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One Autumn Evening by Maksim Gorky

 

One autumn evening I happened to be in a very inconvenient and unpleasant situation. I found myself penniless and without a roof over my head in the town where I had recently arrived and where I had not a single acquaintance.

Having sold, during the first few days, every scrap of clothing that I could do without, I left the town for the suburb called Ustye, where the wharves were. During the season of navigation the place seethed with activity, but now it was quiet and deserted--these were the last days of October.

Shuffling along the wet sand and examining it closely in the hope of finding some remains of food, I was roaming among the empty buildings and stalls, thinking how good it is to have a full stomach.

In our present state of culture the hunger of the soul can be satisfied more readily than that of the body. You wander through streets, you are surrounded by structures with pleasing exteriors and, you may be sure, agreeable interiors. This may start a trend of comforting ideas regarding architecture, hygiene, and other wise and sublime topics. You meet people suitably and warmly dressed--they are civil, they get out of your way, tactfully preferring not to notice the melancholy fact of your existence. Honestly, the soul of a hungry man is always better nourished than the soul of a well-fed man, a fact from which a very entertaining conclusion may be drawn in favor of the well-fed!

Evening was drawing in, it was raining, and a gust of wind was blowing from the north. It whistled through the empty stalls and shops, thumped against the boarded-up windows of inns, and under its blows the river foamed, its waves splashing noisily against the sandy shore, tossing their white crests, rushing into the dim distance, one leaping over the other. The river seemed to be feeling the approach of winter and fleeing in fear from the icy fetters with which the north wind could chain it that very night. The sky was heavy and lowering, and steadily exuded a fine drizzle. Two battered, deformed willow trees, and a boat turned upside down at their roots, stressed the elegiac sadness of Nature around me.

A boat with a broken bottom, pitiful, aged trees rifled by the cold windeverything was ruined, barren, dead, and the sky was shedding incessant tears. Around me was but a gloomy waste. It seemed to me that soon I would be the only living thing amidst this death, and that cold death awaited me too.

And I was then only seventeen years old--a glorious age!

I kept on walking along the cold, wet sand, beating a tattoo with my teeth in honor of cold and hunger. Suddenly, as in my vain search for food, I rounded a stall, I noticed a crouching figure in woman's clothes that were wet with rain and that clung to its bent shoulders. Standing over her, I tried to see what she was doing. She was digging in the sand with her hands, trying to get under one of the stalls.

"Why are you doing that?" I asked, crouching beside her.

She cried out softly and jumped to her feet. Now that she stood and looked at me out of her wide-open gray eyes that were full of fear, I saw that she was a girl of my own age, with a very attractive face which was unfortunately embellished with three large bruises. This spoiled it, although they were placed with remarkable symmetry: two of equal size under the eyes, and one somewhat larger on the forehead above the bridge of the nose. This symmetry evidenced the work of an artist who had grown adept in the business of marring human faces.

The girl looked at me, and gradually the fear faded out of her eyes.She shook the sand from her hands, adjusted the cotton kerchief on her head, hunched her shoulders, and said:

"I suppose you want to eat, too?Go on digging. My hands are tired. Over there--" she nodded in the direction of a stall--"there must be bread.They're still doing business at that stall."

I began digging. After waiting awhile and watching me, she sat down beside me and began to help me.

We worked in silence. I cannot say now whether at that time I had in mind the criminal code, morality, the rights of property, and the other things that, in the opinion of the well-informed, one must remember every moment of one's life. To be as truthful as possible, I must confess that I was so busy digging under the stall that I completely forgot about everything except what could be found in the stall.

With the advance of evening, the cold, damp, unwholesome darkness was thickening around us. The noise of the waves seemed to be somewhat muffled, but the rain thrummed against the boards of the stall more loudly and heavily.The rattle of the night-watchman could already be heard.

"Does it have a floor or not?" asked my helper in a low voice. I did not understand what she was talking about, and I said nothing.

"I say, does the stall have a floor? If it does, we're working for nothing. Suppose we do dig a pit and then we find heavy boards.How are we going to pry them loose? It's better to break the lockit isn't much of a lock."

Good ideas rarely enter women's heads, but, as you see, they do enter sometimes. I have always prized good ideas and as far as possible have tried to take advantage of them.

Having located the padlock, I pulled at it and wrenched it off together with the rings. My accomplice immediately stooped and wriggled like a snake into the square opening of the stall. From within came her approving voice:

"Good work!"

The smallest praise from a woman is dearer to me than a paean from a man, even if he have the eloquence of all the ancient orators taken together. But in those days I was less appreciative than I am now, and without paying any attention to the girl's compliment I asked her curtly and anxiously:

"Anything there?"

She began to enumerate her discoveries monotonously:

"A basket with bottles, empty sacks, an umbrella, an iron pail."

All this was not edible. I felt that my hopes were sinking.Suddenly she cried excitedly:

"Aha! There it is!"

"What?"

"Breada loafonly it's wettake it!"

A loaf rolled to my feet and after it herself, my valiant accomplice. I had already broken off a piece, stuffed it into my mouth, and was chewing it

"Give me some!And we must get out of here. Where shall we go?" She peered into the wet, noisy darkness in every direction.

"There's a boat turned over, there. Shall we go to it?"

"Let's!" And we set off, tearing our booty to pieces as we went, and stuffing them into our mouths.The rain was falling more heavily, the river roared; a long-drawn-out, mocking whistle sounded from far away, as though some fearless giant were hissing all earthly institutions and this wretched autumn evening, and us, its two heroes. The whistling made my heart ache; nevertheless I ate greedily, and so did the girl, who walked to the left of me.

"What's your name?" I asked her, not knowing why.

"Natasha," she answered, chewing noisily.

I looked at her, and pain wrenched my heart. I looked into the dark in front of me, and it seemed to me as though the ironic phiz of my destiny were smiling at me enigmatically and coldly.

The rain drummed tirelessly on the boat, and its soft patter brought on sad thoughts. The wind whistled as it drove through a hole in the broken bottom, where a loose splinter was vibrating with a disquieting, mournful sound. The waves splashed against the shore, and their roar was monotonous and hopeless, as though they were relating something intolerably tedious and depressing, something of which they had grown utterly weary and which they were trying to escape, but about which they must nevertheless keep on talking. The noise of the rain blended with the splashing of the waves, and above the turned-over boat there floated the long-drawn-out, heavy sigh of the earth, wearied and outraged by the eternal succession of warm bright summer and cold, damp, misty autumn. The wind moved over the deserted shore and the foaming river, moved and sang mournful songs.

Our shelter under the boat was without any creature comforts: it was cramped, damp, and through the hole in the bottom came fine, cold drops of rain and gusts of wind. We sat silently and shivered with cold. I remember I wanted to sleep. Natasha leaned her back against the side of the boat, curled up into a little ball. Hugging her knees, and resting her chin on them, she stared at the river with wide-open eyes. On the pale patch of her face they seemed enormous, because of the bruises below them. She did not stir, and her immobility and silence gradually roused in me a kind of fear. I wanted to talk to her, but I did not know how to start.

She was the first to speak.

"What a cursed life!" she declared, speaking distinctly, deliberately, and with profound conviction.

It was not a complaint. There was too much indifference in her tone. It was simply that she had thought it over and had arrived at a certain conclusion, which she expressed aloud. As I could not deny it without contradicting myself, I held my peace, and she continued to sit there, motionless, as though not noticing me.

"If I could croak" Natasha began again, this time in a quiet, reflective tone, and again there was no trace of complaint in her voice. It was clear that, having thought about life, and having considered her own case, she had calmly arrived at the conclusion that to protect herself from life's mockery, she could do nothing better than to "croak," as she put it.

The clarity of her thinking sickened me inexpressibly, and I felt that if I continued to be silent I was sure to cry.And it would have been all the more shameful to do it before this woman, especially since she wasn't crying. I decided to engage her in conversation.

"Who beat you up?" I asked her, not having thought of anything better to say.

"It's all Pashka." she answered in an even, resonant voice.

"Who is he?"

"My lover.A baker."

"Does he beat you often?"

"Every time he gets drunk he beats me up."

And suddenly, moving closer to me, she began telling me about herself, Pashka, and the relations that existed between them. She was a girl of the streets, and he, the baker, had a red mustache and played the harmonica very well. He had visited the house, and she had liked him very much because he was jovial and dressed neatly. He wore a fifteen-ruble coat and accordion-pleated boots. For these reasons she had fallen in love with him, and he had become her "man." And having established himself in this position, he proceeded to take away from her the money that other guests gave her for candy, and getting drunk on it, would beat her up. What was worse was that he began to take up with other girls before her very eyes.

"Doesn't that hurt me? I'm no worse than the others. He is simply making a fool of me, the scoundrel. The day before yesterday I got leave of the madam to go for a walk, I came to his place, and there was Dunka sitting with him, drunk. And he, too, was soused. I says to him: 'You scoundrel, you crook, you!' He beat me up plenty. He kicked me and pulled me by the hair, and more. I wouldn't have minded that so much, but he tore my clothes. What can I do now? How can I show myself to the madam? He ripped everythingmy dress, my jacket, and it was quite newand he pulled the kerchief off my head.Lord! What will become of me now," she suddenly wailed in an anguished, broken voice.

The wind was howling, growing colder and sharper.Again my teeth began to jig, and she too shrugged together with cold. She pressed so close to me that I could see the gleam of her eyes through the darkness.

"What blackguards all you men are! I'd like to trample on you, I'd like to maim you! If one of you was croaking, I'd spit in his mug without any pity. Mean, nasty things! You wheedle and wheedle, you wag your tails like nasty curs, but once we're fools enough to give ourselves to you, it's all over with us! You step on us right away.You mangy loafers!"

She cursed richly, but her curses were without strength; she had neither malice nor hatred toward these "mangy loafers," as far as I could hear. The tone of her speech was out of keeping with its substance, for she spoke calmly and there was no variation in her voice. But it affected me more forcibly than the most eloquent and convincing books and speeches of a pessimistic cast, of which I have read and heard enough in my day. And that, you see, is because an actual death-agony is always more natural and more affecting than the most exact and artistic descriptions of death.

I felt wretched, undoubtedly more because of the cold than because of my neighbor's words. I groaned softly and ground my teeth.

Almost instantly I felt two small cold hands upon me. One of them touched my neck and the other was laid upon my face, and at the same time I heard a gentle, anxious, affectionate voice:

"What's the matter?"

I was ready to believe that someone else was asking this question, not Natasha, who had just declared that all men were scoundrels, and who wanted to see them all destroyed. But already she spoke hurriedly.

"What's the matter, eh? Are you cold? Are you freezing? Oh, what a queer one you are, you sit there as silent as an owl! Why didn't you tell me that you were cold? Comelie downstretch out, and I'll lie down tooso! Now put your arms round metighter! Well, now you ought to be warm.And then we'll lie back to back.Somehow we'll get through the night. See herehave you been drinking?Did they sack you?That's nothing."

She was comforting me.She was encouraging me.

May I be thrice damned! What irony there was in this for me! Think of it! I was seriously occupied at that time with the destiny of mankind; I dreamed of the reorganization of the social order, of political upheavals; I read all manner of devilishly clever books, whose profound depths were not to be fathomed even by their authors--in those days I was trying my best to make of myself "an active, significant force." And here a prostitute was warming me with her body, a miserable, bruised, hunted creature, worthless, without any place in life, whom I had never thought of helping until she helped me, and whom I would hardly have been able to help even if the thought had occurred to me. Oh! I was ready to believe that all this was happening to me in a dream, in an absurd, oppressive dream.

But, alas! I couldn't make myself believe that, for cold drops of rain were falling on me, a woman's breast was pressed to mine, I felt her warm breath on my face, a breath smelling slightly of vodka, and yet so vivifying.The wind howled and groaned, the rain beat against the boat, the waves splashed, and both of us, pressed tightly together, nevertheless shivered with cold. All this was utterly real, yet I am sure that no one ever dreamed such an oppressive and ugly dream as that reality.

Natasha kept on talking, with a tenderness and sympathy of which only women are capable. Under the influence of her simple and friendly words a little fire was gently kindled within me, and it melted something in my heart.

Then tears poured from my eyes, washing my heart of much that was evil, much that was foolish, much uneasiness and filth that had accumulated long before that night. Natasha kept soothing me:

"There, there, darling, that's enough! Don't howl! That's enough! With God's help you'll be all rightyou'll find another place."

And she kept on kissing me. She gave me countless, hot kisses.

Those were the first kisses from a woman that life had offered me, and they were the best kisses, for all those that came after were terribly costly and gave me almost nothing.

"Come, stop howling, you queer fellow! Tomorrow I'll help you, if you have nowhere to go," I heard her gentle, persuasive whisper as though in a dream.

Until dawn we lay in each other's arms.

And when day broke, we crawled out from under the boat and went to town.There we said good-by to each other in a friendly fashion and never met again, although for half a year I searched all the low dives for that sweet Natasha with whom I had spent the autumn night I have just described.

If she is already dead--and well for her if it is so--may she rest in peace! And if she is living--peace be to her soul! And may she never awaken to the consciousness of her fallfor that would be unnecessary suffering, a pain that would not further life.

1894.

 
 
 

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