All things are relative in this world, and a man cannot sink into any condition so bad that it could not be worse. One day, toward the end of September, Captain Aristid Kuvalda was sitting, as was his custom, on the bench near the door of the dosshouse, looking at the stone building built by the merchant Petunikoff close to Vaviloff's eating-house, and thinking deeply. This building, which was partly surrounded by woods, served the purpose of a candle factory.
Painted red, as if with blood, it looked like a cruel machine which, though not working, opened a row of deep, hungry, gaping jaws, as if ready to devour and swallow anything. The gray wooden eating-house of Vaviloff, with its bent roof covered with patches, leaned against one of the brick walls of the factory, and seemed as if it were some large form of parasite clinging to it. The Captain was thinking that they would very soon be making new houses to replace the old building. "They will destroy the dosshouse even," he reflected. "It will be necessary to look out for another, but such a cheap one is not to be found. It seems a great pity to have to leave a place to which one is accustomed, though it will be necessary to go, simply because some merchant or other thinks of manufacturing candles and soap." And the Captain felt that if he could only make the life of such an enemy miserable, even temporarily, oh! with what pleasure he would do it!
Yesterday, Ivan Andreyevitch Petunikoff was in the dosshouse yard with his son and an architect. They measured the yard and put small wooden sticks in various places, which, after the exit of Petunikoff and at the order of the Captain, Meteor took out and threw away. To the eyes of the Captain this merchant appeared small and thin. He wore a long garment like a frock-coat, a velvet cap, and high, well-cleaned boots. He had a thin face with prominent cheek-bones, a wedge-shaped grayish beard, and a high forehead seamed with wrinkles from beneath which shone two narrow, blinking, and observant gray eyes . . . a sharp, gristly nose, a small mouth with thin lips . . . altogether his appearance was pious, rapacious, and respectably wicked.
"Cursed cross-bred fox and pig!" swore the Captain under his breath, recalling his first meeting with Petunikoff. The merchant came with one of the town councillors to buy the house, and seeing the Captain asked his companion:
"Is this your lodger?"
And from that day, a year and a half ago, there has been keen competition among the inhabitants of the dosshouse as to which can swear the hardest at the merchant. And last night there was a "slight skirmish with hot words," as the Captain called it, between Petunikoff and himself. Having dismissed the architect the merchant approached the Captain.
"What are you hatching?" asked he, putting his hand to his cap, perhaps to adjust it, perhaps as a salutation.
"What are you plotting?" answered the Captain in the same tone. He moved his chin so that his beard trembled a little; a non-exacting person might have taken it for a bow; otherwise it only expressed the desire of the Captain to move his pipe from one corner of his mouth to the other. "You see, having plenty of money, I can afford to sit hatching it. Money is a good thing, and I possess it," the Captain chaffed the merchant, casting cunning glances at him. "It means that you serve money, and not money you," went on Kuvalda, desiring at the same time to punch the merchant's belly.
"Isn't it all the same? Money makes life comfortable, but no money," . . . and the merchant looked at the Captain with a feigned expression of suffering. The other's upper lip curled, and exposed large, wolf-like teeth.
"With brains and a conscience, it is possible to live without it. Men only acquire riches when they cease to listen to their conscience . . . the less conscience the more money!"
"Just so; but then there are men who have neither money nor conscience."
"Were you just like what you are now when you were young?" asked Kuvalda simply. The other's nostrils twitched. Ivan Andreyevitch sighed, passed his hand over his eyes and said:
"Oh! When I was young I had to undergo a great many difficulties . . . Work! Oh! I did work!" "And you cheated, too, I suppose?"
"People like you? Nobles? I should just think so! They used to grovel at my feet!" "You only went in for robbing, not murder, I suppose?" asked the Captain. Petunikoff turned pale, and hastily changed the subject. "You are a bad host. You sit while your guest stands."
"Let him sit, too," said Kuvalda.
"But what am I to sit on?"
"On the earth . . . it will take any rubbish . . ."
"You are the proof of that," said Petunikoff quietly, while his eyes shot forth poisonous glances.
And he went away, leaving Kuvalda under the pleasant impression that the merchant was afraid of him. If he were not afraid of him he would long ago have evicted him from the dosshouse.
But then he would think twice before turning him out, because of the five roubles a month. And the Captain gazed with pleasure at Petunikoff's back as he slowly retreated from the court-yard. Following him with his eyes, he noticed how the merchant passed the factory and disappeared into the wood, and he wished very much that he might fall and break all his bones. He sat imagining many horrible forms of disaster while watching Petunikoff, who was descending the hill into the wood like a spider going into its web. Last night he even imagined that the wood gave way before the merchant and he fell . . . but afterward he found that he had only been dreaming.
And to-day, as always, the red building stands out before the eyes of Aristid Kuvalda, so plain, so massive, and clinging so strongly to the earth, that it seems to be sucking away all its life. It appears to be laughing coldly at the Captain with its gaping walls. The sun pours its rays on them as generously as it does on the miserable hovels of the main street.
"Devil take the thing!" exclaimed the Captain, thoughtfully measuring the walls of the factory with his eyes. "If only . . . ." Trembling with excitement at the thought that had just entered his mind Aristid Kuvalda jumped up and ran to Vaviloff's eating-house muttering to himself all the time.
Vaviloff met him at the bar and gave him a friendly welcome.
"I wish your honor good health!" He was of middle height and had a bald head, gray hair, and straight mustaches like tooth-brushes. Upright and neat in his clean jacket, he showed by every movement that he was an old soldier.
"Egorka, show me the lease and plan of your house," demanded Kuvalda impatiently.
"I have shown it you before." Vaviloff looked up suspiciously and closely scanned the Captain's face.
"Show it me!" shouted the Captain, striking the bar with his fist and sitting down on a stool close by.
"But why?" asked Vaviloff, knowing that it was better to keep his wits about him when Kuvalda got excited.
"You fool! Bring it at once."
Vaviloff rubbed his forehead, and turned his eyes to the ceiling in a tired way.
"Where are those papers of yours?"
There was no answer to this on the ceiling, so the old sergeant looked down at the floor, and began drumming with his fingers on the bar in a worried and thoughtful manner.
"It's no good your making wry faces!" shouted the Captain, for he had no great affection for him, thinking that a former soldier should rather have become a thief than an eating-house keeper.
"Oh! Yes! Aristid Fomich, I remember now. They were left at the High Court of Justice at the time when I came into possession."
"Get along, Egorka! It is to your own interest to show me the plan, the title-deeds, and everything you have immediately. You will probably clear at least a hundred roubles over this, do you understand?"
Vaviloff did not understand at all; but the Captain spoke in such a serious and convincing tone that the sergeant's eyes burned with curiosity, and, telling him that he would see if the papers were in his desk, he went through the door behind the bar.
Two minutes later he returned with the papers in his hand, and an expression of extreme astonishment on his face.
"Here they are; the deeds about the damned houses!"
"Ah! You . . . vagabond! And you pretend to have been a soldier, too!" And Kuvalda did not cease to belabor him with his tongue, as he snatched the blue parchment from his hands. Then, spreading the papers out in front of him, and excited all the more by Vaviloff's inquisitiveness, the Captain began reading and bellowing at the same time. At last he got up resolutely, and went to the door, leaving all the papers on the bar, and saying to Vaviloff:
"Wait! Don't lift them!"
Vaviloff gathered them lip, put them into the cashbox, and locked it, then felt the lock with his hand, to see if it were secure. After that, he scratched his bald head, thoughtfully, and went up on the roof of the eating-house. There he saw the Captain measuring the front of the house, and watched him anxiously, as he snapped his fingers, and began measuring the same line over again. Vaviloff's face lit up suddenly, and he smiled happily.
"Aristid, Fomich, is it possible?" he shouted, when the Captain came opposite to him.
"Of course it is possible. There is more than one short in the front alone, and as to the depth I shall see immediately."
"The depth . . . seventy-three feet."
"What? Have you guessed, you shaved, ugly face?"
"Of course, Aristid Fomich! If you have eyes you can see a thing or two," shouted Vaviloff joyfully.
A few minutes afterward they sat side by side in Vaviloff's parlor, and the Captain was engaged in drinking large quantities of beer.
"And so all the walls of the factory stand on your ground," said he to the eating-house keeper. "Now, mind you show no mercy! The teacher will be here presently, and we will get him to draw up a petition to the court. As to the amount of the damages you will name a very moderate sum in order not to waste money in deed stamps, but we will ask to have the factory knocked down. This, you see, donkey, is the result of trespassing on other people's property. It is a splendid piece of luck for you. We will force him to have the place smashed, and I can tell you it will be an expensive job for him. Off with you to the court. Bring pressure to bear on Judas. We will calculate how much it will take to break the factory down to its very foundations. We will make an estimate of it all, counting the time it will take too, and we will make honest Judas pay two thousand roubles besides."
"He will never give it!" cried Vaviloff, but his eyes shone with a greedy light.
"You lie! He will give it . . . Use your brains . . . What else can he do? But look here, Egorka, mind you, don't go in for doing it on the cheap. They are sure to fry to buy you off. Don't sell yourself cheap. They will probably use threats, but rely upon us. . . ."
The Captain's eyes were alight with happiness, and his face with excitement. He worked upon Vaviloff's greed, and urging upon him the importance of immediate action in the matter, went away in a very joyful and happy frame of mind.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the evening everyone was told of the Captain's discovery, and they all began to discuss Petunikoff's future predicament, painting in vivid colors his excitement and astonishment on the day the court messenger handed him the copy of the summons. The Captain felt himself quite a hero. He was happy and all his friends highly pleased. The heap of dark and tattered figures that lay in the courtyard made noisy demonstrations of pleasure. They all knew the merchant, Petunikoff, who passed them very often, contemptuously turning up his eyes and giving them no more attention than he bestowed on the other heaps of rubbish lying on the ground. He was well fed, and that exasperated them still more; and now how splendid it was that one of themselves had struck a hard blow at the selfish merchant's purse! It gave them all the greatest pleasure. The Captain's discovery was a powerful instrument in their hands. Every one of them felt keen animosity toward all those who were well fed and well dressed, but in some of them this feeling was only beginning to develop. Burning interest was felt by those "creatures that once were men" in the prospective fight between Kuvalda and Petunikoff, which they already saw in imagination.
For a fortnight the inhabitants of the dosshouse awaited the further development of events, but Petunikoff never once visited the building. It was known that he was not in town, and that the copy of the petition had not yet been handed to him. Kuvalda raged at the delays of the civil court. It is improbable that anyone had ever awaited the merchant with such impatience as did this bare-footed brigade.
"He isn't even thinking of coming, the wretch! . . ."
"That means that he does not love me!" sang Deacon Taras, leaning his chin on his hand and casting a humorous glance toward the mountain.
At last Petunikoff appeared. He came in a respectable cart with his son playing the role of groom. The latter was a red-cheeked, nice-looking youngster, in a long square-cut overcoat. He wore smoked eyeglasses. They tied the horse to an adjoining tree, the son took the measuring instrument out of his pocket and gave it to his father, and they began to measure the ground. Both were silent and worried.
"Aha!" shouted the Captain gleefully.
All those who were in the dosshouse at the moment came out to look at them and expressed themselves loudly and freely in reference to the matter.
"What does the habit of thieving mean? A man may sometimes make a big mistake when he steals, standing to lose more than he gets," said the Captain, causing much laughter among his staff and eliciting various murmurs of assent.
"Take care, you devil!" shouted Petunikoff, "lest I have you in the police court for your words!"
"You can do nothing to me without witnesses . . . Your son cannot give evidence on your side" . . . the Captain warned him.
"Look out all the same, you old wretch, you may be found guilty too!" And Petunikoff shook his fist at him. His son, deeply engrossed in his calculations, took no notice of the dark group of men, who were taking such a wicked delight in adding to his father's discomfiture. He did not even once look in their direction.
"The young spider has himself well in hand," remarked Abyedok, watching young Petunikoff's every movement and action. Having taken all the measurements he desired, Ivan Andreyevitch knit his brows, got into the cart, and drove away. His son went with a firm step into Vaviloff's eating-house, and disappeared behind the door.
"Ho, ho! That's a determined young thief! . . . What will happen next, I wonder . . .?" asked Kuvalda. "Next? Young Petunikoff will buy out Egor Vaviloff," said Abyedok with conviction, and smacked his lips as if the idea gave him great pleasure.
"And you are glad of that?" Kuvalda asked him gravely.
"I am always pleased to see human calculations miscarry," explained Abyedok, rolling his eyes and rubbing his hands with delight. The Captain spat angrily on the ground and was silent. They all stood in front of the tumble-down building, and silently watched the doors of the eating-house. More than an hour passed thus.
Then the doors opened and Petunikoff came out as silently as he had entered. He stopped for a moment, coughed, turned up the collar of his coat, glanced at the men, who were following all his movements with their eyes, and then went up the street toward the town.
The Captain watched him for a moment, and turning to Abyedok said smilingly:
"Probably you were right after all, you son of a scorpion and a wood-louse! You nose out every evil thing. Yes, the face of that young swindler shows that be has got what he wanted. . . I wonder how much Egorka has got out of them. He has evidently taken something . . . He is just the same sort of rogue that they are . . . they are all tarred with the same brush. He has got some money, and I'm damned if I did not arrange the whole thing for him! It is best to own my folly . . . Yes, life is against us all, brothers . . . and even when you spit upon those nearest to you, the spittle rebounds and hits your own face."
Having satisfied himself with this reflection, the worthy Captain looked round upon his staff. Every one of them was disappointed, because they all knew that something they did not expect had taken place between Petunikoff and Vaviloff, and they all felt that they had been insulted. The feeling that one is unable to injure anyone is worse than the feeling that one is unable to do good, because to do harm is far easier and simpler.
"Well, why are we loitering here? We have nothing more to wait for . . . except the reward that I shall get out— out of Egorka, . . ." said the Captain, looking angrily at the eating-house. "So our peaceful life under the roof of Judas has come to an end.
"Judas will now turn us out . . . So do not say that I have not warned you."
Kanets smiled sadly.
"What are you laughing at, jailer?" Kuvalda asked.
"Where shall I go then?"
"That, my soul, is a question that fate will settle for you, so do not worry," said the Captain thoughtfully, entering the dosshouse. "The creatures that once were men" followed him.
"We can do nothing but await the critical moment," said the Captain, walking about among them. "When they turn us out we shall seek a new place for ourselves, but at present there is no use spoiling our life by thinking of it . . . In times of crisis one becomes energetic . . . and if life were fuller of them and every moment of it so arranged that we were compelled to tremble for our lives all the time . . . By God! life would be livelier and even fuller of interest and energy than it is!"
"That means that people would all go about cutting one another's throats," explained Abyedok smilingly.
"Well, what about it?" asked the Captain angrily. He did not like to hear his thoughts illustrated.
"Oh! Nothing! When a person wants to get anywhere quickly he whips up the horses, but of course it needs fire to make engines go. . . ."
"Well, let everything go to the Devil as quickly as possible. I'm sure I should be pleased if the earth suddenly opened up or was burned or destroyed somehow . . . only I were left to the last in order to see the others consumed. . . ."
"Ferocious creature!" smiled Abyedok.
"Well, what of that? I . . . I was once a man . . . now I am an outcast . . . that means I have no obligations. It means that I am free to spit on everyone. The nature of my present life means the rejection of my past . . . giving up all relations toward men who are well fed and well dressed, and who look upon me with contempt because I am inferior to them in the matter of feeding or dressing. I must develop something new within myself, do you understand? Something that will make Judas Petunikoff and his kind tremble and perspire before me!"
"Ah! You have a courageous tongue!" jeered Abyedok.
"Yes . . . You miser!" And Kuvalda looked at him contemptuously. "What do you understand? What do you know? Are you able to think? But I have thought and I have read . . . books of which you could not have understood one word."
"Of course! One cannot eat soup out of one's hand . . . But though you have read and thought, and I have not done that or anything else, we both seem to have got into pretty much the same condition, don't we?"
"Go to the Devil!" shouted Kuvalda. His conversations with Abyedok always ended thus. When the teacher was absent his speeches, as a rule, fell on the empty air, and received no attention, and he knew this, but still he could not help speaking. And now, having quarrelled with his companion, he felt rather deserted; but, still longing for conversation, he turned to Simtsoff with the following question:
"And you, Aleksei Maksimovitch, where will you lay your gray head?"
The old man smiled good-humoredly, rubbed his hands, and replied, "I do not know . . . I will see. One does not require much, just a little drink."
"Plain but honorable fare!" the Captain said. Simtsoff was silent, only adding that he would find a place sooner than any of them, because women loved him. This was true. The old man had, as a rule, two or three prostitutes, who kept him on their very scant earnings. They very often beat him, but he took this stoically. They somehow never beat him too much, probably because they pitied him. He was a great lover of women, and said they were the cause of all his misfortunes. The character of his relations toward them was confirmed by the appearance of his clothes, which, as a rule, were tidy, and cleaner than those of his companions. And now, sitting at the door of the dosshouse, he boastingly related that for a long time past Redka had been asking him to go and live with her, but he had not gone because he did not want to part with the company. They heard this with jealous interest. They all knew Redka. She lived very near the town, almost below the mountain. Not long ago, she had been in prison for theft. She was a retired nurse; a tall, stout peasant woman with a face marked by smallpox, but with very pretty, though always drunken, eyes.
"Just look at the old devil!" swore Abyedok, looking at Simtsoff, who was smiling in a self-satisfied way.
"And do you know why they love me? Because I know how to cheer up their souls."
"Do you?" inquired Kuvalda.
"And I can make them pity me . . . And a woman, when she pities! Go and weep to her, and ask her to kill you . . . she will pity you— and she will kill you."
"I feel inclined to commit a murder," declared Martyanoff, laughing his dull laugh.
"Upon whom?" asked Abyedok, edging away from him.
"It's all the same to me . . . Petunikoff . . . Egorka or even you!"
"And why?" inquired Kuvalda.
"I want to go to Siberia . . . I have had enough of this vile life . . . one learns how to live there!"
"Yes, they have a particularly good way of teaching in Siberia," agreed the Captain sadly.
They spoke no more of Petunikoff, or of the turning out of the inhabitants of the dosshouse. They all knew that they would have to leave soon, therefore they did not think the matter worth discussion. It would do no good, and besides the weather was not very cold though the rains had begun . . . and it would be possible to sleep on the ground anywhere outside the town. They sat in a circle on the grass and conversed about all sorts of things, discussing one subject after another, and listening attentively even to the poor speakers in order to make the time pass; keeping quiet was as dull as listening. This society of "creatures that once were men" had one fine characteristic—no one of them endeavored to make out that he was better than the others, nor compelled the others to acknowledge his superiority.
The August sun seemed to set their tatters on fire as they sat with their backs and uncovered heads exposed to it . . . a chaotic mixture of the vegetable, mineral, and animal kingdoms. In the corners of the yard the tall steppe grass grew luxuriantly . . . Nothing else grew there but some dingy vegetables, not attractive even to those who nearly always felt the pangs of hunger.
* * * * * * * * * *
The following was the scene that took place in Vaviloff's eating-house.
Young Petunikoff entered slowly, took off his hat, looked around him, and said to the eating-house keeper:
"Egor Terentievitch Vaviloff? Are you he?"
"I am," answered the sergeant, leaning on the bar with both arms as if intending to jump over it.
"I have some business with you," said Petunikoff.
"Delighted. Please come this way to my private room."
They went in and sat down, the guest on the couch and his host on the chair opposite to him. In one corner a lamp was burning before a gigantic icon, and on the wall at the other side there were several oil lamps. They were well kept and shone as if they were new. The room, which contained a number of boxes and a variety of furniture, smelt of tobacco, sour cabbage, and olive oil. Petunikoff looked around him and made a face. Vaviloff looked at the icon, and then they looked simultaneously at one another, and both seemed to be favorably impressed. Petunikoff liked Vaviloff's frankly thievish eyes, and Vaviloff was pleased with the open cold, determined face of Petunikoff, with its large cheeks and white teeth.
"Of course you already know me, and I presume you guess what I am going to say to you," began Petunikoff.
"About the lawsuit? . . . I presume?" remarked the ex-sergeant respectfully.
"Exactly! I am glad to see that you are not beating about the bush, but going straight to the point like a business man," said Petunikoff encouragingly.
"I am a soldier," answered Vaviloff, with a modest air.
"That is easily seen, and I am sure we shall be able to finish this job without much trouble."
"Good! You have the law on your side, and will, of course, win your case. I want to tell you this at the very beginning." "I thank you most humbly," said the sergeant, rubbing his eyes in order to hide the smile in them.
"But tell me, why did you make the acquaintance of your future neighbors like this through the law courts?"
Vaviloff shrugged his shoulders and did not answer.
"It would have been better to come straight to us and settle the matter peacefully, eh? What do you think?"
"That would have been better, of course, but you see there is a difficulty . . . I did not follow my own wishes, but those of others . . . I learned afterward that it would have been better if . . . but it was too late."
"Oh! I suppose some lawyer taught you this?"
"Someone of that sort."
"Aha! Do you wish to settle the affair peacefully,"
"With all my heart!" cried the soldier.
Petunikoff was silent for a moment, then looked at him, and suddenly asked, coldly and dryly, "And why do you wish to do so?"
Vaviloff did not expect such a question, and therefore had no reply ready. In his opinion the question was quite unworthy of any attention, and so he laughed at young Petunikoff.
"That is easy to understand. Men like to live peacefully with one another."
"But," interrupted Petunikoff, "that is not exactly the reason why. As far as I can see, you do not distinctly understand why you wish to be reconciled to us . . . I will tell you."
The soldier was a little surprised. This youngster, dressed in a check suit, in which he looked ridiculous, spoke as if he were Colonel Rakshin, who used to knock three of the unfortunate soldier's teeth out every time he was angry.
"You want to be friends with us because we should be such useful neighbors to you . . . because there will be not less than a hundred and fifty workmen in our factory, and in course of time even more. If a hundred men come and drink one glass at your place, after receiving their weekly wages, that means that you will sell every month four hundred glasses more than you sell at present. This is, of course, the lowest estimate and then you have the eating-house besides. You are not a fool, and you can understand for yourself what profitable neighbors we shall be."
"That is true," Vaviloff nodded "I knew that before."
"Well, what then?" asked the merchant loudly.
"Nothing . . . let us be friends!"
"It is nice to see that you have decided so quickly. Look here, I have already prepared a notification to the court of the withdrawal of the summons against my father. Here it is; read it, and sign it."
Vaviloff looked at his companion with his round eyes and shivered, as if experiencing an unpleasant sensation.
"Pardon me . . . sign it? And why?"
"There is no difficulty about it . . . write your Christian name and surname and nothing more," explained Petunikoff, pointing obligingly with his finger to the place for the signature.
"Oh! It is not that . . . I was alluding to the compensation I was to get for my ground." "But then this ground is of no use to you," said Petunikoff calmly.
"But it is mine!" exclaimed the soldier.
"Of course, and how much do you want for it?"
"Well, say the amount stated in the document," said Vaviloff boldly.
"Six hundred!" and Petunikoff smiled softly. "You are a funny fellow!"
"The law is on my side . . . I can even demand two thousand. I can insist on your pulling down the building . . . and enforce it too. That is why my claim is so small. I demand that you should pull it down!"
"Very well. Probably we shall do so . . . after three years, and after having dragged you into enormous law expenses.
"And then, having paid up, we shall open our public-house, and you will he ruined . . . annihilated like the Swedes at Poltava. We shall see that you are ruined . . . we will take good care of that. We could have begun to arrange about a public-house now, but you see our time is valuable, and besides we are sorry for you. Why should we take the bread out of your mouth without any reason?"
Egor Terentievitch looked at his guest, clenching his teeth, and felt that he was master of the situation, and held his fate in his hands. Vaviloff was full of pity for himself at having to deal with this calm, cruel figure in the checked suit.
"And being such a near neighbor you might have gained a good deal by helping us, and we should have remembered it too. Even now, for instance, I should advise you to open a small shop for tobacco, you know, bread, cucumbers, and so on . . . All these are sure to be in great demand."
Vaviloff listened, and being a clever man, knew that to throw himself upon the enemy's generosity was the better plan. It was as well to begin from the beginning, and, not knowing what else to do to relieve his mind, the soldier began to swear at Kuvalda.
"Curses be upon your head, you drunken rascal! May the Devil take you!"
"Do you mean the lawyer who composed your petition?" asked Petunikoff calmly, and added, with a sigh, "I have no doubt he would have landed you in rather an awkward fix . . . had we not taken pity upon you."
"Ah!" And the angry soldier raised his hand.
"There are two of them . . . One of them discovered it, the other wrote the petition, the accursed reporter!"
"Why the reporter?"
"He writes for the papers . . . He is one of your lodgers . . . there they all are outside . . . Clear them away, for Christ's sake! The robbers! They disturb and annoy everyone in the street. One cannot live for them . . . And they are all desperate fellows . . . You had better take care, or else they will rob or burn you. "And this reporter, who is he?" asked Petunikoff, with interest.
"He? A drunkard. He was a teacher, but was dismissed. He drank everything he possessed . . . and now he writes for the papers and composes petitions. He is a very wicked man!"
"H'm! And did he write your petition, too? I suppose it was he who discovered the flaws in the building. The beams were not rightly put in?"
"He did! I know it for a fact! The dog! He read it aloud in here and boasted, 'Now I have caused Petunikoff some loss!'"
"Ye—es . . . Well, then, do you want to be reconciled?"
"To be reconciled?" The soldier lowered his head and thought. "Ah! This is a hard life!" said he, in a querulous voice, scratching his head.
"One must learn by experience, Petunikoff reassured him, lighting a cigarette.
"Learn . . . It is not that, my dear sir; but don't you see there is no freedom? Don't you see what a life I lead?
"I live in fear and trembling . . . I am refused the freedom so desirable to me in my movements, and I fear this ghost of a teacher will write about me in the papers. Sanitary inspectors will be called for . . . fines will have to be paid . . . or else your lodgers will set fire to the place or rob and kill me . . . I am powerless against them. They are not the least afraid of the police, and they like going to prison, because they get their food for nothing there."
"But then we will have them turned out if we come to terms with you," promised Petunikoff.
"What shall we arrange, then?" asked Vaviloff sadly and seriously.
"Tell me your terms."
"Well, give me the six hundred mentioned in the claim."
"Won't you take a hundred roubles?" asked the merchant calmly, looking attentively at his companion, and smiling softly. "I will not give you one rouble more" . . . he added.
After this, he took out his eyeglasses and began cleaning them with his handkerchief. Vaviloff looked at him sadly and respectfully. The calm face of Petunikoff, his gray eyes and clear complexion, every line of his thickset body betokened self-confidence and a well-balanced mind. Vaviloff also liked Petunikoff's straightforward manner of addressing him without any pretensions, as if he were his own brother, though Vaviloff understood well enough that he was his superior, he being only a soldier.
Looking at him, he grew fonder and fonder of him, and, forgetting for a moment the matter in hand, respectfully asked Petunikoff:
"Where did you study?"
"In the technological institute. Why?" answered the other, smiling:
"Nothing. Only . . . excuse me!" The soldier lowered his head, and then suddenly exclaimed, "What a splendid thing education is! Science—light. My brother, I am as stupid as an owl before the sun . . . Your honor, let us finish this job." With an air of decision he stretched out his hand to Petunikoff and said:
"Well, five hundred?"
"Not more than one hundred roubles, Egor Tereutievitch."
Petunikoff shrugged his shoulders as if sorry at being unable to give more, and touched the soldier's hairy hand with his long white fingers. They soon ended the matter, for the soldier gave in quickly and met Petunikoff's wishes. And when Vaviloff had received the hundred roubles and signed the paper, he threw the pen down on the table and said bitterly:
"Now I will have a nice time! They will laugh at me, they will cry shame on me, the devils!"
"But you tell them that I paid all your claim," suggested Petunikoff, calmly puffing out clouds of smoke and watching them float upward.
"But do you think they will believe it? They are as clever swindlers if not worse . . ."
Vaviloff stopped himself in time before making the intended comparison, and looked at the merchant's son in terror.
The other smoked on, and seemed to be absorbed in that occupation. He went away soon, promising to destroy the nest of vagabonds. Vaviloff looked after him and sighed, feeling as if he would like to shout some insult at the young man who was going with such firm steps toward the steep road, encumbered with its ditches and heaps of rubbish.
In the evening the Captain appeared in the eatinghouse. His eyebrows were knit and his fist clenched. Vaviloff smiled at him in a guilty manner.
"Well, worthy descendant of Judas and Cain, tell us. . . ."
"They decided" . . . said Vaviloff, sighing and lowering his eyes.
"I don't doubt it; how many silver pieces did you receive?"
"Four hundred roubles"
"Of course you are lying . . . But all the better for me. Without any further words, Egorka, ten per cent. of it for my discovery, four per cent. to the teacher for writing the petition, one 'vedro' of vodki to all of us, and refreshments all round. Give me the money now, the vodki and refreshments will do at eight o'clock."
Vaviloff turned purple with rage, and stared at Kuvalda with wide-open eyes.
"This is humbug! This is robbery! I will do nothing of the sort. What do you mean, Aristid Fomich? Keep your appetite for the next feast! I am not afraid of you now. . . ." Kuvalda looked at the clock.
"I give you ten minutes, Egorka, for your idiotic talk."
"Finish your nonsense by that time and give me what I demand. If you don't I will devour you! Kanets has sold you something? Did you read in the paper about the theft at Basoff's house? Do you understand? You won't have time to hide anything, we will not let you . . . and this very night . . . do you understand?" "Why, Aristid Fomich?" sobbed the discomfited merchant.
"No more words! Did you understand or not?"
Tall, gray, and imposing, Kuvalda spoke in half whispers, and his deep bass voice rang through the house Vaviloff always feared him because he was not only a retired military man, but a man who had nothing to lose. But now Kuvalda appeared before him in a new role. He did not speak much, and jocosely as usual, but spoke in the tone of a commander, who was convinced of the other's guilt. And Vaviloff felt that the Captain could and would ruin him with the greatest pleasure. He must needs bow before this power. Nevertheless, the soldier thought of trying him once more. He sighed deeply, and began with apparent calmness:
"It is truly said that a man's sin will find him out . . . I lied to you, Aristid Fomich, . . . I tried to be cleverer than I am . . . I only received one hundred roubles."
"Go on!" said Kuvalda.
"And not four hundred as I told you . . . That means. . . ."
"It does not mean anything. It is all the same to me whether you lied or not. You owe me sixty-five roubles. That is not much, eh?"
"Oh! my Lord! Aristid Fomich! I have always been attentive to your honor and done my best to please you.
"Drop all that, Egorka, grandchild of Judas!"
"All right! I will give it you . . . only God will punish you for this. . . ."
"Silence! You rotten pimple of the earth!" shouted the Captain, rolling his eyes. "He has punished me enough already in forcing me to have conversation with you . . . I will kill you on the spot like a fly!"
He shook his fist in Vaviloff's face and ground his teeth till they nearly broke.
After he had gone Vaviloff began smiling and winking to himself. Then two large drops rolled down his cheeks. They were grayish, and they hid themselves in his moustache, while two others followed them. Then Vaviloff went into his own room and stood before the icon, stood there without praying, immovable, with the salt tears running down his wrinkled brown cheeks. . . .
* * * * * * * * * *
Deacon Taras, who, as a rule, loved to loiter in the woods and fields, proposed to the "creatures that once were men" that they should go together into the fields, and there drink Vaviloff's vodki in the bosom of Nature. But the Captain and all the rest swore at the Deacon, and decided to drink it in the courtyard.
"One, two, three," counted Aristid Fomich; "our full number is thirty, the teacher is not here . . . but probably many other outcasts will come. Let us calculate, say, twenty persons, and to every person two-and-a-half cucumbers, a pound of bread, and a pound of meat . . . That won't be bad! One bottle of vodki each, and there is plenty of sour cabbage, and three watermelons.
"I ask you, what the devil could you want more, my scoundrel friends? Now, then, let us prepare to devour Egorka Vaviloff, because all this is his blood and body!"
They spread some old clothes on the ground, setting the delicacies and the drink on them, and sat around the feast, solemnly and quietly, but almost unable to control the craving for drink that was shining in their eyes.
The evening began to fall, and its shadows were cast on the human refuse of the earth in the courtyard of the dosshouse; the last rays of the sun illumined the roof of the tumble-down building. The night was cold and silent.
"Let us begin, brothers!" commanded the Captain.
"How many cups have we? Six . . . and there are thirty of us! Aleksei Maksimovitch, pour it out. Is it ready? Now then, the first toast . . . Come along!"
They drank and shouted, and began to eat.
"The teacher is not here . . . I have not seen him for three days. Has anyone seen him?" asked Kuvalda. "No one."
"It is unlike . . . Let us drink to the health of Aristid Kuvalda . . . the only friend who has never deserted me for one moment of my life! Devil take him all the same! I might have had something to wear had he left my society at least for a little while."
"You are bitter . . ." said Abyedok, and coughed.
The Captain, with his feeling of superiority to the others, never talked with his mouth full.
Having drunk twice, the company began to grow merry; the food was grateful to them.
Paltara Taras expressed his desire to hear a tale, but the Deacon was arguing with Kubaroff over his preferring thin women to stout ones, and paid no attention to his friend's request. He was asserting his views on the subject to Kubaroff with all the decision of a man who was deeply convinced in his own mind.
The foolish face of Meteor, who was lying on the ground, showed that he was drinking in the Deacon's strong words.
Martyanoff sat, clasping his large hairy hands round his knees, looking silently and sadly at the bottle of vodki and pulling his moustache as if trying to bite it with his teeth, while Abyedok was teasing Tyapa.
"I have seen you watching the place where your money is hidden!"
"That is your luck," shouted Tyapa.
"I will go halves with you, brother."
"All right, take it and welcome."
Kuvalda felt angry with these men. Among them all there was not one worthy of hearing his oratory or of understanding him.
"I wonder where the teacher is?" he asked loudly.
Martyanoff looked at him and said, "He will come soon.. . ."
"I am positive that he will come, but he won't come in a carriage. Let us drink to your future health. If you kill any rich man go halves with me . . . then I shall go to America, brother. To those . . . what do you call them? Limpas? Pampas?
"I will go there and I will work my way until I become the President of the United States, and then I will challenge the whole of Europe to war and I will blow it up! I will buy the army . . . in Europe that is—I will invite the French, the Germans, the Turks, and so on, and I will kill them by the hands of their own relatives . . . Just as Elia Marumets bought a Tartar with a Tartar. With money it would be possible even for Elia to destroy the whole of Europe and to take Judas Petunikoff for his valet. He would go . . . Give him a hundred roubles a month and he would go! But he would be a bad valet, because he would soon begin to steal. . . ."
"Now, besides that, the thin woman is better than the stout one, because she costs one less," said the Deacon, convincingly. "My first Deaconess used to buy twelve arshins for her clothes, but the second one only ten. And so on even in the matter of provisions and food."
Paltara Taras smiled guiltily. Turning his head towards the Deacon and looking straight at him, he said, with conviction:
"I had a wife once, too."
"Oh! That happens to everyone," remarked Kuvalda; "but go on with your lies."
"She was thin, but she ate a lot, and even died from over-eating."
"You poisoned her, you hunchback!" said Abyedok, confidently.
"No, by God I It was from eating sturgeon," said Paltara Taras.
"But I say that you poisoned her!" declared Abyedok, decisively.
It often happened, that having said something absolutely impossible and without proof, he kept on repeating it, beginning in a childish, capricious tone, and gradually raising his voice to a mad shriek.
The Deacon stood up for his friend. "No; he did not poison her. He had no reason to do so." "But I say that he poisoned her!" swore Abyedok.
"Silence!" shouted the Captain, threateningly, becoming still angrier. He looked at his friends with his blinking eyes, and not discovering anything to further provoke his rage in their half-tipsy faces, he lowered his head, sat still for a little while, and then turned over on his back on the ground. Meteor was biting cucumbers. He took a cucumber in his hand without looking at it, put nearly half of it into his mouth, and bit it with his yellow teeth, so that the juice spurted out in all directions and ran over his cheeks. He did not seem to want to eat, but this process pleased him. Martyanoff sat motionless on the ground, like a statue, and looked in a dull manner at the half-vedro bottle, already getting empty. Abyedok lay on his belly and coughed, shaking all over his small body. The rest of the dark, silent figures sat and lay around in all sorts of positions, and their tatters made them look like untidy animals, created by some strange, uncouth deity to make a mockery of man.
"There once lived a lady in Suzdale, A strange lady, She fell into hysterics, Most unpleasantly!"
sang the Deacon in low tones embracing Aleksei Maksimovitch, who was smiling kindly into his face.
Paltaras Taras giggled voluptuously.
The night was approaching. High up in the sky the stars were shining . . . and on the mountain and in the town the lights of the lamps were appearing. The whistles of the steamers were heard all over the river, and the doors of Yaviloff's eating-house opened noisily. Two dark figures entered the courtyard, and one of them asked in a hoarse voice:
"Are you drinking?" And the other said in a jealous aside:
"Just see what devils they are!"
Then a hand stretched over the Deacon's head and took away the bottle, and the characteristic sound of vodki being poured into a glass was heard. Then they all protested loudly.
"Oh this is sad!" shouted the Deacon. "Krivoi, let us remember the ancients! Let us sing 'On the Banks of Babylonian Rivers.'"
"But can he?" asked Simtsoff.
"He? He was a chorister in the Bishop's choir. Now then, Krivoi! . . . On the r-i-v-e-r-s——-" The Deacon's voice was loud and hoarse and cracked, but his friend sang in a shrill falsetto.
The dirty building loomed large in the darkness and seemed to be coming nearer, threatening the singers, who were arousing its dull echoes. The heavy, pompous clouds were floating in the sky over their heads. One of the "creatures that once were men" was snoring; while the rest of them, not yet so drunk as he was, ate and drank quietly or spoke to each other at long intervals.
It was unusual for them to be in such low spirits during such a feast, with so much vodki. Somehow the drink tonight did not seem to have its usual exhilarating effect.
"Stop howling, you dogs!" . . . said the Captain to the singers, raising his head from the ground to listen.
"Some one is passing . . . in a droshky. . . ."
A droshky at such a time in the main street could not but attract general attention. Who would risk crossing the ditches between it and the town, and why? They all raised their heads and listened. In the silence of the night the wheels were distinctly heard. They came gradually nearer. A voice was heard, asking roughly:
"Well, where then?"
Someone answered, "It must be there, that house."
"I shall not go any farther."
"They are coming here!" shouted the Captain.
"The police!" someone whispered in great alarm.
"In a droshky! Fool!" said Martyanoff, quietly.
Kuvalda got up and went to the entrance.
"Is this a lodging-house?" asked someone, in a trembling voice.
"Yes. Belonging to Aristid Kuvalda . . ." said the Captain, roughly.
"Oh! Did a reporter, one Titoff, live here?"
"Aha! Have you brought him?"
"Yes. . . ."
"That means he is very drunk. Ay, teacher! Now, then, get up!"
"Wait, I will help you . . . He is very ill . . . he has been with me for the last two days . . . Take him under the arms . . . The doctor has seen him. He is very bad."
Tyapa got up and walked to the entrance, but Abyedok laughed, and took another drink.
"Strike a light, there!" shouted the Captain.
Meteor went into the house and lighted the lamp. Then a thin line of light streamed out over the courtyard, and the Captain and another man managed to get the teacher into the dosshouse. His head was hanging on his breast, his feet trailed on the ground, and his arms hung limply as if broken. With Tyapa's help they placed him on a wide board. He was shivering all over.
"We worked on the same paper . . . he is very unlucky . . . I said, 'Stay in my house, you are not in the way,' . . . but he begged me to send him 'home.' He was so excited about it that I brought him here, thinking it might do him good . . . Home! This is it, isn't it?"
"Do you suppose he has a home anywhere else?" asked Kuvalda, roughly, looking at his friend. "Tyapa, fetch me some cold water."
"I fancy I am of no more use," remarked the man in some confusion. The Captain looked at him critically. His clothes were rather shiny, and tightly buttoned up to his chin. His trousers were frayed, his hat almost yellow with age and crumpled like his lean and hungry face.
"No, you are not necessary! We have plenty like you here," said the Captain, turning away.
"Then, good-bye!" The man went to the door, and said quietly from there, "If anything happens . . . let me know in the publishing office . . . My name is Rijoff. I might write a short obituary . . . You see he was an active member of the Press."
"H'm, an obituary, you say? Twenty lines forty kopecks? I will do more than that. When he dies I will cut off one of his legs and send it to you. That will be much more profitable than an obituary. It will last you for three days . . . His legs are fat. You devoured him when he was alive. You may as well continue to do so after he is dead. . . ."
The man sniffed strangely and disappeared. The Captain sat down on the wooden board beside the teacher, felt his forehead and breast with his hands and called "Philip!"
The sound re-echoed from the dirty walls of the dosshouse and died away.
"This is absurd, brother," said the Captain, quietly arranging the teacher's untidy hair with his hand. Then the Captain listened to his breathing, which was rapid and uneven, and looked at his sunken gray face. He sighed and looked upon him, knitting his eyebrows. The lamp was a bad one . . . The light was fitful, and dark shadows flickered on the dosshouse walls. The Captain watched them, scratching his beard.
Tyapa returned, bringing a vedro of water, and placing it beside the teacher's head, he took his arm as if to raise him up.
"The water is not necessary," and the Captain shook his head.
"But we must try to revive him," said the old rag-collector.
"Nothing is needed," said the Captain, decidedly.
They sat silently looking at the teacher.
"Let us go and drink, old devil!"
"Can you do him any good?"
Tyapa turned his back on the teacher, and both went out into the courtyard to their companions.
"What is it?" asked Abyedok, turning his sharp nose to the old man.
The snoring of those who were asleep, and the tinkling sound of pouring vodki was heard . . . The Deacon was murmuring something. The clouds swam low, so low that it seemed as if they would touch the roof of the house and would knock it over on the group of men.
"Ah! One feels sad when someone near at hand is dying," faltered the Captain, with his head down. No one answered him.
"He was the best among you . . . the cleverest, the most respectable. I mourn for him." "R-e-s-t with the Saints . . . Sing, you crooked hunchback!" roared the Deacon, digging his friend in the ribs.
"Be quiet!" shouted Abyedok, jumping vengefully to his feet.
"I will give him one on the head," proposed Martyanoff, raising his head from the ground.
"You are not asleep?" Aristid Fomich asked him very softly. "Have you heard about our teacher?" Martyanoff lazily got up from the ground, looked at the line of light coming out of the dosshouse, shook his head and silently sat down beside the Captain.
"Nothing particular . . . The man is dying remarked the Captain, shortly.
"Have they been beating him?" asked Abyedok, with great interest. The Captain gave no answer. He was drinking vodki at the moment. "They must have known we had something in which to commemorate him after his death!" continued Abyedok, lighting a cigarette. Someone laughed, someone sighed. Generally speaking, the conversation of Abyedok and the Captain did not interest them, and they hated having to think at all. They had always felt the teacher to be an uncommon man, but now many of them were drunk and the others sad and silent. Only the Deacon suddenly drew himself up straight and howled wildly:
"And may the righteous r-e-s-t!"
"You idiot!" hissed Abyedok. "What are you howling for?"
"Fool!" said Tyapa's hoarse voice. "When a man is dying one must be quiet . . . so that he may have peace."
Silence reigned once more. The cloudy sky threatened thunder, and the earth was covered with the thick darkness of an autumn night.
"Let us go on drinking!" proposed Kuvalda, filling up the glasses.
"I will go and see if he wants anything," said Tyapa.
"He wants a coffin!" jeered the Captain.
"Don't speak about that," begged Abyedok in a low voice.
Meteor rose and followed Tyapa. The Deacon tried to get up, but fell and swore loudly.
When Tyapa had gone the Captain touched Martyanoff's shoulder and said in low tones:
"Well, Martyanoff . . . You must feel it more then the others. You were . . . But let that go to the Devil . . . Don't you pity Philip?"
"No," said the ex-jailer, quietly, "I do not feel things of this sort, brother . . . I have learned better this life is disgusting after all. I speak seriously when I say that I should like to kill someone."
"Do you?" said the Captain, indistinctly. "Well let's have another drink . . . It's not a long job ours, a little drink and then . . ."
The others began to wake up, and Simtsoff shouted in a blissful voice: "Brothers! One of you pour out a glass for the old man!"
They poured out a glass and gave it to him. Having drunk it he tumbled down again, knocking against another man as he fell. Two or three minutes' silence ensued, dark as the autumn night.
"What do you say?"
"I say that he was a good man . . . a quiet and good man," whispered a low voice.
"Yes, and he had money, too . . . and he never refused it to a friend. . . ."
Again silence ensued.
"He is dying!" said Tyapa, hoarsely, from behind the
Captain's head. Aristid Fomich got up, and went with firm steps into the dosshouse.
"Don't go!" Tyapa stopped him. "Don't go! You are drunk! It is not right." The Captain stopped and thought.
"And what is right on this earth? Go to the Devil!" And he pushed Tyapa aside.
On the walls of the dosshouse the shadows were creeping, seeming to chase each other. The teacher lay on the board at full length and snored. His eyes were wide open, his naked breast rose and fell heavily, the corners of his mouth foamed, and on his face was an expression as if he wished to say something very important, but found it difficult to do so. The Captain stood with his hands behind him, and looked at him in silence. He then began in a silly way:
"Philip! Say something to me . . . a word of comfort to a friend . . . come . . . I love you, brother! All men are beasts . . . You were the only man for me . . . though you were a drunkard. Ah! how you did drink vodki, Philip! That was the ruin of you I You ought to have listened to me, and controlled yourself . . . Did I not once say to you. . . ."
The mysterious, all-destroying reaper, called Death, made up his mind to finish the terrible work quickly, as if insulted by the presence of this drunken man at the dark and solemn struggle. The teacher sighed deeply, and quivered all over, stretched himself out, and died. The Captain stood shaking to and fro, and continued to talk to him.
"Do you want me to bring you vodki? But it is better that you should not drink, Philip . . . control yourself or else drink! Why should you really control yourself? For what reason, Philip? For what reason?"
He took him by the foot and drew him closer to himself.
"Are you dozing, Philip? Well, then, sleep Good-night . . . To-morrow I shall explain all this to you, and you will understand that it is not really necessary to deny yourself anything . . . But go on sleeping now . . . if you are not dead."
He went out to his friends, followed by the deep silence, and informed them:
"Whether he is sleeping or dead, I do not know I am a little drunk."
Tyapa bent further forward than usual and crossed himself respectfully. Martyanoff dropped to the ground and lay there. Abyedok moved quietly, and said in a low and wicked tone:
"May you all go to the Devil! Dead? What of that? Why should I care? Why should I speak about it? It will be time enough when I come to die myself . . . I am not worse than other people."
"That is true," said the Captain, loudly, and fell to the ground. "The time will come when we shall all die like others . . . Ha! ha! How shall we live? That is nothing . . . But we shall die like everyone else, and this is the whole end of life, take my word for it. A man lives only to die, and he dies . . . and if this be so what does it matter how or where he died or how he lived? Am I right, Martyanoff? Let us therefore drink . . . while we still have life!"
The rain began to fall. Thick, close darkness covered the figures that lay scattered over the ground, half drunk, half asleep. The light in the windows of the dosshouse flickered, paled, and suddenly disappeared. Probably the wind blew it out or else the oil was exhausted. The drops of rain sounded strangely on the iron roof of the dosshouse. Above the mountain where the town lay the ringing of bells was heard, rung by the watchers in the churches. The brazen sound coming from the belfry rang out into the dark and died away, and before its last indistinct note was drowned another stroke was heard and the monotonous silence was again broken by the melancholy clang of bells.
* * * * * * * * * *
The next morning Tyapa was the first to wake up. Lying on his back he looked up into the sky. Only in such a position did his deformed neck permit him to see the clouds above his head.
This morning the sky was of a uniform gray. Up there hung the damp, cold mist of dawn, almost extinguishing the sun, hiding the unknown vastness behind and pouring despondency over the earth. Tyapa crossed himself, and leaning on his elbow, looked round to see whether there was any vodki left. The bottle was there, but it was empty. Crossing over his companions he looked into the glasses from which they had drunk, found one of them almost full, emptied it, wiped his lips with his sleeve, and began to shake the Captain.
The Captain raised his head and looked at him with sad eyes.
"We must inform the police . . . Get up!"
"Of what?" asked the Captain, sleepily and angrily.
"What, is he not dead?"
"The learned one."
"Did you forget? . . . Alas!" said Tyapa, hoarsely.
The Captain rose to his feet, yawned and stretched himself till all his bones cracked.
"Well, then! Go and give information.
"I will not go . . . I do not like them," said the Captain morosely.
"Well, then, wake up the Deacon . . . I shall go, at any rate."
"All right! . . . Deacon, get up!"
The Captain entered the dosshouse, and stood at the teacher's feet. The dead man lay at full length, his left hand on his breast, the right hand held as if ready to strike some one.
The Captain thought that if the teacher got up now, he would be as tall as Paltara Taras. Then he sat by the side of the dead man and sighed, as he remembered that they had lived together for the last three years. Tyapa entered holding his head like a goat which is ready to butt.
He sat down quietly and seriously on the opposite side of the teacher's body, looked into the dark, silent face, and began to sob.
"So . . . he is dead . . . I too shall die soon. . . ."
"It is quite time for that!" said the Captain, gloomily.
"It is," Tyapa agreed. "You ought to die too. Anything is better than this. . . ."
"But perhaps death might be worse? How do you know?"
"It could not be worse. When you die you have only God to deal with . . . but here you have to deal with men . . . and men— what are they?"
"Enough! . . . Be quiet!" interrupted Kuvalda angrily.
And in the dawn, which filled the dosshouse, a solemn stillness reigned over all. Long and silently they sat at the feet of their dead companion, seldom looking at him, and both plunged in thought. Then Tyapa asked:
"Will you bury him?"
"I? No, let the police bury him!"
"You took money from Vaviloff for this petition . . . and I will give you some if you have not enough."
"Though I have his money . . . still I shall not bury him."
"That is not right. You are robbing the dead. I will tell them all that you want to keep his money." . . . Tyapa threatened him.
"You are a fool, you old devil!" said Kuvalda, contemptuously.
"I am not a fool . . . but it is not right nor friendly."
"Enough! Be off!"
"How much money is there?"
"Twenty-five roubles," . . . said Kuvalda, absently.
"So! . . . You might gain a five-rouble note. . . ."
"You old scoundrel! . . ." And looking into Tyapa's face the Captain swore.
"Well, what? Give. . . ."
"Go to the Devil! . . . I am going to spend this money in erecting a monument to him."
"What does he want that for?"
"I will buy a stone and an anchor. I shall place the stone on the grass, and attach the anchor to it with a very heavy chain."
"Why? You are playing tricks. . . ."
"Well . . . It is no business of yours."
"Look out! I shall tell . . ." again threatened Tyapa.
Aristid Fomich looked at him sullenly and said nothing. Again they sat there in that silence which, in the presence of the dead, is so full of mystery.
"Listen . . . They are coming!" Tyapa got up and went out of the dosshouse.
Then there appeared at the door the Doctor, the Police Inspector of the district, and the examining Magistrate or Coroner. All three came in turn, looked at the dead teacher, and then went out, throwing suspicious glances at Kuvalda. He sat there, without taking any notice of them, until the Police Inspector asked him:
"Of what did he die?"
"Ask him . . . I think his evil life hastened his end."
"What?" asked the Coroner.
"I say that he died of a disease to which he had not been accustomed. . . ."
"H'm, yes. Had he been ill long?"
"Bring him over here, I cannot see him properly," said the Doctor, in a melancholy tone. "Probably there are signs of . . ."
"Now, then, ask someone here to carry him out!" the Police Inspector ordered Kuvalda.
"Go and ask them yourself! He is not in my way here . . ." the Captain replied, indifferently.
"Well!" . . . shouted the Inspector, making a ferocious face.
"Phew!" answered Kuvalda, without moving from his place and gnashing his teeth restlessly.
"The Devil take it!" shouted the Inspector, so madly that the blood rushed to his face. "I'll make you pay for this! I'll——"
"Good-morning, gentlemen!" said the merchant Petunikoff, with a sweet smile, making his appearance in the doorway.
He looked round, trembled, took off his cap and crossed himself. Then a pompous, wicked smile crossed his face, and, looking at the Captain, he inquired respectfully:
"What has happened? Has there been a murder here?"
"Yes, something of that sort," replied the Coroner.
Petunikoff sighed deeply, crossed himself again, and spoke in an angry tone.
"By Cod! It is just as I feared. It always ends in your having to come here . . . Ay, ay, ay! God save everyone. Times without number have I refused to lease this house to this man, and he has always won me over, and I was afraid. You know . . . They are such awful people . . . better give it them, I thought, or else. . . ."
He covered his face with his hands, tugged at his beard, and sighed again.
"They are very dangerous men, and this man here is their leader . . . the ataman of the robbers."
"But we will make him smart!" promised the Inspector, looking at the Captain with revengeful eyes.
"Yes, brother, we are old friends of yours . . ." said Kuvalda in a familiar tone. "How many times have I paid you to be quiet?"
"Gentlemen!" shouted the Inspector, "did you hear him? I want you to bear witness to this. Aha, I shall make short work of you, my friend, remember!"
"Don't count your chickens before they are hatched . . . my friend," said Aristid Fomich.
The Doctor, a young man with eye-glasses, looked at him curiously, the Coroner with an attention that boded him no good, Petunikoff with triumph, while the Inspector could hardly restrain himself from throwing himself upon him.
The dark figure of Martyanoff appeared at the door of the dosshouse. He entered quietly, and stood behind Petunikoff, so that his chin was on a level with the merchant's head. Behind him stood the Deacon, opening his small, swollen, red eyes.
"Let us be doing something, gentlemen," suggested the Doctor. Martyanoff made an awful grimace, and suddenly suddenly sneezed on Petunikoff's head. The latter gave a yell, sat down hurriedly, and then jumped aside, almost knocking down the Inspector, into whose open arms he fell.
"Do you see," said the frightened merchant, pointing to Martyanoff, "do you see what kind of men they are."
Kuvalda burst out laughing. The Doctor and the Coroner smiled too, and at the door of the dosshouse the group of figures was increasing . . . sleepy figures, with swollen faces, red, inflamed eyes, and dishevelled hair, staring rudely at the Doctor, the Coroner, and the Inspector.
"Where are you going?" said the policeman on guard at the door, catching hold of their tatters and pushing them aside. But he was one against many, and, without taking any notice, they all entered and stood there, reeking of vodki, silent and evil-looking.
Kuvalda glanced at them, then at the authorities, who were angry at the intrusion of these ragamuffins, and said, smilingly, "Gentlemen, perhaps you would like to make the acquaintance of my lodgers and friends? Would you? But, whether you wish it or not, you will have to make their acquaintance sooner or later in the course of your duties."
The Doctor smiled in an embarrassed way. The Coroner pressed his lips together, and the Inspector saw that it was time to go. Therefore, he shouted:
"Sideroff! Whistle! Tell them to bring a cart here."
"I will go," said Petunikoff, coming forward from a corner. "You had better take it away to-day, sir, I want to pull down this hole. Go away! or else I shall apply to the police!"
The policeman's whistle echoed through the courtyard. At the door of the dosshouse its inhabitants stood in a group, yawning, and scratching themselves.
"And so you do not wish to be introduced? That is rude of you!" laughed Aristid Fomich.
Petunikoff took his purse from his pocket, took out two five-kopeck pieces, put them at the feet of the dead man, and crossed himself.
"God have mercy . . . on the burial of the sinful. . . ."
"What!" yelled the Captain, "you give for the burial?
"Take them away, I say, you scoundrel! How dare you give your stolen kopecks for the burial of an honest man? I will tear you limb from limb!"
"Your Honor!" cried the terrified merchant to the Inspector, seizing him by the elbow.
The Doctor and the Coroner jumped aside. The Inspector shouted:
"Sideroff, come here!"
"The creatures that once were men" stood along the wall, looking and listening with an interest, which put new life into their broken-down bodies.
Kuvalda, shaking his fist at Petunikoff's head, roared and rolled his eyes like a wild beast.
"Scoundrel and thief! Take back your money! Dirty worm! Take it back, I say . . . or else I shall cram it down your throat. . . . Take your five-kopeck pieces!" Petunikoff put out his trembling hand toward his mite, and protecting his head from Kuvalda's fist with the other hand, said:
101 CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN "You are my witnesses, Sir Inspector, and you good people!"
"We are not good people, merchant!" said the voice of Abyedok, trembling with anger.
The Inspector whistled impatiently, with his other hand protecting Petunikoff, who was stooping in front of him as if trying to enter his belly.
"You dirty toad! I shall compel you to kiss the feet of the dead man. How would you like that?" And catching Petunikoff by the neck, Kuvalda hurled him against the door, as if he bad been a cat. The "creatures that once were men" sprang aside quickly to let the merchant fall. And down he fell at their feet, crying wildly:
"Murder! Help! Murder!"
Martyanoff slowly raised his foot, and brought it down heavily on the merchant's head. Abyedok spat in his face with a grin. The merchant, creeping on all-fours, threw himself into the courtyard, at which everyone laughed. But by this time the two policemen had arrived, and pointing to Kuvalda, the Inspector said, pompously:
"Arrest him, and bind him hand and foot!"
"You dare not! . . . I shall not run away . . . I will go wherever you wish, . . ." said Kuvalda, freeing himself from the policemen at his side.
The "creatures that once were men" disappeared one after the other. A cart entered the yard. Some ragged wretches brought out the dead man's body.
"I'll teach you! You just wait!" thundered the Inspector at Kuvalda.
"How now, ataman?" asked Petunikoff maliciously, excited and pleased at the sight of his enemy in bonds. "That, you fell into the trap? Eh? You just wait. . ."
But Kuvalda was quiet now. He stood strangely straight and silent between the two policemen, watching the teacher's body being placed in the cart. The man who was holding the head of the corpse was very short, and could not manage to place it on the cart at the same time as the legs. For a moment the body hung as if it would fall to the ground, and hide itself beneath the earth, away from these foolish and wicked disturbers of its peace.
"Take him away!" ordered the Inspector, pointing to the Captain.
Kuvalda silently moved forward without protestation, passing the cart on which was the teacher's body. He bowed his head before it without looking. Martyanoff, with his strong face, followed him. The courtyard of the merchant Petunikoff emptied quickly.
"Now then, go on!" called the driver, striking the horses with the whip. The cart moved off over the rough surface of the courtyard. The teacher was covered with a heap of rags, and his belly projected from beneath them. It seemed as if he were laughing quietly at the prospect of leaving the dosshouse, never, never to return. Petunikoff, who was following him with his eyes, crossed himself, and then began to shake the dust and rubbish off his clothes, and the more he shook himself the more pleased and self-satisfied did he feel. He saw the tall figure of Aristid Fomich Kuvalda, in a gray cap with a red band, with his arms bound behind his back, being led away. Petunikoff smiled the smile of the conqueror, and went back into the dosshouse, but suddenly he stopped and trembled. At the door facing him stood an old man with a stick in his hand and a large bag on his back, a horrible old man in rags and tatters, which covered his bony figure. He bent under the weight of his burden, and lowered his head on his breast, as if he wished to attack the merchant.
"What are you? Who are you?" shouted Petunikoff.
"A man . . ." he answered in a hoarse voice. This hoarseness pleased and tranquillized Petunikoff, he even smiled.
"A man! And are there really men like you?" Stepping aside he let the old man pass. He went, saying slowly:
"Men are of various kinds . . . as God wills . . . There are worse than me . . . still worse . . . Yes. . . ."
The cloudy sky hung silently over the dirty yard and over the cleanly-dressed man with the pointed beard, who was walking about there, measuring distances with his steps and with his sharp eyes. On the roof of the old house a crow perched and croaked, thrusting its head now backward, now forward. In the lowering gray clouds, which hid the sky, there was something hard and merciless, as if they had gathered together to wash all the dirt off the face of this unfortunate, suffering, and sorrowful earth.