Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
Among Russian intelligents, as has already been noted by many, there is a decent quantity of wonderful people; true children of the Russian land and culture, who would be able heroically, without the quivering of a single muscle, to look straight in the face of death; who are capable for the sake of an idea of bearing unconceivable privations and sufferings, equal to torture; but then, these people are lost before the haughtiness of a doorman; shrink from the yelling of a laundress; while into a police station they enter in an insufferable and timid distress. And precisely such a one was Lichonin. On the following day (yesterday it had been impossible on account of a holiday and the lateness), having gotten up very early and recollecting that to-day he had to take care of Liubka's passport, he felt just as bad as when in former times, as a high-school boy, he went to an examination, knowing that he would surely fall through. His head ached, while his arms and legs somehow seemed another's; in addition, a drizzling and seemingly dirty rain had been falling on the street since morning. "Always, now, when there's some unpleasantness in store, there is inevitably a rain falling," reflected Lichonin, dressing slowly.
It was not especially far from his street to the Yamskaya, not more than two-thirds of a mile. In general, he was not infrequently in those parts, but he had never had occasion to go there in the daytime; and on the way it seemed to him all the time that every one he met, every cabby and policeman, was looking at him with curiosity, with reproach, or with disdain, as though surmising the destination of his journey. As always on a nasty and muggy morning, all the faces that met his eyes seemed pale, ugly, with monstrously underlined defects. Scores of times he imagined all that he would say in the beginning at the house; and later at the station house; and every time the outcome was different. Angry at himself for this premature rehearsal, he would at times stop himself:
"Ah! You mustn't think, you mustn't presuppose what you're going to say. It always turns out far better when it's done right off..."
And then again imaginary dialogues would run through his head:
"You have no right to hold this girl against her wish."
"Yes, but let her herself give notice about going away."
"I act at her instruction."
"All right; but how can you prove this?" and again he would mentally cut himself short.
The city common began, on which cows were browsing; a board sidewalk along a fence; shaky little bridges over little brooklets and ditches. Then he turned into the Yamskaya. In the house of Anna Markovna all the windows were closed with shutters, with openings, in the form of hearts, cut out in the middle. And all of the remaining houses on the deserted street, desolated as though after a pestilence, were closed as well. With a contracting heart Lichonin pulled the bell-handle.
A maid, barefooted, with skirt caught up, with a wet rag in her hand, with face striped from dirt, answered the bell--she had just been washing the floor.
"I'd like to see Jennka," timidly requested Lichonin.
"Well, now, the young lady is busy with a guest. They haven't waked up yet."
"Well, Tamara then."
The maid looked at him mistrustfully.
"Miss Tamara--I don't know... I think she's busy too. But what you want--to pay a visit, or what?"
"Ah, isn't it all the same! A visit, let's say."
"I don't know. I'll go and look. Wait a while."
She went away, leaving Lichonin in the half-dark drawing room. The blue pillars of dust, coming from the openings in the shutters, pierced the heavy obscurity in all directions. Like hideous spots stood out of the gray murkiness the bepainted furniture and the sweetish oleographs on the walls. It smelt of yesterday's tobacco, of dampness, sourness; and of something else peculiar, indeterminate, uninhabited, of which places that are lived in only temporarily always smell in the morning--such as empty theatres, dance-halls, auditoriums. Far off in the city a droshky rumbled intermittently. The wall-clock monotonously ticked behind the wall. In a strange agitation Lichonin walked back and forth through the drawing room and rubbed and kneaded his trembling hands, and for some reason was stooping and felt cold.
"I shouldn't have started all this false comedy," he thought with irritation. "It goes without saying that I've now become the by- word of the entire university. The devil nudged me! And even during the day yesterday it wasn't too late, when she was saying that she was ready to go back. All I had to do was to give her for a cabby and a little pin money, and she'd have gone, and all would have been fine; and I would be independent now, free, and wouldn't be undergoing this tormenting and ignominious state of spirits. But it's too late to retreat now. To-morrow it'll be still later, and the day after to-morrow--still more. Having pulled off one fool stunt, it must be immediately put a stop to; but on the other hand, if you don't do that in time, it draws two others after it, and they--twenty new ones. Or, perhaps, it's not too late now? Why, she's silly, undeveloped, and, probably, a hysteric, like the rest of them. She's an animal, fit only for stuffing herself and for the bed. Oh! The devil!" Lichonin forcefully squeezed his cheeks and his forehead between his hands and shut his eyes. "And if I had but held out against the common, coarse, physical temptation! There, you see for yourself, this has happened twice already; and then it'll go on and on ..."
But side by side with these ran other thoughts, opposed to them:
"But then, I'm a man. I am master of my word. For that which urged me on to this deed was splendid, noble, lofty. I remember very well that rapture which seized me when my thought transpired into action! That was a pure, tremendous feeling. Or was it simply an extravagance of the mind, whipped up by alcohol; the consequence of a sleepless night, smoking, and long, abstract conversations?"
And immediately Liubka would appear before him, appear at a distance, as though out of the misty depths of time; awkward, timid, with her homely and endearing face, which had at once come to seem of infinitely close kinship; long, long familiar, and at the same time unpleasant--unjustly, without cause.
"Can it be that I'm a coward and a rag?" cried Lichonin inwardly and wrung his hands. "What am I afraid of, before whom am I embarrassed? Have I not always prided myself upon being sole master of my life? Let's suppose, even, that the phantasy, the extravagance, of making a psychological experiment upon a human soul--a rare experiment, unsuccessful in ninety-nine percent--has entered my head. Is it possible that I must render anybody an account in this, or fear anybody's opinion? Lichonin! Look down upon mankind from above!"
Jennie walked into the room, dishevelled, sleepy, in a night jacket on top of a white underskirt.
"A-a!" she yawned, extending her hand to Lichonin. "How d'you do, my dear student! How does your Liubochka feel herself in the new place? Call me in as a guest some time. Or are you spending your honeymoon on the quiet? Without any outside witnesses?"
"Drop the silly stuff, Jennechka. I came about the passport."
"So-o. About the passport," Jennka went into thought. "That is, there's no passport here, but you must take a blank from the housekeeper. You understand, our usual prostitute's blank; and then they'll exchange it for you for a real book at the station house. Only you see, my dear, I will be but ill help to you in this business. They are as like as not to beat me up if I come near a housekeeper or a porter. But here's what you do. You'd best send the maid for the housekeeper; tell her to say that a certain guest, now, a steady one, has come on business; that it's very urgent to see her personally. But you must excuse me--I'm going to back out, and don't you be angry, please. You know yourself-- charity begins at home. But why should you hang around by yourself in this here darkness? You'd better go into the cabinet. If you want to, I'll send you beer there. Or, perhaps you want coffee? Or else," and her eyes sparkled slyly, "or else a girlie, perhaps? Tamara is busy, but may be Niura or Verka will do?"
"Stop it, Jennie! I came about a serious and important matter, but you ..."
"Well, well, I won't, I won't! I said it just so. I see that you observe faithfulness. That's very noble on your part. Let's go, then."
She led him into the cabinet, and, opening the inner bolt of the shutter, threw it wide open. The daylight softly and sadly splashed against the red and gold walls, over the candelabra, over the soft red velveteen furniture.
"Right here it began," reflected Lichonin with sad regret.
"I am going," said Jennka. "Don't you knuckle down too much before her, and Simeon too. Abuse them for all you're worth. It's daytime now, and they won't dare do anything to you. If anything happens, tell them straight that, now, you're going to the governor immediately and are going to tell on them. Tell 'em, that they'll be closed up and put out of town in twenty-four hours. Bawl 'em out and they get like silk. Well, now, I wish you success."
She went away. After ten minutes had passed, into the cabinet floated Emma Edwardovna, the housekeeper, in a blue satin pegnoir; corpulent, with an important face, broadening from the forehead down to the cheeks, just like a monstrous squash; with all her massive chins and breasts; with small, keen eyes, without eyelashes; with thin, malicious, compressed lips. Lichonin, arising, pressed the puffy hand extended to him, studded with rings, and suddenly thought with aversion:
"The devil take it! If this vermin had a soul, if it were possible to read this soul--then how many direct and indirect murders are lurking hidden within it!"
It must be said, that in starting out for the Yamkas, Lichonin, besides money, had fetched a revolver along with him; and on the road, while walking, he had frequently shoved his hand into his pocket and had there felt the chill contact of the metal. He expected affront, violence, and was prepared to meet them in a suitable manner. But, to his amazement, all that he had presupposed and had feared proved a timorous, fantastic fiction. The business was far more simple, more wearisome and more prosaic, and at the same time more unpleasant.
"Ja, mein Herr," said the housekeeper indifferently and somewhat loftily, settling into a low chair and lighting a cigarette. "You pay for one night and instead of that took already the girl for one more night and one more day. Also, you owe twenty-five more roubles yet. When we let off a girlie for a night we take ten roubles, and for the twenty-four hours twenty-five roubles. That's a tax, like. Don't you want a smoke, young man?" she stretched out her case, and Lichonin, without himself knowing why, took a cigarette.
"I wanted to talk with you about something else entirely."
"O! Don't trouble yourself to speak: I understand everything very well. Probably the young man wants to take these girl, those Liubka, altogether to himself to set her up, or in order to--how do you Russians call it?--in order to safe her? Yes, yes, yes, that happens. Twenty-two years I live in a brothel, and I know, that this happens with very foolish young peoples. But only I assure you, that from this will come nothing out."
"Whether it will come out or whether it won't come out--that is already my affair," answered Lichonin dully, looking down at his fingers, trembling on his knees.
"O, of course, it's your affair, my young student," and the flabby cheeks and majestic chins of Emma Edwardovna began to jump from inaudible laughter. "From my soul I wish for you love and friendship; but only trouble yourself to tell this nasty creature, this Liubka, that she shouldn't dare to show even her nose here, when you throw her out into the street like a little doggie. Let her croak from hunger under a fence, or go into a half-rouble establishment for the soldiers!"
"Believe me, she won't return. I ask you merely to give me her certificate, without delay."
"The certificate? Ach, if you please! Even this very minute. Only I will first trouble you to pay for everything that she took here on credit. Have a look, here is her account book. I took it along with me on purpose. I knew already with what our conversation would end." She took out of the slit of her pegnoir--showing Lichonin for just a minute her fat, full-fleshed, yellow, enormous breast--a little book in a black cover, with the heading: Account of Miss Irene Voschhenkova in the House of Ill-Fame, Maintained by Anna Markovna Shaibes, on Yam-Skaya Street, No. So-and-So, and extended it to him across the table. Lichonin turned over the first page and read through four or five paragraphs of the printed rules. There dryly and briefly it was stated that the account book consists of two copies, of which one is kept by the proprietress while the other remains with the prostitute; that all income and expense were entered into both books; that by agreement the prostitute receives board, quarters, heat, light, bed linen, baths and so forth, and for this pays out to the proprietress in no case more than two-thirds of her earnings; while out of the remaining money she is bound to dress neatly and decently, having no less than two dresses for going out. Further, mention was made of the fact that payment was made with the help of stamps, which the proprietress gives out to the prostitute upon receipt of money from her; while the account is drawn up at the end of every month. And, finally, that the prostitute can at any time leave the house of prostitution, even if there does remain a debt of hers, which, however, she binds herself to cancel on the basis of general civil laws.
Lichonin prodded the last point with his finger, and, having turned the face of the book to the housekeeper, said triumphantly:
"Aha! There, you see: she has the right to leave the house at any time. Consequently, she can at any time quit your abominable dive of violence, baseness, and depravity, in which you ..." Lichonin began rattling off, but the housekeeper calmly cut him short:
"O! I have no doubt of this. Let her go away. Let her only pay the money."
"What about promissory notes? She can give promissory notes."
"Pst! Promissory notes! In the first place, she's illiterate; while in the second, what are her promissory notes worth? A spit and no more. Let her find a surety who would be worthy of trust, and then I have nothing against it."
"But, then, there's nothing said in the rules about sureties."
"There's many a thing not said! In the rules it also does not say that it's permitted to carry a girlie out of the house, without giving warning to the owners."
"But in any case you'll have to give me her blank."
"I will never do such a foolishness! Come here with some respectable person and with the police; and let the police certify that this friend of yours is a man of means; and let this man stand surety for you; and let, besides that, the police certify that you are not taking the girl in order to trade in her, or to sell her over to another stablishment--then as you please! Hand and foot!"
"The devil!" exclaimed Lichonin. "But if that surety will be I, I myself! If I'll sign your promissory notes right away ..."
"Young man! I don't know what you are taught in your different universities, but is it possible that you reckon me such a positive fool? God grant, that you have, besides those which are on you, still some other pants! God grant, that you should even the day after have for dinner the remnants of sausages from the sausage shop, and yet you say--a promissory note! What are you bothering my head for?"
Lichonin grew completely angry. He drew his wallet out of his pocket and slapped it down on the table.
"In that case I pay in cash and immediately!"
"Ach, that's a business of another kind," sweetly, but still with mistrust, the housekeeper intoned. "I will trouble you to turn the page, and see what the bill of your beloved is."
"Keep still, you carrion!"
"I'm still, you fool," calmly responded the housekeeper.
On the small ruled pages on the left side was designated the income, on the right were the expenses.
"Received in stamps, 15th of April," read Lichonin, "10 roubles; 16th--4 roubles; 17th--12 roubles; 18th--sick; 19th--sick; 20th--6 roubles; 21st--24 roubles"
"My God!" with loathing, with horror, reflected Lichonin. "Twelve men in one night!"
At the end of the month stood:
"Total 330 roubles."
"Lord! Why, this is some sort of delirium! One hundred and sixty- five visits," thought Lichonin, having mechanically calculated it, and still continued turning the pages. Then he went over to the columns on the right.
"Made, a red dress of silk with lace 84 roubles Dressmaker Eldokimova. Dressing sack of lace 35 roubles Dressmaker Eldokimova. Silk stockings 6 pair 36 roubles," &c., &c. "Given for cab-fare, given for candy, perfumes bought," &c., &c. "Total 205 roubles." After that from the 330 roubles were deducted 220 roubles--the share of the proprietress for board and lodging. The figure of 110 roubles resulted. The end of the monthly account declared:
"Total after the payment to the dressmaker and for other articles, of 110 roubles, a debt of ninety-five (95) roubles remains for Irene Voschhenkova and with the four hundred and eighteen roubles remaining from last year--five hundred and thirteen (513) roubles."
Lichonin's spirits fell. He did try, at first, to be indignant at the expensiveness of the materials supplied; but the housekeeper retorted with sang froid that that did not concern her at all; that the establishment demanded only that the girl dress decently, as becomes a girl from a decent, genteel house; while it did not concern itself with the rest. The establishment merely extended her credit in paying her expenses.
"But this is a vixen, a spider in human shape--this dressmaker of yours!" yelled Lichonin beside himself. "Why, she's in a conspiracy with you, cupping glass that you are, you abominable tortoise! Scuttlefish! Where's your conscience?"
The more agitated he grew, the more calm and jeering Emma Edwardovna became.
"Again I repeat: that is not my business. And you, young man, don't express yourself like that, because I will call the porter, and he will throw you out of the door."
Lichonin was compelled to bargain with the cruel woman long, brutally, till he grew hoarse, before she agreed, in the end, to take two hundred and fifty roubles in cash, and two hundred roubles in promissory notes. And even that only when Lichonin with his half-yearly certificate proved to her that he was finishing this year and would become a lawyer.
The housekeeper went after the ticket, while Lichonin took to pacing the cabinet back and forth. He had already looked over all the pictures on the walls: Leda with the swan, and the bathing on the shore of the sea, and the odalisque in a harem, and the satyr, bearing a naked nymph in his arms; but suddenly a small printed placard, framed and behind glass, half covered by a portiere, attracted his attention. It was the first time that it had come across Lichonin's eyes, and the student with amazement and aversion read these lines, expressed in the dead, official language of police stations. There with shameful, businesslike coldness, were mentioned all possible measures and precautions against infections; the intimacies of feminine toilet; the weekly medical inspections and all the adaptations for them. Lichonin also read that no establishment was to be situated nearer than a hundred steps from churches, places of learning, and court buildings; that only persons of the female sex may maintain houses of prostitution; that only her relatives, and even then of the female sex exclusively, and none older than seven years, may live with the proprietress; and that the proprietors and the owners of the house, as well as the girls, must in their relations among themselves and the guests as well, observe politeness, quiet, civility and decency, by no means allowing themselves drunkenness, swearing and brawls. And also that the prostitute must not allow herself the caresses of love when in an intoxicated condition or with an intoxicated man; and in addition to that, during the time of certain functions. Here also the prostitutes were most strictly forbidden to commit abortions. "What a serious and moral view of things!" reflected Lichonin with a malicious sneer.
Finally the business with Emma Edwarodvna was concluded. Having taken the money and written out a receipt, she stretched it out to Lichonin together with the blank, while he stretched out the money to her; at which, during the time of the operation, they both looked at each other's eyes and hands intently and warily. It was apparent that they both felt no especially great mutual trust. Lichonin put the documents away in his wallet and was preparing to depart. The housekeeper escorted him to the very stoop, and when the student was already standing in the street, she, remaining on the steps, leaned out and called after him:
"Student! Hey! Student!"
He stopped and turned around.
"And here's another thing. Now I must tell you, that your Liubka is trash, a thief, and sick with syphilis! None of our good guests wanted to take her; and anyway, if you had not taken her, then we would have thrown her out to-morrow! I will also tell you, that she had to do with the porter, with policemen, with janitors, and with petty thieves. Congratulations on your lawful marriage!"
"Oo-ooh! Vermin!" Lichonin roared back at her.
"You green blockhead!" called out the housekeeper and banged the door.
Lichonin went to the station house in a cab. On the way he recalled that he had not had time to look at the blank properly, at this renowned "yellow ticket," of which he had heard so much. This was an ordinary small white sheet, no larger than a postal envelope. On one side, in the proper column, were written out the name, father's name, and family name of Liubka, and her profession--"Prostitute"; and on the other side, concise extracts from the paragraphs of that placard which he had just read through--infamous, hypocritical rules about behaviour and external and internal cleanliness. "Every visitor." he read, "has the right to demand from the prostitute the written certificate of the doctor who has inspected her the last time." And again sentimental pity overcame the heart of Lichonin.
"Poor women!" he reflected with grief. "What only don't they do with you, how don't they abuse you, until you grow accustomed to everything, just like blind horses on a treadmill!" In the station house he was received by the district inspector, Kerbesh. He had spent the night on duty, had not slept his fill, and was angry. His luxurious, fan-shaped red beard was crumpled. The right half of the ruddy face was still crimsonly glowing from lying long on the uncomfortable oilcloth pillow. But the amazing, vividly blue eyes, cold and luminous, looked clear and hard, like blue porcelain. Having ended interrogating, recording, and cursing out with obscenities the throng of ragamuffins, taken in during the night for sobering up and now being sent out over their own districts, he threw himself against the back of the divan, put his hands behind his neck, and stretched with all his enormous, heroic body so hard that all his ligaments and joints cracked. He looked at Lichonin just as at a thing, and asked:
"And what will you have, Mr. Student?"
Lichonin stated his business briefly.
"And so I want," he concluded, to take her to me ... how is this supposed to be done with you? ... in the capacity of a servant, or, if you want, a relative, in a word ... how is it done? ..."
"Well, in the capacity of a kept mistress or a wife, let's say," indifferently retorted Kerbesh and twirled in his hands a silver cigar case with monograms and little figures. "I can do absolutely nothing for you ... at least right now. If you desire to marry her, present a suitable permit from your university authorities. But if you're taking her on maintenance--then just think, where's the logic in that? You're taking a girl out of a house of depravity, in order to live with her in depraved cohabitation."
"A servant, finally," Lichonin put in.
"And even a servant. I'd trouble you to present an affidavit from your landlord--for, I hope, you're not a houseowner? Very well, then, an affidavit from your landlord, as to your being in a position to keep a servant; and besides that, all the documents, testifying that you're that very person you give yourself out to be; an affidavit, for instance, from your district and from the university, and all that sort of thing. For you, I hope, are registered? Or, perhaps, you are now, eh? ... Of the illegal ones?
"No, I am registered!" retorted Lichonin, beginning to lose patience.
"And that's splendid. But the young lady, about whom you're troubling yourself?"
"No, she's not registered as yet. But I have her blank in my possession, which, I hope, you'll exchange for a real passport for me, and then I'll register her at once."
Kerbesh spread his arms out wide, then again began toying with the cigar case.
"Can't do anything for you, Mr. Student, just nothing at all, until you present all the papers required. As far as the girl's concerned, why, she, as one not having the right of residence, will be sent to the police without delay, and there detained; unless she personally desires to go there, where you've taken her from. I've the honour of wishing you good day."
Lichonin abruptly pulled his hat over his eyes and went toward the door. But suddenly an ingenious thought flashed through his head, from which, however, he himself became disgusted. And feeling nausea in the pit of his stomach, with clammy, cold hands, experiencing a sickening pinching in his toes, he again walked up to the table and said as though carelessly, but with a catch in his voice:
"Pardon me, inspector. I've forgotten the most important thing; a certain mutual acquaintance of ours has instructed me to transmit to you a small debt of his."
"Hm! An acquaintance?" asked Kerbesh, opening wide his magnificent azure eyes. "And who may he be?"
"Bar ... Barbarisov."
"Ah, Barbarisov? So, so, so, I recollect, I recollect!"
"So then, won't you please accept these ten roubles?"
Kerbesh shook his head, but did not take the bit of paper.
"Well, but this Barbarisov of yours--that is, ours--is a swine. It isn't ten roubles he owes me at all, but a quarter of a century. What a scoundrel! Twenty-five roubles and some small change besides. Well, the small change, of course, I won't count up to him. God be with him! This, you see, is a billiard debt. I must say that he's a blackguard, plays crookedly ... And so, young man, dig up fifteen more."
"Well, but you are a knave, Mr. Inspector!" said Lichonin, getting out the money.
"Oh, mercy!" by now altogether good-naturedly retorted Kerbesh. "A wife, children ... You know yourself what our salary is ... Receive the little passport, young man. Sign your receipt. Best wishes."
A queer thing! The consciousness that the passport was, finally, in his pocket, for some reason suddenly calmed and again braced up and elevated Lichonin's nerves.
"Oh, well!" he thought, walking quickly along the street, "the very beginning has been laid down, the most difficult part has been done. Hold fast, now, Lichonin, and don't fall in spirit! What you've done is splendid and lofty. Let me be even a victim of this deed--it's all one! It's a shame, having done a good deed, to expect rewards for it right away. I'm not a little circus dog, and not a trained camel, and not the first pupil of a young ladies' genteel institute. Only it was useless for me to let loose yesterday before these bearers of enlightenment. It all turned out to be silly, tactless, and, in any case, premature. But everything in life is reparable. A person will sustain the heaviest, most disgraceful things; but, time passes, and they are recalled as trifles ..."
To his amazement, Liubka was not especially struck, and did not at all become overjoyed when he triumphantly showed her the passport. She was only glad to see Lichonin again. Perhaps, this primitive, naive soul had already contrived to cleave to its protector? She did throw herself upon his neck, but he stopped her, and quietly, almost in her ear, asked her:
"Liubka, tell me ... don't be afraid to tell the truth, no matter what it may be ... They told me just now, there in the house, that you're sick with a certain disease ... you know, that which is called the evil sickness. If you believe in me even to some extent, tell me, my darling, tell me, is that so or not?"
She turned red, covered her face with her hands, fell down on the divan and burst into tears.
"My dearie! Vassil Vassilich! Vasinka! Honest to God! Honest to God, now, there never was anything of the kind! I always was so careful! I was awfully afraid of this. I love you so! I would have told you without fail." She caught his hands, pressed them to her wet face and continued to assure him with the absurd and touching sincerity of an unjustly accused child.
And he at once believed her in his soul.
"I believe you, my child," he said quietly, stroking her hair. "Don't excite yourself, don't cry. Only let us not again give in to our weakness. Well, it has happened--let it have happened; but let us not repeat it any more.'
"As you wish," prattled the girl, kissing now his hands, now the cloth of his coat. "If I displease you so, then, of course, let it be as you wish."
However, this evening also the temptation was again repeated, and kept on repeating until the falls from grace ceased to arouse a burning shame in Lichonin, and turned into a habit, swallowing and extinguishing remorse.