Maxim Gorky

Section VI

The following was the scene that took place in Vaviloff's eating-house.

Young Petunikoff entered slowly, took off his hat, looked around him, and said to the eating-house keeper:

"Egor Terentievitch Vaviloff? Are you he?"

"I am," answered the sergeant, leaning on the bar with both arms as if intending to jump over it.

"I have some business with you," said Petunikoff.

"Delighted. Please come this way to my private room."

They went in and sat down, the guest on the couch and his host on the chair opposite to him. In one corner a lamp was burning before a gigantic icon, and on the wall at the other side there were several oil lamps. They were well kept and shone as if they were new. The room, which contained a number of boxes and a variety of furniture, smelt of tobacco, sour cabbage, and olive oil. Petunikoff looked around him and made a face. Vaviloff looked at the icon, and then they looked simultaneously at one another, and both seemed to be favorably impressed. Petunikoff liked Vaviloff's frankly thievish eyes, and Vaviloff was pleased with the open cold, determined face of Petunikoff, with its large cheeks and white teeth.

"Of course you already know me, and I presume you guess what I am going to say to you," began Petunikoff.

"About the lawsuit? . . . I presume?" remarked the ex-sergeant respectfully.

"Exactly! I am glad to see that you are not beating about the bush, but going straight to the point like a business man," said Petunikoff encouragingly.

"I am a soldier," answered Vaviloff, with a modest air.

"That is easily seen, and I am sure we shall be able to finish this job without much trouble."

"Just so."

"Good! You have the law on your side, and will, of course, win your case. I want to tell you this at the very beginning."

"I thank you most humbly," said the sergeant, rubbing his eyes in order to hide the smile in them.

"But tell me, why did you make the acquaintance of your future neighbors like this through the law courts?"

Vaviloff shrugged his shoulders and did not answer.

"It would have been better to come straight to us and settle the matter peacefully, eh? What do you think?"

"That would have been better, of course, but you see there is a difficulty . . . I did not follow my own wishes, but those of others . . . I learned afterward that it would have been better if . . . but it was too late."

"Oh! I suppose some lawyer taught you this?"

"Someone of that sort."

"Aha! Do you wish to settle the affair peacefully,"

"With all my heart!" cried the soldier.

Petunikoff was silent for a moment, then looked at him, and suddenly asked, coldly and dryly, "And why do you wish to do so?"

Vaviloff did not expect such a question, and therefore had no reply ready. In his opinion the question was quite unworthy of any attention, and so he laughed at young Petunikoff.

"That is easy to understand. Men like to live peacefully with one another."

"But," interrupted Petunikoff, "that is not exactly the reason why. As far as I can see, you do not distinctly understand why you wish to be reconciled to us . . . I will tell you."

The soldier was a little surprised. This youngster, dressed in a check suit, in which he looked ridiculous, spoke as if he were Colonel Rakshin, who used to knock three of the unfortunate soldier's teeth out every time he was angry.

"You want to be friends with us because we should be such useful neighbors to you . . . because there will be not less than a hundred and fifty workmen in our factory, and in course of time even more. If a hundred men come and drink one glass at your place, after receiving their weekly wages, that means that you will sell every month four hundred glasses more than you sell at present. This is, of course, the lowest estimate and then you have the eating-house besides. You are not a fool, and you can understand for yourself what profitable neighbors we shall be."

"That is true," Vaviloff nodded "I knew that before."

"Well, what then?" asked the merchant loudly.

"Nothing . . . let us be friends!"

"It is nice to see that you have decided so quickly. Look here, I have already prepared a notification to the court of the withdrawal of the summons against my father. Here it is; read it, and sign it."

Vaviloff looked at his companion with his round eyes and shivered, as if experiencing an unpleasant sensation.

"Pardon me . . . sign it? And why?"

"There is no difficulty about it . . . write your Christian name and surname and nothing more," explained Petunikoff, pointing obligingly with his finger to the place for the signature.

"Oh! It is not that . . . I was alluding to the compensation I was to get for my ground."

"But then this ground is of no use to you," said Petunikoff calmly.

"But it is mine!" exclaimed the soldier.

"Of course, and how much do you want for it?"

"Well, say the amount stated in the document," said Vaviloff boldly.

"Six hundred!" and Petunikoff smiled softly. "You are a funny fellow!"

"The law is on my side . . . I can even demand two thousand. I can insist on your pulling down the building . . . and enforce it too. That is why my claim is so small. I demand that you should pull it down!"

"Very well. Probably we shall do so . . . after three years, and after having dragged you into enormous law expenses.

And then, having paid up, we shall open our public-house, and you will he ruined . . . annihilated like the Swedes at Poltava. We shall see that you are ruined . . . we will take good care of that. We could have begun to arrange about a public-house now, but you see our time is valuable, and besides we are sorry for you. Why should we take the bread out of your mouth without any reason?"

Egor Terentievitch looked at his guest, clenching his teeth, and felt that he was master of the situation, and held his fate in his hands. Vaviloff was full of pity for himself at having to deal with this calm, cruel figure in the checked suit.

"And being such a near neighbor you might have gained a good deal by helping us, and we should have remembered it too. Even now, for instance, I should advise you to open a small shop for tobacco, you know, bread, cucumbers, and so on . . . All these are sure to be in great demand."

Vaviloff listened, and being a clever man, knew that to throw himself upon the enemy's generosity was the better plan. It was as well to begin from the beginning, and, not knowing what else to do to relieve his mind, the soldier began to swear at Kuvalda.

"Curses be upon your head, you drunken rascal! May the Devil take you!"

"Do you mean the lawyer who composed your petition?" asked Petunikoff calmly, and added, with a sigh, "I have no doubt he would have landed you in rather an awkward fix . . . had we not taken pity upon you."

"Ah!" And the angry soldier raised his hand.

"There are two of them . . . One of them discovered it, the other wrote the petition, the accursed reporter!"

"Why the reporter?"

"He writes for the papers . . . He is one of your lodgers . . . there they all are outside . . . Clear them away, for Christ's sake! The robbers! They disturb and annoy everyone in the street. One cannot live for them . . . And they are all desperate fellows . . . You had better take care, or else they will rob or burn you.

"And this reporter, who is he?" asked Petunikoff, with interest.

"He? A drunkard. He was a teacher, but was dismissed. He drank everything he possessed . . . and now he writes for the papers and composes petitions. He is a very wicked man!"

"H'm! And did he write your petition, too? I suppose it was he who discovered the flaws in the building. The beams were not rightly put in?"

"He did! I know it for a fact! The dog! He read it aloud in here and boasted, 'Now I have caused Petunikoff some loss!'"

"Ye--es . . . Well, then, do you want to be reconciled?"

"To be reconciled?" The soldier lowered his head and thought. "Ah! This is a hard life!" said he, in a querulous voice, scratching his head.

"One must learn by experience, Petunikoff reassured him, lighting a cigarette.

"Learn . . . It is not that, my dear sir; but don't you see there is no freedom? Don't you see what a life I lead?

I live in fear and trembling . . . I am refused the freedom so desirable to me in my movements, and I fear this ghost of a teacher will write about me in the papers. Sanitary inspectors will be called for . . . fines will have to be paid . . . or else your lodgers will set fire to the place or rob and kill me . . . I am powerless against them. They are not the least afraid of the police, and they like going to prison, because they get their food for nothing there."

"But then we will have them turned out if we come to terms with you," promised Petunikoff.

"What shall we arrange, then?" asked Vaviloff sadly and seriously.

"Tell me your terms."

"Well, give me the six hundred mentioned in the claim."

"Won't you take a hundred roubles?" asked the merchant calmly, looking attentively at his companion, and smiling softly. "I will not give you one rouble more" . . . he added.

After this, he took out his eyeglasses and began cleaning them with his handkerchief. Vaviloff looked at him sadly and respectfully. The calm face of Petunikoff, his gray eyes and clear complexion, every line of his thickset body betokened self-confidence and a well-balanced mind. Vaviloff also liked Petunikoff's straightforward manner of addressing him without any pretensions, as if he were his own brother, though Vaviloff understood well enough that he was his superior, he being only a soldier.

Looking at him, he grew fonder and fonder of him, and, forgetting for a moment the matter in hand, respectfully asked Petunikoff:

"Where did you study?"

"In the technological institute. Why?" answered the other, smiling:

"Nothing. Only . . . excuse me!" The soldier lowered his head, and then suddenly exclaimed, "What a splendid thing education is! Science--light. My brother, I am as stupid as an owl before the sun . . . Your honor, let us finish this job."

With an air of decision he stretched out his hand to Petunikoff and said:

"Well, five hundred?"

"Not more than one hundred roubles, Egor Tereutievitch."

Petunikoff shrugged his shoulders as if sorry at being unable to give more, and touched the soldier's hairy hand with his long white fingers. They soon ended the matter, for the soldier gave in quickly and met Petunikoff's wishes. And when Vaviloff had received the hundred roubles and signed the paper, he threw the pen down on the table and said bitterly:

"Now I will have a nice time! They will laugh at me, they will cry shame on me, the devils!"

"But you tell them that I paid all your claim," suggested Petunikoff, calmly puffing out clouds of smoke and watching them float upward.

"But do you think they will believe it? They are as clever swindlers if not worse . . ."

Vaviloff stopped himself in time before making the intended comparison, and looked at the merchant's son in terror.

The other smoked on, and seemed to be absorbed in that occupation. He went away soon, promising to destroy the nest of vagabonds. Vaviloff looked after him and sighed, feeling as if he would like to shout some insult at the young man who was going with such firm steps toward the steep road, encumbered with its ditches and heaps of rubbish.

In the evening the Captain appeared in the eatinghouse. His eyebrows were knit and his fist clenched. Vaviloff smiled at him in a guilty manner.

"Well, worthy descendant of Judas and Cain, tell us. . . ."

"They decided" . . . said Vaviloff, sighing and lowering his eyes.

"I don't doubt it; how many silver pieces did you receive?"

"Four hundred roubles"

"Of course you are lying . . . But all the better for me. Without any further words, Egorka, ten per cent. of it for my discovery, four per cent. to the teacher for writing the petition, one 'vedro' of vodki to all of us, and refreshments all round. Give me the money now, the vodki and refreshments will do at eight o'clock."

Vaviloff turned purple with rage, and stared at Kuvalda with wide-open eyes.

"This is humbug! This is robbery! I will do nothing of the sort. What do you mean, Aristid Fomich? Keep your appetite for the next feast! I am not afraid of you now. . . ."

Kuvalda looked at the clock.

"I give you ten minutes, Egorka, for your idiotic talk."

"Finish your nonsense by that time and give me what I demand. If you don't I will devour you! Kanets has sold you something? Did you read in the paper about the theft at Basoff's house? Do you understand? You won't have time to hide anything, we will not let you . . . and this very night . . . do you understand?"

"Why, Aristid Fomich?" sobbed the discomfited merchant.

"No more words! Did you understand or not?"

Tall, gray, and imposing, Kuvalda spoke in half whispers, and his deep bass voice rang through the house Vaviloff always feared him because he was not only a retired military man, but a man who had nothing to lose. But now Kuvalda appeared before him in a new role. He did not speak much, and jocosely as usual, but spoke in the tone of a commander, who was convinced of the other's guilt. And Vaviloff felt that the Captain could and would ruin him with the greatest pleasure. He must needs bow before this power. Nevertheless, the soldier thought of trying him once more. He sighed deeply, and began with apparent calmness:

"It is truly said that a man's sin will find him out . . . I lied to you, Aristid Fomich, . . . I tried to be cleverer than I am . . . I only received one hundred roubles."

"Go on!" said Kuvalda.

"And not four hundred as I told you . . . That means. . . ."

"It does not mean anything. It is all the same to me whether you lied or not. You owe me sixty-five roubles. That is not much, eh?"

"Oh! my Lord! Aristid Fomich! I have always been attentive to your honor and done my best to please you.

"Drop all that, Egorka, grandchild of Judas!"

"All right! I will give it you . . . only God will punish you for this. . . ."

"Silence! You rotten pimple of the earth!" shouted the Captain, rolling his eyes. "He has punished me enough already in forcing me to have conversation with you . . . I will kill you on the spot like a fly!"

He shook his fist in Vaviloff's face and ground his teeth till they nearly broke.

After he had gone Vaviloff began smiling and winking to himself. Then two large drops rolled down his cheeks. They were grayish, and they hid themselves in his moustache, while two others followed them. Then Vaviloff went into his own room and stood before the icon, stood there without praying, immovable, with the salt tears running down his wrinkled brown cheeks. . . .

Next: Section VII