Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
Two in the afternoon. In the second-rate, two-rouble establishment of Anna Markovna everything is plunged in sleep. The large square parlor with mirrors in gilt frames, with a score of plush chairs placed decorously along the walls, with oleograph pictures of Makovsky's Feast of the Russian Noblemen, and Bathing, with a crystal lustre in the middle, is also sleeping, and in the quiet and semi-darkness it seems unwontedly pensive, austere, strangely sad. Yesterday here, as on every evening, lights burned, the most rollicking of music rang out, blue tobacco smoke swirled, men and women careered in couples, shaking their hips and throwing their legs on high. And the entire street shone on the outside with the red lanterns over the street doors and with the light from the windows, and it seethed with people and carriages until morning.
Now the street is empty. It is glowing triumphantly and joyously in the glare of the summer sun. But in the parlor all the window curtains are lowered, and for that reason it is dark within, cool, and as peculiarly uninviting as the interiors of empty theatres, riding academies and court buildings usually are in the middle of the day.
The pianoforte glimmers dully with its black, bent, glossy side; the yellow, old, time-eaten, broken, gap-toothed keys glisten faintly. The stagnant, motionless air still retains yesterday's odour; it smells of perfumes, tobacco, the sour dampness of a large uninhabited room, the perspiration of unclean and unhealthy feminine flesh, face-powder, boracic-thymol soap, and the dust of the yellow mastic with which the parquet floor had been polished yesterday. And with a strange charm the smell of withering swamp grass is blended with these smells. To-day is Trinity. In accordance with an olden custom, the chambermaids of the establishment, while their ladies were still sleeping, had bought a whole waggon of sedge on the market, and had strewn its long, thick blades, that crunch underfoot, everywhere about--in the corridors, in the private cabinets, in the drawing room. They, also, had lit the lamps before all the images. The girls, by tradition, dare not do this with their hands, which have been denied during the night.
And the house-porter has adorned the house-entrance, which is carved in the Russian style, with two little felled birch-trees. And so with all the houses--the thin white trunks with their scant dying verdure adorn the exterior near the stoops, bannisters and doors.
The entire house is quiet, empty and drowsy. The chopping of cutlets for dinner can be heard from the kitchen. Liubka, one of the girls, barefooted, in her shift, with bare arms, not good- looking, freckled, but strong and fresh of body, has come out into the inner court. Yesterday she had had but six guests on time, but no one had remained for the night with her, and because of that she had slept her fill--splendidly, delightfully, all alone, upon a wide bed. She had risen early, at ten o'clock, and had with pleasure helped the cook scrub the floor and the tables in the kitchen. Now she is feeding the chained dog Amour with the sinews and cuttings of the meat. The big, rusty hound, with long glistening hair and black muzzle, jumps up on the girl--with his front paws, stretching the chain tightly and rattling in the throat from shortness of breath, then, with back and tail undulating all over, bends his head down to the ground, wrinkles his nose, smiles, whines and sneezes from the excitement. But she, teasing him with the meat, shouts at him with pretended severity:
"There, you--stupid! I'll--I'll give it to you! How dare you?"
But she rejoices with all her soul over the tumult and caresses of Amour and her momentary power over the dog, and because she had slept her fill, and passed the night without a man, and because of the Trinity, according to dim recollections of her childhood, and because of the sparkling sunny day, which it so seldom befalls her to see.
All the night guests have already gone their ways. The most business-like, quiet and workaday hour is coming on.
They are drinking coffee in the room of the proprietress. The company consists of five people. The proprietress herself, in whose name the house is registered, is Anna Markovna. She is about sixty. She is very small of stature, but dumpy: she may be visualized by imagining, from the bottom up, three soft, gelatinous globes--large, medium and small, pressed into each other without any interstices; this--her skirt, torso and head. Strange, her eyes are a faded blue, girlish, even childish, but the mouth is that of an old person, with a moist lower lip of a raspberry colour, impotently hanging down. Her husband--Isaiah Savvich--is also small, a grayish, quiet, silent little old man. He is under his wife's thumb; he was doorkeeper in this very house even at the time when Anna Markovna served here as housekeeper. In order to be useful in some way, he has learned, through self- instruction, to play the fiddle, and now at night plays dance tunes, as well as a funeral march for shopmen far gone on a spree and craving some maudlin tears.
Then, there are the two housekeepers--senior and junior. The senior is Emma Edwardovna. She is a tall, full woman of forty-six, with chestnut hair, and a fat goitre of three chins. Her eyes are encircled with black rings of hemorrhoidal origin. The face broadens out like a pear from the forehead down to the cheeks, and is of an earthen colour; the eyes are small, black; the nose humped, the lips sternly pursed; the expression of the face calmly authoritative. It is no mystery to anyone in the house that in a year or two Anna Markovna will go into retirement, and sell her the establishment with all its rights and furnishings, when she will receive part in cash, and part on terms--by promissory note. Because of this the girls honour her equally with the proprietress and fear her somewhat. Those who fall into error she beats with her own hands, beats cruelly, coolly, and calculatingly, without changing the calm expression of her face. Among the girls there is always a favourite of hers, whom she tortures with her exacting love and fantastic jealousy. And this is far harder than her beatings.
The other one is called Zociya. She has just struggled out of the ranks of the common girls. The girls, as yet, call her impersonally, flatteringly and familiarly, "little housekeeper." She is spare, spry, just a trifle squinting, with a rosy complexion, and hair dressed in a little curly pompadour; she adores actors--preferably stout comedians. Toward Emma Edwardovna she is ingratiating.
The fifth person, finally, is the local district inspector, Kerbesh. This is an athletic man; he is kind of bald, has a red beard like a fan, vividly blue slumbrous eyes, and a thin, slightly hoarse, pleasant voice. Everybody knows that he formerly served in the secret service division and was the terror of crooks, thanks to his terrible physical strength and cruelty in interrogations.
He has several shady transactions on his conscience. The whole town knows that two years back he married a rich old woman of seventy, and that last year he strangled her; however, he was somehow successful in hushing up this affair. But for that matter, the remaining four have also seen a thing or two in their chequered life. But, just as the bretteurs of old felt no twinges of conscience at the recollection of their victims, even so do these people regard the dark and bloody things in their past, as the unavoidable little unpleasantness of their professions.
They are drinking coffee with rich, boiled cream--the inspector with Benedictine. But he, strictly speaking, is not drinking, but merely conveying the impression that he is doing it to oblige.
"Well, what is it to be, Phoma Phornich?" asks the proprietress searchingly. "This business isn't worth an empty eggshell, now... Why, you have only to say a word..."
Kerbesh slowly draws in half a wine-glass of liqueur, works the oily, strong, pungent liquid slightly with his tongue over the roof of his mouth, swallows it, chases it down, without hurrying, with coffee, and then passes the ring finger of his left hand over his moustaches, to the right and left.
"Think it over for yourself, Madam Shoibes," he says, looking down at the table, spreading out his hands and screwing up his eyes. "Think of the risk to which I'm exposed! The girl through means of deception was enticed into this... what-you-may-call-it... well, in a word, into a house of ill-fame, to express it in lofty style. Now the parents are searching for her through the police. Ve-ery well. She gets into one place after another, from the fifth into the tenth... Finally the trail is picked up with you, and most important of all--think of it!--in my district! What can I do?"
"Mr. Kerbesh, but she is of age," says the proprietress.
"They are of age," confirms Isaiah Savvich. "They gave an acknowledgment, that it was of their own will..."
Emma Edwardovna pronounces in a bass, with cool accurance:
"Honest to God, she's the same here as an own daughter."
"But that's not what I am talking about," the inspector frowns in vexation. "Just consider my position... Why, this is duty. Lord, there's no end of unpleasantnesses without that!"
The proprietress suddenly arises, shuffles in her slippers to the door, and says, winking to the inspector with a sleepy, expressionless eye of faded blue:
"Mr. Kerbesh, I would ask you to have a look at our alterations. We want to enlarge the place a bit."
"A-ah! With pleasure..."
After ten minutes both return, without looking at each other. Kerbesh's hand is crunching a brand-new hundred rouble note in his pocket. The conversation about the seduced girl is not renewed. The inspector, hastily finishing his Benedictine, complains of the present decline in manners.
"I have a son, now, a schoolboy--Paul. He comes to me, the scoundrel, and declares: 'Papa, the pupils swear at me, because you are a policeman, and because you serve on Yamskaya, and because you take bribes from brothels.' Well, tell me, for God's sake, Madam Shoibes, if that isn't effrontery?"
"Ai, ai, ai! ... And what bribes can there be? Now with me..."
"I say to him: 'Go, you good-for-nothing, and let the principal know, that there should be no more of this, otherwise papa will inform on all of you to the governor.' And what do you think? He comes to me and says: 'I am no longer a son to you--seek another son for yourself.' What an argument! Well, I gave him enough to last till the first of the month! Oho-ho! Now he doesn't want to speak with me. Well, I'll show him yet!"
"Ah, you don't have to tell us," sighs Anna Markovna, letting her lower, raspberry-coloured lip hang down and with a mist coming over her faded eyes. "We keep our Birdie--she is in Fleisher's high school--we purposely keep her in town, in a respectable family. You. understand, it is awkward, after all. And all of a sudden she brings such words and expressions from the high school that I just simply turned all red."
"Honest to God, Annochka turned all red," confirms Isaiah Savvich.
"You'll turn red, all right!" warmly agrees the inspector. "Yes, yes, yes, I understand you fully. But, my God, where are we going! Where are we only going? I ask you, what are these revolutionaries and all these various students, or... what-you-may-call-'ems? ... trying to attain? And let them put the blame on none but themselves. Corruption is everywhere, morality is falling, there is no respect for parents. They ought to be shot."
"Well, now, the day before yesterday we had a case," Zociya mixes in bustlingly. "A certain guest came, a stout man..."
"Drop it!" Emma Edwardovna, who was listening to the inspector, piously nodding with her head bowed to one side, cuts her short in the jargon of the brothels. "You'd better go and see about breakfast for the young ladies."
"And not a single person can be relied upon," continues the proprietress grumblingly. "Not a servant but what she's a stiff, a faker. And all the girls ever think about is their lovers. Just so's they may have their own pleasure. But about their duties they don't even think."
There is an awkward silence. Some one knocks on the door. A thin, feminine voice speaks on the other side of the door:
"Housekeeper, dear, take the money and be kind enough to give me the stamps. Pete's gone."
The inspector gets up and adjusts his sabre.
"Well, it's time I was going to work. Best regards, Anna Markovna. Best wishes, Isaiah Savvich."
"Perhaps you'll have one more little glass for a stirrup cup?" the nearly blind Isaiah Savvich thrusts himself over the table.
"Tha-ank you. I can't. Full to the gills. Honoured, I'm sure! ..."
"Thanks for your company. Drop in some time."
"Always glad to be your guest, sir. Au revoir!"
But in the doorway he stops for a minute and says significantly:
"But still, my advice to you is--you'd better pass this girl on to some place or other in good time. Of course, it's your affair, but as a good friend of yours I give you warning."
He goes away. When his steps are abating on the stairs and the front door bangs to behind him, Emma Edwardovna snorts through her nose and says contemptuously:
"Stool-pigeon! He wants to take money both here and there..."
Little by little they all crawl apart out of the room. It is dark in the house. It smells sweetly of the half-withered sedge. Quiet reigns.