Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
The elderly guest in the uniform of the Department of Charity walked in with slow, undecided steps, at each step bending his body a little forward and rubbing his palms with a circular motion, as though washing them. Since all the women were pompously silent, as though not noticing him, he traversed the drawing room and let himself down on a chair alongside of Liuba, who, in accordance with etiquette, only gathered up her skirt a little, preserving the abstracted and independent air of a girl from a respectable house.
"How do you do, miss?" he said.
"How do you do?" answered Liuba abruptly.
"How are you getting along?"
"Thanks--thank you. Treat me to a smoke."
"Pardon me--I don't smoke."
"So that's how. A man--and he doesn't smoke, just like that. Well, then, treat me to some Lafitte with lemonade. I am terribly fond of Lafitte with lemonade."
He let that pass in silence.
"Ooh, what a stingy daddy! Where do you work, now? Are you one of the government clerks?"
"No, I'm a teacher. I teach the German language."
"But I have seen you somewhere, daddy. Your physiognomy is familiar to me. Where have I met you before?"
"Well, now, I don't know, really. Unless it was on the street."
"It might have been on the street, likely as not... You ought to treat me to an orange, at least. May I ask for an orange?"
He again grew quiet, looking about him. His face began to glisten and the pimples on his forehead became red. He was mentally appraising all the women, choosing a likely one for himself, and was at the same time embarrassed by his silence. There was nothing at all to talk about; besides that the indifferent importunity of Liuba irritated him. Fat Katie pleased him with her large, bovine body, but she must be--he decided in his mind--very frigid in love, like all stout women, and in addition to that not handsome of face. Vera also excited him, with her appearance of a little boy, and her firm thighs, closely enveloped by the white tights; and Little White Manya, looking so like an innocent school-girl; and Jennie with her energetic, swarthy, handsome face. For one minute he was all ready to stop at Jennie, but only started in his chair and did not venture--by her easy, inaccessible and negligent air, and because she in all sincerity did not pay him the least attention, he surmised that she was the most spoilt of all the girls in the establishment, accustomed to having the visitors spend more money on her than on the others. But the pedagogue was a calculating man, burthened with a large family and an exhausted wife, destroyed by his masculine demands and suffering from a multiplicity of female ills. Teaching in a female high school and in an institute, he lived constantly in a sort of secret sensual delirium, and only his German training, stinginess and cowardice helped him to hold his constantly aroused desires in check. But two or three times a year, with incredible privations, he would cut five or ten roubles out of his beggarly budget, denying himself in his beloved evening mug of beer and contriving to save on the street cars, which necessitated his making enormous distances on foot through the town. This money he set aside for women and spent it slowly, with gusto, trying to prolong and cheapen down the enjoyment as much as possible. And for his money he wanted a very great deal, almost the impossible; his German sentimental soul dimly thirsted after innocence, timidity, poesy, in the flaxen image of Gretchen; but as a man he dreamt, desired, and demanded that his caresses should bring a woman into rapture and palpitation and into a sweet exhaustion.
However, all the men strove for the very same thing--even the most wretched, monstrous, misshapen and impotent of them--and ancient experience had long ago taught the women to imitate with voice and movements the most flaming passion, retaining in the most tempestuous minutes the fullest sang froid.
"You might at least order the musicians to play a polka. Let the girls dance a little," asked Liuba grumblingly.
That suited him. Under cover of the music, amid the jostling of the dances, it was far more convenient to get up courage, arise, and lead one of the girls out of the drawing room, than to do it amid the general silence and the finical immobility.
"And how much does that cost?" he asked cautiously.
"A quadrille is half a rouble; but ordinary dances are thirty kopecks. Is it all right then?"
"Well, of course...if you please...I don't begrudge it," he agreed, pretending to be generous...
"Whom do you speak to?"
"Why, over there--to the musicians."
"Why not? ... I'll do it with pleasure...Mister musician, something in the light dances, if you please," he said, laying down his silver on the pianoforte.
"What will you order?" asked Isaiah Savvich, putting the money away in his pocket. "Waltz, polka, polka-mazourka?"
"Well...Something sort of..."
"A waltz, a waltz!" Vera, a great lover of dancing, shouted from her place.
"No, a polka! ... A waltz! ... A vengerka! ... A waltz!" demanded others.
"Let them play a polka," decided Liuba in a capricious tone. "Isaiah Savvich, play a little polka, please. This is my husband, and he is ordering fox me," she added, embracing the pedagogue by the neck. "Isn't that true, daddy?"
But he freed himself from under her arm, drawing his head in like a turtle, and she without the least offence went to dance with Niura. Three other couples were also whirling about. In the dances all the girls tried to hold the waist as straight as possible, and the head as immobile as possible, with a complete unconcern in their faces, which constituted one of the conditions of the good taste of the establishment. Under cover of the slight noise the teacher walked up to Little Manka.
"Let's go?" he said, offering her his bent arm.
"Let's go," answered she, laughing.
She brought him into her room, gotten up with all the coquettishness of a bedroom in a brothel of the medium sort, with a bureau, covered with a knit scarf, and upon it a mirror, a bouquet of paper flowers, a few empty bonbonierres, a powder box, a faded photograph of a young man with white eyebrows and eyelashes and a haughtily astonished face, as well as several visiting cards. Above the bed, which is covered with a pink pique blanket, along the wall, is nailed up a rug with a representation of a Turkish sultan luxuriating in his harem, a narghili in his mouth; on the walls, several more photographs of dashing men of the waiter and actor type; a pink lantern hangs down from the ceiling by chains; there are also a round table under a carpet cover, three vienna chairs, and an enameled bowl with a pitcher of the same sort in the corner on a tabouret, behind the bed.
"Darling, treat me to Lafitte with lemonade," in accordance with established usage asked Little Manka, unbuttoning her corsage.
"Afterwards," austerely answered the pedagogue. "It will all depend upon yourself. And then--what sort of Lafitte can you have here? Some muddy brew or other?"
"We have good Lafitte," contradicted the girl touchily. "Two roubles a bottle. But if you are so stingy, then buy me beer at least. All right?"
"Well, beer is all right..."
"And for me lemonade and oranges. Yes?"
"A bottle of lemonade, yes; but oranges, no. Later, maybe, I will treat you to champagne even. It will all depend on you. If you'll exert yourself."
"Then, daddy, I'll ask for four bottles of beer and two bottles of lemonade? Yes? And for me just a little cake of chocolate. All right? Yes?"
"Two bottles of beer, a bottle of lemonade, and nothing more. I don't like when I'm bargained with. If need be, I'll order myself."
"And may I invite a friend of mine?"
"No, let it be without any friends, if you please."
Manka leaned out of the door into the corridor and called out resoundingly:
"Housekeeper, dear! Two bottles of beer and a bottle of lemonade for me."
Simeon came with a tray and began with an accustomed rapidity to uncork the bottles. Following him came Zociya, the housekeeper.
"There, now, how well you've made yourself at home here. Here's to your lawful marriage!" she congratulated them.
"Daddy, treat the little housekeeper with beer," begged Manka. "Drink, housekeeper dear."
"Well, in that case here's to your health, mister. Somehow, your face seems kind of familiar to me?"
The German drank his beer, sucking and licking his moustache, and impatiently waited for the housekeeper to go away. But she, having put down her glass and thanked him, said:
"Let me get the money coming from you, mister. As much as is coming for the beer and the time. That's both better for you and more convenient for us."
The demand for the money went against the grain of the teacher, because it completely destroyed the sentimental part of his intentions. He became angry:
"What sort of boorishness is this, anyway! It doesn't look as if I were preparing to run away from here. And besides, can't you discriminate between people at all? You can see that a man of respectability, in a uniform, has come to you, and not some tramp. What sort of importunity is this!"
The housekeeper gave in a little.
"Now, don't get offended, mister. Of course, you'll pay the young lady yourself for the visit. I don't think you will do her any wrong, she's a fine girl among us. But I must trouble you to pay for the beer and lemonade. I, too, have to give an account to the proprietress. Two bottles at fifty is a rouble and the lemonade thirty--a rouble thirty."
"Good Lord, a bottle of beer fifty kopecks!" the German waxed indignant. "Why, I will get it in any beer-shop for twelve kopecks."
"Well, then, go to a beer-shop if it's cheaper there," Zociya became offended. "But if you've come to a respectable establishment, the regular price is half a rouble. We don't take anything extra. There, that's better. Twenty kopecks change coming to you?"
"Yes, change, without fail," firmly emphasized the German teacher. "And I would request of you that nobody else should enter."
"No, no, no, what are you saying," Zociya began to bustle near the door. "Dispose yourself as you please, to your heart's content. A pleasant appetite to you."
Manka locked the door on a hook after her and sat down on the German's knee, embracing him with her bare arm.
"Are you here long?" he asked, sipping his beer. He felt dimly that that imitation of love which must immediately take place demanded some sort of psychic propinquity, a more intimate acquaintance, and on that account, despite his impatience, began the usual conversation, which is carried on by almost all men-- when alone with prostitutes, and which compels the latter to lie almost mechanically, to lie without mortification, enthusiasm or malice, according to a single, very ancient stencil.
"Not long, only the third month."
"And how old are you?"
"Sixteen," fibbed Little Manka, taking five years off her age.
"O, such a young one!" the German wondered, and began, bending down and grunting, to take off his boots. "Then how did you get here?"
"Well, a certain officer deprived me of my innocence there...near his birthplace. And it's terrible how strict my mamma is. If she was to find out, she'd strangle me with her own hands. Well, so then I ran away from home and got in here..."
"And did you love that same officer, the one who was the first one, now?"
"If I hadn't loved him, I wouldn't have gone to him. He promised to marry me, the scoundrel, but then managed to get what he was after, and abandoned me."
"Well, and were you ashamed the first time?"
"Of course, you'd be ashamed...How do you like it, daddy, with light or without light? I'll turn, down the lantern a little. All right?"
"Well, and aren't you bored here? What do they call you?"
"Manya. To be sure I'm bored. What sort of a life is ours!"
The German kissed her hard on her lips and again asked:
"And do you love the men? Are there men who please you? Who afford you pleasure?"
"How shouldn't there be?" Manka started laughing. "I love the ones like you especially, such nice little fatties."
"You love them? Eh? Why do you love them?"
"Oh, I love them just so. You're nice, too."
The German meditated for a few seconds, pensively sipping away at his beer. Then he said that which every man tells a prostitute in these moments preceding the casual possession of her body:
"Do you know, Marichen, you also please me very much. I would willingly take you and set you up."
"You're married," the girl objected, touching his ring.
"Yes, but, you understand, I don't live with my wife; she isn't well, she can't fulfill her conjugal duties."
"The poor thing! If she were to find out where you go, daddy, she would cry for sure."
"Let's drop that. So, you know, Mary, I am always looking out for such a girl as you for myself, so modest and pretty. I am a man of means, I would find a flat with board for you, with fuel and light. And forty roubles a month pin money. Would you go?"
"Why not go--I'd go."
He kissed her violently, but a secret apprehension glided swiftly through his cowardly heart.
"But are you healthy?" he asked in an inimical, quavering voice.
"Why, yes, I am healthy. There's a doctor's inspection every Saturday in our place."
After five minutes she went away from him, as she walked putting away in her stocking the earned money, on which, as on the first handsel, she had first spat, after a superstitious custom. There had been no further speech either about maintenance or natural liking. The German was left unsatisfied with the frigidity of Manka and ordered the housekeeper to be summoned to him.
"Housekeeper dear, my husband demands your presence!" said Manya, coming into the drawing room and fixing her hair before a mirror.
Zociya went away, then returned afterwards and called Pasha out into the corridor. Later she came back into the drawing room, but alone.
"How is it, Manka, that you haven't pleased your cavalier?" she asked with laughter. "He complains about you: 'This,' he says, 'is no woman, but some log of wood, a piece of ice.' I sent him Pashka."
"Eh, what a disgusting man!" Manka puckered up her face and spat aside. "Butts in with his conversations. Asks: 'Do you feel when I kiss you? Do you feel a pleasant excitement?' An old hound. 'I'll take you,' he says, 'and set you up!'"
"They all say that," remarked Zoe indifferently.
But Jennie, who since morning has been in an evil mood, suddenly flared up.
"Oh, the sneak, the big, miserable sneak that he is!" she exclaimed, turning red and energetically putting her hands to her sides. "Why, I would take him, the old, dirty little beast, by the ear, then lead him up to the mirror and show him his disgusting snout. What? Good-looking, aren't you? And how much better you'll be when the spit will be running out of your mouth, and you'll cross your eyes, and begin to choke and rattle in the throat, and to snort right in the face of the woman. And for your damned rouble you want me to go all to pieces before you like a pancake, and that from your nasty love my eyes should pop out onto my forehead? Why, hit him in the snout, the skunk, in the snout! Until there's blood!"
"O, Jennie! Stop it now! Pfui!" the susceptible Emma Edwardovna, made indignant by her tone, stopped her.
"I won't stop!" she cut her short abruptly. But she grew quiet by herself and wrathfully walked away with distending nostrils and with fire in the darkened, handsome eyes.