AS Yaakov, the stoker, had done in his time, so now Osip grew and grew in my eyes, until he hid all other people from me. There was some resemblance to the stoker in him, but at the same time he reminded me of grandfather, the valuer, Petr Vassiliev, Smouri, and the cook. When I think of all the people who are firmly fixed in my memory, he has left behind a deeper impression than any of them, an impres — sion which has eaten into it, as oxide eats into a brass bell. What was remarkable about him was that he had two sets of ideas. In the daytime, at his work among people, his lively, simple ideas were business-like and easier to understand than those to which he gave vent when he was off duty, in the evenings, when he went with me into the town to see his cronies, the dealers, or at night when he could not sleep. He had special night thoughts, many-sided like the flame of a lamp. They burned brightly, but where were their real faces? On which side was this or that idea, nearer and dearer to Osip.
He seemed to me to be much cleverer than any one else I had met, and I hovered about him, as I used to do with the stoker, trying to find out about the man, to understand him. But he glided away from me; it was impossible to grasp him. Where was the real man hidden? How far could I believe in him?
I remember how he said to me:
“You must find out for yourself where I am hidden. Look for me!”
My self-love was piqued, but more than that, it had become a matter of life and death to me to understand the old man.
With all his elusiveness he was substantial. He looked as if he could go on living for a hundred years longer and still remain the same, so unchangeably did he preserve his ego amid the instability of the people around him. The valuer had made upon me an equal impression of steadfastness, but it was not so pleasing to me. Osip’s steadfastness was of a different kind; although I cannot explain how, it was more pleasing.
The instability of human creatures is too often brought to one’s notice; their acrobatic leaps from one position to another upset me. I had long ago grown weary of being surprised by these inexplicable somersaults, and they had by degrees extinguished my lively interest in humanity, disturbed my love for it.
One day at the beginning of July, a rackety hackney cab came dashing up to the place where we were working. On the box-seat a drunken driver sat, hiccuping gloomily. He was bearded, hatless, and had a bruised lip. Grigori Shishlin rolled about in the carriage, drunk, while a fat, red-cheeked girl held his arm. She wore a straw hat trimmed with a red ribbon and glass cherries; she had a sunshade in her hand, and goloshes on her bare feet. Waving her sunshade, swaying, she giggled and screamed:
“What the devil! The market-place is not open; there is no market-place, and he brings me to the market-place. Little mother — ”
Grigori, dishevelled and limp, crept out of the cab, sat on the ground and declared to us, the spectators of the scene, with tears:
“I am down on my knees; I have sinned greatly! I thought of sin, and I have sinned. Ephimushka says ‘Grisha! Grisha!’ He speaks truly, but you — forgive me; I can treat you all. He says truly, ‘We live once only, and no more.’ ”
The girl burst out laughing, stamped her feet, and lost her goloshes, and the driver called out gruffly:
“Let us get on farther! The horse won’t stand still!”
The horse, an old, worn-out jade, was covered with foam, and stood as still as if it were buried. The whole scene was irresistibly comical.
Grigori’s workmen rolled about with laughter as they looked at their master, his grand lady, and the bemused coachman.
The only one who did not laugh was Phoma, who stood at the door of one of the shops beside me and muttered:
“The devil take the swine. And he has a wife at home — a bee-eautiful woman!”
The driver kept on urging them to start. The girl got out of the cab, lifted Grigori up, set him on his feet, and cried with a wave of her sunshade:
Laughing good-naturedly at their master, and envying him, the men returned to their work at the call of Phoma. It was plain that it was repugnant to him to see Grigori made ridiculous.
“He calls himself master,” he muttered. “I have not quite a month’s work left to do here. After that I shall go back to the country. I can’t stand this.”
I felt vexed for Grigori; that girl with the cherries looked so annoyingly absurd beside him.
I often wondered why Grigori Shishlin was the master and Phoma Tuchkov the workman. A strong, fair fellow, with curly hair, an aquiline nose, and gray, clever eyes in his round face, Phoma was not like a peasant. If he had been well-dressed, he might have been the son of a merchant of good family. He was gloomy, taciturn, businesslike. Being well educated, he kept the accounts of the contractor, drew up the estimates, and could set his comrades to work success — fully, but he worked unwillingly himself.
“You won’t make work last forever,” he said calmly. He despised books.
“They can print what they like, but I shall go on thinking as I like,” he said. “Books are all nonsense.”
But he listened attentively to every one, and if something interested him, he would ask all the details about it, perseveringly, always thinking of it in his own way, measuring it by his own measure.
Once I told Phoma that he ought to be a contractor. He replied indolently:
“If it were a question of turning over thousands, yes. But to worry myself for the sake of making a few copecks, it is not worth while. No, I am just looking about; then I shall go into a monastery in Oranko. I am good-looking, powerful in muscle; I may take the fancy of some merchant’s widow! Such things do happen. There was a Sergatzki boy who made his fortune in two years, and married a girl from these parts, from the town. He had to take an icon to her house, and she saw him.”
This was an obsession with him; he knew many tales of how taking service in a monastery had led people to an easy life. I did not care for these stories, nor did I like the trend of Phoma’s mind, but I felt sure that he would go to a monastery.
When the market was opened, Phoma, to every one’s surprise, went as waiter to a tavern. I do not say that his mates were surprised, but they all began to treat him mockingly. On holidays they would all go together to drink tea, saying to one another:
“Let us go and see our Phoma.”
And when they arrived at the tavern they would call out:
“Hi, waiter! Curly mop, come here!”
He would come to them and ask, with his head held high:
“What can I get for you?”
“Don’t you recognize acquaintances now?”
“I never recognize any one.”
He felt that his mates despised him and were making fun of him, and he looked at them with dully ex — pectant eyes. His face might have been made of wood, but it seemed to say:
“Well, make haste; laugh and be done with it.”
“Shall we give him a tip?” they would ask, and after purposely fumbling in their purses for a long time, they would give him nothing at all.
I asked Phoma how he could go out as a waiter when he had meant to enter a monastery.
“I never meant to go into a monastery!” he replied, “and I shall not stay long as a waiter.”
Four years later I met him in Tzaritzin, still a waiter in a tavern; and later still I read in a newspaper that Phoma Tuchkov had been arrested for an attempted burglary.
The history of the mason, Ardalon, moved me deeply. He was the eldest and best workman in Petr’s gang. This black-bearded, light-hearted man of forty years also involuntarily evoked the query, “Why was he not the master instead of Petr?” He seldom drank vodka and hardly ever drank too much; he knew his work thoroughly, and worked as if he loved it; the bricks seemed to fly from his hands like red doves. In comparison with him, the sickly, lean Petr seemed an absolutely superfluous member of the gang. He used to speak thus of his work:
“I build stone houses for people, and a wooden coffin for myself.”
But Ardalon laid his bricks with cheerful energy as he cried: “Work, my child, for the glory of God.”
And he told us all that next spring he would go to Tomsk, where his brother-in-law had undertaken a large contract to build a church, and had invited him to go as overseer.
“I have made up my mind to go. Building churches is work that I love!” he said. And he suggested to me: “Come with me! It is very easy, brother, for an educated person to get on in Siberia. There, education is a trump card!”
I agreed to his proposition, and he cried triumphantly:
“There! That is business and not a joke.”
Toward Petr and Grigori he behaved with good-natured derision, like a grown-up person towards children, and he said to Osip:
“Braggarts! Each shows the other his cleverness, as if they were playing at cards. One says: ‘My cards are all such and such a color,’ and the other says, ‘And mine are trumps!’ ”
Osip observed hesitatingly:
“How could it be otherwise? Boasting is only human; all the girls walk about with their chests stuck out.”
“All, yes, all. It is God, God all the time. But they hoard up money themselves!” said Ardalon impatiently.
“Well, Grisha doesn’t/’
“I am speaking for myself. I would go with this God into the forest, the desert. I ‘am weary of being here. In the spring I shall go to Siberia.”
The workmen, envious of Ardalon, said:
“If wc had such a chance in the shape of a brother-in-law, we should not be afraid of Siberia either.”
And suddenly Ardalon disappeared. He went away from the workshop on Sunday, and for three days no one knew where he was.
This made anxious conjectures.
“Perhaps he has been murdered.”
“Or maybe he is drowned.”
But Ephimushka came, and declared in an embarrassed manner:
“He has gone on the drink.”
“Why do you tell such lies?” cried Petr incredulously.
“He has gone on the drink; he is drinking madly. He is just like a com kiln which burns from the very center. Perhaps his much-loved wife is dead.”
“He is a widower! Where is he?”
Petr angrily set out to save Ardalon, but the latter fought him.
Then Osip, pressing his lips together firmly, thrust his hands in his pockets and said:
“Shall I go have a look at him, and see what it is all about? He is a good fellow.”
I attached myself to him.
“Here’s a man,” said Osip on the way, “who lives for years quite decently, when suddenly he loses control of himself, and is all over the place. Look, Maximich, and learn.”
We went to one of the cheap “houses of pleasure” of Kunavin Village, and we were welcomed by a predatory old woman. Osip whispered to her, and she ushered us into a small empty room, dark and dirty, like a stable. On a small bed slept, in an abandoned attitude, a large, stout woman. The old woman thrust her fist in her side and said:
“Wake up, frog, wake up!”
The woman jumped up in terror, rubbing her face with her hands, and asked:
“Good Lord I who is it? What is it?”
“Detectives are here,” said Osip harshly. With a groan the woman disappeared, and he spat after her and explained to me:
“They are more afraid of detectives than of the devil.”
Taking a small glass from the wall, the old woman raised a piece of the wall-paper.
“Look! Is he the one you want?”
Osip looked through a chink in the partition.
“That is he! Get the woman away.”
I also looked through the chink into just such a narrow stable as the one we were in. On the sill of the window, which was closely shuttered, burned a tin lamp, near which stood a squinting, naked, Tatar woman, sewing a chemise. Behind her, on two pillows on the bed, was raised the bloated face of Arda — lon, his black, tangled beard projecting.
The Tatar woman shivered, put on her chemise, and came past the bed, suddenly appearing in our room.
Osip looked at her and again spat.
“Ugh! Shameless hussy!”
“And you are an old fool!” she replied, laughing, Osip laughed too, and shook a threatening finger at her.
We went into the Tatar’s stable. The old man sat on the bed at Ardalon’s feet and tried for a long time unsuccessfully to awaken him. He muttered:
“All right, wait a bit. We will go — ”
At length he awoke, gazed wildly at Osip and at me, and closing his bloodshot eyes, murmured:
“What is the matter with you?” asked Osip gently, without reproaches, but rather sadly.
“I was driven to it,” explained Ardalon hoarsely, and coughing.
“Ah, there were reasons.”
“You were not contented, perhaps?”
“What is the good — ”
Ardalon took an open bottle of vodka from the table, and began to drink from it. He then asked Osip:
“Would you like some? There ought to be something to eat here as well.”
The old man poured some of the spirit into his mouth, swallowed it, frowned, and began to chew a small piece of bread carefully, but muddled Ardalon said drowsily:
“So I have thrown in my lot with the Tatar woman. She is a pure Tatar, as Ephimushka says, young, an orphan from Kasimov; she was getting ready for the fair.”
From the other side of the wall some one said in broken Russian:
“Tatars are the best, like young hens. Send him away; he is not your father.”
“That’s she,” muttered Ardalon, gazing stupidly at the wall.
“I have seen her,” said Osip.
Ardalon turned to me:
“That is the sort of man I am, brother.”
I expected Osip to reproach Ardalon, to give him a lecture which would make him repent bitterly. But nothing of the kind happened; they sat side by side, shoulder to shoulder, and uttered calm, brief words. It was melancholy to see them in that dark, dirty stable. The woman called ludicrous words through the chink in the wall, but they did not listen to them. Osip took a walnut off the table, cracked it against his boot, and began to remove the shell neatly, as he asked:
“All your money gone?”
“There is some with Petrucha.”
“I say! Aren’t you going away? If you were to go to Tomsk, now — ”
“What should I go to Tomsk for?”
“Have you changed your mind, then?”
“If I had been going to strangers, it would have been different.”
“What do you mean?”
“But to go to my sister and my brother-in-law — ”
“What of it?”
“It is not particularly pleasant to begin again with one’s own people.”
“The beginning is the same anywhere.”
“All the same —”
They talked in such an amicably serious vein that the Tatar woman left off teasing them, and coming into the room, took her frock down from the wall in silence, and disappeared.
“She is young,” said Osip.
Ardalon glanced at him and without annoyance replied:
“Ephimushka is wrong-headed. He knows nothing, except about women. But the Tatar woman is joyous; she maddens us all.”
“Take care; you won’t be able to escape from her,” Osip warned him, and having eaten the walnut, took his leave.
On the way back I asked Osip:
“Why did you go to him?”
“Just to look at him. He is a man I have known a long time. I have seen ma-a-ny such cases. A man leads a decent life, and suddenly he behaves as if he had just escaped from prison.” He repeated what he had said before, “One should be on one’s guard against vodka.”
But after a minute he added:
“But life would be dull without it.”
“Well, yes! When you drink, it is just as if you were in another world.”
Ardalon never came back for good. At the end of a few days he returned to work, but soon disappeared again, and in the spring I met him among the dock laborers; he was melting the ice round the barges in the harbor. We greeted each other in friendly fashion and went to a tavern for tea, after which he boasted:
“You remember what a workman I was, eh? I tell you straight, I was an expert at my own business! I could have earned hundreds.”
“However, you did not.”
“No, I didn’t earn them,” he cried proudly. “I spit upon work!”
He swaggered. The people in the tavern listened to his impassioned words and were impressed.
“You remember what that sly thief Petrucha used to say about work? For others stone houses; for himself a wooden coffin! Well, that’s true of all work!” I said:
“Petrucha is ill. He is afraid of death.”
But Ardalon cried:
“I am ill, too; my heart is out of order.”
On holidays I often wandered out of the town to “Millioni Street,” where the dockers lived, and saw how quickly Ardalon had settled down among those uncouth ruffians. Only a year ago, happy and serious-minded, Ardalon had now become as noisy as any of them. He had acquired their curious, shambling walk, looked at people defiantly, as if he were inviting every one to fight with him, and was always boast — ing:
“You see how I am received; I am like a chieftain here!”
Never grudging the money he had earned, he liberally treated the dockers, and in fights he always took the part of the weakest. He often cried:
“That’s not fair, children! You’ve got to fight fair!”
And so they called him “Fairplay,” which delighted him.
I ardently studied these people, closely packed in that old and dirty sack of a street. All of them were people who had cut themselves off from ordinary life, but they seemed to have created a life of their own, independent of any master, and gay. Careless, audacious, they reminded me of grandfather’s stories about the bargemen who so easily transformed themselves into brigands or hermits. When there was no work, they were not squeamish about committing small thefts from the barges and steamers, but that did not trouble me, for I saw that life was sewn with theft, like an old coat with gray threads. At the same time I saw that these people never worked with enthusiasm, unsparing of their energies, as happened in cases of urgency, such as fires, or the breaking of the ice. And, as a rule, they lived more of a holiday life than any other people.
But Osip, having noticed my friendship with Ardalon, warned me in a fatherly way:
“Look here, my boy; why this close friendship with the folk of Millioni Street? Take care you don’t do yourself harm by it.”
I told him as well as I could how I liked these people who lived so gaily, without working.
“Birds of the air they are!” he interrupted me, laughing. “That’s what they are — idle, useless people; and work is a calamity to them!”
“What is work, after all? As they say, the labors of the righteous don’t procure them stone houses to live in!”
I said this glibly enough. I had heard the proverb so often, and felt the truth of it.
But Osip was very angry with me, and cried:
“Who says so? Fools, idlers! And you are a youngster; you ought not to listen to such things! Oh, you —! That is the nonsense which is uttered by the envious, the unsuccessful. Wait till your feathers are grown; then you can fly! And I shall tell your master about this friendship of yours.”
And he did tell. The master spoke to me about the matter.
“You leave the Millioni folk alone, Pyeshkov! They are thieves and prostitutes, and from there the path leads to the prison and the hospital. Let them alone!”
I began to conceal my visits to Millioni Street, but I soon had to give them up. One day I was sitting with Ardalon and his comrade, Robenok, on the roof of a shed in the yard of one of the lodging-houses. Robenok was relating to us amusingly how he had made his way on foot from Rostov, on the Don, to Moscow. He had been a soldier-sapper, a Geogrivsky horseman, and he was lame. In the war with Turkey he had been wounded in the knee. Of low stature, he had a terrible strength in his arms, a strength which was of no profit to him, for his lameness prevented him from working. He had had an illness which had caused the hair to fall from his head and face; his head was like that of a new-born infant.
With his brown eyes sparkling he said:
“Well, at Serpoukhov I saw a priest sitting in a sledge. Tather,’ I said, ‘give something to a Turkish hero.’ ”
Ardalon shook his head and said:
“That’s a lie!”
“Why should I lie?” asked Robenok, not in the least offended, and my friend growled in lazy reproof:
“You are incorrigible! You have the chance of becoming a watchman — they always put lame men to that job — and you stroll about aimlessly, and tell lies.”
“Well, I only do it to make people laugh. I lie just for the sake of amusement.”
“You ought to laugh at yourself.”
In the yard, which was dark and dirty although the weather was dry and sunny, a woman appeared and cried, waving some sort of a rag about her head:
“Who will buy a petticoat? Hi, friends!”
Women crept out from the hidden places of the house and gathered closely round the seller. I recognized her at once; it was the laundress, Natalia. I jumped down from the roof, but she, having given the petticoat to the first bidder, had already quietly left the yard.
“How do you do?” I greeted her joyfully as I caught her at the gate.
“What next, I wonder?” she exclaimed, glancing at me askance, and then she suddenly stood still, crying angrily: “God save us! What are you doing here?”
Her terrified exclamation touched and confused me. I realized that she was afraid for me; terror and amazement were shown so plainly in her intelligent face. I soon explained to her that I was not living in that street, but only went there sometimes to see what there was to see.
“See?” she cried angrily and derisively. “What sort of a place is this that you should want to see it? It’s the women you ‘re after.”
Her face was wrinkled, dark shadows lay under her eyes, and her lips drooped feebly.
Standing at the door of a tavern she said:
“Come in; I am going to have some teal You are well-dressed, not like they dress here, yet I cannot believe what you say.”
But in the tavern she seemed to believe me, and as she poured out tea, she began to tell me how she had only awakened from sleep an hour ago, and had not had anything to eat or drink yet.
“And when I went to bed last night I was as drunk as drunk. I can’t even remember where I had the drink, or with whom.”
I felt sorry for her, awkward in her presence, and I wanted to ask her where her daughter was. After she had drunk some vodka and hot tea, she began to talk in a familiar, lively way, coarsely, like all the women of that street, but when I asked about her daughter she was sobered at once, and cried:
“What do you want to know for? No, my boy, you won’t get hold of her; don’t think it!”
She drank more, and then she said:
“I have nothing to do with my daughter. What am I? A laundress! What sort of a mother for her? She is well brought up, educated. That she is, my brother! She left me to live with a rich friend, as a teacher, like — ”
After a silence she said:
“That’s how it is! The laundress doesn’t please you, but the street — walker does?”
That she was a street-walker I had seen at once, of course. There was no other kind of woman in that street. But when she told me so herself, my eyes filled with tears of shame and pity for her. I felt as if she had burned me by making that admission, — she, who not long ago had been so brave, independent, and clever.
“Ekh! you!” she said, looking at me and sighing. “Go away from this place, I beg you! I urge you, don’t come here, or you will be lost!”
Then she began to speak softly and brokenly, as if she were talking to herself, bending over the table and drawing figures on the tray with her fingers.
“But what are my entreaties and my advice to you? When my own daughter would not listen to me I cried to her: ‘You can’t throw aside your own mother. What are you thinking of?’ And she — she said, T shall strangle myself!’ And she went away to Kazan; she wants to learn to be a midwife. Good — good! But what about me? You see what I am now? What have I to cling to? And so I went on the streets.”
She fell into a silence, and thought for a long time, soundlessly moving her lips. It was plain that she had forgotten me. The corners of her lips drooped; her mouth was curved like a sickle, and it was a torturing sight to see how her lips quivered, and how the wavering furrows on her face spoke without words. Her face was like that of an aggrieved child. Strands of hair had fallen from under her headkerchief, and lay on her cheek, or coiled behind her small ear. Her tears dropped into her cup of cold tea, and seeing this, she pushed the cup away and shut her eyes tightly, squeezing out two more tears. Then she wiped her face with her handkerchief. I could not bear to stay with her any longer. I rose quietly.
“Eh? Go — go to the devil!” She waved me away without looking at me; she had apparently forgotten who was with her.
I returned to Ardalon in the yard. He had meant to come with me to catch crabs, and I wanted to tell him about the woman. But neither he nor Robenok were on the roof of the shed; and while I was looking for him in the disorderly yard, there arose from the street the sound of one of those rows which were frequent there.
I went out through the gate and came into collision with Natalia, sobbing, wiping her bruised face with her headkerchief. Setting straight her disordered hair with her other hand, she went blindly along the footpath, and following her came Ardalon and Robenok. The latter was saying:
“Give her one more; come on!”
Ardalon overtook the woman, flourishing his fist. She turned her bosom full toward himi; her face was terrible; her eyes blazed with hatred.
“Go on, hit me!” she cried.
I hung on to Ardalon’s arm; he looked at me in amazement.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Don’t touch her!” I just managed to say.
He burst out laughing.
“She is your lover? Aie, that Natashka, she has devoured our little monk.”
Robenok laughed, too, holding his sides, and for a long time they roasted me with their hot obscenity. It was unbearable! But while they were thus occupied, Natalia went away, and I, losing my temper at last, struck Robenok in the chest with my head, knocking him over, and ran away.
For a long time after that I did not go near Million! Street. But I saw Ardalon once again; I met him on the ferry-boat.
“Where have you been hiding yourself?” he asked joyfully.
When I told him that it was repulsive to me to remember how he had knocked Natalia about and ob — scenely insulted me, Ardalon laughed good-naturedly.
“Did you take that seriously? We only rubbed it into you for a joke! As for her, why shouldn’t she be knocked about, a street-walker? People beat their wives, so they are certainly not going to have more mercy on such as that! Still, it was only a joke, the whole thing. I understand, you know, that the fist is no good for teaching!”
“What have you got to teach her? How are you better than she is?”
He put his hands on my shoulders and, shaking me, said banteringly:
“In our disgraceful state no one of us is better than another.”
Then he laughed and added boastfully:
“I understand everything from within and without, brother, everything! I am not wood!”
He was a little tipsy, at the jovial stage; he looked at me with the tender pity of a good master for an unintelligent pupil.
Sometimes I met Pavl Odintzov. He was livelier than ever, dressed like a dandy, and talked to me condescendingly and always reproachfully.
“You are throwing yourself away on that kind of work! They are nothing but peasants.”
Then he would sadly retail all the latest news from the workshop.
“Jikharev is still taken up with that cow. Sitanov is plainly fretting; he has begun to drink to excess. The wolves have eaten Golovev; he was coming home from Sviatka; he was drunk, and the wolves devoured him.” And bursting into a gay peal of laughter he comically added:
“They ate him and they all became drunk themselves! They were very merry and walked about the forests on their hind legs, like performing dogs. Then they fell to fighting and in twenty-four hours they were all dead!”
I listened to him and laughed, too, but I felt that the workshop and all I had experienced in it was very far away from me now.
This was rather a melancholy reflection.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55