Yama (The Pit) by Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin
Little by little the drawing room was filling. There came Roly- Poly, long known to all Yama--a tall, thin, red-nosed, gray old man, in the uniform of a forest ranger, in high boots, with a wooden yard-stick always sticking out of his side-pocket. He passed whole days and evenings as a habitue of the billiard parlor in the tavern, always half-tipsy, shedding his little jokes, jingles and little sayings, acting familiarly with the porters, with the housekeepers and the girls. In the houses everybody from the proprietress to the chamber-maids--treated him with a bit of derision--careless, a trifle contemptuous, but without malice. At times he was even not without use: he could transmit notes from the girls to their lovers, and run over to the market or to the drug-store. Not infrequently, thanks to his loosely hung tongue and long extinguished self respect, he would worm himself into a gathering of strangers and increase their expenditures, nor did he carry elsewhere the money gotten as "loans" on such occasions, but spent it right here for women--unless, indeed, he left himself some change for cigarettes. And, out of habit, he was good- naturedly tolerated.
"And here's Roly-Poly arrived," announced Niura, when he, having already managed to shake hands amicably with Simeon the porter, stopped in the doorway of the drawing room, lanky, in a uniform cap knocked at a brave slant over one side of his head. "Well, now, Roly-Poly, fire away!"
"I have the honour to present myself," Roly-Poly immediately commenced to grimace, putting his hand up to his brim in military fashion, "a right honourable privy frequenter of the local agreeable establishments, Prince Bottlekin, Count Liquorkin, Baron Whoatinkevich-Giddapkovski--Mister Beethoven! Mister Chopin!" he greeted the musicians. "Play me something from the opera The Brave and Charming General Anisimov, or, A Hubbub in the Coolidor. My regards to the little political economist Zociya. [Footnote: An untranslatable pun on Economochka, a diminutive for "housekeeper."--Trans.] A-ha! Then you kiss only at Easter? We shall write that down. Ooh-you, my Tomalachka, my pitty-itty tootsicums!"
And so with jests and with pinches he went the round of all the girls and at last sat down alongside of the fat Katie, who put her fat leg upon his, leant with her elbow upon her knee, while upon the palm she laid her chin, and began to watch indifferently and closely the surveyor rolling a cigarette for himself.
"And how is it that you don't ever get tired of it, Roly-Poly? You're forever rolling a coffin nail."
Roly-Poly at once commenced to move his eye-brows and the skin of his scalp and began to speak in verse:
"Dear cigarette, my secret mate, How can I help loving thee? Not through mere whim, prompted by fate, All have started smoking thee."
"Why, Roly-Poly, but you are going to croak soon," said Kitty indifferently.
"And a very simple matter, that."
"Roly-Poly, say something still funnier, in verse," begged Verka.
And at once, obediently, having placed himself in a funny pose, he began to declaim:
"Many stars are in the bright sky, But to count them there's no way. Yes, the wind whispers there can be, But there really is no way. Blossoming now are burdocks, Now sing out the birds called cocks."
Playing the tom-fool in this manner, Roly-Poly would sit whole evenings and nights through in the drawing rooms of the establishments. And through some strange psychic fellow feeling the girls counted him almost as one of their own; occasionally rendered him little temporary services and even bought him beer and vodka at their expense.
Some time after Roly-Poly a large company of hairdressers, who were that day free from work, tumbled in. They were noisy, gay, but even here, in a brothel, did not cease their petty reckonings and conversations about closed and open theatrical benefits, about the bosses, about the wives of the bosses. All these were people corrupt to a sufficient degree, liars, with great hopes for the future--such as, for example, entering the service of some countess as a kept lover. They wanted to utilize to the widest possible extent their rather hard-earned money, and on that account decided to make a review of absolutely all the houses of Yama; only Treppel's they could not resolve to enter, as that was too swell for them. But at Anna Markovna's they at once ordered a quadrille and danced it, especially the fifth figure, where the gents execute a solo, perfectly, like real Parisians, even putting their thumbs in the arm holes of their vests. But they did not want to remain with the girls; instead, they promised to come later, when they had wound up the complete review of the brothels.
And there also came and went government clerks of some sort; crisp young people in patent leather boots; several students; several officers, who were horribly afraid of losing their dignity in the eyes of the proprietress and the guests of the brothel. Little by little in the drawing room was created such a noisy, fumy setting that no one there any longer felt ill at ease. There came a steady visitor, the lover of Sonka the Rudder, who came almost every day and sat whole hours through near his beloved, gazed upon her with languishing oriental eyes, sighed, grew faint and created scenes for her because she lives in a brothel, because she sins against the Sabbath, because she eats meat not prepared in the orthodox Hebrew manner, and because she has strayed from the family and the great Hebrew church.
As a usual thing--and this happened often--Zociya the housekeeper would walk up to him under cover of the hubbub and would say, twisting her lips:
"Well, what are you sitting there for mister? Warming your behind? You might go and pass the time with the young lady."
Both of them, the Jew and the Jewess, were by birth from Homel, and must have been created by God himself for a tender, passionate, mutual love; but many circumstances--as, for example, the pogrom which took place in their town, impoverishment, a complete confusion, fright--had for a time parted them. However, love was so great that the junior drug clerk Neiman, with great difficulty, efforts, and humiliations, contrived to find for himself the place of a junior in one of the local pharmacies, and had searched out the girl he loved. He was a real, orthodox Hebrew, almost fanatical. He knew that Sonka had been sold by her very mother to one of the buyers-up of live merchandise, knew many humiliating, hideous particulars of how she had been resold from hand to hand, and his pious, fastidious, truly Hebraic soul writhed and shuddered at these thoughts, but nevertheless love was above all. And every evening he would appear in the drawing room of Anna Markovna. If he was successful, at an enormous deprivation, in cutting out of his beggarly income some chance rouble, he would take Sonka into her room, but this was not at all a joy either for him or for her: after a momentary happiness--the physical possession of each other--they cried, reproached each other, quarreled with characteristic Hebraic, theatrical gestures, and always after these visits Sonka the Rudder would return into the drawing room with swollen, reddened eyelids.
But most frequently of all he had no money, and would sit whole evenings through near his mistress, patiently and jealously awaiting her when Sonka through chance was taken by some guest. And when she would return and sit down beside him, he would, without being perceived, overwhelm her with reproaches, trying not to turn the general attention upon himself and without turning his head in her direction. And in her splendid, humid, Hebraic eyes during these conversations there was always a martyr-like but meek expression.
There arrived a large company of Germans, employed in an optical shop; there also arrived a party of clerks from the fish and gastronomical store of Kereshkovsky, and two young people very well known in the Yamas--both bald, with sparse, soft, delicate hairs around the bald spots: Nicky the Book-keeper and Mishka the Singer--so were they both called in the houses. They also were met very cordially, just like Karl Karlovich of the optical shop and Volodka of the fish store--with raptures, cries and kisses, flattering to their self-esteem. The spry Niurka would jump out into the foyer, and, having informed herself as to who had come, would report excitedly, after her wont:
"Jennka, your husband has come!"
"Little Manka, your lover has come!"
And Mishka the Singer, who was no singer at all, but the owner of a drug warehouse, at once, upon entering, sang out in a vibrating, quavering, goatish voice:
"They fe-e-e-l the tru-u-u-u-uth! Come thou daw-aw-aw-aw-ning..."
which he perpetrated at every visit of his to Anna Markovna.
Almost incessantly they played the quadrille, waltz, polka, and danced. There also arrived Senka--the lover of Tamara--but, contrary to his wont, he did not put on airs, did not go in for "ruination," did not order a funeral march from Isaiah Savvich, and did not treat the girls to chocolate ... For some reason he was gloomy, limped on his right leg, and sought to attract as little attention as possible--probably his professional affairs were at this time in a bad way. With a single motion of his head, while walking, he called Tamara out of the drawing room and vanished with her into her room. And there also arrived Egmont- Lavretzki the actor, clean-shaven, tall, resembling a court flunky with his vulgar and insolently contemptuous face.
The clerks from the gastronomical store danced with all the ardour of youth and with all the decorum recommended by Herman Hoppe, the self-instructor of good manners. In this regard the girls also responded to their intentions. Both with these and with the others it was accounted especially decorous and well-bred to dance as rigidly as possible, keeping the arms hanging down, while the heads were raised high and inclined to one side with a certain proud, and, at the same time, tired and enervated air. In the intermissions, between the figures of the dance, it was necessary to fan one's self with a handkerchief, with a bored and negligent air ... In a word, they all made believe that they belonged to the choicest society, and that if they do dance, they only do it out of condescension, as a little comradely turn. But still they danced so ardently that the perspiration rolled down in streams from the clerks of Kereshkovsky.
Two or three rows had already happened in different houses. Some man, all in blood, whose face in the pale light of the moon's crescent seemed black from the blood, was running around in the street, cursing, and, without paying the least attention to his wounds, was searching for his cap which had been lost in the brawl. On Little Yamskaya some government scribes had had a fight with a ship's company. The tired pianists and musicians played as in a delirium, in a doze, through mechanical habit. This was towards the waning of the night.
Altogether unexpectedly, seven students, a sub-professor, and a local reporter walked into the establishment of Anna Markovna.