The Affair of The Clasps by Maksim Gorky
We were three friends, Syomka, Karguza, I, and Mishka, a bearded
giant with large blue eyes which were always swollen with drink and
beamed kindly on everyone. We lived on the outskirts of the city in an
old, tumbledown building which for some reason was called "the glass
factory," perhaps because there wasn't one whole pane in all of its
We undertook all kinds of work: we cleaned courtyards, dug ditches,
cellars, cess-pools, demolished old buildings and fences, and once we
even attempted to build a hen-house. But in this we were unsuccessful.
Syomka, who was always overly conscientious regarding the tasks we took
upon ourselves to perform, grew doubtful about our knowledge of the
architecture of hen-houses, and one day, during the noon rest-hour, he
took the nails, the ax, and two new planks, all issued to us by our
employer, and carried them off to the pot-house. We were sacked for it,
but as we owned nothing, no compensation was demanded of us.
We were living from hand to mouth, and all three of us felt a
dissatisfaction with our lot which was natural and legitimate under the
circumstances. Sometimes it became so sharp as to rouse in us a
hostility toward everything about us and inspire us to the somewhat
riotous exploits covered by the "Code of Penalties Imposed by Justices
of the Peace." Generally, however, worried about where the next meal
was coming from, we were glumly stolid, and responded weakly to
everything that did not promise material advantage.
All three of us had met in a doss-house some two weeks before the
occurrence I wish to relate because I think it interesting. Two or
three days later we had already become friends. We went everywhere
together, confided in each other our hopes and plans, shared whatever
any one of us came by, and, in fact, concluded among us a tacit
defensive and offensive alliance against life, which was treating us so
During the day we looked diligently for something to take apart,
saw up, dig, carry from one place to another, and if such an
opportunity turned up, at first we tackled the job with a will. But
perhaps because at heart each of us considered himself destined for
higher things, than, for example, the digging, or what is worse, the
cleaning, of cess-pools, after a couple of hours the work was no longer
attractive. Then Syomka would begin to express doubts as to its
"You dig a pit. What for? For slops. And why not just pour them out
in the court-yard? It won't do, they say. It will smell. Pshaw! Slops
smell! What rot people talk, from having nothing to do. You throw out a
pickled cucumber, for instance. How can it smell, if it's a little one?
It will lie there a day or two--rot away, and disappear. Of course, if
you throw a dead man out into the sun, he will smell, to be sure,
because man is a large beast."
Syomka's philosophizing considerably chilled our zeal for work.And
this was rather profitable for us if we were hired by the day. But when
it was piece-work, we would take our pay in advance and spend it on
food before the job was finished. Then we would go to our employer and
ask for extra payment. In most cases he would tell us to get out and
would threaten to force us, with the aid of the police, to complete the
job already paid for. We would argue that we couldn't work if we were
hungry, and with some heat insist on more money, which we generally
succeeded in getting.
Of course, this was not right, but really it was very advantageous,
and it isn't our fault if life is so awkwardly arranged that doing the
right thing is almost always disadvantageous.
Syomka was the one who always took it upon himself to dispute with
the employer, and he conducted the argument with an artist's skill,
setting forth the proofs that he was right in the tone of a man worn
out by work and crushed under its weight. As for Mishka, he looked on,
held his peace, and blinked his blue eyes, now and then producing a
kind, conciliatory smile as though he were trying to say something, but
couldn't bring himself to do it. He usually spoke very little, and only
when drunk was he capable of making something like a speech.
"Mates!" he would exclaim them, smiling, and his lips would twitch
strangely, his throat would trouble him, and for some time after
starting his speech, he would cough, pressing his hand to his throat.
"We-ell?" Syomka would encourage him impatiently.
"Mates, we live like dogs.And really much worse. And why? Nobody
knows. But, it must be, by the will of the Lord God. Everything happens
in accordance with His will, eh, mates? Well, thenIt proves that we
deserve a dog's life because we are bad eggs. We are bad eggs, eh?
Well, thenSo now I say, it serves us right, dogs that we are. Am I
right? So it turns out, we've got our deserts. And so now we must bear
our lot, eh? Am I right?"
"Fool!" Syomka replied with indifference to his friend's anxious
and searching questions.
Mishka would shrink guiltily, smile timidly, and say no more,
blinking his eyes that were sticky with drunkenness.
One day a piece of luck came our way.
We were shoving our way through the market place in search of work,
when we came upon a wizened little old woman with a stern, wrinkled
face. Her head shook, and large silver-rimmed spectacles hopped on her
nose, which was like an owl's beak; she kept adjusting them constantly,
flashing sharp glances from her coldly glittering eyes.
"You're free? Looking for work?" she asked us, as all three of us
fixed her with a look of longing.
"Very well," she said, having received from Syomka a respectful
answer in the affirmative. "I have to have an old bath-house torn down
and a well cleaned. How much do you want for the work?"
"We must first see how big your bath-house is, ma'am," Syomka said
politely and reasonably. "Then again, the well. There are all kinds of
wells. Some of them are very deep."
We were invited to examine the premises, and an hour later, armed
with axes and wooden levers, we were lustily heaving at the rafters of
the bath-house, having undertaken to tear it down and clean the well
for the sum of five rubles. The bath-house was situated in the corner
of an old neglected garden. Not far from it, among cherry-trees, stood
a summer-house, and from the roof of the bath-house we could see the
old woman sitting there on a bench, absorbed in a large book which lay
open on her knees. Now and then she cast a sharp, attentive glance in
our direction, the book shifted on her lap, and its massive clasps,
evidently of silver, glittered in the sun.
No work goes as smoothly as that of destruction.
We were busily moving about in clouds of dry, biting dust,
sneezing, coughing, blowing our noses, and rubbing our eyes; the
bath-house, as aged as its owner, was crashing and falling to pieces.
"Come on, mates, all together!" Syomka ordered us, and the beams
crashed to the ground, row after row.
"What's that book she's got, such a thick one?" asked Mishka,
reflectively, leaning on his lever and wiping the sweat from his face
with the palm of his hand. Suddenly taking on the look of a mulatto, he
spat on his hands, swung the lever, in order to drive it into a crack
between two beams, drove it in, and added in the same reflective tone:
"If it's the Gospels, it seems too thick."
"What's that to you?" inquired Syomka.
"To me? Nothing. I like to hear them read a book, if it's a holy
one.In our village there was a discharged soldier, Afrikan was his
name, and when he would begin reading the Psalms, it was like the roll
of a drum. It was grand!"
"Well, what of it?" Syomka asked again, rolling a cigarette.
"Nothing. But it was fine! You couldn't quite make it out, but
stillIt wasYou don't hear anything like that on the street.You don't
understand it, but you feel that these are words for the soul."
"You don't understand it, you say, but it's plain that you're as
stupid as an ox," Syomka mimicked his companion.
"Of course you always swear at me," he sighed.
"How else can you talk to fools? Can they understand anything? Now
take a whack at this rotten one. Ho!"
The pile of debris was growing around the bath-house as it was
falling to pieces, and the structure was enveloped in clouds of dust
which was turning the leaves of the nearby trees gray. The July sun was
unmercifully baking our backs and shoulders.
"The book's got silver on it," Mishka returned to the subject.
Syomka raised his head and shot a keen glance in the direction of
"Looks that way," he declared briefly.
"Then it's the Gospels."
"Maybe the Gospels.What of it?"
"That's what my pockets are filled with. And if you're so keen on
Scripture, why don't you go to her and say: 'Read me a little of it,
Granny. There's no other way of our getting it. We don't go to church,
we're not proper, we're dirty.And we've got souls too, just as they
ought to bein the right place.' Now you go and tell her that."
"Should I really?"
Mishka threw down the lever, pulled his shirt straight, smeared the
dust over his face with his sleeve, and jumped down from the roof of
"She'll send you packing, you devil you," grumbled Syomka, grinning
skeptically, but with extreme curiosity following with his eyes the
figure of his comrade, who was making his way through the burdocks to
the summer-house. Tall, stooped, his dirty arms bare, he was advancing
clumsily, swaying as he walked, and brushing against the bushes, all
the while smiling self-consciously and meekly. As the man approached,
the old woman raised her head and calmly looked him up and down. The
rays of the sun were playing on the lenses of her spectacles and on
their silver rims.
Contrary to Syomka's prediction, she did not send him packing.
Because of the rustling of the leaves we could not hear what Mishka was
saying to the mistress, but presently we saw him lower himself heavily
to the ground at the old woman's feet so that his nose almost touched
the open book. His face was calm and composed; we saw him blow on his
beard, trying to remove the dust from it, shift about and finally
settle in an awkward position, craning his neck, and staring
expectantly at the old woman's small dry hands as they methodically
turned the leaves of the book.
"Look at the shaggy dog! He has it easy. Why don't we go down there
too? Why not? He'll be having a soft thing of it, while we slave for
him. Shall we go?"
Two or three minutes later Syomka and I too were sitting on the
ground, flanking our comrade. The old woman didn't say a word to us,
she only gave us a scrutinizing glance and continued turning the leaves
of the book, looking for something in it. We sat amidst luxuriant,
green, fragrant foliage and overhead there was a gentle, soft,
cloudless sky. Now and then a breeze stirred and the leaves made that
mysterious rustling sound which always soothes the soul, rouses in it a
gentle, peaceful mood, moves one to thoughts of something vague yet
deeply human, purging the spirit of all that is unclean or at least
erasing the memory of it temporarily, and allowing one to breathe with
a sense of ease and renewal.
" 'Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,' " the old woman's voice was
heard. It was halting and cracked with age yet full of piety and stern
dignity. At the first sound of it Mishka crossed himself earnestly,
while Syomka shifted about on the ground trying to find a more
comfortable position. The old woman glanced at him without ceasing to
read. " 'For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some
spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; that is, that I may
be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.'
Syomka, like the true heathen he was, yawned noisily, and his
comrade shot a reproachful glance at him out of his blue eyes, and hung
his shaggy, dusty head. The old woman, without ceasing to read, also
looked severely at Syomka, and this embarrassed him. He twitched his
nose, glanced aside, and apparently trying to efface the impression
made by his yawn, drew a deep and pious sigh.
Several minutes passed quietly. The clear, monotonous reading acted
" 'For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all
"What do you want?" the reader cried abruptly to Syomka.
"Butnothing! Have the goodness to go on reading. I am listening,"
he explained meekly.
"Why do you touch the clasps with your dirty paw?" the old woman
"I'm curiousbecause it's such fine work. I understand this sort of
thing. I know locksmiths' work.So I touched them."
"See here," the old woman commanded dryly. "Tell, me, what was I
"Why, of course, I know."
"Well, then, tell me."
"It's a sermon.It teaches about faith, and also about
ungodliness.It's very simple, and it's all true! It goes straight to
The old woman shook her head sadly and looked at us reproachfully:
"You're lost souls--blockheads. Go back to your work."
"She seems to beangry," declared Mishka, smiling guiltily.
Syomka scratched himself, yawned, and said thoughtfully, as he
watched the old woman walk down the narrow garden path, without turning
"The clasps on the book are silver, sure enough." And he grinned
from ear to ear, as if anticipating something pleasant.
Having spent the night in the garden near the ruins of the
bath-house, which we had completely demolished in the course of the
day, by noon of the following day we cleaned the well. Wet and muddy,
we were sitting in the court-yard near the steps leading to the house,
waiting to be paid off. We were talking to each other and picturing to
ourselves the good dinner and supper in the offing. None of us had any
desire to look further into the future.
"Why the devil doesn't the old witch come?" Syomka was impatient
and indignant, but he spoke under his breath. "Has she croaked?"
"There he is, swearing again," Mishka shook his head reproachfully.
"And why should he swear? The old woman is the real thing, the
god-fearing kind. But he has to swear at her. What a disposition the
"Smart, aren't you?" his companion said, with a smirk. "You
This pleasant conversation between friends was interrupted by the
appearance of our employer. She came up to us, and holding out her hand
with the money in it, said contemptuously:
"Take it, and clear out. I was going to have you saw up the planks
for firewood, but you don't deserve it."
Deprived of the honor of sawing up the planks, a job we didn't need
now, we took the money without a word, and went off.
"Oh, you old hag!" began Syomka, as soon as we were beyond the
gate. "That's a good one! We don't deserve it! The putrid toad! Go
ahead and squeak over your book now!"
Putting his hand into his pocket, he pulled out two shining metal
objects and showed them to us triumphantly.
Mishka halted, craning his neck inquisitively in the direction of
Syomka's upraised hand.
"You broke off the clasps?" he asked in astonishment.
"There they are. Silver ones! Even if he didn't want them, a man
would give a ruble for them."
"What a fellow! When did you get the chance? You'd better hide
them, out of harm's way!"
"You bet I will."
We walked on down the street in silence.
"Smart work," Mishka muttered to himself, reflectively. "He went
and broke them off! M-yes. But it's a good book.I'm thinking the old
woman will be sore at us."
"Why, no, the idea! She'll call us back and tip us," Syomka jested.
"What do you want for them?"
"Nine ten-kopeck piecesthat's the rock-bottom price. I won't take a
kopeck less. They cost me more. Look--I broke my nail."
"Sell them to me," said Mishka timidly.
"To you? Want to make studs of them? Buy them! They'll make a dandy
pair, just to suit your mug!"
"No; honest, sell them to me!" And Mishka spoke in a lower, more
"All right, buy them. What will you give?"
"Take.What's my share?"
"A ruble, twenty."
"And what do you want for them?"
"Make it less, for a friend."
"You thumping blockhead, you! What the devil do you want with
"Never mind; you sell them to me."
Finally, the deal was closed, and the clasps went to Mishka for
He stopped, and began turning them over in his hands, bending his
tousled head, knitting his brows, and scrutinizing the two silver
"Hang 'em on your nose," Syomka advised him.
"What for?" Mishka replied seriously. "No. I'll take them back to
the old woman. 'Here, Granny,' I'll say to her. 'We carried these
things off with us by mistake, so you put them back again where they
belong,' I'll say, 'on that book there.' Only you've torn out a piece
of stuff with them; what about that?"
"Are you really going to take them back, you devil?" Syomka gaped
"Why not? You see, such a book--it ought to be whole. It isn't
right to tear pieces off of it. And the old woman, too, she'll be
hurt.And she'll be dead soon.So I'll justYou wait for me a minute,
mates. I'll run back."
And before we could stop him, he strode off, disappearing round the
"What a wood-louse! The dirty rotter!" Syomka stormed, after the
occurrence and its possible consequences had come home to him. And
cursing furiously at every third word, he began persuading me:
"Let's go, hurry up. He'll get us in bad.He's probably sitting
there now, with his hands tied behind him, and the old witch must have
sent for the police already!That's what it is to have dealings with
such a nasty fellow. Why, he'll get you in jail for a trifle! But just
think, what a scoundrel! What dirty beast would act this way to a
comrade? Good Lord! What people are like nowadays! Come on, you devil,
what are you sticking around for? Waiting for him? All right, wait, and
the devil take you all--crooks! Faugh! Damn you! Not coming? All right,
Calling hideous curses down on me, Syomka poked me furiously in the
ribs, and strode off rapidly.
I wanted to know what was happening between Mishka and our former
employer, and walked quietly towards her house. I did not think that I
would run into any danger or unpleasantness.
And I was not mistaken.
As I approached the house, I looked through a crack in the fence,
and saw and heard what follows:
The old woman sat on the steps, holding the clasps of her Bible in
her hand, and looking keenly and sternly at Mishka's face through her
spectacles. He was standing with his back to me.
In spite of the severe, cold gleam in her sharp eyes, there were
soft folds at the corners of her mouth; it was plain that the old woman
wanted to hide a kindly smile, a smile of forgiveness.
From behind her back showed three heads. Two belonged to women; one
had a red face and wore a motley kerchief; the other woman was
bare-headed and wall-eyed; above her shoulders appeared a man's face,
wedge-shaped, with gray side-whiskers and a forelock across his
forehead. He was continually blinking both eyes in a curious fashion,
as though saying to Mishka: "Run, brother! Quick!"
Mishka was hemming and hawing, trying to explain.
"Such a rare book! It says we're all beasts and curs, dogs. So I
thought to myself: it's true, Lord. Truth to tell, we are
riff-raffdamned soulswretches! And then, too, I thought to myself, the
mistress, she's an old lady; perhaps this book is her one comfort, and
she's get nothing else.Now, these clasps--how much could we get for
them? But if they are on the book, then they amount to something. So I
thought it over, and I said to myself, 'I'll go and give some pleasure
to the godly old lady--take these back to her.' Besides, glory be to
God, we've earned a bit to buy bread with. Well, good-day; I'll be
"Wait," the old woman stopped him. "Did you understand what I read
"Me? How could I understand it? I heard it, that's true, but even
then, how did I hear it? Have we ears for God's Word? We can't
understand it. Good-by to you."
"So-o!" drawled the old woman. "No, just wait a minute."
Mishka sighed unhappily, so that he could be heard all over the
yard, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other like a bear.
This explanation was evidently getting to be too much for him.
"And would you like me to read some more to you?"
"M'm! My comrades are waiting for me."
"Drop them. You are a good fellow. Have no more to do with them."
"All right," Mishka agreed in a low voice.
"You will leave them? Yes?"
"I'll leave them."
"That's a sensible fellow. What a child you are! And look at your
beard, it's almost down to your waist! Are you married?"
"I'm a widower. My wife's dead."
"And why do you drink? You're a drunkard, aren't you?"
"I am. I drink."
"Why I drink? Because of foolishness. I'm foolish, and so I drink.
Of course, if a man had sense, would he himself work his own ruin?"
Mishka said despondently.
"You have spoken the truth. Well, then, acquire sense, acquire it,
and straighten yourself out.Go to church. Listen to God's Word. Therein
is all wisdom."
"Yes, of course," Mishka almost groaned.
"And I will read to you some more. Would you like that?"
The old woman produced her Bible from somewhere in back of her,
paged it, and the courtyard resounded with her tremulous voice:
" 'Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that
judgest; for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for
thou that judgest doest the same thing.' "
Mishka shook his head and scratched his left shoulder.
" 'And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such
things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of
"Ma'am," Mishka began with tears in his voice, "let me go, for
God's sake.I'll come some other time to listen. But now I'm awfully
hungry. My stomach is rumbling something terrible. We've had nothing to
eat since last night."
The old woman shut the book with a bang.
"Get along with you! Go!" sounded sharply and curtly through the
"Thank you kindly." And he almost ran to the gate.
"Unrepentant souls, hearts of beasts," she hissed after him.
Half an hour later all three of us were sitting in a tavern, having
tea and white bread.
"It was as though she were screwing a gimlet into me," said Mishka,
smiling kindly at me with his gentle eyes. "I stood and thought to
myself, 'My God! Why in heaven's name did I go there?' It was torture.
Instead of taking the clasps and letting me go, she began talking. How
queer people are! You want to be decent with them, but they follow
their own tack.In the simplicity of my heart I said to her: 'Here,
mistress, are your clasps. Don't hold it against me.' But she said,
'No, wait. You tell me why you brought them back to me,' and then she
went on pitching into me. I broke into a sweat listening to her, honest
And he kept on smiling in that infinitely gentle way of his.
Syomka, disheveled, sulky, and sullen, said to him earnestly:
"You'd better die straight off, my dear blockhead! Or else, with
these doings of yours, the flies or cockroaches will eat you up."
"Well! The things you say! Come, let's drink a glass to the end of
And we drank heartily to the end of this curious affair.