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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 windows.

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 harshly.

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 necessity.

"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 the summer-house.

"Looks that way," he declared briefly.

"Then it's the Gospels."

"Maybe the Gospels.What of it?"

"Nothing."

"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?"

"Go ahead."

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 the bath-house.

"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 soothingly.

" 'For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and'

"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 asked angrily.

"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 reading about?"

"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 soul."

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 around:

"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 man has!"

"Smart, aren't you?" his companion said, with a smirk. "You scarecrow!"

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 pleading tone.

"All right, buy them. What will you give?"

"Take.What's my share?"

"A ruble, twenty."

"And what do you want for them?"

"One ruble."

"Make it less, for a friend."

"You thumping blockhead, you! What the devil do you want with them?"

"Never mind; you sell them to me."

Finally, the deal was closed, and the clasps went to Mishka for ninety kopecks.

He stopped, and began turning them over in his hands, bending his tousled head, knitting his brows, and scrutinizing the two silver pieces.

"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 in amazement.

"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 corner.

"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, then"

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 going."

"Wait," the old woman stopped him. "Did you understand what I read yesterday?"

"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?"

"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?"

"Please, ma'am."

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 God?' "

"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 yard.

"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 I did."

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 the affair!"

And we drank heartily to the end of this curious affair.

1895.

 
 
 

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