Yama (the Pit) by Alexander Kuprin

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

< < < Chapter II
Chapter IV > > >

Part I

Chapter III

Until dinner, which is served at six in the evening, the time drags endlessly long and with intolerable monotony. And, in general, this daily interval is the heaviest and emptiest in the life of the house. It remotely resembles in its moods those slothful, empty hours which are lived through during the great holidays in scholastic institutes and other private institutions for females, when all the friends have dispersed, when there is much leisure and much indolence, and a radiant, agreeable tedium reigns the whole day. In only their petticoats and white shifts, with bare arms, sometimes barefooted, the women aimlessly ramble from room to room, all of them unwashed, uncombed; lazily strike the keys of the old pianoforte with the index finger, lazily lay out cards to tell their fortune, lazily exchange curses, and with a languishing irritation await the evening.

Liubka, after breakfast, had carried out the leavings of bread and the cuttings of ham to Amour, but the dog had soon palled upon her. Together with Niura she had bought some barberry bon-bons and sunflower seeds, and now both are standing behind the fence separating the house from the street, gnawing the seeds, the shells of which remain on their chins and bosoms, and speculate indifferently about those who pass on the street: about the lamp-lighter, pouring kerosene into the street lamps, about the policeman with the daily registry book under his arm, about the housekeeper from somebody else’s establishment, running across the road to the general store.

Niura is a small girl, with goggle-eyes of blue; she has white, flaxen hair and little blue veins on her temples. In her face there is something stolid and innocent, reminiscent of a white sugar lamb on a Paschal cake. She is lively, bustling, curious, puts her nose into everything, agrees with everybody, is the first to know the news, and, when she speaks, she speaks so much and so rapidly that spray flies out of her mouth and bubbles effervescence on the red lips, as in children.

Opposite, out of the dram-shop, a servant pops out for a minute—a curly, besotted young fellow with a cast in his eye—and runs into the neighbouring public house.

“Prokhor Ivanovich, oh Prokhor Ivanovich,” shouts Niura, “don’t you want some?—I’ll treat you to some sunflower seeds!”

“Come on in and pay us a visit,” Liubka chimes in.

Niura snorts and adds through the laughter which suffocates her:

“Warm your feet for a while!”

But the front door opens; in it appears the formidable and stern figure of the senior housekeeper.

“Pfui![2] What sort of indecency is this!” she cries commandingly. “How many times must it be repeated to you, that you must not jump out on the street during the day, and also—pfui!—only in your underwear. I can’t understand how you have no conscience yourselves. Decent girls, who respect themselves, must not demean themselves that way in public. It seems, thank God, that you are not in an establishment catering to soldiers, but in a respectable house. Not in Little Yamskaya.”

[2] A German exclamation of disgust or contempt, corresponding to the English fie.—Trans.

The girls return into the house, get into the kitchen, and for a long time sit there on tabourets, contemplating the angry cook Prascoviya, swinging their legs and silently gnawing the sunflower seeds.

In the room of Little Manka, who is also called Manka the Scandaliste and Little White Manka, a whole party has gathered. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she and another girl—Zoe, a tall handsome girl, with arched eyebrows, with grey, somewhat bulging eyes, with the most typical, white, kind face of the Russian prostitute—are playing at cards, playing at “sixty-six.” Little Manka’s closest friend, Jennie, is lying behind their backs on the bed, prone on her back, reading a tattered book, The Queen’s Necklace, the work of Monsieur Dumas, and smoking. In the entire establishment she is the only lover of reading and reads intoxicatingly and without discrimination. But, contrary to expectation, the forced reading of novels of adventure has not at all made her sentimental and has not vitiated her imagination. Above all, she likes in novels a long intrigue, cunningly thought out and deftly disentangled; magnificent duels, before which the viscount unties the laces of his shoes to signify that he does not intend to retreat even a step from his position,[3] and after which the marquis, having spitted the count through, apologizes for having made an opening in his splendid new waistcoat; purses, filled to the full with gold, carelessly strewn to the left and right by the chief heroes; the love adventures and witticisms of Henry IV—in a word, all this spiced heroism, in gold and lace, of the past centuries of French history. In everyday life, on the contrary, she is sober of mind, jeering, practical and cynically malicious. In her relation to the other girls of the establishment she occupies the same place that in private educational institutions is accorded to the first strong man, the man spending a second year in the same grade, the first beauty in the class—tyrannizing and adored. She is a tall, thin brunette, with beautiful hazel eyes, a small proud mouth, a little moustache on the upper lip and with a swarthy, unhealthy pink on her cheeks.

[3] Probably a sly dig at Gautier’s Captain Fracasse.—Trans.

Without letting the cigarette out of her mouth and screwing up her eyes from the smoke, all she does is to turn the pages constantly with a moistened finger. Her legs are bare to the knees; the enormous balls of the feet are of the most vulgar form; below the big toes stand out pointed, ugly, irregular tumours.

Here also, with her legs crossed, slightly bent, with some sewing, sits Tamara—a quiet, easy-going, pretty girl, slightly reddish, with that dark and shining tint of hair which is to be found on the back of a fox in winter. Her real name is Glycera, or Lukeria, as the common folk say it. But it is already an ancient usage of the houses of ill-fame to replace the uncouth names of the Matrenas, Agathas, Cyclitinias with sonorous, preferably exotic names. Tamara had at one time been a nun, or, perhaps, merely a novice in a convent, and to this day there have been preserved on her face timidity and a pale puffiness—a modest and sly expression, which is peculiar to young nuns. She holds herself aloof in the house, does not chum with any one, does not initiate any one into her past life. But in her case there must have been many more adventures besides having been a nun: there is something mysterious, taciturn and criminal in her unhurried speech, in the evasive glance of her deep and dark-gold eyes from under the long, lowered eyelashes, in her manners, her sly smiles and intonations of a modest but wanton would-be saint. There was one occurrence when the girls, with well-nigh reverent awe, heard that Tamara could talk fluently in French and German. She has within her some sort of an inner, restrained power. Notwithstanding her outward meekness and complaisance, all in the establishment treat her with respect and circumspection—the proprietress, and her mates, and both housekeepers, and even the doorkeeper, that veritable sultan of the house of ill-fame, that general terror and hero.

“I’ve covered it,” says Zoe and turns over the trump which had been lying under the pack, wrong side up. “I’m going with forty, going with an ace of spades—a ten-spot, Mannechka, if you please. I’m through. Fifty-seven, eleven, sixty-eight. How much have you?”

“Thirty,” says Manka in an offended tone, pouting her lips; “oh, it’s all very well for you—you remember all the plays. Deal … Well, what’s after that, Tamarochka?” she turns to her friend. “You talk on—I’m listening.”

Zoe shuffles the old, black, greasy cards, allows Manya to cut, then deals, having first spat upon her fingers.

Tamara in the meanwhile is narrating to Manya in a quiet voice, without dropping her sewing.

“We embroidered with gold, in flat embroidery—altar covers, palls, bishops’ vestments… With little grasses, with flowers, little crosses. In winter, you’d be sitting near a casement; the panes are small, with gratings, there isn’t much light, it smells of lamp oil, incense, cypress; you mustn’t talk—the mother superior was strict. Some one from weariness would begin droning a pre-Lenten first verse of a hymn … ‘When I consider thy heavens …’ We sang fine, beautifully, and it was such a quiet life, and the smell was so fine; you could see the flaky snow out the windows—well, now, just like in a dream…”

Jennie puts the tattered novel down on her stomach, throws the cigarette over Zoe’s head, and says mockingly:

“We know all about your quiet life. You chucked the infants into toilets. The Evil One is always snooping around your holy places.”

“I call forty. I had forty-six. Finished!” Little Manka exclaims excitedly and claps her palms. “I open with three.”

Tamara, smiling at Jennie’s words, answers with a scarcely perceptible smile, which barely distends her lips, but makes little, sly, ambiguous depressions at their corners, altogether as with Monna Lisa in the portrait by Leonardo da Vinci.

“Lay folk say a lot of things about nuns … Well, even if there had been sin once in a while …”

“If you don’t sin—you don’t repent,” Zoe puts in seriously, and wets her finger in her mouth.

“You sit and sew, the gold eddies before your eyes, while from standing in the morning at prayer your back just aches, and your legs ache. And at evening there is service again. You knock at the door of the mother superior’s cell: ‘Through prayers of Thy saints, oh Lord, our Father, have mercy upon us.’ And the mother superior would answer from the cell, in a little bass-like ‘A-men.’”

Jennie looks at her intently for some time, shakes her head and says with great significance:

“You’re a queer girl, Tamara. Here I’m looking at you and wondering. Well, now, I can understand how these fools, on the manner of Sonka, play at love. That’s what they’re fools for. But you, it seems, have been roasted on all sorts of embers, have been washed in all sorts of lye, and yet you allow yourself foolishness of that sort. What are you embroidering that shirt for?”

Tamara, without haste, with a pin refastens the fabric more conveniently on her knee, smooths the seam down with the thimble, and speaks, without raising the narrowed eyes, her head bent just a trifle to one side:

“One’s got to be doing something. It’s wearisome just so. I don’t play at cards, and I don’t like them.”

Jennie continues to shake her head.

“No, you’re a queer girl, really you are. You always have more from the guests than all of us get. You fool, instead of saving money, what do you spend it on? You buy perfumes at seven roubles the bottle. Who needs it? And now you have bought fifteen roubles’ worth of silk. Isn’t this for your Senka, now?”

“Of course, for Sennechka.”

“What a treasure you’ve found, to be sure! A miserable thief. He rides up to this establishment like some general. How is it he doesn’t beat you yet? The thieves—they like that. And he plucks you, have no fear?”

“More than I want to, I won’t give,” meekly answers Tamara and bites the thread in two.

“Now that is just what I wonder at. With your mind, your beauty, I would put such rings-around-a-rosie about a guest like that, that he’d take me and set me up. I’d have horses of my own, and diamonds.”

“Everyone to his tastes, Jennechka. You too, now, are a very pretty and darling girl, and your character is so independent and brave, and yet you and I have gotten stuck in Anna Markovna’s.”

Jennie flares up and answers with unsimulated bitterness:

“Yes! Why not! All things come your way! …You have all the very best guests. You do what you want with them, but with me it’s always either old men or suckling babies. I have no luck. The ones are snotty, the others have yellow around the mouth. More than anything else, now, I dislike the little boys. He comes, the little varmint; he’s cowardly, he hurries, he trembles, but having done the business, he doesn’t know what to do with his eyes for shame. He’s all squirming from disgust. I just feel like giving him one in the snout. Before giving you the rouble, he holds it in his pocket in his fist, and that rouble’s all hot, even sweaty. The milksop! His mother gives him a ten kopeck piece for a French roll with sausage, but he’s economized out of that for a wench. I had one little cadet in the last few days. So just on purpose, to spite him, I say: ‘Here, my dearie, here’s a little caramel for you on your way; when you’re going back to your corps, you’ll suck on it.’ So at first he got offended, but afterwards took it. Later I looked from the stoop, on purpose; just as soon as he walked out, he looked around, and right away into his mouth with the caramel. The little swine!”

“But with old men it’s still worse,” says Little Manka in a tender voice, and slyly looks at Zoe. “What do you think, Zoinka?”

Zoe, who had already finished playing, and was just about to yawn, now cannot in any way give rein to her yawns. She does not know whether she wants to be angry or to laugh. She has a steady visitor, some little old man in a high station, with perverted erotic habits. The entire establishment makes fun of his visits to her.

Zoe at last succeeds in yawning.

“To the devil’s dam with all of you,” she says, with her voice hoarse after the yawn; “may he be damned, the old anathema!”

“But still, the worst of all,” Jennie continues to discourse, “worse than your director, Zoinka, worse than my cadet, the worst of all—are your lovers. What can there be joyous in this: he comes drunk, poses, makes sport of you, wants to pretend there’s something in him—only nothing comes of it all. Wha-at a lad-die, to be sure! The scummiest of the scum, dirty, beaten-up, stinking, his whole body in scars, there’s only one glory about him: the silk shirt which Tamarka will embroider for him. He curses one’s mother, the son of a bitch, always aching for a fight. Ugh! No!” she suddenly exclaimed in a merry provoking voice, “The one I love truly and surely, for ever and ever, is my Mannechka, Manka the white, little Manka, my Manka-Scandalistochka.”

And unexpectedly, having embraced Manya by the shoulders and bosom, she drew her toward herself, threw her down on the bed, and began to kiss deeply and vigorously her hair, eyes, lips. Manka with difficulty tore herself away from her, with dishevelled, bright, fine, downy hair, all rosy from the resistance, and with eyes downcast and moist from shame and laughter.

“Leave off, Jennechka, leave off. Well, now, what are you doing? Let me go!”

Little Manya is the meekest and quietest girl in the entire establishment. She is kind, yielding, can never refuse anybody’s request, and involuntarily everybody treats her with great gentleness. She blushes over every trifle, and at such time becomes especially attractive, as only very tender blondes with a sensitive skin can be attractive. But it is sufficient for her to drink three or four glasses of Liqueur Benedictine, of which she is very fond, for her to become unrecognizable and to create brawls, such, that there is always required the intervention of the housekeepers, the porter, at times even the police. It is nothing for her to hit a guest in the face or to throw in his face a glass filled with wine, to overturn the lamp, to curse out the proprietress, Jennie treats her with some strange, tender patronage and rough adoration.

“Ladies, to dinner! To dinner, ladies!” calls Zociya the housekeeper, running along the corridor. On the run she opens the door into Manya’s room and drops hurriedly:

“To dinner, to dinner, ladies!”

They go again to the kitchen, all still in their underwear, all unwashed, in slippers and barefoot. A tasty vegetable soup of pork rinds and tomatoes, cutlets, and pastry-cream rolls are served. But no one has any appetite, thanks to the sedentary life and irregular sleep, and also because the majority of the girls, just like school-girls on a holiday, had already managed during the day to send to the store for halvah, nuts, rakkat loukoum (Turkish Delight), dill-pickles and molasses candy, and had through this spoiled their appetites. Only Nina alone—a small, pug-nosed, snuffling country girl, seduced only two months ago by a travelling salesman, and (also by him) sold into a brothel—eats for four. The inordinate, provident appetite of a woman of the common people has not yet disappeared in her.

Jennie, who has only picked fastidiously at her cutlet and eaten half her cream roll, speaks to her in a tone of hypocritical solicitude:

“Really, Pheclusha, you might just as well eat my cutlet, too. Eat, my dear, eat; don’t be bashful—you ought to be gaining in health. But do you know what I’ll tell you, ladies?” she turns to her mates, “Why, our Pheclusha has a tape-worm, and when a person has a tape-worm, he always eats for two: half for himself, half for the worm.”

Nina sniffs angrily and answers in a bass which comes as a surprise from one of her stature, and through her nose:

“There are no tape-worms in me. It’s you that has the tape-worms, that’s why you are so skinny.”

And she imperturbably continues to eat, and after dinner feels herself sleepy, like a boa constrictor, eructs loudly, drinks water, hiccups, and, by stealth, if no one sees her, makes the sign of the cross over her mouth, through an old habit.

But already the ringing voice of Zociya can be heard through the corridors and rooms:

“Get dressed, ladies, get dressed. There’s no use in sitting around…To work…”

After a few minutes in all the rooms of the establishment there are smells of singed hair, boric-thymol soap, cheap eau-de-cologne. The girls are dressing for the evening.

< < < Chapter II
Chapter IV > > >

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

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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