All things are relative in this world, and a man cannot sink into any condition so bad that it could not be worse. One day, toward the end of September, Captain Aristid Kuvalda was sitting, as was his custom, on the bench near the door of the dosshouse, looking at the stone building built by the merchant Petunikoff close to Vaviloff's eating-house, and thinking deeply. This building, which was partly surrounded by woods, served the purpose of a candle factory.
Painted red, as if with blood, it looked like a cruel machine which, though not working, opened a row of deep, hungry, gaping jaws, as if ready to devour and swallow anything. The gray wooden eating-house of Vaviloff, with its bent roof covered with patches, leaned against one of the brick walls of the factory, and seemed as if it were some large form of parasite clinging to it. The Captain was thinking that they would very soon be making new houses to replace the old building. "They will destroy the dosshouse even," he reflected. "It will be necessary to look out for another, but such a cheap one is not to be found. It seems a great pity to have to leave a place to which one is accustomed, though it will be necessary to go, simply because some merchant or other thinks of manufacturing candles and soap." And the Captain felt that if he could only make the life of such an enemy miserable, even temporarily, oh! with what pleasure he would do it!
Yesterday, Ivan Andreyevitch Petunikoff was in the dosshouse yard with his son and an architect. They measured the yard and put small wooden sticks in various places, which, after the exit of Petunikoff and at the order of the Captain, Meteor took out and threw away. To the eyes of the Captain this merchant appeared small and thin. He wore a long garment like a frock-coat, a velvet cap, and high, well-cleaned boots. He had a thin face with prominent cheek-bones, a wedge-shaped grayish beard, and a high forehead seamed with wrinkles from beneath which shone two narrow, blinking, and observant gray eyes . . . a sharp, gristly nose, a small mouth with thin lips . . . altogether his appearance was pious, rapacious, and respectably wicked.
"Cursed cross-bred fox and pig!" swore the Captain under his breath, recalling his first meeting with Petunikoff. The merchant came with one of the town councillors to buy the house, and seeing the Captain asked his companion:
"Is this your lodger?"
And from that day, a year and a half ago, there has been keen competition among the inhabitants of the dosshouse as to which can swear the hardest at the merchant. And last night there was a "slight skirmish with hot words," as the Captain called it, between Petunikoff and himself. Having dismissed the architect the merchant approached the Captain.
"What are you hatching?" asked he, putting his hand to his cap, perhaps to adjust it, perhaps as a salutation.
"What are you plotting?" answered the Captain in the same tone. He moved his chin so that his beard trembled a little; a non-exacting person might have taken it for a bow; otherwise it only expressed the desire of the Captain to move his pipe from one corner of his mouth to the other. "You see, having plenty of money, I can afford to sit hatching it. Money is a good thing, and I possess it," the Captain chaffed the merchant, casting cunning glances at him. "It means that you serve money, and not money you," went on Kuvalda, desiring at the same time to punch the merchant's belly.
"Isn't it all the same? Money makes life comfortable, but no money," . . . and the merchant looked at the Captain with a feigned expression of suffering. The other's upper lip curled, and exposed large, wolf-like teeth.
"With brains and a conscience, it is possible to live without it. Men only acquire riches when they cease to listen to their conscience . . . the less conscience the more money!"
"Just so; but then there are men who have neither money nor conscience."
"Were you just like what you are now when you were young?" asked Kuvalda simply. The other's nostrils twitched. Ivan Andreyevitch sighed, passed his hand over his eyes and said:
"Oh! When I was young I had to undergo a great many difficulties . . . Work! Oh! I did work!"
"And you cheated, too, I suppose?"
"People like you? Nobles? I should just think so! They used to grovel at my feet!"
"You only went in for robbing, not murder, I suppose?" asked the Captain. Petunikoff turned pale, and hastily changed the subject.
"You are a bad host. You sit while your guest stands."
"Let him sit, too," said Kuvalda.
"But what am I to sit on?"
"On the earth . . . it will take any rubbish . . ."
"You are the proof of that," said Petunikoff quietly, while his eyes shot forth poisonous glances.
And he went away, leaving Kuvalda under the pleasant impression that the merchant was afraid of him. If he were not afraid of him he would long ago have evicted him from the dosshouse.
But then he would think twice before turning him out, because of the five roubles a month. And the Captain gazed with pleasure at Petunikoff's back as he slowly retreated from the court-yard. Following him with his eyes, he noticed how the merchant passed the factory and disappeared into the wood, and he wished very much that he might fall and break all his bones. He sat imagining many horrible forms of disaster while watching Petunikoff, who was descending the hill into the wood like a spider going into its web. Last night he even imagined that the wood gave way before the merchant and he fell . . . but afterward he found that he had only been dreaming.
And to-day, as always, the red building stands out before the eyes of Aristid Kuvalda, so plain, so massive, and clinging so strongly to the earth, that it seems to be sucking away all its life. It appears to be laughing coldly at the Captain with its gaping walls. The sun pours its rays on them as generously as it does on the miserable hovels of the main street.
"Devil take the thing!" exclaimed the Captain, thoughtfully measuring the walls of the factory with his eyes. "If only . . . ." Trembling with excitement at the thought that had just entered his mind Aristid Kuvalda jumped up and ran to Vaviloff's eating-house muttering to himself all the time.
Vaviloff met him at the bar and gave him a friendly welcome.
"I wish your honor good health!" He was of middle height and had a bald head, gray hair, and straight mustaches like tooth-brushes. Upright and neat in his clean jacket, he showed by every movement that he was an old soldier.
"Egorka, show me the lease and plan of your house," demanded Kuvalda impatiently.
"I have shown it you before." Vaviloff looked up suspiciously and closely scanned the Captain's face.
"Show it me!" shouted the Captain, striking the bar with his fist and sitting down on a stool close by.
"But why?" asked Vaviloff, knowing that it was better to keep his wits about him when Kuvalda got excited.
"You fool! Bring it at once."
Vaviloff rubbed his forehead, and turned his eyes to the ceiling in a tired way.
"Where are those papers of yours?"
There was no answer to this on the ceiling, so the old sergeant looked down at the floor, and began drumming with his fingers on the bar in a worried and thoughtful manner.
"It's no good your making wry faces!" shouted the Captain, for he had no great affection for him, thinking that a former soldier should rather have become a thief than an eating-house keeper.
"Oh! Yes! Aristid Fomich, I remember now. They were left at the High Court of Justice at the time when I came into possession."
"Get along, Egorka! It is to your own interest to show me the plan, the title-deeds, and everything you have immediately. You will probably clear at least a hundred roubles over this, do you understand?"
Vaviloff did not understand at all; but the Captain spoke in such a serious and convincing tone that the sergeant's eyes burned with curiosity, and, telling him that he would see if the papers were in his desk, he went through the door behind the bar.
Two minutes later he returned with the papers in his hand, and an expression of extreme astonishment on his face.
"Here they are; the deeds about the damned houses!"
"Ah! You . . . vagabond! And you pretend to have been a soldier, too!" And Kuvalda did not cease to belabor him with his tongue, as he snatched the blue parchment from his hands. Then, spreading the papers out in front of him, and excited all the more by Vaviloff's inquisitiveness, the Captain began reading and bellowing at the same time. At last he got up resolutely, and went to the door, leaving all the papers on the bar, and saying to Vaviloff:
"Wait! Don't lift them!"
Vaviloff gathered them lip, put them into the cashbox, and locked it, then felt the lock with his hand, to see if it were secure. After that, he scratched his bald head, thoughtfully, and went up on the roof of the eating-house. There he saw the Captain measuring the front of the house, and watched him anxiously, as he snapped his fingers, and began measuring the same line over again. Vaviloff's face lit up suddenly, and he smiled happily.
"Aristid, Fomich, is it possible?" he shouted, when the Captain came opposite to him.
"Of course it is possible. There is more than one short in the front alone, and as to the depth I shall see immediately."
"The depth . . . seventy-three feet."
"What? Have you guessed, you shaved, ugly face?"
"Of course, Aristid Fomich! If you have eyes you can see a thing or two," shouted Vaviloff joyfully.
A few minutes afterward they sat side by side in Vaviloff's parlor, and the Captain was engaged in drinking large quantities of beer.
"And so all the walls of the factory stand on your ground," said he to the eating-house keeper. "Now, mind you show no mercy! The teacher will be here presently, and we will get him to draw up a petition to the court. As to the amount of the damages you will name a very moderate sum in order not to waste money in deed stamps, but we will ask to have the factory knocked down. This, you see, donkey, is the result of trespassing on other people's property. It is a splendid piece of luck for you. We will force him to have the place smashed, and I can tell you it will be an expensive job for him. Off with you to the court. Bring pressure to bear on Judas. We will calculate how much it will take to break the factory down to its very foundations. We will make an estimate of it all, counting the time it will take too, and we will make honest Judas pay two thousand roubles besides."
"He will never give it!" cried Vaviloff, but his eyes shone with a greedy light.
"You lie! He will give it . . . Use your brains . . . What else can he do? But look here, Egorka, mind you, don't go in for doing it on the cheap. They are sure to fry to buy you off. Don't sell yourself cheap. They will probably use threats, but rely upon us. . . ."
The Captain's eyes were alight with happiness, and his face with excitement. He worked upon Vaviloff's greed, and urging upon him the importance of immediate action in the matter, went away in a very joyful and happy frame of mind.
Next: Section V