Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
That very same day, at evening, a very important event took place in the house of Anna Markovna: the whole institution--with land and house, with live and inanimate stock--passed into the hands of Emma Edwardovna.
They had been speaking of this, on and off, for a long time in the establishment; but when the rumours so unexpectedly, immediately right after the death of Jennka, turned into realities, the misses could not for a long time come to themselves for amazement and fear. They knew well, having experienced the sway of the German upon themselves, her cruel, implacable pedantism; her greed, arrogance, and, finally, her perverted, exacting, repulsive love, now for one, now for another favorite. Besides that, it was no mystery to any one, that out of the fifteen thousand which Emma Edwardovna had to pay the former proprietress for the firm and for the property, one third belonged to Kerbesh, who had, for a long time already, been carrying on half-friendy, half-business relations with the fat housekeeper. From the union of two such people, shameless, pitiless, and covetous, the girls could expect all sorts of disasters for themselves.
Anna Markovna had to let the house go so cheaply not simply because Kerbesh, even if he had not known about certain shady little transactions to her credit, could still at any time he liked trip her up and eat her up without leaving anything. Of pretexts and cavils for this even a hundred could be found every day; and certain ones of them not merely threatened the shutting down of the house alone, but, if you like, even with the court.
But, dissembling, oh-ing and sighing, bewailing her poverty, her maladies and orphanhood, Anna Markovna at soul was glad of even such a settlement. And then it must be said: she was already for a long time feeling the approach of senile infirmity, together with all sorts of ailments and the thirst for complete, benevolent rest, undisturbed by anything. All, of which she had not even dared dream in her early youth, when she herself had yet been a prostitute of the rank and file--all had now come to her of itself, one in addition to the other: peaceful old age, a house--a brimming cup on one of the quiet, cozy streets, almost in the centre of the city,--the adored daughter Birdie, who--if not to- day then tomorrow--must marry a respected man, an engineer, a house-owner, and member of the city-council; provided for as she was with a respectable dowry and magnificent valuables ... Now it was possible peacefully, without hurrying, with gusto, to dine and sup on sweet things, for which Anna Markovna had always nourished a great weakness; to drink after dinner good, home-made, strong cherry-brandy; and of evenings to play a bit at "preference," for kopeck stakes, with esteemed elderly ladies of her acquaintance, who, even although they never as much as let it appear that they knew the real trade of the little old woman, did in reality know it very well; and not only did not condemn her business but even bore themselves with respect toward those enormous percentages which she earned upon her capital. And these charming friends, the joy and consolation of an untroubled old age, were: one--the keeper of a loan office; another--the proprietress of a lively hotel near the railroad; the third--the owner of a jewelry shop, not large, but all the go and well known among the big thieves, &c. And about them, in her turn, Anna Markovna knew and could tell several shady and not especially flattering anecdotes; but in their society it was not customary to talk of the sources of the family well-being--only cleverness, daring, success, and decent manners were esteemed.
But, even besides that, Anna Markovna, sufficiently limited in mind and not especially developed, had some sort of an amazing inner intuition, which during all her life permitted her instinctively but irreproachably to avoid unpleasantnesses, and to find prudent paths in time. And so now, after the sudden death of Roly-Poly, and the suicide of Jennka which followed the next day, she, with her unconsciously--penetrating soul foreguessed that fate--which had been favouring her house of ill-fame, sending her good fortunes, turning away all under-water shoals--was now getting ready to turn its back upon her. And she was the first to retreat.
They say, that not long before a fire in a house, or before the wreck of a ship, the wise, nervous rats in droves make their way into another place. And Anna Markovna was directed by the same rat-like, animal, prophetic intuition. And she was right: immediately right after the death of Jennka some fearful curse seemed to hang over the house, formerly Anna Markovna Shaibes', but now Emma Edwardovna Titzner's: deaths, misfortunes, scandals just simply descended upon it ceaselessly, becoming constantly more frequent, on the manner of bloody events in Shakespeare's tragedies; as, however, was the case at all the remaining houses of the Yamas as well.
And one of the first to die, a week after the liquidation of the business, was Anna Markovna herself. However, this frequently happens with people put out of their accustomed rut of thirty years: so die war heroes, who have gone into retirement--people of insuperable health and iron will; so quickly go off the stage former stock brokers, who have happily gone away to rest, but have been deprived of the burning allurement of risk and hazard; so, too, age rapidly, droop, and grow decrepit, the great artists who leave the stage ... Her death was the death of the just. Once at a game of cards she felt herself unwell; begged them to wait a while for her; said that she would lie down for just a minute; lay down in the bedroom on a bed; sighed deeply, and passed on into another world--with a calm face, with a peaceful, senile smile upon her lips. Isaiah Savvich--her faithful comrade on the path of life, a trifle downtrodden, who had always played a secondary, subordinate role--survived her only a month.
Birdie was left sole heiress. She very successfully turned the cozy house into money, as well as the land somewheres at the edge of the town; married, as it had been presupposed, very happily; and up to this time is convinced that her father carried on a great commercial business in the export of wheat through Odessa and Novorossiysk into Asia Minor.
On the evening of the day when Jennie's corpse had been carried away to an anatomical theatre; at an hour when not even a chance guest appears on Yamskaya Street, all the girls, at the insistence of Emma Edwardovna, assembled in the drawing room. Not one of them dared murmur against the fact that on this distressing day, when they had not yet recovered from the impression of Jennka's horrible death, they would be compelled to dress up, as usual, in wildly festive finery, and to go into the brightly illuminated drawing room, in order to dance, sing, and to entice lecherous men with their denuded bodies.
And at last into the drawing room walked Emma Edwardovna herself. She was more majestic than she had ever been--clad in a black silk gown, from which, just like battlements, her enormous breasts jutted out, upon which descended two fat chins; in black silk mittens; with an enormous gold chain wound thrice around her neck, and terminating in a ponderous medallion hanging upon the very abdomen.
"Ladies! ..." she began impressively, "I must ... Stand up!" she suddenly called out commandingly. "When I speak, you must hear me out standing."
They all exchanged glances with perplexity: such an order was a novelty in the establishment. However, the girls got up one after another, irresolutely, with eyes and mouths gasping.
"Sie sollen ... you must from this day show me that respect which you are bound to show to your mistress," importantly and weightily began Emma Edwardovna. "Beginning from to-day, the establishment in a legal manner has passed from our good and respected Anna Markovna to me, Emma Edwardovna Titzner. I hope that we will not quarrel, and that you will behave yourselves like sensible, obedient, and well-brought-up girls. I will be to you like in place of your own mother, but only remember, that I will not stand for laziness, or drunkenness, or notions of any sort; or any kind of disorder. The kind Madam Shaibes, it must be said, held you in too loose reins. O--o, I will be far more strict. Discipline uber alles ... before everything. It's a great pity, that the Russian people are lazy, dirty and stoopid, do not understand this rule; but don't you trouble yourself, I will teach you this for your own good. I say 'for your own good,' because my main thought is to kill the competition of Treppel. I want that my client should be a man of substance, and not some charlatan and ragamuffin, some kind of student, now, or ham actor. I want that my ladies should be the most beautiful, best brought-up, the healthiest and gayest in the whole city. I won't spare any money in order to set up swell furnishings; and you will have rooms with silk furniture and with genuine, beautiful rugs. Your guests will no longer be demanding beer, but only genteel Bordeaux and Burgundy wines and champagne. Remember, that a rich, substantial, elderly man never likes your common, ordinary, coarse love. He requires Cayenne pepper; he requires not a trade, but an art, and you will soon acquire this. At Treppel's they take three roubles for a visit and ten roubles for a night ... I will establish it so, that you will receive five roubles for a visit and twenty-five for a night. They will present you with gold and diamonds. I will contrive it so, that you won't have to pass on into establishments of a lower sort, und so weiter ... right down to the soldiers' filthy den. No! Deposits will be put away and saved with me for each one of you every month; and will be put away in your name in a banker's office, where there will increase interest upon them, and interest upon interest. And then, if a girl feels herself tired, or wants to marry a respectable man, there will always be at her disposal not a large, but a sure capital. So is it done in the best establishments in Riga, and everywhere abroad. Let no one say about me, that Emma Edwardovna is a spider, a vixen, a cupping glass. But for disobedience, for laziness, for notions, for lovers on the side, I will punish cruelly and, like nasty weeds, will throw out--on the street, or still worse. Now I have said all that I had to. Nina, come near me. And all the rest of you come up in turn."
Ninka irresolutely walked right up to Emma Edwardovna--and even staggered back in amazement: Emma Edwardovna was extending her right hand to her, with the fingers lowered downward, and slowly nearing it to Ninka's lips.
"Kiss it! ..." impressively and firmly pronounced Emma Edwardovna, narrowing her eyes and with head thrown back, in the magnificent pose of a princess ascending her throne.
Ninka was so bewildered that her right arm gave a jerk in order to make the sign of the cross; but she corrected herself, loudly smacked the extended hand, and stepped aside. Following her Zoe, Henrietta, Vanda and others stepped up also. Tamara alone continued to stand near the wall with her back to the mirror; that mirror into which Jennka so loved to gaze, in gone-by times, admiring herself as she walked back and forth through the drawing room.
Emma Edwardovna let the imperious, obstinate gaze of a boa- constrictor rest upon her; but the hypnosis did not work. Tamara bore this gaze without turning away, without flinching; but without any expression on her face. Then the new proprietress put down her hand, produced on her face something resembling a smile, and said hoarsely:
"And with you, Tamara, I must have a little talk separately, eye to eye. Let's go!"
"I hear you, Emma Edwardovna!" calmly answered Tamara.
Emma Edwardovna came to the little bit of a cabinet, where formerly Anna Markovna loved to drink coffee with clotted cream; sat down on the divan and pointed out a place opposite her to Tamara. For some time the women kept silent; searchingly, mistrustfully eyeing each other.
"You acted rightly, Tamara," said Emma Edwardovna finally. "You did wisely in not stepping up, on the manner of those sheep, to kiss my hand. But just the same, I would not have let you come to that. I wanted right there, in the presence of all, when you walked up to me, to press your hand and to offer you the place of first housekeeper--you understand?--my chief assistant--and on terms very advantageous to you ..."
"I thank you ..."
"No, wait a while, don't interrupt me. I will have my say to the end, and then you will express your pros and cons. But will you explain to me, please, when yesterday you were aiming at me out of a revolver, what did you want? Can it possibly be, to kill me?"
"On the contrary, Emma Edwardovna," retorted Tamara respectfully, "on the contrary; it seemed to me that you wanted to strike me."
"Pjui! What do you mean, Tamarochka! ... Have you paid no attention to the fact that during all the time of our acquaintance I never permitted myself, not only to hit you, but even to address you with a rude word? ... What do you mean, what do you mean? ... I don't confuse you with this poor Russian trash ... Glory be to God, I am an experienced person and one who knows people well. I can very well see that you are a genuinely cultured young lady; far more educated, for example, than I myself. You are refined, elegant, smart. I am convinced of the fact that you even know music not at all badly. Finally, if I were to confess, I was a little ... how shall I put it to you? ... I always was a little in love with you. And now you wanted to shoot me! Me, a person who could be a very good friend to you! Well, what will you say to that?"
"Well ... nothing at all, Emma Edwardovna," retorted Tamara in the meekest and most plausible tone. "Everything was very simple. Even before that I found the revolver under Jennka's pillow and brought it, in order to give it over to you. I did not want to interfere, when you were reading the letter; but then you turned around to me--I stretched the revolver out to you and wanted to say: 'See, Emma Edwardovna, what I found'--for, don't you see, it surprised me awfully how the late Jennie, having a revolver at her disposal, preferred such a horrible death as hanging? And that's all."
The bushy, frightful eyebrows of Emma Edwardovna rose upward; the eyes widened joyously; and a real, uncounterfeited smile spread over her cheeks of a behemoth. She quickly extended both hands to Tamara.
"And is this all? O, mein kind? And I thought ... God knows what I imagined! Give me your hands, Tamara, your little charming white hands, and allow me to press them auf mein Herz, upon my heart, and to kiss you."
The kiss was so long, that Tamara with great difficulty and with aversion barely freed herself from the embraces of Emma Edwardovna.
"Well, and now to business. And so, here are my terms: you will be housekeeper, I give you fifteen percent, out of the clear gain. Mind you, Tamara, fifteen percent. And, besides that, a small salary--thirty, forty, well, if you like, fifty roubles a month. Splendid terms--isn't that the truth? I am deeply convinced, that none other than just you will help me to raise the house to a real height, and make it the swellest not only in our city, but in all the south of Russia as well. You have taste, and an understanding of things! ... Besides that, you will always be able to entertain, and to stir up the most exacting, the most unyielding guests. In rare instances, when a very rich and distinguished gentleman--in Russian they call it one "sun-fish," while with us, ein Freier,[Footnote: In English, a "toff"; in American, a "swell."-- trans.]--when he becomes infatuated with you--for you are so handsome, Tamarochka," (the proprietress looked at her with misty, humid eyes), "then I do not at all forbid you to pass the time with him gaily; only to bear down always upon the fact that you have no right, owing to your duty, your position, Und so weiter, und so weiter ... aber sagen sie bitte, do you easily make yourself understood in German?"
"Die Deutsche Sprache beherrsche ich in geringerem Grade als die franzosische; indes kann ich stets in einer Salon-Plauderei mitmachen." [Footnote: "My mastery of the German language is a trifle worse than that of the French, but I can always keep up my end in parlor small talk."]
"O, wunderbar! sie haben eine entzuckende Rigaer Aussprache, die beste alter deutschen Aussprachen. Und also--fahren wir in unserer Sprache fort. Sie klingt viel susser meinem Ohr, die Muttersprache. Schon? [Footnote: O, splendid! ... You have a bewitching Riga enunciation, the most correct of all the German ones. And so, let us continue in my tongue. That is far sweeter to my ear--my mother tongue. All right?"]
"Schon." [Footnote: "All right."]
"Zuletzt werden Sie nachgeben, dem Anschein nach ungern, unwillkurlich, van der Laune des Augenblicks hingerissen--und, was die Hauptsache ist, lautlos, heimlich vor mir. Sie verstehen? Dafur zahlen Narren ein schweres Geld. Ubrigens brauche ich Sie wohl nicht zu lernen." [Footnote: "In the very end you will give in, as though unwillingly, as though against your will, as though from infatuation, a momentary caprice, and--which is the main thing--as though on the sly from me. You understand? For this the fools pay enormous money. However, it seems I will not have to teach you."]
"Ja, gnadige Frau. Sie sprechen gar kluge Dinge. Doch das ist schon keine Plauderei mehr, sondern eine ernste unterhaltung. "Yes, my dear madam. You say very wise things. But this is no longer small talk; it is, rather, serious conversation ... And for that reason it is more convenient for me, if you will revert to the Russian language ... I am ready to obey you."
"Furthermore! ... I was just now talking about a lover. I dare not forbid you this pleasure, but let us be prudent: let him not appear here, or appear as rarely as possible. I will give you days for going out, when you will be perfectly free. But it's best if you would get along without him entirely. It will serve your benefit too. This is only a drag and a yoke. I am telling you this from my own personal experience. Wait a while; after three or four years we will expand this business so, that you will have substantial money already, and then I vill take you into the business as a partner with full rights. After ten years you will still be young and handsome, and then take and buy men as much as you want to. By that time romantic follies will go out of your head entirely, and it will not be you who will be chosen already, but you who will be choosing with sense and with feeling, as a connoisseur picks out precious stones. Do you agree with me?"
Tamara cast down her eyes, and smiled just the least trifle.
"You speak golden truths, Emma Edwardovna. I will drop mine, but not at once. For that I will need some two weeks. I will try not to have him appear here. I accept your proposition."
"And that's splendid!" said Emma Edwardovna, get ting up. "Now let us conclude our agreement with one good, sweet kiss."
And she again embraced and took to kissing Tamara hard; who, with her downcast eyes and naive, tender face, seemed now altogether a little girl. But, having freed herself, finally, from the proprietress, she asked in Russian:
"You see, Emma Edwardovna, that I agree in everything with you, but for that I beg you to fulfill one request of mine. It will not cost you anything. Namely, I hope that you will allow me and the other girls to escort the late Jennie to the cemetery."
Emma Edwardovna made a wry face.
"Oh, if you want to, my darling Tamara, I have nothing against your whim. Only what for? This will not help the dead person and will not make her alive. Only sentimentalism alone will come out of it ... But very well! Only, however, you know yourself that in accordance with your law suicides are not buried, or--I don't know with certainty--it seems they throw them into some dirty hole beyond the cemetery."
"No, do allow me to do as I want to myself. Let it be my whim, but concede it to me, my darling, dear, bewitching Emma Edwardovna! But then, I promise you that this will be my last whim. After this I will be like a wise and obedient soldier at the disposal of a talented general."
"Is' gut!" Emma Edwardovna gave in with a sigh. "I can not deny you in anything, my child. Let me press your hand. Let us toil and labour together for the common good."
And, having opened the door, she called out across the drawing room into the entrance-hall: "Simeon!" And when Simeon appeared in the room, she ordered him weightily and triumphantly:
"Bring us a bottle of champagne here, but the real thing--Rederer demi sec, and as cool as possible. Step lively!" she ordered the porter, who was gaping at her with popping eyes. "We will drink with you, Tamara, to the new business, to our brilliant and beautiful future."
They say that dead people bring luck. If there is any foundation at all in this superstition, then on this Saturday it could not have told plainer: the influx of visitors was out of the ordinary, even for a Saturday night. True, the girls, passing through the corridor or past the room that had been Jennka's increased their steps; timorously glanced at it sidelong, out of the corner of the eye; while others even crossed themselves. But late in the night the fear of death somehow subsided, grew bearable. All the rooms were occupied, while in the drawing room a new violinist was trilling without cease--a free-and-easy, clean-shaven young man, whom the pianist with the cataract had searched out somewhere and brought with him.
The appointment of Tamara as housekeeper was received with cold perplexity, with taciturn dryness. But, having bided her time, Tamara managed to whisper to Little White Manka:
"Listen, Manya! You tell them all that they shouldn't pay any attention to the fact that I've been chosen housekeeper. It's got to be so. But let them do as they wish, only don't let them trip me up. I am as before--their friend and intercessor ... And further on we'll see."