Part One
Chapter XII.
 

Of the girls only two remained in the cabinet-Jennie, who had come in her night blouse, and Liuba, who had long been sleeping under cover of the conversation, curled up into a ball in the large plush armchair. The fresh, freckled face of Liuba had taken on a meek, almost childlike, expression, while the lips, just as they had smiled in sleep, had preserved the light imprint of a radiant, peaceful and tender smile. It was blue and biting in the cabinet from the dense tobacco smoke; guttered, warty little streams had congealed on the candles in the candelabras; the table, flooded with coffee and wine, scattered all over with orange peels, seemed hideous.

Jennie was sitting on the divan, her knees clasped around with her arms. And again was Platonov struck by the sombre fire in her deep eyes, that seemed fallen in underneath the dark eyebrows, formidably contracted downward, toward the bridge of the nose.

"I'll put out the candles," said Lichonin.

The morning half-light, watery and drowsy, filled the room through the slits of the blinds. The extinguished wicks of the candles smoked with faint streams. The tobacco smoke swirled in blue, layered shrouds, but a ray of sunlight that had cut its way through the heart-shaped hollow in a window shutter, transpierced the cabinet obliquely with a joyous, golden sword of dust, and in liquid, hot gold splashed upon the paper on the wall.

"That's better," said Lichonin, sitting down. "The conversation will be short, but ... the devil knows ... how to approach it."

He looked at Jennie in abstraction.

"Shall I go away, then?" said she indifferently.

"No, you sit a while," the reporter answered for Lichonin. "She won't be in the way," he turned to the student and slightly smiled. "For the conversation will be about prostitution? Isn't that so?"

"Well, yes... sort of..."

"Very well, then. You listen to her carefully. Her opinions happen to be of an unusually cynical nature, but at times of exceeding weight."

Lichonin vigorously rubbed and kneaded his face with his palms, then intertwined his fingers and nervously cracked them twice. It was apparent that he was agitated and was himself constrained about that which he was getting ready to say.

"Oh, but isn't it all the same!" he suddenly exclaimed angrily. "You were to-day speaking about these women ... I listened... True, you haven't told me anything new. But-strangely-I, for some reason, as though for the first time in my loose life, have looked upon this question with open eyes... I ask you, what is prostitution in the end? What is it? The extravagant delirium of large cities, or an eternal historical phenomenon? Will it cease some time? Or will it die only with the death of all mankind? Who will answer me that?"

Platonov was looking at him intently, narrowing his eyes slightly, through habit. He wanted to know what main thought was inflicting such sincere torture on Lichonin.

"When it will cease, none will tell you. Perhaps when the magnificent Utopias of the socialists and anarchists will materialize, when the world will become everyone's and no one's, when love will be absolutely free and subject only to its own unlimited desires, while mankind will fuse into one happy family, wherein will perish the distinction between mine and thine, and there will come a paradise upon earth, and man will again become naked, glorified and without sin. Perhaps it may be then..."

"But now? Now?" asks Lichonin with growing agitation. "Shall I look on, with my little hands folded? 'It's none of my affair?' Tolerate it as an unavoidable evil? Put up with it, and wash my hands of it? Shall I pronounce a benediction upon it?"

"This evil is not unavoidable, but insuperable. But isn't it all the same to you?" asked Platonov with cold wonder. "For you're an anarchist, aren't you?"

"What the devil kind of an anarchist am I! Well, yes, I am an anarchist, because my reason, when I think of life, always leads me logically to the anarchistic beginning. And I myself think in theory: let men beat, deceive, and fleece men, like flocks of sheep--let them!--violence will breed rancour sooner or later. Let them violate the child, let them trample creative thought under foot, let there be slavery, let there be prostitution, let them thieve, mock, spill blood...Let them! The worse, the better, the nearer the end. There is a great law, I think, the same for inanimate objects as well as for all the tremendous and many- millioned human life: the power of effort is equal to the power of resistance. The worse, the better. Let evil and vindictiveness accumulate in mankind, let them grow and ripen like a monstrous abscess--an abscess the size of the whole terrestrial sphere. For it will burst some time! And let there be terror and insufferable pain. Let the pus deluge all the universe. But mankind will either choke in it and perish, or, having gone through the illness, will be regenerated to a new, beautiful life."

Lichonin avidly drank off a cup of cold black coffee and continued vehemently:

"Yes. Just so do I and many others theorize, sitting in our rooms, over tea with white bread and cooked sausage, when the value of each separate human life is so-so, an infinitesimally small numeral in a mathematical formula. But let me see a child abused, and the red blood will rush to my head from rage. And when I look and look upon the labour of a moujik or a labourer, I am thrown into hysterics for shame at my algebraic calculations. There is-- the devil take it!--there is something incongruous, altogether illogical, but which at this time is stronger than human reason. Take to-day, now ... Why do I feel at this minute as though I had robbed a sleeping man or deceived a three-year-old child, or hit a bound person? And why does it seem to me to-day that I myself am guilty of the evil of prostitution--guilty in my silence, my indifference, my indirect permission? What am I to do, Platonov!" exclaimed the student with grief in his voice.

Platonov kept silent, squinting at him with his little narrow eyes. But Jennie unexpectedly said in a caustic tone:

"Well, you do as one Englishwoman did ... A certain red-haired clodhopper came to us here. She must have been important, because she came with a whole retinue ... all some sort of officials ... But before her had come the assistant of the commissioner, with the precinct inspector Kerbesh. And the assistant directly forewarned us, just like that: 'If you stiffs, and so on and so on, will let out even one little rude word, or something, then I won't leave one stone upon another of your establishment, while I'll flog all the wenches soundly in the station-house and make 'em rot in jail!' Well, at last this galoot came. She gibbered and she gibbered something in a foreign language, all the time pointed to heaven with her hand, and then distributed a five-kopeck Testament to every one of us and rode away. Now you ought to do the same, dearie."

Platonov burst into loud laughter. But seeing the naive and sad face of Lichonin, who did not seem to understand, nor even suspect mockery, he restrained his laughter and said seriously:

"You won't accomplish anything, Lichonin. While there will be property, there will also be poverty. While marriage exists, prostitution also will not die. Do you know who will always sustain and nourish prostitution? It is the so-called decent people, the noble paterfamiliases, the irreproachable husbands, the loving brothers. They will always find a seemly motive to legitimize, normalize and put a wrapper all around paid libertinage, because they know very well that otherwise it would rush in a torrent into their bedrooms and nurseries. Prostitution is for them a deflection of the sensuousness of others from their personal, lawful alcove. And even the respectable paterfamilias himself is not averse to indulge in a love debauch in secret. And really, it is palling to have always the one and the same thing the wife, the chambermaid, and the lady on the side. Man, as a matter of fact, is a poly--and exceedingly so--a polygamous animal. And to his rooster-like amatory instincts it will always be sweet to unfold in such a magnificent nursery garden, a la Treppel's or Anna Markovna's. Oh, of course, a well-balanced spouse or the happy father of six grown-up daughters will always be clamouring about the horror of prostitution. He will even arrange with the help of a lottery and an amateur entertainment a society for the saving of fallen women, or an asylum in the name of St. Magdalene. But the existence of prostitution he will bless and sustain."

"Magdalene asylums!" with quiet laughter, full of an ancient hatred the ache of which had not yet healed, repeated Jennie.

"Yes, I know that all these false measures undertaken are stuff and a total mockery," cut in Lichonin. "But let me be ridiculous and stupid, yet I do not wish to remain a commiserating spectator, who sits on a warm ledge, gazes upon a conflagration, and is saying all the time: 'Oh, my, but it's burning ... by God, it is burning! Perhaps there are even people burning!'--but for his part merely laments and slaps his thighs."

"Well, now," said Platonov harshly, "would you take a child's syringe and go to put out the fire with it?"

"No!" heatedly exclaimed Lichonin ... "Perhaps--who knows?-- perhaps I'll succeed in saving at least one living soul? It was just this that I wanted to ask you about, Platonov, and you must help me ... Only, I implore you, without jeers, without cooling off ..."

"You want to take a girl out of here? To save her?" asked Platonov, looking at him attentively. He now understood the drift of this entire conversation.

"Yes ... I don't know ... I'll try ..." answered Lichonin uncertainly.

"She'll come back," said Platonov.

"She will," Jennie repeated with conviction.

Lichonin walked up to her, took her by the hands and began to speak in a trembling whisper:

"Jennechka ... Perhaps you ... eh? For I don't call you as a mistress ... but a friend ... It's all a trifle, half a year of rest ... and then we'll master some trade or other ... we'll read..."

Jennie snatched her hands out of his with vexation.

"Oh, into a bog with you!" she almost slouted. "I know you! Want me to darn socks for you? Cook on a kerosene stove? Pass nights without sleeping on account of you when you'll be chitter- chattering with your short-haired friends? But when you get to be a doctor or a lawyer, or a government clerk, then it's me will get a knee in the back: 'Out on the street with you, now, you public hide, you've ruined my young life. I want to marry a decent girl, pure, and innocent! ..."

"I meant it as a brother ... I meant it without that ..." mumbled Lichonin in confusion.

"I know that kind of brothers. Until the first night ... Leave off and don't talk nonsense to me! It makes me tired to listen to it!"

"Wait, Lichonin!" began the reporter seriously. "Why, you will pile a load beyond your strength upon yourself as well. I've known idealists, among the populists, who married peasant girls out of principle. This is just the way they thought--nature, black-loam, untapped forces. ... But this black-loam after a year turned into the fattest of women, who lies the whole day in bed and chews cookies, or studs her fingers with penny rings, spreads them out and admires them. Or else sits in the kitchen, drinks sweet liquor with the coachman and carries on a natural romance with him. Look out, here it will be worse!"

All three became silent. Lichonin was pale and was wiping his moist forehead with a handkerchief.

"No, the devil take it!" he cried out suddenly with obstinacy. "I don't believe you! I don't want to believe! Liuba" he called loudly the girl who had fallen asleep. "Liubochka!"

The girl awoke, passed her palm over her lips, first to one side, then the other, yawned, and smiled, in a funny, child-like manner.

"I wasn't sleeping, I heard everything," she said. "I only dozed off for a teeny-weeny bit."

"Liuba, do you want to go away from here with me?" asked Lichonin and took her by the hand. "But entirely, forever, to go away so's never to return either to a brothel or the street?"

Liuba questioningly, with perplexity, looked at Jennie, as though seeking from her an explanation of this jest.

"That's enough for you," she said slyly. "You're still studying yourself. Where do you come in, then, to take a girl and set her up?"

"Not to set you up, Liuba ... I simply want to help you ... For it isn't very sweet for you in a brothel, is it now!"

"Naturally, it isn't all sugar! If I was as proud as Jennechka, or so enticing like Pasha ... but I won't get used to things here for anything ..."

"Well, then, let's go, let's go! ..." entreated Lichonin. "Surely, you know some manual work--well, now, sewing something, embroidering, cutting?"

"I don't know anything!" answered Liuba bashfully and started laughing and turned red, covering her mouth with the elbow of her free arm. "What's asked of us in the village, that I know, but anything more I don't know. I can cook a little ... I lived at the priest's--cooked for him."

"That's splendid! That's excellent!" Lichonin grew joyous. "I will assist you, you'll open a dining room ... A cheap dining room, you understand ... I'll advertise it for you ... The students will come! That's magnificent! ..."

"That's enough of making fun of me!" retorted Liuba, a bit offended, and again looked askance and questioningly at Jennie.

"He's not joking," answered Jennie with a voice which quavered strangely. "He's in earnest, seriously."

"Here's my word of honour that I'm serious! Honest to God, now!" the student caught her up with warmth and for some reason even made the sign of the cross in the direction of the empty corner.

"And really," said Jennie, "take Liubka. That's not the same thing as taking me. I'm like an old dragoon's nag, and used to it. You can't make me over, neither with hay nor a stick. But Liubka is a simple girl and a kind one. And she hasn't grown used to our life yet. What are you popping your eyes out at me for, you ninny? Answer when you're asked. Well? Do you want to or don't you want to?"

"And why not? If they ain't laughing, but for real ... And you, Jennechka, what would you advise me ..."

"Oh, you're such wood!" Jennie grew angry. "What's better according to you--to rot on straw with a nose fallen through? To croak under the fence like a dog? Or to turn honest? Fool! You ought to kiss his hands; but no, you're getting particular."

The naive Liuba did, in fact, extend her lips toward Lichonin's hand, and this movement made everybody laugh, and touched them just the least trifle.

"And that's very good! It's like magic!" bustled the overjoyed Lichonin. "Go and notify the proprietress at once that you're going away from here forever. And take the most necessary things; it isn't as it used to be; now a girl can go away from a brothel whenever she wants to."

"No, it can't be done that way," Jennie stopped him; "she can go away, that's so, but you'll have no end of unpleasantness and hullabaloo. Here's what you do, student. You won't regret ten roubles?"

"Of course, of course ... if you please."

"Let Liuba tell the housekeeper that you're taking her to your rooms for to-day. That's the fixed rate--ten roubles. And afterwards, well, even to-morrow--come after the ticket and things. That's nothing; we'll work this thing roundly. And after that you must go to the police with her ticket and declare, that Liubka So-and-so has hired herself to you as chambermaid, and that you desire to exchange her blank for a real passport. Well, Liubka, lively! Take the money and march. And, look out, be as quick as possible with the housekeeper, or else she, the bitch, will read it in your eyes. And also don't forget," she cried, now after Liuba, "wipe the rouge off your puss, now. Or else the drivers will be pointing their fingers at you."

After half an hour Liuba and Lichonin were getting on a cab at the entrance. Jennie and the reporter were standing on the sidewalk.

"You're committing a great folly, Lichonin," Platonov was saying listlessly, "but I honour and respect the fine impulse within you. Here's the thought--and here's the deed. You're a brave and a splendid fellow."

"Here's to your commencement!" laughed Jennie. "Look out, don't forget to send for me to the christening."

"You won't see it, no matter how long you wait for it!" laughed Lichonin, waving his cap about.

They rode off. The reporter looked at Jennie, and with astonishment saw tears in her softened eyes.

"God grant it, God grant it," she was whispering.

"What has been the matter with you to-day, Jennie?" he asked kindly. "What? Are you oppressed? Can't I do anything?"

She turned her back to him and leaned over the bent balustrade of the stoop.

"How shall I write to you, if need be?" she asked in a stifled voice.

"Why, it's simple. Editorial rooms of Echoes. So-and-so. They'll pass it on to me pretty fast."

"I ... I ... I ..." Jennie just began, but suddenly burst into loud, passionate sobs and covered her face with her hands, "I'll write you ..."

And without taking her hands away from her face, her shoulders quivering, she ran up the stoop and disappeared in the house, loudly banging the door after her.