Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
On the way to Yamskaya Street Rovinskaya said to Chaplinsky:
"You'll bring me at first into the most luxurious place, then into a medium one, and then into the filthiest."
"My dear Ellena Victorovna," warmly retorted Chaplinsky, "I'm ready to do everything for you. It is without false boasting when I say that I would give my life away at your order, ruin my career and position at a mere sign of yours ... But I dare not bring you to these houses. Russian manners are coarse, and often simply inhuman manners. I'm afraid that you will be insulted by some pungent, unseemly word, or that a chance visitor will play some senseless prank before you ..."
"Ah, my God," impatiently interrupted Rovinskaya; "when I was singing in London, there were many at that time paying court to me, and I did not hesitate to go and see the filthiest dens of Whitechapel in a choice company. I will say, that I was treated there very carefully and anticipatingly. I will also say, that there were with me at that time two English aristocrats; lords, both sportsmen, both people unusually strong physically and morally, who, of course, would never have allowed a woman to be offended. However, perhaps you, Volodya, are of the race of cowards?"
Chaplinsky flared up:
"Oh, no, no, Ellena Victorovna. I forewarned you only out of love for you. But if you command, then I'm ready to go where you will. Not only on this dubious undertaking, but even very death itself."
By this time they had already driven up to the most luxurious establishment in the Yamkas--Treppel's. Ryazanov the lawyer said, smiling with his usual ironic smile:
"And so, the inspection of the menagerie begins."
They were led into a cabinet with crimson wall paper, and on the wall paper was repeated, in the "empire" style, a golden design in the form of small laurel wreaths. And at once Rovinskaya recognized, with the keen memory of an artiste, that exactly the same paper had also been in that cabinet in which they had just been sitting.
Four German women from the Baltic provinces came out. All of them stout, full-breasted, blonde, powdered, very important and respectful. The conversation did not catch on at first. The girls sat immovable, like carvings of stone, in order to pretend with all their might that they were respectable ladies. Even the champagne, which Ryazanov called for, did not improve the mood. Rovinskaya was the first to come to the aid of the party. Turning to the stoutest, fairest German of all, who resembled a loaf, she asked politely in German:
"Tell me, where were you born? Germany, in all probability?"
"No, gnadige Frau, I am from Riga."
"What compels you to serve here, then? Not poverty, I hope?"
"Of course not, gnadige Frau. But, you understand, my bridegroom, Hans, works as a kellner in a restaurant-automat, and we are too poor to be married now. I bring my savings to a bank, and he does the same. When we have saved the ten thousand roubles we need, we will open our own beer-hall, and, if God will bless us, then we shall allow ourselves the luxury of having children. Two children. A boy and a girl."
"But, listen to me, mein Fraulein!" Rovinskaya was amazed. "You are young, handsome, know two languages ..."
"Three, madam," proudly put in the German. "I know Esthonian as well. I finished the municipal school and three classes of high school."
"Well, then, you see, you see ..." Rovinskaya became heated. "With such an education you could always find a place with everything found, and about thirty roubles. Well, in the capacity of a housekeeper, bonne, senior clerk in a good store, a cashier, let's say ... And if your future bridegroom ... Fritz ..."
"Hans, madam ..."
"If Hans proved to be an industrious and thrifty man, then it would not be at all hard for you to get up on your feet altogether, after three or four years. What do you think?"
"Ah, madam, you are a little mistaken. You have overlooked that, in the very best of positions, I, even denying myself in everything, will not be able to put aside more than fifteen, twenty roubles a month; whereas here, with a prudent economy, I gain up to a hundred roubles and at once carry them away with a book into the savings bank. And besides that, just imagine, gnadige Frau, what a humiliating position to be the servant in a house! Always to depend on the caprice or the disposition of the spirits of the masters! And the master always pesters you with foolishness. Pfui! .. And the mistress is jealous, picks, and scolds."
"No ... I don't understand ..." meditatively drawled Rovinskaya, without looking the German in the eyes, but casting hers on the floor. "I've heard a great deal of your life here, in these ... what do you call them? .. these houses. They say it is something horrible. That you're forced to love the most repulsive, old and hideous men, that you are plucked and exploited in the most cruel manner ..."
"Oh, never, madam ... Each one of us has an account book, wherein is written accurately the income and expense. During last month I earned a little more than five hundred roubles. As always, two- thirds went to the proprietress for board, quarters, fuel, light, linen ... There remains to me more than a hundred and fifty, it is not so? Fifty I spent on costumes and all sorts of trifles. A hundred I save. What exploitation is it, then, madam, I ask you? And if I do not like a man at all--true, there are some who are exceedingly nasty--I can always say I am sick, and instead of me will go one of the newest girls ..."
"But then ... pardon me, I do not know your name ..."
"They say, that you're treated very roughly ... beaten at times ... compelled to do that which you don't want to and which is repulsive to you?"
"Never, madam!" dropped Elsa haughtily. "We all live here as a friendly family of our own. We are all natives of the same land or relatives, and God grant that many should live so in their own families as we live here. True, on Yamskaya Street there happen various scandals and fights and misunderstandings. But that's there ... in these ... in the rouble establishments. The Russian girls drink a lot and always have one lover. And they do not think at all of their future."
"You are prudent, Elsa," said Rovinskaya in an oppressed tone. "All this is well. But, what of the chance disease? Infection? Why, that is death? And how can you guess?"
"And again--no, madam. I won't let a man into my bed before I make a detailed medical inspection of him ... I am guaranteed, at the least, against seventy-five per cent."
"The devil!" suddenly exclaimed Rovinskaya with heat and hit the table with her fist. "But, then, what of your Albert ..."
"Hans," the German corrected her meekly.
"Pardon me ... Your Hans surely does not rejoice greatly over the fact that you are living here, and that you betray him every day?"
Elsa looked at her with sincere, lively amazement.
"But gnadige Frau ... I have never yet betrayed him! It is other lost wenches, especially Russian, who have lovers for themselves, on whom they spend their hard-earned money. But that I should ever let myself go as far as that? Pfui!"
"A greater fall I have not imagined!" said Rovinskaya loudly and with aversion, getting up. "Pay gentlemen, and let's go on from here."
When they had gone out into the street, Volodya took her arm and said in an imploring voice:
"For God's sake, isn't one experiment enough for you?"
"Oh, what vulgarity! What vulgarity!"
"That's why I'm saying, let's drop this experiment."
"No, in any case I am going through with it to the finish. Show me something simpler, more of the medium."
Volodya Chaplinsky, who was all the time in a torment over Ellena Victorovna, offered the most likely thing--to drop into the establishment of Anna Markovna, which was only ten steps away.
But it was just here that strong impressions awaited them. Simeon did not want to let them in, and only several gold pieces, which Ryazanov gave him, softened him. They took up a cabinet, almost the same as at Treppel's, only somewhat shabbier and more faded. At the command of Emma Edwardovna, the girls were herded into the cabinet. But it was the same as letting a goat into a truck-garden or mixing soda and acid. The main mistake, however, was that they let Jennka in there as well--wrathful, irritated, with impudent fires in her eyes. The modest, quiet Tamara was the last to walk in, with her shy and depraved smile of a Monna Lisa. In the end, almost the entire personnel of the establishment gathered in the cabinet. Rovinskaya no longer risked asking "How did you come to this life?" But it must be said, that the inmates of the house met her with an outward hospitality. Ellena Victorovna asked them to sing their usual canonical songs, and they willingly sang:
Monday now is come again, They're supposed to get me out; Doctor Krassov won't let me out, Well, the devil take him then.
Poor little, poor little, poor little me, The public house is closed, My head's aching me... The love of a loafer Is spice, is spice; But the prostitute Is as cold as ice. Ha-ha-ha! They came together Matched as well as might be, She is a prostitute, A pickpocket he. Ha-ha-ha! Now morning has come, He is planning a theft; While she lies in her bed And laughs like she's daft. Ha-ha-ha! Comes morning, the laddie Is led to the pen; But for the prostitute His pals await then. Ha-ha-ha! ...
[Footnote: While there can be but little doubt that these four stanzas are an actual transcript from life, Heinrich Heine's "Ein Weib" is such a striking parallel that it may be reproduced here as a matter of interest. The translation is by Mr. Louis Untermeyer.--Trans.
A WOMAN They loved each other beyond belief-- She was a strumpet, he was a thief; Whenever she thought of his tricks, thereafter She'd throw herself on the bed with laughter. The day was spent with a reckless zest; At night she lay upon his breast. So when they took him, a while thereafter She watched at the window--with laughter. He sent word pleading "Oh come to me, I need you, need you bitterly, Yes, here and in the hereafter." Her little head shook with laughter. At six in the morning they swung him high; At seven the turf on his grave was dry; At eight, however, she quaffed her Red wine and sang with laughter!]
And still further a convict song:
I'm a ruined laddie, Ruined for alway; While year after year The days go away.
Don't you cry, my Mary, You'll belong to me; When I've served the army I will marry thee.
But here suddenly, to the general amazement, the stout Kitty, usually taciturn, burst into laughter. She was a native of Odessa.
"Let me sing one song, too. It's sung by thieves and badger queens in the drink shops on our Moldavanka and Peresip."
And in a horrible bass, in a rusty and unyielding voice, she began to sing, making the most incongruous gestures, but, evidently, imitating some cabaret cantatrice of the third calibre that she had sometime seen:
"Ah, I'll go to Dukovka, Sit down at the table, Now I throw my hat off, Toss it under table. Then I athk my dearie, 'What will you drink, sweet?' But all the answer that she makes: 'My head aches fit to split.' 'I ain't a-athking you What your ache may be, But I am a-athking you What your drink may be: Will it be beer, or for wine shall I call, Or for violet wine, or nothing else at all?'"
And all would have turned out well, if suddenly Little White Manka, in only her chemise and in white lace drawers, had not burst into the cabinet. Some merchant, who the night before had arranged a paradisaical night, was carousing with her, and the ill-fated Benedictine, which always acted upon the girl with the rapidity of dynamite, had brought her into the usual quarrelsome condition. She was no longer "Little Manka" and "Little White Manka," but she was "Manka the Scandaliste." Having run into the cabinet, she suddenly, from unexpectedness, fell down on the floor, and, lying on her back, burst into such sincere laughter that all the rest burst out laughing as well. Yes. But this laughter was not prolonged ... Manka suddenly sat up on the floor and began to shout:
"Hurrah! new wenches have joined our place!"
This was altogether an unexpected thing. The baroness did a still greater tactlessness. She said:
"I am a patroness of a convent for fallen girls, and therefore, as a part of my duty, I must gather information about you."
But here Jennka instantly flared up:
"Get out of here right away, you old fool! You rag! You floor mop! .. Your Magdalene asylums--they're worse than a prison. Your secretaries use us, like dogs carrion. Your fathers, husbands, and brothers come to us, and we infect them with all sorts of diseases ... Purposely .. And they in their turn infect you. Your female superintendents live with the drivers, janitors and policemen, while we are put in a cell if we happen to laugh or joke a little among ourselves. And so, if you've come here as to a theatre, then you must hear the truth out, straight to your face."
But Tamara calmly stopped her:
"Stop, Jennie, I will tell them myself ... Can it be that you really think, baroness, that we are worse than the so-called respectable women? A man comes to me, pays me two roubles for a visit or five roubles for a night, and I don't in the least conceal this, from any one in the world ... But tell me, baroness, do you possibly know even one married lady with a family who isn't in secret giving herself up either for the sake of passion to a young man, or for the sake of money to an old one? I know very well that fifty percent of you are kept by lovers, while the remaining fifty, of those who are older, keep young lads. I also know that many--ah, how many!--of you cohabit with your fathers, brothers, and even sons, but these secrets you hide in some sort of a hidden casket. And that's all the difference between us. We are fallen, but we don't lie and don't pretend, but you all fall, and lie to boot. Think it over for yourself; now--in whose favour is this difference?"
"Bravo, Tamarochka, that's the way to serve them!" shouted Manka, without getting up from the floor; dishevelled, fair, curly, resembling at this moment a thirteen-year-old girl.
"Now, now!" urged Jennka as well, flashing with her flaming eyes.
"Why not, Jennechka? I'll go further than that. Out of us scarcely, scarcely one in a thousand has committed abortion. But all of you several times over. What? Or isn't that the truth? And those of you who've done this, did it not out of desperation or cruel poverty, but you simply were afraid of spoiling your figure and beauty--that's your sole capital! Or else you've been seeking only beastly carnal pleasure, while pregnancy and feeding interfered with your giving yourself up to it!"
Rovinskaya became confused and uttered in a quick whisper:
"Faites attention, baronne, que dans sa position cette demoiselle est instruite." [Footnote: "Pay attention, baroness, the girl is rather educated for one of her position."]
"Figurez-vous, que moi, j'ai aussi remarque cet etrange visage. Comme si je l'ai deja vu ... est-ce en reve? ... en demi-delire? Ou dans sa petite enfance?" [Footnote: "Just imagine, I, too, have remarked this strange face. But where have I seen it ... was it in a dream? ... in semi-delirium? Or in her early infancy?"]
"Ne vous donnez pas la peine de chercher dans vos souvenirs, baronne," Tamara suddenly interposed insolently. "Je puis de suite vous venir aide. Rappelez-vous seulement Kharkoff, et la chambre d'hotel de Koniakine, l'entrepreneur Solovieitschik, et le tenor di grazzia ... A ce moment vous n'etiez pas encore m-me la baronne de ... [Footnote: "Don't trouble to strain your memory, baroness. I will come to your aid at once. Just recall Kharkov, a room in Koniakine's hotel, the theatrical manager, Solovieitschik, and a certain lyrical tenor ... At that time you were not yet baroness de ..."] However, let's drop the French tongue ... You were a common chorus girl and served together with me."
"Mais, dites-moi, au nom de dieu, comment vous trouvez vous ici, Mademoiselle Marguerite." [Footnote: "But tell me, in God's name, how you have come to be here, Mademoiselle Marguerite?"]
"Oh, they ask us about that every day. I just up and came to be here ..."
And with an inimitable cynicism she asked:
"I trust you will pay for the time which we have passed with you?"
"No, may the devil take you!" suddenly shouted out Little White Manka, quickly getting up from the rug.
And suddenly, pulling two gold pieces out of her stocking, she flung them upon the table.
"There, you! .. I'm giving you that for a cab. Go away right now, otherwise I'll break up all the mirrors and bottles here..."
Rovinskaya got up and said with sincere, warm tears in her eyes:
"Of course, we'll go away, and the lesson of Mlle. Marguerite will prove of benefit to us. Your time will be paid for--take care of it, Volodya. Still, you sang so much for us, that you must allow me to sing for you as well."
Rovinskaya went up to the piano, took a few chords, and suddenly began to sing the splendid ballad of Dargomyzhsky:
"We parted then with pride-- Neither with sighs nor words Proffered I thee reproach of jealousy ... We went apart for aye, Yet only if with thee I might but chance to meet! .. Ah, that with thee I might but chance to meet! "I weep not nor complain-- To fate I bend my knee... I know not, if you loved, So greatly wronging me? Yet only if with thee I might but chance to meet! ... Ah, that with thee I might but chance to meet!"
This tender and passionate ballad, executed by a great artiste, suddenly reminded all these women of their first love; of their first fall; of a late leave-taking at a dawn in the spring, in the chill of the morning, when the grass is gray from the dew, while the red sky paints the tips of the birches a rosy colour; of last embraces, so closely entwined, and of the unerring heart's mournful whispers: "No, this will not be repeated, this will not be repeated!" And the lips were then cold and dry, while the damp mist of the morning lay upon the hair.
Silence seized Tamara; silence seized Manka the Scandaliste; and suddenly Jennka, the most untamable of all the girls, ran up to the artiste, fell down on her knees, and began to sob at her feet.
And Rovinskaya, touched herself, put her arms around her head and said:
"My sister, let me kiss you!"
Jennka whispered something into her ear.
"Why, that's a silly trifle," said Rovinskaya. "A few months of treatment and it will all go away."
"No, no, no ... I want to make all of them diseased. Let them all rot and croak."
"Ah, my dear," said Rovinskaya, "I would not do that in your place."
And now Jennka, the proud Jennka began kissing the knees and hands of the artiste and was saying:
"Then why have people wronged me so? ... Why have they wronged me so? Why? Why? Why?"
Such is the might of genius!
The only might which takes into its beautiful hands not the abject reason, but the warm soul of man! The self-respecting Jennka was hiding her face in Rovinskaya's dress; Little White Manka was sitting meekly on a chair, her face covered with a handkerchief; Tamara, with elbow propped on her knee and head bowed on the palm of her hand, was intently looking down, while Simeon the porter, who had been looking in against any emergency, only opened his eyes wide in amazement.
Rovinskaya was quietly whispering into Jennka's very ear:
"Never despair. Sometimes things fall out so badly that there's nothing for it but to hang one's self--but, just look, to-morrow life has changed abruptly. My dear, my sister, I am now a world celebrity. But if you only knew what seas of humiliation and vileness I have had to wade through! Be well, then, my dear, and believe in your star."
She bent down to Jennka and kissed her on the forehead. And never afterwards could Volodya Chaplinsky, who had been watching this scene with a painful tension, forget those warm and beautiful rays, which at this moment kindled in the green, long, Egyptian eyes of the artiste.
The party departed gloomily, but Ryazanov lingered behind for a minute.
He walked up to Jennka, respectfully and gently kissed her hand, and said:
"If possible, forgive our prank ... This, of course, will not be repeated. But if you ever have need of me, I am always at your service. Here is my visiting card. Don't stick it out on your bureau; but remember, that from this evening on I am your friend."
And, having kissed Jennka's hand once more, he was the last to go down the stairs.