Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
The windows are opened wide to the fragrant darkness of the evening, and the tulle curtains stir faintly back and forth from the imperceptible movement of the air. It smells of dewy grass from the consumptive little garden in front of the house, and just the least wee bit of lilac and the withering birch leaves of the little trees placed near the entrance because of the Trinity. Liuba, in a blue velvet blouse with low cut bosom, and Niura, dressed as a "baby," in a pink, wide sacque to the knees, with her bright hair loose and with little curls on her forehead, are lying embraced on the window-sill, and are singing in a low voice a song about the hospital, which song is the rage of the day and exceedingly well known among prostitutes. Niura, through her nose, leads in a high voice.
Liuba seconds her with a stifled alto:
"Monday now is come again, They're supposed to get me out; Doctor Krasov won't let me out ..."
In all the houses the windows are brightly lit, while hanging lanterns are burning before the entrances. To both girls the interior in the establishment of Sophia Vasilievna, which is directly opposite, is distinctly visible--the shining yellow parquet, draperies of a dark cherry colour on the doors, caught up with cords, the end of a black grand-piano, a pier glass in a gilt frame, and the figures of women in gorgeous dresses, now flashing at the windows, now disappearing, and their reflections in the mirrors. The carved stoop of Treppel, to the right, is brightly illuminated by a bluish electric light in a big frosted globe.
The evening is calm and warm. Somewhere far, far away, beyond the line of the railroads, beyond some black roofs and the thin black trunks of trees, down low over the dark earth in which the eye does not see but rather senses the mighty green tone of spring, reddens with a scarlet gold the narrow, long streak of the sunset glow, which has pierced the dove-coloured mist. And in this indistinct, distant light, in the caressing air, in the scents of the oncoming night, was some secret, sweet, conscious mournfulness, which usually is so gentle in the evenings between spring and summer. The indistinct noise of the city floated in, the dolorous, snuffling air of an accordeon, the mooing of cows could be heard; somebody's soles were scraping dryly and a ferruled cane rapped resoundingly on the flags of the pavement; lazily and irregularly the wheels of a cabman's victoria, rolling at a pace through Yama, would rumble by, and all these sounds mingled with a beauty and softness in the pensive drowsiness of the evening. And the whistles of the locomotives on the line of the railroad, which was marked out in the darkness with green and red lights, sounded with a quiet, singing caution.
"Now the nurse is co-oming in, Bringing sugar and a roll, Bringing sugar and a roll, Deals them equally to all."
"Prokhor Ivanich!" Niura suddenly calls after the curly waiter from the dram-shop, who, a light black silhouette, is running across the road. "Oh, Prokhor Ivanich!"
"Oh, bother you!" the other snarls hoarsely. "What now?"
"A friend of yours sent you his regards. I saw him today."
"What sort of friend?"
"Such a little good-looker! An attractive little brunet ...No, but you'd better ask--where did I see him?"
"Well, where?" Prokhor Ivanovich comes to a stop for a minute.
"And here's where: nailed over there, on the fifth shelf with old hats, where we keep all dead cats."
"Scat! You darn fool!"
Niura laughs shrilly over all Yama, and throws herself down on the sill, kicking her legs in high black stockings. Afterward, having ceased laughing, she all of a sudden makes round astonished eyes and says in a whisper:
"But do you know, girlie--why, he cut a woman's throat the year before last--that same Prokhor. Honest to God!"
"Is that so? Did she die?"
"No, she didn't. She got by," says Niura, as though with regret. "But just the same she lay for two months in the Alexandrovskaya Hospital. The doctors said, that if it were only this teen-weeny bit higher--then it would have been all over. Bye-bye!"
"Well, what did he do that to her for?"
"How should I know? Maybe she hid money from him or wasn't true to him. He was her lover--her pimp."
"Well, and what did he get for it?"
"Why, nothing. There was no evidence of any kind. There had been a free-for-all mix-up. About a hundred people were fighting. She also told the police that she had no suspicions of any sort. But Prokhor himself boasted afterwards: 'I,' says he, 'didn't do for Dunka that time, but I'll finish her off another time. She,' says he, 'won't get by my hands. I'm going to give her the works.'"
A shiver runs all the way down Liuba's back.
"They're desperate fellows, these pimps!" she pronounces quietly, with horror in her voice.
"Something terrible! I, you know, played at love with our Simeon for a whole year. Such a Herod, the skunk! I didn't have a whole spot on me. I always went about in black and blue marks. And it wasn't for any reason at all, but just simply so--he'd go in the morning into a room with me, lock himself in, and start in to torture me. He'd wrench my arms, pinch my breasts, grab my throat and begin to strangle me. Or else he'd be kissing, kissing, and then he'd bite the lips so that the blood would just spurt out ... I'd start crying--but that's all he was looking for. Then he'd just pounce an me like a beast--simply shivering all over. And he'd take all my money away--well, now, to the very last little copper. There wasn't anything to buy ten cigarettes with. He's stingy, this here Simeon, that's what, always into the bank-book with it, always putting it away into the bank-book... Says when he gets a thousand roubles together--he'll go into a monastery."
"Honest to God. You look into his little room: the twenty-four hours round, day and night, the little holy lamp burns before the images. He's very strong for God ... Only I think that he's that way because there's heavy sins upon him. He's a murderer."
"What are you saying?"
"Oh, let's drop talking about him, Liubochka. Well, let's go on further:
"I'll go to the drug store, buy me some poison, And I will poison then meself,"
Niura starts off in a very high, thin voice.
Jennie walks back and forth in the room, with arms akimbo, swaying as she walks, and looking at herself in all the mirrors. She has on a short orange satin dress, with straight deep pleats in the skirt, which vacillates evenly to the left and right from the movement of her hips. Little Manka, a passionate lover of card games, ready to play from morning to morning, without stopping, is playing away at "sixty-six" with Pasha, during which both women, for convenience in dealing, have left an empty chair between them, while they gather their tricks into their skirts, spread out between their knees. Manka has on a brown, very modest dress, with black apron and pleated black bib; this dress is very becoming to her dainty, fair little head and small stature; it makes her younger and gives her the appearance of a high-school undergraduate.
Her partner Pasha is a very queer and unhappy girl. She should have been, long ago, not in a house of ill-fame, but in a psychiatric ward, because of an excruciating nervous malady, which compels her to give herself up, frenziedly, with an unwholesome avidity, to any man whatsoever who may choose her, even the most repulsive. Her mates make sport of her and despise her somewhat for this vice, just as though for some treason to their corporate enmity toward men. Niura, with very great versimilitude, mimics her sighs, groans, outcries and passionate words, from which she can never refrain in the moments of ecstasy and which are to be heard in the neighbouring rooms through two or three partitions. There is a rumour afloat about Pasha, that she got into a brothel not at all through necessity or temptation or deception, but had gone into it her own self, voluntarily, following her horrible, insatiable instinct. But the proprietress of the house and both the housekeepers indulge Pasha in every way and encourage her insane weakness, because, thanks to it, Pasha is in constant demand and earns four, five times as much as any one of the remaining girls--earns so much, that on busy gala days she is not brought out to the more drab guests at all, or else refused them under the pretext of Pasha's illness, because the steady, paying guests are offended if they are told that the girl they know is busy with another. And of such steady guests Pasha has a multitude; many are with perfect sincerity, even though bestially, in love with her, and even not so long ago two, almost at the same time, offered to set her up: a Georgian--a clerk in a store of Cakhetine wines, and some railroad agent, a very proud and very poor nobleman, with shirt cuffs the colour of a cabbage rose, and with an eye which had been replaced by a black circle on an elastic. Pasha, passive in everything save her impersonal sensuality, would go with anybody who might call her, but the administration of the house vigilantly guards its interests in her. A near insanity already flits over her lovely face, in her half-closed eyes, always smiling with some heady, blissful, meek, bashful and unseemly smile, in her languorous, softened, moist lips, which she is constantly licking; in her short, quiet laugh-- the laugh of an idiot. Yet at the same time she--this veritable victim of the social temperament--in everyday life is very good- natured, yielding, entirely uncovetous and is very much ashamed of her inordinate passion. Toward her mates she is tender, likes very much to kiss and embrace them and sleep in the same bed with them, but still everybody has a little aversion for her, it would seem.
"Mannechka, sweetie, dearie," says Pasha lightly touching Manya's hand with emotion, "tell my fortune, my precious little child."
"We-ell," Manya pouts her lips just like a child, "let's play a little more."
"Mannechka, my little beauty, you little good-looker, my precious, my own, my dear..."
Manya gives in and lays out the pack on her knees. A suit of hearts comes out, a small monetary interest and a meeting in the suit of spades with a large company in the king of clubs.
Pasha claps her hands joyously:
"Ah, it's my Levanchik! Well, yes, he promised to come to-day. Of course, it's Levanchik."
"That's your Georgian!"
"Yes, yes, my little Georgian. Oh, how nice he is. I'd just love never to let him go away from me. Do you know what he told me the last time? 'If you'll go on living in a sporting house, then I'll make both you dead, and make me dead.' And he flashed his eyes at me so!"
Jennie, who had stopped near, listens to her words and asks haughtily:
"Who was it said that?"
"Why, my little Georgian, Levan. 'Both for you death and for me death.'"
"Fool! He isn't any little Georgian at all, but simply a common Armenian. You're a crazy fool."
"Oh no, he isn't--he's a Georgian. And it is quite strange on your part..."
"I'm telling you--a common Armenian. I can tell better. Fool!"
"What are you cursing for, Jennie? I didn't start cursing you first off, did I?"
"You just try and be the first to start cursing! Fool! Isn't it all the same to you what he is? Are you in love with him, or what?"
"Well, I am in love with him!"
"Well, and you're a fool. And the one with the badge in his cap, the lame one--are you in love with him too?"
"Well, what of it? I respect him very much. He is very respectable."
"And with Nicky the Book-keeper? And with the contractor? And with Antoshka-Kartoshka? [Footnote: Tony the Potato.-Trans.] And with the fat actor? Oo-ooh, you shameless creature!" Jennie suddenly cries out. "I can't look at you without disgust. You're a bitch! In your place, if I was such a miserable thing, I'd rather lay hands on myself, strangle myself with a cord from my corset. You vermin!"
Pasha silently lowers her eyelashes over her tear-filled eyes. Manya tries to defend her.
"Really, what are you carrying on like that for, Jennechka? What are you down on her like that for..."
"Eh, all of you are fine!" Jennie sharply cuts her short. "No self-respect of any sort! Some scum comes along, buys you like a piece of meat, hires you like a cabby, at a fixed rate, for love for an hour, but you go all to pieces: 'Ah, my little lover! Ah, what unearthly passion!' Ugh!" she spat in disgust.
She wrathfully turns her back upon them and continues to promenade on a diagonal through the room, swinging her hips and blinking at herself in every mirror.
During this time Isaac Davidovich, the piano player, is still struggling with the refractory violinist.
"Not that way, not that way, Isaiah Savvich. You throw the fiddle away for one little minute. Listen a little to me. Here is the tune."
He plays with one finger and hums in that horrible goatish voice that all musical directors--for which calling he had been at one time preparing--possess.
"Ess-tam, ess-tam, ess-tiam-tiam. Well, now, repeat after me the first part, first time off..... Well..... ein, zwei..."
Their rehearsal is being attentively watched by the grey-eyed, round-faced, arch-browed Zoe, mercilessly bedaubed with cheap rouges and whiteners, leaning with her elbows on the pianoforte, and the slight Vera, with drink-ravaged face, in the costume of a jockey--in a round little cap with straight brim, in a little silk jacket, striped blue and white, in tightly stretched trunks and in little patent leather boots with yellow facings. And really, Vera does resemble a jockey, with her narrow face, in which the exceedingly sparkling blue eyes, under a smart bob coming down on the forehead, are set too near the humped, nervous, very handsome nose. When, at last, after long efforts the musicians agree, the somewhat small Verka walks up to the large Zoe, in that mincing, tethered walk, the hind part sticking out, and elbows spread as though for flight, with which only women in male costume can walk, and makes a comical masculine bow to her, spreading her arms wide and lowering them. And, with great enjoyment, they begin careering over the room.
The nimble Niura, always the first to announce all the news, suddenly jumps down from the window sill, and calls out, spluttering from the excitement and hurry:
"A swell carriage...has driven up...to Treppel ...with electricity... Oi, goils...may I die on the spot...there's electricity on the shafts."
All the girls, save the proud Jennie, thrust themselves out of the windows. A driver with a fine carriage is indeed standing near the Treppel entrance. His brand-new, dashing victoria glistens with new lacquer; at the ends of the shafts two tiny electric lights burn with a yellow light; the tall white horse, with a bare pink spot on the septum of its nose, shakes its handsome head, shifts its feet on the same spot, and pricks up its thin ears; the bearded, stout driver himself sits on the coach-box like a carven image, his arms stretched out straight along his knees.
"Oh, for a ride!" squeals Niura. "Oh, uncle! Oh you swell coachman!" she cries out, hanging over the window sill. "Give a poor little girlie a ride... Give us a ride for love."
But the swell coachman laughs, makes a scarcely noticeable movement with his fingers, and immediately the white horse, as though it had been waiting just for that, starts from its place at a goodly trot, handsomely turns around and with measured speed floats away into the darkness together with the victoria and the broad back of the coachman.
"Pfui! What indecency!" the indignant voice of Emma Edwardovna sounds in the room. "Well, where did you see that respectable girls should allow themselves to climb out of the windows and holler all over the street. O, scandal! And it's all Niura, and it's always this horrible Niura!"
She is majestic in her black dress, with her yellow flabby face, with the dark pouches under her eyes, with the three pendulous, quivering chins. The girls, like boarding school misses, staidly seat themselves on the chairs along the walls, except Jennie, who continues to contemplate herself in all the mirrors. Two more cabbies drive up opposite, to the house of Sophia Vasilievna. Yama is beginning to liven up. At last one more victoria rattles along the paved road and its noise is cut short abruptly at the entrance to Anna Markovna's.
The porter Simeon helps someone take off his things in the front hall. Jennie looks in there, holding on with both hands to the door jambs, but immediately turns back, and as she walks shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head negatively.
"Don't know him, someone who's an entire stranger," she says in a low voice. "He has never been in our place. Some daddy or other, fat, in gold eye-glasses and a uniform."
Emma Edwardovna commands in a voice which sounds like a summoning cavalry trumpet:
"Ladies, into the drawing room! Into the drawing room, ladies!"
One after the other, with haughty gaits, into the drawing room enter: Tamara, with bare white arms and bared neck, wound with a string of artificial pearls; fat Kitty with her fleshy, quadrangular face and low forehead--she, too, is in decollete, but her skin is red and in goose-pimples; Nina, the very newest one, pug-nosed and clumsy, in a dress the colour of a green parrot; another Manka--Big Manka, or Manka the Crocodile, as they call her, and--the last--Sonka the Rudder, a Jewess, with an ugly dark face and an extraordinarily large nose, precisely for which she has received her nickname, but with such magnificent large eyes, at the same time meek and sad, burning and humid, as, among the women of all the terrestrial globe, are to be found only among the Jewesses.