Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
The late twilight came on, and after it the warm, dark night, but for long, until very midnight, did the deep crimson glow of the sky still smoulder. Simeon, the porter of the establishment, has lit all the lamps along the walls of the drawing room, and the lustre, as well as the red lantern over the stoop. Simeon was a spare, stocky, taciturn and harsh man, with straight, broad shoulders, dark-haired, pock-marked, with little bald spots on his eye-brows and moustaches from small-pox, and with black, dull, insolent eyes. By day he was free and slept, while at night he sat without absenting himself in the front hall under the reflector, in order to help the guests with their coats and to be ready in case of any disorder.
The pianist came--a tall, elegant young man, with white eyebrows and eyelashes, and a cataract in his right eye. The while there were no guests, he and Isaiah Savvich quietly rehearsed Pas d'Espagne, at that time coming into fashion. For every dance ordered by the guests, they received thirty kopecks for an easy dance, and a half rouble for a quadrille. But one-half of this price was taken out by the proprietress, Anna Markovna; the other, however, the musicians divided evenly. In this manner the pianist received only a quarter of the general earnings, which, of course, was unjust, since Isaiah Savvich played as one self-taught and was distinguished for having no more ear for music than a piece of wood. The pianist was constantly compelled to drag him on to new tunes, to correct and cover his mistakes with loud chords. The girls said of their pianist to the guests, with a certain pride, that he had been in the conservatory and always ranked as the first pupil, but since he is a Jew, and in addition to that his eyes had begun to trouble him, he had not succeeded in completing the course. They all treated him carefully and considerately, with some sort of solicitous, somewhat mawkish, commiseration, which chimes so well with the inner, backstage customs of houses of ill- fame, where underneath the outer coarseness and the flaunting of obscene words dwells the same sweetish, hysterical sentimentality as in female boarding schools, and, so they say, in penal institutions.
In the house of Anna Markovna everybody was already dressed and ready for the reception of the guests, and languishing from inaction and expectation. Despite the fact that the majority of the women experienced toward men--with the exception of their lovers--a complete, even somewhat squeamish, indifference, before every evening dim hopes came to life and stirred within their souls; it was unknown who would choose them, whether something unusual, funny and alluring might not happen, whether a guest would not astonish with his generosity, whether there would not be some miracle which would overturn the whole life...In these presentiments and hopes was something akin to those emotions which the accustomed gamester experiences when counting his ready money before starting out for his club. Besides that, despite their asexuality, they still had not lost the chiefest instinctive aspiration of women--to please.
And, in truth, altogether curious personages came into the house at times and ludicrous, motley events arose. The police would appear suddenly together with disguised detectives and arrest some seemingly respectable, irreproachable gentlemen and lead them off, pushing them along with blows in the neck. At times brawls would spring up between the drunken, trouble-making company and the porters of all the establishments, who had gathered on the run for the relief of a fellow porter--a brawl, during which the window- panes and the decks of grand-pianos were broken, when the legs of the plush chairs were wrenched out for weapons, blood ran over the parquet floor of the drawing room and the steps of the stairs, and people with pierced sides and broken heads fell down into the dirt near the street entrance, to the feral, avid delight of Jennka, who, with burning eyes, with happy laughter, went into the thickest of the melee, slapped herself on the hips, swore and sicked them on, while her mates were squealing from fear and hiding under the beds.
There were occurrences when there would arrive, with a pack of parasites, some member of a workingmen's association or a cashier, long since far gone in an embezzlement of many thousands through gambling at cards and hideous orgies, and now, in a drunken, senseless delirium, tossing the last money after the other, before suicide or the prisoner's box. Then the doors and windows of the house would be tightly closed, and for two days and nights at a stretch a Russian orgy would go on--nightmarish, tedious, savage, with screams and tears, with revilement over the body of woman; paradisaical nights were gotten up, during which naked, drunken, bow-legged, hairy, pot-bellied men, and women with flabby, yellow, pendulous thin bodies hideously grimaced to the music; they drank and guzzled like swine, on the beds and on the floor, amidst the stifling atmosphere, permeated with spirits, befouled with human respiration and the exhalations of unclean skins.
Occasionally, there would appear a circus athlete, creating in the low-ceiled quarters a strangely cumbersome impression, somewhat like that of a horse led into a room; a Chinaman in a blue blouse, white stockings, and with a queue; a negro from a cabaret, in a tuxedo coat and checked pantaloons, with a flower in his button- hole, and with starched linen, which, to the amazement of the girls, not only did not soil from the black skin, but appeared still more dazzlingly white.
These rare people fomented the satiated imagination of the prostitutes, excited their exhausted sensuality and professional curiosity, and all of them, almost enamoured, would walk in their steps, jealous and bickering with one another.
There was one incident when Simeon had let into the room an elderly man, dressed like a bourgeois. There was nothing exceptional about him; he had a stern, thin face, with bony, evil- looking cheek-bones, protruding like tumours, a low forehead, a beard like a wedge, bushy eyebrows, one eye perceptibly higher than the other. Having entered, he raised his fingers, folded for the sign of the cross, to his forehead, but having searched the corners with his eyes and finding no image, he did not in the least grow confused, put down his hand, and at once with a business-like air walked up to the fattest girl in the establishment--Kitty.
"Let's go!" he commanded curtly, and with determination nodded his head in the direction of the door.
During the entire period of her absence the omniscious Simeon, with a mysterious, and even somewhat proud air, managed to inform Niura, at that time his mistress, while she, in a whisper, with horror in her rounded eyes, told her mates, in secret, that the name of the bourgeois was Dyadchenko, and that last fall he had volunteered, owing to the absence of the hangman, to carry out the execution of eleven rioters, and with his own hands had hung them in two mornings. And--monstrous as it may be--at that hour there was not in the establishment a single girl who did not feel envy toward the fat Kitty, and did not experience a painful, keen, vertiginous curiosity. When Dyadchenko was going away half an hour later--with his sedate and stern air, all the women speechlessly, with their mouths gaping, escorted him. to the street door and afterwards watched him from the windows as he walked along the street. Then they rushed into the room of the dressing Kitty and overwhelmed her with interrogations. They looked with a new feeling, almost with astonishment, at her bare, red, thick arms, at the bed, still crumpled, at the old, greasy, paper rouble, which Kitty showed them, having taken it out of her stocking. Kitty could tell them nothing. "A man like any man, like all men," she said with a calm incomprehension; but when she found out who her visitor had been, she suddenly burst into tears, without herself knowing why.
This man, the outcast of outcasts, fallen as low as the fancy of man can picture, this voluntary headsman, had treated her without rudeness, but with such absence of even a hint at endearment, with such disdain and wooden indifference, as no human being is treated; not even a dog or a horse, and not even an umbrella, overcoat or hat, but like some dirty, unclean object, for which a momentary, unavoidable need arises, but which, at the passing of its needfulness, becomes foreign, useless, and disgusting. The entire horror of this thought the fat Kate could not embrace with her brain of a fattened turkey hen, and because of that cried--as it seemed even to her--without cause and reason.
There were also other happenings, which stirred up the turbid, foul life of these poor, sick, silly, unfortunate women. There were cases of savage, unbridled jealousy with pistol shots and poisoning; occasionally, very rarely, a tender, flaming and pure love would blossom out upon this dung; occasionally the women even abandoned an establishment with the help of the loved man, but almost always came back. Two or three times it happened that a woman from a brothel would suddenly prove pregnant--and this always seemed, on the face of it, laughable and disgraceful, but touching in the profundity of the event.
And no matter what may have happened, every evening brought with it such an irritating, strained, spicy expectation of adventures that every other life, after that in a house of ill-fame, would have seemed flat and humdrum to these lazy women of no will power.