Yama (the Pit) by Alexander Kuprin

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

< < < Chapter VII
Chapter IX > > >

Part I

Chapter VIII

They had all, except the reporter, passed the whole day together, from the very morning, celebrating May Day with some young women of their acquaintance. They had rowed in boats on the Dnieper, had cooked field porridge on the other side of the river, in the thick, bitter-smelling underbrush; had bathed—men and women by turns—in the rapid, warm water; had drunk home-made spiced brandy, sung sonorous songs of Little Russia, and had returned to town only late in the evening, when the dark, broad, running river so eerily and merrily plashed against the sides of their boats, playing with the reflections of the stars, the silvery shimmering paths of the electric lamps, and the bowing lights of the can-buoys. And when they had stepped out on the shore, the palms of each burned from the oars, the muscles of the arms and legs ached pleasantly, and suffusing the whole body was a blissful, healthy fatigue.

Then they had escorted the young women to their homes and at the garden-gates and entrances had taken leave of them long and cordially, with laughter and with such swinging hand-shakes as if they were working the lever of a pump.

The whole day had passed in gaiety and noise, even a trifle clamorously, and just the least wee bit tiresomely, but with youth-like continence; without intoxication, and, which happens especially rarely, without the least shadow of mutual affronts, or jealousy, or unvoiced mortifications. Of course, such a benign mood had been helped by the sun, the fresh river breeze, the sweet exhalations of the grasses and the water, the joyous sensation of the strength and alertness of one’s body while bathing and rowing, and the restraining influence of the clever, kind, pure and handsome girls from families they were acquainted with. But, almost without the knowledge of their consciousness, their sensuousness—not imagination, but the simple, healthy, instinctive sensuousness of young playful males—kindled from chance encounters of their hands with feminine hands and from comradely obliging embraces, when the occasion arose to help the young ladies enter a boat or jump out on shore; from the tender odour of maiden apparel, warmed by the sun; from the feminine cries of coquettish fright on the river; from the sight of feminine figures, negligently half-reclining with a naive immodesty on the green grass around the samovar—from all these innocent liberties, which are so usual and unavoidable on picnics, country outings and river excursions, when within man, in the infinite depth of his soul, secretly awakens from the care-free contact with earth, grasses, water and sun, the beast-ancient, splendid, free, but disfigured and intimidated of men.

And for that reason, at two o’clock in the night, when THE SPARROWS, a cozy students’ restaurant, had barely closed, and all the eight, excited by alcohol and the plentiful food, had come out of the smoky, fumy underground place into the street, into the sweet, disquieting darkness of the night, with its beckoning fires in the sky and on the earth, with its warm, heady air, from which the nostrils dilate avidly, with its aromas, gliding from unseen gardens and flower-beds,—the head of each one of them was aflame and the heart quietly and languishingly yearning from vague desires. It was joyous and arrogant to sense after the rest the new, fresh strength in all the sinews, the deep breathing of the lungs, the red, resilient blood in the veins, the supple obedience of all the members. And—without words, without thoughts, without consciousness—one was drawn on this night to be running without raiment in the somnolent forest, to be sniffing hurriedly the tracks of some one’s feet on the dewy grass, with a loud call to be summoning a female unto one’s self.

But to separate was now very difficult. The whole day, passed together, had shaken them into an accustomed, tenacious herd. It seemed that if even one were to go away from the company, a certain attained equilibrium would be disturbed and could not be restored afterwards. And so they dallied and stamped upon the sidewalk, near the exit of the tavern’s underground vault, interfering with the progress of the infrequent passers-by. They discussed hypocritically where else they might go to wind up the night. It proved to be too far to the Tivoli Garden, and in addition to that one also had to pay for admission tickets, and the prices in the buffet were outrageous, and the program had ended long ago. Volodya Pavlov proposed going to him—he had a dozen of beer and a little cognac home. But it seemed a bore to all of them to go in the middle of the night to a family apartment, to enter on tiptoes up the stairs and to talk in whispers all the time.

“Tell you what, brethren … Let’s better ride to the girlies, that will be nearer the mark,” said peremptorily Lichonin, an old student, a tall, stooping, morose and bearded fellow. By convictions he was an anarchist—theoretic, but by avocation a passionate gambler at billiards, races and cards—a gambler with a very broad, fatalistic sweep. Only the day before he had won a thousand roubles at macao in the Merchants’ Club, and this money was still burning a hole in his pockets.

“And why not? Right-o!” somebody sustained him. “Let’s go, comrades?”

“Is it worth while? Why, this is an all night affair …” spoke another with a false prudence and an insincere fatigue.

And a third said through a feigned yawn:

“Let’s better go home, gentlemen … a-a-a … go bye-bye … That’s enough for to-day.”

“You won’t work any wonders when you’re asleep,” Lichonin remarked sneeringly. “Herr professor, are you coming?”

But the sub-professor Yarchenko was obstinate and seemed really angered, although, perhaps, he himself did not know what was lurking within him, in some dark cranny of his soul.

“Leave me in peace, Lichonin. As I see it, gentlemen, this is downright and plain swinishness—that which you are about to do. We have passed the time so wonderfully, amiably and simply, it seems,—but no, you needs must, like drunken cattle, clamber into a cesspool. I won’t go.”

“Still, if my memory does not play me false,” said Lichonin, with calm causticity, “I recollect that no further back than past autumn we with a certain future Mommsen were pouring in some place or other a jug of ice into a pianoforte, delineating a Bouratian god, dancing the belly-dance, and all that sort of thing?”

Lichonin spoke the truth. In his student days, and later, being retained at the university, Yarchenko had led the most wanton and crack-brained life. In all the taverns, cabarets, and other places of amusement his small, fat, roundish little figure, his rosy cheeks, puffed out like those of a painted cupid, and the shining, humid kindly eyes were well known, his hurried, spluttering speech and shrill laughter remembered.

His comrades could never fathom where he found the time to employ in study, but nevertheless he went through all examinations and prescribed work with distinction and from the first course the professors had him in view. Now Yarchenko was beginning little by little to quit his former comrades and bottle companions. He had just established the indispensable connections with the professorial circle; the reading of lectures in Roman history for the coming year had been offered him, and not infrequently in conversation he would use the expression current among the sub-professors: “We, the learned ones!” The student familiarity, the compulsory companionship, the obligatory participation in all meetings, protests and demonstrations, were becoming disadvantageous to him, embarrassing, and even simply tedious. But he knew the value of popularity among the younger element, and for that reason could not decide to sever relations abruptly with his former circle. Lichonin’s words, however, provoked him.

“Oh, my God, what does it matter what we did when we were youngsters? We stole sugar, soiled our panties, tore the wings off beetles,” Yarchenko began to speak, growing heated, and spluttering. “But there is a limit and a mean to all this. I, gentlemen, do not presume, of course, to give you counsels and to teach you, but one must be consistent. We are all agreed that prostitution is one of the greatest calamities of humanity, and are also agreed, that in this evil not the women are guilty, but we, men, because the demand gives birth to the offer. And therefore if, having drunk a glass of wine too much, I still, notwithstanding my convictions, go to the prostitutes, I am committing a triple vileness: before the unfortunate, foolish woman, whom I subject to the most degrading form of slavery for my filthy rouble; before humanity, because, hiring a public woman for an hour or two for my abominable lust, I through this justify and uphold prostitution; and finally, this is a vileness before one’s own conscience and mind. And before logic.”

“Phew-ew!” Lichonin let out a long-drawn whistle and chanted in a thin, dismal voice, nodding in time with his head hanging down to one side: “The philosopher is off on our usual stuff: ‘A rope—is a common cord.’”

“Of course, there’s nothing easier than to play the tom-fool,” responded Yarchenko. “But in my opinion there is not in the sorrowful life of Russia a more mournful phenomenon than this lackadaisicalness and vitiation of thought. To-day we will say to ourselves: Eh! It’s all the same, whether I go to a brothel or whether I do not go, from this one time things will get neither worse nor better. And after five years we will be saying: Undoubtedly a bribe is a horribly nasty bit of business, but you know—children … the family … And just the same way after ten years we, having remained fortuitous Russian liberals, will be sighing about personal freedom and bowing low before worthless scoundrels, whom we despise, and will be cooling our heels in their ante-rooms. ‘Because, don’t you know,’ we will say, tittering, ‘when you live with wolves, you must howl like a wolf.’ By God, it wasn’t in vain that some minister called the Russian students future head-clerks!”

“Or professors,” Lichonin put in.

“But most important of all,” continued Yarchenko, letting this pointed remark pass by, “most important of all is this, that I have seen all of you to-day on the river and afterwards there … on the other shore … with these charming, fine girls. How attentive, well-bred, obliging you all were—but scarcely have you taken leave of them, when you are drawn to public women. Let each one of you imagine for a moment, that we all had been visiting his sisters and straight from them had driven to Yama … What? Is such a supposition pleasant?”

“Yes, but there must exist some valves for the passions of society,” pompously remarked Boris Sobashnikov, a tall, somewhat supercilious and affected young man, upon whom the short, white summer uniform jacket, which scarcely covered his fat posteriors, the modish trousers, of a military cut, the PINCE-NEZ on a broad, black ribbon, and a cap after a Prussian model, all bestowed the air of a coxcomb. “Surely, it isn’t more respectable to enjoy the caresses of your chambermaid, or to carry on an intrigue on the side with another man’s wife? What am I to do if woman is indispensable to me!”

“Eh, very indispensable indeed!” said Yarchenko with vexation and feebly made a despondent gesture.

But here a student who was called Ramses in the friendly coterie intervened. This was a yellowish-swarthy, hump-nosed man of small stature; his clean-shaven face seemed triangular, thanks to a broad forehead, beginning to get bald, with two wedge-like bald spots at the temples, fallen-in cheeks and a sharp chin. He led a mode of life sufficiently queer for a student. While his colleagues employed themselves by turns with politics, love, the theatre, and a little in study, Ramses had withdrawn entirely into the study of all conceivable suits and claims, into the chicane subtleties of property, hereditary, land and other business law-suits, into the memorizing and logical analysis of quashed decisions. Perfectly of his own will, without in the least needing the money, he served for a year as a clerk at a notary’s for another as a secretary to a justice of the peace, while all of the past year, being in the last term, he had conducted in a local newspaper the reports of the city council and had borne the modest duty of an assistant to a secretary in the management of a syndicate of sugar manufacturers. And when this same syndicate commenced the well-known suit against one of its members, Colonel Baskakov, who had put up the surplus sugar for sale contrary to agreement, Ramses from the very beginning guessed beforehand and very subtly engineered, precisely that decision which the senate subsequently handed down in this suit.

Despite his comparative youth, rather well-known jurists gave heed to his opinions—true, a little loftily. None of those who knew Ramses closely doubted that he would make a brilliant career, and even Ramses himself did not conceal his confidence in that toward thirty-five he would knock together a million, exclusively through his practice as a civil lawyer. His comrades not infrequently elected him chairman of meetings and head of the class, but this honour Ramses invariably declined, excusing himself with lack of time. But still he did not avoid participation in his comrades’ trials by arbitration, and his arguments—always incontrovertibly logical—were possessed of an amazing virtue in ending the trials with peace, to the mutual satisfaction of the litigating parties. He, as well as Yarchenko, knew well the value of popularity among the studying youths, and even if he did look upon people with a certain contempt, from above, still he never, by as much as a single movement of his thin, clever, energetical lips, showed this.

“Well, Gavrila Petrovich, no one is necessarily dragging you into committing a fall from grace,” said Ramses in a conciliatory manner, “What is all this pathos and melancholy for, when the matter as it stands is altogether simple? A company of young Russian gentlemen wishes to pass the remnant of the night modestly and amicably, to make merry, to sing a little, and to take internally several gallons of wine and beer. But everything is closed now, except these very same houses. ERGO! …”

“Consequently, we will go merry-making to women who are for sale? To prostitutes? Into a brothel?” Yarchenko interrupted him, mockingly and inimically.

“And even so? A certain philosopher, whom it was desired to humiliate, was given a seat at dinner near the musicians. But he, sitting down, said: ‘Here is a sure means of making the last place the first.’ And finally I repeat: If your conscience does not allow you, as you express yourself, to buy a woman, then you can go there and come away, preserving your innocence in all its blossoming inviolability.”

“You overdo it, Ramses,” objected Yarchenko with displeasure. “You remind me of those bourgeois, who, while it is still dark, have gathered to gape at an execution and who say: we have nothing to do with this, we are against capital punishment, this is all the prosecuting attorney’s and the executioner’s doing.”

“Superbly said and partly true, Gavrila Petrovich. But to us, precisely, this comparison may not even apply. One cannot, you see, treat some malignant disease while absent, without seeing the sufferer in person. And yet all of us, who are now standing here in the street and interfering with the passers-by, will be obliged at some time in our work to run up against the terrible problem of prostitution, and what a prostitution at that—the Russian! Lichonin, I, Borya Sobashnikov and Pavlov as jurists, Petrovsky and Tolpygin as medicos. True, Veltman has a distinct specialty—mathematics. But then, he will be a pedagogue, a guide of youth, and, deuce take it, even a father! And if you are going to scare with a bugaboo, it is best to look upon it one’s self first. And finally, you yourself, Gavrila Petrovich—expert of dead languages and future luminary of grave digging—is the comparison, then, of the contemporary brothels, say, with some Pompeian lupanaria, or the institution of sacred prostitution in Thebes and Nineveh, not important and instructive to you? …”

“Bravo, Ramses, magnificent!” roared Lichonin. “And what’s there to talk so much about, fellows? Take the professor under the gills and put him in a cab!”

The students, laughing and jostling, surrounded Yarchenko, seized him under the arms, caught him around the waist. All of them were equally drawn to the women, but none, save Lichonin, had enough courage to take the initiative upon himself. But now all this complicated, unpleasant and hypocritical business was happily resolved into a simple, easy joke upon the older comrade. Yarchenko resisted, and was angry, and laughing, trying to break away. But at this moment a tall, black-moustached policeman, who had long been eyeing them keenly and inimically, walked up to the uproarious students.

“I’d ask you stewdent gents not to congregate. It’s not allowed! Keep on going!”

They moved on in a throng. Yarchenka was beginning to soften little by little.

“Gentlemen, I am ready to go with you, if you like … Do not think, however, that the sophistries of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses have convinced me … No, I simply would be sorry to break up the party … But I make one stipulation: we will drink a little there, gab a little, laugh a little, and so forth … but let there be nothing more, no filth of any kind … It is shameful and painful to think that we, the flower and glory—of the Russian intelligentzia, will go all to pieces and let our mouths water at the sight of the first skirt that comes our way.”

“I swear it!” said Lichonin, putting up his hand.

“I can vouch for myself,” said Ramses.

“And I! And I! By God, gentlemen, let’s pledge our words … Yarchenko is right,” others took up.

They seated themselves in twos and threes in the cabs—the drivers of which had been long since following them in a file, grinning and cursing each other—and rode off. Lichonin, for the sake of assurance, sat down beside the sub-professor, having embraced him around the waist and seated him on his knees and those of his neighbour, the little Tolpygin, a rosy, pleasant-faced boy on whose face, despite his twenty-three years, the childish white down—soft and light—still showed.

“The station is at Doroshenko’s!” called out Lichonin after the cabbies driving off. “The stop is at Doroshenko’s,” he repeated, turning around.

They all stopped at Doroshenko’s restaurant, entered the general room, and crowded about the bar. All were satiated and no one wanted either to drink or to have a bite. But in the soul of each one still remained a dark trace of the consciousness that right now they were getting ready to commit something needlessly shameful, getting ready to take part in some convulsive, artificial, and not at all a merry merriment. And in each one was the yearning to bring himself through intoxication to that misty and rainbow condition when nothing makes any difference, and when the head does not know what the arms and legs are doing, and what the tongue is babbling. And, probably, not the students alone, but all the casual and constant visitors of Yama experienced in greater or lesser degree the friction of this inner psychic heart-sore, because Doroshenko did business only late in the evening and night, and no one lingered long in his place but only turned in in passing, half-way on the journey.

While the students were drinking cognac, beer and vodka, Ramses was constantly and intently looking into the farthest corner of the restaurant hall, where two men were sitting—a tattered, gray, big old man, and, opposite him, his back to the bar, with his elbows spread out upon the table and his chin resting on the fists folded upon each other, some hunched up, stout, closely-propped gentleman in a gray suit. The old man was picking upon a dulcimer lying before him and quietly singing, in a hoarse but pleasing voice:

“Oh my valley, my little valley,
Bro-o-o-o-o-oad land of plenty.”

“Excuse me, but that is a co-worker of ours,” said Ramses, and went to greet the gentleman in the gray suit. After a minute he led him up to the bar and introduced him to his comrades.

“Gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you my companion in arms in the newspaper game, Sergei Ivanovich Platonov. The laziest and most talented of newspaper workers.”

They all introduced themselves, indistinctly muttering out their names.

“And therefore, let’s have a drink,” said Uchonin, while Yarchenko asked with the refined amiability which never forsook him:

“Pardon me, pardon me, but I am acquainted with you a little, even though not personally. Weren’t you in the university when Professor Priklonsky defended the doctor’s dissertation?”

“It was I,” answered the reporter.

“Ah, that’s very nice,” smiled Yarchenko charmingly, and for some reason once more pressed Platonov’s hand vigorously. “I read your report afterwards: very exactly, circumstantially and skillfully put together … Won’t you favor me? … To your health!”

“Then allow me, too,” said Platonov. “Onuphriy Zakharich, pour out for us again … one … two, three, four … nine glasses of cognac…”

“Oh no, you can’t do that … you are our guest, colleague,” remonstrated Lichonin.

“Well, now, what sort of colleague am I to you?” good-naturedly laughed the reporter. “I was only in the first class and then only for half a year—as an unmatriculated student. Here you are, Onuphriy Zakharich. Gentlemen, I beg you…”

The upshot of it was that after half an hour Lichonin and Yarchenko did not under any consideration want to part with the reporter and dragged him with them to Yama. However, he did not resist.

“If I am not a burden to you, I would be very glad,” he said simply. “All the more since I have easy money to-day. THE DNIEPER WORD has paid me an honorarium, and this is just as much of a miracle as winning two hundred thousand on a check from a theatre coat room. Pardon me, I’ll be right back…”

He walked up to the old man with whom he had been sitting before, shoved some money into his hand, and gently took leave of him.

“Where I’m going, grandpa, there you mustn’t go—to-morrow we will meet in the same place as to-day. Good-bye!”

They all walked out of the restaurant. At the door Borya Sobashnikov, always a little finical and unnecessarily supercilious, stopped Lichonin and called him to one side.

“I’m surprised at you, Lichonin,” he said squeamishly. “We have gathered together in our own close company, yet you must needs drag in some vagabond. The devil knows who he is!”

“Quit that, Borya,” answered Lichonin amicably. “He’s a warm-hearted fellow.”

< < < Chapter VII
Chapter IX > > >

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

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