Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
It was not far to The Sparrows restaurant; some two hundred steps. On the way Liuba, unnoticed, took Lichonin by the sleeve and pulled him toward her. In this wise they lagged a few steps behind Soloviev and Nijeradze, who were walking ahead.
"Then you mean it seriously, my darling Vassil Vassilich?" she asked, looking up at him with her kindly, dark eyes. "You're not playing a joke on me?"
"What jokes can there be here, Liubochka! I'd be the lowest of men if I permitted myself such jokes. I repeat, that to you I am more than a friend, brother, comrade. And let's not talk about it any more. And that which happened to-day toward morning, that, you may be sure, won't be repeated. And I'll rent a separate room for you this very day."
Liubka sighed. Not that she was offended by the chaste resolution of Lichonin, in which, to tell the truth, she believed but badly; but somehow her dark, narrow mind could not even theoretically picture any other attitude of a man toward a woman than the sensual. Besides that, she experienced the ancient discontent of a preferred or rejected female; a feeling strongly intrenched in the house of Anna Markovna, in the form of boastful rivalry, but now dulled; yet still angry and sincere. And for some reason she believed Lichonin but illy, unconsciously seizing much of the assumed, not altogether sincere, in his words. Soloviev, now-- although he did speak incomprehensively, like the rest of the majority of the students known to her, when they joked among themselves or with the young ladies in the general room (by themselves, in the room, all the men without an exception--all as one--said and did one and the same thing)--she would rather believe Soloviev, far more readily and willingly. A certain simplicity shone in his merry, sparkling gray eyes, placed widely apart.
At The Sparrows Lichonin was esteemed for his sedateness, kind disposition, and accuracy in money matters. Because of that he was at once assigned a little private room--an honour of which but very few students could boast. The gas burned all day in this room, because light penetrated only through the narrow bottom of a window, cut short by the ceiling. Only the boots, shoes, umbrellas and canes of the people walking by on the sidewalk could be seen through this window.
They had to let still another student, Simanovsky (whom they ran against near the coat room), join the party. "What does he mean, by leading me around as though for a show?" thought Liubka: "it looks like he's showing off before them." And, snatching a free moment, she whispered to Lichonin, who had bent over her:
"But why are there so many people, dearie? For I'm so bashful. I can't hold my own in company."
"That's nothing, that's nothing, my dear Liubochka," Lichonin whispered rapidly, tarrying at the door of the cabinet. "That's nothing, my sister; these are all fine people, good comrades. They'll help you, help us both. Don't mind their having fun at times and their silly lying. But their hearts are of gold."
"But it's so very awkward for me; I'm ashamed. All of them already know where you took me from."
"Well, that's nothing, that's nothing! Why, let 'em know!" warmly contradicted Lichonin. "Why be embarrassed with your past, why try to pass it by in silence? In a year you'll look bravely and directly in the eyes of every man and you'll say: 'He who has never fallen, has never gotten up.' Come on, come on, Liubochka!"
While the inelaborate appetizers were being served, and each one was ordering the meal, everybody, save Simanovsky, felt ill at ease and somehow constrained. And Simanovsky himself was partly the reason for this; he was a clean-shaven man, with pince-nez and long hair, with head proudly thrown back and with a contemptuous expression on the tight lips, drooping at the corners. He had no intimate, hearty friends among his comrades; but his opinions and judgments had a considerable authoritativeness among them. It is doubtful whether any one of them could explain to himself whence this influence came; whether from his self-assured appearance, his ability to seize and express in general words the dismembered and indistinct things which are dimly sought and desired by the majority, or because he always saved his conclusions for the most appropriate moment. Among any society there are many of this sort of people: some of them act upon their circle through sophistries; others through adamant, unalterable stead-fastness of convictions; a third group with a loud mouth; a fourth, through a malicious sneer; a fifth, simply by silence, which compels the supposition of profound thought behind it; a sixth, through a chattering, outward erudition; others still through a slashing sneer at everything that is said ... many with the terrible Russian word yerunda: "Fiddlesticks!"--"Fiddlesticks!" they say contemptuously in reply to the warm, sincere, probably truthful but clumsily put word. "But why fiddlesticks?" "Because it's twaddle, nonsense," answer they, shrugging their shoulders; and it is as though they did for a man by hitting him with a stone over the head. There are many more sorts of such people, bearing the bell at the head of the meek, the shy, the nobly modest, and often even the big minds; and to their number did Simanovsky belong.
However, toward the middle of the dinner everybody's tongue became loosened--except Liubka's, who kept silent, answered "yes" and "no", and left her food practically untouched. Lichonin, Soloviev, and Nijeradze talked most of all. The first, in a decisive and business-like manner, trying to hide under the solicitous words something real, inward, prickling and inconvenient. Soloviev, with a puerile delight, with the most sweeping of gestures, hitting the table with his fist. Nijeradze, with a slight doubtfulness and with unfinished phrases, as though he knew that which must be said, but concealed it. The queer fate of the girl, however, had seemingly engrossed, interested them all; and each one, in expressing his opinion, for some reason inevitably turned to Simanovsky. But he kept his counsel for the most part, and looked at each one from under the glasses of his pince-nez, raising his head high to do so.
"So, so, so," he said at last, drumming with his fingers upon the table. "What Lichonin has done is splendid and brave. And that the prince and Soloviev are going to meet him half-way is also very good. I, for my part, am ready to co-operate with your beginnings with whatever lies in my power. But will it not be better, if we lead our friend along the path of her natural inclinations and abilities, so to speak? Tell me, my dear," he turned to Liubka, "what do you know, what can you do? Well, now, some kind of work, or something. Sewing, knitting, embroidering or something."
"I don't know anything," said Liubka in a whisper, letting her eyes drop low, all red, squeezing her fingers under the table. "I don't understand anything of this.''
"And really, now," interposed Lichonin; "why, we haven't begun the business from the right end. By talking about her in her presence we merely place her in an awkward position. Just see--even her tongue doesn't move from confusion. Let's go, Liubka, I'll escort you home for just a little while, and return in ten minutes. And in the meanwhile we'll think over ways and means here, without you. All right?"
"As for me, I don't mind," almost inaudibly answered Liubka. "I'll do just as you like, Vassil Vassilich. Only I wouldn't like to go home."
"It's awkward for me there alone. I'd best wait for you on the boulevard, at the very entrance, on a bench."
"Ah, yes!" Lichonin recollected: "It's Alexandra who has inspired her with such a terror. My, but I'll make it hot for this old lizard! Well, let's go, Liubochka."
She timidly, in some sidelong way, put out her hand to each one, folding it like a little spade; and walked out under the escort of Lichonin.
After several minutes he returned and sat down at his place. He felt that something had been said about him during his absence, and he ran his eyes uneasily over his comrades. Then, putting his hands on the table, he began:
"Gentlemen, I know that you're all good, close friends," he gave a quick and sidelong look at Simanovsky, "and responsive people. I heartily beg of you to come to my aid. The deed was done by me in a hurry--this I must confess--but done through a sincere, pure inclination of the heart."
"And that's the main thing," put in Soloviev.
"It's absolutely all one to me what acquaintances and strangers will begin saying about me; but from my intention to save--pardon the fool word, which slipped out--to encourage, to sustain this girl, I will not decline. Of course, I'm able to rent an inexpensive, small room for her; to give her something for board at first; but what's to be done further--that's what presents difficulties to me. The matter, of course, isn't one of money, which I'd always find for her; but, then, to compel her to eat, drink, and with all that to do nothing--that would mean to condemn her to idleness, indifference, apathy; and you know what the end will be then. Therefore, we must think of some occupation for her. And that's the very matter which we must exert our brains about. Make an effort, gentlemen; advise something."
"We must know what she's fitted for," said Simanovsky. "For she must have been doing something before getting into the house."
Lichonin, with an air of hopelessness, spread out his hands.
"Almost nothing. She can sew just the least bit, just like any country lass. Why, she wasn't fifteen when some government clerk led her astray. She can sweep up a room, wash a little, and, if you will, cook cabbage soup and porridge. Nothing more, it seems."
"Rather little," said Simanovsky, and clacked his tongue.
"And in addition to that, she's illiterate as well."
"But that's not at all important!" warmly defended Soloviev. "If we had to do with a well-educated girl, or, worse still, with a half-educated one, then only nonsense would result out of all that we're preparing to do, a mere soap-bubble; while here before us is maiden ground, untouched virgin soil."
"He-ee!" Nijeradze started neighing equivocally.
Soloviev, now no longer joking, but with real wrath, pounced upon him:
"Listen, prince! Every holy thought, every good deed, can be made disgusting, obscene. There's nothing clever or worthy in that. If you regard that which we're preparing to do so like a stallion, then there's the door and God be with you. Go away from us!"
"Yes, but you yourself just now in the room ..." retorted the prince in confusion.
"Yes, I too," Soloviev at once softened and cooled down. "I popped out with a stupidity and I regret it. But now I willingly admit that Lichonin is a fine fellow and a splendid man; and I'm ready to do everything, for my part. And I repeat, that knowledge of reading and writing is a secondary matter. It is easy to attain it in play. For such an untouched mind to learn reading, writing, counting, and especially without school, of one's free will, is like biting a nut in two. And as far as a manual trade is concerned, through which it would be possible to live and earn one's keep, then there are hundreds of trades, which can be easily mastered in two weeks."
"For instance?" asked the prince.
"Well, for instance ... for instance ... well, now, for instance, making artificial flowers. Yes, and still better, to get a place as a flower clerk. A charming business, clean and nice."
"Taste is necessary," Simanovsky dropped carelessly.
"There are no inborn tastes, as well as abilities. Otherwise talents would be born only in refined, highly educated society; while artists would be born only to artists, and singers to singers; but we don't see this. However, I won't argue. Well, if not a flower girl, then something else. I, for instance, saw not long ago in a store show window a miss sitting, and some sort of a little machine with foot-power before her."
"V-VA! Again a little machine!" said the prince, smiling and looking at Lichonin.
"Stop it, Nijeradze," answered Lichonin, quietly but sternly. "You ought to be ashamed."
"Blockhead!" Soloviev threw at him, and continued.
"So, then, the machine moves back and forth, while upon it, on a square frame, is stretched a thin canvas, and really, I don't know how it's contrived, I didn't grasp it; only the miss guides some metallic thingamajig over the screen, and there comes out a fine drawing in vari-coloured silks. Just imagine, a lake, all grown over with pond-lilies with their white corollas and yellow stamens, and great green leaves all around. And on the water two white swans are floating toward each other, and in the background is a dark park with an alley; and all this shows finely, distinctly, as on a picture from life. And I became so interested that I went in on purpose to find out how much it costs. It proved to be just the least bit dearer than an ordinary sewing machine, and it's sold on terms. And any one who can sew a little on a common machine can learn this art in an hour. And there's a great number of charming original designs. And the main thing is that such work is very readily taken for fire-screens, albums, lamp- shades, curtains and other rubbish, and the pay is decent."
"After all, that's a sort of a trade, too," agreed Lichonin, and stroked his beard in meditation. "But, to confess, here's what I wanted to do. I wanted to open up for her ... to open up a little cook-shop or dining room, the very tiniest to start with, of course, but one in which all the food is cheap, clean and tasty. For it's absolutely all the same to many students where they dine and what they eat. There are almost never enough places to go round in the students' dining room. And so we may succeed, perhaps, in pulling in all our acquaintances and friends, somehow."
"That's true," said the prince, "but impractical as well; we'll begin to board on credit. And you know what accurate payers we are. A practical man, a knave, is needed for such an undertaking; and if a woman, then one with a pike's teeth; and even then a man must absolutely stick right at her back. Really, it's not for Lichonin to stand at the counter and to watch that somebody shouldn't suddenly wine and dine and slip away."
Lichonin looked straight at him, insolently, but only set his jaws and let it pass in silence.
Simanovsky began in his measured, incontrovertible tone, toying with the glasses of his pince-nez:
"Your intention is splendid, gentlemen, beyond dispute. But have you turned your attention to a certain shady aspect, so to speak? For to open a dining room, to start some business--all this in the beginning demands money, assistance--somebody else's back, so to speak. The money is not grudged--that is true, I agree with Lichonin; but then, does not such a beginning of an industrious life, when every step is provided for--does it not lead to inevitable laxity and negligence, and, in the very end, to an indifferent disdain for business? Even a child does not learn to walk until it has flopped down some fifty times. No; if you really want to help this poor girl, you must give her a chance of getting on her feet at once, like a toiling being, and not like a drone. True, there is a great temptation here--the burden of labour, temporary need; but then, if she will surmount this, she will surmount the rest as well."
"What, then, according to you, is she to become--a dish-washer?" asked Soloviev with unbelief.
"Well, yes," calmly retorted Simanovsky. "A dish-washer, a laundress, a cook. All toil elevates a human being."
Lichonin shook his head.
"Words of gold. Wisdom itself speaks with your lips, Simanovsky. Dish-washer, cook, maid, housekeeper ... but, in the first place, it's doubtful if she's capable for that; in the second place, she has already been a maid and has tasted all the sweets of masters' bawlings out, and masters' pinches behind doors, in the corridor. Tell me, is it possible you don't know that ninety per cent, of prostitution is recruited from the number of female servants? And, therefore, poor Liuba, at the very first injustice, at the first rebuff, will the more easily and readily go just there where I have gotten her out of; if not even worse, because for her that's customary and not so frightful; and, perhaps, it will even seem desirable after the masters' treatment. And besides that, is it worth while for me--that is, I want to say--is it worth while for all of us, to go to so much trouble, to try so hard and put ourselves out so, if, after having saved a being from one slavery, we only plunge her into another?"
"Right," confirmed Soloviev.
"Just as you wish," drawled Simanovsky with a disdainful air.
"But as far as I'm concerned," said the prince, "I'm ready, as a friend and a curious man, to be present at this experiment and to participate in it. But even this morning I warned you, that there have been such experiments before and that they have always ended in ignominious failure, at least those of which we know personally; while those of which we know only by hearsay are dubious as regards authenticity. But you have begun the business-- and go on with it. We are your helpers."
Lichonin struck the table with his palm.
"No!" he exclaimed stubbornly. "Simanovsky is partly right concerning the great danger of a person's being led in leading strings. But I don't see any other way out. In the beginning I'll help her with room and board... find some easy work, buy the necessary accessories for her. Let be what may! And let us do everything in order to educate her mind a little; and that her heart and soul are beautiful, of that I am sure. I've no grounds for the faith, but I am sure, I almost know. Nijeradze! Don't clown!" he cried abruptly, growing pale, "I've restrained myself several times already at your fool pranks. I have until now held you as a man of conscience and feeling. One more inappropriate witticism, and I'll change my opinion of you; and know, that it's forever."
"Well, now, I didn't mean anything... Really, I... Why go all up in the air, me soul? You don't like that I'm a gay fellow, well, I'll be quiet. Give me your hand, Lichonin, let's drink!"
"Well, all right, get away from me. Here's to your health! Only don't behave like a little boy, you Ossetean ram. Well, then, I continue, gentlemen. If we find anything which might satisfy the just opinion of Simanovsky about the dignity of independent toil, unsustained by anything, then I shall stick to my system: to teach Liuba whatever is possible, to take her to the theatre, to expositions, to popular lectures, to museums; to read aloud to her, give her the possibility of hearing music--comprehensible music, of course. It's understood, I alone won't be able to manage all this. I expect help from you; and after that, whatever God may will."
"Oh, well," said Simanovsky, "the work is new, not threadbare; and how can we know the unknowable--perhaps you, Lichonin, will become the spiritual father of a good being. I, too, offer my services."
"And I! And I!" the other two seconded; and right there, without getting up from the table, the four students worked out a very broad and very wondrous program of education and enlightenment for Liubka.
Soloviev took upon himself to teach the girl grammar and writing. In order not to tire her with tedious lessons, and as a reward for successes, he would read aloud for her artistic fiction, Russian and foreign, easy of comprehension. Lichonin left for himself the teaching of arithmetic, geography and history.
While the prince said simple-heartedly, without his usual facetiousness this time:
"I, my children, don't know anything; while that which I do know, I know very badly. But I'll read to her the remarkable production of the great Georgian poet Rustavelli, and translate it line by line. I confess to you, that I'm not much of a pedagogue: I tried to be a tutor, but they politely chased me out after only the second lesson. Still, no one can teach better playing on a guitar, mandolin, and the bagpipes!"
Nijeradze was speaking with perfect seriousness, and for that reason Lichonin with Soloviev good-naturedly started laughing; but with entire unexpectedness, to the general amazement of all, Simanovsky sustained him.
"The prince speaks common sense. To have the mastery of an instrument elevates the aesthetic sense, in any case; and is even a help in life. And I, for my part, gentlemen ... I propose to read with the young person the Capital of Marx, and the history of human culture. And to take up chemistry and physics with her, besides."
If it were not for the customary authority of Simanovsky and the importance with which he spoke, the remaining three would have burst into laughter in his face. They only stared at him, with eyes popping out.
"Well, yes," continued Simanovsky imperturbably, "I'll show her a whole series of chemical and physical experiments, which it is possible to carry on at home; which are always amusing and beneficial to the mind; and which eradicate prejudices. Incidentally, I'll explain something of the structure of the world, of the properties of matter. And as far as Karl Marx is concerned, just remember, that great books are equally accessible to the understanding both of a scholar and an unlettered peasant, if only comprehensibly presented. And every great thought is simple."
Lichonin found Liubka at the place agreed upon, on a bench of the boulevard. She went home with him very unwillingly. Just as Lichonin had supposed, meeting the grumbling Alexandra was a fearful thing to her, who had long since grown unused to every-day actuality; harsh, and plentiful with all sorts of unpleasantnesses. And besides that, the fact that Lichonin did not want to conceal her past acted oppressively upon her. But she, who had long ago lost her will in the establishment of Anna Markovna, deprived of her personality, ready to follow after the call of every stranger, did not tell him a word and walked after him.
The crafty Alexandra had already managed during this time to run to the superintendent of the houses and to complain to him, that, now, Lichonin had come with some miss, had passed the night with her in the room; but who she is, that Alexandra don't know; that Lichonin says she is his first cousin, like; but did not present a passport. It was necessary to explain things at great length, diffusedly and tiresomely, to the superintendent, a coarse and insolent man, who bore himself to all the tenants in the house as toward a conquered city; and feared only the students slightly, because they gave him a severe rebuff at times. Lichonin propitiated him only when he rented on the spot another room, several rooms away from his, for Liubka; under the very slope of the roof, so that it represented on the inside a sharply cut-off, low, four-sided pyramid, with one little window.
"But still, Mr. Lichonin, just you present the passport to-morrow without fail," said the superintendent insistently at parting. "Since you're a respectable man, hard-working, and you and I are long acquainted, also you pay punctually, I am willing to do it only for you. You know yourself what hard times these are. If some one tells on me, they'll not only fire me, but they can put me out of town as well. They're strict now."
In the evening Lichonin strolled with Liubka through Prince Park, listened to the music playing in the aristocratic club, and returned home early. He escorted Liubka to the door of her room and at once took leave of her; kissing her, however, tenderly on the brow, like a father. But after ten minutes, when he was already lying in bed undressed and reading the statutes of state, Liubka, having scratched on his door like a cat, suddenly entered his room.
"Darling, sweetie! Excuse me for troubling you. Haven't you a needle and thread? But don't get angry at me; I'll go away at once."
"Liuba! I beg of you to go away not at once, but this second. Finally, I demand it!"
"My dearie, my pretty," Liubka began to intone laughably and piteously, "well, what are you yelling at me for all the time?" and, in a moment, having blown upon the candle, she nestled up to him in the darkness, laughing and crying.
"No, Liuba, this must not be. It's impossible to go on like this," Lichonin was saying ten minutes later, standing at the door, wrapped up in his blanket, like a Spanish hidalgo in a cape. "To- morrow at the latest I'll rent a room for you in another house. And, in general, don't let this occur! God be with you, and good night! Still, you must give me your word of honour that our relations will be merely friendly."
"I give it, dearie, I give it, I give it, I give it!" she began to prattle, smiling; and quickly smacked him first on the lips and then on his hand.
The last action was altogether instinctive; and, perhaps, unexpected even to Liubka herself. Never yet in her life had she kissed any man's hand, save a priest's. Perhaps she wanted to express through this her gratitude to Lichonin, and a prostration before him as before a higher being.