Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
A fine rain, like dust, obstinate and tedious, had been drizzling since morning. Platonov was working in the port at the unloading of watermelons. At the mill, where he had since the very summer proposed to establish himself, luck had turned against him; after a week he had already quarreled, and almost had a fight, with the foreman, who was extremely brutal with the workers. About a month Sergei Ivanovich had struggled along somehow from hand to mouth, somewheres in the back-yards of Temnikovskaya Street, dragging into the editorial rooms of The Echoes, from time to time, notes of street accidents or little humorous scenes from the court rooms of the justices of the peace. But the hard newspaper game had long ago grown distasteful to him. He was always drawn to adventures, to physical labour in the fresh air, to life completely devoid of even the least hint at comfort; to care-free vagabondage, in which a man, having cast from him all possible external conditions, does not know himself what is going to be with him on the morrow. And for that reason, when from the lower stretches of the Dnieper the first barges with watermelons started coming in, he willingly entered a gang of labourers, in which he was known even from last year, and loved for his merry nature, for his comradely spirit, and for his masterly ability of keeping count.
This labour was carried on with good team work and with skill. Four parties, each of five men, worked on each barge. Number one would reach for a watermelon and pass it on to the second, who was standing on the side of the barge. The second cast it to the third, standing already on the wharf; the third threw it over to the fourth; while the fourth handed it up to the fifth, who stood on a horse cart and laid the watermelons away--now dark-green, now white, now striped--into even glistening rows. This work is clean, lively, and progresses rapidly. When a good party is gotten up, it is a pleasure to see how the watermelons fly from hand to hand, are caught with a circus-like quickness and success, and anew, and anew, without a break, fly, in order to fill up the dray. It is only difficult for the novices, that have not as yet gained the skill, have not caught on to that especial sense of the tempo. And it is not as difficult to catch a watermelon as to be able to throw it.
Platonov remembered well his first experiences of last year. What swearing--virulent, mocking, coarse--poured down upon him when for the third or fourth time he had been gaping and had slowed up the passing: two watermelons, not thrown in time, had smashed against the pavement with a succulent crunch, while the completely lost Platonov dropped the one which he was holding in his hands as well. The first time they treated him gently; on the second day, however, for every mistake they began to deduct from him five kopecks per watermelon out of the common share. The following time when this happened, they threatened to throw him out of the party at once, without any reckoning. Platonov even now still remembered how a sudden fury seized him: "Ah, so? The devil take you!" he had thought. "And yet you want me to be chary of your watermelons? So then, here you are, here you are! ..." This flare-up helped him as though instantaneously. He carelessly caught the watermelons, just as carelessly threw them over, and to his amazement suddenly felt that precisely just now he had gotten into the real swing of the work with all his muscles, sight, and breathing; and understood, that the most important thing was not to think at all of the watermelons representing some value, and that then everything went well. When he, finally, had fully mastered this art, it served him for a long time as a pleasant and entertaining athletic game of its own kind. But that, too, passed away. He reached, in, the end, the stage where he felt himself a will-less, mechanical wheel in a general machine consisting of five men and an endless chain of flying watermelons.
Now he was number two. Bending downward rhythmically, he, without looking, received with both hands the cold, springy, heavy watermelon; swung it to the right; and, also almost without looking, or looking only out of the corner of his eye, tossed it downward, and immediately once again bent down for the next watermelon. And his ear seized at this time how smack-smack ...smack-smack...the caught watermelons slapped in the hands; and immediately bent downwards and again threw, letting the air out of himself noisily--ghe...ghe...
The present work was very profitable; their gang, consisting of forty men, had taken on the work, thanks to the great rush, not by the day but by the amount of work done, by the waggon load. Zavorotny, the head--an enormous, mighty Poltavian--had succeeded with extreme deftness in getting around the owner; a young man, and, to boot, in all probability not very experienced as yet. The owner, it is true, came to his senses later and wanted to change the stipulations; but experienced melon growers dissuaded him from it in time: "Drop it. They'll kill you," they told him simply and firmly. And so, through this very stroke of good luck every member of the gang was now earning up to four roubles a day. They all worked with unusual ardour, even with some sort of vehemence; and if it had been possible to measure with some apparatus the labour of each one of them, then, in all probability, the number of units of energy created would have equalled the work of a large Voronezhian train horse.
However, Zavorotny was not satisfied even with this--he hurried and hurried his lads on all the time. Professional ambition was speaking within him; he wanted to bring the daily earnings of every member of the gang up to five roubles per snout. And gaily, with unusual ease, twinkled from the harbour to the waggon, twirling and flashing, the wet green and white watermelons; and their succulent plashing resounded against accustomed palms.
But now a long blast sounded on the dredging machine in the port. A second, a third, responded to it on the river; a few more on shore; and for a long time they roared together in a mighty chorus of different voices.
"Ba-a-a-st-a-a!" hoarsely and thickly, exactly like a locomotive blast, Zavorotny started roaring.
And now the last smack-smack--and the work stopped instantaneously.
Platonov with enjoyment straightened out his back and bent it backward, and spread out his swollen arms. With pleasure he thought of having already gotten over that first pain in all the muscles, which tells so during the first days, when one is just getting back into the work after disuse. While up to this day, awaking in the mornings in his lair on Temnikovskaya--also to the sound of a factory blast agreed upon--he would during the first minutes experience such fearful pains in his neck, back, in his arms and legs, that it seemed to him as if only a miracle would be able to compel him to get up and make a few steps.
"Go-o-o and e-at," Zavorotny began to clamour again.
The stevedores went down to the water; got down on their knees or laid down flat on the gangplank or on the rafts; and, scooping up the water in handfuls, washed their wet, heated faces and arms. Right here, too, on the shore, to one side, where a little grass had been left yet, they disposed themselves for dinner: placed in a circle ten of the most ripe watermelons, black bread, and twenty dried porgies. Gavriushka the Bullet was already running with a half-gallon bottle to the pot-house and was singing as he went the soldiers' signal for dinner:
"Drag spoon and mess-kit out, If there's no bread, eat without."
A bare-footed urchin, dirty and so ragged that there was more of his bare body than clothes upon him, ran up to the gang.
"Which one of you here is Platonov?" he asked, quickly running over them with his thievish eyes.
"I'm Platonov, and by what name do they tease you?"
"Around the corner here, behind the church, some sort of a young lady is waiting for you...Here's a note for you."
The whole gang neighed deeply.
"What d'you open up your mouths for, you pack of fools!" said Platonov calmly. "Give me the note here."
This was a letter from Jennka, written in a round, naive, rolling, childish handwriting, and not very well spelt.
"Sergei Ivanich. Forgive me that I disturbe you. I must talk over a very, very important matter with you. I would not be troubling you if it was Trifles. For only 10 minutes in all. Jennka, whom you know, from Anna Markovna's."
Platonov got up.
"I'm going away for a little while," he said to Zavorotny. "When you begin, I'll be in my place."
"Now you've found somethin' to do," lazily and contemptuously said the head of the gang. "There's the night for that business...Go ahead, go ahead, who's holding you. But only if you won't be here when we begin work, then this day don't count. I'll take any tramp. And as many watermelons as he busts--that's out of your share, too...I didn't think it of you, Platonov--that you're such a he-dog..."
Jennka was waiting for him in the tiny little square, sheltered between a church and the wharf, and consisting of ten sorry poplars. She had on a gray, one-piece street dress; a simple, round, straw hat with a small black ribbon. "And yet, even though she has dressed herself simply," reflected Platonov, looking at her from a distance with his habitually puckered eyes, "and yet, every man will walk past, give a look, and inevitably look back three or four times; he'll feel the especial tone at once."
"Howdy do, Jennka! Very glad to see you," he said cordially, squeezing the girl's hand. "There, now, I didn't expect it!"
Jennka was reserved, sad, and apparently troubled over something. Platonov at once understood and sensed this.
"You excuse me, Jennechka, I must have dinner right away," said he, "so, perhaps, you'll go together with me and tell me what's the matter, while I'll manage to eat at the same time. There's a modest little inn not far from here. At this time there are no people there at all, and there's even a tiny little stall, a sort of a private room; that will be just the thing for you and me. Let's go! Perhaps you'll also have a bite of something."
"No. I won't eat," answered Jennka hoarsely, "and I won't detain you for long...a few minutes. I have to talk things over, have some advice--but I haven't anybody."
"Very well...Let's go then! In whatever way I can, I'm always at your service, in everything. I love you very much, Jennka!"
She looked at him sadly and gratefully.
"I know this, Serge Ivanovich; that's why I've come."
"You need money, perhaps? Just say so. I haven't got much with me, myself; but the gang will trust me with an advance."
"No, thanks...it isn't that at all. I'll tell everything at once, there, where we're going now."
In the dim, low-ceiled little inn, the customary haunt of petty thieves, where business was carried on only in the evening, until very far into the night, Platonov took the little half-dark cubby hole.
"Give me boiled meat, cucumbers, a large glass of vodka, and bread," he ordered the waiter.
The waiter--a young fellow with a dirty face; pugnosed; as dirty and greasy in all his person as though he had just been pulled out of a cesspool, wiped his lips and asked hoarsely:
"How many kopecks' bread?" "As much as it comes to." Then he started laughing:
"Bring as much as possible--we'll reckon it up later... and some bread cider!"
"Well, Jennie, say what your trouble is...I can already see by your face that there's trouble, or something distasteful in general...Go ahead and tell it!"
Jennka for a long time plucked her handkerchief and looked at the tips of her slippers, as though, gathering her strength. Timorousness had taken possession of her--the necessary and important words would not come into her mind, for anything. Platonov came to her aid: "Don't be embarrassed, my dear Jennie, tell all there is! For you know that I'm like one of the family, and will never give you away. And perhaps I may really give you some worth-while advice. Well, dive off with a splash into the water--begin!"
"That's just it, I don't know how to begin," said Jennka irresolutely. "Here's what, Sergei Ivanovich, I'm a sick woman...Understand?--sick in a bad way...With the most nasty disease...Do you know which?"
"Go on!" said Platonov, nodding his head.
"And I've been that way for a long time...more than a month...a month and a half, maybe...Yes, more than a month, because I found out about this on the Trinity..."
Platonov quickly rubbed his forehead with his hand. "Wait a while, I've recalled it...This was that day I was there together with the students...isn't that so?"
"That's right, Sergei Ivanovich, that's so..."
"Ah, Jennka," said Platonov reproachfully and with regret. "For do you know, that after this two of the students got sick...Wasn't it from you?"
Jennka wrathfully and disdainfully flashed her eyes.
"Perhaps even from me...How should I know? There were a lot of them...I remember there was this one, now, who was even trying to pick a fight with you all the time ...A tall sort of fellow, fair- haired, in pince-nez..."
"Yes, yes...That's Sobashnikov. They passed the news to me...That's he...that one was nothing--a little coxcomb! But then the other--him I'm sorry for. Although I've known him long, somehow I never made the right inquiries about his name...I only remember that he comes from some city or other-- Poliyansk...Zvenigorodsk... His comrades called him Ramses...When the physicians--he turned to several physicians--when they told him irrevocably that he had the lues, he went home and shot himself...And in the note that he wrote there were amazing things, something like this: I supposed all the meaning of life to be in the triumph of mind, beauty and good; with this disease I am not a man, but junk, rottenness, carrion; a candidate for a progressive paralytic. My human dignity cannot reconcile itself to this. But guilty in all that has happened, and therefore in my death as well, am I alone; for that I, obeying a momentary bestial inclination, took a woman without love, for money. For that reason have I earned the punishment which I myself lay upon me..."
"I am sorry for him..." added Platonov quietly.
Jennka dilated her nostrils.
"But I, now, not the very least bit."
"That's wrong...You go away now, young fellow. When I'll need you I'll call out," said Platonov to the serving-man "Absolutely wrong, Jennechka! This was an unusually big and forceful man. Such come only one to the hundreds of thousands. I don't respect suicides. Most frequent of all, these are little boys, who shoot and hang themselves over trifles, like a child that has not been given a piece of candy, and hits itself against the wall to spite those around it. But before his death I reverently and with sorrow bow my head. He was a wise, generous, kindly man, attentive to all; and, as you see, too strict to himself."
"But to me this is absolutely all one," obstinately contradicted Jennka, "wise or foolish, honest or dishonest, old or young--I have come to hate them all. Because--look upon me--what am I? Some sort of universal spittoon, cesspool, privy. Think of it, Platonov; why, thousands, thousands of people have taken me, clutched me; grunted, snorted over me; and all those who were, and all those who might yet have been on my bed--oh, how I hate them all! If I only could, I would sentence them to torture by fire and iron! ... I would order..."
"You are malicious and proud, Jennie," said Platonov quietly.
"I was neither malicious nor proud...It's only now. I wasn't ten yet when my own mother sold me; and since that time I've been travelling from hand to hand... If only some one had seen a human being in me! No! ... I am vermin, refuse, worse than a beggar, worse than a thief, worse than a murderer! ... Even a hangman...we have even such coming to the establishment--and even he would have treated me loftily, with loathing: I am nothing; I am a public wench! Do you understand, Sergei Ivanovich, what a horrible word this is? Pub-lic! ... This means nobody's: not papa's, not mamma's, not Russian, not Riyazan, but simply--public! And not once did it enter anybody's head to walk up to me and think: why, now, this is a human being too; she has a heart and a brain; she thinks of something, feels something; for she's not made out of wood, and isn't stuffed with straw, small hay, or excelsior! And yet, only I feel this. I, perhaps, am the only one out of all of them who feels the horror of her position; this black, stinking, filthy pit. But then, all the girls with whom I have met, and with whom I am living right now--understand, Platonov, understand me!-- why, they don't realize anything... Talking, walking pieces of meat! And this is even worse than my malice! ..."
"You are right!" said Platonov quietly. "And this is one of those questions where you'll always run up against a wall. No one will help you..."
"No one, no one! ..." passionately exclaimed Jennka. "Do you remember--this was while you were there: a student carried away our Liubka..."
"Why, certainly, I remember well! ... Well, and what then?"
"And this is what, that yesterday she came back tattered, wet...Crying...Left her, the skunk! ... Played a while at kindliness, and then away with her! 'You,' he says, 'are a sister.' 'I,' he says, 'will save you, make a human being of you...'"
"Is that possible?"
"Just so! ... One man I did see, kindly, indulgent, without the designs of a he-dog--that's you. But then, you're altogether different. You're somehow queer. You're always wandering somewhere, seeking something...You forgive me, Sergei Ivanovich, you're some sort of a little innocent! ... And that's just why I've come to you, to you alone! ..."
"Speak on, Jennechka..."
"And so, when I found out that I was sick, I almost went out of my mind from wrath; I choked from wrath ...I thought: and here's the end; therefore, there's no more use in pitying, there's nothing to grieve about, nothing to expect...The lid! ... But for all that I have borne--can it be that there's no paying back for it? Can it be that there's no justice in the world? Can it be that I can't even feast myself with revenge?--for that I have never known love; that of family life I know only by hearsay; that, like a disgustin', nasty little dog, they call me near, pat me and then with a boot over the head--get out!--that they made me over, from a human being, equal to all of them, no more foolish than all those I've met; made me over into a floor mop, some sort of a sewer pipe for their filthy pleasures? ...Ugh! ... Is it possible that for all of this I must take even such a disease with gratitude as well? ... Or am I a slave? ... A dumb object? ... A pack horse? ... And so, Platonov, it was just then that I resolved to infect them all: young, old, poor, rich, handsome, hideous-- all, all, all! ..."
Platonov, who had already long since put his plate away from him, was looking at her with astonishment, and even more--almost with horror. He, who had seen in life much of the painful, the filthy, at times even of the bloody--he grew frightened with an animal fright before this intensity of enormous, unvented hatred. Coming to himself, he said:
"One great writer tells of such a case. The Prussians conquered the French and lorded it over them in every possible way: shot the men, violated the women, pillaged the houses, burned down the fields...And so one handsome woman--a Frenchwoman, very handsome, --having become infected, began out of spite to infect all the Germans who happened to fall into her embraces. She made ill whole hundreds, perhaps even thousands...And when she was dying in a hospital, she recalled this with joy and with pride... [Footnote: This story is Lit. No. 29, by Guy de Maupassant.--Trans.] But then, those were enemies, trampling upon her fatherland and slaughtering her brothers...But you, you, Jennechka! ..."
"But I--all, just all! Tell me, Sergei Ivanovich, only tell me on your conscience: if you were to find in the street a child, whom some one had dishonoured, had abused...well, let's say, had stuck its eyes out, cut its ears off--and then you were to find out that this man is at this minute walking past you, and that only God alone, if only He exists, is looking at you this minute from heaven--what would you do?"
"Don't know," answered Platonov, dully and downcast; but he paled, and his fingers underneath the table convulsively clenched into fists, "Perhaps I would kill him..."
"Not 'perhaps,' but certainly! I know you, I sense you. Well, and now think: every one of us has been abused so, when we were children! ... Children! ..." passionately moaned out Jennka and covered her eyes for a moment with her palm. "Why, it comes to me, you also spoke of this at one time, in our place--wasn't it on that same evening before the Trinity? ... Yes, children--foolish, trusting, blind, greedy, frivolous...And we cannot tear ourselves out of our harness...where are we to go? what are we to do? ... And please, don't you think it, Sergei Ivanovich--that the spite within me is strong only against those who wronged just me, me personally...No, against all our guests in general; all these cavaliers, from little to big...Well, and so I have resolved to avenge myself and my sisters. Is that good or no? ..."
"Jehnechka, really I don't know...I can't...I dare not say anything...I don't understand."
"But even that's not the main thing...For the main thing is this: I infected them, and did not feel anything--no pity, no remorse, no guilt before God or my fatherland. Within me was only joy, as in a hungry wolf that has managed to get at blood...But yesterday something happened which even I can't understand. A cadet came to me, altogether a little bit of a lad, silly, with yellow around his mouth...He used to come to me from still last winter...And then suddenly I had pity on him... Not because he was very handsome and very young; and not because he had always been very polite--even tender, if you will...No, both the one and the other had come to me, but I did not spare them: with enjoyment I marked them off, just like cattle, with a red-hot brand ...But this one I suddenly pitied...I myself don't understand--why? I can't make it out. It seemed to me, that it would be all the same as stealing money from a little simpleton, a little idiot; or hitting a blind man, or cutting a sleeper's throat...if he only were some dried-up marasmus or a nasty little brute, or a lecherous old fellow, I would not have stopped. But he was healthy, robust, with chest and arms like a statue's...and I could not... I gave him his money back, showed him my disease; in a word, I acted like a fool among fools. He went away from me...burst into tears...And now since last evening I haven't slept. I walk around as in a fog...Therefore--I'm thinking right now--therefore, that which, I meditated; my dream to infect them all; to infect their fathers, mothers, sisters, brides--even all the world--therefore, all this was folly, an empty fantasy, since I have stopped? ... Once again, I don't understand anything ...Sergei Ivanovich, you are so wise, you have seen so much of life--help me, then, to find myself now! ..."
"I don't know, Jennechka!" quietly pronounced Platonov. "Not that I fear telling you, or advising you, but I know absolutely nothing. This is above my reason... above conscience..."
Jennie crossed her fingers and nervously cracked them.
"And I, too, don't know...Therefore, that which I thought--is not the truth. Therefore, there is but one thing left me...This thought came into my head this morning..."
"Don't, don't do it, Jennechka! ... Jennie! ..." Platonov quickly interrupted her.
"There's one thing: to hang myself..."
"No, no, Jennie, only not that! ... If there were other circumstances, unsurmountable, I would, believe me, tell you boldly: well, it's no use, Jennie; it's time to close up shop... But what you need isn't that at all... If you wish, I can suggest one way out to you, no less malicious and merciless; but which, perhaps, will satiate your wrath a hundredfold..."
"What's that?" asked Jennie, wearily, as though suddenly wilted after her flare-up.
"Well, this is it ... You're still young, and I'll tell you the truth, you are very handsome; that is, you can be, if you only want to, unusually stunning ... That's even more than beauty. But you've never yet known the bounds and the power of your appearance; and, mainly, you don't know to what a degree such natures as yours are bewitching, and how mightily they enchain men to them, and make out of them more than slaves and brutes ... You are proud, you are brave, you are independent, you are a clever woman. I know--you have read a great deal, let's presuppose even trashy books, but still you have read, you have an entirely different speech from the others. With a successful turn of life, you can cure yourself, you can get out of these 'Yamkas,' these 'Little Ditches,' into freedom. You have only to stir a finger, in order to see at your feet hundreds of men; submissive, ready for your sake for vileness, for theft, for embezzlement ... Lord it over them with tight reins, with a cruel whip in your hands! ... Ruin them, make them go out of their minds, as long as your desire and energy hold out! ... Look, my dear Jennie, who manages life now if not women! Yesterday's chambermaid, laundress, chorus girl goes through estates worth millions, the way a country-woman of Tver cracks sunflower seeds. A woman scarcely able to sign her name, at times affects the destiny of an entire kingdom through a man. Hereditary princes marry the street-walkers, the kept mistresses of yesterday... Jennechka, there is the scope for your unbridled vengeance; while I will admire you from a distance... For you--you are made of this stuff--you are a bird of prey, a spoliator... Perhaps not with such a broad sweep--but you will cast them down under your feet."
"No," faintly smiled Jennka. "I thought of this before ... But something of the utmost importance has burned out within me. There are no forces within me, there is no will within me, no desires ... I am somehow all empty inside, rotted ... Well, now, you know, there's a mushroom like that--white, round,--you squeeze it, and snuff pours out of it. And the same way with me. This life has eaten out everything within me save malice. And I am flabby, and my malice is flabby ... I'll see some little boy again, will have pity on him, will be punishing myself again ... No, it's better ... better so! ..."
She became silent. And Platonov did not know what to say. It became oppressive and awkward for both. Finally, Jennka got up, and, without looking at Platonov, extended her cold, feeble hand to him.
"Good-bye, Sergei Ivanovich! Excuse me, that I took up your time ... Oh, well, I can see myself that you'd help me, if you only could ... But, evidently, there's nothing to be done here ... Good-bye!"
"Only don't do anything foolish, Jennechka! I implore you! ..."
"Oh, that's all right!" said she and made a tired gesture with her hand.
Having come out of the square, they parted; but, having gone a few steps, Jennka suddenly called after him:
"Sergei Ivanovich, oh Sergei Ivanovich! ..."
He stopped, turned around, walked back to her.
"Roly-Poly croaked last evening in our drawing room. He jumped and he jumped, and then suddenly plumped down ... Oh, well, it's an easy death at least! And also I forgot to ask you, Sergei Ivanovich ... This is the last, now ... Is there a God or no?"
Platonov knit his eyebrows.
"What answer can I make? I don't know. I think that there is, but not such as we imagine Him. He is more wise, more just..."
"And future life? There, after death? Is there, now, as they tell us, a paradise or hell? Is that the truth? Or is there just nothing at all? A barren void? A sleep without a dream? A dark basement?"
Platonov kept silent, trying not to look at Jennka. He felt oppressed and frightened.
"I don't know," said he, finally, with an effort. "I don't want to lie to you."
Jennka sighed, and smiled with a pitiful, twisted smile.
"Well, thanks, my dear. And thanks for even that much ... I wish you happiness. With all my soul. Well, good-bye..."
She turned away from him and began slowly, with a wavering walk, to climb up the hill.
Platonov returned to work just in the nick of time. The gathering of tramps, scratching, yawning, working out their accustomed dislocations, were getting into their places. Zavorotny, at a distance, with his keen eyes caught sight of Platonov and began to yell over the whole port:
"You did manage to get here in time, you round-shouldered devil ... But I was already wanting to take you by the tail and chase you out of the gang ... Well, get in your place! ..."
"Well, but I did get a he-dog in you, Serejka! ..." he added, in a kindly manner. "If only it was night; but no,--look you, he starts in playing ring-around-a-rosie in broad daylight..."