Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
"Well now, gentlemen, this isn't fit for pigs," Yarchenko was saying, grumblingly, at the entrance of Anna Markovna's establishment. "If we finally have gone, we might at least have chosen a decent place, and not some wretched hole. Really, gentlemen, let's better go to Treppel's alongside; there it's clean and light, at any rate."
"If you please, if you please, signior," insisted Lichonin, opening the door before the sub-professor with courtly urbanity, bowing and spreading his arms before him. "If you please."
"But this is an abomination ... At Treppel's the women are better- looking, at least,"
Ramses, walking behind, burst into dry laughter.
"So, so, Gavrila Petrovich. Let us continue in the same spirit. Let us condemn the hungry, petty thief who has stolen a five- kopeck loaf out of a tray, but if the director of a bank has squandered somebody else's million on race horses and cigars, let us mitigate his lot."
"Pardon me, but I do not understand this comparison," answered Yarchenko with restraint. "However, it's all the same to me; let's go."
"And all the more so," said Lichonin, letting the subprofessor pass ahead; "all the more so, since this house guards within it so many historical traditions. Comrades! Decades of student generations gaze upon us from the heights of the coat-hooks, and, besides that, through the power of the usual right, children and students pay half here, as in a panopticon. Isn't that so, citizen Simeon?"
Simeon did not like to have people come in large parties--this always smacked of scandal in the not distant future; moreover, he despised students in general for their speech, but little comprehensible to him, for their propensity towards frivolous jokes, for their godlessness, and chiefly because they were in constant revolt against officialdom and order. It was not in vain that on the day when on the Bessarabian Square the cossacks, meat- sellers, flour dealers and fish mongers were massacring the students, Simeon having scarce found it out had jumped into a fine carriage passing by, and, standing just like a chief of police in the victoria, tore off to the scene of the fray in order to take part in it. He esteemed people who were sedate, stout and elderly, who came singly, in secret, peeped in cautiously from the ante- room into the drawing room, fearing to meet with acquaintances, and very soon and with great haste went away, tipping him generously. Such he always styled "Your Excellency."
And so, while taking the light grey overcoat off Yarchenko, he sombrely and with much significance snarled back in answer to Lichonin's banter:
"I am no citizen here, but the bouncer."
"Upon which I have the honour to congratulate you," answered Lichonin with a polite bow.
There were many people in the drawing room. The clerks, having danced their fill, were sitting, red and wet, near their ladies, rapidly fanning themselves with their handkerchiefs; they smelt strongly of old goats' wool. Mishka the Singer and his friend the Book-keeper, both bald, with soft, downy hairs around the denuded skulls, both with turbid, nacreous, intoxicated eyes, were sitting opposite each other, leaning with their elbows on a little marble table, and were constantly trying to start singing in unison with such quavering and galloping voices as though some one was very, very often striking them in the cervical vertebrae:
"They fe-e-e-l the tru-u-u-u-uth!"
while Emma Edwardovna and Zociya with all their might were exhorting them not to behave indecently. Roly-Poly was peacefully slumbering on a chair, his head hanging down, having laid one long leg over the other and grasped the sharp knee with his clasped hands.
The girls at once recognized some of the students and ran to meet them.
"Tamarochka, your husband has come--Volodenka. And my husband too!--Mishka!" cried Niura piercingly, hanging herself on the neck of the lanky, big-nosed, solemn Petrovsky. "Hello, Mishenka. Why haven't you come for so long? I grew weary of waiting for you."
Yarchenko with a feeling of awkwardness was looking about him on all sides.
"We'd like to have in some way ... don't you know ... a little private room," he said with delicacy to Emma Edwardovna who had approached. "And give us some sort of red wine, please ... And then, some coffee as well ... You know yourself."
Yarchenko always instilled confidence in servants and maitres d'hotel, with his dashing clothes and polite but seigniorial ways. Emma Edwardovna started nodding her head willingly, just like an old, fat circus horse.
"It can be done ... it can be done ... Pass this way, gentlemen, into the parlor. It can be done, it can be done ... What liqueur? We have only Benedictine ... Benedictine, then? It can be done, it can be done ... And will you allow the young ladies to come in?"
"Well, if that is so indispensable?" Yarchenko spread out his hands with a sigh.
And at once the girls one after the other straggled into the parlor with its gray plush furniture and blue lantern. They entered, extended to every one in turn their unbending palms, unused to hand-clasps, gave their names abruptly in a low voice-- Manya, Katie, Liuba ... They sat down on somebody's knees, embraced him around the neck, and, as usual, began to importune:
"Little student, you're such a little good-looker. May I ask for oranzes?"
"Volodenka, buy me some candy! All right?"
"And me chocolate!"
"Fatty," Vera, dressed as a jockey, wheedled the sub-professor, clambering up on his knees, "I have a friend, only she's sick and can't come out into the drawing room. I'll carry her some apples and chocolate. Will you let me?"
"Well, now, those are all just stories about a friend! But above all, don't be thrusting your tenderness at me. Sit as smart children sit, right here alongside, on the arm chair, just so. And fold your little hands."
"Ah, but what if I can't!" writhed Vera in coquetry, rolling her eyes up under her upper lids ... "When you are so nice."
But Lichonin, in answer to this professional beggary, only nodded his head gravely and good-naturedly, just like Emma Edwardovna, and repeated over and over again, mimicking her German accent:
"Itt can pe done, itt can pe done, itt can pe done..."
"Then I will tell the waiter, honey, to carry my friend some sweets and apples?" pestered Vera.
Such importunity entered the round of their tacit duties. There even existed among the girls some captious, childish, strange rivalry as to the ability to "ease a guest of his money"--strange enough because they did not derive any profit out of this, unless, indeed, a certain affection from the housekeeper or a word of approbation from the proprietress. But in their petty, monotonous, habitually frivolous life there was, in general, a great deal of semi-puerile, semi-hysterical play.
Simeon brought a coffee pot, cups, a squatty bottle of Benedictine, fruits and bon-bons in glass vases, and gaily and easily began making the corks of the beer and wine pop.
"But why don't you drink?" Yarchenko turned to the reporter Platonov. "Allow me ... I do not mistake? Sergei Ivanovich, I believe?"
"Allow me to offer you a cup of coffee, Sergei Ivanovich. It's refreshing. Or perhaps, let's drink this same dubious Lafitte?"
"No, you really must allow me to refuse. I have a drink of my own ... Simeon, give me..."
"Cognac!" cried out Niura hurriedly.
"And with a pear!" Little White Manka caught up just as fast.
"I heard you, Sergei Ivanich--right away," unhurriedly but respectfully responded Simeon, and, bending down and letting out a grunt, resoundingly drew the cork out of the neck of the bottle.
"It's the first time I hear of cognac being served in Yama," uttered Lichonin with amazement. "No matter how much I asked, they always refused me."
"Perhaps Sergei Ivanich knows some sort of magic word," jested Ramses.
"Or is held here in an especially honoured state?" Boris Sobashnikov put in pointedly, with emphasis.
The reporter listlessly, without turning his head, looked askance at Sobashnikov, at the lower row of buttons on his short, foppish, white summer uniform jacket, and answered with a drawl:
"There is nothing honourable in that I can drink like a horse and never get drunk; but then, I also do not quarrel with anyone or pick upon anybody. Evidently, these good sides of my character are sufficiently known here, and because of that confidence is shown me."
"Good for you, old fellow!" joyously exclaimed Lichonin, who was delighted by a certain peculiar, indolent negligence--of few words, yet at the same time self-confident--in the reporter. "Will you share the cognac with me also?"
"Very, very gladly," affably answered Platonov and suddenly looked at Lichonin with a radiant, almost child-like smile, which beautified his plain face with the prominent cheek-bones. "You, too, appealed to me from the first. And even when I saw you there, at Doroshenko's, I at once thought that you are not at all as rough as you seem."
"Well, now, we have exchanged pleasantries," laughed Lichonin. "But it's amazing that we haven't met once just here. Evidently, you come to Anna Markovna's quite frequently?"
"Even too much so."
"Sergei Ivanich is our most important guest!" naively shrieked Niura. "Sergei Ivanich is a sort of brother among us!"
"Fool!" Tamara stopped her.
"That seems strange to me," continued Lichonin. "I, too, am a habitue. In any case, one can only envy everybody's cordiality toward you."
"The local chieftain!" said Boris Sobashnikov, curling his lips downward, but said it so low that Platanov, if he chose to, could pretend that he had not heard anything distinctly. This reporter had for long aroused in Boris some blind and prickling irritation. That he was not one of his own herd really meant nothing. But Boris, like many students (and also officers, junkers, and high- school boys) had grown accustomed to the fact that the outside "civilian" people, who accidentally fell into a company of students on a spree, should hold themselves somewhat subordinately and with servility in it, flatter the studying youths, be struck with its daring, laugh at its jokes, admire its self-admiration, recall their own student years with a sigh of suppressed envy. But in Platonov there not only was none of this customary wagging of the tail before youth, but, on the contrary, there was to be felt a certain abstracted, calm and polite indifference.
Besides that, Sobashnikov was angered--and angered with a petty, jealous vexation--by that simple and yet anticipatory attention which was shown to the reporter by everybody in the establishment, beginning with the porter and ending with the fleshy, taciturn Katie. This attention was shown in the way he was listened to, in that triumphal carefulness with which Tamara filled his glass, and in the way Little White Manka pared a pear for him solicitously, and in the delight of Zoe, who had caught the case skillfully thrown to her across the table by the reporter, when she had vainly asked for a cigarette from her two neighbors, who were lost in conversation; and in the way none of the girls begged either chocolate or fruits from him, in the lively gratitude for his little services and his treating. "Pimp!" Sobashkinov had almost decided mentally with malice, but did not believe it even himself --the reporter was altogether too homely and too carelessly dressed, and moreover he bore himself with great dignity.
Platonov again made believe that he had not heard the insolent remark made by the student. He only nervously crumpled a napkin in his fingers and lightly threw it aside from him. And again his eyelids quivered in the direction of Boris Sobashnikov.
"Yes, true, I am one of the family here," he continued calmly, moving his glass in slow circles on the table. "Just think, I dined in this very house, day after day, for exactly four months."
"No? Seriously?" Yarchenko wondered and laughed.
"In all seriousness. The table here isn't at all bad, by the way. The food is filling and savory, although exceedingly greasy."
"But how did you ever..."
"Why, just because I was tutoring for high school a daughter of Anna Markovna, the lady of this hospitable house. Well, I stipulated that part of my monthly pay should be deducted for my dinners."
"What a strange fancy!" said Yarchenko. "And did you do this of your own will? Or ... Pardon me, I am afraid of seeming indiscreet to you ... Perhaps at that time ... extreme necessity? ..."
"Not at all. Anna Markovna soaked me three times as much as it would have cost in a student's dining room. I simply wanted to live here a while on a somewhat nearer, closer footing, to enter intimately into this little world, so to speak."
"A-ah! It seems I am beginning to understand!" beamed Yarchenko. "Our new friend--pardon me for the little familiarity--is, apparently, gathering material from life? And, perhaps, in a few years we will have the pleasure of reading ..."
"A t-r-ragedy out of a brothel!" Boris Sobashnikov put in loudly, like an actor.
While the reporter had been answering Yarchenko, Tamara quietly got up from her place, walked around the table, and, bending down over Sobashnikov, spoke in a whisper in his ear:
"Dearie, sweetie, you'd better not touch this gentleman. Honest to God, it will be better for you, even."
"Wass that?" the student looked at her superciliously, fixing his pince-nez with two spread fingers. "Is he your lover? Your pimp?"
"I swear by anything you want that not once in his life has he stayed with any one of us. But, I repeat, don't pick on him."
"Why, yes! Why, of course!" retorted Sobashnikov, grimacing scornfully. "He has such a splendid defense as the entire brothel. And it's a sure thing that all the bouncers on Yamskaya are his near friends and cronies."
"No, not that," retorted Tamara in a kind whisper. "Only he'll take you by the collar and throw you out of the window, like a puppy. I've already seen such an aerial flight. God forbid its happening to anyone. It's disgraceful, and bad for the health."
"Get out of here, you filth!" yelled Sobashnikov, swinging his elbow at her.
"I'm going, dearie," meekly answered Tamara, and walked away from him with her light step.
Everybody for an instant turned toward the student.
"Behave yourself, barberry!" Lichonin threatened him with his finger. "Well, well, go on," he begged the reporter; "all that you're saying is so interesting."
"No, I'm not gathering anything," continued the reporter calmly and seriously. "But the material here is in reality tremendous, downright crushing, terrible ... And not at all terrible are the loud phrases about the traffic in women's flesh, about the white slaves, about prostitution being a corroding fester of large cities, and so on, and so on ... an old hurdy-gurdy of which all have tired! No, horrible are the everyday, accustomed trifles, these business-like, daily, commercial reckonings, this thousand year old science of amatory practice, this prosaic usage, determined by the ages. In these unnoticeable nothings are completely dissolved such feelings as resentment, humiliation, shame. There remains a dry profession, a contract, an agreement, a well-nigh honest petty trade, no better, no worse than, say, the trade in groceries. Do you understand, gentlemen, that all the horror is in just this, that there is no horror! Bourgeois work days--and that is all. And also an after taste of an exclusive educational institution, with its naivete, harshness, sentimentality and imitativeness."
"That's right," confirmed Lichonin, while the reporter continued, gazing pensively into his glass:
"We read in the papers, in leading articles, various wailings of anxious souls. And the women-physicians are also endeavouring in this matter, and endeavouring disgustingly enough. 'Oh, dear, regulation! Oh, dear, abolition! Oh, dear, live merchandise! A condition of slavery! The mesdames, these greedy haeterae! These heinous degenerates of humanity, sucking the blood of prostitutes!' ... But with clamour you will scare no one and will affect no one. You know, there's a little saying: much cry, little wool. More awful than all awful words--a hundredfold more awful-- is some such little prosaic stroke or other as will suddenly knock you all in a heap, like a blow on the forehead. Take even Simeon, the porter here. It would seem, according to you, there is no sinking lower--a bouncer in a brothel, a brute, almost certainly a murderer, he plucks the prostitutes, gives them "black eyes," to use a local expression--that is, just simply beats them. But, do you know on what grounds he and I came together and became friendly? On the magnificent details of the divine service of the prelate, on the canon of the honest Andrew, pastor of Crete, on the works of the most beatific father, John the Damascene. He is religious--unusually so! I used to lead him on, and he would sing to me with tears in his eyes: 'Come ye brethren, and we will give the last kiss to him who has gone to his rest...' From the ritual of the burial of laymen. No, just think: it is only in the Russian soul alone that such contradictions may dwell together!"
"Yes. A fellow like that will pray, and pray, then cut a throat, and then wash his hands and put a candle before an image," said Ramses.
"Just so. I know of nothing more uncanny than this fusion of fully sincere devoutness with an innate leaning toward crime. Shall I confess to you? I, when I talk all alone to Simeon--and we talk with each other long and leisurely, for hours--I experience at moments a genuine terror. A superstitious terror! Just as though, for instance, I am standing in the dusk upon a shaking little board, bending over some dark, malodorous well, and just barely distinguish how there, at the bottom, reptiles are stirring. And yet, he is devout in a real way, and I am sure will some time join the monks and will be a great faster and sayer of prayers, and the devil knows how, in what monstrous fashion, a real religious ecstasy will entwine in his soul with blasphemy, with scoffing at sacred things, with some repulsive passion or other, with sadism or something else of that nature!"
"However, you do not spare the object of your observations," said Yarchenko, and carefully indicated the girls with his eyes.
"Eh, it's all the same. Our relations are cool now."
"How so?" asked Volodya Pavlov, who had caught the end of the conversation.
"Just so ... It isn't even worth the telling..." smiled the reporter evasively. "A trifle ... Let's have your glass here, Mr. Yarchenko."
But the precipitate Niura, who could never keep her tongue behind her teeth, suddenly shot oat in rapid patter:
"It's because Sergei Ivanich gave him one in the snout ... On account of Ninka. A certain old man came to Ninka ... And stayed for the night ... And Ninka had the flowers ... And the old man was torturing her all the time ... So Ninka started crying and ran away." [Footnote: The Russian expression is "the red flag."-- TRANS.]
"Drop it, Niura; it's boring," said Platonov with a wry face.
"Can it!" (leave off) ordered Tamara severely, in the jargon of houses of prostitution.
But it was impossible to stop Niura, who had gotten a running start.
"But Ninka says: 'I,' she says, 'won't stay with him for anything, though you cut me all to pieces ... He,' she says, 'has made me all wet with his spit.' Well, the old man complained to the porter, to be sure, and the porter starts in to beat up Ninka, to be sure. And Sergei Ivanich at this time was writing for me a letter home, to the province, and when he heard that Ninka was hollering..."
"Zoe, shut her mouth!" said Platonov.
"He just jumped up at once and ... app! ..." and Niura's torrent instantly broke off, stopped up by Zoe's palm.
Everybody burst out laughing, only Boris Sobashnikov muttered under cover of the noise with a contemptuous look:
"Oh, chevalier sans peur et sans reproche!"
He was already pretty far gone in drink, stood leaning against the wall, in a provoking pose, and was nervously chewing a cigarette.
"Which Ninka is this?" asked Yarchenko with curiosity. "Is she here?"
"No, she isn't here. Such a small, pug-nosed little girl. Naive and very angry." The reporter suddenly and sincerely burst into laughter. "Excuse me ... It's just so ... over my thoughts," explained he through laughter. "I recalled this old man very vividly just now, as he was running along the corridor in fright, having grabbed his outer clothing and shoes ... Such a respectable ancient, with the appearance of an apostle, I even know where he serves. Why, all of you know him. But the funniest of all was when he, at last, felt himself out of danger in the drawing room. You understand--he is sitting on a chair, putting on his pantaloons, can't put his foot where it ought to go, by any means, and bawls all over the house: 'It's an outrage! This is an abominable dive! I'll show you up! ... To-morrow I'll give you twenty-four hours to clear out! ... Do you know, this combination of pitiful helplessness with the threatening cries was so killing that even the gloomy Simeon started laughing ... Well, now, apropos of Simeon ... I say, that life dumfounds, with its wondrous muddle and farrago, makes one stand aghast. You can utter a thousand sonorous words against souteneurs, but just such a Simeon you will never think up. So diverse and motley is life! Or else take Anna Markovna, the proprietress of this place. This blood-sucker, hyena, vixen and so on ... is the tenderest mother imaginable. She has one daughter--Bertha, she is now in the fifth grade of high school. If you could only see how much careful attention, how much tender care Anna Markovna expends that her daughter may not somehow, accidentally, find out about her profession. And everything is for Birdie, everything is for the sake of Birdie. And she herself dare not even converse before her, is afraid of her lexicon of a bawd and an erstwhile prostitute, looks into her eyes, holds herself servilely, like an old servant, like a foolish, doting nurse, like an old, faithful, mange-eaten poodle. It is long since time for her to retire to rest, because she has money, and because her occupation is both arduous and troublesome, and because her years are already venerable. But no and no; one more extra thousand is needed, and then more and more--everything for Birdie. And so Birdie has horses, Birdie has an English governess, Birdie is every year taken abroad, Birdie has diamonds worth forty thousand--the devil knows whose they are, these diamonds? And it isn't that I am merely convinced, but I know well, that for the happiness of this same Birdie, nay, not even for her happiness, but, let us suppose that Birdie gets a hangnail on her little finger--well then, in order that this hangnail might pass away--imagine for a second the possibility of such a state of things!--Anna Markovna, without the quiver of an eyelash, will sell into corruption our sisters and daughters, will infect all of us and our sons with syphilis. What? A monster, you will say? But I will say that she is moved by the same grand, unreasoning, blind, egoistical love for which we call our mothers sainted women."
"Go easy around the curves!" remarked Boris Sobashnikov through his teeth.
"Pardon me: I was not comparing people, but merely generalizing on the first source of emotion. I might have brought out as an example the self-denying love of animal-mothers as well. But I see that I have started on a tedious matter. Better let's drop it."
"No, you finish," protested Lichonin. "I feel that you have a massive thought."
"And a very simple one. The other day a professor asked me if I am not observing the life here with some literary aims. And all I wanted to say was, that I can see, but precisely can not observe. Here I have given you Simeon and the bawd for example. I do not know myself why, but I feel that in them lurks some terrible, insuperable actuality of life, but either to tell it, or to show it, I can not. Here is necessary the great ability to take some picayune trifle, an insignificant, paltry little stroke, and then will result a dreadful truth, from which the reader, aghast, will forget that his mouth is agape. People seek the terrible in words, in cries, in gestures. Well, now, for example, I am reading a description of some pogrom or of a slaughter in jail, or of a riot being put down. Of course, the policemen are described, these servants of arbitrariness, these lifeguards of contemporaneousness, striding up to their knees in blood, or how else do they write in such cases? Of course, it is revolting and it hurts, and is disgusting, but all this is felt by the mind, and not the heart. But here I am walking along Lebyazhia Street, and see that a crowd has collected, a girl of five years in the centre--she has lagged behind the mother and has strayed, or it may be that the mother had abandoned her. And before the girl, squatting down on his heels, is a roundsman. He is interrogating her, how she is called, and where is she from, and how do they call papa, and how do they call mamma. He has broken out into sweat, the poor fellow, from the effort, the cap is at the back of his neck, the whiskered face is such a kindly and woeful and helpless one, while the voice is gentle, so gentle. At last, what do you think? As the girl has become all excited, and has already grown hoarse from tears, and is shy of everybody--he, this same 'roundsman on the beat,' stretches out two of his black, calloused fingers, the index and the little, and begins to imitate a nanny goat for the girl and reciting an appropriate nursery rhyme! ... And so, when I looked upon this charming scene and thought that half an hour later at the station house this same patrolman will be beating with his feet the face and chest of a man whom he had not till that time seen once, and whose crime he is entirely ignorant of--then--you understand!--I began to feel inexpressibly eerie and sad. Not with the mind, but the heart. Such a devilish muddle is this life. Shall we drink some cognac, Lichonin?"
"What do you say to calling each other thou?" suddenly proposed Lichonin.
"All right. Only, really, without any of this business of kissing, now. Here's to your health, old man ... Or here is another instance ... I read a certain French classic, describing the thoughts and sensations of a man condemned to capital punishment. He describes it all sonorously, powerfully, brilliantly, but I read and ... well, there is no impression of any sort; neither emotion nor indignation--just ennui. But then, within the last few days I come across a brief newspaper notice of a murderer's execution somewhere in France. The Procureur, who was present at the last toilet of the criminal, sees that he is putting on his shoes on his bare feet, and--the blockhead!--reminds him: 'What about the socks?' But the other gives him a look and says, sort of thoughtfully: 'Is it worth while?' Do you understand, these two remarks, so very short, struck me like a blow on the skull! At once all the horror and all the stupidity of unnatural death were revealed to me ... Or here is something else about death ... A certain friend of mine died, a captain in the infantry--a drunkard, a vagabond, and the finest soul in the world. For some reason we called him the Electrical Captain. I was in the vicinity, and it fell to me to dress him for the last parade. I took his uniform and began to attach the epaulettes to it. There's a cord, you know, that's drawn through the shank of the epaulette buttons, and after that the two ends of this cord are shoved through two little holes under the collar, and on the inside--the lining--are tied together. Well, I go through all this business, and tie the cord with a slipknot, and, you know, the loop won't come out, nohow--either it's too loosely tied, or else one end's too short. I am fussing over this nonsense, and suddenly into my head comes the most astonishingly simple thought, that it's far simpler and quicker to tie it in a knot--for after all, it's all the same, no one is going to untie it. And immediately I felt death with all my being. Until that time I had seen the captain's eyes, grown glassy, had felt his cold forehead, and still somehow had not sensed death to the full, but I thought of the knot--and I was all transpierced, and the simple and sad realization of the irrevocable, inevitable perishing of all our words, deeds, and sensations, of the perishing of all the apparent world, seemed to bow me down to the earth ... And I could bring forward a hundred such small but staggering trifles ... Even, say, about what people experienced in the war ... But I want to lead my thought up to one thing. We all pass by these characteristic trifles indifferently, like the blind, as though not seeing them scattered about under our feet. But an artist will come, and he will look over them carefully, and he will pick them up. And suddenly he will so skillfully turn in the sun a minute bit of life that we shall all cry out: 'Oh, my God! But I myself--myself--have seen this with my own eyes. Only it simply did not enter my head to turn my close attention upon it.' But our Russian artists of the word--the most conscientious and sincere artists in the whole world--for some reason have up to this time passed over prostitution and the brothel. Why? Really, it is difficult for me to answer that. Perhaps because of squeamishness, perhaps because of pusillanimity, out of fear of being signalized as a pornographic writer; finally, from the apprehension that our gossiping criticism will identify the artistic work of the writer with his personal life and will start rummaging in his dirty linen. Or perhaps they can find neither the time, nor the self-denial, nor the self-possession to plunge in head first into this life and to watch it right up close, without prejudice, without sonorous phrases, without a sheepish pity, in all its monstrous simplicity and every-day activity. Oh, what a tremendous, staggering and truthful book would result!"
"But they do write!" unwillingly remarked Ramses.
"They do write," wearily repeated Platonov in the same tone as he. "But it is all either a lie, or theatrical effects for children of tender years, or else a cunning symbolism, comprehensible only to the sages of the future. But the life itself no one as yet has touched. One big writer--a man with a crystal-pure soul and a remarkable talent for delineation--once approached this theme, [Footnote: The reference here is most probably to Chekhov.-- TRANS.] and then all that could catch the eye of an outsider was reflected in his soul, as in a wondrous mirror. But he could not decide to lie to and to frighten people. He only looked upon the coarse hair of the porter, like that of a dog, and reflected: 'But, surely, even he had a mother.' He passed with his wise, exact gaze over the faces of the prostitutes and impressed them on his mind. But that which he did not know he did not dare to write. It is remarkable, that this same writer, enchanting with his honesty and truthfulness, has looked at the moujik as well, more than once. But he sensed that both the tongue and the turn of mind, as well as the soul of the people, were for him dark and incomprehensible ... And he, with an amazing tact, modestly went around the soul of the people, but refracted all his fund of splendid observation through the eyes of townsfolk. I have brought this up purposely. With us, you see, they write about detectives, about lawyers, about inspectors of the revenue, about pedagogues, about attorneys, about the police, about officers, about sensual ladies, about engineers, about baritones--and really, by God, altogether well--cleverly, with finesse and talent. But, after all, all these people, are rubbish, and their life is not life but some sort of conjured up, spectral, unnecessary delirium of world culture. But there are two singular realities--ancient as humanity itself: the prostitute and the moujik. And about them we know nothing save some tinsel, gingerbread, debauched depictions in literature. I ask you: what has Russian literature extracted out of all the nightmare of prostitution? Sonechka Marmeladova alone. [Footnote: The heroine of Dostoievsky's "Crime and Punishment." --Trans.] What has it given us about the moujik save odious, false, nationalistic pastorals? One, altogether but one, but then, in truth, the greatest work in all the world--a staggering tragedy, the truthfulness of which takes the breath away and makes the hair stand on end. You know what I am speaking of ..."
"'The little claw is sunk in...'" [Footnote: "The little claw is sunk in, the whole bird is bound to perish"--a folk proverb used by Tolstoi as a sub-title to his "The Power of Darkness."--Trans.] quietly prompted Lichonin.
"Yes," answered the reporter, and looked kindly at the student with gratefulness.
"But as regards Sonechka--why, this is an abstract type," remarked Yarchenko with assurance. "A psychological scheme, so to speak ..."
Platonov, who up to now had been speaking as though unwillingly, at a slow rate, suddenly grew heated:
"A hundred times have I heard this opinion, a hundred times! And it is entirely an untruth. Underneath the coarse and obscene profession, underneath the foulest oaths--about one's mother-- underneath the drunken, hideous exterior--Sonechka Marmeladova still lives! The fate of the Russian prostitute--oh, what a tragic, piteous, bloody, ludicrous and stupid path it is! Here everything has been juxtaposed: the Russian God, Russian breadth and unconcern, Russian despair in a fall, Russian lack of culture, Russian naivete, Russian patience, Russian shamelessness. Why, all of them, whom you take into bedrooms,--look upon them, look upon them well,--why, they are all children; why, each of them is but eleven years old. Fate has thrust them upon prostitution and since then they live in some sort of a strange, fairy-like, toy existence, without developing, without being enriched by experience, naive, trusting, capricious, not knowing what they will say and do half an hour later--altogether like children. This radiant and ludicrous childishness I have seen in the very oldest wenches, fallen as low as low can be, broken-winded and crippled like a cabby's nags. And never does this impotent pity, this useless commiseration toward human suffering die within them ... For example ..."
Platonov looked over all the persons sitting with a slow gaze, and suddenly, waving his hand despondently, said in a tired voice:
"However ... The devil take it all! To-day I have spoken enough for ten years ... And all of it to no purpose."
"But really, Sergei Ivanich, why shouldn't you try to describe all this yourself?" asked Yarchenko. "Your attention is so vitally concentrated on this question."
"I did try!" answered Platonov with a cheerless smile. "But nothing came of it. I started writing and at once became entangled in various 'whats,' 'which's,' 'was's.' The epithets prove flat. The words grow cold on the page. It's all a cud of some sort. Do you know, Terekhov was here once, while passing through ... You know ... The well-known one ... I came to him and started in telling him lots and lots about the life here, which I do not tell you for fear of boring you. I begged him to utilize my material. He heard me out with great attention, and this is what he said, literally: 'Don't get offended, Platonov, if I tell you that there's almost not a single person of those I have met during my life, who wouldn't thrust themes for novels and stories upon me, or teach me as to what ought to be written up. That material which you have just communicated to me is truly unencompassable in its significance and weightiness. But what shall I do with it? In order to write a colossal book such as the one you have in mind, the words of others do not suffice--even though they be the most exact--even observations, made with a little note-book and a bit of pencil, do not suffice. One must grow accustomed to this life, without being cunningly wise, without any ulterior thoughts of writing. Then a terrific book will result.'
"His words discouraged me and at the same time gave me wings. Since that time I believe, that now, not soon--after fifty years or so--but there will come a writer of genius, and precisely a Russian one, who will absorb within himself all the burdens and all the abominations of this life and will cast them forth to us in the form of simple, fine, and deathlessly-caustic images. And we shall all say: 'Why, now, we, ourselves, have seen and known all this, but we could not even suppose that this is so horrible!' In this coming artist I believe with all my heart."
"Amen!" said Lichonin seriously. "Let us drink to him."
"But, honest to God," suddenly declared Little Manka, "If some one would only write the truth about the way we live here, miserable w--that we are..."
There was a knock at the door, and at once Jennie entered in her resplendent orange dress.