Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
"And that's splendid ... And fine and charming," Lichonin was saying, bustling about the lame table and without need shifting the tea things from one place to another. "For a long time, like an old crocodile, I haven't drunk tea as it should be drunk, in a Christian manner, in a domestic setting. Sit down, Liuba, sit down, my dear, right here on the divan, and keep house. Vodka, in all probability, you don't drink of a morning, but I, with your permission, will drink some ... This braces up the nerves right off. Make mine a little stronger, please, with a piece of lemon. Ah, what can taste better than a glass of hot tea, poured out by charming feminine hands?"
Liubka listened to his chatter, a trifle too noisy to seem fully natural; and her smile, in the beginning mistrusting, wary, was softening and brightening. But she did not get on with the tea especially well. At home, in the backwoods village, where this beverage was still held a rarity, the dainty luxury of well-to-do families, to be brewed only for honored guests and on great holidays--there over the pouring of the tea officiated the eldest man of the family. Later, when Liubka served with "all found" in the little provincial capital city, in the beginning at a priest's, and later with an insurance agent (who had been the first to put her on the road of prostitution)--she was usually left some strained, tepid tea, which had already been drunk off, with a bit of gnawn sugar, by the mistress herself--the thin, jaundiced, malicious wife of the priest; or the wife of the agent, a fat, old, wrinkled, malignant, greasy, jealous and stingy common woman. Therefore, the simple business of preparing the tea was now as difficult for her as it is difficult for all of us in childhood to distinguish the left hand from the right, or to tie a rope in a small noose. The bustling Lichonin only hindered her and threw her into confusion.
"My dear, the art of brewing tea is a great art. It ought to be studied at Moscow. At first a dry teapot is slightly warmed up. Then the tea is put into it and is quickly scalded with boiling water. The first liquid must at once be poured off into the slop- bowl--the tea thus becomes purer and more aromatic; and by the way, it's also known that Chinamen are pagans and prepare their herb very filthily. After that the tea-pot must be filled anew, up to a quarter of its volume; left on the tray, covered over with a towel and kept so for three and a half minutes. Afterwards pour in more boiling water almost up to the top, cover it again, let it stay just a bit, and you have ready, my dear, a divine beverage; fragrant, refreshing, and strengthening."
The homely, but pleasant-looking face of Liubka, all spotted from freckles, like a cuckoo's egg, lengthened and paled a little.
"Well, for God's sake, don't you be angry at me ... You're called Vassil Vassilich, isn't that so? Don't get angry, darling Vassil Vassilich. Really, now, I'll learn fast, I'm quick. And why do you say you and you [Footnote: In contradistinction to "thou," as used to familiars and inferiors in Russia.--Trans] to me all the time? It seems that we aren't strangers now?"
She looked at him kindly. And truly, she had this morning, for the first time in all her brief but distorted life, given her body to a man--even though without enjoyment but more out of gratitude and pity, yet voluntarily--not for money, not under compulsion, not under threat of dismissal and scandal. And her feminine heart, always unwithering, always drawn to love, like a sunflower to the sun, was at this moment pure and inclined to tenderness.
But Lichonin suddenly felt a prickling, shameful awkwardness and something inimical toward this woman, yesterday unknown to him, now--his chance mistress. "The charms of the family hearth have begun," he thought involuntarily; still, he got up from his chair, walked up to Liubka, and having taken her by the hand, drew her to him and patted her on the head.
"My dear, my darling sister," he said touchingly and falsely; "that which has happened to-day must never more be repeated. In everything only I alone am guilty, and, if you desire, I am ready to beg forgiveness of you on my knees. Understand--oh, understand, that all this came about against my will, somehow elementally, suddenly, unexpectedly. And I myself didn't think that it would be like that! You understand, for a very long time ... I have not known woman intimately ... A repulsive, unbridled beast awoke within me ... and ... But, Lord, is my fault so great, then? Holy people, anchorites, recluses, ascetics, stylites, hermits in deserts, are no match for me in fortitude of spirit--yet even they fell in the struggle with the temptation of the diabolical flesh. But then, I swear by whatever you wish, that this won't be repeated any more ... Isn't that so?"
Liubka was stubbornly trying to pull his hand away from hers. Her lips had become a little stuck out and the lowered lids began to wink frequently.
"Ye-es," she drawled, like a child that stubbornly refuses to "make up." "Well, I can see that I don't please you. Well, then, you'd best tell me so straight and give me a little for a cab, and some more, now; as much as you want ... The money for the night is paid anyway, and I only have to ride up to ... there."
Lichonin seized his hair, flung himself about the room and began to declaim:
"Ah, not that, not that, not that! Just understand me, Liuba! To go on with that which happened in the morning--that's ... that's swinishness, bestiality, and unworthy of a man who respects himself. Love! Love--this is a full blending of minds, thoughts, souls, interests, and not of the bodies alone. Love is a tremendous, great emotion, mighty as the universe, and not the sprawling in bed. There's no such love between us, Liubochka. If it'll come, it will be wonderful happiness both for you and for me. But in the meantime--I'm your friend, your faithful comrade, on the path of life. And that's enough, and that will do ... And though I'm no stranger to human frailties, still, I count myself an honest man."
Liubka seemed to wilt. "He thinks I want him to marry me. And I absolutely don't need that," she thought sadly. "It's possible to live just so. There are others, now, living on maintenance. And, they say, far better than if they had twirled around an altar. What's so bad about that? Peaceful, quiet, genteel ... I'd darn socks for him, wash floors, cook ... the plainer dishes. Of course, he'll be in line to get married to a rich girl some time. Well, now, to be sure, he wouldn't throw me out in the street just so, mother-naked. Although he's a little simpleton, and chatters a lot, still it's easy to tell he's a decent man. He'll provide for me with something, somehow. And, perhaps, he'll get to like me, will get used to me? I'm a simple girl, modest, and would never consent to be false to him. For, they say, things do fall out that way ... Only I mustn't let him see anything. But that he'll come again into my bed, and will come this very night--that's as sure as God is holy."
And Lichonin also fell into thought, grew quiet and sad; he was already feeling the weight of a great deed which he had undertaken beyond his powers. That was why he was even glad when some one knocked on the door, and to his answer, "Come in!", two students entered: Soloviev, and Nijeradze, who had slept that night at his place.
Soloviev, well-grown and already obese, with a broad, ruddy Volga face and a light, scandent little beard, belonged to those kindly, merry and simple fellows, of which there are sufficiently many in any university. He divided his leisure--and of leisure he had twenty-four hours in the day--between the beer-shop and rambling over the boulevards; among billiards, whist, the theatre, reading of newspapers and novels, and the spectacles of circus wrestling; while the short intervals in between he used for eating, sleeping, the home repair of his wardrobe, with the aid of thread, cardboard, pins and ink; and for succinct, most realistic love with the chance woman from the kitchen, the anteroom or the street. Like all the youths of his circle, he deemed himself a revolutionary, although he was oppressed by political disputes, dissensions, and mutual reproaches; and not being able to stand the reading of revolutionary brochures and journals, was almost a complete ignoramus in the work For that reason he had not attained even the very least party initiation; although at times there were given him instructions of a sort, not at all of a safe nature, the meaning of which was not made clear to him. And not in vain was his steadfast faithfulness relied upon; he carried out everything rapidly, exactly,--with a courageous faith in the universal importance of the work; with a care-free smile and with a broad contempt of possible destruction. He concealed outlawed comrades, guarded forbidden literature and printing types, transmitted passports and money. He had a great deal of physical strength, black-loam amiability and elemental simple-heartedness. Not infrequently he would receive from home, somewheres in the depth of the Simbirskaya or Ufimskaya province, sums of money sufficiently large for a student; but in two days he scattered and dispersed it everywhere, with the carelessness of a French grandee of the seventeenth century, while he himself remained during winter in only his everyday coat, with boots restored by his own devices.
Beside all these naive, touching, laughable, lofty and shiftless qualities of the old Russian student, passing--and God knows if for the better?--into the realm of historical memories, he possessed still another amazing ability--to invent money and arrange for credit in little restaurants and cook-shops. All the employees of pawnshops and loan offices, secret and manifest usurers, and old-clo'-men were on terms of the closest friendship with him.
But if for certain reasons he could not resort to them, then even here Soloviev remained at the height of his resourcefulness. At the head of a knot of impoverished friends, and weighed down with his usual business responsibility, he would at times be illumined by an inner inspiration; make at a distance, across the street, a mysterious sign to a Tartar passing with his bundle behind his shoulders, and for a few seconds would disappear with him into the nearest gates. He would quickly return without his everyday coat, only in his blouse with the skirts outside, belted with a thin cord; or, in winter, without his overcoat, in the thinnest of small suits; or instead of the new, just purchased uniform cap--in a tiny jockey cap, holding by a miracle on the crown of his head.
Everybody loved him: comrades, servants, women, children. And all were familiar with him. He enjoyed especial good-will from his bosom cronies, the Tartars, who, apparently, deemed him a little innocent. They would sometimes, in the summer, bring as a present the strong, intoxicating koumyss in big quartern bottles, while at Bairam they would invite him to eat a suckling colt with them. No matter how improbable it may seem, still, Soloviev at critical moments gave away for safe-keeping certain books and brochures to the Tartars. He would say at this with the most simple and significant air: "That which I am giving you is a Great Book. It telleth, that Allah Akbar, and that Mahomet is his prophet, that there is much evil and poverty on earth, and that men must be merciful and just to each other."
He also had two other abilities: he read aloud very well; and played at chess amazingly, like a master, like a downright genius, defeating first-class players in jest. His attack was always impetuous and rigorous; his defense wise and cautious, preferably in an oblique direction; his concessions to his opponent full of refined, far-sighted calculation and murderous craftiness. With this, he made moves as though under the influence of some inner instinct, or inspiration; not pondering for more than four or five seconds and resolutely despising the respected traditions.
He was not willingly played with; his manner of play was held barbarous, but still they played, sometimes for large sums of money; which, invariably winning, Soloviev readily laid down upon the altar of his comrades' needs. But he steadfastly declined from participation in competitions, which could have created for him the position of a star in the world of chess: "There is in my nature neither love for this nonsense, nor respect," he would say. "I simply possess some sort of a mechanical ability of the mind, some sort of a psychic deformity. Well, now, just as there are lefties. And for that reason I've no professional self-respect, nor pride at victory, nor spleen at losing."
Such was the generously built student Soloviev. And Nijeradze filled the post of his closest comrade; which did not hinder them both, however, from jeering at each other, disputing, and swearing, from morning till night. God knows, wherewithal and how the Georgian prince existed. He said of himself, that he possessed the ability of a camel, of nourishing himself for the future, for several weeks ahead; and then eating nothing for a month. From home, from his blessed Georgia, he received very little; and then, for the most part, in victuals. At Christmas, at Easter, or on his birthday (in August) he was sent--and inevitably through arriving fellow-countrymen--whole cargoes of hampers with mutton, grapes, goat-flesh, sausages, dried hawthorn berries, rakhat loukoum, egg- plants, and very tasty cookies; as well as leathern bottles of excellent home-made wine, strong and aromatic, but giving off just the least bit of sheep-skin. Then the prince would summon together to one of his comrades (he never had quarters of his own) all his near friends and fellow-countrymen; and arranged such a magnificent festival--TOI in Caucasian--that at it were extirpated to the last shreds the gifts of fertile Georgia. Georgian songs were sung, the first place, of course, being given to Mravol- Djamiem and every guest is sent down to us from heaven by God, no matter of what country he be; the Lezginka was danced without tiring, with table knives brandished wildly in the air; and the Tulumbash (or, perhaps, he is called Tomada?) spoke his improvisations; for the greater part Nijeradze himself spoke.
He was a great hand at talking and could, when he warmed up, pronounce about three hundred words a minute. His style was distinguished for mettle, pomp, and imagery; and his Caucasian accent with characteristic lisping and throaty sounds, resembling now the hawking of a woodcock, now the clucking of an eagle, not only did not hinder his discourse, but somehow even strangely adorned it. And no matter of what he spoke, he always led up the monologue to the most beautiful, most fertile, the very foremost, most chivalrous, and at the same time the most injured country-- Georgia. And invariably he cited lines from The Panther's Skin of the Georgian poet Rustavelli; with assurances, that this poem was a thousand times above all of Shakespeare, multiplied by Homer.
Even though he was hot-headed, he was not spiteful; and in his demeanour femininely soft, gentle, engaging, without losing his native pride ... One thing only did his comrades dislike in him-- some exaggerated, exotic love of women. He was unshakably, unto sacredness or folly, convinced that he was irresistibly splendid of person; that all men envied him, all women were in love with him, while husbands were jealous ... This self-conceited, obtrusive dangling after women did not forsake him for a minute, probably not even in his sleep. Walking along the street he would every minute nudge Lichonin, Soloviev or some other companion with his elbow, and would say, smacking his lips and jerking his head backward at a woman who had passed by: "TSE, TSE, TSE... VAI-VAI! A ree-markable wooman! What a look she gave me. If I wish it, she'll be mine! ..."
This funny shortcoming about him was known; this trait of his was ridiculed good-naturedly and unceremoniously, but willingly forgiven for the sake of that independent comradely obligingness and faithfulness to his word, given to a man (oaths to women did not count), of which he was so naturally possessed. However, it must be said that he did in reality enjoy great success with women. Sempstresses, modistes, chorus girls, girls in candy stores, and telephone girls melted from the intense gaze of his heavy, soft, and languishing dark-blue eyes.
"Un-to this house and all those righteously, peacefully and without sin inhabiting it ..." Soloviev started in to vociferate like an arch-deacon and suddenly missed fire. "Father-prelates," he began to murmur in astonishment, trying to continue the unsuccessful jest. "Why, but this is ... This is ... ah, the devil ... this is Sonya, no, my mistake, Nadya ... Well, yes! Liubka from Anna Markovna's ..."
Liubka blushed hotly, to the verge of tears, and covered her face with her palms. Lichonin noticed this, understood, sensed the thoroughly agitated soul of the girl, and came to her aid. He sternly, almost rudely, stopped Soloviev.
"Perfectly correct, Soloviev. As in a directory. Liubka from the Yamkas. Formerly a prostitute. Even more, still yesterday a prostitute. But from to-day--my friend, my sister. And so let everyone, who respects me to any extent, regard her. Otherwise ..."
The ponderous Soloviev hurriedly, sincerely, and powerfully embraced and rumpled Lichonin.
"Well, dear fellow, well, that's enough ... I committed a stupidity in the flurry. It won't be repeated any more. Hail, my pale-faced sister." He extended his hand with a broad sweep across the table to Liubka, and squeezed her listless, small and short fingers with gnawed, tiny nails. "It's fine--your coming into our modest wigwam. This will refresh us and implant in our midst quiet and decent customs. Alexandra! Be-er!" he began to call loudly. "We've grown wild, coarse; have become mired in foul speech, drunkenness, laziness and other vices. And all because we were deprived of the salutary, pacifying influence of feminine society. Once again I press your hand. Your charming, little hand. Beer!"
"Coming," the displeased voice of Alexandra could be heard on the other side of the door. "I'm coming. What you yelling for? How much do you want?"
Soloviev went out into the corridor to explain. Lichonin smiled after him gratefully; while the Georgian on his way slapped him benignly on the back, between his shoulder blades. Both understood and appreciated the belated, somewhat coarse delicacy of Soloviev.
"Now," said Soloviev, coming back into the room and sitting down cautiously upon an ancient chair, "now let's come to the order of the day. Can I be of service to you in any way? If you'll give me half an hour's time, I'll run down to the coffee house for a minute and lick the guts out of the very best chess player there. In a word--I'm at your disposal!"
"What a funny fellow you are!" said Liubka, ill at ease and laughing. She did not understand the jocose and unusual style of speech of the student, but something drew her simple heart to him.
"Well, that's not at all necessary," Lichonin put in. "I am as yet beastly rich. I think we'll all go together to some little tavern somewhere. I must have your advice about some things. After all, you're the people closest to me; and of course not as stupid and inexperienced as you seem at first glance. After that, I'll go and try to arrange about her ... about Liuba's passport. You wait for me. That won't take long ... In a word, you understand what this whole business consists of, and won't be lavish of any superfluous jokes. I,"--his voice quivered sentimentally and falsely--"I desire that you take upon yourselves a part of my care. Is that a go?"
"VA! It's a go!" exclaimed the prince (it sounded like "idiot," when he said it [Footnote: The Russian phrase is "Eedet!"-- Trans.]), and for some reason looked significantly at Liubka and twirled his moustache. Lichonin gave him a sidelong look. As for Soloviev, he said simple-heartedly:
"That's the way. You've begun something big and splendid, Lichonin. The prince told me about it during the night. Well, what of it, that's what youth is for--to commit sacred follies. Give me the bottle, Alexandra, I'll open it myself, or else you'll rupture yourself and burst a vein. To a new life, Liubochka, pardon me ... Liubov ... Liubov ..."
"Nikonovna. But call me just as it comes ... Liuba."
"Well, yes, Liuba. Prince, Allahverdi!"
"Yakshi-ol," answered Nijeradze and clinked his glass of beer with him.
"And I'll also say, that I rejoice over you, friend Lichonin," continued Soloviev, setting down his glass and licking his moustache. "Rejoice, and bow before you. It's precisely you, only, who are capable of such a genuinely Russian heroism, expressed simply, modestly, without superfluous words."
"Drop it ... Well, where's the heroism?" Lichonin made a wry face.
"That's true, too," confirmed Nijeradze. "You're reproaching me all the time that I chatter a lot, but see what nonsense you're spouting yourself."
"That makes no difference!" retorted Soloviev. "It may be even grandiloquent, but still that makes no difference! As an elder of our garret commune, I declare Liuba an honourable member with full rights!" He got up, made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and uttered with pathos:
"And into our house, free and fearless, Its charming mistress walk thou in!"
Lichonin recalled vividly, that to-day at dawn he had spoken the very same phrase, like an actor; and even blinked his eyes from shame.
"That's enough of tom-foolery. Let's go, gentlemen. Dress yourself, Liuba."