Twenty Six Men and A Girl. A Poem, by Maksim Gorky
There were six-and-twenty of us--six-and-twenty living machines
locked up in a damp basement, where from morning till night we kneaded
dough and rolled it into pretzels and cracknels. Opposite the windows
of our basement was a bricked area, green and moldy with moisture. The
windows were protected from outside with a close iron grating, and the
light of the sun could not pierce through the windowpanes, covered as
they were with flour dust.
Our employer had bars placed in front of the windows, so that we
should not be able to give a bit of his bread to passing beggars, or to
any of our fellows who were out of work and hungry. Our employer called
us crooks, and gave us half-rotten tripe to eat for our midday meal,
instead of meat. It was swelteringly close for us cooped up in that
stone underground chamber, under the low, heavy, soot-blackened,
cobwebby ceiling. Dreary and sickening was our life within its thick,
dirty, moldy walls.
Unrefreshed, and with a feeling of not having had our sleep out, we
used to get up at five o'clock in the morning; and at six, we were
already seated, worn out and apathetic, at the table, rolling out the
dough which our mates had already prepared while we slept. The whole
day, from early morning until ten at night, some of us sat round that
table, working up in our hands the unyielding dough, swaying to and fro
so as not to grow numb; while the others mixed flour and water. And the
whole day the simmering water in the kettle, where the pretzels were
being cooked, sang low and sadly; and the baker's shovel scraped
harshly over the oven floor, as he threw the slippery bits of dough out
of the kettle on the heated bricks.
From morning till evening wood was burning in the oven, and the red
glow of the fire gleamed and flickered over the walls of the bake-shop,
as if silently mocking us. The giant oven was like the misshapen head
of a monster in a fairy tale; it thrust itself up out of the floor,
opened wide jaws, full of glowing fire, and blew hot breath upon us; it
seemed to be ever watching out of its black air-holes our interminable
work. Those two deep holes were like eyes--the cold, pitiless eyes of a
monster. They watched us always with the same darkened glance, as if
they were weary of seeing before them such slaves, from whom they could
expect nothing human, and therefore scorned them with the cold scorn of
In meal dust, in the mud which we brought in from the yard on our
boots, in the hot, sticky atmosphere, day in, day out, we rolled the
dough into pretzels, which we moistened with our own sweat. And we
hated our work with a bitter hatred; we never ate what had passed
through our hands, and preferred black bread to pretzels. Sitting
opposite each other, at a long table--nine facing nine--we moved our
hands and fingers mechanically during endlessly long hours, till we
were so accustomed to our monotonous work that we ceased to pay any
attention to our own motions.
We had all stared at each other so long, that each of us knew every
wrinkle of his mates' faces. It was not long also before we had
exhausted almost every topic of conversation; that is why we were most
of the time silent, unless we were chaffing each other; but one cannot
always find something about which to chaff another man, especially when
that man is one's mate. Neither were we much given to finding fault
with one another; how, indeed, could one of us poor devils be in a
position to find fault with another, when we were all of us half dead
and, as it were, turned to stone? For the heavy drudgery seemed to
crush all feeling out of us. But silence is only terrible and fearful
for those who have said everything and have nothing more to say to each
other; for men, on the contrary, who have never begun to communicate
with one another, it is easy and simple.
Sometimes, too, we sang; and this is how it happened that we began
to sing: one of us would sigh deeply in the midst of our toil, like an
overdriven horse, and then we would begin one of those songs whose
gentle drawnout melody seems always to ease the burden on the singer's
At first one sang by himself, and we others sat in silence
listening to his solitary song, which, under the heavy vaulted roof of
the basement, died gradually away and became extinguished, like a
little fire in the steppes, on a wet autumn night, when the gray heaven
hangs like a leaden roof over the earth. Then another would join in
with the singer, and now two soft, sad voices would break into song in
our narrow, dull hole of a basement. Suddenly others would join in, and
the song would surge up like a wave, would grow louder and swell
upward, till it would seem as if the damp, foul walls of our stone
prison were widening out and opening. Then, all six-and-twenty of us
would be singing; our loud, harmonious song would fill the whole shop;
the song felt cramped, it was striking, as it were, against the walls
in moaning sobs and sighs, moving our hearts with a soft, tantalizing
ache, tearing open old wounds, and awakening longings.
The singers would sigh deeply and heavily; suddenly one would
become silent and listen to the others singing, then let his voice flow
once more in the common tide. Another would exclaim in a stifled voice,
"Ah!" and would shut his eyes, while the deep, full sound waves would
show him, as it were, a road, in front of him--a sunlit, broad road in
the distance, which he himself, in thought, wandered along.
But the flame flickers once more in the huge oven, the baker
scrapes incessantly with his shovel, the water simmers in the kettle,
and the flicker of the fire on the wall dances as before in silent
mockery. While in other men's words we sing out our dumb grief, the
weary burden of live men robbed of the sunlight, the heartache of
So we lived, we six-and-twenty, in the vault-like basement of a
great stone house, and we suffered each one of us, as if we had to bear
on our shoulders the whole three storys of that house.
But we had something else good, besides the singing--something we
loved, that perhaps took the place of the sunshine.
In the second story of our house there was established a
gold-embroiderer's shop, and there, living among the other embroidery
girls, was Tanya, a little maid-servant of sixteen. Every morning there
peeped in through the glass door a rosy little face, with merry blue
eyes; while a ringing, tender voice called out to us:
"Little prisoners! Have you any pretzels, please, for me?"
At that clear sound we knew so well, we all used to turn round,
gazing with good-natured joy at the pure girlish face which smiled at
us so sweetly. The sight of the little nose pressed against the
windowpane, and of the small white teeth gleaming between the half-open
lips, had become for us a daily pleasure. Tumbling over each other we
used to jump up to open the door, and she would step in, bright and
cheerful, holding out her apron, with her head bent to one side, and a
smile on her lips. Her thick, long chestnut braid fell over her
shoulder and across her breast. We, ugly, dirty and misshapen as we
were, looked up at her--the door was four steps above the floor--looked
up at her with heads thrown back, wishing her good morning, and
speaking strange, unaccustomed words, which we kept for her only. Our
voices became softer when we spoke to her, our jests were lighter. For
her--everything was different with us. The baker took from his oven a
shovelful of the best and the brownest pretzels, and threw them deftly
into Tanya's apron.
"Be off with you now, or the boss will catch you!" we warned her
each time. She laughed roguishly, called out cheerfully: "Good-by, poor
prisoners!" and slipped away as quick as a mouse.
That was all. But long after she had gone we talked about her to
one another with pleasure. It was always the same thing as we had said
yesterday and the day before, because everything about us, including
ourselves and her, remained the same--as yesterday--and as always.
Painful and terrible it is when a man goes on living, while nothing
changes around him; and when such an existence does not finally kill
his soul, then the monotony becomes with time, even more and more
painful. Generally we spoke about women in such a way that sometimes it
was loathsome to us ourselves to hear our rude, shameless talk. The
women whom we knew deserved perhaps nothing better. But about Tanya we
never let fall an evil word; none of us ever ventured so much as to lay
a hand on her, even too free a jest she never heard from us. Maybe this
was so because she never remained with us for long; she flashed on our
eyes like a star falling from the sky, and vanished; and maybe because
she was little and very beautiful, and everything beautiful calls forth
respect, even in coarse people. And besides--though our life of
drudgery had made us dull beasts, oxen, we were still men, and, like
all men, could not live without worshiping something or other. Better
than her we had none, and none but her took any notice of us, living in
the basement--no one, though there were dozens of people in the house.
And then, too--most likely, this was the chief thing--we all regarded
her as something of our own, something existing as it were only by
virtue of our pretzels. We took on ourselves in turns the duty of
providing her with hot pretzels, and this became for us like a daily
sacrifice to our idol, it became almost a sacred rite, and every day it
bound us more closely to her. Besides pretzels, we gave Tanya a great
deal of advice--to wear warmer clothes, not to run upstairs too
quickly, not to carry heavy bundles of wood. She listened to all our
counsels with a smile, answered them by a laugh, and never took our
advice, but we were not offended at that; all we wanted was to show how
concerned we were for her welfare.
Often she would apply to us with different requests, she asked us,
for instance, to open the heavy door into the cellar, to chop wood:
with delight and a sort of pride, we did this for her, and everything
else she wanted.
But when one of us asked her to mend his solitary shirt for him,
she said, with a laugh of contempt:
"What next! A likely idea!"
We made great fun of the queer fellow who could entertain such an
idea, and--never asked her to do anything else. We loved her--all is
said in that. Man always wants to give his love to someone, though
sometimes he crushes, sometimes he sullies, with it. We were bound to
love Tanya, for we had no one else to love.
At times one of us would suddenly begin to reason like this:
"And why do we make so much of the wench? What is there in her, eh?
What a to-do we make about her!"
The man who dared to utter such words we promptly and coarsely cut
short--we wanted something to love: we had found it and loved it, and
what we twenty-six loved must be for each of us unshakable, as a holy
thing, and anyone who acted against us in this was our enemy. We loved,
maybe, not what was really good, but you see there were twenty-six of
us, and so we always wanted to see what was precious to us held sacred
by the rest.
Our love is not less burdensome than hate, and maybe that is just
why some proud souls maintain that our hate is more flattering than our
love. But why do they not run away from us, if it is so?
Besides our department, our employer had also a bakery where they
made rolls; it was in the same house, separated from our hole only by a
wall; but the bakers--there were four of them--held aloof from us,
considering their work superior to ours, and therefore themselves
better than us; they never used to come into our workroom, and laughed
contemptuously at us when they met us in the yard. We, too, did not go
to see them; this was forbidden by our employer, for fear that we
should steal the fancy rolls. We did not like the bakers, because we
envied them; their work was lighter than ours, they were paid more, and
were better fed; they had a light, spacious workroom, and they were all
so clean and healthy--and that made them hateful to us. We all looked
gray and yellow; three of us had syphilis, several suffered from skin
diseases, one was completely crippled by rheumatism. On holidays and in
their leisure time the bakers wore pea-jackets and creaking boots, two
of them had accordions, and they all used to go for strolls in the
public park--we wore filthy rags and torn leather shoes or bast
slippers on our feet, the police would not let us into the public
park--could we possibly like the bakers?
And one day we learned that one of their men had gone on a spree,
the master had sacked him and had already taken on another, and that
this other was an ex-soldier, wore a satin waistcoat and a watch and
gold chain. We were anxious to get a sight of such a dandy, and in the
hope of catching a glimpse of him we kept running one after another out
into the yard.
But he came of his own accord into our workroom. Kicking at the
door, he pushed it open, and leaving it ajar, stood in the doorway
smiling, and said to us:
"God help the work! Good morning, mates!"
The frosty air, which streamed in through the open door, curled in
streaks of vapor round his feet. He stood on the threshold, looked down
upon us, and under his fair, twisted mustache gleamed big yellow teeth.
His waistcoat was really something quite out of the common,
blue-flowered, brilliant with shining little red stone buttons. He also
wore a watch chain.
He was a fine fellow, this soldier; tall, healthy, rosy-cheeked,
and his big, clear eyes had a friendly, cheerful glance. He wore on his
head a white starched cap, and from under his spotlessly clean apron
peeped the pointed toes of fashionable, well-blacked boots.
Our baker asked him politely to shut the door. The soldier did so
without hurrying himself, and began to question us about the master. We
explained to him, all speaking together, that our employer was a
thorough-going brute, a crook, a knave, and a slave-driver; in a word,
we repeated to him all that can and must be said about an employer, but
cannot be repeated here. The soldier listened to us, twitched his
mustache, and watched us with a friendly, open-hearted look.
"But haven't you got a lot of girls here?" he asked suddenly.
Some of us began to laugh deferentially, others leered, and one of
us explained to the soldier that there were nine girls here.
"You make the most of them?" asked the soldier, with a wink.
We laughed, but not so loudly, and with some embarrassment. Many of
us would have liked to have shown the soldier that we also were
tremendous fellows with the girls, but not one of us could do so; and
one of our number confessed as much, when he said in a low voice:
"That sort of thing is not in our line."
"Well, no; it wouldn't quite do for you," said the soldier with
conviction, after having looked us over. "There is something wanting
about you all. You don't look the right sort. You've no sort of
appearance; and the women, you see, they like a bold appearance, they
will have a well-set-up body. Everything has to be tip-top for them.
That's why they respect strength. They want an arm like that!"
The soldier drew his right hand, with its turned-up shirt sleeve,
out of his pocket, and showed us his bare arm. It was white and strong,
and covered with shining golden wool.
"Leg and chest, all must be strong. And then a man must be dressed
in the latest fashion, so as to show off his looks to advantage. Yes,
all the women take to me. I don't call to them, I don't beckon them,
yet with one accord, five at a time, they throw themselves at my head."
He sat down on a flour sack, and told at length all about the way
women loved him, and how bold he was with them. Then he left, and after
the door had creaked to behind him, we sat for a long time silent, and
thought about him and his talk. Then we all suddenly broke silence
together, and it became apparent that we were all equally pleased with
him. He was such a nice, open-hearted fellow; he came to see us without
any stand-offishness, sat down and chatted. No one else had ever come
to us like that, and no one else had talked to us in that friendly sort
of way. And we continued to talk of him and his coming triumph among
the embroidery girls, who passed us by with contemptuous sniffs when
they saw us in the yard, or who looked straight through us as if we had
been air. But we admired them always when we met them outside, or when
they walked past our windows; in winter, in fur jackets and toques to
match; in summer, in hats trimmed with flowers, and carrying colored
parasols. Among ourselves, however, we talked about these girls in a
way that would have made them mad with shame and rage, if they could
have heard us.
"If only he does not get hold of little Tanya!" said the baker,
suddenly, in an anxious tone of voice.
We were silent, for these words troubled us. Tanya had quite gone
out of our minds, supplanted, put on one side by the strong, fine
figure of the soldier.
Then began a lively discussion; some of us maintained that Tanya
would never lower herself so; others thought she would not be able to
resist him, and the third group proposed to break his ribs for him if
he should try to annoy Tanya. And, finally, we all decided to watch the
soldier and Tanya, and to warn the girl against him. This brought the
discussion to an end.
Four weeks had passed by since then; during this time the soldier
baked white rolls, walked out with the gold-embroidery girls, visited
us often, but did not talk any more about his conquests; only twisted
his mustache and licked his lips lasciviously.
Tanya called in as usual every morning for "little pretzels," and
was as gay and as nice and friendly with us as ever. We certainly tried
once or twice to talk to her about the soldier, but she called him a
"goggle-eyed calf," and made fun of him all round, and that set our
minds at rest. We saw how the gold-embroidery girls carried on with the
soldier, and we were proud of our girl; Tanya's behavior reflected
honor on us all; we imitated her, and began in our talks to treat the
soldier with small consideration. She became dearer to us, and we
greeted her with more friendliness and kindliness every morning.
One day the soldier came to see us, a bit drunk, and sat down and
began to laugh. When we asked him what he was laughing about, he
explained to us:
"Why, two of them--that Lydka girl and Grushka--have been clawing
each other on my account. You should have seen the way they went for
each other! Ha! ha! One got hold of the other one by the hair, threw
her down on the floor of the passage, and sat on her! Ha! ha! ha! They
scratched and tore each others' faces. It was enough to make one die
with laughter! Why is it women can't fight fair? Why do they always
scratch one another, eh?"
He sat on the bench, in fine fettle, fresh and jolly; he sat there
and went on laughing. We were silent. This time he made an unpleasant
impression on us.
"Well, it's a funny thing what luck I have with the women-folk! Eh?
One wink, and it's all over with them! It's the d-devil!"
He raised his white arms covered with golden wool, and dropped them
down on his knees. And his eyes seemed to reflect such frank
astonishment, as if he were himself quite surprised at his good luck
with women. His fat, red face glistened with delight and
self-satisfaction, and he licked his lips more than ever.
Our baker scraped the shovel violently and angrily along the oven
floor, and all at once he said sarcastically:
"There's no great strength needed to pull up fir saplings, but try
a real pine-tree."
"Why--what do you mean by saying that to me?" asked the soldier.
"What is it?"
"Nothing--it slipped out!"
"No, wait a minute! What's the point? What pine-tree?"
Our baker did not answer, working rapidly away with the shovel at
the oven; flinging into it the half-cooked pretzels, taking out those
that were done, and noisily throwing them on the floor to the boys who
were stringing them on bast. He seemed to have forgotten the soldier
and his conversation with him. But the soldier had all at once grown
uneasy. He got up onto his feet, and went to the oven, at the risk of
knocking against the handle of the shovel, which was waving
spasmodically in the air.
"No, tell me, do--who is it? You've insulted me. I? There's not one
could withstand me, n-no! And you say such insulting things to me?"
He really seemed genuinely hurt. He must have had nothing else to
pride himself on except his gift for seducing women; maybe, except for
that, there was nothing living in him, and it was only that by which he
could feel himself a living man.
There are men to whom the most precious and best thing in their
lives appears to be some disease of their soul or body. They fuss over
it all their lives, and only living by it, suffering from it, they feed
on it, they complain of it to others, and so draw the attention of
their fellows to themselves. For that they extract sympathy from
people, and apart from it they have nothing at all. Take from them that
disease, cure them, and they will be miserable, because they have lost
their one resource in life--they are left empty then. Sometimes a man's
life is so poor, that he is driven instinctively to prize his vice and
to live by it; one may say for a fact that often men are vicious out of
The soldier was offended, he went up to our baker and roared:
"No, tell me, do--who?"
"Tell you?" the baker turned suddenly to him.
"You know Tanya?"
"Well, there then! Only try."
"Her? Why, that's nothing to me--pooh!"
"We shall see!"
"You will see! Ha! ha!"
"Give me a month!"
"What a braggart you are, soldier!"
"A fortnight! I'll prove it! Who is it? Tanya! Pooh!"
"Well, get out. You're in my way!"
"A fortnight--and it's done! Ah, you--"
"Get out, I say!"
Our baker, all at once, flew into a rage and brandished his shovel.
The soldier staggered away from him in amazement, looked at us, paused,
and softly, malignantly said, "Oh, all right, then!" and went away.
During the dispute we had all sat silent, absorbed in it. But when
the soldier had gone, eager, loud talk and noise arose among us.
Someone shouted to the baker: "It's a bad job that you've started,
"Do your work!" answered the baker savagely.
We felt that the soldier had been touched to the quick, and that
danger threatened Tanya. We felt this, and at the same time we were all
possessed by a burning curiosity, most agreeable to us. What would
happen? Would Tanya hold out against the soldier? And almost all cried
confidently: "Tanya? She'll hold out! You won't catch her with your
We longed terribly to test the strength of our idol; we were
forcibly trying to persuade each other that our divinity was a strong
divinity and would come victorious out of this ordeal. We began at last
to fancy that we had not worked enough on the soldier, that he would
forget the dispute, and that we ought to pique his vanity further. From
that day we began to live a different life, a life of nervous tension,
such as we had never known before. We spent whole days in arguing
together; we all grew, as it were, sharper; and got to talk more and
better. It seemed to us that we were playing some sort of game with the
devil, and the stake on our side was Tanya. And when we learned from
the bakers that the soldier had begun "running after our Tanya," we
felt a sort of delighted terror, and life was so interesting that we
did not even notice that our employer had taken advantage of our
preoccupation to increase our work by three hundred pounds of dough a
day. We seemed, indeed, not even tired by our work. Tanya's name was on
our lips all day long. And every day we looked for her with a certain
peculiar impatience. Sometimes we pictured to ourselves that she would
come to us, and it would not be the same Tanya as of old, but somehow
different. We said nothing to her, however, of the dispute regarding
her. We asked her no questions, and behaved as well and affectionately
to her as ever. But even in this a new element crept in, alien to our
old feeling for Tanya--and that new element was keen curiosity, keen
and cold as a steel knife.
"Mates! Today the time's up!" our baker said to us one morning, as
he set to work.
We were well aware of it without his reminder; but still we became
"Have a good look at her. She'll be here directly," suggested the
One of us cried out in a troubled voice, "Why! as though one could
see anything! You need more than eyes."
And again an eager, noisy discussion sprang up among us. Today we
were at last to discover how pure and spotless was the vessel into
which we had poured all that was best in us. This morning, for the
first time, it became clear to us that we really were playing for high
stakes; that we might, indeed, through the exaction of this proof of
purity, lose our divinity altogether.
All this time we had been hearing that Tanya was stubbornly and
persistently pursued by the soldier, but not one of us had thought of
asking her what she thought of him. And she came every morning to fetch
her pretzels and was the same toward us as ever.
This morning, too, we heard her voice outside: "You poor prisoners!
Here I am!"
We opened the door hastily, and when she came in we all remained,
contrary to our usual custom, silent. Our eyes fixed on her, we did not
know what to say to her, what to ask her. And there we stood in front
of her, a gloomy, silent crowd. She seemed to be surprised at this
unusual reception; and suddenly we saw her turn white and become
uneasy, then she asked, in a choking voice:
"Why are you--like this?"
"And you?" the baker flung at her grimly, never taking his eyes off
"What about me?"
"Well, then, give me the little pretzels quickly."
Never before had she bidden us hurry.
"There's plenty of time," said the baker, not stirring and not
removing his eyes from her face.
Then, suddenly, she turned round and disappeared through the door.
The baker took his shovel and said, calmly turning away toward the
"Well, that settles it! There's a soldier for you--the low cur!"
Like a flock of sheep we all pressed round the table, sat down
silently, and began listlessly to work. Soon, however, one of us
"Perhaps, after all--"
"Shut up!" shouted the baker.
We were all convinced that he was a man of judgment, a man who knew
more than we did about things. And at the sound of his voice we were
convinced of the soldier's victory, and our spirits became sad and
At twelve o'clock--while we were eating our dinners--the soldier
came in. He was as clean and as smart as ever, and looked at us--as
usual--straight in the eyes. But we were all awkward in looking at him.
"Now then, honored sirs, would you like me to show you a soldier's
prowess?" he said, chuckling proudly.
"Go out into the passage and look through the crack--do you
We went into the passage, and stood all pushing against one
another, squeezed up to the cracks of the wooden partition of the
passage that looked into the yard. We had not to wait long. Very soon
Tanya, with hurried footsteps and an anxious face, walked across the
yard, jumping over the puddles of melting snow and mud: she disappeared
into the cellar. Then whistling, and not hurrying himself, the soldier
followed in the same direction. His hands were thrust in his pockets;
his mustaches were quivering.
Rain was falling, and we saw how its drops struck the puddles, and
the puddles were wrinkled by them. The day was damp and gray--a very
dreary day. Snow still lay on the roofs, but on the ground dark patches
of mud had begun to appear. And the snow on the roofs too was covered
by a layer of brownish dirt. The rain fell slowly with a depressing
sound. It was cold and disagreeable for us waiting.
The first to come out of the cellar was the soldier; he walked
slowly across the yard, his mustaches twitching, his hands in his
pockets--the same as always.
Then--Tanya, too, came out. Her eyes--her eyes were radiant with
joy and happiness, and her lips--were smiling. And she walked as though
in a dream, staggering, with unsteady steps.
We could not bear this calmly. All of us at once rushed to the
door, dashed out into the yard and--hissed at her, reviled her
viciously, loudly, wildly.
She started at seeing us, and stood as though rooted in the mud
under her feet. We formed a ring round her, and maliciously, without
restraint, abused her with vile words, said shameful things to her.
We did this quietly, slowly, seeing that she could not get away,
that she was hemmed in by us, and we could rail at her to our hearts'
content. I don't know why, but we did not beat her. She stood in the
midst of us, and turned her head this way and that, as she heard our
insults. And we--more and more violently flung at her the filth and
venom of our words.
The color had left her face. Her blue eyes, so happy a moment
before, opened wide, her bosom heaved, and her lips quivered.
We in a ring round her avenged ourselves on her, for she had robbed
us. She belonged to us, we had lavished on her our best, and though
that best was beggar's crumbs, still there were twenty-six of us, she
was one, and so there was no pain we could give her equal to her guilt!
How we insulted her! She was still mute, still gazed at us with wild
eyes, and a shiver ran through her.
We laughed, roared, yelled. Other people ran up from somewhere and
joined us. One of us pulled Tanya by the sleeve of her blouse.
Suddenly her eyes flashed; deliberately she raised her hands to her
head and straightening her hair she said loudly but calmly, straight in
"Ah, you miserable prisoners!"
And she walked straight at us, walked as directly as though we had
not been before her, as though we were not blocking her way.
And hence none of us did actually block her way.
Walking out of our circle without turning round, she added loudly,
with pride and indescribable contempt:
"Ah, you scum--brutes."
And--was gone, erect, beautiful, proud.
We were left in the middle of the yard, in the rain, under the gray
Then we went mutely away to our damp stone basement. As before--the
sun never peeped in at our windows, and Tanya came no more. Never!