Yama (the Pit) by Alexander Kuprin

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

< < < Chapter XV
Chapter XVII > > >

Part II

Chapter XVI

Justice must be rendered to Lichonin; he did everything to create for Liubka a quiet and secure existence. Since he knew that they would have to leave their mansard anyway—this bird house, rearing above the whole city—leave it not so much on account of its inconvenience and lack of space as on account of the old woman Alexandra, who with every day became more ferocious, captious and scolding—he resolved to rent a little bit of a flat, consisting of two rooms and a kitchen, on the Borschhagovka, at the edge of the town. He came upon an inexpensive one, for nine roubles a month, without fuel. True, Lichonin had to run very far from there to his pupils, but he relied firmly upon his endurance and health, and would often say:

“My legs are my own. I don’t have to be sparing of them.”

And, truly, he was a great master at walking. Once, for the sake of a joke, having put a pedometer in his vest pocket, he towards evening counted up twenty versts; which, taking into consideration the unusual length of his legs, equalled some twenty-five versts.[21] And he did have to run about quite a bit, because the fuss about Liubka’s passport and the acquisition of household furnishings of a sort had eaten up all his accidental winnings at cards. He did try to take up playing again, on a small scale at first, but was soon convinced that his star at cards had now entered upon a run of fatal ill luck.

[21] A verst is equal to two-thirds of a mile.—Trans.

By now, of course, the real character of his relations with Liubka was a mystery to none of his comrades; but he still continued in their presence to act out the comedy of friendly and brotherly relations with the girl. For some reason he could not, or did not want to, realize that it would have been far wiser and more advantageous for him not to lie, not to be false, and not to pretend. Or, perhaps, although he did know this, he still could not change the established tone. As for the intimate relations, he inevitably played a secondary, passive role. The initiative, in the form of tenderness, caressing, always had to come from Liubka (she had remained Liubka, after all, and Lichonin had somehow entirely forgotten that he himself had read her real name—Irene—in the passport).

She, who had so recently given her body up impassively—or, on the contrary, with an imitation of burning passion—to tens of people in a day, to hundreds in a month, had become attached to Lichonin with all her feminine being, loving and jealous; had grown attached to him with body, feeling, thoughts. The prince was funny and entertaining to her, and the expansive Soloviev interestingly amusing; toward the crushing authoritativeness of Simanovsky she felt a supernatural terror; but Lichonin was for her at the same time a sovereign, and a divinity; and, which is the most horrible of all, her property and bodily joy.

It has long ago been observed, that a man who has lived his fill, has been worn out, gnawed and chewed by the jaws of amatory passions, will never again love with a strong and only love, simultaneously self-denying, pure, and passionate. But for a woman there are neither laws nor limitations in this respect. This observation was especially confirmed in Liubka. She was ready to crawl before Lichonin with delight, to serve him as a slave; but, at the same time, desired that he belong to her more than a table, than a little dog, than a night blouse. And he always proved wanting, always failing before the onslaught of this sudden love, which from a modest little stream had so rapidly turned into a river and had over-flowed its banks. And not infrequently he thought to himself, with bitterness and a sneer:

“Every evening I play the role of the beauteous Joseph; still, he at least managed to tear himself away, leaving his underwear in the hands of the ardent lady; but when will I at last get free of my yoke?”

And a secret enmity for Liubka was already gnawing him. All the more and more frequently various crafty plans of liberation came into his head. And some of them were to such an extent dishonest, that, after a few hours, or the next day, Lichonin squirmed inwardly from shame, recalling them.

“I am falling, morally and mentally!” he would at times think with horror. “It’s not in vain that I read somewhere, or heard from some one, that the connection of a cultured man with a woman of little intellect will never elevate her to the level of the man, but, on the contrary, will bow him down and sink him to the mental and moral outlook of the woman.”

And after two weeks she ceased to excite his imagination entirely. He gave in, as to violence, to the long-continued caresses, entreaties, and often even to pity.

Yet at the same time Liubka, who had rested and felt living, real soil under her, began to improve in looks with unusual rapidity, just as a flower bud, that but yesterday was almost dying, suddenly unfolds after a plentiful and warm rain. The freckles ran off her soft face, and the uncomprehending, troubled expression, like that of a young jackdaw, had disappeared from the dark eyes, and they had grown brighter and had begun to sparkle. The body grew stronger and filled out; the lips grew red. But Lichonin, seeing Liubka every day, did not notice this and did not believe those compliments which were showered upon her by his friends. “Fool jokes,” he reflected, frowning. “The boys are spoofing.”

As the lady of the house, Liubka proved to be less than mediocre. True, she could cook fat stews, so thick that the spoon stood upright in them; prepare enormous, unwieldy, formless cutlets; and under the guidance of Lichonin familiarized herself pretty rapidly with the great art of brewing tea (at seventy-five kopecks a pound); but further than that she did not go, probably because for each art and for each being there are extreme limitations of their own, which cannot in any way be surmounted. But then, she loved to wash floors very much; and carried out this occupation so often and with such zeal, that dampness soon set in in the flat and multipedes appeared.

Tempted once by a newspaper advertisement, Lichonin procured a stocking knitting machine for her, on terms. The art, the mastery of this instrument—promising, to judge by the advertisement, three roubles of clear profit a day—proved to be so uncomplicated that Lichonin, Soloviev, and Nijeradze easily mastered it in a few hours; while Lichonin even contrived to knit a whole stocking of uncommon durability, and of such dimensions that it would have proven big even for the feet of Minin and Pozharsky, whose statues are in Moscow, on Krasnaya Square. Only Liubka alone could not master this trade. At every mistake or tangle she was forced to turn to the co-operation of the men. But then, she learned pretty rapidly to make artificial flowers and, despite the opinion of Simanovsky, made them very exquisitely, and with great taste; so that after a month the hat specialty stores began to buy her work. And, what is most amazing, she had taken only two lessons in all from a specialist, while the rest she learned through a self-instructor, guiding herself only by the drawings supplemental to it. She did not contrive to make more than a rouble’s worth of flowers in a week; but this money was her pride, and for the very first half-rouble that she made she bought Lichonin a mouthpiece for smoking.

Several years later Lichonin confessed to himself at soul, with regret and with a quiet melancholy, that this period of time was the most quiet, peaceful and comfortable one of all his life in the university and as a lawyer. This unwieldy, clumsy, perhaps even stupid Liubka, possessed some instinctive domesticity, some imperceptible ability of creating a bright and easy quietude around her. It was precisely she who attained the fact that Lichonin’s quarters very soon became a charming, quiet centre; where all the comrades of Lichonin, who, as well as the majority of the students of that time, were forced to sustain a bitter struggle with the harsh conditions of life, felt somehow at ease, as though in a family; and rested at soul after heavy tribulations, need, and starvation. Lichonin recalled with grateful sadness her friendly complaisance, her modest and attentive silence, on those evenings around the samovar, when so much had been spoken, argued and dreamt.

In learning, things went with great difficulty. All these self-styled cultivators, collectively and separately, spoke of the fact that the education of the human mind, and the upbringing of the human soul must flow out of individual motives; but in reality they stuffed Liubka with just that which seemed to them the most necessary and indispensable, and tried to overcome together with her those scientific obstacles, which, without any loss, might have been left aside.

Thus, for example, Lichonin did not want, under any conditions, to become reconciled, in teaching her arithmetic, to her queer, barbarous, savage, or, more correctly, childish, primitive method of counting. She counted exclusively in ones, twos, threes and fives. Thus, for example, twelve to her was two times two threes; nineteen—three fives and two twos; and, it must be said, that through her system she with the rapidity of a counting board operated almost up to a hundred. To go further she dared not; and besides she had no practical need of this. In vain did Lichonin try to transfer her to a digital system. Nothing came of this, save that he flew into a rage, yelled at Liubka; while she would look at him in silence, with astonished, widely open and guilty eyes, the lashes of which stuck into long black arrows from tears. Also, through a capricious turn of her mind, she began to master addition and multiplication with comparative ease, but subtraction and division were for her an impenetrable wall. But then, she could, with amazing speed and wit, solve all possible jocose oral head-breaking riddles, and even remembered very many of them herself from the thousand year old usage of the village. Toward geography she was perfectly dull. True, she could orientate herself as to the four cardinal points on the street, in the garden, and in the room; hundreds of times better than Lichonin—the ancient peasant instinct in her asserted itself—but she stubbornly denied the sphericity of the earth and did not recognize the horizon; and when she was told that the terrestrial globe moves in space, she only snorted from laughter. Geographical maps to her were always an incomprehensible daubing in several colours; but separate figures she memorized exactly and quickly. “Where’s Italy?” Lichonin would ask her. “Here it is, a boot,” Liubka would say and triumphantly jabbed the Apennine Peninsula. “Sweden and Norway?” “This dog, which is jumping off a roof.” “The Baltic Sea?” “A widow standing on her knees.” “The Black Sea?” “A shoe.” “Spain?” “A fatty in a cap” … &c. With history matters went no better; Lichonin did not take into consideration the fact that she, with her childlike soul thirsting for fiction, would have easily become familiarized with historic events through various funny and heroically touching anecdotes; but he, accustomed to pulling through examinations and tutoring high-school boys of the fourth or fifth grade, starved her on names and dates. Besides that, he was very impatient, unrestrained, irascible; grew fatigued soon, and a secret—usually concealed but constantly growing—hatred for the girl who had so suddenly and incongruously warped all his life, more and more frequently and unjustly broke forth during the time of these lessons.

A far greater success as a pedagogue enjoyed Nijeradze. His guitar and mandolin always hung in the dining room, secured to the nails with ribbons. The guitar, with its soft, warm sounds, drew Liubka more than the irritating, metallic bleating of the mandolin. When Nijeradze would come to them as a guest (three or four times a week, in the evening), she herself would take the guitar down from the wall, painstakingly wipe it off with a handkerchief, and hand it over to him. He, having fussed for some time with the tuning, would clear his throat, put one leg over the other, negligently throw himself against the back of the chair, and begin in a throaty little tenor, a trifle hoarse, but pleasant and true:

“The trea-cha-rous sa-ound av akissing
Resahounds through the quiet night air;
Tuh all fla-ming hearts it is pleasing,
And given tuh each lovin’ pair.

For a single mohoment of mee-ting …”

And at this he would pretend to swoon away from his own singing, shut his eyes, toss his head in the passionate passages or during the pauses, tearing his right hand away from the strings; would suddenly turn to stone, and for a second would pierce Liubka’s eyes with his languorous, humid, sheepish eyes. He knew an endless multitude of ballads, catches, and old-fashioned, jocose little pieces. Most of all pleased Liubka the universally familiar Armenian couplets about Karapet:

“Karapet has a buffet,
On the buffet’s a confet,
On the confet’s a portret—
That’s the self-same Karapet.”

[22] Anglice, “confet” is a bon-bon; “portret,” a portrait.—Trans.

Of these couplets (in the Caucasus they are called kinto-uri—the song of the peddlers) the prince knew an infinite many, but the absurd refrain was always one and the same:

“Bravo, bravo, Katenka,
Katerin Petrovna,
Don’t you kiss me on the cheek—a,
Kiss the backs of my head.”

These couplets Nijeradze always sang in a diminished voice, preserving on his face an expression of serious astonishment about Karapet; while Liubka laughed until it hurt, until tears came, until she had nervous spasms. Once, carried away, she could not restrain herself and began to chime in with him, and their singing proved to be very harmonious. Little by little, when she had by degrees completely ceased to be embarrassed before the prince, they sang together more and more frequently. Liubka proved to have a very soft and low contralto, even though thin, on which her past life with its colds, drinking, and professional excesses had left absolutely no traces. And mainly—which was already a curious gift of God—she possessed an instinctive, inherent ability very exactly, beautifully, and always originally, to carry on the second voice. There came a time toward the end of their acquaintance, when Liubka did not beg the prince, but the prince Liubka, to sing some one of the beloved songs of the people, of which she knew a multitude. And so, putting her elbow on the table, and propping up her head with her palm, like a peasant woman, she would start off to the cautious, painstaking, quiet accompaniment:

“Oh, the nights have grown tiresome to me, and wearisome;
To be parted from my dearie, from my mate!
Oh, haven’t I myself, woman-like, done a foolish thing—
Have stirred up the wrath of my own darling:
When I did call him a bitter drunkard! …”

“Bitter drunkard!” the prince would repeat the last words together with her, and would forlornly toss his curly head, inclined to one side; and they both tried to end the song so that the scarcely seizable quivering of the guitar strings and the voice might by degrees grow quiet, and that it might not be possible to note when the sound ended and the silence came.

But then, in the matter of THE PANTHER’S SKIN, the work of the famous Georgian poet Rustavelli, prince Nijeradze fell down completely. The beauty of the poem, of course, consisted in the way it sounded in the native tongue; but scarcely would he begin to read in sing-song his throaty, sibilant, hawking phrases, when Liubka would at first shake for a long time from irresistible laughter; then, finally, burst into laughter, filling the whole room with explosive, prolonged peals. Then Nijeradze in wrath would slam shut the little tome of the adored writer, and swear at Liubka, calling her a mule and a camel. However, they soon made up.

There were times when fits of goatish, mischievous merriment would come upon Nijeradze. He would pretend that he wanted to embrace Liubka, would roll exaggeratedly passionate eyes at her, and would utter with a theatrically languishing whisper:

“Me soul! The best rosa in the garden of Allah! Honey and milk are upon thy lips, and thy breath is better than the aroma of kabob. Give me to drink the bliss of Nirvanah from the goblet of thy lips, O thou, my best Tifflissian she-goat!”

But she would laugh, get angry, strike his hands, and threaten to complain to Lichonin.

“V-va!” the prince would spread out his hands. “What is Lichonin? Lichonin is my friend, my brother, and bosom crony. But then, does he know what loffe is? Is it possible that you northern people understand loffe? It’s we, Georgians, who are created for loffe. Look, Liubka! I’ll show you right away what loffe is!” He would clench his fists, bend his body forward, and would start rolling his eyes so ferociously, gnash his teeth and roar with a lion’s voice so, that a childish terror would encompass Liubka, despite the fact that she knew this to be a joke, and she would dash off running into another room.

It must be said, however, that for this lad, in general unrestrained in the matter of light, chance romances, existed special firm moral prohibitions, sucked in with the milk of his mother Georgian; the sacred adates concerning the wife of a friend. And then, probably he understood—and it must be said that these oriental men, despite their seeming naiveness—and, perhaps, even owing to it—possess, when they wish to, a fine psychic intuition—he understood, that having made Liubka his mistress for even one minute, he would be forever deprived of this charming, quiet, domestic evening comfort, to which he had grown so used. For he, who was on terms of thou-ing with almost the whole university, nevertheless felt himself so lonely in a strange city and in a country still strange to him!

These studies afforded the most pleasure of all to Soloviev. This big, strong, and negligent man somehow involuntarily, imperceptibly even to himself, began to submit to that hidden, unseizable, exquisite witchery of femininity; which not infrequently lurks under the coarsest covering, in the harshest, most gnarled environment. The pupil dominated, the teacher obeyed. Through the qualities of a primitive, but on the other hand a fresh, deep, and original soul, Liubka was inclined not to obey the method of another, but to seek out her own peculiar, strange processes. Thus, for example, she—like many children, however,—learned writing before reading. Not she herself, meek and yielding by nature, but some peculiar quality of her mind, obstinately refused in reading to harness a vowel alongside of a consonant, or vice versa; in writing, however, she would manage this. For penmanship along slanted rulings she, despite the general wont of beginners, felt a great inclination; she wrote bending low over the paper; blew on the paper from exertion, as though blowing off imaginary dust; licked her lips and stuck out with the tongue, from the inside, now one cheek, now the other. Soloviev did not thwart her, and followed after, along those ways which her instinct laid down. And it must be said, that during this month and a half he had managed to become attached with all his huge, broad, mighty soul to this chance, weak, transitory being. This was the circumspect, droll, magnanimous, somewhat wondering love, and the careful concern, of a kind elephant for a frail, helpless, yellow-downed chick.

The reading was a delectation for both of them, and here again the choice of works was directed by the taste of Liubka, while Soloviev only followed its current and its sinuosities. Thus, for example, Liubka did not overcome Don Quixote, tired, and, finally, turning away from him, with pleasure heard Robinson Crusoe through, and wept with especial copiousness over the scene of his meeting with his relatives. She liked Dickens, and very easily grasped his radiant humour; but the features of English manners were foreign to her and incomprehensible. They also read Chekhov more than once, and Liubka very freely, without difficulty, penetrated the beauty of his design, his smile and his sadness. Stories for children moved her, touched her to such a degree that it was laughable and joyous to look at her. Once Soloviev read to her Chekhov’s story, The Fit, in which, as it is known, a student for the first time finds himself in a brothel; and afterwards, on the next day, writhes about, as in a fit, in the spasms of a keen psychic suffering and the consciousness of common guilt. Soloviev himself did not expect that tremendous impression which this narrative would make upon her. She cried, swore, wrung her hands, and exclaimed all the while:

“Lord! Where does he take all that stuff from, and so skillfully! Why, it’s every bit just the way it is with us!”

Once he brought with him a book entitled THE HISTORY OF MANON LESCAUT AND THE CHEVALIER DE GRIEUX, the work of Abbe Prevost. It must be said that Soloviev himself was reading this remarkable book for the first time. But still, Liubka appraised it far more deeply and finely. The absence of a plot, the naiveness of the telling, the surplus of sentimentality, the olden fashion of the style—all this taken together cooled Soloviev; whereas Liubka received the joyous, sad, touching and flippant details of this quaint immortal novel not only through her ears, but as though with her eyes and with all her naively open heart.

“‘Our intention of espousal was forgotten at St. Denis,’” Soloviev was reading, bending his tousled, golden-haired head, illuminated by the shade of the lamp, low over the book; “‘we transgressed against the laws of the church and, without thinking of it, became espoused.’”

“What are they at? Of their own will, that is? Without a priest? Just so?” asked Liubka in uneasiness, tearing herself away from her artificial flowers.

“Of course. And what of it? Free love, and that’s all there is to it. Like you and Lichonin, now.”

“Oh, me! That’s an entirely different matter. You know yourself where he took me from. But she’s an innocent and genteel young lady. That’s a low-down thing for him to do. And, believe me, Soloviev, he’s sure to leave her later. Ah, the poor girl. Well, well, well, read on.”

But already after several pages all the sympathies and commiserations of Liubka went over to the side of the deceived chevalier.

“‘However, the visits and departures by thefts of M. de B. threw me into confusion. I also recollected the little purchases of Manon, which exceeded our means. All this smacked of the generosity of a new lover. “But no, no,” I repeated, “it is impossible that Manon should deceive me! She is aware, that I live only for her, she is exceedingly well aware that I adore her.”‘”

“Ah, the little fool, the little fool!” exclaimed Liubka. “Why, can’t you see right off that she’s being kept by this rich man. Ah, trash that she is!”

And the further the novel unfolded, the more passionate and lively an interest did Liubka take in it. She had nothing against Manon’s fleecing her subsequent patrons with the help of her lover and her brother, while de Grieux occupied himself with sharping at the club; but her every new betrayal brought Liubka into a rage, while the sufferings of the gallant chevalier evoked her tears. Once she asked:

“Soloviev, dearie, who was he—this author?”

“He was a certain French priest.”

“He wasn’t a Russian?”

“No, a Frenchman, I’m telling you. See, he’s got everything so—the towns are French and the people have French names.”

“Then he was a priest, you say? Where did he know all this from, then?”

“Well, he knew it, that’s all. Because he was an ordinary man of the world, a nobleman, and only became a monk afterwards. He had seen a lot in his life. Then he again left the monks. But, however, here’s everything about him written in detail in front of this book.”

He read the biography of Abbe Prevost to her. Liubka heard it through attentively, shaking her head with great significance; asked over again about that which she did not understand in certain places, and when he had finished she thoughtfully drawled out:

“Then that’s what he is! He’s written it up awfully good. Only why is she so low down? For he loves her so, with all his life; but she’s playing him false all the time.”

“Well, Liubochka, what can you do? For she loved him too. Only she’s a vain hussy, and frivolous. All she wants is only rags, and her own horses, and diamonds.”

Liubka flared up and hit one fist against the other.

“I’d rub her into powder, the low-down creature? So that’s called her having loved, too! If you love a man, then all that comes from him must be dear to you. He goes to prison, and you go with him to prison. He’s become a thief, well, you help him. He’s a beggar, but still you go with him. What is there out of the way, that there’s only a crust of black bread, so long as there’s love? She’s low down, and she’s low down, that’s what! But I, in his place, would leave her; or, instead of crying, give her such a drubbing that she’d walk around in bruises for a whole month, the varmint!”

The end of the novel she could not manage to hear to the finish for a long time, and always broke out into sincere warm tears, so that it was necessary to interrupt the reading; and the last chapter they overcame only in four doses.

The calamities and misadventures of the lovers in prison, the compulsory despatch of Manon to America and the self-denial of de Grieux in voluntarily following her, so possessed the imagination of Liubka and shook her soul, that she even forgot to make her remarks. Listening to the story of the quiet, beautiful death of Manon in the midst of the desert plain, she, without stirring, with hands clasped on her breast, looked at the light; and the tears ran and ran out of her staring eyes and fell, like a shower, on the table. But when the Chevalier de Grieux, who had lain two days near the corpse of his dear Manon, finally began to dig a grave with the stump of his sword—Liubka burst into sobbing so that Soloviev became scared and dashed after water. But even having calmed down a little, she still sobbed for a long time with her trembling, swollen lips and babbled:

“Ah! Their life was so miserable! What a bitter lot that was! And is it possible that it’s always like that, darling Soloviev; that just as soon as a man and a woman fall in love with each other, in just the way they did, then God is sure to punish them? Dearie, but why is that? Why?”

< < < Chapter XV
Chapter XVII > > >

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

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