Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
Immediately at the entrance to a suburban cabaret an artificial flower bed shone with vari-colored lights, with electric bulbs instead of flowers; and just such another fiery alley of wide, half-round arches, narrowing toward the end, led away from it into the depths of the garden. Further on was a broad, small square, strewn with yellow sand; to the left an open stage, a theatre, and a shooting gallery; straight ahead a stand for the military band (in the form of a seashell) and little booths with flowers and beer; to the right the long terrace of the restaurant. Electric globes from their high masts illuminated the small square with a pale, dead-white brightness. Against their frosted glass, with wire nets stretched over them, beat clouds of night moths, whose shadows--confused and large--hovered below, on the ground. Hungry women, too lightly, dressily, and fancifully attired, preserving on their faces an expression of care-free merriment or haughty, offended unapproachability, strolled back and forth in pairs, with a walk already tired and dragging.
All the tables in the restaurant were taken--and over them floated the continuous noise of knives upon plates and a motley babel, galloping in waves. It smelt of rich and pungent kitchen fumes. In the middle of the restaurant, upon a stand, Roumanians in red frocks were playing; all swarthy, white-toothed, with the faces of whiskered, pomaded apes, with their hair licked down. The director of the orchestra, bending forward and affectedly swaying, was playing upon a violin and making unseemly sweet eyes at the public--the eyes of a man-prostitute. And everything together-- this abundance of tiresome electric lights, the exaggeratedly bright toilettes of the ladies, the odours of modish, spicy perfumes, this ringing music, with willful slowings up of the tempo, with voluptuous swoonings in the transitions, with the tempestuous passages screwed up--everything fitted the one to the other, forming a general picture of insane and stupid luxury, a setting for an imitation of a gay, unseemly carouse.
Above, around the entire hall, ran open galleries, upon which, as upon little balconies, opened the doors of the private cabinets. In one of these cabinets four were sitting--two ladies and two men; an artiste known to all Russia, the cantatrice Rovinskaya, a large, handsome woman, with long, green, Egyptian eyes, and a long, red, sensuous mouth, the lips of which were rapaciously drooping at the corners; the baroness Tefting, little, exquisite, pale--she was everywhere seen with the artiste; the famous lawyer Ryazanov; and Volodya Chaplinsky, a rich young man of the world, a composer-dilettante, the author of several darling little ballads and many witticisms upon the topics of the day, which circulated all over town.
The walls of the cabinet were red, with a gold design. On the table, among the lighted candelabra, two white, tarred necks of bottles stuck up out of an electroplated vase, which had sweated from the cold, and the light in a tenuous gold played in the shallow goblets of wine. Outside, near the doors, a waiter was on duty, leaning against the wall; while the stout, tall, important maitre d'hotel, on whose right little finger, always sticking out, sparkled a huge diamond, would frequently stop at these doors, and attentively listen with one ear to what was going on in the cabinet.
The baroness, with a bored, pale face, was listlessly gazing through a lorgnette down at the droning, chewing, swarming crowd. Among the red, white, blue and straw-coloured feminine dresses the uniform figures of the men resembled large, squat, black beetles. Rovinskaya negligently, yet at the same time intently as well, was looking down upon the stand and the spectators, and her face expressed fatigue, ennui, and perhaps also that satiation with all spectacles, which are such matters of course to celebrities. The splendid, long, slender fingers of her left hand were lying upon the crimson velvet of the box-seat. Emeralds of a rare beauty hung upon them so negligently that it seemed as though they would fall off at any second, and suddenly she began laughing.
"Look" she said; "what a funny figure, or, to put it more correctly, what a funny profession! There, there, that one who's playing on a 'syrinx of seven reeds.'"
Everyone looked in the direction of her hand. And really, the picture was funny enough. Behind the Roumanian orchestra was sitting a stout, whiskered man, probably the father, and perhaps even the grandfather, of a numerous family, and with all his might was whistling into seven little pipes glued together. As it was difficult for him, probably, to move this instrument between his lips, he therefore, with an unusual rapidity, turned his head now to the left, now to the right.
"An amazing occupation," said Rovinskaya. "Well now, Chaplinsky, you try to toss your head about like that."
Volodya Chaplinsky, secretly and hopelessly in love with the artiste, immediately began obediently and zealously to do this, but after half a minute desisted.
"It's impossible," he said, "either long training, or, perhaps, hereditary abilities, are necessary for this."
The baroness during this time was tearing away the petals of her rose and throwing them into a goblet; then, with difficulty suppressing a yawn, she said, making just the least bit of a wry face:
"But, my God, how drearily they divert themselves in our K--! Look: no laughter, no singing, no dances. Just like some herd that's been driven here, in order to be gay on purpose!"
Ryazanov listlessly took his goblet, sipped it a little, and answered apathetically in his enchanting voice:
"Well, and is it any gayer in your Paris, or Nice? Why, it must be confessed--mirth, youth and laughter have vanished forever out of human life, and it is scarcely possible that they will ever return. One must regard people with more patience, it seems to me. Who knows, perhaps for all those sitting here, below, the present evening is a rest, a holiday?"
"The speech for the defense," put in Chaplinsky in his calm manner.
But Rovinskaya quickly turned around to the men, and her long emerald eyes narrowed. And this with her served as a sign of wrath, from which even crowned personages committed follies at times. However, she immediately restrained herself and continued languidly:
"I don't understand what you are talking about. I don't understand even what we came here for. For there are no longer any spectacles in the world. Now I, for instance, have seen bull-fights in Seville, Madrid and Marseilles--an exhibition which does not evoke anything save loathing. I have also seen boxing and wrestling nastiness and brutality. I also happened to participate in a tiger hunt, at which I sat under a baldachin on the back of a big, wise white elephant ... in a word, you all know this well yourselves. And out of all my great, chequered, noisy life, from which I have grown old ..."
"Oh, what are you saying, Ellena Victorovna!" said Chaplinsky with a tender reproach.
"Abandon compliments, Volodya! I know myself that I'm still young and beautiful of body, but, really, it seems to me at times that I am ninety. So worn out has my soul become. I continue. I say, that during all my life only three strong impressions have sunk into my soul. The first, while still a girl, when I saw a cat stealing upon a cock-sparrow, and I with horror and with interest watched its movements and the vigilant gaze of the bird. Up to this time I don't know myself which I sympathized with more: the skill of the cat or the slipperiness of the sparrow. The cock-sparrow proved the quicker. In a moment he flew up on a tree and began from there to pour down upon the cat such sparrow swearing that I would have turned red for shame if I had understood even one word. While the cat, as though it had been wronged, stuck up its tail like a chimney and tried to pretend to itself that nothing out of the way had taken place. Another time I had to sing in an opera a duet with a certain great artist ..."
"With whom?" asked the baroness quickly.
"Isn't it all the same? Of what need names? And so, when he and I were singing, I felt all of me in the sway of genius. How wonderfully, into what a marvelous harmony, did our voices blend! Ah! It is impossible to describe this impression. Probably, it happens but once in a lifetime. According to the role, I had to weep, and I wept with sincere, genuine tears. And when, after the curtain, he walked up to me and patted my hair with his big warm hand and with his enchanting, radiant smile said, 'Splendid! for the first time in my life have I sung so' ... and so I--and I am a very proud being--I kissed his hand. And the tears were still standing in my eyes ..."
"And the third?" asked the baroness, and her eyes lit up with the evil sparks of jealousy.
"Ah, the third," answered the artiste sadly, "the third is as simple as simple can be. During the last season I lived at Nice, and so I saw Carmen on the open stage at Frejus with the anticipation of Cecile Ketten, who is now," the artiste earnestly made the sign of the cross, "dead--I don't really know, fortunately or unfortunately for herself?"
Suddenly, in a moment, her magnificent eyes filled with tears and began to shine with a magic green light, such as the evening star gives forth, on warm summer twilights. She turned her face around to the stage, and for some time her long, nervous fingers convulsively squeezed the upholstery of the barrier of the box. But when she again turned around to her friends, her eyes were already dry, and the enigmatic, vicious and wilful lips were resplendent with an unconstrained smile.
Then Ryazanov asked her politely, in a tender but purposely calm tone:
"But then, Ellena Victorovna, your tremendous fame, admirers, the roar of the mob ... finally, that delight which you afford to your spectators. Is it possible that even this does not titillate your nerves?"
"No, Ryazanov," she answered in a tired voice. "You know no less than myself what this is worth. A brazen interviewer, who needs passes for his friends, and, by the way, twenty-five roubles in an envelope. High school boys and girls, students and young ladies attending courses, who beg you for autographed photographs. Some old blockhead with a general's rank, who hums loudly with me during my aria. The eternal whisper behind you, when you pass by: 'there she is, that same famous one!' Anonymous letters, the brazenness of back-stage habitues ... why, you can't enumerate everything! But surely, you yourself are often beset by female psychopathics of the court-room?"
"Yes," said Ryazanov decisively.
"That's all there is to it. But add to that the most terrible thing, that every time I have come to feel a genuine inspiration, I tormentingly feel on the spot the consciousness that I'm pretending and grimacing before people ... And the fear of the success of your rival? And the eternal dread of losing your voice, of straining it or catching a cold? The eternal tormenting bother of throat bandages? No, really, it is heavy to bear renown on one's shoulders."
"But the artistic fame?" retorted the lawyer. "The might of genius! This, verily, is a true moral might, which is above the might of any king on earth!"
"Yes, yes, of course you're right, my dear. But fame, celebrity, are sweet only at a distance, when you only dream about them. But when you have attained them you feel only their thorns. But then, with what anguish you feel every dram of their decrease. And I have forgotten to say something else. Why, we artists undergo a sentence at hard labour. In the morning, exercises; in the daytime, rehearsals; and then there's scarcely time for dinner and you're due for the performance. An hour or so for reading or such diversion as you and I are having now, may be snatched only by a miracle. And even so... the diversion is altogether of the mediocre..."
She negligently and wearily made a slight gesture with the fingers of the hand lying on the barrier.
Volodya Chaplinsky, agitated by this conversation, suddenly asked:
"Yes, but tell me, Ellena Victorovna, what would you want to distract your imagination and ennui?"
She looked at him with her enigmatic eyes and answered quietly, even a trifle shyly, it seemed:
"Formerly, people lived more gaily and did not know prejudices of any sort. Well, it seems to me that then I would have been in my place and would have lived with a full life. O, ancient Rome!"
No one understood her, save Ryazanov, who, without looking at her, slowly pronounced in his velvety voice, like that of an actor, the classical, universally familiar, Latin phrase:
"Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant!"
"Precisely! I love you very much, Ryazanov, because you are a clever child. You will always catch a thought in its flight; although, I must say, that this isn't an especially high property of the mind. And really, two beings come together, the friends of yesterday, who had conversed with each other and eaten at the same table, and this day one of them must perish. You understand depart from life forever. But they have neither malice nor fear. There is the most real, magnificent spectacle, which I can only picture to myself!"
"How much cruelty there is in you," said the baroness meditatively.
"Well, nothing can be done about it now! My ancestors were cavaliers and robbers. However, shan't we go away now?"
They all went out of the garden. Volodya Chaplinsky ordered his automobile called. Ellena Victorovna was leaning upon his arm. And suddenly she asked:
"Tell me, Volodya, where do you usually go when you take leave of so-called decent women?"
Volodya hemmed and hawed. However, he knew positively that he could not lie to Rovinskaya.
"M-m-m ... I'm afraid of offending your hearing. To the Tzigani, for instance ... to night cabarets ..."
"And somewhere else? Worse?"
"Really, you put me in an awkward position. From the time that I've become so madly in love with you ..."
"Leave out the romancingl"
"Well, how shall I say it?" murmured Volodya, feeling that he was turning red, not only in the face, but with his body, his back. "Well, of course, to the women. Now, of course, this does not occur with me personally ..."
Rovinskaya maliciously pressed Chaplinsky's elbow to her side.
"To a brothel?"
Volodya did not answer anything. Then she said:
"And so, you'll carry us at once over there in the automobile and acquaint us with this existence, which is foreign to me. But remember, that I rely upon your protection."
The remaining two agreed to this, unwillingly, in all probability; but there was no possibility of opposing Ellena Victorovna. She always did everything that she wanted to. And then they had all heard and knew that in Petersburg carousing worldly ladies, and even girls, permit themselves, out of a modish snobbism, pranks far worse than the one which Rovinskaya had proposed.