The river of life by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The river of life – Contents

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At the moment the student was sitting on the bed in No. 5. On the commode before him stood a candle and a sheet of writing paper. The student was writing quickly; then he stopped for a moment, whispered to himself, shook his head, smiled a constrained smile and wrote again. He had just dipped his pen deep in the ink. He spooned up the liquid wax round the wick with it and poked the mixture into the flame. It crackled and splashed about everywhere with little blue darting flames. The firework reminded the student of something funny, dimly remembered from his distant childhood. He looked at the flame of the candle, his eyes narrowed, and a sad, distracted smile formed upon his lips. Then suddenly as though awakened he shook his head, sighed, wiped his pen on the sleeve of his blue blouse, and continued to write:

‘Tell them everything in my letter, which you will believe, I know. They will not understand me all the same; but you will have simple words that will be intelligible to them. One thing is very strange. Here am I writing to you, yet I know that in ten or fifteen minutes I shall shoot myself—and the thought does not frighten me at all. But when that huge grey colonel of the gendarmes went red all over and stamped his feet and swore, I was quite lost. When he cried that my obstinacy was useless, and only ruined my comrades and myself, that Bieloussov as well as Knigge and Soloveitchik had confessed, I confessed too. I, who am not afraid of death, was afraid of the shouting of this dull, narrow-minded clod, petrified with professional conceit. What is more disgusting still, he dared not shout at the others. He was courteous, obliging, and sugary to them, like a suburban dentist. He was even a Liberal. But in me he saw at once a weak, yielding will. You can feel it in people at a mere glance—there’s no need of words.

‘Yes, I confess that it was all mad and contemptible and ridiculous and loathsome. But it could not be otherwise. And if it were to be again, it would happen as before. Desperately brave generals are often frightened of mice. Sometimes they even boast of their little weakness. But I say with sorrow that I fear these wooden people, whose view of the world is rigid and unchangeable, who are stupidly self-confident, and have no hesitations, worse than death. If you knew how timid and uncomfortable I am before huge policemen, ugly Petersburg porters, typists in the editorial offices of magazines, magistrates’ clerks, and snarling stationmasters! Once I had to have my signature witnessed at the police station, and the mere look of the fat inspector, with his ginger moustache as big as a palm tree, his important chest and his fish eyes, who interrupted me continually, would not hear me out, forgot me altogether for minutes on end, or suddenly pretended that he could not understand the simplest Russian words—his mere look made me so disgustingly frightened that I could catch an insinuating, servile inflection in my voice.

‘Who’s to blame for it? I’ll tell you. My mother. She was the original cause of the fouling and corruption of my soul with a vile cowardice. She became a widow when she was still young, and my first impressions as a child are indissolubly mixed up with wandering in other people’s houses, servile smiles, petty intolerable insults, complaisance, lying, whining pitiful grimaces, the vile phrases: “a little drop, a little bit, a little cup of tea.” … I was made to kiss my benefactors’ hands—men and women. My mother protested that I did not like this dainty or that; she lied that I had a weak stomach, because she knew that the children of the house would have more, and the host would like it. The servants sneered at us on the sly. They called me hunchback, because I had a stoop from childhood. They called my mother a hanger-on and a beggar in my presence. And to make the kind people laugh my mother herself would put her shabby old leather cigarette case to her nose and bend it double: “That’s my darling Levoushka’s nose.” They laughed, and I blushed and suffered endlessly for her and for myself; but I kept silent, because I must not speak in the presence of my benefactors. I hated them, for looking at me as though I were a stone, idly and lazily thrusting their hand to my mouth for me to kiss. I hated and feared them, as I still hate and fear all decided, self-satisfied, rigid, sober people, who know everything beforehand—club orators; old red-faced hairy professors, who flirt with their harmless Liberalism; imposing, anointed canons of cathedrals; colonels of the gendarmerie; radical lady-doctors, who everlastingly repeat bits out of manifestoes, whose soul is as cold, as cruel, and as flat as a marble table-top. When I speak to them I feel that there is on my face a loathsome mark, a servile officious smile that is not mine, and I despise myself for my thin wheedling voice, in which I can catch the echo of my mother’s note. These people’s souls are dead: their thoughts are fixed in straight inflexible lines; and they are merciless as only a convinced and stupid man can be.

‘I spent the years between seven and ten in a state charity school on the Froebel system. The mistresses were all soured old maids, all suffering from inflammations, and they instilled into us respect for the generous authorities, taught us how to spy on each other and tell tales, how to envy the favourites, and, most important of all, how to behave as quietly as possible. But we boys educated ourselves in thieving and abuses. Later on—still charity—I was taken as a state boarder into a gymnasium. The inspectors visited and spied on us. We learnt like parrots: smoking in the third form; drinking in the fourth; in the fifth, the first prostitute and the first vile disease.

‘Then suddenly there arose new, young words like a wind, impetuous dreams, free, fiery, thoughts. My mind opened eagerly to meet them, but my soul was already ruined for ever, soiled and dead. It had been bitten by a mean, weak-nerved timidity, like a tick in a dog’s ear: you tear it off, but the small head remains to grow again into a complete, loathsome insect.

‘I was not the only one to die of the moral contagion, though perhaps I was the weakest of all. But all the past generation has grown up in an atmosphere of sanctimonious tranquillity, of forced respect to its elders, of lack of all individuality and dumbness. A curse on this vile age, of silence and poverty, this peaceful prosperous life under the dumb shadow of pious reaction: for the quiet degradation of the human soul is more horrible than all the barricades and slaughter in the world.

‘Strange that when I am alone with my own will, I am not only no coward, but there are few people I know who are more ready to risk their lives. I have walked from one window-sill to another five stories above ground and looked down below; I’ve swum so far out into the sea that my hands and feet would move no more, and I had to lie on my back and rest to avoid cramp. And many things besides. Finally, in ten minutes I shall kill myself—and that is something. But I am afraid of people. I fear people! When from my room I hear drunken men swearing and fighting in the street I go pale with terror. When I imagine at night as I lie in bed, an empty square with a squadron of Cossacks galloping in with a roar, my heart stops beating, my body grows cold all over, and my fingers contract convulsively. I am always frightened of something which exists in the majority of people, but which I cannot explain. The young generation of the period of transition were like me. In our mind we despised our slavery, but we ourselves became cowardly slaves. Our hatred was deep and passionate, but barren, like the mad love of a eunuch.

‘But you will understand everything, and explain it all to the comrades to whom I say before I die, that in spite of all, I love and respect them. Perhaps they will believe you when you tell them that I did not die wholly because I had betrayed them vilely and against my will. I know that there is in the world nothing more horrible than the horrible word “Traitor.” It moves from lips to ears, from lips to ears, and kills a man alive. Oh, I could set right my mistake were I not born and bred a slave of human impudence, cowardice, and stupidity. But because I am this slave, I die. In these great fiery days it is disgraceful, difficult, no, quite impossible for men like me to live.

‘Yes, my darling, I have heard, seen, and read much in the last year. I tell you there came a moment of awful volcanic eruption. The flame of long pent-up anger broke out and overwhelmed everything: fear of the morrow, respect for parents, love of life, peaceful joys of family happiness. I know of boys, hardly more than children, who refused to have a bandage on their eyes when they were executed. I myself saw people who underwent tortures, yet uttered not a word. It was all born suddenly, in a tempestuous wind. Eagles awoke out of turkey eggs. Let who will arrest their flight!

‘I am quite certain that a sixth-form boy of to-day would proclaim the demands of his party, firmly, intelligently, perhaps with a touch of arrogance, in the presence of all the crowned heads and all the chiefs of police in Europe, in any throne room. It is true the precious schoolboy is very nearly ridiculous, but a sacred respect for his proud free self is already growing up within him, a respect for everything that has been corroded in us by spiritual poverty and anxious paternal morality. We must go to the devil.

‘It is just eight minutes to nine. At nine exactly it will be all over with me. A dog barks outside—one, two—then is silent for a little and—one, two, three. Perhaps, when my consciousness has been put out, and with it everything has disappeared from me for ever: towns, public squares, hooting steamers, mornings and nights, apartment rooms, ticking clocks, people, animals, the air the light and dark, time and space, and there is nothing—then there will be no thought of this “nothing”! Perhaps the dog will go on barking for a long while to-night, first twice, then three times….

‘Five minutes to nine. A funny idea is occupying me. I think that a human thought is like a current from some electric centre, an intense, radiating vibration of the imponderable ether, poured out in the spaces of the world, and passing with equal ease through the atoms of stone, iron, and air. A thought springs from my brain and all the sphere of the universe begins to tremble, to ripple round me like water into which a stone is flung, like a sound about a vibrating string. And I think that when a man passes away his consciousness is put out, but his thought still remains, trembling in its former place. Perhaps the thoughts and dreams of all the people who were before me in this long, gloomy room are still hovering round me, directing my will in secret; and perhaps to-morrow a casual tenant of this room will suddenly begin to think of life, of death, and suicide, because I leave my thoughts behind me here. And who can say whether my thoughts, independent of weight and time and the obstacles of matter, are not at the same moment being caught by mysterious, delicate, but unconscious receivers in the brain of an inhabitant of Mars as well as in the brain of the dog who barks outside? Ah, I think that nothing in the world vanishes utterly—nothing—not only what is said, but what is thought. All our deeds and words and thoughts are little streams, trickling springs underground. I believe, I see, they meet, flow together into river-heads, ooze to the surface, run into rivulets, and now they rush in the wild, broad stream of the harmonious River of Life. The River of Life—how great it is! Sooner or later it will bear everything away, and wash down all the strongholds which imprisoned the freedom of the spirit. Where a shoal of triviality was before, there will be the profoundest depth of heroism. In a moment it will bear me away to a cold, remote, and inconceivable land, and perhaps within a year it will pour in torrents over all this mighty town and flood it and carry away in its waters not merely its ruins, but its very name.

‘Perhaps what I am writing is all ridiculous. I have two minutes left. The candle is burning and the clock ticking hurriedly in front of me. The dog is still barking. What if there remain nothing of me—nothing of me, or in me, but one thing only, the last sensation, perhaps pain, perhaps the sound of the pistol, perhaps wild naked terror; but it will remain for ever, for thousands of millions of centuries, in the millionth degree.

‘The hand has reached the hour. We’ll know it all now. No, wait. Some ridiculous modesty made me get up and lock the door. Good-bye. One word more. Surely the obscure soul of the dog must be far more susceptible to the vibrations of thought than the human…. Do they not bark because they feel the presence of a dead man? This dog that barks downstairs too. But in a second, new monstrous currents will rush out of the central battery of my brain and touch the poor brain of the dog. It will begin to howl with a queer, intolerable terror…. Good-bye, I’m going!’

The student sealed the letter—for some reason he carefully closed the ink-pot with a cork—and took a Browning out of his jacket pocket. He turned the safety catch from sur to feu. He put his legs apart so that he could stand firm, and closed his eyes. Suddenly, with both hands he swiftly raised the revolver to his right temple and pulled the trigger.

‘What’s that?’ Anna Friedrichovna asked in alarm.

‘That’s your student shooting himself,’ the lieutenant said carelessly. ‘They’re such canaille—these students….’

But Anna Friedrichovna jumped up and ran into the corridor, the lieutenant following at his leisure. From room No. 5 came a sour smell of gas and smokeless powder. They looked through the keyhole. The student lay on the floor.

Within five minutes there was a thick, black, eager crowd standing in the street outside the hotel. In exasperation Arseny drove the outsiders away from the stairs. Commotion was everywhere in the hotel. A locksmith broke open the door of the room. The caretaker ran for the police; the chambermaid for the doctor. After some time appeared the police inspector, a tall thin young man with white hair, white eyelashes, and a white moustache. He was in uniform. His wide trousers were so full that they fell half way down over his polished jack-boots. Immediately he pressed his way through the public, and roared with the voice of authority, sticking out his bright eyes:

‘Get back! Clear off! I can’t understand what it is you find so curious here. Nothing at all. You, sir!… I ask you once more. And he looks like an intellectual, in a bowler hat…. What’s that? I’ll show you “police tyranny.” Mikhailtchuk, just take note of that man! Hi, where are you crawling to, boy? I’ll——’

The door was broken open. Into the room burst Anna Friedrichovna, the police inspector, the lieutenant, the four children; for witnesses, one policeman and two caretakers; and after them, the doctor. The student lay on the floor, with his face buried in the strip of grey carpet by the bed. His left arm was bent beneath his chest, his right flung out. The pistol lay on one side. Under his head was a pool of dark blood, and a little round hole in his left temple. The candle was still burning, and the clock on the commode ticked hurriedly.

A short procès-verbal was composed in wooden official terms, and the suicide’s letter attached to it…. The two caretakers and the policeman carried the corpse downstairs. Arseny lighted the way, lifting the lamp above his head. Anna Friedrichovna, the police inspector and the lieutenant looked on through the window in the corridor upstairs. The bearers’ movements got out of step at the turning; they jammed between the wall and the banisters, and the one who was supporting the head from behind let go his hands. The head knocked sharply against the stairs—one, two, three….

‘Serves him right, serves him right,’ angrily cried the landlady from the window. ‘Serves him right, the scoundrel! I’ll give you a good tip for that!’

‘You’re very bloodthirsty, Madame Siegmayer,’ the police inspector remarked playfully, twisting his moustache, and looking sideways at the end of it.

‘Why, he’ll get me into the papers, now. I’m a poor working woman; and now, all along of him, people will keep away from my hotel.’

‘Naturally,’ the inspector kindly agreed. ‘I can’t understand these student fellows. They don’t want to study. They brandish a red flag, and then shoot themselves. They don’t want to understand what their parents must feel. They’re bought by Jewish money, damn them! But there are decent men at the same game, sons of noblemen, priests, merchants…. A nice lot! However, I give you my compliments….’

‘No, no, no, no! Not for anything in the world!’ The landlady pulled herself together. ‘We’ll have supper in a moment. A nice little bit of herring. Otherwise, I won’t let you go, for anything.’

‘To tell the truth——’ The inspector spoke in perplexity. ‘Very well. As a matter of fact, I was going to drop in to Nagourno’s opposite for something. Our work,’ he said, politely making way for the landlady through the door, ‘is hard. Sometimes we don’t get a bite all day long.’

All three had a good deal of vodka at supper. Anna Friedrichovna, red all over, with shining eyes and lips like blood, slipped off one of her shoes beneath the table and pressed the inspector’s foot. The lieutenant frowned, became jealous, and all the while tried to begin a story of ‘In the regiment——’ The inspector did not listen, but interrupted with terrific tales of ‘In the police——’ Each tried to be as contemptuous of and inattentive to the other as he could. They were both like a couple of young dogs that have just met in the yard.

‘You’re everlastingly talking of “In the regiment,”’ said the inspector, looking not at the lieutenant, but the landlady. ‘Would you mind my asking what was the reason why you left the service?’

‘Well, …’ the lieutenant replied, offended. ‘Would you like me to ask you how you came to be in the police; how you came to such a life?’

Here Anna Friedrichovna brought the ‘Monopan’ musical box out of the corner and made Tchijhevich turn the handle. After some invitation the inspector danced a polka with her—she jumped about like a little girl, and the curls on her forehead jumped with her. Then the inspector turned the handle while the lieutenant danced, pressing the landlady’s arm to his left side, with his head flung back. Alychka also danced with downcast eyes, and her tender dissipated smile on her lips. The inspector was saying his last good-bye, when Romka appeared.

‘There, I’ve been seeing the student off, and while I was away you’ve been—— I’m treated like a do-o-og.’

And what was once a student now lay in the cold cellar of an anatomical theatre, in a zinc box, standing on ice—lit by a yellow gas flame, yellow and repulsive. On his bare right leg above the knee in gross ink figures was written ‘14.’ That was his number in the anatomical theatre.

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Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The river of life – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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