Yama (the Pit) by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – Yama (the Pit) – Contents

< < < Chapter I
Chapter III > > >

Part II

Chapter II

The passenger train sped merrily from the south to the north, traversing golden fields of wheat and beautiful groves of oak, careering with rumbling upon iron bridges over bright rivers, leaving behind it whirling clouds of smoke.

In the COUPE of the second class, even with open windows, there was a fearful stuffiness, and it was hot. The smell of sulphurous smoke irritated the throat. The rocking and the heat had completely tired out the passengers, save one, a merry, energetic, mobile Hebrew, splendidly dressed, accommodating, sociable and talkative. He was travelling with a young woman, and it was at once apparent, especially through her, that they were newly-weds; so often did her face flare up with an unexpected colour at every tenderness of her husband, even the least. And when she raised her eyelashes to look upon him, her eyes would shine like stars, and grow humid. And her face was as beautiful as only the faces of young Hebrew maidens in love can be beautiful—all tenderly rosy, with rosy lips, rounded out in beautiful innocence, and with eyes so black that their pupils could not be distinguished from the irises.

Unabashed by the presence of three strange people, he showered his caresses upon his companion every minute, and, it must be said, sufficiently coarse ones. With the unceremoniousness of an owner, with that especial egoism of one in love, who, it would seem, is saying to the whole universe: “See, how happy we are—this makes you happy also, isn’t that so?”—he would now pass his hand over her leg, which resiliently and in relief stood out beneath her dress, now pinch her on the cheek, now tickle her neck with his stiff, black, turned-up moustache … But, even though he did sparkle with delight, there was still something rapacious, wary, uneasy to be glimpsed in his frequently winking eyes, in the twitching of the upper lip, and in the harsh outline of his shaved, square chin, jutting out, with a scarcely noticeable dent in the middle.

Opposite this infatuated couple were placed three passengers—a retired general, a spare, neat little old man, with pomade on his hair, with curls combed forward to the temples; a stout land-owner, who had taken off his starched collar, but was still gasping from the heat and mopping his face every minute with a wet handkerchief; and a young infantry officer. The endless talkativeness of Simon Yakovlevich (the young man had already managed to inform his neighbours that he was called Simon Yakovlevich Horizon) tired and irritated the passengers a trifle, just like the buzzing of a fly, that on a sultry summer day rhythmically beats against a window pane of a closed, stuffy room. But still, he knew how to raise their spirits: he showed tricks of magic; told Hebrew anecdotes, full of a fine humour of their own. When his wife would go out on the platform to refresh herself, he would tell such things that the general would melt into a beatific smile, the land-owner would neigh, rocking his black-loam stomach, while the sub-lieutenant, a smooth-faced boy, only a year out of school, scarcely controlling his laughter and curiosity, would turn away to one side, that his neighbours might not see him turning red.

His wife tended Horizon with a touching, naive attention; she wiped his face with a handkerchief, waved upon him with a fan, adjusted his cravat every minute. And his face at these times became laughably supercilious and stupidly self-conceited.

“But allow me to ask,” asked the spare little general, coughing politely, “allow me to ask, my dear sir, what occupation might you pursue?”

“Ah, my God!” with a charming frankness retorted Simon Yakovlevich. “Well, what can a poor Jew do in our time? It’s a bit of a travelling salesman and a commission broker by me. At the present time I’m far from business. You—he! he! he!—understand yourselves, gentlemen. A honeymoon—don’t turn red, Sarochka—it don’t repeat itself three times in a year. But afterwards I’ll have to travel and work a great deal. Here we’ll come with Sarochka to town, will pay the visits to her relatives, and then again on the road. On my first trip I’m thinking of taking my wife. You know, sort of a wedding journey. I’m a representative from Sidris and two English firms. Wouldn’t you like to have a look? Here are the samples with me …”

He very rapidly took out of a small, elegant case of yellow leather a few long cardboard folding books, and with the dexterity of a tailor began to unfold them, holding one end, from which their folds fell downward with a light crackling.

“Look, what splendid samples: they don’t give in to foreign ones at all. Please notice. Here, for instance, is Russian and here English tricot, or here, cangan and cheviot. Compare, feel it, and you’ll be convinced that the Russian samples almost don’t give in to the foreign. Why, that speaks of progress, of the growth of culture. So it’s absolutely for nothing that Europe counts us Russians such barbarians.

“And so we’ll pay our family visits, will look at the fair, pay a visit to the CHATEAU DES FLEURS, enjoy ourselves a little, stroll a bit, and then to the Volga down to Tzaritzin, to the Black Sea, and then again home to our native Odessa.”

“That’s a fine journey,” said the sub-lieutenant modestly.

“I should say it’s fine,” agreed Simon Yakovlevich; “but there are no roses without thorns. The work of a travelling salesman is exceedingly difficult and requires many kinds of knowledge, and not so much the knowledge of business as the knowledge of—how shall I say it?—the knowledge of the human soul. Another man may not even want to give an order, but you must work like an elephant to convince him, and argue until he feels the clearness and justice of your words. Because I take only absolutely clean lines exclusively, of which there can be no doubts. A fake or a bad line I will not take, although they should offer me millions for it. Ask wherever you like, in any store which deals in cloths or suspenders GLOIRE—I’m also a representative from this firm—or buttons HELIOS—you just ask who Simon Yakovlevich Horizon is, and everyone will answer you: ‘Simon Yakovlevich is not a man, but gold; this is a disinterested man, as honest as a diamond.’” And Horizon was already unpacking long boxes with patented suspenders, and was showing the glistening leaves of cardboard, covered with regular rows of vari-coloured buttons.

“There happen great unpleasantnesses, when the place has been worked out, when a lot of travelling salesmen have appeared before you. Here you can’t do anything; they absolutely won’t listen to you, only wave their arms. But that’s only for others. I am Horizon! I can talk him over, the same like a camel from a menagerie. But it happens still more unpleasant, when two competitors in one and the same line come together in the same town. And it happens even worse when it’s some chimney sweep and can’t do business himself and spoils business for you too. Here you go to all sorts of tricks: let him drink till he’s drunk or let him go off somewhere on a false track. Not an easy trade! Besides that, I have one more line—that’s false eyes and teeth. But it ain’t a profitable line. I want to drop it. And besides I’m thinking of leaving all this business. I understand, it’s all right for a young man, in the bloom of his powers, to flutter around like a moth, but once you have a wife, and may be a whole family even …” he playfully patted the woman on the knee, from which she became scarlet and looked uncommonly better. “For the Lord has blessed us Jews with fecundity for all our misfortunes … Then you want to have some business of your own, you want, you understand, to become settled in one place, so’s there should be a shack of your own, and your own furniture, and your own bedroom, and kitchen … Isn’t that so, your excellency?”

“Yes … Yes … eh—eh … Yes, of course, of course,” condescendingly responded the general.

“And so I took with Sarochka a little dowry. What do I mean, a little dowry? Such money that Rothschild would not even want to look at it are in my hands a whole capital already. But it must be said that there are some savings by me, too. The firms I know will give me credit. If God grant it, we shall still eat a piece of bread and a little butter—and on the Sabbaths the tasty GEFILTEH FISCH.”

“That’s fine fish: pike the way the sheenies make it!” said the gasping land-owner.

“We shall open up for ourselves the firm of ‘Horizon and Son.’ Isn’t that true, Sarochka—’and Son?’ And you, I hope, will honour me with your esteemed orders? When you see the sign, ‘Horizon and Son,’ then straight off recollect that you once rode in a car together with a young man, who had grown as foolish as hell from love and from happiness.”

“Ab-solutely!” said the land-owner.

And Simon Yakovlevich at once turned to him:

“But I also work by commission broking. To sell an estate, to buy an estate, to arrange a second mortgage—you won’t find a better specialist than me, and such a cheap one at that. I can be of service to you, should the need arise,” and he extended his visiting card to the land-owner with a bow, and, by the way, handed a card each to his two neighbours as well.

The land-owner dived into a side pocket and also dragged out a card.

“Joseph Ivanovich Vengjenovski,” Simon Yakovlevich read out loud. “Very, very pleased! And so, should you need me …”

“Why not? It’s possible …” said the land-owner meditatively. “Why, yes: perhaps, indeed, a favourable chance has brought us together! Why, I’m just journeying to K——about the sale of a certain forest country house. Suppose you do that, then,—drop in to see me. I always stop at the Grand Hotel. Perhaps we may be able to strike up a deal.”

“Oh, I’m already almost sure, my dearest Joseph Ivanovich!” exclaimed the rejoicing Horizon, and slightly, with the very tips of his fingers, patted Vengjenovski’s kneecap carefully. “You just rest assured; if Horizon has undertaken anything, then you’ll be thanking him like your own father, no more, no less.”

Half an hour later Simon Yakovlevich and the smooth-faced sub-lieutenant were standing on the platform of the car and smoking.

“Do you often visit K——, mister sub-lieutenant?” asked Horizon.

“Only for the first time—just imagine! Our regiment is stationed at Chernobob. I was born in Moscow, myself.”

“AI, AI, AI! How’d you come to get into such a faraway place?”

“Well, it just fell out so. There was no other vacancy when I was let out.”

“But then—Chernobob is a hole! The worst little town in all Podolia.”

“That’s true, but it just fell out so.”

“That means, then, that the young officer gent is going to K——to divert himself a little?”

“Yes. I’m thinking of stopping there for two or three days. I’m travelling to Moscow, really. I have received a two months’ leave, but it would be interesting to look over the city on the way. It’s very beautiful, they say.”

“Oh, what are you trying to tell me? A remarkable city! Well, absolutely a European city. If you only knew, what streets, electricity, trolleys, theatres! And if you only knew what cabarets! You’ll lick your own fingers. Positively, positively, I advise you, young man, to pay a visit to the CHATEAU DES FLEURS, to the Tivoli, and also to ride out to the island. That’s something special. What women, wha-a-at women!”

The lieutenant turned red, took his eyes away, and asked in a voice that quavered:

“Yes, I’ve happened to hear that. Is it possible that they’re really so handsome?”

“Oi! Strike me God! Believe me, there are no handsome women there at all.”

“But—how’s that?”

“Why, this way: there are only raving beauties there. You understand—what a happy blending of bloods! Polish, Little Russian, and Hebrew. How I envy you, young man, that you’re free and alone. In my time I sure would have shown myself! And what’s most remarkable of all, they’re unusually passionate women! Well, just like fire! And do you know something else?” he asked in a whisper of great significance.

“What?” asked the sub-lieutenant in a fright.

“It’s remarkable, that nowheres, neither in Paris, nor in London—believe me, this was told me by people who had seen the whole wide world—never, nowhere, will you meet with such exquisite ways of making love as in this town. That’s something especial, as us little Jews say. They think up such things that no imagination can picture to itself. It’s enough to drive you crazy!”

“But is that possible?” quietly spoke the sub-lieutenant, whose breath had been cut off.

“Well, strike me God! But permit me, young man, by the way! You understand yourself. I was single, and of course, every man is liable to sin … It’s different now, of course. I’ve had myself written in with the invalids. But from the former days a remarkable collection has remained to me. Just wait, I’ll show it to you right away. Only, please, be as careful as possible in looking at it.”

Horizon with trepidation looked around to the right and left and extracted from his pocket a long, narrow little box of morocco, in the style of those in which playing cards are usually kept, and extended it to the sub-lieutenant.

“Here you are, have a look. Only, I beg of you, be very careful.”

The sub-lieutenant applied himself to picking out, one after the other, the cards of plain and coloured photography, in which in all possible aspects was depicted in the most beastly ways, in the most impossible positions, the external side of love which at times makes man immeasurably lower and viler than a baboon. Horizon would look over his shoulder, nudge him with his elbow, and whisper:

“Tell me, ain’t that swell, now? Why, this is genuine Parisian and Viennese chic!”

The sub-lieutenant looked through the whole collection from the beginning to the end. When he was giving back the little box, his hand was shaking, his temples and forehead were moist, his eyes had dimmed, and over his cheeks had mantled a blush, mottled like marble.

“But do you know what?” Horizon exclaimed gaily, all of a sudden. “It’s all the same to me—the Indian sign has been put upon me. I, as they used to say in the olden times, have burned my ships … I have burned all that I used to adore before. For a long time already I’ve been looking for an opportunity to pass these cards on to some one. I ain’t especially chasing after a price. You wish to acquire them, mister officer?”

“Well, now … I,—that is … Why not? … Let’s …”

“That’s fine! On account of such a pleasant acquaintanceship, I’ll take fifty kopecks apiece. What, is that expensive? Well, what’s the difference, God be with you! I see you’re a travelling man, I don’t want to rob you; let it go at thirty, then. What? That ain’t cheap either? Well, shake hands on it! Twenty-five kopecks apiece. OI! What an intractable fellow you are! At twenty! You’ll thank me yourself later! And then, do you know what else? When I come to K—, I always stop at the Hotel Hermitage. You can very easily find me there either very early in the morning, or about eight o’clock in the evening. I know an awful lot of the finest little ladies. So I’ll introduce you. And, you understand, not for money. Oh, no. It’s just simply nice and gay for them to pass the time with a young, healthy, handsome man of your sort. There’s absolutely no money of any kind necessary. And for that matter—they themselves will willingly pay for wine, for a bottle of champagne! So remember then; The Hermitage, Horizon. And if it isn’t that, remember it anyway! Maybe I can be of use to you. And the cards are such a thing, such a thing, that it will never lay on the shelf by you. Those who like that sort of thing give three roubles for each specimen. But these, of course, are rich people, little old men. And then, you know”—Horizon bent over to the officer’s very ear, winked one eye, and pronounced in a sly whisper—”you know, many ladies adore these cards. Why, you’re a young man, and handsome; how many romances you will have yet!”

Having received the money and counted it over painstakingly, Horizon had the brazenness to extend his hand in addition, and to shake the hand of the sub-lieutenant, who did not dare to lift up his eyes to him; and, having left him on the platform, went back into the passageway of the car, as though nothing had happened.

This was an unusually communicative man. On the way to his COUPE he came to a stop before a beautiful little girl of three years, with whom he had for some time been flirting at a distance and making all sorts of funny grimaces at. He squatted down on his heels before her, began to imitate a nanny goat for her, and questioned her in a lisping voice:

“May I athk where the young lady ith going? OI, OI, OI! Thuch a big girl! Travelling alone, without mamma? Bought a ticket all by herthelf and travelth alone! AI! What a howwid girl! And where ith the girl’th mamma?” At this moment a tall, handsome, self-assured woman appeared from the COUPE and said calmly:

“Get away from the child. What a despicable thing to annoy strange children!”

Horizon jumped up on his feet and began to bustle:

“Madam! I could not restrain myself … Such a wonderful, such a magnificent and swell child! A regular cupid! You must understand, madam, I am a father myself—I have children of my own … I could not restrain myself from delight! …”

But the lady turned her back upon him, took the girl by the hand and went with her into the COUPE, leaving Horizon shuffling his feet and muttering his compliments and apologies.

Several times during the twenty-four hours Horizon would go into the third class, of two cars, separated from each other by almost the entire train. In one care were sitting three handsome women, in the society of a black-bearded, taciturn, morose man. Horizon and he would exchange strange phrases in some special jargon. The women looked at him uneasily, as though wishing, yet not daring, to ask him about something. Only once, toward noon, did one of them allow herself to utter:

“Then that’s the truth? That which you said about the place? … You understand—I’m somewhat uneasy at heart!”

“Ah, what do you mean, Margarita Ivanovna? If I said it, then it’s right, just like by the National Bank. Listen, Lazer,” he turned to him of the beard. “There will be a station right away. Buy the girls all sorts of sandwiches, whichever they may desire. The train stops here for twenty-five minutes.”

“I’d like to have bouillon,” hesitatingly uttered a little blonde, with hair like ripened rye, and with eyes like corn-flowers.

“My dear Bella, anything you please! At the station I’ll go and see that they bring you bouillon with meat and even stuffed dumplings. Don’t you trouble yourself, Lazer, I’ll do all that myself.”

In another car he had a whole nursery garden of women, twelve or fifteen people, under the leadership of an old, stout woman, with enormous, awesome, black eyebrows. She spoke in a bass, while her fat chins, breasts, and stomachs swayed under a broad morning dress in time to the shaking of the car, just like apple jelly. Neither the old woman nor the young women left the least doubts as to their profession.

The women were lolling on the benches, smoking, playing cards—at “sixty-six,”—drinking beer. Frequently the male public of the car provoked them, and they swore back in unceremonious language, in hoarse voices. The young people treated them with wine and cigarettes.

Horizon was here altogether unrecognizable; he was majestically negligent and condescendingly jocose. On the other hand, cringing ingratiation sounded in every word addressed to him by his female clients. But he, having looked over all of them—this strange mixture of Roumanians, Jewesses, Poles and Russians—and having assured himself that all was in order, gave orders about the sandwiches and majestically withdrew. At these moments he very much resembled a drover, who is transporting by railroad cattle for slaughter, and at a station drops in to look it over and to feed it. After that he would return to his COUPE and again begin to toy with his wife, and Hebrew anecdotes just poured from his mouth.

At the long stops he would go out to the buffet only to see about his lady clients. But he himself said to his neighbours:

“You know, it’s all the same to me if it’s TREIF or KOSHER. I don’t recognize any difference. But what can I do with my stomach! The devil knows what stuff they’ll feed you sometimes at these stations. You’ll pay some three or four roubles, and then you’ll spend a hundred roubles on the doctors curing yourself. But maybe you, now, Sarochka”—he would turn to his wife—”maybe you’ll get off at the station to eat something? Or shall I send it up to you here?”

Sarochka, happy over his attention, would turn red, beam upon him with grateful eyes, and refuse.

“You’re very kind, Senya, only I don’t want to. I’m full.”

Then Horizon would reach out of a travelling hamper a chicken, boiled meat, cucumbers, and a bottle of Palestine wine; have a snack, without hurrying, with appetite; regale his wife, who ate very genteelly, sticking out the little fingers of her magnificent white hands; then painstakingly wrap up the remnants in paper and, without hurrying, lay them away accurately in the hamper.

In the distance, far ahead of the locomotive, the cupolas and belfries were already beginning to sparkle with fires of gold. Through the COUPE passed the conductor and made some imperceptible sign to Horizon. He immediately followed the conductor out to the platform.

“The inspector will pass through right away,” said the conductor, “so you’ll please be so kind as to stand for a while here on the platform of the third class with your spouse.”

“NU, NU, NU!” concurred Horizon.

“And the money as agreed, if you please.”

“How much is coming to you, then?”

“Well, just as we agreed; half the extra charge, two roubles eighty kopecks.”

“What?” Horizon suddenly boiled over. “Two roubles eighty kopecks? You think you got it a crazy one in me, what? Here’s a rouble for you and thank God for that!”

“Pardon me, sir. This is even absurd—didn’t you and I agree?”

“Agree, agree! … Here’s a half more, and not a thing besides. What impudence! I’ll tell the inspector yet that you carry people without tickets. Don’t you think it, brother—you ain’t found one of that sort here!”

The conductor’s eyes suddenly widened, became blood-shot.

“O-oh! You sheeny!” he began to roar. “I ought to take a skunk like you and under the train with you!”

But Horizon at once flew at him like a cock.

“What? Under the train? But do you know what’s done for words like that? A threat by action! Here, I’ll go right away and will yell ‘help!’ and will turn the signal handle,” and he seized the door-knob with such an air of resolution that the conductor just made a gesture of despair with his hand and spat.

“May you choke with my money, you mangy sheeny!”

Horizon called his wife out of the COUPE:

“Sarochka! Let’s go out on the platform for a look; one can see better there. Well, it’s so beautiful—just like on a picture!”

Sarah obediently went after him, holding up with an unskilled hand the new dress, in all probability put on for the first time, bending out and as though afraid of touching the door or the wall.

In the distance, in the rosy gala haze of the evening glow, shone the golden cupolas and crosses. High up on the hill the white, graceful churches seemed to float in this flowery, magic mirage. Curly woods and coppices had run down from above and had pushed on over the very ravine. And the sheer, white precipice which bathed its foot in the blue river, was all furrowed over with occasional young woods, just like green little veins and warts. Beautiful as in a fairy tale, the ancient town appeared as though it were itself coming to meet the train.

When the train stopped, Horizon ordered three porters to carry the things into the first class, and told his wife to follow him. But he himself lingered at the exit in order to let through both his parties. To the old woman looking after the dozen women he threw briefly in passing:

“So remember, madam Berman! Hotel America, Ivanukovskaya, twenty-two!”

While to the black-bearded man he said:

“Don’t forget, Lazer, to feed the girls at dinner and to bring them somewhere to a movie show. About eleven o’clock at night wait for me. I’ll come for a talk. But if some one will be calling for me extra, then you know my address—The Hermitage. Ring me up. But if I’m not there for some reason, then run into Reiman’s cafe, or opposite, into the Hebrew dining room. I’ll be eating GEFILTEH FISCH there. Well, a lucky journey!”

< < < Chapter I
Chapter III > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – Yama (the Pit) – Contents

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