I LIVED three years as overseer in that dead town, amid empty buildings, watching the workmen pull down clumsy stone shops in the autumn, and rebuild them in the same way in the spring.
The master took great care that I should earn his five rubles. If the floor of a shop had to be laid again, I had to remove earth from the whole area to the depth of one arshin. The dock laborers were paid a ruble for this work, but I received nothing; and while I was thus occupied, I had no time to look after the carpenters, who unscrewed the locks and handles from the doors and committed petty thefts of all kinds.
Both the workmen and the contractors tried in every way to cheat me, to steal something, and they did it almost openly, as if they were performing an unpleasant duty; were not in the least indignant when I accused them, but were merely amazed.
“You make as much fuss over five rubles as you would over twenty. It is funny to hear you!”
I pointed out to my riiaster that, while he saved one ruble by my labor, he lost ten times more in this way, but he merely blinked at me and said:
“That will do! You are making that up!”
I understood that he suspected me of conniving at the thefts, which aroused in me a feeling of repulsion towards him, but I was not offended. In that class of life they all steal, and even the master liked to take what did not belong to him.
When, after the fair, he looked into one of the shops which he was to rebuild, and saw a forgotten samovar, a piece of crockery, a carpet, or a pair of scissors which had been forgotten, even sometimes a case, or some merchandise, my master would say, smiling:
“Make a list of the things and take them all to the store-room.”
And he would take them home with him from the store-room, telling me sometimes to cross them off the list.
I did not love “things”; I had no desire to possess them; even books were an embarrassment to me. I had none of my own, save the little volumes of Beranger and the songs of Heine. I should have liked to obtain Pushkin, but the book-dealer in the town was an evil old man, who asked a great deal too much for Pushkin’s works. The furniture, carpets, and mirrors, which bulked so largely in my master’s house, gave me no pleasure, irritated me by their melancholy clumsiness and smell of paint and lacquer. Most of all I disliked the mistress’s room, which reminded me of a trunk packed with all kinds of useless, superfluous objects. And I was disgusted with my master for bringing home other people’s things from the store-house. Queen Margot’s rooms had been cramped too, but they were beautiful in spite of it.
Life, on the whole, seemed to me to be a disconnected, absurd affair; there was too much of the ob — viously stupid about it. Here we were building shops which the floods inundated in the spring, soaking through the floors, making the outer doors hang crooked. When the waters subsided the joists had begun to rot. Annually the water had overflowed the market-place for the last ten years, spoiling the buildings and the bridges. These yearly floods did enor — mous damage, and yet they all knew that the waters would not be diverted of themselves.
Each spring the breaking of the ice cut up the barges, and dozens of small vessels. The people groaned and built new ones, which the ice again broke. It was like a ridiculous treadmill whereon one remains always in the same place. I asked Osip about it. He looked amazed, and then laughed.
“Oh, you heron! What a young heron he is! What is it to do with you at all? What is it to you,
But then he spoke more gravely, although he could not extinguish the light of merriment in his pale blue eyes, which had a clearness not belonging to old age.
“That’s a very intelligent observation! Let us suppose that the affair does not concern you; all the same it may be worth something to you to understand it. Take this case, for example — ”
And he related in a dry speech, interspersed lavishly with quaint sayings, unusual comparisons, and all kinds of drollery:
“Here is a case where people are to be pitied; they have only a little land, and in the springtime the Volga overflows its banks, carries away the earth, and lays it upon its own sand-banks. Then others complain that the bed of the Volga is choked up. The spring-time streams and summer rains tear up the gulleys, and again earth is carried away to the river.”
He spoke without either pity or malice, but as if he enjoyed his knowledge of the miseries of life, and although his words were in agreement with my own ideas, yet it was unpleasant to listen to them.
“Take another instance; fires.”
I don’t think I can remember a summer when the forests beyond the Volga did not catch fire. Every July the sky was clouded by a muddy yellow smoke; the leaden sun, all its brightness gone, looked down on the earth like a bad eye.
“As for forests, who cares about them?” said Osip. “They all belong to the nobles, or the crown; the peasants don’t own them. And if towns catch fire, that is not a very serious business either. Rich people live in towns; they are not to be pitied. But take the villages. How many villages are burned down every summer? Not less than a hundred, I should think; that’s a serious loss!”
He laughed softly.
“Some people have property and don’t know how to manage it, and between ourselves, a man has to work not so much on his own behalf, or on the land, as against fire and water.”
“Why do you laugh?”
“Why not? You won’t put a fire out with your tears, nor will they make the floods more mighty.”
I knew that this handsome old man was more clever than any one I had met; but what were his real sympathies and antipathies? I was thinking about this all the time he was adding his little dry sayings to my store.
“Look round you, and see how little people preserve their own, or other people’s strength. How your master squanders yours! And how much does water cost in a village? Reflect a little; it is better than any cleverness which comes from learning. If a peasant’s hut is burned, another one can be put up in its place, but when a worthy peasant loses his sight, you can’t set that right! Look at Ardalon, for example, or Grisha; see how a man can break out! A foolish fellow, the first, but Grisha is a man of understanding. He smokes like a hayrick. Women attacked him, as worms attack a murdered man in a wood.”
I asked him without anger, merely out of curiosity:
“Why did you go and tell the master about my ideas?’
He answered calmly, even kindly:
“So that he might know what harmful ideas you have. It was necessary, in order that he may teach you better ones. Who should teach you, if not he? I did not speak to him out of malice, but out of pity for you. You are not a stupid lad, but the devil is racking your brain. If I had caught you stealing, or run — ning after the girls, or drinking, I should have held my tongue. But I shall always repeat all your wild talk to the master; so now you know.”
“I won’t talk to you, then!”
He was silent, scratching the resin off his hands with his nails. Then he looked at me with an expression of affection and said:
“That you will! To whom else will you talk? There is no one else.”
Clean and neat, Osip at times reminded me of the stoker, Yaakov, absolutely indifferent to every one. Sometimes he reminded me of the valuer, Petr Vassiliev, sometimes of the drayman, Petr; occasionally he revealed a trait which was like grandfather. In one way or another he was like all the old men I had known. They were all amazingly interesting old men, but I felt that it was impossible to live with them; it would be oppressive and repulsive. They had corroded their own hearts, as it were; their clever speeches hid hearts red with rust. Was Osip good-hearted? No. Malevolent? Also no. That he was clever was all that was clear to me. But while it astounded me by its pliability, that intelligence of his deadened me, and the end of it was that I felt he was inimical to me in all kinds of ways.
In my heart seethed the black thoughts:
“All human creatures are strangers to one another despite their sweet words and smiles. And more; we are all strangers on the earth, too; no one seems to be bound to it by a powerful feeling of love. Grandmother alone loved to be alive, and loved all crea — tures — grandmother and gracious Queen Margot.
Sometimes these and similar thoughts increased the density of the dark fog around me. Life had become suffocating and oppressive; but how could I live a different life? Whither could I go? I had no one to talk to, even, except Osip, and I talked to him more and more often. He listened to my heated babbling with evident interest, asked me questions, drove home a point, and said calmly:
“The persistent woodpecker is not terrible; no one is afraid of him. But with all my heart I advise you to go into a monastery and live there till you are grown up. You will have edifying conversations with holy men to console you, you will be at peace, and you will be a source of revenue to the monks. That’s my sincere advice to you. It is evident that you are not fit for worldly business.”
I had no desire to enter a monastery, but I felt that I was being entangled and bewildered in the enchanted circle of the incomprehensible. I was miserable. Life for me was like a forest in autumn. The mushrooms had come and gone, there was nothing to do in the empty forest, and I seemed to know all there was to know in it.
I did not drink vodka, and I had nothing to do with girls; books took the place of these two forms of intoxication for me. But the more I read, the harder it was for me to go on living the empty, unnecessary life that most people lived.
I had only just turned fifteen years of age, but sometimes I felt like an elderly man. I was, as it were, inwardly swollen and heavy with all I had lived through and read, or restlessly pondered. Looking into myself, I discovered that my receptacle for impressions was like a dark lumber-room closely packed with all kinds of things, of which I had neither the strength nor the wit to rid myself.
And although they were so numerous, all these cumbersome articles were not solidly packed, but floated about, and made me waver as water makes a piece of crockery waver which does not stand firm.
I had a fastidious dislike of unhappiness, illness, and grievances. When I saw cruelty, blood, fights even verbal baiting of a person, it aroused a physical repulsion in me which was swiftly transformed into a cold fury. This made me fight myself, like a wild beast, after which I would be painfully ashamed of myself.
Sometimes I was so passionately desirous of beating a bully that I threw myself blindly into a fight, and even now I remember those attacks of despair, born of m/ impotence, with shame and grief.
Within me dwelt two persons. One was cognizant of only too many abominations and obscenities, somewhat timid for that reason, was crushed by the knov/ledge of everyday horrors, and had begun to view life and people distrustfully, contemptuously, with a feeble pity for every one, including himself. This person dreamed of a quiet, solitary life with books, without people, of monasteries, of a forest-keeper’s lodge, a railway signal box, of Persia, and the office of the night watchman somewhere on the outskirts of the town. Only to see fewer people, to be remote from human creatures!
The other person, baptized by the holy spirit of noble and wise books, observing the overwhelming strength of the daily horrors of life, felt how easily that strength might sap one’s brain-power, trample the heart with dirty footprints, and, fighting against it with all his force, with clenched teeth and fists, was always ready for a quarrel or a fight. He loved and pitied actively, and, like the brave hero in French novels, drew his sword from his scabbard on the slightest provocation, and stood in a warlike position.
At that time I had a bitter enemy in the door-keeper of one of the brothels in Little Pokrovski Street. I made his acquaintance one morning as I was going to the market-place; he was dragging from a hackney-carriage, standing at the gate in front of the house, a girl who was dead drunk. He seized her by the legs in their wrinkled stockings, and thus held her shame-lessly, bare to the waist, exclaiming and laughing. He spat upon her body, and she came down with a jolt out of the carriage, dishevelled, blind, with open mouth, with her soft arms hanging behind her as if they had no joints. Her spine, the back of her neck, and her livid face struck the seat of the carriage and the step, and at length she fell on the pavement, striking her head on the stones.
The driver whipped up his horse and drove off, and the porter, taking one foot in each hand and stepping backward, dragged her along as if she had been a corpse. I lost control of myself and made a rush at him, but as luck would have it, I hurled myself against, or accidentally ran into a rainwater-barrel, which saved both the porter and me a great deal of unpleasantness. Striking him on the rebound, I knocked him over, darted up the steps, and desperately pulled the bell-handle. Some infuriated people rushed on the scene, and as I could not explain anything, I went away, picking up the barrel.
On the way I overtook the cab. The driver looked down at me from the coach-box and said:
“You knocked him over smartly.”
I asked him angrily how he could allow the portel to make sport of the girl, and he replied calmly, with a fastidious air:
“As for me, let them go to the dogs! A gentleman paid me when he put her in my cab. What is it to me if one person beats another?”
“And if he had killed her?’
“Oh, well; you soon kill that sort!” said the driver, as if he had repeatedly tried to kill drunken girls.
After that I saw the porter nearly every day. When I passed up the street he would be sweeping the pavement, or sitting on the steps as if he were waiting for me. As I approached him he would stand up, tuck up his sleeves, and announce kindly:
“I am going to smash you to atoms now!”
He was over forty, small, bow-legged, with a pendulous paunch. When he laughed he looked at me with beaming eyes, and it was terribly strange to me to see that they were kind and merry. He could not fight, because his arms were shorter than mine, and after two or three turns he let me go, leaned his back against the gate, and said, apparently in great surprise:
“All right; you wait, clever!”
These fights bored me, and one day I said to him:
“Listen, fool! Why don’t you let me alone?”
“Why do you fight, then?” he asked reproachfully.
I asked him in turn why he had maltreated the girl.
“What did it matter to you? Are you sorry for her?’
“Of course I am!”
He was silent, rubbing his lips, and then asked:
“And would you be sorry for a cat?”
“Yes, I should.”
Then he said:
“You are a fool, rascal! Wait; I’ll show you something.”
I never could avoid passing up that street — it was the shortest way — but I began to get up earlier, in order not to meet the man. However, in a few days I saw him again, sitting on the steps and stroking a smoke-colored cat which lay on his knees. When I was about three paces from him he jumped up, seized the cat by the legs, and dashed its head against the stone balustrade, so that I was splashed with the warm blood. He then hurled the cat under my feet and stood at the gate, crying:
What could I do? Wc rolled about the yard like two curs, and afterward, as I sat on a grassy slope, nearly crazy with inexpressible grief, I bit my lips to keep myself from howling. When I remember it I shiver with a feeling of sickening repulsion, amazed that I did not go out of my mind and kill some one.
Why do I relate these abominations? So that you may know, kind sirs, that is not all past and done with! You have a liking for grim fantasies; you are delighted with horrible stories well told; the grotesquely terrible excites you pleasantly. But I know of genuine horrors, everyday terrors, and I have an undeniable right to excite you unpleasantly by telling you about them, in order that you may remember how we live, and under what circumstances. A low and unclean life it is, ours, and that is the truth!
I am a lover of humanity and I have no desire to make any one miserable, but one must not be sentimental, nor hide the grim truth with the motley words of beautiful lies. Let us face life as it is! All that is good and human in our hearts and brains needs renewing. What went to my head most of all was the attitude of the average man toward women. From my reading of novels I had learned to look upon woman as the best and most significant thing in life. Grandmother had strengthened me in this belief by her stories about Our Lady and Vassilissia the Wise. What I knew of the unhappy laundress, Natalia, and those hundred and thousands of glances and smiles which I observed, with which women, the mothers of life, adorn this life of sordid joys, sordid loves, also helped me.
The books of Turgenieff sang the praises of woman, and with all the good I knew about women I had adorned the image of Queen Margot in my memory. Heine and Turgenieff especially gave me much that was precious for this purpose.
In the evenings as I was returning from the market-place I used to halt on the hill by the walls of the Kreml and look at the sun setting beyond the Volga. Fiery streams flowed over the heavens; the terrestrial, beloved river had turned purple and blue. Sometimes in such moments the land looked like an enor — mous convict barge; it had the appearance of a pig be — ing lazily towed along by an invisible steamer.
But I thought more often of the great world, of towns which I had read about, of foreign countries where people lived in a different manner. Writers of other countries depicted life as cleaner, more attractive, less burdensome than that life which seethed slug — gishly and monotonously around me. This thought calmed my disturbed spirit, aroused visions of the possibility of a different life for me.
And I felt that I should meet some simple-minded, wise man who would lead me on that broad, bright road.
One day as I sat on a bench by the walls of the Kreml my Uncle Yaakov appeared at my side. I had not noticed his approach, and I did not recognize him at once. Although we had lived in the same town during several years, we had met seldom, and then only accidentally and for a mere glimpse of each other.
“Ekh! how you have stretched out!” he said jestingly, and we fell to talking like two people long ac — quainted but not intimate.
From what grandmother had told me I knew that Uncle Yaakov had spent those years in quarrelling and idleness; he had had a situation as assistant warder at the local goal, but his term of service ended badly. The chief warder being ill, Uncle Yaakov arranged festivities in his own quarters for the convicts. This was discovered, and he was dismissed and handed over to the police on the charge of having let the prisoners out to “take a walk” in the town at night. None of them had escaped, but one was caught in the act of trying to throttle a certain deacon. The business draggged on for a long time, but the matter never came into court; the convicts and the warders were able to exculpate my good uncle. But now he lived without working on the earnings of his son who sang in the church choir at Rukavishnikov, which was famous at that time. He spoke oddly of this son:
“He has become very solemn and important! He is a soloist. He gets angry if the samovar is not ready to time, or if his clothes are not brushed. A very dapper fellow he is, and clean.”
Uncle himself had aged considerably; he looked grubby and fallen away. His gay, curly locks had grown very scanty, and his ears stuck out; in the whites of his eyes and on the leathery skin of his shaven cheeks there appeared thick, red veins. He spoke jestingly, but it seemed as if there were something in his mouth which impeded his utterance, although his teeth were sound.
I was glad to have the chance of talking to a man who knew how to live well, had seen much, and must therefore know much. I well remembered his lively, comical songs and grandfather’s words about him:
“In songs he is King David, but in business he plots evil, like Absalom!”
On the promenade a well-dressed crowd passed and repassed: luxuriously attired gentlemen, chinovniks, officers; uncle was dressed in a shabby, autumn overcoat, a battered cap, and brown boots, and was visibly pricked by annoyance at the thought of his own costume. We went into one of the public-houses on the Pochainski Causeway, taking a table near the window which opened on the market-place.
“Do you remember how you sang:
“A beggar hung his leggings to dry,
And another beggar came and stole them away?”
When I had uttered the words of the song, I felt for the first time their mocking meaning, and it seemed to me that my gay uncle was both witty and malicious. But he, pouring vodka into a glass, said thoughtfully:
“Well, I am getting on in years, and I have made very little of my life. That song is not mine; it was composed by a teacher in the seminary. What was his name now? He is dead; I have forgotten. We were great friends. He was a bachelor. He died in his sleep, in a fit. How many people have gone to sleep that I can remember! It would be hard to count them. You don’t drink? That is right; don’t! Do you see your grandfather often? He is not a happy old man. I believe he is going out of his mind.”
After a few drinks he became more lively, held him-self up, looked younger, and began to speak with more animation. I asked him for the story of the convicts.
“You heard about it?” he inquired, and with a glance around, and lowering his voice, he said:
“What about the convicts? I was not their judge, you know; I saw them merely as human creatures, and I said: ‘Brothers, let us live together in harmony, let us live happily! There is a song,’ I said, ‘which runs like this:
“Imprisonment to happiness is no bar. Let them do with us as they will! Still we shall live for sake of laughter, He is a fool who lives otherwise.”
He laughed, glanced out of the window on the darkening causeway, and continued, smoothing his whis — kers:
“Of course they were dull in that prison, and as soon as the roll-call was over, they came to me. We had vodka and dainties, sometimes provided by me, sometimes by themselves. I love songs and dancing, and among them were some excellent singers and dancers. It was astonishing! Some of them were in fetters, and it was no calumny to say that I undid their chains; it is true. But bless you, they knew how to take them off by themselves without a blacksmith; they are a handy lot of people; it is astonishing! But to say that I let them wander about the town to rob people is rubbish, and it was never proved!”
He was silent, gazing out of the window on the causeway where the merchants were shutting up their chests of goods; iron bars rattled, rusty hinges creaked, some boards fell with a resounding crash. Then winking at me gaily, he continued in a low voice:
“To speak the truth, one of them did really go out at night, only he was not one of the fettered ones, but simply a local thief from the lower end of the town; his sweetheart lived not far away on the Pechorka. And the affair with the deacon happened through a mistake; he took the deacon for a merchant. It was a winter night, in a snowstorm; everybody was wearing a fur coat; how could he tell the difference in his haste between a deacon and a merchant?”
This struck me as being funny, and he laughed himself as he said:
“Yes, by gad! It was the very devil — ”
Here my uncle became unexpectedly and strangely angry. He pushed away his plate of savories, frowned with an expression of loathing, and, smoking a cigarette, muttered:
“They rob one another; then they catch one another and put one another away in prisons in Siberia, in the galleys; but what is it to do with me? I spit upon them all! I have my own soul!”
The shaggy stoker stood before me; he also had been wont to “spit upon” people, and he also was called Yaakov.
“What are you thinking about?” asked my uncle softly.
“Were you sorry for the convicts?”
“It is easy to pity them, they are such children; it is amazing! Sometimes I would look at one of them and think: I am not worthy to black his boots; although I am set over him! Clever devils, skilful with their hands.”
The wine and his reminiscences had again pleasantly animated him. With his elbows resting on the window-sill, waving his yellow hand with the cigarette between its fingers, he spoke with energy:
“One of them, a crooked fellow, an engraver and watchmaker, was convicted of coining. You ought to have heard how he talked! It was like a song, a flame! ‘Explain to me,’ he would say; ‘why may the exchequer coin money while I may not? Tell me that!’ And no one could tell him why, no one, not even I, and I was chief over him. There was another, a well-known Moscow thief, quiet mannered, foppish, neat as a pin, who used to say courteously: ‘People work till their senses are blunted, and I have no desire to do the same. I have tried it. You work and work till weariness has made a fool of you, get drunk on two copecks, lose seven copecks at cards, get a woman to be kind to you for five copecks, and then, all over again, cold and hungry. No,’ he says, ‘I am not playing that game.’ ”
Uncle Yaakov bent over the table and continued, reddening to the tips of his ears. He was so excited that even his small ears quivered.
“They were no fools. Brother; they knew what was right! To the devil with red tape! Take myself, for instance; what has my life been? I look back on!t with shame, everything by snatches, stealthily; my sorrows were my own, but all my joys were stolen. Either my father shouted, ‘Don’t you dare!’ or my wife screamed, ‘You cannot!’ I was afraid to throw down a ruble. And so all my life has passed away, and here I am acting the lackey to my own son. Why should I hide it? I serve him, Brother, meekly, and he scolds me like a gentleman. He says, ‘Father!’ and I obey like a footman. Is that what I was born for, and what I struggled on in poverty for — that I should be servant to my own son? But, even without that, why was I born? What pleasure have I had in life?”
I listened to him inattentively. However, I said reluctantly, and not expecting an answer:
“I don’t know what sort of a life mine will be.”
He burst out laughing.
“Well, and who does know? I have never met any one yet who knew! So people live; he who can get accustomed to anything — ”
And again he began to speak in an offended, angry tone:
“One of the men I had was there for assault, a man from Orla, a gentleman, who danced beautifully. He made us all laugh by a song about Vanka:
“Vanka passes by the churchyard,
That is a very simple matter!
Ach! Vanka, draw your horns in
For you won’t get beyond the graveyard!
“I don’t think that is at all funny, but it is true! As you can’t come back, you can’t see beyond the graveyard. In that case it is the same to me whether I am a convict, or a warder over convicts.”
He grew tired of talking, drank his vodka, and looked into the empty decanter with one eye, like a bird. He silently lighted another cigarette, blowing the smoke through his mustache.
“Don’t struggle, don’t hope for anything, for the grave and the churchyard let no man pass them,” the mason, Petr, used to say sometimes, yet he was absolutely dissimilar to Uncle Yaakov. How many such sayings I knew already!
I had nothing more to ask my uncle about. It was melancholy to be with him, and I was sorry for him. I kept recalling his lively songs and the sound of the guitar which produced joy out of a gentle melancholy.
I had not forgotten merry Tzigan. I had not forgotten, and as I looked at the battered countenance of Uncle Yaakov, I thought involuntarily:
“Does he remember how he crushed Tzigan to death with the cross?”
But I had no desire to ask him about it. I looked into the causeway, which was flooded with a gray August fog. The smell of apples and melons floated up to me. Along the narrow streets of the town the lamps gleamed; I knew it all by heart. At that moment I heard the siren of the Ribinsk steamer, and then of that other which was bound for Perm.
“Well, we ‘d better go,” said my uncle.
At the door of the tavern as he shook my hand he said jokingly:
“Don’t be a hypochondriac. You are rather inclined that way, eh? Spit on it! You are young. The chief thing you have to remember is that Tate is no hindrance to happiness.’ Well, good-by; I am going to Uspen!”
My cheerful uncle left me more bewildered than ever by his conversation.
I walked up to the town and came out in the fields. It was midnight; heavy clouds floated in the sky, obliterating my shadow on the earth by their own black shadows. Leaving the town for the fields, I reached the Volga, and there I lay in the dusty grass and looked for a long time at the river, the meadow, on that motionless earth. Across the Volga the shadows of the clouds floated slowly; by the time they had reached the meadows they looked brighter, as if they had been washed in the water of the river. Everything around seemed half asleep, stupefied as it were, moving unwillingly, and only because it was compelled to do so, and not from a flaming love of movement and life.
And I desired so ardently to cast a beneficent spell over the whole earth and myself, which would cause every one, myself included, to be swept by a joyful whirlwind, a festival dance of people, loving one another in this life, spending their lives for the sake of others, beautiful, brave, honorable.
“I must do something for myself, or I shall be ruined.”
On frowning autumn days, when one not only did not see the sun, but did not feel it, either — forgot all about it, in fact — on autumn days, more than once — I happened to be wandering in the forest. Having left the high road and lost all trace of the pathways, I at length grew tired of looking for them. Setting my teeth, I went straight forward, over fallen trees which were rotting, over the unsteady mounds which rose from the marshes, and in the end I always came out on the right road.
It was in this way that I made up my mind.
In the autumn of that year I went to Kazan, in the secret hope of finding some means of studying there.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55