Creatures That Once Were Men
by Maxim Gorky
By G. K. CHESTERTON.
It is certainly a curious fact that so many of the voices of what
is called our modern religion have come from countries which are not
only simple, but may even be called barbaric. A nation like Norway
has a great realistic drama without having ever had either a great
classical drama or a great romantic drama. A nation like Russia makes
us feel its modern fiction when we have never felt its ancient
fiction. It has produced its Gissing without producing its Scott.
Everything that is most sad and scientific, everything that is most
grim and analytical, everything that can truly be called most modern,
everything that can without unreasonableness be called most morbid,
comes from these fresh and untried and unexhausted nationalities. Out
of these infant peoples come the oldest voices of the earth. This
contradiction, like many other contradictions, is one which ought
first of all to be registered as a mere fact; long before we attempt
to explain why things contradict themselves, we ought, if we are
honest men and good critics, to register the preliminary truth that
things do contradict themselves. In this case, as I say, there are
many possible and suggestive explanations. It may be, to take an
example, that our modern Europe is so exhausted that even the vigorous
expression of that exhaustion is difficult for every one except the
most robust. It may be that all the nations are tired; and it may be
that only the boldest and breeziest are not too tired to say that they
are tired. It may be that a man like Ibsen in Norway or a man like
Gorky in Russia are the only people left who have so much faith that
they can really believe in scepticism. It may be that they are the
only people left who have so much animal spirits that they can really
feast high and drink deep at the ancient banquet of pessimism. This
is one of the possible hypotheses or explanations in the matter: that
all Europe feels these things and that they only have strength to
believe them also. Many other explanations might, however, also be
offered. It might be suggested that half-barbaric countries like
Russia or Norway, which have always lain, to say the least of it, on
the extreme edge of the circle of our European civilisation, have a
certain primal melancholy which belongs to them through all the ages.
It is highly probable that this sadness, which to us is modern, is to
them eternal. It is highly probable that what we have solemnly and
suddenly discovered in scientific text-books and philosophical
magazines they absorbed and experienced thousands of years ago, when
they offered human sacrifice in black and cruel forests and cried to
their gods in the dark. Their agnosticism is perhaps merely paganism;
their paganism, as in old times, is merely devilworship. Certainly,
Schopenhauer could hardly have written his hideous essay on women
except in a country which had once been full of slavery and the
service of fiends. It may be that these moderns are tricking us
altogether, and are hiding in their current scientific jargon things
that they knew before science or civilisation were. They say that
they are determinists; but the truth is, probably, that they are still
worshipping the Norns. They say that they describe scenes which are
sickening and dehumanising in the name of art or in the name of truth;
but it may be that they do it in the name of some deity indescribable,
whom they propitiated with blood and terror before the beginning of
This hypothesis, like the hypothesis mentioned before it, is
highly disputable, and is at best a suggestion. But there is one
broad truth in the matter which may in any case be considered as
established. A country like Russia has far more inherent capacity
for producing revolution in revolutionists than any country of the
type of England or America. Communities highly civilised and largely
urban tend to a thing which is now called evolution, the most cautious
and the most conservative of all social influences. The loyal Russian
obeys the Czar because he remembers the Czar and the Czar's
importance. The disloyal Russian frets against the Czar because he
also remembers the Czar, and makes a note of the necessity of knifing
him. But the loyal Englishman obeys the upper classes because he has
forgotten that they are there. Their operation has become to him like
daylight, or gravitation, or any of the forces of nature. And there
are no disloyal Englishmen; there are no English revolutionists,
because the oligarchic management of England is so complete as to be
invisible. The thing which can once get itself forgotten can make
Gorky is pre-eminently Russian, in that he is a revolutionist; not
because most Russians are revolutionists (for I imagine that they are
not), but because most Russians--indeed, nearly all Russians--are in
that attitude of mind which makes revolution possible and which makes
religion possible, an attitude of primary and dogmatic assertion. To
be a revolutionist it is first necessary to be a revelationist. It is
necessary to believe in the sufficiency of some theory of the universe
or the State. But in countries that have come under the influence of
what is called the evolutionary idea, there has been no dramatic
righting of wrongs, and (unless the evolutionary idea loses its hold)
there never will be. These countries have no revolution, they have to
put up with an inferior and largely fictitious thing which they call
The interest of the Gorky tale, like the interest of so many other
Russian masterpieces, consists in this sharp contact between a
simplicity, which we in the West feel to be very old, and a
rebelliousness which we in the West feel to be very new. We cannot in
our graduated and polite civilisation quite make head or tail of the
Russian anarch; we can only feel in a vague way that his tale is the
tale of the Missing Link, and that his head is the head of the
superman. We hear his lonely cry of anger. But we cannot be quite
certain whether his protest is the protest of the first anarchist
against government, or whether it is the protest of the last savage
against civilisation. The cruelty of ages and of political cynicism
or necessity has done much to burden the race of which Gorky writes;
but time has left them one thing which it has not left to the people
in Poplar or West Ham. It has left them, apparently, the clear and
childlike power of seeing the cruelty which encompasses them. Gorky
is a tramp, a man of the people, and also a critic and a bitter one.
In the West poor men, when they become articulate in literature, are
always sentimentalists and nearly always optimists.
It is no exaggeration to say that these people of whom Gorky
writes in such a story as this of "Creatures that once were Men" are
to the Western mind children. They have, indeed, been tortured and
broken by experience and sin. But this has only sufficed to make them
sad children or naughty children or bewildered children. They have
absolutely no trace of that quality upon which secure government rests
so largely in Western Europe, the quality of being soothed by long
words as if by an incantation. They do not call hunger "economic
pressure"; they call it hunger. They do not call rich men "examples
of capitalistic concentration," they call them rich men. And this
note of plainness and of something nobly prosaic is as characteristic
of Gorky, the most recent and in some ways the most modern and
sophisticated of Russian authors, as it is of Tolstoy or any of the
Tolstoyan type of mind. The very title of this story strikes the note
of this sudden and simple vision. The philanthropist writing long
letters to the Daily Telegraph says, of men living in a slum, that
"their degeneration is of such a kind as almost to pass the limits of
the semblance of humanity," and we read the whole thing with a tepid
assent as we should read phrases about the virtues of Queen Victoria
or the dignity of the House of Commons. The Russian novelist, when he
describes a dosshouse, says, "Creatures that once were Men." And we
are arrested, and regard the facts as a kind of terrible fairy tale.
This story is a test case of the Russian manner, for it is in itself
a study of decay, a study of failure, and a study of old age. And yet
the author is forced to write even of staleness freshly; and though he
is treating of the world as seen by eyes darkened or blood-shot with
evil experience, his own eyes look out upon the scene with a clarity
that is almost babyish. Through all runs that curious Russian sense
that every man is only a man, which, if the Russians ever are a
democracy, will make them the most democratic democracy that the world
has ever seen. Take this passage, for instance, from the austere
conclusion of "Creatures that once were Men."
Petunikoff smiled the smile of the conqueror and went back into
the dosshouse, but suddenly he stopped and trembled. At the door
facing him stood an old man with a stick in his hand and a large bag
on his back, a horrible odd man in rags and tatters, which covered his
bony figure. He bent under the weight of his burden, and lowered his
head on his breast, as if he wished to attack the merchant.
"What are you? Who are you?" shouted Petunikoff.
"A man . . ." he answered, in a hoarse voice. This hoarseness
pleased and tranquillised Petunikoff, he even smiled.
"A man! And are there really men like you?" Stepping aside he
let the old man pass. He went, saying slowly:
"Men are of various kinds . . . as God wills . . . There are
worse than me . . . still worse . . . Yes . . ."
Here, in the very act of describing a kind of a fall from
humanity, Gorky expresses a sense of the strangeness and essential
value of the human being which is far too commonly absent altogether
from such complex civilisations as our own. To no Western, I am
afraid, would it occur when asked what he was to say, "A man." He
would be a plasterer who had walked from Reading, or an iron-puddler
who had been thrown out of work in Lancashire, or a University man who
would be really most grateful for the loan of five shillings, or the
son of a lieutenant-general living in Brighton, who would not have
made such an application if he had not known that he was talking to
another gentleman. With us it is not a question of men being of
various kinds; with us the kinds are almost different animals. But in
spite of all Gorky's superficial scepticism and brutality, it is to
him the fall from humanity, or the apparent fall from humanity, which
is not merely great and lamentable, but essential and even mystical.
The line between man and the beasts is one of the transcendental
essentials of every religion; and it is, like most of the
transcendental things of religion, identical with the main sentiments
of the man of common sense. We feel this gulf when theologies say
that it cannot be crossed. But we feel it quite as much (and that
with a primal shudder) when philosophers or fanciful writers suggest
that it might be crossed. And if any man wishes to discover whether or
no he has really learnt to regard the line between man and brute as
merely relative and evolutionary, let him say again to himself those
frightful words, "Creatures that once were Men."
G. K. CHESTERTON.
In front of you is the main street, with two rows of miserable
looking huts with shuttered windows and old walls pressing on each
other and leaning forward. The roofs of these time-worn habitations
are full of holes, and have been patched here and there with laths;
from underneath them project mildewed beams, which are shaded by the
dusty-leaved elder-trees and crooked white willows--pitiable flora of
those suburbs inhabited by the poor.
The dull green time-stained panes of the windows look upon each
other with the cowardly glances of cheats. Through the street and
towards the adjacent mountain, runs the sinuous path, winding through
the deep ditches filled with rain-water. Here and there are piled
heaps of dust and other rubbish--either refuse or else put there
purposely to keep the rain-water from flooding the houses. On the top
of the mountain, among green gardens with dense foliage, beautiful
stone houses lie hidden; the belfries of the churches rise proudly
towards the sky, and their gilded crosses shine beneath the rays of
the sun. During the rainy weather the neighbouring town pours its
water into this main road, which, at other times, is full of its dust,
and all these miserable houses seem, as it were, thrown by some
powerful hand into that heap of dust, rubbish, and rain-water. They
cling to the ground beneath the high mountain, exposed to the sun,
surrounded by decaying refuse, and their sodden appearance impresses
one with the same feeling as would the half-rotten trunk of an old
At the end of the main street, as if thrown out of the town, stood
a two-storied house, which had been rented from Petunikoff, a merchant
and resident of the town. It was in comparatively good order, being
further from the mountain, while near it were the open fields, and
about half-a-mile away the river ran its winding course.
This large old house had the most dismal aspect amidst its
surroundings. The walls bent outwards and there was hardly a pane of
glass in any of the windows, except some of the fragments which looked
like the water of the marshes--dull green. The spaces of wall between
the windows were covered with spots, as if time were trying to write
there in hieroglyphics the history of the old house, and the tottering
roof added still more to its pitiable condition. It seemed as if the
whole building bent towards the ground, to await the last stroke of
that fate which should transform it into a chaos of rotting remains,
and finally into dust.
The gates were open, one half of them displaced and lying on the
ground at the entrance, while between its bars had grown the grass,
which also covered the large and empty court-yard. In the depths of
this yard stood a low, iron-roofed, smoke-begrimed building. The
house itself was of course unoccupied, but this shed, formerly a
blacksmith's forge, was now turned into a "dosshouse," kept by a
retired Captain named Aristid Fomich Kuvalda.
In the interior of the dosshouse was a long, wide and grimy board,
measuring some 28 by 70 feet. The room was lighted on one side by
four small square windows, and on the other by a wide door. The
unpainted brick walls were black with smoke, and the ceiling, which
was built of timber, was almost black. In the middle stood a large
stove, the furnace of which served as its foundation, and around this
stove and along the walls were also long, wide boards, which served as
beds for the lodgers. The walls smelt of smoke, the earthen floor of
dampness, and the long wide board of rotting rags.
The place of the proprietor was on the top of the stove, while the
boards surrounding it were intended for those who were on good terms
with the owner and who were honoured by his friendship. During the
day the captain passed most of his time sitting on a kind of bench,
made by himself by placing bricks against the wall of the courtyard,
or else in the eating house of Egor Vavilovitch, which was opposite
the house, where he took all his meals and where he also drank vodki.
Before renting this house, Aristid Kuvalda had kept a registry
office for servants in the town. If we look further back into his
former life, we shall find that he once owned printing works, and
previous to this, in his own words, he "just lived! And lived well
too, Devil take it, and like one who knew how!"
He was a tall, broad-shouldered man of fifty, with a rawlooking
face, swollen with drunkenness, and with a dirty yellowish beard. His
eyes were large and grey, with an insolent expression of happiness.
He spoke in a bass voice and with a sort of grumbling sound in his
throat, and he almost always held between his teeth a German china
pipe with a long bowl. When he was angry the nostrils of his big
crooked red nose swelled, and his lips trembled, exposing to view two
rows of large and wolf-like yellow teeth. He had long arms, was lame,
and always dressed in an old officer's uniform, with a dirty, greasy
cap with a red band, a hat without a brim, and ragged felt boots which
reached almost to his knees. In the morning, as a rule, he had a
heavy drunken headache, and in the evening he caroused. However much
he drank, he was never drunk, and so was always merry.
In the evenings he received lodgers, sitting on his brickmade
bench with his pipe in his mouth.
"Whom have we here?" he would ask the ragged and tattered object
approaching him, who had probably been chucked out of the town for
drunkenness, or perhaps for some other reason not quite so simple.
And after the man had answered him, he would say, "Let me see legal
papers in confirmation of your lies." And if there were such papers
they were shown. The Captain would then put them in his bosom, seldom
taking any interest in them, and would say:
"Everything is in order. Two kopecks for the night, ten kopecks
for the week, and thirty kopecks for the month. Go and get a place
for yourself, and see that it is not other people's, or else they will
blow you up. The people that live here are particular."
"Don't you sell tea, bread, or anything to eat?"
"I trade only in walls and roofs, for which I pay to the swindling
proprietor of this hole--Judas Petunikoff, merchant of the second
guild--five roubles a month," explained Kuvalda in a business-like
tone. "Only those come to me who are not accustomed to comfort and
luxuries . . . . but if you are accustomed to eat every day, then
there is the eating-house opposite. But it would be better for you if
you left off that habit. You see you are not a gentleman. What do
you eat? You eat yourself!"
For such speeches, delivered in a strictly business-like manner,
and always with smiling eyes, and also for the attention he paid to
his lodgers the Captain was very popular among the poor of the town.
It very often happened that a former client of his would appear, not
in rags, but in something more respectable and with a slightly happier
"Good-day, your honour, and how do you do?"
"Alive, in good health! Go on."
"Don't you know me?"
"I did not know you."
"Do you remember that I lived with you last winter for nearly a
month . . . . when the fight with the police took place, and three
were taken away?"
"My brother, that is so. The police do come even under my
"My God! You gave a piece of your mind to the police inspector of
"Wouldn't you accept some small hospitality from me? When I lived
with you, you were . . ."
"Gratitude must be encouraged because it is seldom met with. You
seem to be a good man, and, though I don't remember you, still I will
go with you into the public-house and drink to your success and future
prospects with the greatest pleasure."
"You seem always the same . . . Are you always joking?"
"What else can one do, living among you unfortunate men?"
They went. Sometimes the Captain's former customer, uplifted and
unsettled by the entertainment, returned to the dosshouse, and on the
following morning they would again begin treating each other till the
Captain's companion would wake up to realise that he had spent all his
money in drink.
"Your honour, do you see that I have again fallen into your hands?
What shall we do now?"
"The position, no doubt, is not a very good one, but still you
need not trouble about it," reasoned the Captain. "You must, my
friend, treat everything indifferently, without spoiling yourself by
philosophy, and without asking yourself any question. To philosophise
is always foolish; to philosophise with a drunken headache, ineffably
so. Drunken headaches require vodki and not the remorse of conscience
or gnashing of teeth . . . save your teeth, or else you will not be
able to protect yourself. Here are twenty kopecks. Go and buy a
bottle of vodki for five kopecks, hot tripe or lungs, one pound of
bread and two cucumbers. When we have lived off our drunken headache
we will think of the condition of affairs . . ."
As a rule the consideration of the "condition of affairs" lasted
some two or three days, and only when the Captain had not a farthing
left of the three roubles or five roubles given him by his grateful
customer did he say:
"You came! Do you see? Now that we have drunk everything with
you, you fool, try again to regain the path of virtue and soberness.
It has been truly said that if you do not sin, you will not repent,
and, if you do not repent, you shall not be saved. We have done the
first, and to repent is useless. Let us make direct for salvation.
Go to the river and work, and if you think you cannot control
yourself, tell the contractor, your employer, to keep your money, or
else give it to me. When you get sufficient capital, I will get you a
pair of trousers and other things necessary to make you seem a
respectable and hard-working man, persecuted by fate. With
decent-looking trousers you can go far. Now then, be off!"
Then the client would go to the river to work as a porter, smiling
the while over the Captain's long and wise speeches. He did not
distinctly understand them, but only saw in front of him two merry
eyes, felt their encouraging influence, and knew that in the
loquacious Captain he had an arm that would assist him in time of
And really it happened very often that, for a month or so, some
ticket-of-leave client, under the strict surveillance of the Captain,
had the opportunity of raising himself to a condition better than that
to which, thanks to the Captain's co-operation, he had fallen.
"Now, then, my friend!" said the Captain, glancing critically at
the restored client, "we have a coat and jacket. When I had
respectable trousers I lived in town like a respectable man. But
when the trousers wore out, I too fell off in the opinion of my
fellow-men and had to come down here from the town. Men, my fine
mannikin, judge everything by the outward appearance, while, owing to
their foolishness, the actual reality of things is incomprehensible to
them. Make a note of this on your nose, and pay me at least half your
debt. Go in peace; seek, and you may find."
"How much do I owe you, Aristid Fomich?" asks the client, in
"One rouble and 70 kopecks. . . . Now, give me only one rouble,
or, if you like, 70 kopecks, and as for the rest, I shall wait until
you have earned more than you have now by stealing or by hard work, it
does not matter to me."
"I thank you humbly for your kindness!" says the client, touched
to the heart. "Truly you are a kind man. . . . ; Life has persecuted
you in vain. . . . What an eagle you would have been in your own
The Captain could not live without eloquent speeches.
"What does 'in my own place' mean? No one really knows his own
place in life, and every one of us crawls into his harness. The
place of the merchant Judas Petunikoff ought to be in penal
servitude, but he still walks through the streets in daylight, and
even intends to build a factory. The place of our teacher ought to be
beside a wife and half-a-dozen children, but he is loitering in the
public-house of Vaviloff. And then, there is yourself. You are going
to seek a situation as a hall porter or waiter, but I can see that you
ought to be a soldier in the army, because you are no fool, are
patient and understand discipline. Life shuffles us like cards, you
see, and it is only accidentally, and only for a time, that we fall
into our own places!"
Such farewell speeches often served as a preface to the
continuation of their acquaintance, which again began with drinking
and went so far that the client would spend his last farthing. Then
the Captain would stand him treat, and they would drink all they had.
A repetition of similar doings did not affect in the least the
good relations of the parties.
The teacher mentioned by the Captain was another of those
customers who were thus reformed only in order that they should sin
again. Thanks to his intellect, he was the nearest in rank to the
Captain, and this was probably the cause of his falling so low as
dosshouse life, and of his inability to rise again. It was only with
him that Aristid Kuvalda could philosophise with the certainty of
being understood. He valued this, and when the reformed teacher
prepared to leave the dosshouse in order to get a corner in town for
himself, then Aristid Kuvalda accompanied him so sorrowfully and sadly
that it ended, as a rule, in their both getting drunk and spending all
their money. Probably Kuvalda arranged the matter intentionally so
that the teacher could not leave the dosshouse, though he desired to
do so with all his heart. Was it possible for Aristid Kuvalda, a
nobleman (as was evident from his speeches), one who was accustomed to
think, though the turn of fate may have changed his position, was it
possible for him not to desire to have close to him a man like
himself? We can pity our own faults in others.
This teacher had once taught at an institution in one of the towns
on the Volga, but in consequence of some story was dismissed. After
this he was a clerk in a tannery, but again had to leave. Then he
became a librarian in some private library, subsequently following
other professions. Finally, after passing examinations in law he
became a lawyer, but drink reduced him to the Captain's dosshouse. He
was tall, round-shouldered, with a long sharp nose and bald head. In
his bony and yellow face, on which grew a wedge-shaped beard, shone
large, restless eyes, deeply sunk in their sockets, and the corners of
his mouth drooped sadly down. He earned his bread, or rather his
drink, by reporting for the local papers. He sometimes earned as much
as fifteen roubles. These he gave to the Captain and said:
"It is enough. I am going back into the bosom of culture. Another
week's hard work and I shall dress respectably, and then Addio, mio
"Very exemplary! As I heartily sympathise with your decision,
Philip, I shall not give you another glass all this week," the
Captain warned him sternly.
"I shall be thankful! . . . . You will not give me one drop?"
The Captain heard in his voice a beseeching note to which he
turned a deaf ear.
"Even though you roar, I shall not give it you!"
"As you like, then," sighed the teacher, and went away to continue
his reporting. But after a day or two he would return tired and
thirsty, and would look at the Captain with a beseeching glance out of
the corners of his eyes, hoping that his friend's heart would soften.
The Captain in such cases put on a serious face and began speaking
with killing irony on the theme of weakness of character, of the
animal delight of intoxication, and on such subjects as suited the
occasion. One must do him justice: he was captivated by his role of
mentor and moralist, but the lodgers dogged him, and, listening
sceptically to his exhortations to repentance, would whisper aside to
"Cunning, skilful, shifty rogue! I told you so, but you would not
listen. It's your own fault!"
"His honour is really a good soldier. He goes first and examines
the road behind him!"
The teacher then hunted here and there till he found his friend
again in some corner, and grasping his dirty coat, trembling and
licking his dry lips, looked into his face with a deep, tragic
glance, without articulate words.
"Can't you?" asked the Captain sullenly.
The teacher answered by bowing his head and letting it fall on his
breast, his tall, thin body trembling the while.
"Wait another day . . . perhaps you will be all right then,"
proposed Kuvalda. The teacher sighed, and shook his head hopelessly.
The Captain saw that his friend's thin body trembled with the
thirst for the poison, and took some money from his pocket.
"In the majority of cases it is impossible to fight against fate,"
said he, as if trying to justify himself before someone. But if the
teacher controlled himself for a whole week then there was a touching
farewell scene between the two friends, which ended as a rule in the
eating-house of Vaviloff. The teacher did not spend all his money,
but spent at least half on the children of the main street. The poor
are always rich in children, and in the dirt and ditches of this
street there were groups of them from morning to night, hungry, naked
and dirty. Children are the living flowers of the earth, but these
had the appearance of flowers that have faded prematurely, because
they grew in ground where there was no healthy nourishment. Often the
teacher would gather them round him, would buy them bread, eggs,
apples and nuts, and take them into the fields by the river side.
There they would sit and greedily eat everything he offered them,
after which they would begin to play, filling the fields for a mile
around with careless noise and laughter. The tall, thin figure of
the drunkard towered above these small people, who treated him
familiarly, as if he were one of their own age. They called him
"Philip," and did not trouble to prefix "Uncle" to his name. Playing
around him, like little wild animals, they pushed him, jumped upon his
back, beat him upon his bald head, and caught hold of his nose. All
this must have pleased him, as he did not protest against such
liberties. He spoke very little to them, and when he did so he did it
cautiously as if afraid that his words would hurt or contaminate them.
He passed many hours thus as their companion and plaything, watching
their lively faces with his gloomy eyes. Then he would thoughtfully
and slowly direct his steps to the eatinghouse of Vaviloff, where he
would drink silently and quickly till all his senses left him.
* * * * *
Almost every day after his reporting he would bring a newspaper,
and then gather round him all these creatures that once were men.
On seeing him, they would come forward from all corners of the
court-yard, drunk, or suffering from drunken headache, dishevelled,
tattered, miserable, and pitiable. Then would come the barrel-like,
stout Aleksei Maksimovitch Simtsoff, formerly Inspector of Woods and
Forests, under the Department of Appendages, but now trading in
matches, ink, blacking, and lemons. He was an old man of sixty, in a
canvas overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat, the greasy borders of which
hid his stout fat red face. He had a thick white beard, out of which
a small red nose turned gaily heavenwards. He had thick, crimson lips
and watery, cynical eyes. They called him "Kubar," a name which well
described his round figure and buzzing speech. After him, Kanets
appeared from some corner--a dark, sad-looking, silent drunkard: then
the former governor of the prison, Luka Antonovitch Martyanoff, a man
who existed on "remeshok," "trilistika," and "bankovka,"* and many
such cunning games, not much appreciated by the police. He would
throw his hard and oft-scourged body on the grass beside the teacher,
and, turning his eyes round and scratching his head, would ask in a
hoarse, bass voice, "May I?"
Note by translator.--Well-known games of chance, played by the
lower classes. The police specially endeavour to stop them, but
Then appeared Pavel Solntseff, a man of thirty years of age,
suffering from consumption. The ribs of his left side had been
broken in a quarrel, and the sharp, yellow face, like that of a fox,
always wore a malicious smile. The thin lips, when opened, exposed
two rows of decayed black teeth, and the rags on his shoulders swayed
backwards and forwards as if they were hung on a clothes pole. They
called him "Abyedok." He hawked brushes and bath brooms of his own
manufacture, good strong brushes made from a peculiar kind of grass.
Then followed a lean and bony man of whom no one knew anything,
with a frightened expression in his eyes, the left one of which had a
squint. He was silent and timid, and had been imprisoned three times
for theft by the High Court of Justice and the Magisterial Courts.
His family name was Kiselnikoff, but they called him Paltara Taras,
because he was a head and shoulders taller than his friend, Deacon
Taras, who had been degraded from his office for drunkenness and
immorality. The Deacon was a short, thick-set person, with the chest
of an athlete and a round, strong head. He danced skilfully, and was
still more skilful at swearing. He and Paltara Taras worked in the
wood on the banks of the river, and in free hours he told his friend
or any one who would listen, "Tales of my own composition," as he
used to say. On hearing these stories, the heroes of which always
seemed to be saints, kings, priests, or generals, even the inmates of
the dosshouse spat and rubbed their eyes in astonishment at the
imagination of the Deacon, who told them shameless tales of lewd,
fantastic adventures, with blinking eyes and a passionless expression
of countenance. The imagination of this man was powerful and
inexhaustible; he could go on relating and composing all day, from
morning to night, without once repeating what he had said before. In
his expression you sometimes saw the poet gone astray, sometimes the
romancer, and he always succeeded in making his tales realistic by the
effective and powerful words in which he told them.
There was also a foolish young man called Kuvalda Meteor. One
night he came to sleep in the dosshouse and had remained ever since
among these men, much to their astonishment. At first they did not
take much notice of him. In the daytime, like all the others, he went
away to find something to eat, but at nights he always loitered around
this friendly company till at last the Captain took notice of him.
"Boy! What business have you here on this earth?"
The boy answered boldly and stoutly:
"I am a barefooted tramp . . . ."
The Captain looked critically at him. This youngster had long
hair and a weak face, with prominent cheek-bones and a turned-up
nose. He was dressed in a blue blouse without a waistband, and on
his head he wore the remains of a straw hat, while his feet were bare.
"You are a fool!" decided Aristid Kuvalda. "What are you knocking
about here for? You are of absolutely no use to us . . . Do you
drink vodki? . . . No? . . . Well, then, can you steal?" Again,
"No." "Go away, learn, and come back again when you know something,
and are a man . . ."
The youngster smiled.
"No. I shall live with you."
"Just because . . ."
"Oh you . . . Meteor!" said the Captain.
"I will break his teeth for him," said Martyanoff.
"And why?" asked the youngster.
"Just because. . . ."
"And I will take a stone and hit you on the head," the young man
Martyanoff would have broken his bones, had not Kuvalda
"Leave him alone. . . . Is this a home to you or even to us? You
have no sufficient reason to break his teeth for him. You have no
better reason than he for living with us."
"Well, then, Devil take him! . . . We all live in the world
without sufficient reason. . . . We live, and why? Because! He
also because . . . let him alone. . . ."
"But it is better for you, young man, to go away from us," the
teacher advised him, looking him up and down with his sad eyes. He
made no answer, but remained. And they soon became accustomed to his
presence, and ceased to take any notice of him. But he lived among
them, and observed everything.
The above were the chief members of the Captain's company, and he
called them with kind-hearted sarcasm "Creatures that once were men."
For though there were men who had experienced as much of the bitter
irony of fate as these men, yet they were not fallen so low. Not
infrequently, respectable men belonging to the cultured classes are
inferior to those belonging to the peasantry, and it is always a fact
that the depraved man from the city is immeasurably worse than the
depraved man from the village. This fact was strikingly illustrated
by the contrast between the formerly well-educated men and the mujiks
who were living in Kuvalda's shelter.
The representative of the latter class was an old mujik called
Tyapa. Tall and angular, he kept his head in such a position that
his chin touched his breast. He was the Captain's first lodger, and
it was said of him that he had a great deal of money hidden somewhere,
and for its sake had nearly had his throat cut some two years ago:
ever since then he carried his head thus. Over his eyes hung greyish
eyebrows, and, looked at in profile, only his crooked nose was to be
seen. His shadow reminded one of a poker. He denied that he had
money, and said that they "only tried to cut his throat out of
malice," and from that day he took to collecting rags, and that is why
his head was always bent as if incessantly looking on the ground.
When he went about shaking his head, and minus a walking-stick in his
hand, and a bag on his back--the signs of his profession--he seemed to
be thinking almost to madness, and, at such times, Kuvalda spoke thus,
pointing to him with his finger:
"Look, there is the conscience of Merchant Judas Petunikoff. See
how disorderly, dirty, and low is the escaped conscience."
Tyapa, as a rule, spoke in a hoarse and hardly audible voice, and
that is why he spoke very little, and loved to be alone. But
whenever a stranger, compelled to leave the village, appeared in the
dosshouse, Tyapa seemed sadder and angrier, and followed the
unfortunate about with biting jeers and a wicked chuckling in his
throat. He either put some beggar against him, or himself threatened
to rob and beat him, till the frightened mujik would disappear from
the dosshouse and never more be seen. Then Tyapa was quiet again, and
would sit in some corner mending his rags, or else reading his Bible,
which was as dirty, worn, and old as himself. Only when the teacher
brought a newspaper and began reading did he come from his corner once
more. As a rule, Tyapa listened to what was read silently and sighed
often, without asking anything of anyone. But once when the teacher,
having read the paper, wanted to put it away, Tyapa stretched out his
bony hand, and said, "Give it to me . . ."
"What do you want it for?"
"Give it to me . . . Perhaps there is something in it about us .
"About the village."
They laughed at him, and threw him the paper. He took it, and
read in it how in the village the hail had destroyed the cornfields,
how in another village fire destroyed thirty houses, and that in a
third a woman had poisoned her family,--in fact, everything that it is
customary to write of,--everything, that is to say, which is bad, and
which depicts only the worst side of the unfortunate village. Tyapa
read all this silently and roared, perhaps from sympathy, perhaps from
delight at the sad news.
He passed the whole Sunday in reading his Bible, and never went
out collecting rags on that day. While reading, he groaned and
sighed continually. He kept the book close to his breast, and was
angry with any one who interrupted him or who touched his Bible.
"Oh, you drunken blackguard," said Kuvalda to him, "what do you
understand of it?"
"Nothing, wizard! I don't understand anything, and I do not read
any books . . . But I read . . ."
"Therefore you are a fool . . ." said the Captain, decidedly.
"When there are insects in your head, you know it is uncomfortable,
but if some thoughts enter there too, how will you live then, you old
"I have not long to live," said Tyapa, quietly.
Once the teacher asked how he had learned to read.
"In prison," answered Tyapa, shortly.
"Have you been there?"
"I was there. . . ."
"Just so. . . . It was a mistake. . . . But I brought the Bible
out with me from there. A lady gave it to me. . . . It is good in
"Is that so? And why?"
"It teaches one. . . . I learned to read there. . . . I also got
this book. . . . And all these you see, free. . . ."
When the teacher appeared in the dosshouse, Tyapa had already
lived there for some time. He looked long into the teacher's face,
as if to discover what kind of a man he was. Tyapa often listened to
his conversation, and once, sitting down beside him, said:
"I see you are very learned. . . . Have you read the Bible?"
"I have read it. . . ."
"I see; I see. . . . Can you remember it?"
"Yes. . . . I remember it. . . ."
Then the old man leaned to one side and gazed at the other with a
serious, suspicious glance.
"There were the Amalekites, do you remember?"
"Where are they now?"
"Disappeared . . . Tyapa . . . died out . . ."
The old man was silent, then asked again: "And where are the
"These also . . ."
"Have all these died out?"
"Yes . . . all . . ."
"And so . . . we also will die out?"
"There will come a time when we also will die," said the teacher
"And to what tribe of Israel do we belong?"
The teacher looked at him, and began telling him about Scythians
and Slavs. . . .
The old man became all the more frightened, and glanced at his
"You are lying!" he said scornfully, when the teacher had
"What lie have I told?" asked the teacher.
"You mentioned tribes that are not mentioned in the Bible."
He got up and walked away, angry and deeply insulted.
"You will go mad, Tyapa," called the teacher after him with
Then the old man came back again, and stretching out his hand,
threatened him with his crooked and dirty finger.
"God made Adam--from Adam were descended the Jews, that means that
all people are descended from Jews . . . and we also . . ."
"Tartars are descended from Ishmael, but he also came of the Jews
. . ."
"What do you want to tell me all this for?"
"Nothing! Only why do you tell lies?" Then he walked away,
leaving his companion in perplexity. But after two days he came
again and sat by him.
"You are learned . . . Tell me, then, whose descendants are we?
Are we Babylonians, or who are we?"
"We are Slavs, Tyapa," said the teacher, and attentively awaited
his answer, wishing to understand him.
"Speak to me from the Bible. There are no such men there."
Then the teacher began criticising the Bible. The old man
listened, and interrupted him after a long while.
"Stop . . . Wait! That means that among people known to God
there are no Russians? We are not known to God? Is it so? God knew
all those who are mentioned in the Bible . . . He destroyed them by
sword and fire, He destroyed their cities; but He also sent prophets
to teach them. That means that He also pitied them. He scattered the
Jews and the Tartars . . . But what about us? Why have we prophets
"Well, I don't know!" replied the teacher, trying to understand
the old man. But the latter put his hand on the teacher's shoulder,
and slowly pushed him backwards and forwards, and his throat made a
noise as if he were swallowing something. . . .
"Tell me! You speak so much . . . as if you knew everything. It
makes me sick to listen to you . . . you darken my soul. . . . I
should be better pleased if you were silent. Who are we, eh? Why
have we no prophets? Ha, ha! . . . Where were we when Christ walked
on this earth? Do you see? And you too, you are lying. . . . Do you
think that all die out? The Russian people will never disappear. . . .
You are lying. . . . It has been written in the Bible, only it is
not known what name the Russians are given. Do you see what kind of
people they are? They are numberless. . . . How many villages are
there on the earth? Think of all the people who live on it, so strong,
so numerous! And you say that they will die out; men shall die, but
God wants the people, God the Creator of the earth! The Amalekites
did not die out. They are either German or French. . . . But you,
eh, you! Now then, tell me why we are abandoned by God? Have we no
punishments nor prophets from the Lord? Who then will teach us?"
Tyapa spoke strongly and plainly, and there was faith in his words.
He had been speaking a long time, and the teacher, who was generally
drunk and in a speechless condition, could not stand it any longer.
He looked at the dry, wrinkled old man, felt the great force of these
words, and suddenly began to pity himself. He wished to say something
so strong and convincing to the old man that Tyapa would be disposed
in his favour; he did not wish to speak in such a serious, earnest
way, but in a soft and fatherly tone. And the teacher felt as if
something were rising from his breast into his throat . . . But he
could not find any powerful words.
"What kind of a man are you? . . . Your soul seems to be torn
away--and you still continue speaking . . . as if you knew something
. . . It would be better if you were silent."
"Ah, Tyapa, what you say is true," replied the teacher, sadly.
"The people . . . you are right . . . they are numberless . . . but I
am a stranger to them . . . and they are strangers to me . . . Do you
see where the tragedy of my life is hidden? . . . But let me alone! I
shall suffer . . . and there are no prophets also . . . No. You are
right, I speak a great deal . . . But it is no good to anyone. I
shall be always silent . . . Only don't speak with me like this . . .
Ah, old man, you do not know . . . You do not know . . . And you
And in the end the teacher cried. He cried so easily and so
freely, with such torrents of flowing tears, that he soon found
"You ought to go into a village . . . become a clerk or a teacher
. . . You would be well fed there. What are you crying for?" asked
But the teacher was crying as if the tears quieted and comforted
From this day they became friends, and the "creatures that once
were men," seeing them together, said: "The teacher is friendly with
Tyapa . . . He wishes his money. Kuvalda must have put this into his
head . . . To look about to see where the old man's fortune is . . ."
Probably they did not believe what they said. There was one
strange thing about these men, namely, that they painted themselves
to others worse than they actually were. A man who has good in him
does not mind sometimes showing his worse nature.
* * * * *
When all these people were gathered round the teacher, then the
reading of the newspaper would begin.
"Well, what does the newspaper discuss to-day? Is there any
"No," the teacher informs him.
"Your publisher seems greedy . . . but is there any leader?"
"There is one to-day. . . . It appears to be by Gulyaeff."
"Aha! Come, out with it. He writes cleverly, the rascal."
"'The taxation of immovable property,"' reads the teacher, "'was
introduced some fifteen years ago, and up to the present it has
served as the basis for collecting these taxes in aid of the city
revenue . . .'"
"That is simple," comments Captain Kuvalda. "It continues to
serve. That is ridiculous. To the merchant who is moving about in
the city, it is profitable that it should continue to serve. Therefore
it does continue."
"The article, in fact, is written on the subject," says the
"Is it? That is strange, it is more a subject for a feuilleton. .
"Such a subject must be treated with plenty of pepper . . . ."
Then a short discussion begins. The people listen attentively, as
only one bottle of vodki has been drunk.
After the leader, they read the local events, then the court
proceedings, and, if in the police court it reports that the
defendant or plaintiff is a merchant, then Aristid Kuvalda sincerely
rejoices. If someone has robbed the merchant, "That is good," says
he. "Only it is a pity they robbed him of so little." If his horses
have broken down, "It is sad that he is still alive." If the merchant
has lost his suit in court, "It is a pity that the costs were not
double the amount."
"That would have been illegal," remarks the teacher
"Illegal! But is the merchant himself legal?" inquires Kuvalda,
bitterly. "What is the merchant? Let us investigate this rough and
uncouth phenomenon. First of all, every merchant is a mujik.
He comes from a village, and in course of time becomes a merchant.
In order to be a merchant, one must have money. Where can the mujik
get the money from? It is well known that he does not get it by
honest hard work, and that means that the mujik, somehow or other, has
been swindling. That is to say, a merchant is simply a dishonest
"Splendid!" cry the people, approving the orator's deduction, and
Tyapa bellows all the time, scratching his breast. He always bellows
like this as he drinks his first glass of vodki, when he has a drunken
headache. The Captain beams with joy. They next read the
correspondence. This is, for the Captain, "an abundance of drinks,"
as he himself calls it. He always notices how the merchants make this
life abominable, and how cleverly they spoil everything. His speeches
thunder at and annihilate merchants. His audience listens to him with
the greatest pleasure, because he swears atrociously. "If I wrote for
the papers," he shouts, "I would show up the merchant in his true
colours . . . I would show that he is a beast, playing for a time the
role of a man. I understand him! He is a rough boor, does not know
the meaning of the words 'good taste,' has no notion of patriotism,
and his knowledge is not worth five kopecks."
Abyedok, knowing the Captain's weak point, and fond of making
other people angry, cunningly adds:
"Yes, since the nobility began to make acquaintance with hunger,
men have disappeared from the world . . ."
"You are right, you son of a spider and a toad. Yes, from the
time that the noblemen fell, there have been no men. There are only
merchants, and I hate them."
"That is easy to understand, brother, because you, too, have been
brought down by them . . ."
"I? I was ruined by love of life . . . Fool that I was, I loved
life, but the merchant spoils it, and I cannot bear it, simply for
this reason, and not because I am a nobleman. But if you want to know
the truth, I was once a man, though I was not noble. I care now for
nothing and nobody . . . and all my life has been tame--a sweetheart
who has jilted me--therefore I despise life, and am indifferent to
"You lie!" says Abyedok.
"I lie?" roars Aristid Kuvalda, almost crimson with anger.
"Why shout?" comes in the cold sad voice of Martyanoff.
"Why judge others? Merchants, noblemen . . . what have we to do
"Seeing that we are " . . . puts in Deacon Taras.
"Be quiet, Abyedok," says the teacher, goodnaturedly.
"Why do you provoke him?" He does not love either discussion or
noise, and when they quarrel all around him his lips form into a
sickly grimace, and he endeavours quietly and reasonably to reconcile
each with the other, and if he does not succeed in this he leaves the
company. Knowing this, the Captain, if he is not very drunk, controls
himself, not wishing to lose, in the person of the teacher, one of the
best of his listeners.
"I repeat," he continues, in a quieter tone, "that I see life in
the hands of enemies, not only enemies of the noble but of everything
good, avaricious and incapable of adorning existence in any way."
"But all the same," says the teacher, "merchants, so to speak,
created Genoa, Venice, Holland--and all these were merchants,
merchants from England, India, the Stroyanoff merchants . . ."
"I do not speak of these men, I am thinking of Judas Petunikoff,
who is one of them. . . ."
"And you say you have nothing to do with them?" asks the teacher,
"But do you think that I do not live? Aha! I do live, but I
suppose I ought not to be angry at the fact that life is desecrated
and robbed of all freedom by these men."
"And they dare to laugh at the kindly anger of the Captain, a man
living in retirement?" says Abyedok, teasingly.
"Very well! I agree with you that I am foolish. Being a creature
who was once a man, I ought to blot out from my heart all those
feelings that once were mine. You may be right, but then how could I
or any of you defend ourselves if we did away with all these
"Now then, you are talking sense," says the teacher,
"We want other feelings and other views on life. . . . We want
something new . . . because we ourselves are a novelty in this life.
. . ."
"Doubtless this is most important for us," remarks the teacher.
"Why?" asks Kanets. "Is it not all the same whatever we say or
think? We have not got long to live . . . I am forty, you are fifty
. . . there is no one among us younger than thirty, and even at twenty
one cannot live such a life long."
"And what kind of novelty are we?" asked Abyedok, mockingly.
"Since nakedness has always existed . . ."
"Yes, and it created Rome," said the teacher.
"Yes, of course," says the Captain, beaming with joy. "Romulus and
Remus, eh? We also shall create when our time comes . . ."
"Violation of public peace," interrupts Abyedok. He laughs in a
self-satisfied way. His laughter is impudent and insolent, and is
echoed by Simtsoff, the Deacon and Paltara Taras. The naive eyes of
young Meteor light up, and his cheeks flush crimson.
Kanets speaks, and it seems as if he were hammering their heads.
"All these are foolish illusions . . . fiddle-sticks!"
It was strange to see them reasoning in this manner, these
outcasts from life, tattered, drunken with vodki and wickedness,
filthy and forlorn. Such conversations rejoiced the Captain's heart.
They gave him an opportunity of speaking more, and therefore he
thought himself better than the rest. However low he may fall, a man
can never deny himself the delight of feeling cleverer, more powerful,
or even better fed than his companions. Aristid Kuvalda abused this
pleasure, and never could have enough of it, much to the disgust of
Abyedok, Kubar, and others of these creatures that once were men, who
were less interested in such things.
Politics, however, were more to the popular taste. The
discussions as to the necessity of taking India or of subduing
England were lengthy and protracted. Nor did they speak with less
enthusiasm of the radical measure of clearing Jews off the face of the
earth. On this subject Abyedok was always the first to propose
dreadful plans to effect the desired end, but the Captain, always
first in every other argument, did not join in this one. They also
spoke much and impudently about women, but the teacher always defended
them, and sometimes was very angry when they went so far as to pass
the limits of decency. They all, as a rule, gave in to him, because
they did not look upon him as a common person, and also because they
wished to borrow from him on Saturdays the money which he had earned
during the week. He had many privileges. They never beat him, for
instance, on these occasions when the conversation ended in a free
fight. He had the right to bring women into the dosshouse; a
privilege accorded to no one else, as the Captain had previously
"No bringing of women to my house," he had said. "Women, merchants
and philosophers, these are the three causes of my ruin. I will
horsewhip anyone bringing in women. I will horsewhip the woman also.
. . . And as to the philosopher I'll knock his head off for him."
And notwithstanding his age he could have knocked anyone's head off,
for he possessed wonderful strength. Besides that, whenever he fought
or quarrelled, he was assisted by Martyanoff, who was accustomed
during a general fight to stand silently and sadly back to back with
Kuvalda, when he became an all-destroying and impregnable engine of
war. Once when Simtsoff was drunk, he rushed at the teacher for no
reason whatever, and getting hold of his head tore out a bunch of
hair. Kuvalda, with one stroke of his fist in the other's chest sent
him spinning, and he fell to the ground. He was unconscious for
almost half-an-hour, and when he came to himself, Kuvalda compelled
him to eat the hair he had torn from the teacher's head. He ate it,
preferring this to being beaten to death.
Besides reading newspapers, fighting and indulging in general
conversation, they amused themselves by playing cards. They played
without Martyanoff because he could not play honestly. After cheating
several times, he openly confessed:
"I cannot play without cheating . . . it is a habit of mine."
"Habits do get the better of you," assented Deacon Taras. "I
always used to beat my wife every Sunday after Mass, and when she
died I cannot describe how extremely dull I felt every Sunday. I
lived through one Sunday--it was dreadful, the second I still
controlled myself, the third Sunday I struck my Asok. . . . She was
angry and threatened to summon me. Just imagine if she had done so!
On the fourth Sunday, I beat her just as if she were my own wife!
After that I gave her ten roubles, and beat her according to my own
rules till I married again!" . . .
"You are lying, Deacon! How could you marry a second time?"
"Ay, just so. . . She looked after my house. . . ."
"Did you have any children?" asked the teacher.
"Five of them. . . . One was drowned . . . the oldest . . . he
was an amusing boy! Two died of diphtheria . . . One of the
daughters married a student and went with him to Siberia. The other
went to the University of St. Petersburg and died there . . . of
consumption they say. Ye--es, there were five of them. . . .
Ecclesiastics are prolific, you know." He began explaining why this
was so, and they laughed till they nearly burst at his tales. When the
laughter stopped, Aleksei Maksimovitch Simtsoff remembered that he too
had once had a daughter.
"Her name was Lidka . . . she was very stout . . ." More than
this he did not seem to remember, for he looked at them all, was
silent and smiled . . . in a guilty way. Those men spoke very little
to each other about their past, and they recalled it very seldom and
then only its general outlines. When they did mention it, it was in a
cynical tone. Probably, this was just as well, since, in many people,
remembrance of the past kills all present energy and deadens all hope
for the future.
* * * * *
On rainy, cold, or dull days in the late autumn, these "creatures
that once were men" gathered in the eatinghouse of Vaviloff. They
were well known there, where some feared them as thieves and rogues,
and some looked upon them contemptuously as hard drinkers, although
they respected them, thinking that they were clever.
The eating-house of Vaviloff was the club of the main street, and
the "creatures that once were men" were its most intellectual
members. On Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings, when the
eating-house was packed, the "creatures that once were men" were only
too welcome guests. They brought with them, besides the forgotten and
poverty-stricken inhabitants of the street, their own spirit, in which
there was something that brightened the lives of men exhausted and
worn out in the struggle for existence, as great drunkards as the
inhabitants of Kuvalda's shelter, and, like them, outcasts from the
town. Their ability to speak on all subjects, their freedom of
opinion, skill in repartee, courage in the presence of those of whom
the whole street was in terror, together with their daring demeanour,
could not but be pleasing to their companions. Then, too, they were
well versed in law, and could advise, write petitions, and help to
swindle without incurring the risk of punishment. For all this they
were paid with vodki and flattering admiration of their talents.
The inhabitants of the street were divided into two parties
according to their sympathies. One was in favour of Kuvalda, who was
thought "a good soldier, clever, and courageous," the other was
convinced of the fact that the teacher was "superior" to Kuvalda. The
latter's admirers were those who were known to be drunkards, thieves,
and murderers, for whom the road from beggary to prison was
inevitable. But those who respected the teacher were men who still
had expectations, still hoped for better things, who were eternally
occupied with nothing, and who were nearly always hungry.
The nature of the teacher's and Kuvalda's relations towards the
street may be gathered from the following:
Once in the eating-house they were discussing the resolution
passed by the Corporation regarding the main street, viz., that the
inhabitants were to fill up the pits and ditches in the street, and
that neither manure nor the dead bodies of domestic animals should be
used for the purpose, but only broken tiles, etc., from the ruins of
"Where am I going to get these same broken tiles and bricks? I
could not get sufficient bricks together to build a hen-house,"
plaintively said Mokei Anisimoff, a man who hawked kalaches (a sort
of white bread) which were baked by his wife.
"Where can you get broken bricks and lime rubbish? Take bags with
you, and go and remove them from the Corporation buildings. They are
so old that they are of no use to anyone, and you will thus be doing
two good deeds; firstly, by repairing the main street; and secondly,
by adorning the city with a new Corporation building."
"If you want horses get them from the Lord Mayor, and take his
three daughters, who seem quite fit for harness. Then destroy the
house of Judas Petunikoff and pave the street with its timbers. By
the way, Mokei, I know out of what your wife baked to-day's kalaches;
out of the frames of the third window and the two steps from the roof
of Judas' house."
When those present had laughed and joked sufficiently over the
Captain's proposal, the sober market gardener, Pavlyugus asked:
"But seriously, what are we to do, your honour? . . . Eh? What do
"I? I shall neither move hand nor foot. If they wish to clean
the street let them do it."
"Some of the houses are almost coming down. . . ."
"Let them fall; don't interfere; and when they fall ask help from
the city. If they don't give it you, then bring a suit in court
against them! Where does the water come from? From the city!
Therefore let the city be responsible for the destruction of the
"They will say it is rain-water."
"Does it destroy the houses in the city? Eh? They take taxes
from you but they do not permit you to speak! They destroy your
property and at the same time compel you to repair it!" And half the
radicals in the street, convinced by the words of Kuvalda, decided to
wait till the rain-water came down in huge streams and swept away
their houses. The others, more sensible, found in the teacher a man
who composed for them an excellent and convincing report for the
Corporation. In this report the refusal of the street's inhabitants
to comply with the resolution of the Corporation was so well explained
that the Corporation actually entertained it. It was decided that the
rubbish left after some repairs had been done to the barracks should
be used for mending and filling up the ditches in their street, and
for the transport of this five horses were given by the fire brigade.
Still more, they even saw the necessity of laying a drain-pipe
through the street. This and many other things vastly increased the
popularity of the teacher. He wrote petitions for them and published
various remarks in the newspapers. For instance, on one occasion
Vaviloff's customers noticed that the herrings and other provisions of
the eating-house were not what they should be, and after a day or two
they saw Vaviloff standing at the bar with the newspaper in his hand
making a public apology.
"It is true, I must acknowledge, that I bought old and not very
good herrings, and the cabbage . . . also . . . was old. It is only
too well known that anyone can put many a five-kopeck piece in his
pocket in this way. And what is the result? It has not been a
success; I was greedy, I own, but the cleverer man has exposed me, so
we are quits . . ."
This confession made a very good impression on the people, and it
also gave Vaviloff the opportunity of still feeding them with
herrings and cabbages which were not good, though they failed to
notice it, so much were they impressed.
This incident was very significant, because it increased not only
the teacher's popularity, but also the effect of press opinion.
It often happened, too, that the teacher read lectures on
practical morality in the eating-house.
"I saw you," he said to the painter Yashka Tyarin, "I saw you,
Yakov, beating your wife . . ."
Yashka was "touched with paint" after two glasses of vodki, and
was in a slightly uplifted condition.
The people looked at him, expecting him to make a row, and all
"Did you see me? And how did it please you?" asks Yashka.
The people control their laughter.
"No; it did not please me," replies the teacher. His tone is so
serious that the people are silent.
"You see I was just trying it," said Yashka, with bravado, fearing
that the teacher would rebuke him. "The wife is satisfied. . . . She
has not got up yet to-day. . . ."
The teacher, who was drawing absently with his fingers on the
table, said, "Do you see, Yakov, why this did not please me? . . .
Let us go into the matter thoroughly, and understand what you are
really doing, and what the result may be. Your wife is pregnant. You
struck her last night on her sides and breast. That means that you
beat not only her but the child too. You may have killed him, and
your wife might have died or else have become seriously ill. To have
the trouble of looking after a sick woman is not pleasant. It is
wearing, and would cost you dear, because illness requires medicine,
and medicine money. If you have not killed the child, you may have
crippled him, and he will be born deformed, lop-sided, or
hunch-backed. That means that he will not be able to work, and it is
only too important to you that he should be a good workman. Even if
he be born ill, it will be bad enough, because he will keep his mother
from work, and will require medicine. Do you see what you are doing
to yourself? Men who live by hard work must be strong and healthy,
and they should have strong and healthy children. . . . Do I speak
"Yes," assented the listeners.
"But all this will never happen," says Yashka, becoming rather
frightened at the prospect held out to him by the teacher. "She is
healthy, and I cannot have reached the child . . . She is a devil--a
hag!" he shouts angrily. "I would . . . She will eat me away as rust
"I understand, Yakov, that you cannot help beating your wife," the
teacher's sad and thoughtful voice again breaks in. "You have many
reasons for doing so . . . It is your wife's character that causes you
to beat her so incautiously . . . But your own dark and sad life . .
"You are right!" shouts Yakov. "We live in darkness, like the
chimney-sweep when he is in the chimney!"
"You are angry with your life, but your wife is patient; the
closest relation to you--your wife, and you make her suffer for this,
simply because you are stronger than she. She is always with you, and
cannot get away. Don't you see how absurd you are?"
"That is so. . . . Devil take it! But what shall I do? Am I not
"Just so! You are a man. . . . I only wish to tell you that if
you cannot help beating her, then beat her carefully and always
remember that you may injure her health or that of the child. It is
not good to beat pregnant women . . . on their belly or on their sides
and chests. . . . Beat her, say, on the neck . . . or else take a
rope and beat her on some soft place . . ."
The orator finished his speech and looked upon his hearers with
his dark, pathetic eyes, seeming to apologise to them for some
The public understands it. They understand the morale of the
creature who was once a man, the morale of the public-house and much
"Well, brother Yashka, did you understand? See how true it is!"
Yakov understood that to beat her incautiously might be injurious
to his wife. He is silent, replying to his companions' jokes with
"Then again, what is a wife?" philosophises the baker, Mokei
Anisimoff. "A wife . . . is a friend . . . if we look at the matter
in that way. She is like a chain, chained to you for life . . . and
you are both just like galley slaves. And if you try to get away from
her, you cannot, you feel the chain . . ."
"Wait," says Yakovleff; "but you beat your wife too."
"Did I say that I did not? I beat her. . . There is nothing else
handy. . . Do you expect me to beat the wall with my fist when my
patience is exhausted?"
"I feel just like that too. . ." says Yakov.
"How hard and difficult our life is, my brothers! There is no
real rest for us anywhere!"
"And even you beat your wife by mistake," some one remarks
humorously. And thus they speak till far on in the night or till
they have quarrelled, the usual result of drink or of passions
engendered by such discussions.
The rain beats on the windows, and outside the cold wind is
blowing. The eating-house is close with tobacco smoke, but it is
warm, while the street is cold and wet. Now and then, the wind beats
threateningly on the windows of the eating-house, as if bidding these
men to come out and be scattered like dust over the face of the earth.
Sometimes a stifled and hopeless groan is heard in its howling which
again is drowned by cold, cruel laughter. This music fills one with
dark, sad thoughts of the approaching winter, with its accursed short,
sunless days and long nights, of the necessity of possessing warm
garments and plenty to eat. It is hard to sleep through the long
winter nights on an empty stomach. Winter is approaching. Yes, it is
approaching. . . How to live?
These gloomy forebodings created a strong thirst among the
inhabitants of the main street, and the sighs of the "creatures that
once were men" increased with the wrinkles on their brows, their
voices became thick and their behaviour to each other more blunt. And
brutal crimes were committed among them, and the roughness of these
poor unfortunate outcasts was apt to increase at the approach of that
inexorable enemy, who transformed all their lives into one cruel
farce. But this enemy could not be captured because it was invisible.
Then they began beating each other brutally, and drank till they
had drunk everything which they could pawn to the indulgent Vaviloff.
And thus they passed the autumn days in open wickedness, in suffering
which was eating their hearts out, unable to rise out of this vicious
life and in dread of the still crueller days of winter.
Kuvalda in such cases came to their assistance with his
"Don't lose your temper, brothers, everything has an end, this is
the chief characteristic of life. The winter will pass, summer will
follow . . . a glorious time, when the very sparrows are filled with
rejoicing." But his speeches did not have any effect--a mouthful of
even the freshest and purest water will not satisfy a hungry man.
Deacon Taras also tried to amuse the people by singing his songs
and relating his tales. He was more successful, and sometimes his
endeavours ended in a wild and glorious orgy at the eating-house.
They sang, laughed and danced, and for hours behaved like madmen.
After this they again fell into a despairing mood, sitting at the
tables of the eating-house, in the black smoke of the lamp and the
tobacco; sad and tattered, speaking lazily to each other, listening to
the wild howling of the wind, and thinking how they could get enough
vodki to deaden their senses.
And their hand was against every man, and every man's hand against
All things are relative in this world, and a man cannot sink into
any condition so bad that it could not be worse. One day, towards the
end of September, Captain Aristid Kuvalda was sitting, as was his
custom, on the bench near the door of the dosshouse, looking at the
stone building built by the merchant Petunikoff close to Vaviloff's
eatinghouse, and thinking deeply. This building, which was partly
surrounded by woods, served the purpose of a candle factory.
Painted red, as if with blood, it looked like a cruel machine
which, though not working, opened a row of deep, hungry, gaping jaws,
as if ready to devour and swallow anything. The grey wooden
eating-house of Vaviloff, with its bent roof covered with patches,
leaned against one of the brick walls of the factory, and seemed as if
it were some large form of parasite clinging to it. The Captain was
thinking that they would very soon be making new houses to replace the
old building. "They will destroy the dosshouse even," he reflected.
"It will be necessary to look out for another, but such a cheap one
is not to be found. It seems a great pity to have to leave a place to
which one is accustomed, though it will be necessary to go, simply
because some merchant or other thinks of manufacturing candles and
soap." And the Captain felt that if he could only make the life of
such an enemy miserable, even temporarily, oh! with what pleasure he
would do it!
Yesterday, Ivan Andreyevitch Petunikoff was in the dosshouse yard
with his son and an architect. They measured the yard and put small
wooden sticks in various places, which, after the exit of Petunikoff
and at the order of the Captain, Meteor took out and threw away. To
the eyes of the Captain this merchant appeared small and thin. He
wore a long garment like a frock-coat, a velvet cap, and high,
well-cleaned boots. He had a thin face with prominent cheekbones, a
wedge-shaped greyish beard, and a high forehead seamed with wrinkles
from beneath which shone two narrow, blinking, and observant grey eyes
. . . a sharp, gristly nose, a small mouth with thin lips . . .
altogether his appearance was pious, rapacious, and respectably
wicked. "Cursed cross-bred fox and pig!" swore the Captain under his
breath, recalling his first meeting with Petunikoff. The merchant
came with one of the town councillors to buy the house, and seeing
the Captain asked his companion:
"Is this your lodger?"
And from that day, a year and a half ago, there has been keen
competition among the inhabitants of the dosshouse as to which can
swear the hardest at the merchant. And last night there was a "slight
skirmish with hot words," as the Captain called it, between Petunikoff
and himself. Having dismissed the architect the merchant approached
"What are you hatching?" asked he, putting his hand to his cap,
perhaps to adjust it, perhaps as a salutation.
"What are you plotting?" answered the Captain in the same tone. He
moved his chin so that his beard trembled a little; a non-exacting
person might have taken it for a bow; otherwise it only expressed the
desire of the Captain to move his pipe from one corner of his mouth to
the other. "You see, having plenty of money, I can afford to sit
hatching it. Money is a good thing, and I possess it," the Captain
chaffed the merchant, casting cunning glances at him. "It means that
you serve money, and not money you," went on Kuvalda, desiring at the
same time to punch the merchant's belly.
"Isn't it all the same? Money makes life comfortable, but no
money," . . . and the merchant looked at the Captain with a feigned
expression of suffering. The other's upper lip curled, and exposed
large, wolf-like teeth.
"With brains and a conscience, it is possible to live without it.
Men only acquire riches when they cease to listen to their conscience
. . . the less conscience the more money!"
"Just so; but then there are men who have neither money nor
"Were you just like what you are now when you were young?" asked
Kuvalda simply. The other's nostrils twitched. Ivan Andreyevitch
sighed, passed his hand over his eyes and said:
"Oh! When I was young I had to undergo a great many difficulties
. . . Work! Oh! I did work!"
"And you cheated, too, I suppose?"
"People like you? Nobles? I should just think so! They used to
grovel at my feet!"
"You only went in for robbing, not murder, I suppose?" asked the
Captain. Petunikoff turned pale, and hastily changed the subject.
"You are a bad host. You sit while your guest stands."
"Let him sit, too," said Kuvalda.
"But what am I to sit on?"
"On the earth . . . it will take any rubbish . . ."
"You are the proof of that," said Petunikoff quietly, while his
eyes shot forth poisonous glances.
And he went away, leaving Kuvalda under the pleasant impression
that the merchant was afraid of him. If he were not afraid of him he
would long ago have evicted him from the dosshouse. But then he would
think twice before turning him out, because of the five roubles a
month. And the Captain gazed with pleasure at Petunikoff's back as he
slowly retreated from the courtyard. Following him with his eyes, he
noticed how the merchant passed the factory and disappeared into the
wood, and he wished very much that he might fall and break all his
bones. He sat imagining many horrible forms of disaster while
watching Petunikoff, who was descending the hill into the wood like a
spider going into its web. Last night he even imagined that the wood
gave way before the merchant and he fell . . . but afterwards he found
that he had only been dreaming.
And to-day, as always, the red building stands out before the eyes
of Aristid Kuvalda, so plain, so massive, and clinging so strongly to
the earth, that it seems to be sucking away all its life. It appears
to be laughing coldly at the Captain with its gaping walls. The sun
pours its rays on them as generously as it does on the miserable
hovels of the main street.
"Devil take the thing!" exclaimed the Captain, thoughtfully
measuring the walls of the factory with his eyes. "If only . . ."
Trembling with excitement at the thought that had just entered his
mind, Aristid Kuvalda jumped up and ran to Vaviloff's eating-house,
muttering to himself all the time.
Vaviloff met him at the bar, and gave him a friendly welcome.
"I wish your honour good health!" He was of middle height, and
had a bald head, grey hair, and straight moustaches like
tooth-brushes. Upright and neat in his clean jacket, he showed by
every movement that he was an old soldier.
"Egorka, show me the lease and plan of your house," demanded
"I have shown it you before." Vaviloff looked up suspiciously and
closely scanned the Captain's face.
"Show it me!" shouted the Captain, striking the bar with his fist
and sitting down on a stool close by.
"But why?" asked Vaviloff, knowing that it was better to keep his
wits about him when Kuvalda got excited.
"You fool! Bring it at once."
Vaviloff rubbed his forehead, and turned his eyes to the ceiling
in a tired way.
"Where are those papers of yours?"
There was no answer to this on the ceiling, so the old sergeant
looked down at the floor, and began drumming with his fingers on the
bar in a worried and thoughtful manner.
"It's no good your making wry faces!" shouted the Captain, for he
had no great affection for him, thinking that a former soldier should
rather have become a thief than an eating-house keeper.
"Oh! Yes! Aristid Fomich, I remember now. They were left at the
High Court of Justice at the time when I came into possession."
"Get along, Egorka! It is to your own interest to show me the
plan, the title-deeds, and everything you have immediately. You will
probably clear at least a hundred roubles over this, do you
Vaviloff did not understand at all; but the Captain spoke in such
a serious and convincing tone that the sergeant's eyes burned with
curiosity, and, telling him that he would see if the papers were in
his desk, he went through the door behind the bar. Two minutes later
he returned with the papers in his hand, and an expression of extreme
astonishment on his face.
"Here they are; the deeds about the damned houses!"
"Ah! You . . . vagabond! And you pretend to have been a soldier,
too!" And Kuvalda did not cease to belabour him with his tongue, as
he snatched the blue parchment from his hands. Then, spreading the
papers out in front of him, and excited all the more by Vaviloff's
inquisitiveness, the Captain began reading and bellowing at the same
time. At last he got up resolutely, and went to the door, leaving all
the papers on the bar, and saying to Vaviloff:
"Wait! Don't lift them!"
Vaviloff gathered them up, put them into the cash-box, and locked
it, then felt the lock with his hand, to see if it were secure. After
that, he scratched his bald head, thoughtfully, and went up on the
roof of the eating-house. There he saw the Captain measuring the
front of the house, and watched him anxiously, as he snapped his
fingers, and began measuring the same line over again. Vaviloff's face
lit up suddenly, and he smiled happily.
"Aristid Fomich, is it possible?" he shouted, when the Captain
came opposite to him.
"Of course it is possible. There is more than one short in the
front alone, and as to the depth I shall see immediately."
"The depth . . . seventy-three feet."
"What? Have you guessed, you shaved ugly face?"
"Of course, Aristid Fomich! If you have eyes you can see a thing
or two," shouted Vaviloff, joyfully.
A few minutes afterwards they sat side by side in Vaviloff's
parlour, and the Captain was engaged in drinking large quantities of
"And so all the walls of the factory stand on your ground," said
he to the eating-house keeper. "Now, mind you show no mercy! The
teacher will be here presently, and we will get him to draw up a
petition to the court. As to the amount of the damages you will name
a very moderate sum in order not to waste money in deed stamps, but we
will ask to have the factory knocked down. This, you see, donkey, is
the result of trespassing on other people's property. It is a
splendid piece of luck for you. We will force him to have the place
smashed, and I can tell you it will be an expensive job for him. Off
with you to the court. Bring pressure to bear on Judas. We will
calculate how much it will take to break the factory down to its very
foundations. We will make an estimate of it all, counting the time it
will take too, and we will make honest Judas pay two thousand roubles
"He will never give it!" cried Vaviloff, but his eyes shone with a
"You lie! He will give it . . . Use your brains. . . What else
can he do? But look here, Egorka, mind you don't go in for doing it
on the cheap. They are sure to try to buy you off. Don't sell
yourself cheap. They will probably use threats, but rely upon us. .
The Captain's eyes were alight with happiness, and his face red
with excitement. He worked upon Vaviloff's greed, and urging upon
him the importance of immediate action in the matter, went away in a
very joyful and happy frame of mind.
* * * * *
In the evening everyone was told of the Captain's discovery, and
they all began to discuss Petunikoff's future predicament, painting
in vivid colours his excitement and astonishment on the day the court
messenger handed him the copy of the summons. The Captain felt
himself quite a hero. He was happy and all his friends highly
pleased. The heap of dark and tattered figures that lay in the
courtyard made noisy demonstrations of pleasure. They all knew the
merchant, Petunikoff, who passed them very often, contemptuously
turning up his eyes and giving them no more attention than he bestowed
on the other heaps of rubbish lying on the ground. He was well fed,
and that exasperated them still more; and now how splendid it was that
one of themselves had struck a hard blow at the selfish merchant's
purse! It gave them all the greatest pleasure. The Captain's
discovery was a powerful instrument in their hands. Every one of them
felt keen animosity towards all those who were well fed and well
dressed, but in some of them this feeling was only beginning to
develop. Burning interest was felt by those "creatures that once were
men" in the prospective fight between Kuvalda and Petunikoff, which
they already saw in imagination.
For a fortnight the inhabitants of the dosshouse awaited the
further development of events, but Petunikoff never once visited the
building. It was known that he was not in town and that the copy of
the petition had not yet been handed to him. Kuvalda raged at the
delays of the civil court. It is improbable that anyone had ever
awaited the merchant with such impatience as did this bare-footed
"He isn't even thinking of coming, the wretch! . . ."
"That means that he does not love me!" sang Deacon Taras, leaning
his chin on his hand and casting a humorous glance towards the
At last Petunikoff appeared. He came in a respectable cart with
his son playing the role of groom. The latter was a red-checked,
nice-looking youngster, in a long square-cut overcoat. He wore
smoked eyeglasses. They tied the horse to an adjoining tree, the son
took the measuring instrument out of his pocket and gave it to his
father, and they began to measure the ground. Both were silent and
"Aha!" shouted the Captain, gleefully.
All those who were in the dosshouse at the moment came out to look
at them and expressed themselves loudly and freely in reference to the
"What does the habit of thieving mean? A man may sometimes make a
big mistake when he steals, standing to lose more than he gets," said
the Captain, causing much laughter among his staff and eliciting
various murmurs of assent.
"Take care, you devil!" shouted Petunikoff, "lest I have you in
the police court for your words!"
"You can do nothing to me without witnesses . . . Your son cannot
give evidence on your side " . . . the Captain warned him.
"Look out all the same, you old wretch, you may be found guilty
too!" And Petunikoff shook his fist at him. His son, deeply
engrossed in his calculations, took no notice of the dark group of
men, who were taking such a wicked delight in adding to his father's
discomfiture. He did not even once look in their direction.
"The young spider has himself well in hand," remarked Abyedok,
watching young Petunikoff's every movement and action. Having taken
all the measurements he desired, Ivan Andreyevitch knit his brows, got
into the cart, and drove away. His son went with a firm step into
Vaviloff's eating-house, and disappeared behind the door.
"Ho, ho! That's a determined young thief! . . . What will happen
next, I wonder . . .?" asked Kuvalda.
"Next? Young Petunikoff will buy out Egor Vaviloff," said Abyedok
with conviction, and smacked his lips as if the idea gave him great
"And you are glad of that?" Kuvalda asked him, gravely.
"I am always pleased to see human calculations miscarry,"
explained Abyedok, rolling his eyes and rubbing his hands with
delight. The Captain spat angrily on the ground and was silent. They
all stood in front of the tumble-down building, and silently watched
the doors of the eating-house. More than an hour passed thus. Then
the doors opened and Petunikoff came out as silently as he had
entered. He stopped for a moment, coughed, turned up the collar of
his coat, glanced at the men, who were following all his movements
with their eyes, and then went up the street towards the town.
The Captain watched him for a moment, and turning to Abyedok said,
"Probably you were right after all, you son of a scorpion and a
wood-louse! You nose out every evil thing. Yes, the face of that
young swindler shows that he has got what he wanted. . . I wonder how
much Egorka has got out of them. He has evidently taken something. .
. He is just the same sort of rogue that they are . . . they are all
tarred with the same brush. He has got some money, and I'm damned if
I did not arrange the whole thing for him! It is best to own my
folly. . . Yes, life is against us all, brothers . . . and even when
you spit upon those nearest to you, the spittle rebounds and hits your
Having satisfied himself with this reflection, the worthy Captain
looked round upon his staff. Every one of them was disappointed,
because they all knew that something they did not expect had taken
place between Petunikoff and Vaviloff, and they all felt that they had
been insulted. The feeling that one is unable to injure anyone is
worse than the feeling that one is unable to do good, because to do
harm is far easier and simpler.
"Well, why are we loitering here? We have nothing more to wait
for . . . except the reward that I shall get out--out of Egorka, . .
. " said the Captain, looking angrily at the eating-house. "So our
peaceful life under the roof of Judas has come to an end. Judas will
now turn us out. . . . So do not say that I have not warned you."
Kanets smiled sadly.
"What are you laughing at, jailer?" Kuvalda asked.
"Where shall I go then?"
"That, my soul, is a question that fate will settle for you, so do
not worry," said the Captain, thoughtfully, entering the dosshouse.
"The creatures that once were men" followed him.
"We can do nothing but await the critical moment," said the
Captain, walking about among them. "When they turn us out we shall
seek a new place for ourselves, but at present there is no use
spoiling our life by thinking of it . . . In times of crisis one
becomes energetic . . . and if life were fuller of them and every
moment of it so arranged that we were compelled to tremble for our
lives all the time . . . By God! life would be livelier and even
fuller of interest and energy than it is!"
"That means that people would all go about cutting one another's
throats," explained Abyedok, smilingly.
"Well, what about it?" asked the Captain, angrily. He did not
like to hear his thoughts illustrated.
"Oh! Nothing! When a person wants to get anywhere quickly he
whips up the horses, but of course it needs fire to make engines go .
"Well, let everything go to the Devil as quickly as possible. I'm
sure I should be pleased if the earth suddenly opened up or was burned
or destroyed somehow . . only I were left to the last in order to see
the others consumed . . ."
"Ferocious creature!" smiled Abyedok.
"Well, what of that? I . . . I was once a man . . now I am an
outcast . . . that means I have no obligations. It means that I am
free to spit on everyone. The nature of my present life means the
rejection of my past . . . giving up all relations towards men who are
well fed and well dressed, and who look upon me with contempt because
I am inferior to them in the matter of feeding or dressing. I must
develop something new within myself, do you understand? Something
that will make Judas Petunikoff and his kind tremble and perspire
"Ah! You have a courageous tongue!" jeered Abyedok.
"Yes . . . You miser!" And Kuvalda looked at him contemptuously.
"What do you understand? What do you know? Are you able to think?
But I have thought and I have read . . . books of which you could not
have understood one word."
"Of course! One cannot eat soup out of one's hand . . . But
though you have read and thought, and I have not done that or
anything else, we both seem to have got into pretty much the same
condition, don't we?"
"Go to the Devil!" shouted Kuvalda. His conversations with
Abyedok always ended thus. When the teacher was absent his speeches,
as a rule, fell on the empty air, and received no attention, and he
knew this, but still he could not help speaking. And now, having
quarrelled with his companion, he felt rather deserted; but, still
longing for conversation, he turned to Simtsoff with the following
question: "And you, Aleksei Maksimovitch, where will you lay your grey
The old man smiled good-humouredly, rubbed his hands, and replied,
"I do not know . . . I will see. One does not require much, just a
"Plain but honourable fare!" the Captain said. Simtsoff was
silent, only adding that he would find a place sooner than any of
them, because women loved him. This was true. The old man had, as a
rule, two or three prostitutes, who kept him on their very scant
earnings. They very often beat him, but he took this stoically. They
somehow never beat him too much, probably because they pitied him. He
was a great lover of women, and said they were the cause of all his
misfortunes. The character of his relations towards them was
confirmed by the appearance of his clothes, which, as a rule, were
tidy, and cleaner than those of his companions. And now, sitting at
the door of the dosshouse, he boastingly related that for a long time
past Redka had been asking him to go and live with her, but he had not
gone because he did not want to part with the company. They heard
this with jealous interest. They all knew Redka. She lived very near
the town, almost below the mountain. Not long ago, she had been in
prison for theft. She was a retired nurse; a tall, stout peasant
woman, with a face marked by smallpox, but with very pretty, though
always drunken, eyes.
"Just look at the old devil!" swore Abyedok, looking at Simtsoff,
who was smiling in a self-satisfied way.
"And do you know why they love me? Because I know how to cheer up
"Do you?" inquired Kuvalda.
"And I can make them pity me. . . . And a woman, when she pities!
Go and weep to her, and ask her to kill you . . . she will pity
you--and she will kill you."
"I feel inclined to commit a murder," declared Martyanoff,
laughing his dull laugh.
"Upon whom?" asked Abyedok, edging away from him.
"It's all the same to me . . . Petunikoff . . . Egorka . . . or
"And why?" inquired Kuvalda.
"I want to go to Siberia . . . I have had enough of this vile
life . . . one learns how to live there!"
"Yes, they have a particularly good way of teaching in Siberia,"
agreed the Captain, sadly.
They spoke no more of Petunikoff, or of the turning out of the
inhabitants of the dosshouse. They all knew that they would have to
leave soon, therefore they did not think the matter worth discussion.
It would do no good, and besides the weather was not very cold though
the rains had begun . . . and it would be possible to sleep on the
ground anywhere outside the town. They sat in a circle on the grass
and conversed about all sorts of things, discussing one subject after
another, and listening attentively even to the poor speakers in order
to make the time pass; keeping quiet was as dull as listening. This
society of "creatures that once were men" had one fine characteristic
--no one of them endeavoured to make out that he was better than the
others, nor compelled the others to acknowledge his superiority.
The August sun seemed to set their tatters on fire as they sat
with their backs and uncovered heads exposed to it . . . a chaotic
mixture of the vegetable, mineral, and animal kingdoms. In the corners
of the yard the tall steppe grass grew luxuriantly. . . . Nothing
else grew there but some dingy vegetables, not even attractive to
those who nearly always felt the pangs of hunger.
* * * * *
The following was the scene that took place in Vaviloff's
Young Petunikoff entered slowly, took off his hat, looked around
him, and said to the eating-house keeper:
"Egor Terentievitch Vaviloff? Are you he?"
"I am," answered the sergeant, leaning on the bar with both arms
as if intending to jump over it.
"I have some business with you," said Petunikoff.
"Delighted. Please come this way to my private room."
They went in and sat down, the guest on the couch and his host on
the chair opposite to him. In one corner a lamp was burning before a
gigantic icon, and on the wall at the other side there were several
oil lamps. They were well kept and shone as if they were new. The
room, which contained a number of boxes and a variety of furniture,
smelt of tobacco, sour cabbage, and olive oil. Petunikoff looked
around him and made a face. Vaviloff looked at the icon, and then
they looked simultaneously at one another, and both seemed to be
favourably impressed. Petunikoff liked Vaviloff's frankly thievish
eyes, and Vaviloff was pleased with the open, cold, determined face of
Petunikoff, with its large cheeks and white teeth.
"Of course you already know me, and I presume you guess what I am
going to say to you," began Petunikoff.
"About the lawsuit? . . . I presume?" remarked the ex-sergeant,
"Exactly! I am glad to see that you are not beating about the
bush, but going straight to the point like a business man," said
"I am a soldier," answered Vaviloff, with a modest air.
"That is easily seen, and I am sure we shall be able to finish
this job without much trouble."
"Good! You have the law on your side, and will, of course, win
your case. I want to tell you this at the very beginning."
"I thank you most humbly," said the sergeant, rubbing his eyes in
order to hide the smile in them.
"But tell me, why did you make the acquaintance of your future
neighbours like this through the law courts?"
Vaviloff shrugged his shoulders and did not answer.
"It would have been better to come straight to us and settle the
matter peacefully, eh? What do you think?"
"That would have been better, of course, but you see there is a
difficulty . . . I did not follow my own wishes, but those of others
. . . I learned afterwards that it would have been better if . . .
but it was too late."
"Oh! I suppose some lawyer taught you this?"
"Someone of that sort."
"Aha! Do you wish to settle the affair peacefully?"
"With all my heart!" cried the soldier.
Petunikoff was silent for a moment, then looked at him, and
suddenly asked, coldly and drily, "And why do you wish to do so?"
Vaviloff did not expect such a question, and therefore had no
reply ready. In his opinion the question was quite unworthy of any
attention, and so he laughed at young Petunikoff.
"That is easy to understand. Men like to live peacefully with one
"But," interrupted Petunikoff, "that is not exactly the reason
why. As far as I can see, you do not distinctly understand why you
wish to be reconciled to us . . . I will tell you."
The soldier was a little surprised. This youngster, dressed in a
check suit, in which he looked ridiculous, spoke as if he were
Colonel Rakshin, who used to knock three of the unfortunate soldier's
teeth out every time he was angry.
"You want to be friends with us because we should be such useful
neighbours to you . . . because there will be not less than a hundred
and fifty workmen in our factory, and in course of time even more. If
a hundred men come and drink one glass at your place, after receiving
their weekly wages, that means that you will sell every month four
hundred glasses more than you sell at present. This is, of course,
the lowest estimate . . . and then you have the eating-house besides.
You are not a fool, and you can understand for yourself what
profitable neighbours we shall be."
"That is true," Vaviloff nodded, "I knew that before."
"Well, what then?" asked the merchant, loudly.
"Nothing . . . Let us be friends!"
"It is nice to see that you have decided so quickly. Look here, I
have already prepared a notification to the court of the withdrawal
of the summons against my father. Here it is; read it, and sign it."
Vaviloff looked at his companion with his round eyes and shivered,
as if experiencing an unpleasant sensation.
"Pardon me . . . sign it? And why?"
"There is no difficulty about it . . . write your Christian name
and surname and nothing more," explained Petunikoff, pointing
obligingly with his finger to the place for the signature.
"Oh! It is not that . . . I was alluding to the compensation I
was to get for my ground."
"But then this ground is of no use to you," said Petunikoff,
"But it is mine!" exclaimed the soldier.
"Of course, and how much do you want for it?"
"Well, say the amount stated in the document," said Vaviloff,
"Six hundred!" and Petunikoff smiled softly. "You are a funny
"The law is on my side. . . I can even demand two thousand. I
can insist on your pulling down the building . . . and enforce it
too. That is why my claim is so small. I demand that you should pull
"Very well. Probably we shall do so . . . after three years, and
after having dragged you into enormous law expenses. And then,
having paid up, we shall open our public-house and you will be ruined
. . . annihilated like the Swedes at Poltava. We shall see that you
are ruined . . . we will take good care of that. We could have begun
to arrange about a public-house now, but you see our time is valuable,
and besides we are sorry for you. Why should we take the bread out of
your mouth without any reason?"
Egor Terentievitch looked at his guest, clenching his teeth, and
felt that he was master of the situation, and held his fate in his
hands. Vaviloff was full of pity for himself at having to deal with
this calm, cruel figure in the checked suit.
"And being such a near neighbour you might have gained a good deal
by helping us, and we should have remembered it too. Even now, for
instance, I should advise you to open a small shop for tobacco, you
know, bread, cucumbers, and so on. . . All these are sure to be in
Vaviloff listened, and being a clever man, knew that to throw
himself upon the enemy's generosity was the better plan. It was as
well to begin from the beginning, and, not knowing what else to do to
relieve his mind, the soldier began to swear at Kuvalda.
"Curses be upon your head, you drunken rascal! May the Devil take
"Do you mean the lawyer who composed your petition?" asked
Petunikoff, calmly, and added, with a sigh, "I have no doubt he would
have landed you in rather an awkward fix . . . had we not taken pity
"Ah!" And the angry soldier raised his hand. "There are two of
them . . . One of them discovered it, the other wrote the petition,
the accursed reporter!"
"Why the reporter?"
"He writes for the papers . . . He is one of your lodgers . . .
there they all are outside . . . Clear them away, for Christ's sake!
The robbers! They disturb and annoy everyone in the street. One
cannot live for them . . . And they are all desperate fellows . . .
You had better take care, or else they will rob or burn you . . ."
"And this reporter, who is he?" asked Petunikoff, with interest.
"He? A drunkard. He was a teacher but was dismissed. He drank
everything he possessed . . . and now he writes for the papers and
composes petitions. He is a very wicked man!"
"H'm! And did he write your petition, too? I suppose it was he
who discovered the flaws in the building. The beams were not rightly
"He did! I know it for a fact! The dog! He read it aloud in
here and boasted, 'Now I have caused Petunikoff some loss!'"
"Ye--es. . . Well, then, do you want to be reconciled?"
"To be reconciled?" The soldier lowered his head and thought.
"Ah! This is a hard life!" said he, in a querulous voice, scratching
"One must learn by experience," Petunikoff reassured him, lighting
"Learn . . . It is not that, my dear sir; but don't you see there
is no freedom? Don't you see what a life I lead? I live in fear and
trembling . . . I am refused the freedom so desirable to me in my
movements, and I fear this ghost of a teacher will write about me in
the papers. Sanitary inspectors will be called for . . . fines will
have to be paid . . . or else your lodgers will set fire to the place
or rob and kill me . . . I am powerless against them. They are not
the least afraid of the police, and they like going to prison, because
they get their food for nothing there."
"But then we will have them turned out if we come to terms with
you," promised Petunikoff.
"What shall we arrange, then?" asked Vaviloff, sadly and
"Tell me your terms."
"Well, give me the six hundred mentioned in the claim."
"Won't you take a hundred roubles?" asked the merchant, calmly,
looking attentively at his companion, and smiling softly. "I will
not give you one rouble more," . . . he added.
After this, he took out his eye-glasses, and began cleaning them
with his handkerchief. Vaviloff looked at him sadly and
respectfully. The calm face of Petunikoff, his grey eyes and clear
complexion, every line of his thickset body betokened self-confidence
and a well-balanced mind. Vaviloff also liked Petunikoff's
straightforward manner of addressing him without any pretensions, as
if he were his own brother, though Vaviloff understood well enough
that he was his superior, he being only a soldier. Looking at him, he
grew fonder and fonder of him, and, forgetting for a moment the matter
in hand, respectfully asked Petunikoff:
"Where did you study?"
"In the technological institute. Why?" answered the other,
"Nothing. Only . . . excuse me!" The soldier lowered his head,
and then suddenly exclaimed, "What a splendid thing education is!
Science--light. My brother, I am as stupid as an owl before the sun
. . . Your honour, let us finish this job."
With an air of decision he stretched out his hand to Petunikoff
"Well, five hundred?"
"Not more than one hundred roubles, Egor Terentievitch."
Petunikoff shrugged his shoulders as if sorry at being unable to give
more, and touched the soldier's hairy hand with his long white
fingers. They soon ended the matter, for the soldier gave in quickly
and met Petunikoff's wishes. And when Vaviloff had received the
hundred roubles and signed the paper, he threw the pen down on the
table and said, bitterly: "Now I will have a nice time! They will
laugh at me, they will cry shame on me, the devils!"
"But you tell them that I paid all your claim," suggested
Petunikoff, calmly puffing out clouds of smoke and watching them
"But do you think they will believe it? They are as clever
swindlers if not worse . . ."
Vaviloff stopped himself in time before making the intended
comparison, and looked at the merchant's son in terror. The other
smoked on, and seemed to be absorbed in that occupation. He went away
soon, promising to destroy the nest of vagabonds. Vaviloff looked
after him and sighed, feeling as if he would like to shout some insult
at the young man who was going with such firm steps towards the steep
road, encumbered with its ditches and heaps of rubbish.
In the evening the Captain appeared in the eating-house. His
eyebrows were knit and his fist clenched. Vaviloff smiled at him in
a guilty manner.
"Well, worthy descendant of Judas and Cain, tell us . . ."
"They decided" . . . said Vaviloff, sighing and lowering his eyes.
"I don't doubt it; how many silver pieces did you receive?"
"Four hundred roubles . . ."
"Of course you are lying . . . But all the better for me. Without
any further words, Egorka, ten per cent. of it for my discovery, four
per cent. to the teacher for writing the petition, one 'vedro' of
vodki to all of us, and refreshments all round. Give me the money
now, the vodki and refreshments will do at eight o'clock."
Vaviloff turned purple with rage, and stared at Kuvalda with
"This is humbug! This is robbery! I will do nothing of the sort.
What do you mean, Aristid Fomich? Keep your appetite for the next
feast! I am not afraid of you now . . ."
Kuvalda looked at the clock.
"I give you ten minutes, Egorka, for your idiotic talk. Finish
your nonsense by that time and give me what I demand. If you don't I
will devour you! Kanets has sold you something? Did you read in the
paper about the theft at Basoff's house? Do you understand? You
won't have time to hide anything, we will not let you . . . and this
very night . . . do you understand?"
"Why, Aristid Fomich?" sobbed the discomfited merchant.
"No more words! Did you understand or not?"
Tall, grey, and imposing, Kuvalda spoke in half whispers, and his
deep bass voice rang through the house. Vaviloff always feared him
because he was not only a retired military man, but a man who had
nothing to lose. But now Kuvalda appeared before him in a new role.
He did not speak much, and jocosely as usual, but spoke in the tone
of a commander, who was convinced of the other's guilt. And Vaviloff
felt that the Captain could and would ruin him with the greatest
pleasure. He must needs bow before this power. But, nevertheless,
the soldier thought of trying him once more. He sighed deeply, and
began with apparent calmness:
"It is truly said that a man's sin will find him out . . . I lied
to you, Aristid Fomich, . . . I tried to be cleverer than I am . . .
I only received one hundred roubles."
"Go on!" said Kuvalda.
"And not four hundred as I told you . . . That means . . ."
"It does not mean anything. It is all the same to me whether you
lied or not. You owe me sixty-five roubles. That is not much, eh?"
"Oh! my Lord! Aristid Fomich! I have always been attentive to
your honour and done my best to please you."
"Drop all that, Egorka, grandchild of Judas!"
"All right! I will give it you . . . only God will punish you for
this. . . ."
"Silence! You rotten pimple of the earth!" shouted the Captain,
rolling his eyes. "He has punished me enough already in forcing me
to have conversation with you. . . . I will kill you on the spot like
He shook his fist in Vaviloff's face and ground his teeth till
they nearly broke.
After he had gone Vaviloff began smiling and winking to himself.
Then two large drops rolled down his cheeks. They were greyish, and
they hid themselves in his moustache, whilst two others followed them.
Then Vaviloff went into his own room and stood before the icon, stood
there without praying, immovable, with the salt tears running down his
wrinkled brown cheeks. . . .
* * * * *
Deacon Taras, who, as a rule, loved to loiter in the woods and
fields, proposed to the "creatures that once were men" that they
should go together into the fields, and there drink Vaviloff's vodki
in the bosom of Nature. But the Captain and all the rest swore at the
Deacon, and decided to drink it in the courtyard.
"One, two, three," counted Aristid Fomich; "our full number is
thirty, the teacher is not here . . . but probably many other
outcasts will come. Let us calculate, say, twenty persons, and to
every person two-and-a-half cucumbers, a pound of bread, and a pound
of meat . . . That won't be bad! One bottle of vodki each, and there
is plenty of sour cabbage, and three watermelons. I ask you, what the
devil could you want more, my scoundrel friends? Now, then, let us
prepare to devour Egorka Vaviloff, because all this is his blood and
They spread some old clothes on the ground, setting the delicacies
and the drink on them, and sat around the feast, solemnly and quietly,
but almost unable to control the craving for drink that shone in their
The evening began to fall, and its shadows were cast on the human
refuse of the earth in the courtyard of the dosshouse; the last rays
of the sun illumined the roof of the tumble-down building. The night
was cold and silent.
"Let us begin, brothers!" commanded the Captain. "How many cups
have we? Six . . . and there are thirty of us! Aleksei
Maksimovitch, pour it out. Is it ready? Now then, the first toast.
. . Come along!"
They drank and shouted, and began to eat.
"The teacher is not here. . . I have not seen him for three days.
Has anyone seen him?" asked Kuvalda.
"It is unlike . . . Let us drink to the health of Aristid Kuvalda
. . . the only friend who has never deserted me for one moment of my
life! Devil take him all the same! I might have had something to wear
had he left my society at least for a little while."
"You are bitter . . ." said Abyedok, and coughed.
The Captain, with his feeling of superiority to the others, never
talked with his mouth full.
Having drunk twice, the company began to grow merry; the food was
grateful to them.
Paltara Taras expressed his desire to hear a tale, but the Deacon
was arguing with Kubaroff over his preferring thin women to stout
ones, and paid no attention to his friend's request. He was
asserting his views on the subject to Kubaroff with all the decision
of a man who was deeply convinced in his own mind.
The foolish face of Meteor, who was lying on the ground, showed
that he was drinking in the Deacon's strong words.
Martyanoff sat, clasping his large hairy hands round his knees,
looking silently and sadly at the bottle of vodki and pulling his
moustache as if trying to bite it with his teeth, while Abyedok was
"I have seen you watching the place where your money is hidden!"
"That is your luck," shouted Tyapa.
"I will go halves with you, brother."
"All right, take it and welcome."
Kuvalda felt angry with these men. Among them all there was not
one worthy of hearing his oratory or of understanding him.
"I wonder where the teacher is?" he asked loudly.
Martyanoff looked at him and said, "He will come soon . . ."
"I am positive that he will come, but he won't come in a carriage.
Let us drink to your future health. If you kill any rich man go
halves with me . . . then I shall go to America, brother. To those .
. . what do you call them? Limpas? Pampas? I will go there, and I
will work my way until I become the President of the United States,
and then I will challenge the whole of Europe to war and I will blow
it up! I will buy the army . . . in Europe that is--I will invite the
French, the Germans, the Turks, and so on, and I will kill them by the
hands of their own relatives. . . Just as Elia Marumets bought a
Tartar with a Tartar. With money it would be possible even for Elia
to destroy the whole of Europe and to take Judas Petunikoff for his
valet. He would go. . . Give him a hundred roubles a month and he
would go! But he would be a bad valet, because he would soon begin to
steal . . ."
"Now, besides that, the thin woman is better than the stout one,
because she costs one less," said the Deacon, convincingly. "My
first Deaconess used to buy twelve arshins for her clothes, but the
second one only ten. . . And so on even in the matter of provisions
Paltara Taras smiled guiltily. Turning his head towards the
Deacon and looking straight at him, he said, with conviction:
"I had a wife once, too."
"Oh! That happens to everyone," remarked Kuvalda; "but go on with
"She was thin, but she ate a lot, and even died from over-eating."
"You poisoned her, you hunchback!" said Abyedok, confidently.
"No, by God! It was from eating sturgeon," said Paltara Taras.
"But I say that you poisoned her!" declared Abyedok, decisively.
It often happened, that having said something absolutely impossible
and without proof, he kept on repeating it, beginning in a childish,
capricious tone, and gradually raising his voice to a mad shriek.
The Deacon stood up for his friend. "No; he did not poison her.
He had no reason to do so."
"But I say that he poisoned her!" swore Abyedok.
"Silence!" shouted the Captain, threateningly, becoming still
angrier. He looked at his friends with his blinking eyes, and not
discovering anything to further provoke his rage in their half-tipsy
faces, he lowered his head, sat still for a little while, and then
turned over on his back on the ground. Meteor was biting cucumbers.
He took a cucumber in his hand without looking at it, put nearly half
of it into his mouth, and bit it with his yellow teeth, so that the
juice spurted out in all directions and ran over his cheeks. He did
not seem to want to eat, but this process pleased him. Martyanoff sat
motionless on the ground, like a statue, and looked in a dull manner
at the half-vedro bottle, already getting empty. Abyedok lay on his
belly and coughed, shaking all over his small body. The rest of the
dark, silent figures sat and lay around in all sorts of positions, and
their tatters made them look like untidy animals, created by some
strange, uncouth deity to make a mockery of man.
"There once lived a lady in Suzdale, A strange lady, She fell
into hysterics, Most unpleasantly!"
sang the Deacon in low tones embracing Aleksei Maksimovitch, who
was smiling kindly into his face.
Paltara Taras giggled voluptuously.
The night was approaching. High up in the sky the stars were
shining . . . and on the mountain and in the town the lights of the
lamps were appearing. The whistles of the steamers were heard all
over the river, and the doors of Vaviloff's eating-house opened
noisily. Two dark figures entered the courtyard, and one of them
asked in a hoarse voice:
"Are you drinking?" And the other said in a jealous aside:
"Just see what devils they are!"
Then a hand stretched over the Deacon's head and took away the
bottle, and the characteristic sound of vodki being poured into a
glass was heard. Then they all protested loudly.
"Oh this is sad!" shouted the Deacon. "Krivoi, let us remember
the ancients! Let us sing 'On the Banks of the Babylonian Rivers.'"
"But can he?" asked Simtsoff.
"He? He was a chorister in the Bishop's choir. Now then, Krivoi!
. . . "On the r-i-v-e-r-s--" The Deacon's voice was loud and hoarse
and cracked, but his friend sang in a shrill falsetto.
The dirty building loomed large in the darkness and seemed to be
coming nearer, threatening the singers, who were arousing its dull
echoes. The heavy, pompous clouds were floating in the sky over their
heads. One of the "creatures that once were men" was snoring; the
rest, not yet so drunk, ate and drank quietly or spoke to each other
at long intervals. It was unusual for them to be in such low spirits
during such a feast, with so much vodki. Somehow the drink tonight
did not seem to have its usual exhilarating effect.
"Stop howling, you dogs!" . . . said the Captain to the singers,
raising his head from the ground to listen. "Some one is passing . .
. in a droshky. . . ."
A droshky at such a time in the main street could not but attract
general attention. Who would risk crossing the ditches between it
and the town, and why? They all raised their heads and listened. In
the silence of the night the wheels were distinctly heard. They came
gradually nearer. A voice was heard asking roughly:
"Well, where then?"
Someone answered, "It must be there, that house."
"I shall not go any further."
"They are coming here!" shouted the Captain.
"The police!" someone whispered in great alarm.
"In a droshky! Fool!" said Martyanoff, quietly.
Kuvalda got up and went to the entrance.
"Is this a lodging-house?" asked someone, in a trembling voice.
"Yes. Belonging to Aristid Kuvalda . . ." said the Captain,
"Oh! Did a reporter, one Titoff, live here?"
"Aha! Have you brought him?"
"Yes . . ."
"That means he is very drunk. Ay, teacher! Now, then, get up!"
"Wait, I will help you . . . He is very ill . . . he has been
with me for the last two days . . . Take him under the arms . . .
The doctor has seen him. He is very bad."
Tyapa got up and walked to the entrance, but Abyedok laughed, and
took another drink.
"Strike a light, there!" shouted the Captain.
Meteor went into the house and lighted the lamp. Then a thin line
of light streamed out over the courtyard, and the Captain and another
man managed to get the teacher into the dosshouse. His head was
hanging on his breast, his feet trailed on the ground, and his arms
hung limply as if broken. With Tyapa's help they placed him on a wide
board. He was shivering all over. "We worked on the same paper . . .
he is very unlucky. . . . I said, 'Stay in my house, you are not in my
way,' . . . but he begged me to send him 'home.' He was so excited
about it that I brought him here, thinking it might do him good. . .
Home! This is it, isn't it?"
"Do you suppose he has a home anywhere else?" asked Kuvalda,
roughly, looking at his friend. "Tyapa, fetch me some cold water."
"I fancy I am of no more use," remarked the man in some confusion.
The Captain looked at him critically. His clothes were rather shiny,
and tightly buttoned up to his chin. His trousers were frayed, his
hat almost yellow with age and crumpled like his lean and hungry face.
"No, you are not necessary! We have plenty like you here," said
the Captain, turning away.
"Then, good-bye!" The man went to the door, and said quietly from
there, "If anything happens . . . let me know in the publishing
office. . . My name is Rijoff. I might write a short obituary. . .
You see he was an active member of the Press."
"H'm, an obituary, you say? Twenty lines forty kopecks? I will
do more than that. When he dies I will cut off one of his legs and
send it to you. That will be much more profitable than an obituary.
It will last you for three days. . . His legs are fat. You devoured
him when he was alive. You may as well continue to do so after he is
dead . . ."
The man sniffed strangely and disappeared. The Captain sat down
on the wooden board beside the teacher, felt his forehead and breast
with his hands and called "Philip!"
The sound re-echoed from the dirty walls of the dosshouse and died
"This is absurd, brother," said the Captain, quietly arranging the
teacher's untidy hair with his hand. Then the Captain listened to his
breathing, which was rapid and uneven, and looked at his sunken grey
face. He sighed and looked upon him, knitting his eyebrows. The lamp
was a bad one. . . The light was fitful, and dark shadows flickered
on the dosshouse walls. The Captain watched them, scratching his
beard. Tyapa returned bringing a vedro of water, and placing it by
the teacher's head, he took his arm as if to raise him up.
"The water is not necessary," and the Captain shook his head.
"But we must try to revive him," said the old ragcollector.
"Nothing is needed," said the Captain, decidedly.
They sat silently looking at the teacher.
"Let us go and drink, old devil!"
"Can you do him any good?"
Tyapa turned his back on the teacher, and both went out into the
courtyard to their companions.
"What is it?" asked Abyedok, turning his sharp nose to the old
man. The snoring of those who were asleep, and the tinkling sound of
pouring vodki was heard. . . The Deacon was murmuring something. The
clouds swam low, so low that it seemed as if they would touch the roof
of the house and knock it over on the group of men.
"Ah! One feels sad when someone near at hand is dying," faltered
the Captain, with his head down. No one answered him.
"He was the best among you . . . the cleverest, the most
respectable. . . I mourn for him."
"Re-s-t with the Saints. . . Sing, you crooked hunchback!" roared
the Deacon, digging his friend in the ribs.
"Be quiet!" shouted Abyedok, jumping vengefully to his feet.
"I will give him one on the head," proposed Martyanoff, raising
his head from the ground.
"You are not asleep?" Aristid Fomich asked him very softly. "Have
you heard about our teacher?"
Martyanoff lazily got up from the ground, looked at the line of
light coming out of the dosshouse, shook his head and silently sat
down beside the Captain.
"Nothing particular. . . The man is dying . . ." remarked the
"Have they been beating him?" asked Abyedok, with great interest.
The Captain gave no answer. He was drinking vodki at the moment.
"They must have known we had something in which to commemorate him
after his death!" continued Abyedok, lighting a cigarette. Someone
laughed, someone sighed. Generally speaking, the conversation of
Abyedok and the Captain did not interest them, and they hated having
to think at all. They had always felt the teacher to be an uncommon
man, but now many of them were drunk and the others sad and silent.
Only the Deacon suddenly drew himself up straight and howled wildly:
"And may the righteous r--e--s--t!"
"You idiot!" hissed Abyedok. "What are you howling for?"
"Fool!" said Tyapa's hoarse voice "When a man is dying one must be
quiet . . . so that he may have peace."
Silence reigned once more. The cloudy sky threatened thunder, and
the earth was covered with the thick darkness of an autumn night.
"Let us go on drinking!" proposed Kuvalda, filling up the glasses.
"I will go and see if he wants anything," said Tyapa.
"He wants a coffin!" jeered the Captain.
"Don't speak about that," begged Abyedok in a low voice.
Meteor rose and followed Tyapa. The Deacon tried to get up, but
fell and swore loudly.
When Tyapa had gone the Captain touched Martyanoff's shoulder and
said in low tones:
"Well, Martyanoff . . . You must feel it more than the others.
You were . . . But let that go to the Devil . . . Don't you pity
"No," said the ex-jailer, quietly, "I do not feel things of this
sort, brother . . . I have learned better . . . this life is
disgusting after all. I speak seriously when I say that I should
like to kill someone."
"Do you?" said the Captain, indistinctly. "Well . . . let's have
another drink . . . It's not a long job ours, a little drink and
then . . ."
The others began to wake up, and Simtsoff shouted in a blissful
voice: "Brothers! One of you pour out a glass for the old man!"
They poured out a glass and gave it to him. Having drunk it he
tumbled down again, knocking against another man as he fell. Two or
three minutes' silence ensued, dark as the autumn night.
"What do you say?"
"I say that he was a good man . . . a quiet and good man,"
whispered a low voice.
"Yes, and he had money, too . . . and he never refused it to a
friend . . ." Again silence ensued.
"He is dying!" said Tyapa, hoarsely, from behind the Captain's
head. Aristid Fomich got up, and went with firm steps into the
"Don't go!" Tyapa stopped him. "Don't go! You are drunk! It is
not right." The Captain stopped and thought.
"And what is right on this earth? Go to the Devil!" And he
pushed Tyapa aside.
On the walls of the dosshouse the shadows were creeping, seeming
to chase each other. The teacher lay on the board at full length and
snored. His eyes were wide open, his naked breast rose and fell
heavily, the corners of his mouth foamed, and on his face was an
expression as if he wished to say something very important, but found
it difficult to do so. The Captain stood with his hands behind him,
and looked at him in silence. He then began in a silly way:
"Philip! Say something to me . . . a word of comfort to a friend
. . . come. . . . I love you, brother! . . . All men are beasts. .
. . You were the only man for me . . . though you were a drunkard.
Ah! how you did drink vodki, Philip! That was the ruin of you! You
ought to have listened to me, and controlled yourself. . . . Did I
not once say to you . . . ?"
The mysterious, all-destroying reaper, called Death, made up his
mind to finish the terrible work quickly, as if insulted by the
presence of this drunken man at the dark and solemn struggle. The
teacher sighed deeply, and quivered all over, stretched himself out,
and died. The Captain stood shaking to and fro, and continued to talk
"Do you want me to bring you vodki? But it is better that you
should not drink, Philip . . . control yourself or else drink! Why
should you really control yourself? For what reason, Philip? For what
He took him by the foot and drew him closer to himself.
"Are you dozing, Philip? Well, then, sleep. . . . Good-night. . .
. To-morrow I shall explain all this to you, and you will understand
that it is not really necessary to deny yourself anything. . . . But
go on sleeping now . . . if you are not dead."
He went out to his friends, followed by the deep silence, and
"Whether he is sleeping or dead, I do not know. . . . I am a
Tyapa bent further forward than usual and crossed himself
respectfully. Martyanoff dropped to the ground and lay there.
Abyedok moved quietly, and said in a low and wicked tone:
"May you all go to the Devil! Dead? What of that? Why should I
care? Why should I speak about it? It will be time enough when I
come to die myself. . . . I am not worse than other people."
"That is true," said the Captain, loudly, and fell to the ground.
"The time will come when we shall all die like others. . . . Ha!
ha! How shall we live? . . . That is nothing. . . . But we shall
die like every one else, and this is the whole end of life, take my
word for it. A man lives only to die, and he dies . . . and if this
be so what does it matter how or where he died or how he lived? Am I
right, Martyanoff? Let us therefore drink . . . whilst we still have
The rain began to fall. Thick, close darkness covered the figures
that lay scattered over the ground, half drunk, half asleep. The
light in the windows of the dosshouse flickered, paled, and suddenly
disappeared. Probably the wind blew it out or else the oil was
exhausted. The drops of rain sounded strangely on the iron roof of
the dosshouse. Above the mountain where the town lay the ringing of
bells was heard, rung by the watchers in the churches. The brazen
sound coming from the belfry rang out into the dark and died away, and
before its last indistinct note was drowned another stroke was heard
and the monotonous silence was again broken by the melancholy clang of
* * * * *
The next morning Tyapa was the first to wake up. Lying on his
back he looked up into the sky. Only in such a position did his
deformed neck permit him to see the clouds above his head.
This morning the sky was of a uniform grey. Up there hung the
damp, cold mist of dawn, almost extinguishing the sun, hiding the
unknown vastness behind and pouring despondency over the earth. Tyapa
crossed himself, and leaning on his elbow, looked round to see whether
there was any vodki left. The bottle was there, but it was empty.
Crossing over his companions he looked into the glasses from which
they had drunk, found one of them almost full, emptied it, wiped his
lips with his sleeve, and began to shake the Captain.
The Captain raised his head and looked at him with sad eyes.
"We must inform the police. . . Get up!"
"Of what?" asked the Captain, sleepily and angrily.
"What, is he not dead? . . ."
"The learned one. . . ."
"Did you forget? . . . Alas!" said Tyapa, hoarsely. The Captain
rose to his feet, yawned and stretched himself till all his bones
"Well, then! Go and give information. . ."
"I will not go . . . I do not like them," said the Captain,
"Well, then, wake up the Deacon. . . I shall go, at any rate."
"All right! . . . Deacon, get up!"
The Captain entered the dosshouse, and stood at the teacher's
feet. The dead man lay at full length, his left hand on his breast,
the right hand held as if ready to strike some one.
The Captain thought that if the teacher got up now, he would be as
tall as Paltara Taras. Then he sat by the side of the dead man and
sighed, as he remembered that they had lived together for the last
three years. Tyapa entered holding his head like a goat which is
ready to butt.
He sat down quietly and seriously on the opposite side of the
teacher's body, looked into the dark, silent face, and began to sob.
"So . . . he is dead . . . I too shall die soon. . ."
"It is quite time for that!" said the Captain, gloomily.
"It is," Tyapa agreed. "You ought to die too. . . Anything is
better than this. . . "
"But perhaps death might be worse? How do you know?"
"It could not be worse. When you die you have only God to deal
with . . . but here you have to deal with men . . . and men--what are
"Enough! . . . Be quiet!" interrupted Kuvalda, angrily.
And in the dawn, which filled the dosshouse, a solemn stillness
reigned over all. Long and silently they sat at the feet of their
dead companion, seldom looking at him, and both plunged in thought.
Then Tyapa asked:
"Will you bury him?"
"I? No, let the police bury him!"
"You took money from Vaviloff for this petition . . . and I will
give you some if you have not enough." . . .
"Though I have his money . . . still I shall not bury him."
"That is not right. You are robbing the dead. I will tell them
all that you want to keep his money. . . ." Tyapa threatened him.
"You are a fool, you old devil!" said Kuvalda, contemptuously.
"I am not a fool . . . but it is not right nor friendly."
"Enough! Be off!"
"How much money is there?"
"Twenty-five roubles, . . ." said Kuvalda, absently.
"So! . . . You might gain a five-rouble note. . . ."
"You old scoundrel! . . ." And looking into Tyapa's face the
"Well, what? Give . . ."
"Go to the Devil! . . . I am going to spend this money in
erecting a monument to him."
"What does he want that for?"
"I will buy a stone and an anchor. I shall place the stone on the
grass, and attach the anchor to it with a very heavy chain."
"Why? You are playing tricks . . ."
"Well . . . It is no business of yours."
"Look out! I shall tell . . ." again threatened Tyapa.
Aristid Fomich looked at him sullenly and said nothing. Again
they sat there in that silence which, in the presence of the dead, is
so full of mystery.
"Listen . . . They are coming!" Tyapa got up and went out of the
Then there appeared at the door the Doctor, the Police Inspector
of the district, and the examining Magistrate or Coroner. All three
came in turn, looked at the dead teacher, and then went out, throwing
suspicious glances at Kuvalda. He sat there, without taking any
notice of them, until the Police Inspector asked him:
"Of what did he die?"
"Ask him. . . I think his evil life hastened his end."
"What?" asked the Coroner.
"I say that he died of a disease to which he had not been
accustomed . . ."
"H'm, yes. Had he been ill long?"
"Bring him over here, I cannot see him properly," said the Doctor
in a melancholy tone. "Probably there are signs of . . ."
"Now, then, ask someone here to carry him out!" the Police
Inspector ordered Kuvalda.
"Go and ask them yourself! He is not in my way here . . ." the
Captain replied, indifferently.
"Well! . . ." shouted the Inspector, making a ferocious face.
"Phew!" answered Kuvalda, without moving from his place and
gnashing his teeth restlessly.
"The Devil take it!" shouted the Inspector, so madly that the
blood rushed to his face. "I'll make you pay for this! I'll--"
"Good morning, gentlemen!" said the merchant Petunikoff, with a
sweet smile, making his appearance in the doorway.
He looked round, trembled, took off his cap and crossed himself.
Then a pompous, wicked smile crossed his face, and, looking at the
Captain, he inquired respectfully:
"What has happened? Has there been a murder here?"
"Yes, something of that sort," replied the Coroner.
Petunikoff sighed deeply, crossed himself again, and spoke in an
"By God! It is just as I feared. It always ends in your having
to come here. . . Ay, ay, ay! God save everyone. Times without
number have I refused to lease this house to this man, and he has
always won me over, and I was afraid. You know. . . They are such
awful people . . . better give it them, I thought, or else . . ."
He covered his face with his hands, tugged at his beard, and