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Notch by Maksim Gorky

 

The round window of my cell looked out upon the prison-yard. It was a very high window, but by placing the table against the wall and climbing on it, I could see everything that was going on in the yard. Above the window, under the eaves, pigeons had built themselves a nest, and when I looked out of my window into the court below, they cooed above my head.

I had sufficient time to acquaint myself from my vantage-point with the inmates of the prison, and I knew that the merriest member of that sullen and humdrum crew went by the nickname of Notch.

He was a square-set, stout fellow, with a ruddy face and high forehead from under which his large eyes always shone brightly. He wore his cap on the back of his head, and his ears struck out on both sides of his funny head in a funny fashion. He never fastened the strings of his shirt-collar, he never buttoned his jacket, and every movement of his muscles made it plain that he housed a soul incapable of dejection and bitterness.

Always on the go, always full of laughter and noise, he was the idol of the prison; he was always surrounded by a crowd of gray-clad comrades, and he amused and entertained them by various curious pranks, brightening up their dull, bleak days with his hearty gaiety.

On one occasion he emerged from his cell for his walk with three rats ingeniously harnessed with strings as if they were horses. He ran after them through the yard, shouting that he was driving a troika. The rats, maddened by his shouts, rushed about, while the prisoners laughed like children, looking at this stout man and his troika.

Apparently he believed that he existed solely to divert people. To achieve this he stopped at nothing. Sometimes his inventiveness assumed cruel forms. Thus, for instance, he once managed to glue to the wall the hair of a prisoner, a mere boy who was sitting on the ground asleep against the wall, and when the glue had dried, he suddenly awoke him. The lad quickly leaped to his feet, and clutching his head with his slim, lean hands, fell weeping to the ground. The prisoners guffawed, and Notch was content. Afterwards--I saw it through the window--he comforted the boy, who had left quite a tuft of his hair on the wall.

Besides Notch, there was yet another favorite in the prison--a plump auburn kitten, a playful little animal pampered by all. When they came out for their regular walk, the prisoners invariably hunted it up and played with it for a long time. They would pass it on from hand to hand, fun after it in the yard, let it scratch their hands and faces which were animated by this sport with the pet.

When the kitten appeared on the scene, it diverted the general attention from Notch, and the latter was by no means pleased with this preference. At heart Notch was an artist, and as such he had an inordinate amount of amour-propre. When his public devoted itself to the kitten, he, left alone, would sit down in a corner of the court-yard and from there watch his comrades, who in those moments forgot him. And from my window I watched him and felt everything that filled his soul during such moments. It seemed to me that Notch was bound to kill the kitten at the first opportunity, and I was sorry for the jolly prisoner. The desire to be the center of attention is pernicious to man, for nothing deadens the soul so quickly as the desire to please.

When you are in prison even the growth of mold on its walls seems interesting. It is therefore easy to understand the interest with which I followed from my window the little drama below, a man's jealousy of a kitten, and it is easy to understand, too, the impatience with which I awaited the denouement. It came in this way.

One bright, sunny day, when the prisoners had poured out of their cells into the yard, Notch noticed in a corner a pail of green paint, left by the men who were painting the prison roof. He went up to it, pondered over it, and dipping his finger into the paint, smeared his mustaches with it. The green mustaches on his red phiz caused an outburst of laughter. A lad in the group, in imitation of Notch, proceeded to paint his upper lip; but Notch dipped his whole hand into the pail and dexterously smeared the boy's entire face with the paint. The lad sputtered and shook his head, Notch danced around him, and the public roared, encouraging its entertainer with shouts of approval.

Just at that moment the auburn kitten appeared in the court-yard. It walked across the yard without haste, gracefully lifting its paws; it waved its arched tail, and was evidently unafraid of getting under the feet of the crowd which was milling around Notch and the bespattered boy, who was energetically rubbing his face with his palm and smearing the sticky mixture of oil and verdigris all over it.

"Fellows!" someone exclaimed. "Mishka is here."

"Ah, the little rascal!"

"Hi, there, Ginger! Pussy!"

They seized the kitten and passed it from hand to hand; everybody fondled it.

"They don't starve him! See how fat he is!"

"How fast he's growing!"

"He scratches, the little devil!"

"Leave him alone. Let him jump!"

"I'll hump my back for him. Jump, Mishka!"

Nobody paid any attention to Notch. He stood alone, rubbing the paint off his mustaches with his fingers, and glancing at the kitten which was jumping on the shoulders and backs of the prisoners. This amused everybody very much, and there was continual laughter.

"Mates! Let's paint the cat!" Notch's voice was heard. There was an imploring note in his suggestion.

The crowd's response was noisy.

"But he'll croak!" declared one.

"From paint? What an idea!"

"Go on, Notch, paint him!" a broad-shouldered chap with a flaming red beard cried enthusiastically. "Such a thing to think of! What a devil of a fellow!"

Notch already had the kitten in his hands and was walking over to the pail of paint.

              Look, mates, look at that, [sang Notch]
              Watch me paint the ginger cat.
              We'll paint it green, it will be great,
              And do a dance to celebrate.

There was a burst of laughter, and the prisoners, holding their sides, made way for Notch. I saw plainly how, grasping the kitten by its tail, he dipped it into the pail, and dancing, sang:

              Stop your mewing, kitty, cease!
              Give your godfather some peace!

The laughter was louder than ever.

"Oh, cock-eyed Judas!" piped a thin voice.

"Oh, gracious!" another groaned.

They were choking with laughter, suffocating with it; it twisted the bodies of these men, bent them double, shook them, and it rumbled through the air, powerful, carefree, growing louder and louder until it reached the pitch of hysteria. From the windows of the women's wing of the prison peered smiling faces, framed in white kerchiefs. The guard, backed against the wall, thrust out his bulging middle, and clasping it with both hands, let out volleys of thick, low-pitched laughter that fairly choked him.

The laughter scattered the men in all directions. Cutting astounding capers, Notch did a squatting jig, singing by way of accompaniment:

              Oh, Life is a funny thing!
              Once there was a cat all gray,
              But her son, the auburn puss,
              Leads a life that's green today!

"Enough, devil take you!" groaned the man with the flaming beard.

But Notch was in high feather. Around him rioted the wild laughter of these men in gray, and Notch knew that it was he, and he alone, who was making them laugh.

His awareness of this was evident in every gesture of his, in every grimace of his mobile, clownish face, and his whole body twitched with the joy of his triumph. Now he held the kitten by the head, and shaking the excess paint from its coat, he went on dancing and improvising with the ecstasy of an artist conscious of his victory over the crowd:

              Come, dear brothers, let us look
              At the saints' names in the book;
              Pussy needs a name, I vow.
              Pray, what shall we call her now?

Everything laughed around the crowd of prisoners, possessed by insane gaiety; the sun laughed on the windowpanes through the grating; the blue sky smiled above the prison-yard, and even its old, dirty walls seemed to be smiling with the smile of one who must suppress his gaiety, no matter how it may riot within him. From behind the gratings of the windows in the women's wing, women's faces peered down into the yard; they too laughed and their teeth sparkled in the sun. Everything was reborn, as it were, having shaken off the dull grayness that weighed one down with ennui and dejection; everything came alive, suffused with this purifying laughter which, like the sun, makes even dirt seem more decent.

Having set the green kitten on the grass, little islands of which, springing up between the stones, gave a motley look to the prison-yard, Notch, excited, out of breath, and sweating, continued to perform his wild jig.

But the laughter was already dying down. There had been too much of it, and it was beginning to tire people. Some were still shrieking hysterically; some continued laughing, but not so steadily. Finally a moment came when all were silent, except Notch, who was still singing a dancetune, and the kitten, which, crawling on the grass, was mewing softly and plaintively. It was almost indistinguishable from the grass in color, and the paint must have blinded it and interfered with its movements; the sticky, big-headed creature tottered stupidly on its trembling paws, stopping now and then as if glued to the grass, and mewing continually. Notch commented thus on the kitten's movements:

              Christian people, look at that!
              The green puss don't know where he's at.
              Mishka, once the ginger cat,
              Cannot find a place to squat!

"Very clever, you beast," said a red-headed fellow.

The audience was looking at its artist with sated eyes.

"He's mewing," declared the youth, nodding in the direction of the kitten, and looked at his comrades. They watched the kitten in silence.

"Is he going to stay green the rest of his life?" asked the lad.

"How long do you think he'll live?" spoke up a tall, gray-haired prisoner, squatting near Mishka. "He'll get dry in the sun, his fur will be glued together, and he'll croak."

The kitten kept on mewing piercingly, causing a change in the mood of the prisoners.

"He'll croak?" asked the lad. "And what about giving him a wash?"

No one answered him. The little green ball was writhing at the feet of these coarse men, and was piteous in its helplessness.

"Phew! I'm all in a sweat!" cried Notch, throwing himself on the ground. No one paid any attention to him.

The lad edged over to the kitten and took him up in his hands, but immediately set him down on the grass again, declaring:

"He's awfully hot."

Then he looked at his comrades and said sadly:

"Poor Mishka! No more Mishka for us. Why did you have to kill the beast?"

"Maybe he'll get over it," said the red-headed man.

The hideous green creature kept crawling on the grass, while twenty pairs of eyes watched it, and by now there was not the trace of a smile on a single face. All were sullen and silent, all looked as wretched as the kitten, as though it had communicated its suffering to them and they felt its pangs.

"Get over it!" grinned the lad, raising his voice. "That's likely! There was Mishka, we all liked him.Why are you torturing him? Maybe we'd better put him out of his misery."

"And who did it all?" cried the red-headed prisoner angrily. "It's him, this devil of a clown!"

"Well," said Notch soothingly, "didn't we all do it together?"

And he hugged himself as if he were cold.

"All together!" said the lad, mockingly. "That's good! You're the only one to blame! You are!"

"Don't you bellow, you calf!" Notch advised him meekly.

The old man took up the kitten, and having examined it carefully, suggested:

"If you bathe him in kerosene, the paint will come off."

"I say, take him by the tail and throw him over the wall," said Notch, and added, with a smirk, "Simple matter."

"What!" roared the red-headed man. "Suppose I threw you over the wall, would you like it?"

"The devil!" cried the lad, and, snatching the kitten from the old man's hands, set off at a run. The old man and several others followed him.

Notch remained alone among the men, who looked at him with angry, sullen eyes. They seemed to be waiting for him to make a move.

"It wasn't just me, mateys," Notch whined.

"Shut up!" cried the red-headed man, glancing round the court-yard. "Not just you! And who else was there?"

"But you were all in it," said the clown distinctly.

"You dog!"

The red-headed man punched Notch on the mouth. The artist backed away, only to receive a blow in the neck.

"Mates!" he begged pitifully. But his mates saw that the two guards were a good distance away, and huddling in a thick crowd around their idol, knocked him down with a few blows. From afar the crowd could have been taken for a group engaged in lively conversation. Surrounded and hidden by them, Notch lay at their feet. From time to time a muffled sound was heard: they were kicking Notch in the ribs, kicking without haste, without anger, waiting until the man, writhing like a snake in the grass, should expose a particularly choice spot for a kick.

This lasted some three minutes. Suddenly the guard shouted:

"Hey, you devils! Don't go too far!"

The prisoners did not stop the torture all at once. One by one they left Notch, and every one of them took leave of him with a kick.

When they had gone, he remained lying on the ground. He lay prone, his shoulders shook--he must have been crying--and he kept coughing and expectorating. Then, cautiously, as though afraid of falling apart, he began to raise himself from the ground. He leaned on his left hand, then bent one leg, and howling like a sick dog, he sat up.

"Don't you pretend!" shouted the red-headed man threateningly.

Notch swayed and rose quickly to his feet.

Then, staggering, he walked to one of the walls of the prison. One hand was pressed against his chest, the other was stretched out in front of him. He reached the wall, and standing erect, he bowed his head. He was coughing.

I saw dark drops falling on the ground; I could see them distinctly against the gray background of the prison wall.

In order not to soil the public building with his blood, Notch made an obvious effort to shed it on the ground so that not a drop of it should get on the wall.

They laughed at the clown.

The kitten was not seen any more. And Notch had no rival for the attention of the inmates of the prison.

1897.

 
 
 

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