Deacon Taras, who, as a rule, loved to loiter in the woods and fields, proposed to the "creatures that once were men" that they should go together into the fields, and there drink Vaviloff's vodki in the bosom of Nature. But the Captain and all the rest swore at the Deacon, and decided to drink it in the courtyard.
"One, two, three," counted Aristid Fomich; "our full number is thirty, the teacher is not here . . . but probably many other outcasts will come. Let us calculate, say, twenty persons, and to every person two-and-a-half cucumbers, a pound of bread, and a pound of meat . . . That won't be bad! One bottle of vodki each, and there is plenty of sour cabbage, and three watermelons.
I ask you, what the devil could you want more, my scoundrel friends? Now, then, let us prepare to devour Egorka Vaviloff, because all this is his blood and body!"
They spread some old clothes on the ground, setting the delicacies and the drink on them, and sat around the feast, solemnly and quietly, but almost unable to control the craving for drink that was shining in their eyes.
The evening began to fall, and its shadows were cast on the human refuse of the earth in the courtyard of the dosshouse; the last rays of the sun illumined the roof of the tumble-down building. The night was cold and silent.
"Let us begin, brothers!" commanded the Captain.
"How many cups have we? Six . . . and there are thirty of us! Aleksei Maksimovitch, pour it out. Is it ready? Now then, the first toast . . . Come along!"
They drank and shouted, and began to eat.
"The teacher is not here . . . I have not seen him for three days. Has anyone seen him?" asked Kuvalda.
"It is unlike . . . Let us drink to the health of Aristid Kuvalda . . . the only friend who has never deserted me for one moment of my life! Devil take him all the same! I might have had something to wear had he left my society at least for a little while."
"You are bitter . . ." said Abyedok, and coughed.
The Captain, with his feeling of superiority to the others, never talked with his mouth full.
Having drunk twice, the company began to grow merry; the food was grateful to them.
Paltara Taras expressed his desire to hear a tale, but the Deacon was arguing with Kubaroff over his preferring thin women to stout ones, and paid no attention to his friend's request. He was asserting his views on the subject to Kubaroff with all the decision of a man who was deeply convinced in his own mind.
The foolish face of Meteor, who was lying on the ground, showed that he was drinking in the Deacon's strong words.
Martyanoff sat, clasping his large hairy hands round his knees, looking silently and sadly at the bottle of vodki and pulling his moustache as if trying to bite it with his teeth, while Abyedok was teasing Tyapa.
"I have seen you watching the place where your money is hidden !"
"That is jour luck," shouted Tyapa.
"I will go halves with you, brother."
"All right, take it and welcome."
Kuvalda felt angry with these men. Among them all there was not one worthy of hearing his oratory or of understanding him.
"I wonder where the teacher is?" he asked loudly.
Martyanoff looked at him and said, "He will come soon.. . ."
"I am positive that he will come, but he won't come in a carriage. Let us drink to your future health. If you kill any rich man go halves with me . . . then I shall go to America, brother. To those . . . what do you call them? Limpas? Pampas?
I will go there and I will work my way until I become the President of the United States, and then I will challenge the whole of Europe to war and I will blow it up! I will buy the army . . . in Europe that is--I will invite the French, the Germans, the Turks, and so on, and I will kill them by the hands of their own relatives . . . Just as Elia Marumets bought a Tartar with a Tartar. With money it would be possible even for Elia to destroy the whole of Europe and to take Judas Petunikoff for his valet. He would go . . . Give him a hundred roubles a month and he would go! But he would be a bad valet, because he would soon begin to steal. . . ."
"Now, besides that, the thin woman is better than the stout one, because she costs one less," said the Deacon, convincingly. "My first Deaconess used to buy twelve arshins for her clothes, but the second one only ten. And so on even in the matter of provisions and food."
Paltara Taras smiled guiltily. Turning his head towards the Deacon and looking straight at him, he said, with conviction:
"I had a wife once, too."
"Oh! That happens to everyone," remarked Kuvalda; but go on with your lies."
"She was thin, but she ate a lot, and even died from over-eating."
"You poisoned her, you hunchback!" said Abyedok, confidently.
"No, by God I It was from eating sturgeon," said Paltara Taras.
"But I say that you poisoned her!" declared Abyedok, decisively.
It often happened, that having said something absolutely impossible and without proof, he kept on repeating it, beginning in a childish, capricious tone, and gradually raising his voice to a mad shriek.
The Deacon stood up for his friend. "No; he did not poison her. He had no reason to do so."
"But I say that he poisoned her!" swore Abyedok.
"Silence!" shouted the Captain, threateningly, becoming still angrier. He looked at his friends with his blinking eyes, and not discovering anything to further provoke his rage in their half-tipsy faces, he lowered his head, sat still for a little while, and then turned over on his back on the ground. Meteor was biting cucumbers. He took a cucumber in his hand without looking at it, put nearly half of it into his mouth, and bit it with his yellow teeth, so that the juice spurted out in all directions and ran over his cheeks. He did not seem to want to eat, but this process pleased him. Martyanoff sat motionless on the ground, like a statue, and looked in a dull manner at the half-vedro bottle, already getting empty. Abyedok lay on his belly and coughed, shaking all over his small body. The rest of the dark, silent figures sat and lay around in all sorts of positions, and their tatters made them look like untidy animals, created by some strange, uncouth deity to make a mockery of man.
"There once lived a lady in Suzdale, A strange lady, She fell into hysterics, Most unpleasantly!"
sang the Deacon in low tones embracing Aleksei Maksimovitch, who was smiling kindly into his face.
Paltaras Taras giggled voluptuously.
The night was approaching. High up in the sky the stars were shining . . . and on the mountain and in the town the lights of the lamps were appearing. The whistles of the steamers were heard all over the river, and the doors of Yaviloff's eating-house opened noisily. Two dark figures entered the courtyard, and one of them asked in a hoarse voice:
"Are you drinking?" And the other said in a jealous aside:
"Just see what devils they are!"
Then a hand stretched over the Deacon's head and took away the bottle, and the characteristic sound of vodki being poured into a glass was heard. Then they all protested loudly.
"Oh this is sad!" shouted the Deacon. "Krivoi, let us remember the ancients! Let us sing 'On the Banks of Babylonian Rivers.'"
"But can he?" asked Simtsoff.
"He? He was a chorister in the Bishop's choir. Now then, Krivoi! . . . On the r-i-v-e-r-s-----" The Deacon's voice was loud and hoarse and cracked, but his friend sang in a shrill falsetto.
The dirty building loomed large in the darkness and seemed to be coming nearer, threatening the singers, who were arousing its dull echoes. The heavy, pompous clouds were floating in the sky over their heads. One of the "creatures that once were men" was snoring; while the rest of them, not yet so drunk as he was, ate and drank quietly or spoke to each other at long intervals.
It was unusual for them to be in such low spirits during such a feast, with so much vodki. Somehow the drink tonight did not seem to have its usual exhilarating effect.
"Stop howling, you dogs!" . . . said the Captain to the singers, raising his head from the ground to listen.
"Some one is passing . . . in a droshky. . . ."
A droshky at such a time in the main street could not but attract general attention. Who would risk crossing the ditches between it and the town, and why? They all raised their heads and listened. In the silence of the night the wheels were distinctly heard. They came gradually nearer. A voice was heard, asking roughly:
"Well, where then?"
Someone answered, "It must be there, that house."
"I shall not go any farther."
"They are coming here!" shouted the Captain.
"The police!" someone whispered in great alarm.
"In a droshky! Fool!" said Martyanoff, quietly.
Kuvalda got up and went to the entrance.
"Is this a lodging-house?" asked someone, in a trembling voice.
"Yes. Belonging to Aristid Kuvalda . . ." said the Captain, roughly.
"Oh! Did a reporter, one Titoff, live here?"
"Aha! Have you brought him?"
"Yes. . . ."
"That means he is very drunk. Ay, teacher! Now, then, get up!"
"Wait, I will help you . . . He is very ill . . . he has been with me for the last two days . . . Take him under the arms . . . The doctor has seen him. He is very bad."
Tyapa got up and walked to the entrance, but Abyedok laughed, and took another drink.
"Strike a light, there!" shouted the Captain.
Meteor went into the house and lighted the lamp. Then a thin line of light streamed out over the courtyard, and the Captain and another man managed to get the teacher into the dosshouse. His head was hanging on his breast, his feet trailed on the ground, and his arms hung limply as if broken. With Tyapa's help they placed him on a wide board. He was shivering all over.
"We worked on the same paper . . . he is very unlucky . . . I said, 'Stay in my house, you are not in the way,' . . . but he begged me to send him 'home.' He was so excited about it that I brought him here, thinking it might do him good . . . Home! This is it, isn't it?"
"Do you suppose he has a home anywhere else?" asked Kuvalda, roughly, looking at his friend. "Tyapa, fetch me some cold water."
"I fancy I am of no more use," remarked the man in some confusion. The Captain looked at him critically. His clothes were rather shiny, and tightly buttoned up to his chin. His trousers were frayed, his hat almost yellow with age and crumpled like his lean and hungry face.
"No, you are not necessary! We have plenty like you here," said the Captain, turning away.
"Then, good-bye!" The man went to the door, and said quietly from there, "If anything happens . . . let me know in the publishing office . . . My name is Rijoff. I might write a short obituary . . . You see he was an active member of the Press."
"H'm, an obituary, you say? Twenty lines forty kopecks? I will do more than that. When he dies I will cut off one of his legs and send it to you. That will be much more profitable than an obituary. It will last you for three days . . . His legs are fat. You devoured him when he was alive. You may as well continue to do so after he is dead. . . ."
The man sniffed strangely and disappeared. The Captain sat down on the wooden board beside the teacher, felt his forehead and breast with his hands and called "Philip!"
The sound re-echoed from the dirty walls of the dosshouse and died away.
"This is absurd, brother," said the Captain, quietly arranging the teacher's untidy hair with his hand. Then the Captain listened to his breathing, which was rapid and uneven, and looked at his sunken gray face. He sighed and looked upon him, knitting his eyebrows. The lamp was a bad one . . . The light was fitful, and dark shadows flickered on the dosshouse walls. The Captain watched them, scratching his beard.
Tyapa returned, bringing a vedro of water, and placing it beside the teacher's head, he took his arm as if to raise him up.
"The water is not necessary," and the Captain shook his head.
"But we must try to revive him," said the old rag-collector.
"Nothing is needed," said the Captain, decidedly.
They sat silently looking at the teacher.
"Let us go and drink, old devil!"
"Can you do him any good?"
Tyapa turned his back on the teacher, and both went out into the courtyard to their companions.
"What is it?" asked Abyedok, turning his sharp nose to the old man.
The snoring of those who were asleep, and the tinkling sound of pouring vodki was heard . . . The Deacon was murmuring something. The clouds swam low, so low that it seemed as if they would touch the roof of the house and would knock it over on the group of men.
"Ah! One feels sad when someone near at hand is dying," faltered the Captain, with his head down. No one answered him.
"He was the best among you . . . the cleverest, the most respectable. I mourn for him."
"R-e-s-t with the Saints . . . Sing, you crooked hunchback!" roared the Deacon, digging his friend in the ribs.
"Be quiet!" shouted Abyedok, jumping vengefully to his feet.
"I will give him one on the head," proposed Martyanoff, raising his head from the ground.
"You are not asleep?" Aristid Fomich asked him very softly. "Have you heard about our teacher?"
Martyanoff lazily got up from the ground, looked at the line of light coming out of the dosshouse, shook his head and silently sat down beside the Captain.
"Nothing particular . . . The man is dying remarked the Captain, shortly.
"Have they been beating him?" asked Abyedok, with great interest. The Captain gave no answer. He was drinking vodki at the moment. "They must have known we had something in which to commemorate him after his death!" continued Abyedok, lighting a cigarette. Someone laughed, someone sighed. Generally speaking, the conversation of Abyedok and the Captain did not interest them, and they hated having to think at all. They had always felt the teacher to be an uncommon man, but now many of them were drunk and the others sad and silent. Only the Deacon suddenly drew himself up straight and howled wildly:
"And may the righteous r-e-s-t!"
"You idiot!" hissed Abyedok. "What are you howling for?"
"Fool!" said Tyapa's hoarse voice. "When a man is dying one must be quiet . . . so that he may have peace.
Silence reigned once more. The cloudy sky threatened thunder, and the earth was covered with the thick darkness of an autumn night.
"Let us go on drinking!" proposed Kuvalda, filling up the glasses.
"I will go and see if he wants anything," said Tyapa.
"He wants a coffin!" jeered the Captain.
"Don't speak about that," begged Abyedok in a low voice.
Meteor rose and followed Tyapa. The Deacon tried to get up, but fell and swore loudly.
When Tyapa had gone the Captain touched Martyanoff's shoulder and said in low tones:
"Well, Martyanoff . . . You must feel it more then the others. You were . . . But let that go to the Devil . . . Don't you pity Philip?"
"No," said the ex-jailer, quietly, "I do not feel things of this sort, brother . . . I have learned better this life is disgusting after all. I speak seriously when I say that I should like to kill someone."
"Do you?" said the Captain, indistinctly. "Well let's have another drink . . . It's not a long job ours, a little drink and then . . ."
The others began to wake up, and Simtsoff shouted in a blissful voice: "Brothers! One of you pour out a glass for the old man!"
They poured out a glass and gave it to him. Having drunk it he tumbled down again, knocking against another man as he fell. Two or three minutes' silence ensued, dark as the autumn night.
"What do you say?"
"I say that he was a good man . . . a quiet and good man," whispered a low voice.
"Yes, and he had money, too . . . and he never refused it to a friend. . . ."
Again silence ensued.
"He is dying!" said Tyapa, hoarsely, from behind the
Captain's head. Aristid Fomich got up, and went with firm steps into the dosshouse.
"Don't go!" Tyapa stopped him. "Don't go! You are drunk! It is not right." The Captain stopped and thought.
"And what is right on this earth? Go to the Devil!" And he pushed Tyapa aside.
On the walls of the dosshouse the shadows were creeping, seeming to chase each other. The teacher lay on the board at full length and snored. His eyes were wide open, his naked breast rose and fell heavily, the corners of his mouth foamed, and on his face was an expression as if he wished to say something very important, but found it difficult to do so. The Captain stood with his hands behind him, and looked at him in silence. He then began in a silly way:
"Philip! Say something to me . . . a word of comfort to a friend . . . come . . . I love you, brother! All men are beasts . . . You were the only man for me . . . though you were a drunkard. Ah! how you did drink vodki, Philip! That was the ruin of you I You ought to have listened to me, and controlled yourself . . . Did I not once say to you. . . ."
The mysterious, all-destroying reaper, called Death, made up his mind to finish the terrible work quickly, as if insulted by the presence of this drunken man at the dark and solemn struggle. The teacher sighed deeply, and quivered all over, stretched himself out, and died. The Captain stood shaking to and fro, and continued to talk to him.
"Do you want me to bring you vodki? But it is better that you should not drink, Philip . . . control yourself or else drink! Why should you really control yourself? For what reason, Philip? For what reason?"
He took him by the foot and drew him closer to himself.
"Are you dozing, Philip? Well, then, sleep Good-night . . . To-morrow I shall explain all this to you, and you will understand that it is not really necessary to deny yourself anything . . . But go on sleeping now . . . if you are not dead."
He went out to his friends, followed by the deep silence, and informed them:
"Whether he is sleeping or dead, I do not know I am a little drunk."
Tyapa bent further forward than usual and crossed himself respectfully. Martyanoff dropped to the ground and lay there. Abyedok moved quietly, and said in a low and wicked tone:
"May you all go to the Devil! Dead? What of that? Why should I care? Why should I speak about it? It will be time enough when I come to die myself . . . I am not worse than other people."
"That is true," said the Captain, loudly, and fell to the ground. "The time will come when we shall all die like others . . . Ha! ha! How shall we live? That is nothing . . . But we shall die like everyone else, and this is the whole end of life, take my word for it. A man lives only to die, and he dies . . . and if this be so what does it matter how or where he died or how he lived? Am I right, Martyanoff? Let us therefore drink . . . while we still have life!"
The rain began to fall. Thick, close darkness covered the figures that lay scattered over the ground, half drunk, half asleep. The light in the windows of the dosshouse flickered, paled, and suddenly disappeared. Probably the wind blew it out or else the oil was exhausted. The drops of rain sounded strangely on the iron roof of the dosshouse. Above the mountain where the town lay the ringing of bells was heard, rung by the watchers in the churches. The brazen sound coming from the belfry rang out into the dark and died away, and before its last indistinct note was drowned another stroke was heard and the monotonous silence was again broken by the melancholy clang of bells.
Next: Section VIII