Yama (the Pit) by Alexander Kuprin

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

< < < Chapter VII
Chapter IX > > >

Part III

Chapter VIII

On the next day, on Monday, toward ten o’clock in the morning, almost all the inmates of the house—formerly Madam Shaibes’, but now Emma Edwardovna Titzner’s—rode off in cabs to the centre of the city, to the anatomical theatre—all, except the far-sighted, much-experienced Henrietta; the cowardly and insensible Ninka; and the feeble-minded Pashka, who for two days now had not gotten up from her bed, kept silent, and to questions directed at her answered by a beatific, idiotical smile and with some sort of inarticulate animal lowing. If she were not given to eat, she would not even ask; but if food were brought, she would eat with greediness, right with her hands. She became so slovenly and forgetful, that it was necessary to remind her of certain necessary functions in order to avoid unpleasantness. Emma Edwardovna did not send out Pashka to her steady guests, who asked for Pashka every day. Even before, she had had such periods of a detriment of consciousness; however, they had not lasted long, and Emma Edwardovna in any case determined to tide it over: Pashka was a veritable treasure for the establishment, and its truly horrible victim.

The anatomical theatre represented a long, one-storied, dark-gray building, with white frames around the windows and doors. There was in its very exterior something low, pressed down, receding into the ground, almost weird. The girls one after the other stopped near the gates and timidly passed through the yard into the chapel; nestled down at the other end of the yard, in a corner, painted over in the same dark gray colour, with white frame-work.

The door was locked. It was necessary to go after the watchman. Tamara with difficulty sought out a bald, ancient old man, grown over as though with bog moss by entangled gray bristles; with little rheumy eyes and an enormous, reddish, dark-blue granulous nose, on the manner of a cookie.

He unlocked the enormous hanging lock, pushed away the bolt and opened the rusty, singing door. The cold, damp air together with the mixed smell of the dampness of stones, frankincense, and dead flesh breathed upon the girls. They fell back, huddling closely into a timorous flock. Tamara alone went after the watchman without wavering.

It was almost dark in the chapel. The autumn light penetrated scantily through the little, narrow prison-like window, barred with an iron grating. Two or three images without chasubles, dark and without visages, hung upon the walls. Several common board coffins were standing right on the floor, upon wooden carrying shafts. One in the middle was empty, and the taken-off lid was lying alongside.

“What sort is yours, now?” asked the watchman hoarsely and took some snuff. “Do you know her face or not?”

“I know her.”

“Well, then, look! I’ll show them all to you. Maybe this one? …”

And he took the lid off one of the coffins, not yet fastened down with nails. A wrinkled old woman, dressed any old way in her tatters, with a swollen blue face, was lying there. Her left eye was closed; while the right was staring and gazing immovably and frightfully, having already lost its sparkle and resembling mica that had lain for a long time.

“Not this one, you say? Well, look … Here’s more for you!” said the watchman; and one after the other, opening the lids, exhibited the decedents—all, probably, the poorest of the poor: picked up on the streets, intoxicated, crushed, maimed and mutilated, beginning to decompose. Certain ones had already begun to show on their hands and faces bluish-green spots, resembling mould—signs of putrefaction. One man, without a nose, with an upper hare-lip cloven in two, had worms, like little white dots, swarming upon his sore-eaten face. A woman who had died from hydropsy, reared like a whole mountain from her board couch, bulging out the lid.

All of them had been hastily sewn up after autopsy, repaired, and washed by the moss-covered watchman and his mates. What affair was it of theirs if, at times, the brain got into the stomach; while the skull was stuffed with the liver and rudely joined with the help of sticking plaster to the head? The watchmen had grown used to everything during their night-marish, unlikely, drunken life; and, by the bye, almost never did their voiceless clients prove to have either relatives or acquaintances…

A heavy odour of carrion—thick, cloying, and so viscid that to Tamara it seemed as though it was covering all the living pores of her body just like glue—stood in the chapel.

“Listen, watchman,” asked Tamara, “what’s this crackling under my feet all the time?”

“Crack-ling?” the watchman questioned her over again, and scratched himself, “why, lice, it must be,” he said indifferently. “It’s fierce how these beasties do multiply on the corpseses! … But who you lookin’ for—man or woman?”

“A woman,” answered Tamara.

“And that means that all these ain’t yours?”

“No, they’re all strangers.”

“There, now! … That means I have to go to the morgue. When did they bring her, now?”

“On Saturday, grandpa,” and Tamara at this got out her purse. “Saturday, in the daytime. There’s something for tobacco for you, my dear sir!”

“That’s the way! Saturday, you say in the daytime? And what did she have on?”

“Well, almost nothing; a little night blouse, an underskirt … both the one and the other white.”

“So-o! That must be number two hundred and seventeen … How is she called, now? …”

“Susannah Raitzina.”

“I’ll go and see—maybe she’s there. Well, now, mam’selles,” he turned to the young ladies, who were dully huddling in the doorway, obstructing the light. “Which of you are the braver? If your friend came the day before yesterday, then that means that she’s now lying in the manner that the Lord God has created all mankind—that is, without anything … Well, who of you will be the bolder? Which two of you will come? She’s got to be dressed…”

“Well, now, you go, Manka,” Tamara ordered her mate, who, grown chill and pale from horror and aversion, was staring at the dead with widely open, limpid eyes. “Don’t be afraid, you fool—I’ll go with you! Who’s to go, if not you?

“Well, am I … well, am I? …” babbled Little White Manka with barely moving lips. “Let’s go. It’s all the same to me…”

The morgue was right here, behind the chapel—a low, already entirely dark basement, into which one had to descend by six steps.

The watchman ran off somewhere, and returned with a candle-end and a tattered book. When he had lit the candle, the girls saw a score of corpses that were lying directly on the stone floor in regular rows—extended, yellow, with faces distorted by pre-mortal convulsions, with skulls split open, with clots of blood on their faces, with grinning teeth.

“Right away … right away…” the watchman was saying, guiding his finger over the headings. “The day before yesterday … that means, on Saturday … on Saturday … What did you say her name was, now?”

“Raitzina, Susannah,” answered Tamara.

“Rai-tzina Susannah …” said the watchman, just as though he were singing, “Raitzina, Susannah. Just as I said. Two hundred seventeen.” Bending over the dead and illuminating them with the guttered and dripping candle-end, he passed from one to another. Finally he stopped before a corpse, upon whose foot was written in ink, in large black figures: 217.

“Here’s the very same one! Let me, I’ll carry her out into the little corridor and run after her stuff … Wait a while! …”

Grunting, but still with an ease amazing in one of his age, he lifted up the corpse of Jennka by the feet, and threw it upon his back with the head down, as though it were a carcass of meat, or a bag of potatoes.

It was a trifle lighter in the corridor; and, when the watchman had lowered his horrible burden to the floor, Tamara for a moment covered her face with her hands, while Manka turned away and began to cry.

“If you need anything, say so,” the watchman was instructing them. “If you want to dress the deceased as is fitting, then we can get everything that’s required—cloth of gold, a little wreath, a little image, a shroud, gauze—we keep everything … You can buy a thing or two in, clothing … Slippers, too, now…”

Tamara gave him money and went out into the air, letting Manka go in front of her.

After some time two wreaths were brought; one from Tamara, of asters and georginas with an inscription in black letters upon a white ribbon: “To Jennie from a friend;” the other was from Ryazanov, all of red flowers; upon its red ribbon stood in gold characters: “Through suffering shall we be purified.” He also sent a short little note, expressing commiseration and apologizing for not being able to come, as he was occupied with an undeferrable business meeting.

Then came the singers who had been invited by Tamara—fifteen men from the very best choir in the city.

The precentor, in a gray overcoat and a gray hat, all gray, somehow, as though covered with dust, but with long, straight moustaches, like a military person’s, recognized Verka; opened his eyes wide in astonishment, smiled slightly and winked at her. Two or three times a month, and sometimes even oftener, he visited Yamskaya Street with ecclesiastical academicians of his acquaintance, just the same precentors as he, and some psalmists; and having usually made a full review of all the establishments, always wound up with the house of Anna Markovna, where he invariably chose Verka.

He was a merry and sprightly man; danced in a lively manner, in a frenzy; and executed such figures during the dances that all those present just melted from laughter.

Following the singers came the two-horsed catafalque, that Tamara had hired; black, with white plumes, and seven torch-bearers along with it. They also brought a white, glazed brocade coffin; and a pedestal for it, stretched over with black calico. Without hurrying, with habitually deft movements, they put away the deceased into the coffin; covered her face with gauze; curtained off the corpse with cloth of gold, and lit the candles—one at the head and two at the feet.

Now, in the yellow, trembling light of the candles, the face of Jennka became more clearly visible. The lividness had almost gone off it, remaining only here and there on the temples, on the nose, and between the eyes, in party-coloured, uneven, serpentine spots. Between the parted dark lips slightly glimmered the whiteness of the teeth, and the tip of the bitten tongue was still visible. Out of the open collar of the neck, which had taken on the colour of old parchment, showed two stripes: one dark—the mark of the rope; another red—the sign of the scratch, inflicted by Simeon during the encounter—just like two fearful necklaces. Tamara approached and with a safety pin pinned together the lace on the collar, at the very chin.

The clergy came: a little gray priest in gold spectacles, in a skull-cap; a lanky, tall, thin-haired deacon with a sickly, strangely dark and yellow face, as though of terra-cotta; and a sprightly, long-skirted psalmist, animatedly exchanging on his way some gay, mysterious signs with his friends among the singers.

Tamara walked up to the priest:

“Father,” she asked, “how will you perform the funeral service; all together or each one separate?”

“We perform the funeral service for all of them conjointly,” answered the priest, kissing the stole, and extricating his beard and hair out of its slits. “Usually, that is. But by special request, and by special agreement, it’s also possible to do it separately. What death did the deceased undergo?”

“She’s a suicide, father.”

“Hm … a suicide? … But do you know, young person, that by the canons of the church there isn’t supposed to be any funeral service … there ought not to be any? Of course, there are exceptions—by special intercession…”

“Right here, father, I have certificates from the police and from the doctor … She wasn’t in her right mind … in a fit of insanity…”

Tamara extended to the priest two papers, sent her the evening before by Ryazanov, and on top of them three bank-notes of ten roubles each. “I would beg of you, father, to do everything fitting—Christian like. She was a splendid being, and suffered a very great deal. And won’t you be so kind—go along with her to the cemetery, and there hold one more little mass…”

“It’s all right for me to go along with her to the cemetery, but in the cemetery itself I have no right to hold service—there is a clergy of their own … And also here’s how, young person; in view of the fact that I’ll have to return once more after the rest, won’t you, now … add another little ten-spot.”

And having taken the money from Tamara’s hand, the priest blessed the thurible, which had been brought up by the psalmist, and began to walk around the body of the deceased with thurification. Then, having stopped at her head, he in a meek, wontedly sad voice, uttered:

“Blessed is our God. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end!”

The psalmist began pattering: Holy God, Most Holy Trinity and Our Father poured out like peas.

Quietly, as though confiding some deep, sad, occult mystery, the singers began in a rapid, sweet recitative: “With Thy blessed saints in glory everlasting, the soul of this Thy servant save, set at rest; preserving her in the blessed life, as Thou hast loving kindness for man.”

The psalmist distributed the candles; and they with warm, soft, living little flames, one after the other, were lit in the heavy, murky air, tenderly and transparently illuminating the faces of the women.

Harmoniously the mournful melody flowed forth, and like the sighs of aggrieved angels sounded the great words:

“Rest, oh God, this Thy servant and establish her in Heaven, wherein the faces of the just and the saints of the Lord shine like unto lights; set at rest this Thy servant who hath fallen asleep, contemning all her trespasses.”

Tamara was listening intently to the long familiar, but now long unheard words, and was smiling bitterly. The passionate, mad words of Jennka came back to her, full of such inescapable despair and unbelief … Would the all-merciful, all-gracious Lord forgive or would He not forgive her foul, fumy, embittered, unclean life? All-Knowing—can it be that Thou wouldst repulse her—the pitiful rebel, the involuntary libertine; a child that had uttered blasphemies against Thy radiant, holy name? Thou—Benevolence, Thou—our Consolation!

A dull, restrained wailing, suddenly passing into a scream, resounded in the chapel. “Oh, Jennechka!” This was Little White Manka, standing on her knees and stuffing her mouth with her handkerchief, beating about in tears. And the remaining mates, following her, also got down upon their knees; and the chapel was filled with sighs, stifled lamentations and sobbings …

“Thou alone art deathless, Who hast created and made man; out of the dust of the earth were we made, and unto the same dust shall we return; as Thou hast ordained me, creating me and saying unto me, dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Tamara was standing motionless and with an austere face that seemed turned to stone. The light of the candle in thin gold spirals shone in her bronze-chestnut hair; while she could not tear her eyes away from the lines of Jennka’s moist, yellow forehead and the tip of her nose, which were visible to Tamara from her place.

“Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return …” she was mentally repeating the words of the canticles. “Could it be that that would be all; only earth alone and nothing more? And which is better: nothing, or even anything at all—even the most execrable—but merely to be existing?”

And the choir, as though affirming her thoughts, as though taking away from her the last consolation, was uttering forlornly:

“And all mankind may go…”

They sang Eternal Memory through, blew out the candles, and the little blue streams spread in the air, blue from frankincense. The priest read through the farewell prayer; and afterwards, in the general silence, scooped up some sand with the little shovel handed to him by the psalmist, and cast it cross-wise upon the corpse, on top of the gauze. And at this he was uttering great words, filled with the austere, sad inevitability of a mysterious universal law: “The world is the Lord’s, and its fulfillment the universe, and all that dwelleth therein.”

The girls escorted their dead mate to the very cemetery. The road thither intersected the very entrance to Yamskaya Street. It would have been possible to turn to the left through it, and that would have been almost half as short; but dead people were not usually carried through Yamskaya.

Nevertheless, out of almost all the doors their inmates poured out towards the cross roads, in whatever they had on: in slippers upon bare feet, in night gowns, with kerchiefs upon their heads; they crossed themselves, sighed, wiped their eyes with their handkerchiefs and the edges of their jackets.

The weather cleared up … The cold sun shone brightly from a cold sky of radiant blue enamel; the last grass showed its green, the withered leaves on the trees glowed, showing their pink and gold … And in the crystal clear, cold air solemnly, and mournfully reverberated the sonorous sounds: “Holy God, Holy Almighty, Holy Everliving, have mercy upon us!” And with what flaming thirst for life, not to be satiated by aught; with what longing for the momentary—transient like unto a dream—joy and beauty of being; with what horror before the eternal silence of death, sounded the ancient refrain of John Damascene!

Then a brief requiem at the grave, the dull thud of the earth against the lid of the coffin … a small fresh hillock …

“And here’s the end!” said Tamara to her comrades, when they were left alone. “Oh, well, girls—an hour earlier, an hour later! … I’m sorry for Jennka! … Horribly sorry! … We won’t ever find such another. And yet, my children, it’s far better for her in her pit than for us in ours … Well, let’s cross ourselves for the last time—and home! …”

And when they all were already nearing their house, Tamara suddenly uttered pensively the strange, ominous words:

“And we won’t be long together without her: soon we will be scattered, by the wind far and wide. Life is good! … Look: there’s the sun, the blue sky … How pure the air is … Cobwebs are floating—it’s Indian summer … How good it is in this world! … Only we alone—we wenches—are wayside rubbish.”

The girls started off on their journey. But suddenly from somewhere on the side, from behind a monument, a tall sturdy student detached himself. He caught up with Liubka and softly touched her sleeve. She turned around and beheld Soloviev. Her face instantaneously turned pale, her eyes opened wide and her lips began to tremble.

“Go away!” she said quietly, with infinite hatred.

“Liuba … Liubochka …” Soloviev began to mumble. “I searched … searched for you … I … Honest to God, I’m not like that one … like Lichonin … I’m in earnest … even right now, even to-day.

“Go away!” still more quietly pronounced Liubka.

“I’m serious … I’m serious … I’m not trifling, I want to marry…”

“Oh, you creature!” suddenly squealed out Liubka, and quickly, hard, peasant-like, hit Soloviev on the cheek with her palm.

Soloviev stood a little while, slightly swaying. His eyes were like those of a martyr … The mouth half-open, with mournful creases at the sides.

“Go away! Go away! I can’t bear to look at all of you!” Liubka was screaming with rage. “Hangmen, swine!”

Soloviev unexpectedly covered his face with his palms and went back, without knowing his way, with uncertain steps, like one drunk.

< < < Chapter VII
Chapter IX > > >

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

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