The Man Who Was Afraid, by Maksim Gorky

Chapter V

FOMA’S dual relation toward Mayakin grew stronger and stronger as time went on; listening to his words attentively and with eager curiosity, he felt that each meeting with his godfather was strengthening in him the feeling of hostility toward the old man. Sometimes Yakov Tarasovich roused in his godson a feeling akin to fear, sometimes even physical aversion. The latter usually came to Foma whenever the old man was pleased with something and laughed. From laughter the old man’s wrinkles would tremble, thus changing the expression of his face every now and then; his dry, thin lips would stretch out and move nervously, displaying black broken teeth, and his red little beard was as though aflame. His laughter sounded like the squeaking of rusty hinges, and altogether the old man looked like a lizard at play. Unable to conceal his feelings, Foma often expressed them to Mayakin rather rudely, both in words and in gesture, but the old man, pretending not to notice it, kept a vigilant eye on him, directing his each and every step. Wholly absorbed by the steamship affairs of the young Gordyeeff, he even neglected his own little shop, and allowed Foma considerable leisure time. Thanks to Mayakin’s important position in town and to his extensive acquaintance on the Volga, business was splendid, but Mayakin’s zealous interest in his affairs strengthened Foma’s suspicions that his godfather was firmly resolved to marry him to Luba, and this made the old man more repulsive to him.

He liked Luba, but at the same time she seemed suspicious and dangerous for him. She did not marry, and Mayakin never said a word about it; he gave no evening parties, invited none of the youths to his house and did not allow Luba to leave the house. And all her girl friends were married already. Foma admired her words and listened to her just as eagerly as to her father; but whenever she started to speak of Taras with love and anguish, it seemed to him that she was hiding another man under that name, perhaps that same Yozhov, who according to her words, had to leave the university for some reason or other, and go to Moscow. There was a great deal of simplemindedness and kindness in her, which pleased Foma, and ofttimes her words awakened in him a feeling of pity for her; it seemed to him that she was not alive, that she was dreaming though awake.

His conduct at the funeral feast for his father became known to all the merchants and gave him a bad reputation. On the Exchange, he noticed, everybody looked at him sneeringly, malevolently, and spoke to him in some peculiar way. One day he heard behind him a low exclamation, full of contempt:

“Gordyeeff! Milksop!”

He felt that this was said of him, but he did not turn around to see who it was that flung those words at him. The rich people, who had inspired him with timidity before, were now losing in his eyes the witchery of their wealth and wisdom. They had more than once snatched out of his hands this or that profitable contract; he clearly saw that they would do it again, and they all seemed to him alike — greedy for money, always ready to cheat one another. When he imparted to his godfather his observation, the old man said:

“How then? Business is just the same as war — a hazardous affair. There they fight for the purse, and in the purse is the soul.”

“I don’t like this,” announced Foma.

“Neither do I like everything — there’s too much fraud.

But to be fair in business matters is utterly impossible; you must be shrewd! In business, dear, on approaching a man you must hold honey in your left hand, and clutch a knife in your right. Everybody would like to buy five copecks’ worth for a half a copeck.”

“Well, this isn’t too good,” said Foma, thoughtfully. “But it will be good later. When you have taken the upper hand, then it will be good. Life, dear Foma, is very simple: either bite everybody, or lie in the gutter.

The old man smiled, and the broken teeth in his mouth roused in Foma the keen thought:

“You have bitten many, it seems.”

“There’s but one word — battle!” repeated the old man.

“Is this the real one?” asked Foma, looking at Mayakin searchingly.

“That is, what do you mean — the real?”

“Is there nothing better than this? Does this contain everything?”

“Where else should it be? Everybody lives for himself. Each of us wishes the best for himself. And what is the best? To go in front of others, to stand above them. So that everybody is trying to attain the first place in life — one by this means, another by that means. But everyone is positively anxious to be seen from afar, like a tower. And man was indeed appointed to go upward. Even the Book of Job says: ‘Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks, to fly upward.’ Just see: even children at play always wish to surpass one another. And each and every game has its climax, which makes it interesting. Do you understand?”

“I understand this!” said Foma, firmly and confidently.

“But you must also feel this. With understanding alone you cannot go far, and you must desire, and desire so that a big mountain should seem to you but a hillock, and the sea but a puddle. Eh! When I was of your age I had an easy life, while you are only taking aim. But then, good fruit does not ripen early.”

The old man’s monotonous speeches soon accomplished what they were intended to do. Foma listened to them and made clear to himself the aim of life. He must be better than others, he resolved, and the ambition, kindled by the old man, took deep root in his heart. It took root within his heart, but did not fill it up, for Foma’s relations toward Medinskaya assumed that character, which they were bound to assume. He longed for her, he always yearned to see her; while in her presence he became timid, awkward and stupid; he knew it and suffered on this account. He frequently visited her, but it was hard to find her at home alone; perfumed dandies like flies over a piece of sugar — were always flitting about her. They spoke to her in French, sang and laughed, while he looked at them in silence, tortured by anger and jealousy. His legs crossed, he sat somewhere in a corner of her richly furnished drawing-room, where it was extremely difficult to walk without overturning or at least striking against something — Foma sat and watched them sternly.

Over the soft rugs she was noiselessly passing hither and thither, casting to him kind glances and smiles, while her admirers were fawning upon her, and they all, like serpents, were cleverly gliding by the various little tables, chairs, screens, flower-stands — a storehouse full of beautiful and frail things, scattered about the room with a carelessness equally dangerous to them and to Foma. But when he walked there, the rugs did not drown his footsteps, and all these things caught at his coat, trembled and fell. Beside the piano stood a sailor made of bronze, whose hand was lifted, ready to throw the life-saving ring; on this ring were ropes of wire, and these always pulled Foma by the hair. All this provoked laughter among Sophya Pavlovna and her admirers, and Foma suffered greatly, changing from heat to cold.

But he felt no less uncomfortable even when alone with her. Greeting him with a kindly smile, she would take a seat beside him in one of the cosy corners of her drawing-room and would usually start her conversation by complaining to him of everybody:

“You wouldn’t believe how glad I am to see you!” Bending like a cat, she would gaze into his eyes with her dark glance, in which something avidious would now flash up.

“I love to speak to you,” she said, musically drawling her words. “I’ve grown tired of all the rest of them. They’re all so boring, ordinary and worn-out, while you are fresh, sincere. You don’t like those people either, do you?”

“I can’t bear them!” replied Foma, firmly.

“And me?” she asked softly.

Foma turned his eyes away from her and said, with a sigh:

“How many times have you asked me that?”

“Is it hard for you to tell me?”

“It isn’t hard, but what for?”

“I must know it.”

“You are making sport of me,” said Foma, sternly. And she opened her eyes wide and inquired in a tone of great astonishment:

“How do I make sport of you? What does it mean to make sport?”

And her face looked so angelic that he could not help believing her.

“I love you! I love you! It is impossible not to love you!” said he hotly, and immediately added sadly, lowering his voice: “But you don’t need it!”

“There you have it!” sighed Medinskaya, satisfied, drawing back from him. “I am always extremely pleased to hear you say this, with so much youthfulness and originality. Would you like to kiss my hand?”

Without saying a word he seized her thin, white little hand and carefully bending down to it, he passionately kissed it for a long time. Smiling and graceful, not in the least moved by his passion, she freed her hand from his. Pensively, she looked at him with that strange glitter in her eyes, which always confused Foma; she examined him as something rare and extremely curious, and said:

“How much strength and power and freshness of soul you possess! Do you know? You merchants are an altogether new race, an entire race with original traditions, with an enormous energy of body and soul. Take you, for instance — you are a precious stone, and you should be polished. Oh!”

Whenever she told him: “You,” or “according to your merchant fashion,” it seemed to Foma that she was pushing him away from her with these words. This at once saddened and offended him. He was silent, looking at her small maidenly figure, which was always somehow particularly well dressed, always sweet-scented like a flower. Sometimes he was seized with a wild, coarse desire to embrace and kiss her. But her beauty and the fragility of her thin, supple body awakened in him a fear of breaking and disfiguring her, and her calm, caressing voice and the clear, but somewhat cautious look of her eyes chilled his passion; it seemed to him as though she were looking straight into his soul, divining all his thoughts. But these bursts of emotion were rare. Generally the youth regarded Medinskaya with adoration, admiring everything in her — her beauty, her words, her dresses. And beside this adoration there was in him a painfully keen consciousness of his remoteness from her, of her supremacy over him.

These relations were established between them within a short time; after two or three meetings Medinskaya was in full possession of the youth and she slowly began to torture him. Evidently she liked to have a healthy, strong youth at her mercy; she liked to rouse and tame the animal in him merely with her voice and glance, and confident of the power of her superiority, she found pleasure in thus playing with him. On leaving her, he was usually half-sick from excitement, bearing her a grudge, angry with himself, filled with many painful and intoxicating sensations. And about two days later he would come to undergo the same torture again.

One day he asked her timidly:

“Sophya Pavlovna! Have you ever had any children?”

“No.”

“I thought not!” exclaimed Foma with delight.

She cast at him the look of a very naive little girl, and said:

“What made you think so? And why do you want to know whether I had any children or not?”

Foma blushed, and, bending his head, began to speak to her in a heavy voice, as though he was lifting every word from the ground and as though each word weighed a few puds.

“You see — a woman who — has given birth to children — such a woman has altogether different eyes.”

“So? What kind are they then?”

“Shameless!” Foma blurted out.

Medinskaya broke into her silver laughter, and Foma, looking at her, also began to laugh.

“Excuse me!” said he, at length. “Perhaps I’ve said something wrong, improper.”

“Oh, no, no! You cannot say anything improper. You are a pure, amiable boy. And so, my eyes are not shameless?”

“Yours are like an angel’s!” announced Foma with enthusiasm, looking at her with beaming eyes. And she glanced at him, as she had never done before; her look was that of a mother, a sad look of love mingled with fear for the beloved.

“Go, dear one. I am tired; I need a rest,” she said to him, as she rose without looking at him. He went away submissively.

For some time after this incident her attitude toward him was stricter and more sincere, as though she pitied him, but later their relations assumed the old form of the cat-and-mouse play.

Foma’s relation toward Medinskaya could not escape his godfather’s notice, and one day the old man asked him, with a malicious grimace:

“Foma! You had better feel your head more often so that you may not lose it by accident.”

“What do you mean?” asked Foma.

“I speak of Sonka. You are going to see her too often.”

“What has that to do with you?” said Foma, rather rudely. “And why do you call her Sonka?”

“It’s nothing to me. I would lose nothing if you should be fleeced. And as to calling her Sonka — everybody knows that is her name. So does everybody know that she likes to rake up the fire with other people’s hands.”

“She is clever!” announced Foma, firmly, frowning and hiding his hands in his pockets. “She is intelligent.”

“Clever, that’s true! How cleverly she arranged that entertainment; there was an income of two thousand four hundred roubles, the expenses — one thousand nine hundred; the expenses really did not even amount to a thousand roubles, for everybody does everything for her for nothing. Intelligent! She will educate you, and especially will those idlers that run around her.”

“They’re not idlers, they are clever people!” replied Foma, angrily, contradicting himself now. “And I learn from them. What am I? I know nothing. What was I taught? While there they speak of everything — and each one has his word to say. Do not hinder me from being like a man.”

“Pooh! How you’ve learned to speak! With so much anger, like the hail striking against the roof! Very well, be like a man, but in order to be like a man it might be less dangerous for you to go to the tavern; the people there are after all better than Sophya’s people. And you, young man, you should have learned to discriminate one person from another. Take Sophya, for instance: What does she represent? An insect for the adornment of nature and nothing more!”

Intensely agitated, Foma set his teeth together and walked away from Mayakin, thrusting his hands still deeper into his pockets. But the old man soon started again a conversation about Medinskaya.

They were on their way back from the bay after an inspection of the steamers, and seated in a big and commodious sledge, they were enthusiastically discussing business matters in a friendly way. It was in March. The water under the sledge-runners was bubbling, the snow was already covered with a rather dirty fleece, and the sun shone warmly and merrily in the clear sky.

“Will you go to your lady as soon as we arrive?” asked Mayakin, unexpectedly, interrupting their business talk.

“I will,” said Foma, shortly, and with displeasure,

“Mm. Tell me, how often do you give her presents?” asked Mayakin, plainly and somewhat intimately.

“What presents? What for?” Foma wondered.

“You make her no presents? You don’t say. Does she live with you then merely so, for love’s sake?”

Foma boiled up with anger and shame, turned abruptly toward the old man and said reproachfully:

“Eh! You are an old man, and yet you speak so that it is a shame to listen to you! To say such a thing! Do you think she would come down to this?”

Mayakin smacked his lips and sang out in a mournful voice:

“What a blockhead you are! What a fool!” and suddenly grown angry, he spat out: “Shame upon you! All sorts of brutes drank out of the pot, nothing but the dregs remained, and now a fool has made a god unto himself of this dirty pot. Devil! You just go up to her and tell her plainly: ‘I want to be your lover. I am a young man, don’t charge me much for it.’”

“Godfather!” said Foma, sternly, in a threatening voice, “I cannot bear to hear such words. If it were someone else.”

“But who except myself would caution you? Good God!” Mayakin cried out, clasping his hands. “So she has led you by the nose all winter long! What a nose! What a beast she is!”

The old man was agitated; in his voice rang vexation, anger, even tears Foma had never before seen him in such a state, and looking at him, he was involuntarily silent.

“She will ruin you! 0h Lord! The Babylonian prostitute!”

Mayakin’s eyes were blinking, his lips were trembling, and in rude, cynical words he began to speak of Medinskaya, irritated, with a wrathful jar in his voice.

Foma felt that the old man spoke the truth. He now began to breathe with difficulty and he felt that his mouth had a dry, bitter taste.

“Very well, father, enough,” he begged softly and sadly, turning aside from Mayakin.

“Eh, you ought to get married as soon as possible!” exclaimed the old man with alarm.

“For Christ’s sake, do not speak,” uttered Foma in a dull voice.

Mayakin glanced at his godson and became silent. Foma’s face looked drawn; he grew pale, and there was a great deal of painful, bitter stupor in his half-open lips and in his sad look. On the right and on the left of the road a field stretched itself, covered here and there with patches of winter-raiment. Rooks were hopping busily about over the black spots, where the snow had melted. The water under the sledge-runners was splashing, the muddy snow was kicked up by the hoofs of the horses.

“How foolish man is in his youth!” exclaimed Mayakin, in a low voice. Foma did not look at him.

“Before him stands the stump of a tree, and yet he sees the snout of a beast — that’s how he frightens himself. Oh, oh!”

“Speak more plainly,” said Foma, sternly.

“What is there to say? The thing is clear: girls are cream; women are milk; women are near, girls are far. Consequently, go to Sonka, if you cannot do without it, and tell her plainly. That’s how the matter stands. Fool! If she is a sinner, you can get her more easily. Why are you so angry, then? Why so bristled up?”

“You don’t understand,” said Foma, in a low voice.

“What is it I do not understand? I understand everything!”

“The heart. Man has a heart,” sighed the youth.

Mayakin winked his eyes and said:

“Then he has no mind.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37