report for the Corporation. In this report the refusal of the street's inhabitants to comply with the resolution of the Corporation was well explained that the Corporation actually entertained it. It was decided that the rubbish left after some repairs had been done to the barracks should be used for mending and filling up the ditches in their street, and for the transport of this five horses were given by the fire brigade. Still more, they even saw the necessity of laying a drain-pipe through the street. This and many other things vastly increased the popularity of the teacher. He wrote petitions for them and published various remarks in the newspapers.
For instance, on one occasion Vaviloff's customers noticed that the herrings and other provisions of the eating-house were not what they should be, and after a day or two they saw Vaviloff standing at the bar with the newspaper in his hand making a public apology.
"It is true, I must acknowledge, that I bought old and not very good herrings, and the cabbage . . . also . . . was old. It is only too well known that anyone can put many a five-kopeck piece in his pocket in this way. And what is the result? It has not been a success; I was greedy, I own, but the cleverer man has exposed me, so we are quits. . . ."
This confession made a very good impression on the people, and it also gave Vaviloff the opportunity of still feeding them with herrings and cabbages which were not good, though they failed to notice it, so much were they impressed.
This incident was very significant, because it increased not only the teacher's popularity, but also the effect of press opinion.
It often happened, too, that the teacher read lectures on practical morality in the eating-house.
"I saw you," he said to the painter, Yashka Tyarin; "I saw you, Yakov, beating your wife. . . ." Yashka was "touched with paint" after having two glasses of vodki, and was in a slightly uplifted condition.
The people looked at him, expecting him to make a row, and all were silent.
"Did you see me? And how did it please you?" asks Yashka.
The people control their laughter.
"No; it did not please me," replies the teacher. His tone is so serious that the people are silent.
"You see I was just trying it," said Yashka, with bravado, fearing that the teacher would rebuke him. "The wife is satisfied. . . She has not got up yet today. . . ."
The teacher, who was drawing absently with his fingers on the table, said, "Do you see, Yakov, why this did not please me? . . . Let us go into the matter thoroughly, and understand what you are really doing, and what the result may be. Your wife is pregnant. You struck her last night on her sides and breast. That means that you beat not only her but the child too. You may have killed him, and your wife might have died or else have become seriously ill. To have the trouble of looking after a sick woman is not pleasant. It is wearing, and would cost you dear, because illness requires medicine, and medicine money. If you have not killed the child, you may have crippled him, and he will he born deformed, lop-sided, or hunch-backed. That means that he will not be able to work, and it is only too important to you that he should be a good workman. Even if he be born ill, it will be bad enough, because he will keep his mother from work, and will require medicine. Do you see what you are doing to yourself? Men who live by hard work must be strong and healthy, and they should have strong and healthy children . . . Do I speak truly?"
"Yes," assented the listeners.
"But all this will never happen," says Yashka, becoming rather frightened at the prospect held out to him by the teacher.
"She is healthy, and I cannot have reached the child . . . She is a devil— a hag!" he shouts angrily. "I would . . . She will eat me away as rust eats iron."
"I understand, Yakov, that you cannot help beating your wife," the teacher's sad and thoughtful voice again breaks in. "You have many reasons for doing so . . . It is your wife's character that causes you to beat her so incautiously . . . But your own dark and sad life. . . ."
"You are right!" shouts Yakov. "We live in darkness, like the chimney-sweep when he is in the chimney!"
"You are angry with your life, but your wife is patient; the closest relation to you—your wife, and you make her suffer for this, simply because you are stronger than she. She is always with you, and cannot get away. Don't you see how absurd you are?"
"That is so . . . Devil take it! But what shall I do? Am I not a man?"
"Just so! You are a man. . . . I only wish to tell you that if you cannot help beating her, then beat her carefully and always remember that you may injure her health or that of the child. It is not good to beat pregnant women . . . on their belly or on their sides and chests . . . Beat her, say, on the neck . . . or else take a rope and beat her on some soft place. . . ."
The orator finished his speech and looked upon his hearers with his dark, pathetic eyes, seeming to apologize to them for some unknown crime.
The public understands it. They understand the morale of the creature who was once a man, the morale of the public-house and much misfortune.
"Well, brother Yashka, did you understand? See how true it is!"
Yakov understood that to beat her incautiously might be injurious to his wife. He is silent, replying to his companions' jokes with confused smiles.
"Then again, what is a wife?" philosophizes the baker, Mokei Anisimoff. "A wife . . . is a friend if we look at the matter in that way. She is like a chain, chained to you for life . . . and you are both just like galley slaves. And if you try to get away from her, you cannot, you feel the chain."
"Wait," says Yakovleff; "but you beat your wife too."
"Did I say that I did not? I beat her . . . There is nothing else handy . . . Do you expect me to beat the wall with my fist when my patience is exhausted?"
"I feel just like that too . . ." says Yakov.
"How hard and difficult our life is, my brothers! There is no real rest for us anywhere!"
"And even you beat your wife by mistake," some one remarks humorously. And thus they speak till far on in the night or till they have quarrelled, the usual result of drink or of passions engendered by such discussions.
The rain beats on the windows, and outside the cold wind is blowing. The eating-house is close with tobacco smoke, but it is warm, while the street is cold and wet. Now and then, the wind beats threateningly on the windows of the eating-house, as if bidding these men to come out and be scattered like dust over the face of the earth.
Sometimes a stifled and hopeless groan is heard in its howling which again is drowned by cold, cruel laughter. This music fills one with dark, sad thoughts of the approaching winter, with its accursed short, sunless days and long nights, of the necessity of possessing warm garments and plenty to eat. It is hard to sleep through the long winter nights on an empty stomach. Winter is approaching. Yes, it is approaching . . . How to live?
These gloomy forebodings created a strong thirst among the inhabitants of the main street, and the sighs of the "creatures that once were men" increased with the wrinkles on their brows, their voices became thick and their behavior to each other more blunt. And brutal crimes were committed among them, and the roughness of these poor unfortunate outcasts was apt to increase at the approach of that inexorable enemy, who transformed all their lives into one cruel farce. But this enemy could not be captured because it was invisible.
Then they began beating each other brutally, and drank till they had drunk everything which they could pawn to the indulgent Vaviloff. And thus they passed the autumn days in open wickedness, in suffering which was eating their hearts out, unable to rise out of this vicious life and in dread of the still crueller days of winter.
Kuvalda in such cases came to their assistance with his philosophy.
"Don't lose your temper, brothers, everything has an end, this is the chief characteristic of life.
"The winter will pass, summer will follow . . . a glorious time, when the very sparrows are filled with rejoicing." But his speeches did not have any effect—a mouthful of even the freshest and purest water will not satisfy a hungry man.
Deacon Taras also tried to amuse the people by singing his songs and relating his tales. He was more successful, and sometimes his endeavors ended in a wild and glorious orgy at the eating-house. They sang, laughed and danced, and for hours behaved like madmen. After this they again fell into a despairing mood, sitting at the tables of the eating-house, in the black smoke of the lamp and the tobacco; sad and tattered, speaking lazily to each other, listening to the wild howling of the wind, and thinking how they could get enough vodki to deaden their senses.
And their hand was against every man, and every man's hand against them.