Creatures That Once Were Men
Part 1 out of 2
jb-Note: I have made the following changes to the text:
PAGE LINE ORIGINAL CHANGED TO
66 27 'But" But
75 17 listen listen.
75 25 then? then?"
76 1 Fool!' Fool!"
CREATURES THAT ONCE WERE MEN
By MAXIM GORKY
By G. K. CHESTERTON.
It is certainly a curious fact that so many of the voices of what
is called our modern religion have come from countries which are
not only simple, but may even be called barbaric. A nation like
Norway has a great realistic drama without having ever had either
a great classical drama or a great romantic drama. A nation like
Russia makes us feel its modern fiction when we have never felt
its ancient fiction. It has produced its Gissing without
producing its Scott. Everything that is most sad and scientific,
everything that is most grim and analytical, everything that can
truly be called most modern, everything that can without
unreasonableness be called most morbid, comes from these fresh
and untried and unexhausted nationalities. Out of these infant
peoples come the oldest voices of the earth. This contradiction,
like many other contradictions, is one which ought first of all
to be registered as a mere fact; long before we attempt to
explain why things contradict themselves, we ought, if we are
honest men and good critics, to register the preliminary truth
that things do contradict themselves. In this case, as I say,
there are many possible and suggestive explanations. It may be,
to take an example, that our modern Europe is so exhausted that
even the vigorous expression of that exhaustion is difficult for
every one except the most robust. It may be that all the nations
are tired; and it may be that only the boldest and breeziest are
not too tired to say that they are tired. It may be that a man
like Ibsen in Norway or a man like Gorky in Russia are the only
people left who have so much faith that they can really believe
in scepticism. It may be that they are the only people left who
have so much animal spirits that they can really feast high and
drink deep at the ancient banquet of pessimism. This is one of
the possible hypotheses or explanations in the matter: that all
Europe feels these things and that they only have strength to
believe them also. Many other explanations might, however, also
be offered. It might be suggested that half-barbaric countries
like Russia or Norway, which have always lain, to say the least
of it, on the extreme edge of the circle of our European
civilisation, have a certain primal melancholy which belongs to
them through all the ages. It is highly probable that this
sadness, which to us is modern, is to them eternal. It is highly
probable that what we have solemnly and suddenly discovered in
scientific text-books and philosophical magazines they absorbed
and experienced thousands of years ago, when they offered human
sacrifice in black and cruel forests and cried to their gods in
the dark. Their agnosticism is perhaps merely paganism; their
paganism, as in old times, is merely devilworship. Certainly,
Schopenhauer could hardly have written his hideous essay on women
except in a country which had once been full of slavery and the
service of fiends. It may be that these moderns are tricking us
altogether, and are hiding in their current scientific jargon
things that they knew before science or civilisation were. They
say that they are determinists; but the truth is, probably, that
they are still worshipping the Norns. They say that they
describe scenes which are sickening and dehumanising in the name
of art or in the name of truth; but it may be that they do it in
the name of some deity indescribable, whom they propitiated with
blood and terror before the beginning of history.
This hypothesis, like the hypothesis mentioned before it, is
highly disputable, and is at best a suggestion. But there is one
broad truth in the matter which may in any case be considered as
established. A country like Russia has far more inherent
capacity for producing revolution in revolutionists than any
country of the type of England or America. Communities highly
civilised and largely urban tend to a thing which is now called
evolution, the most cautious and the most conservative of all
social influences. The loyal Russian obeys the Czar because he
remembers the Czar and the Czar's importance. The disloyal
Russian frets against the Czar because he also remembers the
Czar, and makes a note of the necessity of knifing him. But the
loyal Englishman obeys the upper classes because he has forgotten
that they are there. Their operation has become to him like
daylight, or gravitation, or any of the forces of nature. And
there are no disloyal Englishmen; there are no English
revolutionists, because the oligarchic management of England is
so complete as to be invisible. The thing which can once get
itself forgotten can make itself omnipotent.
Gorky is pre-eminently Russian, in that he is a revolutionist;
not because most Russians are revolutionists (for I imagine that
they are not), but because most Russians--indeed, nearly all
Russians--are in that attitude of mind which makes revolution
possible and which makes religion possible, an attitude of
primary and dogmatic assertion. To be a revolutionist it is
first necessary to be a revelationist. It is necessary to
believe in the sufficiency of some theory of the universe or the
State. But in countries that have come under the influence of
what is called the evolutionary idea, there has been no dramatic
righting of wrongs, and (unless the evolutionary idea loses its
hold) there never will be. These countries have no revolution,
they have to put up with an inferior and largely fictitious thing
which they call progress.
The interest of the Gorky tale, like the interest of so many
other Russian masterpieces, consists in this sharp contact
between a simplicity, which we in the West feel to be very old,
and a rebelliousness which we in the West feel to be very new.
We cannot in our graduated and polite civilisation quite make
head or tail of the Russian anarch; we can only feel in a vague
way that his tale is the tale of the Missing Link, and that his
head is the head of the superman. We hear his lonely cry of
anger. But we cannot be quite certain whether his protest is the
protest of the first anarchist against government, or whether it
is the protest of the last savage against civilisation. The
cruelty of ages and of political cynicism or necessity has done
much to burden the race of which Gorky writes; but time has left
them one thing which it has not left to the people in Poplar or
West Ham. It has left them, apparently, the clear and childlike
power of seeing the cruelty which encompasses them. Gorky is a
tramp, a man of the people, and also a critic and a bitter one.
In the West poor men, when they become articulate in literature,
are always sentimentalists and nearly always optimists.
It is no exaggeration to say that these people of whom Gorky
writes in such a story as this of "Creatures that once were Men"
are to the Western mind children. They have, indeed, been
tortured and broken by experience and sin. But this has only
sufficed to make them sad children or naughty children or
bewildered children. They have absolutely no trace of that
quality upon which secure government rests so largely in Western
Europe, the quality of being soothed by long words as if by an
incantation. They do not call hunger "economic pressure"; they
call it hunger. They do not call rich men "examples of
capitalistic concentration," they call them rich men. And this
note of plainness and of something nobly prosaic is as
characteristic of Gorky, the most recent and in some ways the
most modern and sophisticated of Russian authors, as it is of
Tolstoy or any of the Tolstoyan type of mind. The very title of
this story strikes the note of this sudden and simple vision.
The philanthropist writing long letters to the Daily Telegraph
says, of men living in a slum, that "their degeneration is of
such a kind as almost to pass the limits of the semblance of
humanity," and we read the whole thing with a tepid assent as we
should read phrases about the virtues of Queen Victoria or the
dignity of the House of Commons. The Russian novelist, when he
describes a dosshouse, says, "Creatures that once were Men." And
we are arrested, and regard the facts as a kind of terrible fairy
tale. This story is a test case of the Russian manner, for it is
in itself a study of decay, a study of failure, and a study of
old age. And yet the author is forced to write even of staleness
freshly; and though he is treating of the world as seen by eyes
darkened or blood-shot with evil experience, his own eyes look
out upon the scene with a clarity that is almost babyish.
Through all runs that curious Russian sense that every man is
only a man, which, if the Russians ever are a democracy, will
make them the most democratic democracy that the world has ever
seen. Take this passage, for instance, from the austere
conclusion of "Creatures that once were Men."
Petunikoff smiled the smile of the conqueror and went back into
the dosshouse, but suddenly he stopped and trembled. At the door
facing him stood an old man with a stick in his hand and a large
bag on his back, a horrible odd man in rags and tatters, which
covered his bony figure. He bent under the weight of his burden,
and lowered his head on his breast, as if he wished to attack the
"What are you? Who are you?" shouted Petunikoff.
"A man . . ." he answered, in a hoarse voice. This hoarseness
pleased and tranquillised Petunikoff, he even smiled.
"A man! And are there really men like you?" Stepping aside he
let the old man pass. He went, saying slowly:
"Men are of various kinds . . . as God wills . . . There are
worse than me . . . still worse . . . Yes . . ."
Here, in the very act of describing a kind of a fall from
humanity, Gorky expresses a sense of the strangeness and
essential value of the human being which is far too commonly
absent altogether from such complex civilisations as our own. To
no Western, I am afraid, would it occur when asked what he was to
say, "A man." He would be a plasterer who had walked from
Reading, or an iron-puddler who had been thrown out of work in
Lancashire, or a University man who would be really most grateful
for the loan of five shillings, or the son of a
lieutenant-general living in Brighton, who would not have made
such an application if he had not known that he was talking to
another gentleman. With us it is not a question of men being of
various kinds; with us the kinds are almost different animals.
But in spite of all Gorky's superficial scepticism and brutality,
it is to him the fall from humanity, or the apparent fall from
humanity, which is not merely great and lamentable, but essential
and even mystical. The line between man and the beasts is one of
the transcendental essentials of every religion; and it is, like
most of the transcendental things of religion, identical with the
main sentiments of the man of common sense. We feel this gulf
when theologies say that it cannot be crossed. But we feel it
quite as much (and that with a primal shudder) when philosophers
or fanciful writers suggest that it might be crossed. And if any
man wishes to discover whether or no he has really learnt to
regard the line between man and brute as merely relative and
evolutionary, let him say again to himself those frightful words,
"Creatures that once were Men."
G. K. CHESTERTON.
Creatures that once were Men.
In front of you is the main street, with two rows of miserable
looking huts with shuttered windows and old walls pressing on
each other and leaning forward. The roofs of these time-worn
habitations are full of holes, and have been patched here and
there with laths; from underneath them project mildewed beams,
which are shaded by the dusty-leaved elder-trees and crooked
white willows--pitiable flora of those suburbs inhabited by the
The dull green time-stained panes of the windows look upon each
other with the cowardly glances of cheats. Through the street and
towards the adjacent mountain, runs the sinuous path, winding
through the deep ditches filled with rain-water. Here and there
are piled heaps of dust and other rubbish--either refuse or else
put there purposely to keep the rain-water from flooding the
houses. On the top of the mountain, among green gardens with
dense foliage, beautiful stone houses lie hidden; the belfries of
the churches rise proudly towards the sky, and their gilded
crosses shine beneath the rays of the sun. During the rainy
weather the neighbouring town pours its water into this main
road, which, at other times, is full of its dust, and all these
miserable houses seem, as it were, thrown by some powerful hand
into that heap of dust, rubbish, and rain-water. They cling to
the ground beneath the high mountain, exposed to the sun,
surrounded by decaying refuse, and their sodden appearance
impresses one with the same feeling as would the half-rotten
trunk of an old tree.
At the end of the main street, as if thrown out of the town,
stood a two-storied house, which had been rented from Petunikoff,
a merchant and resident of the town. It was in comparatively
good order, being further from the mountain, while near it were
the open fields, and about half-a-mile away the river ran its
This large old house had the most dismal aspect amidst its
surroundings. The walls bent outwards and there was hardly a
pane of glass in any of the windows, except some of the fragments
which looked like the water of the marshes--dull green. The
spaces of wall between the windows were covered with spots, as if
time were trying to write there in hieroglyphics the history of
the old house, and the tottering roof added still more to its
pitiable condition. It seemed as if the whole building bent
towards the ground, to await the last stroke of that fate which
should transform it into a chaos of rotting remains, and finally
The gates were open, one half of them displaced and lying on the
ground at the entrance, while between its bars had grown the
grass, which also covered the large and empty court-yard. In the
depths of this yard stood a low, iron-roofed, smoke-begrimed
building. The house itself was of course unoccupied, but this
shed, formerly a blacksmith's forge, was now turned into a
"dosshouse," kept by a retired Captain named Aristid Fomich
In the interior of the dosshouse was a long, wide and grimy
board, measuring some 28 by 70 feet. The room was lighted on one
side by four small square windows, and on the other by a wide
door. The unpainted brick walls were black with smoke, and the
ceiling, which was built of timber, was almost black. In the
middle stood a large stove, the furnace of which served as its
foundation, and around this stove and along the walls were also
long, wide boards, which served as beds for the lodgers. The
walls smelt of smoke, the earthen floor of dampness, and the long
wide board of rotting rags.
The place of the proprietor was on the top of the stove, while
the boards surrounding it were intended for those who were on
good terms with the owner and who were honoured by his
friendship. During the day the captain passed most of his time
sitting on a kind of bench, made by himself by placing bricks
against the wall of the courtyard, or else in the eating house of
Egor Vavilovitch, which was opposite the house, where he took all
his meals and where he also drank vodki.
Before renting this house, Aristid Kuvalda had kept a registry
office for servants in the town. If we look further back into
his former life, we shall find that he once owned printing works,
and previous to this, in his own words, he "just lived! And
lived well too, Devil take it, and like one who knew how!"
He was a tall, broad-shouldered man of fifty, with a rawlooking
face, swollen with drunkenness, and with a dirty yellowish beard.
His eyes were large and grey, with an insolent expression of
happiness. He spoke in a bass voice and with a sort of grumbling
sound in his throat, and he almost always held between his teeth
a German china pipe with a long bowl. When he was angry the
nostrils of his big crooked red nose swelled, and his lips
trembled, exposing to view two rows of large and wolf-like yellow
teeth. He had long arms, was lame, and always dressed in an old
officer's uniform, with a dirty, greasy cap with a red band, a
hat without a brim, and ragged felt boots which reached almost to
his knees. In the morning, as a rule, he had a heavy drunken
headache, and in the evening he caroused. However much he drank,
he was never drunk, and so was always merry.
In the evenings he received lodgers, sitting on his brickmade
bench with his pipe in his mouth.
"Whom have we here?" he would ask the ragged and tattered object
approaching him, who had probably been chucked out of the town
for drunkenness, or perhaps for some other reason not quite so
simple. And after the man had answered him, he would say, "Let
me see legal papers in confirmation of your lies." And if there
were such papers they were shown. The Captain would then put
them in his bosom, seldom taking any interest in them, and would
"Everything is in order. Two kopecks for the night, ten kopecks
for the week, and thirty kopecks for the month. Go and get a
place for yourself, and see that it is not other people's, or
else they will blow you up. The people that live here are
"Don't you sell tea, bread, or anything to eat?"
"I trade only in walls and roofs, for which I pay to the
swindling proprietor of this hole--Judas Petunikoff, merchant of
the second guild--five roubles a month," explained Kuvalda in a
business-like tone. "Only those come to me who are not
accustomed to comfort and luxuries . . . . but if you are
accustomed to eat every day, then there is the eating-house
opposite. But it would be better for you if you left off that
habit. You see you are not a gentleman. What do you eat? You
For such speeches, delivered in a strictly business-like manner,
and always with smiling eyes, and also for the attention he paid
to his lodgers the Captain was very popular among the poor of the
town. It very often happened that a former client of his would
appear, not in rags, but in something more respectable and with a
slightly happier face.
"Good-day, your honour, and how do you do?"
"Alive, in good health! Go on."
"Don't you know me?"
"I did not know you."
"Do you remember that I lived with you last winter for nearly a
month . . . . when the fight with the police took place, and
three were taken away?"
"My brother, that is so. The police do come even under my
"My God! You gave a piece of your mind to the police inspector
of this district!"
"Wouldn't you accept some small hospitality from me? When I
lived with you, you were . . ."
"Gratitude must be encouraged because it is seldom met with. You
seem to be a good man, and, though I don't remember you, still I
will go with you into the public-house and drink to your success
and future prospects with the greatest pleasure."
"You seem always the same . . . Are you always joking?"
"What else can one do, living among you unfortunate men?"
They went. Sometimes the Captain's former customer, uplifted and
unsettled by the entertainment, returned to the dosshouse, and on
the following morning they would again begin treating each other
till the Captain's companion would wake up to realise that he had
spent all his money in drink.
"Your honour, do you see that I have again fallen into your
hands? What shall we do now?"
"The position, no doubt, is not a very good one, but still you
need not trouble about it," reasoned the Captain. "You must, my
friend, treat everything indifferently, without spoiling yourself
by philosophy, and without asking yourself any question. To
philosophise is always foolish; to philosophise with a drunken
headache, ineffably so. Drunken headaches require vodki and not
the remorse of conscience or gnashing of teeth . . . save your
teeth, or else you will not be able to protect yourself. Here
are twenty kopecks. Go and buy a bottle of vodki for five
kopecks, hot tripe or lungs, one pound of bread and two
cucumbers. When we have lived off our drunken headache we will
think of the condition of affairs . . ."
As a rule the consideration of the "condition of affairs" lasted
some two or three days, and only when the Captain had not a
farthing left of the three roubles or five roubles given him by
his grateful customer did he say:
"You came! Do you see? Now that we have drunk everything with
you, you fool, try again to regain the path of virtue and
soberness. It has been truly said that if you do not sin, you
will not repent, and, if you do not repent, you shall not be
saved. We have done the first, and to repent is useless. Let us
make direct for salvation. Go to the river and work, and if you
think you cannot control yourself, tell the contractor, your
employer, to keep your money, or else give it to me. When you
get sufficient capital, I will get you a pair of trousers and
other things necessary to make you seem a respectable and
hard-working man, persecuted by fate. With decent-looking
trousers you can go far. Now then, be off!"
Then the client would go to the river to work as a porter,
smiling the while over the Captain's long and wise speeches. He
did not distinctly understand them, but only saw in front of him
two merry eyes, felt their encouraging influence, and knew that
in the loquacious Captain he had an arm that would assist him in
time of need.
And really it happened very often that, for a month or so, some
ticket-of-leave client, under the strict surveillance of the
Captain, had the opportunity of raising himself to a condition
better than that to which, thanks to the Captain's co-operation,
he had fallen.
"Now, then, my friend!" said the Captain, glancing critically at
the restored client, "we have a coat and jacket. When I had
respectable trousers I lived in town like a respectable man. But
when the trousers wore out, I too fell off in the opinion of my
fellow-men and had to come down here from the town. Men, my fine
mannikin, judge everything by the outward appearance, while,
owing to their foolishness, the actual reality of things is
incomprehensible to them. Make a note of this on your nose, and
pay me at least half your debt. Go in peace; seek, and you may
"How much do I owe you, Aristid Fomich?" asks the client, in
"One rouble and 70 kopecks. . . . Now, give me only one rouble,
or, if you like, 70 kopecks, and as for the rest, I shall wait
until you have earned more than you have now by stealing or by
hard work, it does not matter to me."
"I thank you humbly for your kindness!" says the client, touched
to the heart. "Truly you are a kind man. . . . ; Life has
persecuted you in vain. . . . What an eagle you would have been
in your own place!"
The Captain could not live without eloquent speeches.
"What does 'in my own place' mean? No one really knows his own
place in life, and every one of us crawls into his harness. The
place of the merchant Judas Petunikoff ought to be in penal
servitude, but he still walks through the streets in daylight,
and even intends to build a factory. The place of our teacher
ought to be beside a wife and half-a-dozen children, but he is
loitering in the public-house of Vaviloff. And then, there is
yourself. You are going to seek a situation as a hall porter or
waiter, but I can see that you ought to be a soldier in the army,
because you are no fool, are patient and understand discipline.
Life shuffles us like cards, you see, and it is only
accidentally, and only for a time, that we fall into our own
Such farewell speeches often served as a preface to the
continuation of their acquaintance, which again began with
drinking and went so far that the client would spend his last
farthing. Then the Captain would stand him treat, and they would
drink all they had.
A repetition of similar doings did not affect in the least the
good relations of the parties.
The teacher mentioned by the Captain was another of those
customers who were thus reformed only in order that they should
sin again. Thanks to his intellect, he was the nearest in rank
to the Captain, and this was probably the cause of his falling so
low as dosshouse life, and of his inability to rise again. It
was only with him that Aristid Kuvalda could philosophise with
the certainty of being understood. He valued this, and when the
reformed teacher prepared to leave the dosshouse in order to get
a corner in town for himself, then Aristid Kuvalda accompanied
him so sorrowfully and sadly that it ended, as a rule, in their
both getting drunk and spending all their money. Probably
Kuvalda arranged the matter intentionally so that the teacher
could not leave the dosshouse, though he desired to do so with
all his heart. Was it possible for Aristid Kuvalda, a nobleman
(as was evident from his speeches), one who was accustomed to
think, though the turn of fate may have changed his position, was
it possible for him not to desire to have close to him a man like
himself? We can pity our own faults in others.
This teacher had once taught at an institution in one of the
towns on the Volga, but in consequence of some story was
dismissed. After this he was a clerk in a tannery, but again had
to leave. Then he became a librarian in some private library,
subsequently following other professions. Finally, after passing
examinations in law he became a lawyer, but drink reduced him to
the Captain's dosshouse. He was tall, round-shouldered, with a
long sharp nose and bald head. In his bony and yellow face, on
which grew a wedge-shaped beard, shone large, restless eyes,
deeply sunk in their sockets, and the corners of his mouth
drooped sadly down. He earned his bread, or rather his drink, by
reporting for the local papers. He sometimes earned as much as
fifteen roubles. These he gave to the Captain and said:
"It is enough. I am going back into the bosom of culture.
Another week's hard work and I shall dress respectably, and then
Addio, mio caro!"
"Very exemplary! As I heartily sympathise with your decision,
Philip, I shall not give you another glass all this week," the
Captain warned him sternly.
"I shall be thankful! . . . . You will not give me one drop?"
The Captain heard in his voice a beseeching note to which he
turned a deaf ear.
"Even though you roar, I shall not give it you!"
"As you like, then," sighed the teacher, and went away to
continue his reporting. But after a day or two he would return
tired and thirsty, and would look at the Captain with a
beseeching glance out of the corners of his eyes, hoping that his
friend's heart would soften.
The Captain in such cases put on a serious face and began
speaking with killing irony on the theme of weakness of
character, of the animal delight of intoxication, and on such
subjects as suited the occasion. One must do him justice: he was
captivated by his role of mentor and moralist, but
the lodgers dogged him, and, listening sceptically to his
exhortations to repentance, would whisper aside to each other:
"Cunning, skilful, shifty rogue! I told you so, but you would
not listen. It's your own fault!"
"His honour is really a good soldier. He goes first and examines
the road behind him!"
The teacher then hunted here and there till he found his friend
again in some corner, and grasping his dirty coat, trembling and
licking his dry lips, looked into his face with a deep, tragic
glance, without articulate words.
"Can't you?" asked the Captain sullenly.
The teacher answered by bowing his head and letting it fall on
his breast, his tall, thin body trembling the while.
"Wait another day . . . perhaps you will be all right then,"
proposed Kuvalda. The teacher sighed, and shook his head
The Captain saw that his friend's thin body trembled with the
thirst for the poison, and took some money from his pocket.
"In the majority of cases it is impossible to fight against
fate," said he, as if trying to justify himself before someone.
But if the teacher controlled himself for a whole week then there
was a touching farewell scene between the two friends, which
ended as a rule in the eating-house of Vaviloff. The teacher did
not spend all his money, but spent at least half on the children
of the main street. The poor are always rich in children, and in
the dirt and ditches of this street there were groups of them
from morning to night, hungry, naked and dirty. Children are the
living flowers of the earth, but these had the appearance of
flowers that have faded prematurely, because they grew in ground
where there was no healthy nourishment. Often the teacher would
gather them round him, would buy them bread, eggs, apples and
nuts, and take them into the fields by the river side. There
they would sit and greedily eat everything he offered them, after
which they would begin to play, filling the fields for a mile
around with careless noise and laughter. The tall, thin figure
of the drunkard towered above these small people, who treated him
familiarly, as if he were one of their own age. They called him
"Philip," and did not trouble to prefix "Uncle" to his name.
Playing around him, like little wild animals, they pushed him,
jumped upon his back, beat him upon his bald head, and caught
hold of his nose. All this must have pleased him, as he did not
protest against such liberties. He spoke very little to them,
and when he did so he did it cautiously as if afraid that his
words would hurt or contaminate them. He passed many hours thus
as their companion and plaything, watching their lively faces
with his gloomy eyes. Then he would thoughtfully and slowly
direct his steps to the eatinghouse of Vaviloff, where he would
drink silently and quickly till all his senses left him.
* * * * *
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 Maksimovitch 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 heavenwards. He had thick, crimson lips and
watery, cynical eyes. They called him "Kubar," a name which well
described his round figure and 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,"* 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?"
Note by translator.--Well-known games of chance, played by the
lower classes. The police specially endeavour to stop them, but
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 backwards and forwards 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 cheek-bones 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
"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
Martyanoff would have broken his bones, had not Kuvalda
"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 greyish 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
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
"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,
"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
"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
"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
"You are lying!" he said scornfully, when the teacher had
"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
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 criticising 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 backwards and forwards, 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, so numerous!
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 favour; 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
"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
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.
* * * * *
When all these people were gathered round the teacher, then the
reading of the newspaper would begin.
"Well, what does the newspaper discuss to-day? Is there any
"No," the teacher informs him.
"Your publisher seems greedy . . . but is there any leader?"
"There is one to-day. . . . It appears to be by Gulyaeff."
"Aha! Come, out with it. He writes cleverly, the rascal."
"'The taxation of immovable property,"' reads the teacher, "'was
introduced some fifteen years ago, and up to the present it has
served as the basis for collecting these taxes in aid of the city
revenue . . .'"
"That is simple," comments Captain Kuvalda. "It continues to
serve. That is ridiculous. To the merchant who is moving about
in the city, it is profitable that it should continue to serve.
Therefore it does continue."
"The article, in fact, is written on the subject," says the
"Is it? That is strange, it is more a subject for a feuilleton.
"Such a subject must be treated with plenty of pepper . . . ."
Then a short discussion begins. The people listen attentively,
as only one bottle of vodki has been drunk.
After the leader, they read the local events, then the court
proceedings, and, if in the police court it reports that the
defendant or plaintiff is a merchant, then Aristid Kuvalda
sincerely rejoices. If someone has robbed the merchant, "That is
good," says he. "Only it is a pity they robbed him of so
little." If his horses have broken down, "It is sad that he is
still alive." If the merchant has lost his suit in court, "It is
a pity that the costs were not double the amount."
"That would have been illegal," remarks the teacher
"Illegal! But is the merchant himself legal?" inquires Kuvalda,
bitterly. "What is the merchant? Let us investigate this rough
and uncouth phenomenon. First of all, every merchant is a mujik.
He comes from a village, and in course of time becomes a
merchant. In order to be a merchant, one must have money. Where
can the mujik get the money from? It is well known that he does
not get it by honest hard work, and that means that the mujik,
somehow or other, has been swindling. That is to say, a merchant
is simply a dishonest mujik."
"Splendid!" cry the people, approving the orator's deduction, and
Tyapa bellows all the time, scratching his breast. He always
bellows like this as he drinks his first glass of vodki, when he
has a drunken headache. The Captain beams with joy. They next
read the correspondence. This is, for the Captain, "an abundance
of drinks," as he himself calls it. He always notices how the
merchants make this life abominable, and how cleverly they spoil
everything. His speeches thunder at and annihilate merchants.
His audience listens to him with the greatest pleasure, because
he swears atrociously. "If I wrote for the papers," he shouts,
"I would show up the merchant in his true colours . . . I would
show that he is a beast, playing for a time the role of a man.
I understand him! He is a rough boor, does not know the meaning
of the words 'good taste,' has no notion of patriotism, and his
knowledge is not worth five kopecks."
Abyedok, knowing the Captain's weak point, and fond of making
other people angry, cunningly adds:
"Yes, since the nobility began to make acquaintance with hunger,
men have disappeared from the world . . ."
"You are right, you son of a spider and a toad. Yes, from the
time that the noblemen fell, there have been no men. There are
only merchants, and I hate them."
"That is easy to understand, brother, because you, too, have been
brought down by them . . ."
"I? I was ruined by love of life . . . Fool that I was, I loved
life, but the merchant spoils it, and I cannot bear it, simply
for this reason, and not because I am a nobleman. But if you want
to know the truth, I was once a man, though I was not noble. I
care now for nothing and nobody . . . and all my life has been
tame--a sweetheart who has jilted me--therefore I despise life,
and am indifferent to it."
"You lie!" says Abyedok.
"I lie?" roars Aristid Kuvalda, almost crimson with anger.
"Why shout?" comes in the cold sad voice of Martyanoff.
"Why judge others? Merchants, noblemen . . . what have we to do
"Seeing that we are " . . . puts in Deacon Taras.
"Be quiet, Abyedok," says the teacher, goodnaturedly.
"Why do you provoke him?" He does not love either discussion or
noise, and when they quarrel all around him his lips form into a
sickly grimace, and he endeavours quietly and reasonably to
reconcile each with the other, and if he does not succeed in this
he leaves the company. Knowing this, the Captain, if he is not
very drunk, controls himself, not wishing to lose, in the person
of the teacher, one of the best of his listeners.
"I repeat," he continues, in a quieter tone, "that I see life in
the hands of enemies, not only enemies of the noble but of
everything good, avaricious and incapable of adorning existence
in any way."
"But all the same," says the teacher, "merchants, so to speak,
created Genoa, Venice, Holland--and all these were merchants,
merchants from England, India, the Stroyanoff merchants . . ."
"I do not speak of these men, I am thinking of Judas Petunikoff,
who is one of them. . . ."
"And you say you have nothing to do with them?" asks the teacher,
"But do you think that I do not live? Aha! I do live, but I
suppose I ought not to be angry at the fact that life is
desecrated and robbed of all freedom by these men."
"And they dare to laugh at the kindly anger of the Captain, a man
living in retirement?" says Abyedok, teasingly.
"Very well! I agree with you that I am foolish. Being a
creature who was once a man, I ought to blot out from my heart
all those feelings that once were mine. You may be right, but
then how could I or any of you defend ourselves if we did away
with all these feelings?"
"Now then, you are talking sense," says the teacher,
"We want other feelings and other views on life. . . . We want
something new . . . because we ourselves are a novelty in this
life. . . ."
"Doubtless this is most important for us," remarks the teacher.
"Why?" asks Kanets. "Is it not all the same whatever we say or
think? We have not got long to live . . . I am forty, you are
fifty . . . there is no one among us younger than thirty, and
even at twenty one cannot live such a life long."
"And what kind of novelty are we?" asked Abyedok, mockingly.
"Since nakedness has always existed . . ."
"Yes, and it created Rome," said the teacher.
"Yes, of course," says the Captain, beaming with joy. "Romulus
and Remus, eh? We also shall create when our time comes . . ."
"Violation of public peace," interrupts Abyedok. He laughs in a
self-satisfied way. His laughter is impudent and insolent, and
is echoed by Simtsoff, the Deacon and Paltara Taras. The naive
eyes of young Meteor light up, and his cheeks flush crimson.
Kanets speaks, and it seems as if he were hammering their heads.
"All these are foolish illusions . . . fiddle-sticks!"
It was strange to see them reasoning in this manner, these
outcasts from life, tattered, drunken with vodki and wickedness,
filthy and forlorn. Such conversations rejoiced the Captain's
heart. They gave him an opportunity of speaking more, and
therefore he thought himself better than the rest. However low
he may fall, a man can never deny himself the delight of feeling
cleverer, more powerful, or even better fed than his companions.
Aristid Kuvalda abused this pleasure, and never could have enough
of it, much to the disgust of Abyedok, Kubar, and others of these
creatures that once were men, who were less interested in such
Politics, however, were more to the popular taste. The
discussions as to the necessity of taking India or of subduing
England were lengthy and protracted. Nor did they speak with
less enthusiasm of the radical measure of clearing Jews off the
face of the earth. On this subject Abyedok was always the first
to propose dreadful plans to effect the desired end, but the
Captain, always first in every other argument, did not join in
this one. They also spoke much and impudently about women, but
the teacher always defended them, and sometimes was very angry
when they went so far as to pass the limits of decency. They
all, as a rule, gave in to him, because they did not look upon
him as a common person, and also because they wished to borrow
from him on Saturdays the money which he had earned during the
week. He had many privileges. They never beat him, for
instance, on these occasions when the conversation ended in a
free fight. He had the right to bring women into the dosshouse;
a privilege accorded to no one else, as the Captain had
previously warned them.
"No bringing of women to my house," he had said. "Women,
merchants and philosophers, these are the three causes of my
ruin. I will horsewhip anyone bringing in women. I will
horsewhip the woman also. . . . And as to the philosopher I'll
knock his head off for him." And notwithstanding his age he
could have knocked anyone's head off, for he possessed wonderful
strength. Besides that, whenever he fought or quarrelled, he was
assisted by Martyanoff, who was accustomed during a general fight
to stand silently and sadly back to back with Kuvalda, when he
became an all-destroying and impregnable engine of war. Once
when Simtsoff was drunk, he rushed at the teacher for no reason
whatever, and getting hold of his head tore out a bunch of hair.
Kuvalda, with one stroke of his fist in the other's chest sent
him spinning, and he fell to the ground. He was unconscious for
almost half-an-hour, and when he came to himself, Kuvalda
compelled him to eat the hair he had torn from the teacher's
head. He ate it, preferring this to being beaten to death.
Besides reading newspapers, fighting and indulging in general
conversation, they amused themselves by playing cards. They
played without Martyanoff because he could not play honestly.
After cheating several times, he openly confessed:
"I cannot play without cheating . . . it is a habit of mine."
"Habits do get the better of you," assented Deacon Taras. "I
always used to beat my wife every Sunday after Mass, and when she
died I cannot describe how extremely dull I felt every Sunday. I
lived through one Sunday--it was dreadful, the second I still
controlled myself, the third Sunday I struck my Asok. . . . She
was angry and threatened to summon me. Just imagine if she had
done so! On the fourth Sunday, I beat her just as if she were my
own wife! After that I gave her ten roubles, and beat her
according to my own rules till I married again!" . . .
"You are lying, Deacon! How could you marry a second time?"
"Ay, just so. . . She looked after my house. . . ."
"Did you have any children?" asked the teacher.
"Five of them. . . . One was drowned . . . the oldest . . . he
was an amusing boy! Two died of diphtheria . . . One of the
daughters married a student and went with him to Siberia. The
other went to the University of St. Petersburg and died there . .
. of consumption they say. Ye--es, there were five of them. . . .
Ecclesiastics are prolific, you know." He began explaining why
this was so, and they laughed till they nearly burst at his
tales. When the laughter stopped, Aleksei Maksimovitch Simtsoff
remembered that he too had once had a daughter.
"Her name was Lidka . . . she was very stout . . ." More than
this he did not seem to remember, for he looked at them all, was
silent and smiled . . . in a guilty way. Those men spoke very
little to each other about their past, and they recalled it very
seldom and then only its general outlines. When they did mention
it, it was in a cynical tone. Probably, this was just as well,
since, in many people, remembrance of the past kills all present
energy and deadens all hope for the future.
* * * * *
On rainy, cold, or dull days in the late autumn, these "creatures
that once were men" gathered in the eatinghouse of Vaviloff.
They were well known there, where some feared them as thieves and
rogues, and some looked upon them contemptuously as hard
drinkers, although they respected them, thinking that they were
The eating-house of Vaviloff was the club of the main street, and
the "creatures that once were men" were its most intellectual
members. On Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings, when the
eating-house was packed, the "creatures that once were men" were
only too welcome guests. They brought with them, besides the
forgotten and poverty-stricken inhabitants of the street, their
own spirit, in which there was something that brightened the
lives of men exhausted and worn out in the struggle for
existence, as great drunkards as the inhabitants of Kuvalda's
shelter, and, like them, outcasts from the town. Their ability
to speak on all subjects, their freedom of opinion, skill in
repartee, courage in the presence of those of whom the whole
street was in terror, together with their daring demeanour, could
not but be pleasing to their companions. Then, too, they were
well versed in law, and could advise, write petitions, and help
to swindle without incurring the risk of punishment. For all
this they were paid with vodki and flattering admiration of their
The inhabitants of the street were divided into two parties
according to their sympathies. One was in favour of Kuvalda, who
was thought "a good soldier, clever, and courageous," the other
was convinced of the fact that the teacher was "superior" to
Kuvalda. The latter's admirers were those who were known to be
drunkards, thieves, and murderers, for whom the road from beggary
to prison was inevitable. But those who respected the teacher
were men who still had expectations, still hoped for better
things, who were eternally occupied with nothing, and who were
nearly always hungry.
The nature of the teacher's and Kuvalda's relations towards the
street may be gathered from the following:
Once in the eating-house they were discussing the resolution
passed by the Corporation regarding the main street, viz., that
the inhabitants were to fill up the pits and ditches in the
street, and that neither manure nor the dead bodies of domestic
animals should be used for the purpose, but only broken tiles,
etc., from the ruins of other houses.
"Where am I going to get these same broken tiles and bricks? I
could not get sufficient bricks together to build a hen-house,"
plaintively said Mokei Anisimoff, a man who hawked kalaches (a
sort of white bread) which were baked by his wife.
"Where can you get broken bricks and lime rubbish? Take bags
with you, and go and remove them from the Corporation buildings.
They are so old that they are of no use to anyone, and you will
thus be doing two good deeds; firstly, by repairing the main
street; and secondly, by adorning the city with a new Corporation
"If you want horses get them from the Lord Mayor, and take his
three daughters, who seem quite fit for harness. Then destroy the
house of Judas Petunikoff and pave the street with its timbers.
By the way, Mokei, I know out of what your wife baked to-day's
kalaches; out of the frames of the third window and the two steps
from the roof of Judas' house."
When those present had laughed and joked sufficiently over the
Captain's proposal, the sober market gardener, Pavlyugus asked:
"But seriously, what are we to do, your honour? . . . Eh? What
do you think?"
"I? I shall neither move hand nor foot. If they wish to clean
the street let them do it."
"Some of the houses are almost coming down. . . ."
"Let them fall; don't interfere; and when they fall ask help from
the city. If they don't give it you, then bring a suit in court
against them! Where does the water come from? From the city!
Therefore let the city be responsible for the destruction of the
"They will say it is rain-water."
"Does it destroy the houses in the city? Eh? They take taxes
from you but they do not permit you to speak! They destroy your
property and at the same time compel you to repair it!" And half
the radicals in the street, convinced by the words of Kuvalda,
decided to wait till the rain-water came down in huge streams and
swept away their houses. The others, more sensible, found in the
teacher a man who composed for them an excellent and convincing
report for the Corporation. In this report the refusal of the
street's inhabitants to comply with the resolution of the
Corporation was so well explained that the Corporation actually
entertained it. It was decided that the rubbish left after some
repairs had been done to the barracks should be used for mending
and filling up the ditches in their street, and for the transport
of this five horses were given by the fire brigade. Still more,
they even saw the necessity of laying a drain-pipe through the
street. This and many other things vastly increased the
popularity of the teacher. He wrote petitions for them and
published various remarks in the newspapers. For instance, on
one occasion Vaviloff's customers noticed that the herrings and
other provisions of the eating-house were not what they should
be, and after a day or two they saw Vaviloff standing at the bar
with the newspaper in his hand making a public apology.
"It is true, I must acknowledge, that I bought old and not very
good herrings, and the cabbage . . . also . . . was old. It is
only too well known that anyone can put many a five-kopeck piece
in his pocket in this way. And what is the result? It has not
been a success; I was greedy, I own, but the cleverer man has
exposed me, so we are quits . . ."
This confession made a very good impression on the people, and it
also gave Vaviloff the opportunity of still feeding them with
herrings and cabbages which were not good, though they failed to
notice it, so much were they impressed.
This incident was very significant, because it increased not only
the teacher's popularity, but also the effect of press opinion.
It often happened, too, that the teacher read lectures on
practical morality in the eating-house.
"I saw you," he said to the painter Yashka Tyarin, "I saw you,
Yakov, beating your wife . . ."
Yashka was "touched with paint" after two glasses of vodki, and
was in a slightly uplifted condition.
The people looked at him, expecting him to make a row, and all
"Did you see me? And how did it please you?" asks Yashka.
The people control their laughter.
"No; it did not please me," replies the teacher. His tone is so
serious that the people are silent.
"You see I was just trying it," said Yashka, with bravado,
fearing that the teacher would rebuke him. "The wife is
satisfied. . . . She has not got up yet to-day. . . ."
The teacher, who was drawing absently with his fingers on the
table, said, "Do you see, Yakov, why this did not please me? . .
. Let us go into the matter thoroughly, and understand what you
are really doing, and what the result may be. Your wife is
pregnant. You struck her last night on her sides and breast.
That means that you beat not only her but the child too. You may
have killed him, and your wife might have died or else have
become seriously ill. To have the trouble of looking after a
sick woman is not pleasant. It is wearing, and would cost you
dear, because illness requires medicine, and medicine money. If
you have not killed the child, you may have crippled him, and he
will be born deformed, lop-sided, or hunch-backed. That means
that he will not be able to work, and it is only too important to
you that he should be a good workman. Even if he be born ill, it
will be bad enough, because he will keep his mother from work,
and will require medicine. Do you see what you are doing to
yourself? Men who live by hard work must be strong and healthy,
and they should have strong and healthy children. . . . Do I
"Yes," assented the listeners.
"But all this will never happen," says Yashka, becoming rather
frightened at the prospect held out to him by the teacher. "She
is healthy, and I cannot have reached the child . . . She is a
devil--a hag!" he shouts angrily. "I would . . . She will eat
me away as rust eats iron."
"I understand, Yakov, that you cannot help beating your wife,"
the teacher's sad and thoughtful voice again breaks in. "You
have many reasons for doing so . . . It is your wife's character
that causes you to beat her so incautiously . . . But your own
dark and sad life . . ."
"You are right!" shouts Yakov. "We live in darkness, like the
chimney-sweep when he is in the chimney!"
"You are angry with your life, but your wife is patient; the
closest relation to you--your wife, and you make her suffer for
this, simply because you are stronger than she. She is always
with you, and cannot get away. Don't you see how absurd you
"That is so. . . . Devil take it! But what shall I do? Am I
not a man?"
"Just so! You are a man. . . . I only wish to tell you that if
you cannot help beating her, then beat her carefully and always
remember that you may injure her health or that of the child. It
is not good to beat pregnant women . . . on their belly or on
their sides and chests. . . . Beat her, say, on the neck . . .
or else take a rope and beat her on some soft place . . ."
The orator finished his speech and looked upon his hearers with
his dark, pathetic eyes, seeming to apologise to them for some
The public understands it. They understand the morale of the
creature who was once a man, the morale of the public-house and
"Well, brother Yashka, did you understand? See how true it is!"
Yakov understood that to beat her incautiously might be injurious
to his wife. He is silent, replying to his companions' jokes
with confused smiles.
"Then again, what is a wife?" philosophises the baker, Mokei
Anisimoff. "A wife . . . is a friend . . . if we look at the
matter in that way. She is like a chain, chained to you for life
. . . and you are both just like galley slaves. And if you try
to get away from her, you cannot, you feel the chain . . ."
"Wait," says Yakovleff; "but you beat your wife too."
"Did I say that I did not? I beat her. . . There is nothing
else handy. . . Do you expect me to beat the wall with my fist
when my patience is exhausted?"
"I feel just like that too. . ." says Yakov.
"How hard and difficult our life is, my brothers! There is no
real rest for us anywhere!"
"And even you beat your wife by mistake," some one remarks
humorously. And thus they speak till far on in the night or till
they have quarrelled, the usual result of drink or of passions
engendered by such discussions.
The rain beats on the windows, and outside the cold wind is
blowing. The eating-house is close with tobacco smoke, but it is
warm, while the street is cold and wet. Now and then, the wind
beats threateningly on the windows of the eating-house, as if
bidding these men to come out and be scattered like dust over the
face of the earth. Sometimes a stifled and hopeless groan is
heard in its howling which again is drowned by cold, cruel
laughter. This music fills one with dark, sad thoughts of the
approaching winter, with its accursed short, sunless days and
long nights, of the necessity of possessing warm garments and
plenty to eat. It is hard to sleep through the long winter
nights on an empty stomach. Winter is approaching. Yes, it is
approaching. . . How to live?
These gloomy forebodings created a strong thirst among the
inhabitants of the main street, and the sighs of the "creatures
that once were men" increased with the wrinkles on their brows,
their voices became thick and their behaviour to each other more
blunt. And brutal crimes were committed among them, and the
roughness of these poor unfortunate outcasts was apt to increase
at the approach of that inexorable enemy, who transformed all
their lives into one cruel farce. But this enemy could not be
captured because it was invisible.
Then they began beating each other brutally, and drank till they
had drunk everything which they could pawn to the indulgent
Vaviloff. And thus they passed the autumn days in open
wickedness, in suffering which was eating their hearts out,
unable to rise out of this vicious life and in dread of the still
crueller days of winter.
Kuvalda in such cases came to their assistance with his
"Don't lose your temper, brothers, everything has an end, this is
the chief characteristic of life. The winter will pass, summer
will follow . . . a glorious time, when the very sparrows are
filled with rejoicing." But his speeches did not have any
effect--a mouthful of even the freshest and purest water will not
satisfy a hungry man.
Deacon Taras also tried to amuse the people by singing his songs
and relating his tales. He was more successful, and sometimes
his endeavours ended in a wild and glorious orgy at the
eating-house. They sang, laughed and danced, and for hours
behaved like madmen. After this they again fell into a
despairing mood, sitting at the tables of the eating-house, in
the black smoke of the lamp and the tobacco; sad and tattered,
speaking lazily to each other, listening to the wild howling of
the wind, and thinking how they could get enough vodki to deaden
And their hand was against every man, and every man's hand
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, towards
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 eatinghouse, and thinking deeply. This building,
which was partly surrounded by woods, served the purpose of a
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 grey
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
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 cheekbones, a wedge-shaped greyish beard, and a
high forehead seamed with wrinkles from beneath which shone two
narrow, blinking, and observant grey 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
"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
"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 courtyard.
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
afterwards 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 honour good health!" He was of middle height, and
had a bald head, grey hair, and straight moustaches 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
"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
"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
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 belabour 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 up, put them into the cash-box, 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 afterwards they sat side by side in Vaviloff's
parlour, and the Captain was engaged in drinking large quantities
"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 try 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 red
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.
* * * * *
In the evening everyone was told of the Captain's discovery, and
they all began to discuss Petunikoff's future predicament,
painting in vivid colours 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 towards 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 towards the
At last Petunikoff appeared. He came in a respectable cart with
his son playing the role of groom. The latter was a red-checked,
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
"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
"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
towards the town.
The Captain watched him for a moment, and turning to Abyedok
"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 he 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
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 towards
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."
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