Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
A long, long time ago, long before the railroads, the stage- drivers--both government and private--used to live, from generation to generation, at the very farthest confine of a large southern city. And that is why the entire region was called the Yamskaya Sloboda--the Stage-drivers' Borough; or simply Yamskaya, or Yamkas--Little Ditches, or, shorter still, Yama--The Pit. In the course of time, when hauling by steam killed off transportation by horses, the mettlesome tribe of the stage- drivers little by little lost its boisterous ways and its brave customs, went over into other occupations, fell apart and scattered. But for many years--even up to this time--a shady renown has remained to Yama, as of a place exceedingly gay, tipsy, brawling, and in the night-time not without danger.
Somehow it came about of itself, that on the ruins of those ancient, long-warmed nests, where of yore the rosy-cheeked, sprightly wives of the soldiery and the plump widows of Yama, with their black eyebrows, had secretly traded in vodka and free love, there began to spring up wide-open brothels, permitted by the authorities, regulated by official supervision and subject to express, strict rules. Towards the end of the nineteenth century both streets of Yama--Great Yamskaya and Little Yamskaya--proved to be entirely occupied, on one side of the street as well as the other, exclusively with houses of ill-fame. [Footnote: "Houses of Suffrance"--i.e., Houses of the Necessary Evil.--Trans.] Of the private houses no more than five or six were left, but even they were taken up by public houses, beer halls, and general stores, catering to the needs of Yama prostitution.
The course of life, the manners and customs, are almost identical in all the thirty-odd establishments; the difference is only in the charges exacted for the briefly-timed love, and consequently in certain external minutiae as well: in the assortment of more or less handsome women, in the comparative smartness of the costumes, in the magnificence of the premises and the luxuriousness of the furnishings.
The most chic establishment is that of Treppel, the first house to the left upon entering Great Yamskaya. This is an old firm. Its present owner bears an entirely different name, and fills the post of an elector in the city council and is even a member of the city board. The house is of two stories, green and white, built in the debauched pseudo-Russian style a la Ropetovsky, with little horses, carved facings, roosters, and wooden towels bordered with lace-also of wood; a carpet with a white runner on the stairs; in the front hall a stuffed bear, holding a wooden platter for visiting cards in his out-stretched paws; a parquet floor in the ballroom, heavy raspberry silk curtains and tulle on the windows, along the walls white and gold chairs and mirrors with gilt frames; there are two private cabinets with carpets, divans, and soft satin puffs; in the bedrooms blue and rose lanterns, blankets of raw silk stuff and clean pillows; the inmates are clad in low- cut ball gowns, bordered with fur, or in expensive masquerade costumes of hussars, pages, fisher lasses, school-girls; and the majority of them are Germans from the Baltic provinces--large, handsome women, white of body and with ample breasts. At Treppel's three roubles are taken for a visit, and for the whole night, ten.
Three of the two-rouble establishments--Sophie Vassilievna's, The Old Kiev, and Anna Markovna's--are somewhat worse, somewhat poorer. The remaining houses on Great Yamskaya are rouble ones; they are furnished still worse. While on Little Yamskaya, which is frequented by soldiers, petty thieves, artisans, and drab folk In general, and where fifty kopecks or less are taken for time, things are altogether filthy and poor-the floor in the parlor is crooked, warped, and full of splinters, the windows are hung with pieces of red fustian; the bedrooms, just like stalls, are separated by thin partitions, which do not reach to the ceiling, and on the beds, on top of the shaken down hay-mattresses, are scattered torn, spotted bed-sheets and flannel blankets, dark from time, crumpled any old way, full of holes; the air is sour and full of fumes, with a mixture of alcohol vapours and the smell of human emanations; the women, dressed in rags of coloured printed calico or in sailor costumes, are for the greater part hoarse or snuffling, with noses half fallen through, with faces preserving traces of yesterday's blows and scratches and naively bepainted with the aid of a red cigarette box moistened with spit.
All the year round, every evening--with the exception of the last three days of Holy Week and the night before Annunciation, when no bird builds its nest and a shorn wench does not plait her braid-- when it barely grows dark out of doors, hanging red lanterns are lit before every house, above the tented, carved street doors. It is just like a holiday out on the street--like Easter. All the windows are brightly lit up, the gay music of violins and pianos floats out through the panes, cabmen drive up and drive off without cease. In all the houses the entrance doors are opened wide, and through them one may see from the street a steep staircase with a narrow corridor on top, and the white flashing of the many-facetted reflector of the lamp, and the green walls of the front hall, painted over with Swiss landscapes. Till the very morning hundreds and thousands of men ascend and descend these staircases. Here everybody frequents: half-shattered, slavering ancients, seeking artificial excitements, and boys-military cadets and high-school lads--almost children; bearded paterfamiliases; honourable pillars of society, in goldon spectacles; and newly- weds, and enamoured bridegrooms, and honourable professors with renowned names; and thieves, and murderers, and liberal lawyers; and strict guardians of morals--pedagogues, and foremost writers-- the authors of fervent, impassioned articles on the equal rights of women; and catchpoles, and spies, and escaped convicts, and officers, and students, and Social Democrats, and hired patriots; the timid and the brazen, the sick and the well, those knowing woman for the first time, and old libertines frayed by all species of vice; clear-eyed, handsome fellows and monsters maliciously distorted by nature, deaf-mutes, blind men, men without noses, with flabby, pendulous bodies, with malodorous breath, bald, trembling, covered with parasites--pot-bellied, hemorrhoidal apes. They come freely and simply, as to a restaurant or a depot; they sit, smoke, drink, convulsively pretend to be merry; they dance, executing abominable movements of the body imitative of the act of sexual love. At times attentively and long, at times with gross haste, they choose any woman they like and know beforehand that they will never meet refusal. Impatiently they pay their money in advance, and on the public bed, not yet grown cold after the body of their predecessor, aimlessly commit the very greatest and most beautiful of all universal mysteries--the mystery of the conception of new life. And the women with indifferent readiness, with uniform words, with practiced professional movements, satisfy their desires, like machines--only to receive, right after them, during the same night, with the very same words, smiles and gestures, the third, the fourth, the tenth man, not infrequently already biding his turn in the waiting room.
So passes the entire night. Towards daybreak Yama little by little grows quiet, and the bright morning finds it depopulated, spacious, plunged into sleep, with doors shut tightly, with shutters fixed on the windows. But toward evening the women awaken and get ready for the following night.
And so without end, day after day, for months and years, they live a strange, incredible life in their public harems, outcast by society, accursed by the family, victims of the social temperament, cloacas for the excess of the city's sensuality, the guardians of the honour of the family--four hundred foolish, lazy, hysterical, barren women.