In the evening everyone was told of the Captain's discovery, and they all began to discuss Petunikoff's future predicament, painting in vivid colors his excitement and astonishment on the day the court messenger handed him the copy of the summons. The Captain felt himself quite a hero. He was happy and all his friends highly pleased. The heap of dark and tattered figures that lay in the courtyard made noisy demonstrations of pleasure. They all knew the merchant, Petunikoff, who passed them very often, contemptuously turning up his eyes and giving them no more attention than he bestowed on the other heaps of rubbish lying on the ground. He was well fed, and that exasperated them still more; and now how splendid it was that one of themselves had struck a hard blow at the selfish merchant's purse! It gave them all the greatest pleasure. The Captain's discovery was a powerful instrument in their hands. Every one of them felt keen animosity toward all those who were well fed and well dressed, but in some of them this feeling was only beginning to develop. Burning interest was felt by those "creatures that once were men" in the prospective fight between Kuvalda and Petunikoff, which they already saw in imagination.
For a fortnight the inhabitants of the dosshouse awaited the further development of events, but Petunikoff never once visited the building. It was known that he was not in town, and that the copy of the petition had not yet been handed to him. Kuvalda raged at the delays of the civil court. It is improbable that anyone had ever awaited the merchant with such impatience as did this bare-footed brigade.
"He isn't even thinking of coming, the wretch! . . ."
"That means that he does not love me!" sang Deacon Taras, leaning his chin on his hand and casting a humorous glance toward the mountain.
At last Petunikoff appeared. He came in a respectable cart with his son playing the role of groom. The latter was a red-cheeked, nice-looking youngster, in a long square-cut overcoat. He wore smoked eyeglasses. They tied the horse to an adjoining tree, the son took the measuring instrument out of his pocket and gave it to his father, and they began to measure the ground. Both were silent and worried.
"Aha!" shouted the Captain gleefully.
All those who were in the dosshouse at the moment came out to look at them and expressed themselves loudly and freely in reference to the matter.
"What does the habit of thieving mean? A man may sometimes make a big mistake when he steals, standing to lose more than he gets," said the Captain, causing much laughter among his staff and eliciting various murmurs of assent.
"Take care, you devil!" shouted Petunikoff, "lest I have you in the police court for your words!"
"You can do nothing to me without witnesses . . . Your son cannot give evidence on your side" . . . the Captain warned him.
"Look out all the same, you old wretch, you may be found guilty too!" And Petunikoff shook his fist at him. His son, deeply engrossed in his calculations, took no notice of the dark group of men, who were taking such a wicked delight in adding to his father's discomfiture. He did not even once look in their direction.
"The young spider has himself well in hand," remarked Abyedok, watching young Petunikoff's every movement and action. Having taken all the measurements he desired, Ivan Andreyevitch knit his brows, got into the cart, and drove away. His son went with a firm step into Vaviloff's eating-house, and disappeared behind the door.
"Ho, ho! That's a determined young thief! . . . What will happen next, I wonder . . .?" asked Kuvalda.
"Next? Young Petunikoff will buy out Egor Vaviloff," said Abyedok with conviction, and smacked his lips as if the idea gave him great pleasure.
"And you are glad of that?" Kuvalda asked him gravely.
"I am always pleased to see human calculations miscarry," explained Abyedok, rolling his eyes and rubbing his hands with delight. The Captain spat angrily on the ground and was silent. They all stood in front of the tumble-down building, and silently watched the doors of the eating-house. More than an hour passed thus.
Then the doors opened and Petunikoff came out as silently as he had entered. He stopped for a moment, coughed, turned up the collar of his coat, glanced at the men, who were following all his movements with their eyes, and then went up the street toward the town.
The Captain watched him for a moment, and turning to Abyedok said smilingly:
"Probably you were right after all, you son of a scorpion and a wood-louse! You nose out every evil thing. Yes, the face of that young swindler shows that be has got what he wanted. . . I wonder how much Egorka has got out of them. He has evidently taken something . . . He is just the same sort of rogue that they are . . . they are all tarred with the same brush. He has got some money, and I'm damned if I did not arrange the whole thing for him! It is best to own my folly . . . Yes, life is against us all, brothers . . . and even when you spit upon those nearest to you, the spittle rebounds and hits your own face."
Having satisfied himself with this reflection, the worthy Captain looked round upon his staff. Every one of them was disappointed, because they all knew that something they did not expect had taken place between Petunikoff and Vaviloff, and they all felt that they had been insulted. The feeling that one is unable to injure anyone is worse than the feeling that one is unable to do good, because to do harm is far easier and simpler.
"Well, why are we loitering here? We have nothing more to wait for . . . except the reward that I shall get out--out of Egorka, . . ." said the Captain, looking angrily at the eating-house. "So our peaceful life under the roof of Judas has come to an end.
Judas will now turn us out . . . So do not say that I have not warned you."
Kanets smiled sadly.
"What are you laughing at, jailer?" Kuvalda asked.
"Where shall I go then?"
"That, my soul, is a question that fate will settle for you, so do not worry," said the Captain thoughtfully, entering the dosshouse. "The creatures that once were men" followed him.
"We can do nothing but await the critical moment," said the Captain, walking about among them. "When they turn us out we shall seek a new place for ourselves, but at present there is no use spoiling our life by thinking of it . . . In times of crisis one becomes energetic . . . and if life were fuller of them and every moment of it so arranged that we were compelled to tremble for our lives all the time . . . By God! life would be livelier and even fuller of interest and energy than it is!"
"That means that people would all go about cutting one another's throats," explained Abyedok smilingly.
"Well, what about it?" asked the Captain angrily. He did not like to hear his thoughts illustrated.
"Oh! Nothing! When a person wants to get anywhere quickly he whips up the horses, but of course it needs fire to make engines go. . . ."
"Well, let everything go to the Devil as quickly as possible. I'm sure I should be pleased if the earth suddenly opened up or was burned or destroyed somehow . . . only I were left to the last in order to see the others consumed. . . ."
"Ferocious creature!" smiled Abyedok.
"Well, what of that? I . . . I was once a man . . . now I am an outcast . . . that means I have no obligations. It means that I am free to spit on everyone. The nature of my present life means the rejection of my past . . . giving up all relations toward men who are well fed and well dressed, and who look upon me with contempt because I am inferior to them in the matter of feeding or dressing. I must develop something new within myself, do you understand? Something that will make Judas Petunikoff and his kind tremble and perspire before me!"
"Ah! You have a courageous tongue!" jeered Abyedok.
"Yes . . . You miser!" And Kuvalda looked at him contemptuously. "What do you understand? What do you know? Are you able to think? But I have thought and I have read . . . books of which you could not have understood one word."
"Of course! One cannot eat soup out of one's hand . . . But though you have read and thought, and I have not done that or anything else, we both seem to have got into pretty much the same condition, don't we?"
"Go to the Devil!" shouted Kuvalda. His conversations with Abyedok always ended thus. When the teacher was absent his speeches, as a rule, fell on the empty air, and received no attention, and he knew this, but still he could not help speaking. And now, having quarrelled with his companion, he felt rather deserted; but, still longing for conversation, he turned to Simtsoff with the following question:
"And you, Aleksei Maksimovitch, where will you lay your gray head?"
The old man smiled good-humoredly, rubbed his hands, and replied, "I do not know . . . I will see. One does not require much, just a little drink."
"Plain but honorable fare!" the Captain said. Simtsoff was silent, only adding that he would find a place sooner than any of them, because women loved him. This was true. The old man had, as a rule, two or three prostitutes, who kept him on their very scant earnings. They very often beat him, but he took this stoically. They somehow never beat him too much, probably because they pitied him. He was a great lover of women, and said they were the cause of all his misfortunes. The character of his relations toward them was confirmed by the appearance of his clothes, which, as a rule, were tidy, and cleaner than those of his companions. And now, sitting at the door of the dosshouse, he boastingly related that for a long time past Redka had been asking him to go and live with her, but he had not gone because he did not want to part with the company. They heard this with jealous interest. They all knew Redka. She lived very near the town, almost below the mountain. Not long ago, she had been in prison for theft. She was a retired nurse; a tall, stout peasant woman with a face marked by smallpox, but with very pretty, though always drunken, eyes.
"Just look at the old devil!" swore Abyedok, looking at Simtsoff, who was smiling in a self-satisfied way.
"And do you know why they love me? Because I know how to cheer up their souls."
"Do you?" inquired Kuvalda.
"And I can make them pity me . . . And a woman, when she pities! Go and weep to her, and ask her to kill you . . . she will pity you--and she will kill you."
"I feel inclined to commit a murder," declared Martyanoff, laughing his dull laugh.
"Upon whom?" asked Abyedok, edging away from him.
"It's all the same to me . . . Petunikoff . . . Egorka or even you!"
"And why?" inquired Kuvalda.
"I want to go to Siberia . . . I have had enough of this vile life . . . one learns how to live there!"
"Yes, they have a particularly good way of teaching in Siberia," agreed the Captain sadly.
They spoke no more of Petunikoff, or of the turning out of the inhabitants of the dosshouse. They all knew that they would have to leave soon, therefore they did not think the matter worth discussion. It would do no good, and besides the weather was not very cold though the rains had begun . . . and it would be possible to sleep on the ground anywhere outside the town. They sat in a circle on the grass and conversed about all sorts of things, discussing one subject after another, and listening attentively even to the poor speakers in order to make the time pass; keeping quiet was as dull as listening. This society of "creatures that once were men" had one fine characteristic--no one of them endeavored to make out that he was better than the others, nor compelled the others to acknowledge his superiority.
The August sun seemed to set their tatters on fire as they sat with their backs and uncovered heads exposed to it . . . a chaotic mixture of the vegetable, mineral, and animal kingdoms. In the corners of the yard the tall steppe grass grew luxuriantly . . . Nothing else grew there but some dingy vegetables, not attractive even to those who nearly always felt the pangs of hunger.
Next: Section VI