Yama (the Pit) by Alexander Kuprin

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

< < < Chapter I
Chapter III > > >

Part III

Chapter II

Kolya Gladishev was a fine, merry, bashful young lad, with a large head; pink-cheeked, with a funny little white, bent line, as though from milk, upon his upper lip, under the light down of the moustache, sprouting through for the first time; with gray, naive eyes, placed far apart; and so closely cropped, that from underneath his flaxen little bristles the skin glistened through, just as with a thoroughbred Yorkshire suckling pig. It was precisely he with whom Jennka during the past winter had played either at maternal relations, or at dolls; and thrust upon him a little apple or a couple of bon-bons on his way, when he would be going away from the house of ill repute, squirming from shame.

This time, when he came, there could at once be felt in him, after long living in camps, that rapid change in age, which so often imperceptibly and rapidly transforms a boy into a youth. He had already finished the cadet academy and with pride counted himself a junker; although he still walked around in a cadet’s uniform, with aversion. He had grown taller, had become better formed and more adroit; the camp life had done him good. He spoke in a bass, and during these months to his most great pride the nipples of his breast had hardened; the most important—he already knew about this—and undeniable sign of virile maturity. Now, in the meanwhile, until the eyes-front severities of a military school, he had a period of alluring freedom. Already he was permitted to smoke at home, in the presence of grown-ups; and even his father had himself presented him with a leather cigar case with his monogram, and also, in the elevation of family joy, had assigned him fifteen roubles monthly salary.

And it was just here—at Anna Markovna’s—that he had come to know woman for the first time—the very same Jennka.

The fall of innocent souls in houses of ill-fame, or with street solitaries, is fulfilled far more frequently than it is usually thought. When not green youths only, but even honourable men of fifty, almost grandfathers, are interrogated about this ticklish matter, they will tell you, sure enough, the ancient stencilled lie of how they had been seduced by a chambermaid or a governess. But this is one of those lingering, queer lies, going back into the depth of past decades, which are almost never noticed by a single one of the professional observers, and in any case are not described by any one.

If each one of us will try, to put it pompously, to put his hand on his heart, then every one will catch himself in the fact, that having once in childhood said some sort of boastful or touching fiction, which had success, and having repeated it for that reason two and five and ten times more—he afterwards cannot get rid of it all his life, and repeats with entire firmness by now a history which had never been; a firmness such that in the very end he believes the story. With time Kolya also narrated to his comrades how his aunt once removed, a young woman of the world had seduced him. It must be said, however, that the intimate proximity to this lady—a large, dark-eyed, white faced, sweetly fragrant southern woman—did really exist; but existed only in Kolya’s imagination, in those sad, tragic and timid minutes of solitary sexual enjoyments, through which pass if not a hundred percent of all men, then ninety-nine, in any case.

Having experienced mechanical sexual excitements very early, approximately since nine or nine years and a half, Kolya did not at all have the least understanding of the significance of that end of being in love or of courtship, which is so horrible on the face of it, if it be looked at impartially, or if it be explained scientifically. Unfortunately, there was at that time near him not a one of the present progressive and learned ladies who, having turned away the neck of the classic stork, and torn up by the roots the cabbage underneath which children are found, recommend that the great mystery of love and generation be explained to children in lectures, through comparisons and assimilations, mercilessly and in a well-nigh graphic manner.

It must be said, that at that remote time of which we are speaking, the private institutions—male PENSIONS and institutes, as well as academies for cadets—represented some sort of hot-house nurseries. The care of the mind and morality they tried to entrust as much as possible to educators who were bureaucrats-formalists; and in addition impatient, captious, capricious in their sympathies and hysterical, just like old maid lady teachers. Now it is otherwise. But at that time the boys were left to themselves. Barely snatched away, speaking figuratively, from the maternal breast; from the care of devoted nurses; from morning and evening caresses, quiet and sweet; even though they were ashamed of every manifestation of tenderness as “womanishness,” they were still irresistibly and sweetly drawn to kisses, contacts, conversations whispered in the ear.

Of course, attentive, solicitous treatment, bathing, exercises in the open air—precisely not gymnastics, but voluntary exercises, each to his own taste—could have always put off the coming of this climacteric period or soften and make it understandable.

I repeat—then there was nothing of this.

The longing for family endearment, the endearment of mother, sister, nurse, so roughly and unexpectedly cut short, turned into deformed forms of courting (every whit like the “crushes” in a female institute) of good-looking boys, of “fairies”; they loved to whisper in corners and, walking arm in arm, or embracing in dark corridors, to tell in each other’s ears improbable histories of adventures with women. This was partly both childhood’s need of the fairy-tale element and partly awakening sensuality as well. Not infrequently some fifteen-year-old chubby, for whom it was just the proper time to be playing at popular tennis or to be greedily putting away buckwheat porridge with milk, would be telling, having read up, of course, on certain cheap novels, of how every Saturday, now, when it is leave, he goes to a certain, handsome widow millionairess; and of how she is passionately enamored of him; and how near their couch always stand fruits and precious wine; and how furiously and passionately she makes love to him.

Here, by the bye, came along the inevitable run of prolonged reading, like hard drinking, which, of course, every boy and girl has undergone. No matter how strict in this respect the class surveillance may be, the striplings did read, are reading, and will read just that which is not permitted them. Here is a special passion, CHIC, the allurement of the forbidden. Already in the third class went from hand to hand the manuscript transcripts of Barkov; of a spurious Pushkin; the youthful sins of Lermontov and others: “THE FIRST NIGHT,” “THE CHERRY,” “LUCAS,” “THE FESTIVAL AT PETERHOF,” “THE SHE UHLAN, GRIEF THROUGH WISDOM,” “THE PRIEST,” &c.

But no matter how strange, fictitious or paradoxical this may seem, still, even these compositions, and drawings, and obscene photographic cards, did not arouse a delightful curiosity. They were looked upon as a prank, a lark, and the allurement of contraband risk. In the cadets’ library were chaste excerpts from Pushkin and Lermontov; all of Ostrovsky, who only made you laugh; and almost all of Turgenev, who was the very one that played a chief and cruel role in Kolya’s life. As it is known, love with the late great Turgenev is always surrounded with a tantalizing veil; some sort of crepe, unseizable, forbidden, but tempting: his maidens have forebodings of love and are agitated at its approach, and are ashamed beyond all measure, and tremble, and turn red. Married women or widows travel this tortuous path somewhat differently: they struggle for a long time with their duty, or with respectability, or with the opinion of the world; and, in the end—oh!—fall with tears; or—oh!—begin to brave it; or, which is still more frequent, the implacable fate cuts short her or his life at the most—oh!—necessary moment, when it only lacks a light puff of wind for the ripened fruit to fall. And yet all of his personages still thirst after this shameful love; weep radiantly and laugh joyously from it; and it shuts out all the world for them. But since boys think entirely differently than we grown-ups, and since everything that is forbidden, everything not said fully, or said in secret, has in their eyes an enormous, not only twofold but threefold interest—it is therefore natural that out of reading they drew the hazy thought that the grown-ups were concealing something from them.

And it must be mentioned—had not Kolya (like the majority of those of his age) seen the chambermaid Phrociya—so rosy-cheeked, always merry, with legs of the hardness of steel (at times he, in the heat of playing, had slapped her on the back), had he not seen her once, when Kolya had by accident walked quickly into papa’s cabinet, scurry out of there with all her might, covering her face with her apron; and had he not seen that during this time papa’s face was red, with a dark blue, seemingly lengthened nose? And Kolya had reflected: “Papa looks like a turkey.” Had not Kolya—partly through the fondness for pranks and the mischievousness natural to all boys, partly through tedium—accidentally discovered in an unlocked drawer of papa’s writing table an enormous collection of cards, whereon was represented just that which shop clerks call the crowning of love, and worldly nincompoops—the unearthly passion?

And had he not seen, that every time before the visit of the sweet-scented and bestarched Paul Edwardovich, some ninny with some embassy, with whom mamma, in imitation of the fashionable St. Petersburg promenades to the Strelka, used to ride to the Dnieper to contemplate the sun setting on the other side of the river, in the Chernigovskaya district—had he not seen how mamma’s bosom went, and how her cheeks glowed under the powder; had he not detected at these moments many new and strange things; had he not heard her voice, an altogether unknown voice, like an actor’s; nervously breaking off, mercilessly malicious to those of the family and the servants, and suddenly soft, like velvet, like a green meadow under the sun, when Paul Edwardovich would arrive? Ah, if we people who have been made wise by experience would know how much, and even too much, the urchins and little girls surrounding us know, of whom we usually say:

“Well, why mind Volodya (or Petie, or Katie)? … Why, they are little. They don’t understand anything! …”

So also not in vain passed for Gladishev the history of his elder brother, who had just come out of a military school into one of the conspicuous grenadier regiments; and, being on leave until such time when it would be possible for him to spread his wings, lived in two separate rooms with his family. At that time Niusha, a chambermaid, was in their service; at times they jestingly called her signorita Anita—a seductive black-haired girl, who, if she were to change costumes, could in appearance be taken for a dramatic actress, or a princess of the royal blood, or a political worker. Kolya’s mother manifestly countenanced the fact that Kolya’s brother, half in jest, half in earnest, was allured by this girl. Of course, she had only the sole, holy, maternal calculation: If it were destined, after all, for her Borenka to fall, then let him give his purity, his innocence, his first physical inclination, not to a prostitute, not to a street-walker, not to a seeker of adventures, but to a pure girl. Of course, only a disinterested, unreasoning, truly-maternal feeling guided her. Kolya at that time was living through the epoch of llanos, pampases, Apaches, track-finders, and a chief by the name of “Black Panther”; and, of course, attentively kept track of the romance of his brother, and made his own syllogisms; at times only too correct, at times fantastic. After six months, from behind a door, he was the witness—or more correctly the auditor—of an outrageous scene. The wife of the general, always so respectable and restrained, was yelling in her boudoir at signorita Anita, and cursing in the words of a cab-driver: the signorita was in the fifth month of pregnancy. If she had not cried, then, probably, they would simply have given her smart-money, and she would have gone away in peace; but she was in love with the young master, did not demand anything, and for that reason they drove her away with the aid of the police.

In the fifth or sixth class many of Kolya’s comrades had already tasted of the tree of knowledge of evil. At that time it was considered in their corpus an especial, boastful masculine chic to call all secret things by their own names. Arkasha Shkar contracted a disease, not dangerous, but still venereal; and he became for three whole months the object of worship of all the seniors—at that time there were no squads yet. And many of them visited brothels; and, really, about their sprees they spoke far more handsomely and broadly than the hussars of the time of Denis Davidov.[23] These debauches were esteemed by them the last word in valour and maturity.

[23] A Russian ban vivant, wit and poet (1781-1839), the overwhelming majority of whose lyrics deals with military exploits and debauches.—Trans.

And so it happened once, that they did not exactly persuade Gladishev to go to Anna Markovna, but rather he himself had begged to go, so weakly had he resisted temptation. This evening he always recalled with horror, with aversion; and dimly, just like some heavy dream. With difficulty he recalled, how in the cab, to get up courage, he had drunk rum, revoltingly smelling of real bedbugs; how qualmish this beastly drink made him feel; how he had walked into the big hall, where the lights of the lustres and the candelabra on the walls were turning round in fiery wheels; where the women moved as fantastic pink, blue, violet splotches, and the whiteness of their necks, bosoms and arms flashed with a blinding, spicy, victorious splendour. Some one of the comrades whispered something in the ear of one of these fantastic figures. She ran up to Kolya and said:

“Listen, you good-looking little cadet, your comrades are saying, now, that you’re still innocent … Let’s go … I’ll teach you everything.”

The phrase was said in a kindly manner; but this phrase the walls of Anna Markovna’s establishment had already heard several thousand times. Further, that took place which it was so difficult and painful to recall, that in the middle of his recollections Kolya grew tired, and with an effort of the will turned back the imagination to something else. He only remembered dimly the revolving and spreading circles from the light of the lamp; persistent kisses; disconcerting contacts—then a sudden sharp pain, from which one wanted both to die in enjoyment and to cry out in terror; and then with wonder he saw his pale shaking hands, which could not, somehow, button his clothes.

Of course, all men have experienced this primordial tristia post coitus; but this great moral pain, very serious in its significance and depth, passes very rapidly, remaining, however, with the majority for a long time—sometimes for all life—in the form of wearisomeness and awkwardness after certain moments. In a short while Kolya became accustomed to it; grew bolder, became familiarized with woman, and rejoiced very much over the fact that when he came into the establishment, all the girls, and Verka before all, would call out:

“Jennechka, your lover has come!”

It was pleasant, in relating this to his comrades, to be plucking at an imaginary moustache.

< < < Chapter I
Chapter III > > >

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

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