The Man Who Was Afraid, by Maksim Gorky

Chapter VI

WHEN Foma arrived in the city he was seized with sad, revengeful anger. He was burning with a passionate desire to insult Medinskaya, to abuse her. His teeth firmly set together, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, he walked for a few hours in succession about the deserted rooms of his house, he sternly knitted his brow, and constantly threw his chest forward. His breast was too narrow to hold his heart, which was filled with wrath. He stamped the floor with heavy and measured steps, as though he were forging his anger.

“The vile wretch — disguised herself as an angel!” Pelageya vividly arose in his memory, and he whispered malignantly and bitterly:

“Though a fallen woman, she is better. She did not play the hypocrite. She at once unfolded her soul and her body, and her heart is surely just as her breast — white and sound.”

Sometimes Hope would whisper timidly in his ear:

“Perhaps all that was said of her was a lie.”

But he recalled the eager certainty of his godfather, and the power of his words, and this thought perished. He set his teeth more firmly together and threw his chest still more forward. Evil thoughts like splinters of wood stuck into his heart, and his heart was shattered by the acute pain they caused.

By disparaging Medinskaya, Mayakin made her more accessible to his godson, and Foma soon understood this. A few days passed, and Foma’s agitated feelings became calm, absorbed by the spring business cares. The sorrow for the loss of the individual deadened the spite he owed the woman, and the thought of the woman’s accessibility increased his passion for her. And somehow, without perceiving it himself, he suddenly understood and resolved that he ought to go up to Sophya Pavlovna and tell her plainly, openly, just what he wanted of her — that’s all! He even felt a certain joy at this resolution, and he boldly started off to Medinskaya, thinking on the way only how to tell her best all that was necessary.

The servants of Medinskaya were accustomed to his visits, and to his question whether the lady was at home the maid replied:

“Please go into the drawing-room. She is there alone.”

He became somewhat frightened, but noticing in the mirror his stately figure neatly clad with a frock-coat, and his swarthy, serious face in a frame of a downy black beard, set with large dark eyes — he raised his shoulders and confidently stepped forward through the parlour. Strange sounds of a string instrument were calmly floating to meet him; they seemed to burst into quiet, cheerless laughter, complaining of something, tenderly stirring the heart, as though imploring it for attention and having no hopes of getting it. Foma did not like to hear music — it always filled him with sadness. Even when the “machine” in the tavern played some sad tune, his heart filled with melancholy anguish, and he would either ask them to stop the “machine” or would go away some little distance feeling that he could not listen calmly to these tunes without words, but full of lamentation and tears. And now he involuntarily stopped short at the door of the drawing-room.

A curtain of long strings of parti-coloured glass beads hung over the door. The beads had been strung so as to form a fantastic figure of some kind of plants; the strings were quietly shaking and it seemed that pale shadows of flowers were soaring in the air. This transparent curtain did not hide the inside of the drawing- room from Foma’s eyes. Seated on a couch in her favourite corner, Medinskaya played the mandolin. A large Japanese umbrella, fastened up to the wall, shaded the little woman in black by its mixture of colours; the high bronze lamp under a red lamp-shade cast on her the light of sunset. The mild sounds of the slender strings were trembling sadly in the narrow room, which was filled with soft and fragrant twilight. Now the woman lowered the mandolin on her knees and began running her fingers over the strings, also to examine fixedly something before her. Foma heaved a sigh.

A soft sound of music soared about Medinskaya, and her face was forever changing as though shadows were falling on it, falling and melting away under the flash of her eyes.

Foma looked at her and saw that when alone she was not quite so good-looking as in the presence of people — now her face looked older, more serious — her eyes had not the expression of kindness and gentleness, they had a rather tired and weary look. And her pose, too, was weary, as if the woman were about to stir but could not. Foma noticed that the feeling which prompted him to come to her was now changing in his heart into some other feeling. He scraped with his foot along the floor and coughed.

“Who is that?” asked the woman, starting with alarm. And the strings trembled, issuing an alarmed sound.

“It is I,” said Foma, pushing aside the strings of the beads.

“Ah! But how quietly you’ve entered. I am glad to see you. Be seated! Why didn’t you come for such a long time?”

Holding out her hand to him, she pointed with the other at a small armchair beside her, and her eyes were gaily smiling.

“I was out on the bay inspecting my steamers,” said Foma, with exaggerated ease, moving his armchair nearer to the couch.

“Is there much snow yet on the fields?”

“As much as one may want. But it is already melting considerably. There is water on the roads everywhere.”

He looked at her and smiled. Evidently Medinskaya noticed the ease of his behaviour and something new in his smile, for she adjusted her dress and drew farther away from him. Their eyes met — and Medinskaya lowered her head.

“Melting!” said she, thoughtfully, examining the ring on her little finger.

“Ye-es, streams everywhere.” Foma informed her, admiring his boots.

“That’s good. Spring is coming.”

Now it won’t be delayed long.”

“Spring is coming,” repeated Medinskaya, softly, as if listening to the sounds of her words.

“People will start to fall in love,” said Foma, with a smile, and for some reason or other firmly rubbed his hands.

“Are you preparing yourself?” asked Medinskaya, drily.

“I have no need for it. I have been ready long ago. I am already in love for all my life.”

She cast a glance at him, and started to play again, looking at the strings and saying pensively:

“Spring. How good it is that you are but beginning to live. The heart is full of power, and there is nothing dark in it.”

“Sophya Pavlovna!” exclaimed Foma, softly.She interrupted him with a caressing gesture.

“Wait, dearest! Today I can tell you something good. Do you know, a person who has lived long has such moments that when he looks into his heart he unexpectedly finds there something long forgotten. For years it lay somewhere in the depth of his heart, but lost none of the fragrance of youth, and when memory touches it, then spring comes over that person, breathing upon him the vivifying freshness of the morning of his life. This is good, though it is very sad.”

The strings trembled and wept under the touch of her fingers, and it seemed to Foma that their sounds and the soft voice of the woman were touching his heart gently and caressingly. But, still firm in his decision, he listened to her words and, not knowing their meaning, thought:

“You may speak! And I won’t believe anything you may say.”

This thought irritated him. And he felt sorry that he could not listen to her words as attentively and trustfully as before.

“Are you thinking of how it is necessary to live?” asked the woman.

“Sometimes I think of it, and then I forget again. I have no time for it!” said Foma and smiled. “And then, what is there to think of? It is simple. You see how others live. Well, consequently, you must imitate them.”

“Ah, don’t do this! Spare yourself. You are so good! There is something peculiar in you; what — I do not know. But it can be felt. And it seems to me, it will be very hard for you to get along in life. I am sure, you will not go along the usual way of the people of your circle. No! You cannot be pleased with a life which is wholly devoted to gain, to hunts after the rouble, to this business of yours. Oh, no! I know, you will have a desire for something else, will you not?”

She spoke quickly, with a look of alarm in her eyes. Looking at her, Foma thought:

“What is she driving at?”

And he answered her slowly:

“Perhaps I will have a desire for something else. Perhaps I have it already.”

Drawing up closer to him, she looked into his face and spoke convincingly:

“Listen! Do not live like all other people! Arrange your life somehow differently. You are strong, young. You are good!”

“And if I am good then there must be good for me!” exclaimed Foma, feeling that he was seized with agitation, and that his heart was beginning to beat with anxiety.

“Ah, but that is not the case! Here on earth it is worse for the good people than for the bad ones!” said Medinskaya, sadly.

And again the trembling notes of music began to dance at the touch of her fingers. Foma felt that if he did not start to say at once what was necessary, he would tell her nothing later.

“God bless me!” he said to himself, and in a lowered voice, strengthening his heart, began:

“Sophya Pavlovna! Enough! I have something to say. I have come to tell you: ‘Enough!’ We must deal fairly, openly. At first you have attracted me to yourself, and now you are fencing away from me. I cannot understand what you say. My mind is dull, but I can feel that you wish to hide yourself. I can see it — do you understand now what brought me here?”

His eyes began to flash and with each word his voice became warmer and louder. She moved her body forward and said with alarm:

“Oh, cease.”

“No, I won’t, I will speak!”

“I know what you want to say.”

“You don’t know it all!” said Foma, threateningly, rising to his feet. “But I know everything about you — everything.”

“Yes? Then the better it is for me,” said Medinskaya, calmly.

She also arose from the couch, as though about to go away somewhere, but after a few seconds she again seated herself on the couch. Her face was serious, her lips were tightly compressed, but her eyes were lowered, and Foma could not see their expression. He thought that when he told her, “I know everything about you!” she would be frightened, she would feel ashamed and confused, would ask his forgiveness for having made sport of him. Then he would embrace her and forgive her. But that was not the case; it was he who was confused by her calmness. He looked at her, searching for words to resume his speech, but found them not.

“It is better,” she repeated firmly and drily. “So you have learned everything, have you? And, of course, you’ve censured me, as I deserve. I understand. I am guilty before you. But no, I cannot justify myself.”

She became silent and suddenly, lifting her hands with a nervous gesture, clasped her head, and began to adjust her hair.

Foma heaved a deep sigh. Her words had killed in him a certain hope — a hope, whose presence in his heart he only felt now that it was dead. And shaking his head, he said, with bitter reproach:

“There was a time when I looked at you and thought, ‘How beautiful she is, how good, the dove!’ And now you say yourself, ‘I am guilty.’ Ah!”

The voice of the youth broke down. And the woman began to laugh softly.

“How fine and how ridiculous you are, and what a pity that you cannot understand all this!”

The youth looked at her, feeling himself disarmed by her caressing words and melancholy smile. That cold, harsh something, which he had in his heart against her, was now melting before the warm light of her eyes. The woman now seemed to him small, defenseless, like a child. She was saying something in a gentle voice as though imploring, and forever smiling, but he paid no attention to her words.

“I’ve come to you,” said he, interrupting her words, “without pity. I meant to tell you everything. And yet I said nothing. I don’t feel like doing it. My heart sank. You are breathing upon me so strangely. Eh, I should not have seen you! What are you to me? It would be better for me to go away, it seems.”

“Wait, dearest, don’t go away!” said the woman, hastily, holding out her hand to him. “Why so severe? Do not be angry at me! What am I to you? You need a different friend, a woman just as simple- minded and sound-souled as you are. She must be gay, healthy. I— I am already an old woman. I am forever worrying. My life is so empty and so weary, so empty! Do you know, when a person has grown accustomed to live merrily, and then cannot be merry, he feels bad! He desires to live cheerfully, he desires to laugh, yet he does not laugh — it is life that is laughing at him. And as to men. Listen! Like a mother, I advise you, I beg and implore you — obey no one except your own heart! Live in accordance with its promptings. Men know nothing, they cannot tell you anything that is true. Do not heed them.”

Trying to speak as plainly and intelligibly as possible, she was agitated, and her words came incoherently hurriedly one after another. A pitiful smile played on her lips all the time, and her face was not beautiful.

“Life is very strict. It wants all people to submit to its requests, and only the very strong ones can resist it with impunity. It is yet questionable whether they can do it! Oh, if you knew how hard it is to live. Man goes so far that he begins to fear his own self. He is split into judge and criminal — he judges his own self and seeks justification before himself. And he is willing to pass days and nights with those that despise him, and that are repulsive to him — just to avoid being alone with himself.”

Foma lifted his head and said distrustfully, with surprise:

“I cannot understand what it is! Lubov also says the same.”

“Which Lubov? What does she say?”

“My foster-sister. She says the same — she is forever complaining of life. It is impossible to live, she says.”

“Oh, she is yet young! And it is a great happiness that she already speaks of this.”

“Happiness!” Foma drawled out mockingly. “It must be a fine happiness that makes people sigh and complain.”

“You’d better listen to complaints. There is always much wisdom in these complaints of men. Oh! There is more wisdom in these complaints than anywhere else. You listen to these — they will teach you to find your way.”

Foma heard the woman’s voice, which sounded convincing; and perplexed, looked about him. Everything had long been familiar to him, but today it looked somewhat new to him. A mass of trifles filled the room, all the walls were covered with pictures and shelves, bright and beautiful objects were staring from every corner. The reddish light of the lamp filled one with melancholy. Twilight wrapped everything in the room, and only here and there the gold of the frames, or the white spots of marble flashed dimly. Heavy fabrics were motionlessly hanging before the doors. All this embarrassed and almost choked Foma; he felt as though he had lost his way. He was sorry for the woman. But she also irritated him.

“Do you hear how I speak to you? I wish I were your mother, or your sister. Never before did anybody awaken in me so warm and kindred a feeling as you have done. And you, you look at me in such an unfriendly way. Do you believe me? Yes? No?”

He looked at her and said with a sigh:

“I don’t know. I used to believe you.”

“And now?” she asked hastily.

“And now — it is best for me to go! I don’t understand anything, and yet I long to understand. I do not even understand myself. On my way to you I knew what to say, and here all is confused. You have put me up on the rack, you have set me on edge. And then you tell me —‘I am as a mother to you’— which means — begone!”

“Understand me, I feel sorry for you!” the woman exclaimed softly.

Foma’s irritation against her was growing stronger and stronger, and as he went on speaking to her, his words became absurd. While he spoke, he kept on moving his shoulders as though tearing something that entangled him.

“Sorry? What for? I do not need it. Eh, I cannot speak well! It is bad to be dumb. But — I would have told you! You did not treat me properly — indeed, why have you so enticed a man? Am I a plaything for you?”

“I only wanted to see you by my side,” said the woman simply, in a guilty voice.

He did not hear these words.

“And when it came to the point, you were frightened and you shut yourself off from me. You began to repent. Ha, ha! Life is bad! And why are you always complaining of some life? What life? Man is life, and except man there is no life. You have invented some other monster. You have done this to deceive the eye, to justify yourself. You do some mischief, you lose yourself in different inventions and foolishnesses and then you sigh! Ah, life! Oh, life! And have you not done it yourself? And covering yourself with complaints, you confuse others. You have lost your way, very well, but why do you want to lead me astray? Is it wickedness that speaks in you: ‘I feel bad,’ you say, ‘let him also feel bad — there, I’ll besprinkle his heart with my poisonous tears!’ Isn’t that so? Eh! God has given you the beauty of an angel, but your heart — where is it?”

Standing before her, he trembled in every limb, and examined her from head to foot with reproachful looks. Now his words came freely from his heart, he spoke not loud, but with power and pleasure. Her head raised, the woman stared into his face, with wide-open eyes. Her lips were trembling and deep wrinkles appeared at the corners of her mouth.

“A beautiful person should lead a good life. While of you they say things.” Foma’s voice broke down; he raised his hand and concluded in a dull voice:

“Goodbye!”

“Goodbye!” said Medinskaya, softly.

He did not give her his hand, but, turning abruptly, he walked away from her. But already at the door he felt that he was sorry for her, and he glanced at her across his shoulder. There, in the corner, she stood alone, her head bent, her hands hanging motionless.

Understanding that he could not leave her thus, he became confused, and said softly, but without repenting:

“Perhaps I said something offensive — forgive me! For after all I love you,” and he heaved a deep sigh.

The woman burst into soft, nervous laughter.

“No, you have not offended me. God speed you.”

“Well, then goodbye!” repeated Foma in a still lower voice.

“Yes,” replied the woman, also in a low voice.

Foma pushed aside the strings of beads with his hand; they swung back noisily and touched his cheeks. He shuddered at this cold touch and went out, carrying away a heavy, perplexed feeling in his breast, with his heart beating as though a soft but strong net were cast over it.

It was night by this time; the moon was shining and the frost covered the puddles with coatings of dull silver. Foma walked along the sidewalk, he broke these with his cane, and they cracked mournfully. The shadows of the houses fell on the road in black squares, and the shadows of the trees — in wonderful patterns. And some of them looked like thin hands, helplessly clutching the ground.

“What is she doing now?” thought Foma, picturing to himself the woman, alone, in the corner of a narrow room, in the reddish half- light.

“It is best for me to forget her,” he decided. But he could not forget her; she stood before him, provoking in him now intense pity, now irritation and even anger. And her image was so clear, and the thoughts of her were so painful, as though he was carrying this woman in his breast. A cab was coming from the opposite side, filling the silence of the night with the jarring of the wheels on the cobble-stones and with their creaking on the ice. When the cab was passing across a moonlit strip, the noise was louder and more brisk, and in the shadows it was heavier and duller. The driver and the passenger in it were shaking and hopping about; for some reason or other they both bent forward and together with the horse formed one big, black mass. The street was speckled with spots of light and shade, but in the distance the darkness seemed thick as though the street were fenced off by a wall, rising from earth to the skies. Somehow it occurred to Foma that these people did not know whither they were going. And he, too, did not know whither he was going. His house rose before his imagination — six big rooms, where he lived alone. Aunt Anfisa had gone to the cloister, perhaps never to return — she might die there. At home were Ivan, the old deaf dvornik, the old maid, Sekleteya, his cook and servant, and a black, shaggy dog, with a snout as blunt as that of a sheat-fish. And the dog, too, was old.

“Perhaps I really ought to get married,” thought Foma, with a sigh.

But the very thought of how easy it was for him to get married made him ill at ease, and even ridiculous in his own eyes. It were but necessary to ask his godfather tomorrow for a bride — and before a month would pass, a woman would live with him in his house. And she would be near him day and night. He would say to her: “Let’s go for a walk! “ and she would go. He would tell her: “Let’s go to sleep!” and again she would go. Should she desire to kiss him, she would kiss him, even though he did not like it. And if he should tell her: “Go away, I don’t want it,” she would feel offended. What would he speak to her about? What would she tell him? He thought and pictured to himself young ladies of his acquaintance, daughters of merchants. Some of them were very pretty, and he knew that any one of them would marry him willingly. But he did not care to have any of them as his wife. How awkward and shameful it must be when a girl becomes a wife. And what does the newly-married couple say to each other after the wedding, in the bedroom? Foma tried to think what he would say in such a case, and confused, he began to laugh, finding no appropriate words. Then he recalled Luba Mayakin. She would surely be first to say something, uttering some unintelligible words, which were foreign to herself. Somehow it seemed to him that all her words were foreign, and she did not speak as was proper for a girl of her age, appearance and descent.

And here his thoughts rested on Lubov’s complaints. His gait became slower; he was now astounded by the fact that all the people that were near to him and with whom he talked a great deal, always spoke to him of life. His father, his aunt, his godfather, Lubov, Sophya Pavlovna, all these either taught him to understand life, or complained of it. He recalled the words said by the old man on the steamer about Fate, and many other remarks on life, reproaches and bitter complaints against it, which he happened to hear from all sorts of people.

“What does it mean?” he thought, “what is life, if it is not man? And man always speaks as if life were something else, something outside of man, and that something hinders him from living. Perhaps it is the devil?”

A painful feeling of fear fell on the youth; he shuddered and hastily looked around. The street was deserted and quiet; the dark windows of the houses stared dimly into the dark of night, and along the walls and fences Foma’s shadow followed him.

“Driver!” he cried out aloud, quickening his steps. The shadow started and crawled after him, frightened, black, silent. It seemed to Foma that there was a cold breath behind him, and that something huge, invisible, and terrible was overtaking him. Frightened, he almost ran to meet the cab, which appeared noisily from the darkness, and when he seated himself in the cab, he dared not look back, though he wished to do so.

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