THERE was hardly any work in the market-square during the winter, and instead I had in numerable trivial duties to perform in the house. They swallowed up the whole day, but the evenings were left free. Once more I read to the household novels which were unpalatable to me, from the “Neva” and the “Moscow Gazette”; but at night I occupied myself by reading good books and by attempts at writing poetry.
One day when the women had gone out to vespers and my master was kept at home through indisposition, he asked me:
“Victor is making fun of you because he says you write poetry, Pyeshkov. Is that true? Well then, read it to me!”
It would have been awkward to refuse, and I read several of my poetical compositions. These evidently did not please him, but he said:
“Stick to it! Stick to it! You may become a Pushkin; have you read Pushkin?”
“Do the goblins have funeral rites?
Are the witches given in marriage?”
In his time people still believed in goblins, but he did not believe in them himself. Of course he was just joking.
“Ye-es, brother,” he drawled thoughtfully, “You ought to have been taught, but now it is too late. The devil knows what will become of you! I should hide that note-book of yours more carefully, for if the women get hold of it, they will laugh at you. Women, brother, love to touch one on a weak spot.”
For some time past my master had been quiet and thoughtful; he had a trick of looking about him cautiously, and the sound of the bell startled him. Some — times he would give way to a painful irritability about trifles, would scold us all, and rush out of the house, returning drunk late at night. One felt that something had come into his life which was known only to himself, which had lacerated his heart; and that he was living not sensibly, or willingly, but simply by force of habit.
On Sundays from dinner-time till nine o’clock I was free to go out and about, and the evenings I spent at a tavern in Yamski Street. The host, a stout and always perspiring man, was passionately fond of singing, and the choristers of most of the churches knew this, and used to frequent his house. He treated them with vodka, beer, or tea, for their songs. The choristers were a drunken and uninteresting set of people; they sang unwillingly, only for the sake of the hospitality, and almost always it was church music. As certain of the pious drunkards did not consider that the tavern was the place for them, the host used to invite them to his private room, and I could only hear the singing through the door. But frequently peasants from the villages, and artisans came. The tavern-keeper himself used to go about the town inquiring for singers, asking the peasants who came in on market-days, and inviting them to his house.
The singer was always given a chair close to the bar, his back to a cask of vodka; his head was outlined against the bottom of the cask as if it were in a round frame.
The best singer of all — and they were always particularly good singers — was the small, lean harness — maker, Kleshtchkov, who looked as if he had been squeezed, and had tufts of red hair on his head. His little nose gleamed like that of a corpse; his. benign, dreamy eyes were immovable.
Sometimes he closed his eyes, leaned the back of his head against the bottom of the cask, protruding his chest, and in his soft but all-conquering tenor voice sang the quick moving:
“Ekh! how the fog has fallen upon the clean fields already!
And has hidden the distant roads!”
Here he would stop, and resting his back against the bar, bending backwards, went on, with his face raised toward the ceiling:
“Ekh! where — where am I going?
Where shall I find the broad ro-oad?”
His voice was small like himself, but it was unwearied; he permeated the dark, dull room of the tav — ern with silvery chords, melancholy words. His groans and cries conquered every one; even the drunken ones became amazedly surprised, gazing down in si-lence at the tables in front of them. As for me, my heart was torn, and overflowed with those mighty feel-ings which good music always arouses as it miracu — lously touches the very depths of the soul.
It was as quiet in the tavern as in a church, and the singer seemed like a good priest, who did not preach, but with all his soul, and honestly, prayed for the whole human family, thinking aloud, as it were, of all the grievous calamities which beset human life. Bearded men gazed upon him; childlike eyes blinked in fierce, wild faces; at moments some one sighed, and this seemed to emphasize the triumphant power of the music. At such times it always seemed to me that the lives led by most people were unreal and meaningless, and that the reality of life lay here.
In the corner sat the fat-faced old-clothes dealer, Luissukha, a repulsive female, a shameless, loose woman. She hid her head on her fat shoulder and wept, furtively wiping the tears from her bold eyes. Not far from her sat the gloomy chorister, Mitropolski, a hirsute young fellow who looked like a degraded deacon, with great eyes set in his drunken face. He gazed into the glass of vodka placed before him, took it up, and raised it to his mouth, and then set it down again on the table, carefully and noiselessly. For some reason he could not drink.
And all the people in the tavern seemed to be glued to their places, as if they were listening to something long forgotten, but once dear and near to them.
When Kleshtchkov, having finished his song, modestly sank down in the chair, the tavern-keeper, giving him a glass of wine, would say with a smile of satisfaction:
“Well, that was very good, sure! Although you can hardly be said to sing, so much as to recite! However, you are a master of it, whatever they say! No one could say otherwise.”
Kleshtchkov, drinking his vodka without haste, coughed carefully and said quietly:
“Any one can sing if he has a voice, but to show what kind of soul the song contains is only given to me.”
“Well, you needn’t boast, anyhow.”
“He who has nothing to boast about, does not boast,” said the singer as quietly but more firmly than before.
“You are conceited, Kleshtchkov!” exclaimed the host, annoyed.
“One can’t be more conceited than one’s conscience allows.”
And from the corner the gloomy Mitropolski roared:
“What do you know about the singing of this fallen angel, you worms, you dirt!”
He always opposed every one, argued with every one, brought accusations against every one; and almost every Sunday he was cruelly punished for this by one of the singers, or whoever else had a mind for the business.
The tavern-keeper loved Kleshtchkov’s singing, but he could not endure the singer. He used to complain about him, and obviously sought occasions to humiliate him and to make him ridiculous. This fact was known to the frequenters of the tavern and to Kleshtchkov himself.
“He is a good singer, but he is proud; he wants taking down,” he said, and several guests agreed with him.
“That’s true; he’s a conceited fellow!”
“What’s he got to be conceited about? His voice? That comes from God; he has nothing to do with it! And he hasn’t a very powerful voice, has he?” the tavern-keeper persisted.
His audience agreed with him.
“True, it is not so much his voice as his intelligence.”
One day after the singer had refreshed himself and gone away, the tavern-keeper tried to persuade Luissukha.
“Why don’t you amuse yourself with Kleshtchkov for a bit, Marie Evdokimova; you’d shake him up, wouldn’t you? What would you want for it?”
“If I were younger,” she said with a laugh.
The tavern-keeper cried loudly and warmly:
“What can the young ones do? But you — you will get hold of him! We shall see him dancing round you! When he is bowed down by grief he will be able to sing, won’t he? Take him in hand, Evdokimova, and do me a favor, will you?”
But she would not do it. Large and fat, she lowered her eyes and played with the fringe of the hand — kerchief which covered her bosom, as she said in a monotonous, lazy drawl:
“It’s a young person that is needed here. If I were younger, well, I would not think twice about it.”
Almost every night the tavern-keeper tried to make Kleshtchkov drunk, but the latter, after two or three songs and a glassful after each, would carefully wrap up his throat with a knitted scarf, draw his cap well over his tufted head, and depart.
The tavern-keeper often tried to find a rival for Kleshtchkov. The harness-maker would sing a song and then the host, after praising him, would say:
“Here is another singer. Come along now, show what you can do!”
Sometimes the singer had a good voice, but I do not remember an occasion on which any of Kleshtchkov’s rivals sang so simply and soulfully as that little conceited harness-maker.
“M— yes,” said the tavern-keeper, not without regret, “it’s good, certainly! The chief thing is that it is a voice, but there’s no soul in it.”
The guests teased him:
“No, you can’t better the harness-maker, you see!”
And Kleshtchkov, looking at them all from under his red, tufted eyebrows, said to the tavern-keeper calmly and politely:
“You waste your time. You will never find a singer with my gifts to set up in opposition to me; my gift is from God.”
“We are all from God!”
“You may ruin yourself by the drink you give, but you’ll never find one.”
The tavern-keeper turned purple and muttered: “How do we know? How do we know?”
But Kleshtchkov pointed out to him firmly:
“Again I tell you this is singing, not a cock-fight.”
“I know that! Why do you keep harping on it?”
“I am not harping on it; I am simply pointing out something to you. If a song is nothing but a diversion, it comes from the devil!”
“All right! You ‘d better sing again.”
“I can always sing, even in my sleep,” agreed Kleshtchkov, and carefully clearing his throat he began to sing.
And all nonsense, trashy talk, and ambitions vanished into smoke as by a miracle; the refreshing streams of a different life, reflective, pure, full of love and sadness, flowed over us all.
I envied that man, envied intensely his talent and his power over people. The way he took advantage of this power was so wonderful! I wanted to make the acquaintance of the harness-maker, to hold a long conversation with him, but I could not summon up courage to go to him.
Kleshtchkov had such a strange way of looking at everybody with his pale eyes, as if he could not see any one in front of him. But there was something about him which offended me and prevented me from liking him; and I wanted to like him for himself, not only when he was singing. It was unpleasant to see him pull his cap over his head, like an old man, and swathe his neck, just for show, in that red, knitted scarf of which he said:
“My little one knitted this; my only little girl.”
When he was not singing he pouted importantly, rubbed his dead, frozen nose with his fingers, and answered questions in monosyllables, and unwillingly. When I approached him and asked him something, he looked at me and said:
“Go away, lad!”
I much preferred the chorister, Mitropolski. When he appeared in the tavern, he would walk into his corner with the gait of a man carrying a heavy load, move a chair away with the toe of his boot, and sit down with his elbows on the table, resting his large shaggy head on his hands. After he had drunk two or three glasses in silence, he would utter a resounding cry. Every one would start and look towards him, but with his chin in his hands he gazed at them defiantly, his mane of unbrushed hair wildly surrounding his puffy, sallow face.
“What are you looking af? What do you see?” he would ask with sudden passion.
Sometimes they replied:
“We are looking at a werwolf.”
There were evenings on which he drank in silence, and in silence departed, heavily dragging his feet. Several times I heard him denounce people, playing the prophet:
“I am the incorruptible servant of my God, and I denounce you. Behold Isaiah! Woe to the town of Ariel. Come, ye wicked, and ye rogues, and all kinds of dark monstrosities living in the mire of your own base desires! Woe to the ships of this world, for they carry lewd people on their sinful way. I know you, drunkards, gluttons, dregs of this world; there is no time appointed for you. Accursed ones, the very earth refuses to receive you into her womb!”
His voice resounded so that the window-panes shook, which delighted his audience. They praised the prophet:
“He barks finely, the shaggy cur!”
It was easy to become acquainted with him; it cost no more than to offer him hospitality; he required a decanter of vodka and a portion of ox liver. When I asked him to tell me what kind of books one ought to read, he answered me with stubborn ferocity by another question:
“Why read at all?”
But mollified by my confusion, he added in ringing tones:
“Have you read Ecclesiastes?”
“Read Ecclesiastes. You need nothing more. There is all the wisdom of the world, only there are sheep who do not understand it; that is to say, no one understands it. Can you sing at all?”
“Why? You ought to sing. It is the most ridiculous way of passing time.”
Some one asked him from an adjacent table:
“But you sing yourself?”
“Yes; but I am a vagrant. Well?”
“That is nothing new. Every one knows that there is nothing in that blockhead of yours, and there never will be anything. Amen!”
In this tone he was in the habit of speaking to me and to every one else, although after the second or third time of my treating him, he began to be more gentle with me. One day he actually said with a shade of surprise:
“I look at you and I cannot make out what you are, who are you, or why you are! But whatever you are, may the devil take you!”
He behaved in an incomprehensible manner to Kleshtchkov. He listened to him with manifest enjoyment sometimes even with a benign smile, but he would not make closer acquaintance with him, and spoke about him coarsely and contemptuously.
“That barber’s block! He knows how to breathe, he understands what to sing about, but for the rest, he is an ass.”
“Like all his kind.”
I should have liked to talk with him when he was sober, but when sober he only bellowed, and looked upon all the world with misty, dull eyes. I learned from some one that this permanently inebriated man had studied in the Kazan Academy, and might have become a prelate. I did not believe this. But one day when I was telling him about myself, I recalled the name of the bishop, Chrisanph. He tossed his head and said:
“Chrisanph? I know him. He was my tutor and benefactor. At Kazan, in the academy, I remember! Chrisanph means ‘golden flower.’ Yes, that was a true saying of Pavm Beruind. Yes, he was a flower of gold, Chrisanph!”
“And who is Pavm Beruind?” I added, but Mitropolski replied shortly:
“That is none of your business.”
When I reached home I wrote in my note-book, “I must read the works of Pavm Beruind.” I felt, somehow, that I should find therein the answers to many questions which perplexed me.
The singer was very fond of using names which were unknown to me, and curiously coined words. This irritated me greatly.
“Life is not aniso?” he said.
“What is aniso?” I asked.
“Something advantageous to you,” he answered, and my perplexity amused him.
These little sayings, and the fact that he had studied in the academy, led me to think that he knew a great deal, and I was offended with him for not speaking of his knowledge, or if he did allude to it, being so unintelligible. Or was it that I had no right to ask him,? However, he left an impression on my mind. I liked the drunken boldness of his denunciations, which were modelled on those of the prophet Isaias.
“Oh, unclean and vile ones of earth!” he roared, “the worst among you are famous, and the best are persecuted. The day of judgment draws nigh. You will repent then, but it will be too late, too late!”
As I listened to his roar, I remembered “Good Business,” the laundress Natalia, ruined so hideously and easily. Queen Margot, wrapped in a cloud of dirty scandal. I already had some memories!
My brief acquaintance with this man finished curiously.
I met him in the spring, in the fields near the camp. He was walking like a camel, moving his head from side to side, solitary, bloated-looking.
“Going for a walk?” he asked hoarsely. “Let us go together. I also am taking a walk. I am ill. Brother; yes.”
We walked some yards without speaking, when suddenly we saw a man in a pit which had been made under a tent. He was sitting in the bottom of the pit, leaning on one side, his shoulder resting against the side of the trench. His coat was drawn up on one side above his ear, as if he had been trying to take it off and had not succeeded.
“Drunk,” decided the singer, coming to a standstill.
But on the young grass under the man’s arm lay a large revolver, not far from him lay a cap, and beside it stood a bottle of vodka, hardly begun. Its empty neck was buried in the long grass. The face of the man was hidden by his overcoat, as if he were ashamed.
For a moment we stood in silence. Then Mitropolski, planting his feet wide apart, said:
“He has shot himself.”
Then I understood that the man was not drunk, but dead, but it came upon me so suddenly that I could not believe it. I remember that I felt neither fear nor pity as I looked at that large, smooth skull, visible above the overcoat, and on that livid ear. I could not believe that a man would kill himself on such a pleasant spring day.
The singer rubbed his unshaven cheeks with his hand, as if he were cold, and said hoarsely:
“He is an oldish man. Perhaps his wife has left him, or he has made off with money not belonging to him.”
He sent me into the town to fetch the police, and himself sat down on the edge of the pit, letting his feet hang over, wrapping his worn overcoat closely round him. Having informed the police of the suicide, I ran back quickly, but in the meantime the chor — ister had drunk the dead man’s vodka, and came to meet me, waving the empty bottle.
“This is what ruined him,” he cried, and furiously dashing the bottle to the ground, smashed it to atoms.
The town constable had followed me. He looked into the pit, took off his hat, and crossing himself indecisively, asked the singer:
“Who may you be?”
“That is not your business.”
The policeman reflected, and then asked more politely:
“What account do you give of yourself, then? Here is a dead man, and here are you, drunk!”
“I have been drunk for twenty years!” said the singer proudly, striking his chest with the palm of his hand.
I felt sure that they would arrest him for drinking the vodka. People came rushing from the town; a severe-looking police inspector cartie in a cab. descended into the pit, and, lifting aside the overcoat of the suicide, looked into his face.
“Who saw him first?”
“I,” said Mitropolski.
The inspector looked at him and drawled ominously:
“A-ah! Congratulations, my lord!”
Sightseers began to gather round; there were a dozen or so of people. Panting, excited, they surrounded the pit and looked down into it, and one of them cried:
“It is a chinovnik who lives in our street; I know him!”
The singer, swaying, with his cap off, stood before the inspector, and argued with him inarticulately, shouting something indistinctly. Then the inspector struck him in the chest. He reeled and sat down, and the policeman without haste took some string from his pocket and bound the hands of the singer. He folded them meekly behind his back, as if he were used to this procedure. Then the inspector began to shout angrily to the crowd:
“Be off, now!”
After this there came another, older policeman, with moist, red eyes, his mouth hanging open from weariness, and he took hold of the end of the cord with which the singer was bound, and gently led him into the town. I also went away dejected from the field. Through my memory, like a dull echo, rang the avenging words:
“Woe to the town Ariel!”
And before my eyes rose that depressing spectacle of the policeman slowly drawing the string from the pocket of his ulster, and the awe-inspiring prophet meekly folding his red, hairy hands behind his back, and crossing his wrists as if he were used to it.
I soon heard that the prophet had been sent out of the town. And after him, Kleshtchkov disappeared; he had married well, and had gone to live in a district where a harness-maker’s workshop had been opened.
I had praised his singing so warmly to my master that he said one day:
“I must go and hear him!”
And so one night he sat at a little table opposite to me, raising his brows in astonishment, his eyes wide open.
On the way to the tavern he had made fun of me, and during the first part of the time he was in the tavern, he was railing at me, at the people there, and at the stuffy smell of the place. When the harness-maker began to sing he smiled derisively, and began to pour himself a glass of beer, but he stopped half-way, saying:
“Who the devil —?”
His hand trembled; he set the bottle down gently, and began to listen with intentness.
“Ye-es, Brother,” he said with a sigh, when Kleshtchkov had finished singing, “he can sing! The devil take him! He has even made the air hot.”
The harness-maker sang again, with his head back, gazing up at the ceiling:
“On the road from the flourishing village
A young girl came over the dewy fields.”
“He can sing,” muttered my master, shaking his head and smiling.
And Kleshtchkov poured forth his song, clear as the music of a reed:
“And the beautiful maiden answered him:
‘An orphan am I, no one wants me,’ ”
“Good!” whispered my master, blinking his reddening eyes. “Phew! it is devilish good!”
I looked at him and rejoiced, and the sobbing words of the song conquered the noise of the tavern, sounded more powerful, more beautiful, more touching every moment.
I live solitary in our village.
A young girl am I; they never ask me out.
Oie, poor am I, my dress it is not fine;
I am not fit, I know, for a brave young man.
A widower would marry me to do his work;
I do not wish to bow myself to such a fate.
My master wept undisguisedly; he sat with his head bent; his prominent nose twitched, and tears splashed on his knees. After the third song, agitated and dishevelled, he said:
“I can’t sit here any longer; I shall be stifled with these odors. Let us go home.”
But when we were in the street he said:
“Come along, Pyeshkov, let us go to a restaurant and have something to eat. I don’t want to go home!”
He hailed a sledge, without haggling about the charge, and said nothing while we were on the way, but in the restaurant, after taking a table in a corner, he began at once in an undertone, looking about him the while, to complain angrily.
“He has thoroughly upset me, that goat; to such a state of melancholy he has driven me! Here you are — you read and think about things — just tell me now, what the devil is the use of it all? One lives; forty years pass by; one has a wife and children, and no one to talk to! There are times when I want to unburden my soul, to talk to some one about all sorts of things, but there is no one I can talk to. I can’t talk to my wife; I have nothing in common with her. What is she, after all? She has her children and the house; that’s her business. She is a stranger to my soul. A wife is your friend till the first child comes. In fact, she is — on the whole — Well, you can see for yourself she does not dance to my piping. Flesh without spirit, the devil take you! It is a grief to me, Brother.”
He drank the cold, bitter beer feverishly, was silent for a time, ruffling his long hair, and then he went on:
“Human creatures are riff-raff for the most part. Brother! There you are, for instance, talking to the workmen. Oh yes, I understand there is a lot of trickery, and baseness; it is true. Brother; they are thieves all of them! But do you think that what you say makes any difference to them! Not an atom! No! They are all — Petr, Osip as well — rogues! They speak about me, and you speak for me, and all — what is the use of it, Brother?”
I was dumb from sheer amazement.
“That’s it!” said my master, smiling. “You were right to think of going to Persia. There you would understand nothing; it is a foreign language they speak there! But in your own language you’ll hear nothing but baseness!”
“Has Osip been telling you about me?” I asked.
“Well, yes! But what did you expect? He talks more than any of them; he is a gossip. He is a sly creature, Brother! No, Pyeshkov, words don’t touch them. Am I not right? And what the devil is the use of it? And what the devil difference does it make? None! It is like snow in the autumn, falling in the mud and melting. It only makes more mud. You had far better hold your tongue.”
He drank glass after glass of beer. He did not get drunk, but he talked more and more quickly and fiercely.
“The proverb says, ‘Speech is silver, silence is golden.’ Ekh, Brother, it is all sorrow, sorrow! He sang truly, ‘Solitary I live in our village.’ Human life is all loneliness.”
He glanced round, lowered his voice, and continued:
“And I had found a friend after my own heart. There was a woman who happened to be alone, as good as a widow; her husband had been condemned to Siberia for coining money, and was in prison there. I became acquainted with her; she was penniless; it was that, you know, which led to our acquaintance. I looked at her and thought, ‘What a nice little person!’ Pretty, you know, young, simply wonderful. I saw her once or twice, and then I said to her: ‘Your husband is a rogue. You are not living honestly yourself. Why do you want to go to Siberia after him?’ But she would follow him into exile. She said to me: ‘Whatever he is, I love him; he is good to me I It may be that it was for me he sinned. I have sinned with you. For’ his sake,’ she said, ‘I had to have money; he is a gentleman and accustomed to live well. If I had been single,’ she said, ‘I should have lived honorably. You are a good man, too,’ she said, ‘and I like you very much, but don’t talk to me about this again.’ The devil! I gave her all I had — eighty rubles or thereabouts — and I said: ‘You must pardon me, but I cannot see you any more. I cannot!’ And I left her — and that’s how — ”
He was silent, and then he suddenly became drunk. He sank into a huddled-up heap and muttered:
“Six times I went to see her. You can’t understand what it was like! I might have gone to her flat six more times, but I could not make up my mind to it. I could not! Now she has gone away.”
He laid his hands on the table, and in a whisper, moving his fingers, said:
“God grant I never meet her again! God grant it! Then it would be going to the devil! Let us go home. Come!”
We went. He staggered along, muttering:
“That’s how it is, Brother.”
I was not surprised by the story he had told me; I had long ago guessed that something unusual had happened to him. But I was greatly depressed by what he had said about life, and more by what he had said about Osip.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55