Almost every day after his reporting he would bring a newspaper, and then gather round him all these creatures that once were men. On seeing him, they would come forward from all corners of the court-yard, drunk, or suffering from drunken headache, dishevelled, tattered, miserable, and pitiable. Then would come the barrel-like, stout Aleksei Maksimoviteh Simtsoff, formerly Inspector of Woods and Forests, under the Department of Appendages, but now trading in matches, ink, blacking, and lemons. He was an old man of sixty, in a canvas overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat, the greasy borders of which hid his stout, fat, red face. He had a thick white beard, out of which a small red nose turned gaily heavenward. He had thick, crimson lips and watery, cynical eyes. They called him "Kubar, a name which well described his round figure an buzzing speech. After him, Kanets appeared from some corner--a dark, sad-looking, silent drunkard: then the former governor of the prison, Luka Antonovitch Martyanoff, a man who existed on "remeshok," "trilistika" and "bankovka,"[A] and many such cunning games, not much appreciated by the police.
He would throw his hard and oft-scourged body on the grass beside the teacher, and, turning his eyes round and scratching his head, would ask in a hoarse, bass voice, "May I?"
Then appeared Pavel Solntseff, a man of thirty years of age, suffering from consumption. The ribs of his left side had been broken in a quarrel, and the sharp, yellow face, like that of a fox, always wore a malicious smile. The thin lips, when opened, exposed two rows of decayed black teeth, and the rags on his shoulders swayed backward and forward as if they were hung on a clothes pole. They called him "Abyedok." He hawked brushes and bath brooms of his own manufacture, good, strong brushes made from a peculiar kind of grass.
Then followed a lean and bony man of whom no one knew anything, with a frightened expression in his eyes, the left one of which had a squint. He was silent and timid, and had been imprisoned three times for theft by the High Court of Justice and the Magisterial Courts. His family name was Kiselnikoff, but they called him Paltara Taras, because he was a head and shoulders taller than his friend, Deacon Taras, who had been degraded from his office for drunkenness and immorality. The Deacon was a short, thick-set person, with the chest of an athlete and a round, strong head. He danced skilfully, and was still more skilful at swearing. He and Paltara Taras worked in the wood on the banks of the river, and in free hours he told his friend or any one who would listen, "Tales of my own composition," as he used to say. On hearing these stories, the heroes of which always seemed to be saints, kings, priests, or generals, even the inmates of the dosshouse spat and rubbed their eyes in astonishment at the imagination of the Deacon, who told them shameless tales of lewd, fantastic adventures, with blinking eyes and a passionless expression of countenance.
The imagination of this man was powerful and inexhaustible; he could go on relating and composing all day, from morning to night, without once repeating what he had said before. In his expression you sometimes saw the poet gone astray, sometimes the romancer, and he always succeeded in making his tales realistic by the effective and powerful words in which he told them.
There was also a foolish young man called Kuvalda Meteor. One night he came to sleep in the dosshouse, and had remained ever since among these men, much to their astonishment. At first they did not take much notice of him. In the daytime, like all the others, he went away to find something to eat, but at nights he always loitered around this friendly company till at last the Captain took notice of him.
"Boy! What business have you here on this earth?"
The boy answered boldly and stoutly:
"I am a barefooted tramp. . . ."
The Captain looked critically at him. This youngster had long hair and a weak face, with prominent cheekbones and a turned-up nose. He was dressed in a blue blouse without a waistband, and on his head he wore the remains of a straw hat, while his feet were bare.
"You are a fool!" decided Aristid Kuvalda. "what are you knocking about here for? You are of absolutely no use to us . . . Do you drink vodki? . . . No? . . . Well, then, can you steal?" Again, "No." "Go away, learn, and come back again when you know something, and are a man. . . ."
The youngster smiled. "No. I shall live with you."
"Just because. . . ."
"Oh, you . . . Meteor!" said the Captain.
"I will break his teeth for him," said Martyanoff.
"And why?" asked the youngster.
"Just because. . . ."
"And I will take a stone and hit you on the head," the young man answered respectfully.
Martyanoff would have broken his bones, had not Kuvalda interrupted with: "Leave him alone. . .Is this a home to you or even to us? You have no sufficient reason to break his teeth for him. You have no better reason than he for living with us."
"Well, then, Devil take him! . . . We all live in the world without sufficient reason . . . We live, and why? Because! He also because . . . let him alone. . . ."
"But it is better for you, young man, to go away from us," the teacher advised him, looking him up and down with his sad eyes. He made no answer, but remained. And they soon became accustomed to his presence, and ceased to take any notice of him. But he lived among them, and observed everything.
The above were the chief members of the Captain's company, and he called them with kind-hearted sarcasm "Creatures that once were Men." For though there were men who had experienced as much of the bitter irony of fate as these men; yet they were not fallen so low.
Not infrequently, respectable men belonging to the cultured classes are inferior to those belonging to the peasantry, and it is always a fact that the depraved man from the city is immeasurably worse than the depraved man from the village. This fact was strikingly illustrated by the contrast between the formerly well-educated men and the mujiks who were living in Kuvalda's shelter.
The representative of the latter class was an old mujik called Tyapa. Tall and angular, he kept his head in such a position that his chin touched his breast. He was the Captain's first lodger, and it was said of him that he had a great deal of money hidden somewhere, and for its sake had nearly had his throat cut some two years ago: ever since then he carried his head thus. Over his eyes hung grayish eyebrows, and, looked at in profile, only his crooked nose was to be seen. His shadow reminded one of a poker. He denied that he had money, and said that they "only tried to cut his throat out of malice," and from that day he took to collecting rags, and that is why his head was always bent as if incessantly looking on the ground. When he went about shaking his head, and minus a walking-stick in his hand, and a bag on his back--the signs of his profession--he seemed to be thinking almost to madness, and, at such times, Kuvalda spoke thus, pointing to him with his finger:
"Look, there is the conscience of Merchant Judas Petunikoff. See how disorderly, dirty, and low is the escaped conscience."
Tyapa, as a rule, spoke in a hoarse and hardly audible voice, and that is why he spoke very little, and loved to be alone. But whenever a stranger, compelled to leave the village, appeared in the dosshouse, Tyapa seemed sadder and angrier, and followed the unfortunate about with biting jeers and a wicked chuckling in his throat. He either put some beggar against him, or himself threatened to rob and beat him, till the frightened mujik would disappear from the dosshouse and never more be seen. Then Tyapa was quiet again, and would sit in some corner mending his rags, or else reading his Bible, which was as dirty, worn, and old as himself. Only when the teacher brought a newspaper and began reading did he come from his corner once more. As a rule, Tyapa listened to what was read silently and sighed often, without asking anything of anyone. But once when the teacher, having read the paper, wanted to put it away, Tyapa stretched out his bony hand, and said, "Give it to me. . . ."
"What do you want it for?"
"Give it to me . . . Perhaps there is something in it about us. . . ."
"About the village."
They laughed at him, and threw him the paper. He took it, and read in it how in the village the hail had destroyed the cornfields, how in another village fire destroyed thirty houses, and that in a third a woman had poisoned her family--in fact, everything that it is customary to write of--everything, that is to say, which is bad, and which depicts only the worst side of the unfortunate village.
Tyapa read all this silently and roared, perhaps from sympathy, perhaps from delight at the sad news.
He passed the whole Sunday in reading his Bible, and never went out collecting rags on that day. While reading, he groaned and sighed continually. He kept the book close to his breast, and was angry with any one who interrupted him or who touched his Bible.
"Oh, you drunken blackguard," said Kuvalda to him, "what do you understand of it?"
"Nothing, wizard! I don't understand anything, and I do not read any books . . . But I read. . . ."
"Therefore you are a fool . . ." said the Captain, decidedly. "When there are insects in your head, you know it is uncomfortable, but if some thoughts enter there too, how will you live then, you old toad?"
"I have not long to live," said Tyapa, quietly.
Once the teacher asked how he had learned to read.
"In prison," answered Tyapa shortly.
"Have you been there?"
"I was there. "
"Just so . . . It was a mistake . . . But I brought the Bible out with me from there. A lady gave it to me . . . It is good in prison, brother."
"Is that so? And why?"
"It teaches one . . . I learned to read there . . . I also got this book . . . And all these you see, free. . . ."
When the teacher appeared in the dosshouse, Tyapa had already lived there for some time. He looked long into the teacher's face, as if to discover what kind of a man he was.
Tyapa often listened to his conversation, and once, sitting down beside him, said:
"I see you are very learned . . . Have you read the Bible?"
"I have read it. . . ."
"I see; I see . . . Can you remember it?"
"Yes . . . I remember it. . . ."
Then the old man leaned to one side and gazed at the other with a serious, suspicious glance.
"There were the Amalekites, do you remember?"
"Where are they now?"
"Disappeared . . . Tyapa . . . died out. . . ."
The old man was silent, then asked again: "And where are the Philistines?"
"These also. . . ."
"Have all these died out?"
"Yes . . . all. . . ."
"And so . . . we also will die out?"
"There will come a time when we also will die," said the teacher indifferently.
"And to what tribe of Israel do we belong?"
The teacher looked at him, and began telling him about Scythians and Slavs. . . .
The old man became all the more frightened, and glanced at his face.
"You are lying!" he said scornfully, when the teacher had finished.
"What lie have I told?" asked the teacher.
"You mentioned tribes that are not mentioned in the Bible."
He got up and walked away, angry and deeply insulted.
"You will go mad, Tyapa," called the teacher after him with conviction.
Then the old man came back again, and stretching out his hand, threatened him with his crooked and dirty finger.
"God made Adam--from Adam were descended the Jews, that means that all people are descended from Jews . . . and we also. . . ."
"Tartars are descended from Ishmael, but he also came of the Jews. . . ."
"What do you want to tell me all this for?"
"Nothing! Only why do you tell lies?" Then he walked away, leaving his companion in perplexity. But after two days he came again and sat by him.
"You are learned . . . Tell me, then, whose descendants are we? Are we Babylonians, or who are we?"
"We are Slavs, Tyapa," said the teacher, and attentively awaited his answer, wishing to understand him.
"Speak to me from the Bible. There are no such men there."
Then the teacher began criticizing the Bible. The old man listened, and interrupted him after a long while.
"Stop . . . Wait! That means that among people known to God there are no Russians? We are not known to God? Is it so? God knew all those who are mentioned in the Bible . . . He destroyed them by sword and fire, He destroyed their cities; but He also sent prophets to teach them.
That means that He also pitied them. He scattered the Jews and the Tartars . . . But what about us? Why have we prophets no longer?"
"Well, I don't know!" replied the teacher, trying to understand the old man. But the latter put his hand on the teacher's shoulder, and slowly pushed him backward and forward, and his throat made a noise as if he were swallowing something. . . .
"Tell me! You speak so much . . . as if you knew everything. It makes me sick to listen to you . . . you darken my soul . . . I should be better pleased if you were silent. Who are we, eh? Why have we no prophets? Ha, ha! . . . Where were we when Christ walked on this earth? Do you see? And you too, you are lying . . . Do you think that all die out? The Russian people will never disappear . . . You are lying. It has been written in the Bible, only it is not known what name the Russians are given. Do you see what kind of people they are? They are numberless . . . How many villages are there on the earth? Think of all the people who live on it, so strong, go numerous I And you say that they will die out; men shall die, but God wants the people, God the Creator of the earth! The Amalekites did not die out. They are either German or French . . . But you, eh, you! Now then, tell me why we are abandoned by God? Have we no punishments nor prophets from the Lord? Who then will teach us?" Tyapa spoke strongly and plainly, and there was faith in his words.
He had been speaking a long time, and the teacher, who was generally drunk and in a speechless condition, could not stand it any longer. He looked at the dry, wrinkled old man, felt the great force of these words, and suddenly began to pity himself. He wished to say something so strong and convincing to the old man that Tyapa would be disposed in his favor; he did not wish to speak in such a serious, earnest way, but in a soft and fatherly tone. And the teacher felt as if something were rising from his breast into his throat . . . But he could not find any powerful words.
"What kind of a man are you? . . . Your soul seems to be torn away--and you still continue speaking . . . as if you knew something . . . It would be better if you were silent."
"Ah, Tyapa, what you say is true," replied the teacher sadly. "The people . . . you are right . . . they are numberless . . . but I am a stranger to them . . . and they are strangers to me . . . Do you see where the tragedy of my life is hidden? . . . But let me alone! I shall suffer . . . and there are no prophets also . . . No. You are right, I speak a great deal . . . But it is no good to anyone. I shall be always silent . . . Only don't speak with me like this . . . Ah, old man, you do not know . . . You do not know . . . And you cannot understand."
And in the end the teacher cried. He cried so easily and so freely, with such torrents of flowing tears, that he soon found relief."You ought to go into a village . . . become a clerk or a teacher . . . You would be well fed there. What are you crying for?" asked Tyapa sadly.
But the teacher was crying as if the tears quieted and comforted him.
From this day they became friends, and the "creatures that once were men," seeing them together, said: "The teacher is friendly with Tyapa . . . He wishes his money. Kuvalda must have put this into his head . . . To look about to see where the old man's fortune is. . . ."
Probably they did not believe what they said. There was one strange thing about these men, namely, that they painted themselves to others worse than they actually were. A man who has good in him does not mind sometimes showing his worse nature.
Next: Section III
A. Note by translator: Well-known games or chance, played by peasants and workers. The police specially endeavor to stop them, but unsuccessfully.