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The Little Angel and Other Stories/In the Basement

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IN THE BASEMENT

I

He drank hard, lost his work and his acquaintances, and took up his abode in a cellar in the company of thieves and unfortunates, living on the last things he had.

His was a sickly, anaemic body, worn out with work, eaten up by sufferings and vodka. Death was already on the watch for him, like a grey bird-of-prey blind in the sunshine, sharp-eyed in the black night. By day death hid itself in the dark corners, but at night it took its seat noiselessly by his bedside, and sat long, till the very dawn, and was quiet, patient, and persistent. When at the first streak of light he put out his pale head from under the blankets, his eyes gleaming like those of a hunted wild animal, the room was already empty. But he did not trust this deceptive emptiness, which others believe in. He suspiciously looked round into all the corners; with crafty suddenness he cast a glance behind his back, and then leaning upon his elbows he gazed intently before him into the melting darkness of the departing night. And then he saw something, such as ordinary people do not see: the rocking of a monster grey body, shapeless, terrible. It was transparent, embraced all things, and objects were seen in it as behind a glass wall. But now he feared it not; and it departed until the next night, leaving behind it a cold impression.

For a short time he was wrapped in oblivion, and terrible, extraordinary dreams came to him. He saw a white room, with white floor and walls, illumined by a bright, white light, and a black serpent which was creeping away under the door with a gentle rustling-like laughter. Pressing its sharp flat head to the floor, it wriggled and quickly glided away, and was lost somewhere or other, and then again its black flattened nose appeared through a crevice under the door, and its body drew itself out in a black ribbon—and so again and again. Once in his sleep he dreamed of something pleasant, and laughed, but the sound seemed strange, and more like a suppressed sob—it was terrible to hear it—his soul somewhere in the unknown depths laughing, or perhaps weeping, while the body lay motionless as the dead.

By degrees the sounds of nascent day began to invade his consciousness: the indistinct talk of passers-by, the distant squeaking of a door, the swish of the dvornik's broom as he brushed away the snow from the window-sill—all the undefined bustle of a great city awakening. And then there came upon him the most horrible, mercilessly clear consciousness that a new day had arrived, and that he would soon have to get up, in order to struggle for life without any hope of victory.

One must live.

He turned his back to the light, threw the blanket over his head, so that not the minutest ray might penetrate to his eyes, squeezed himself together into a small ball, drawing his legs up to his very chin, and so lay motionless, dreading to stir and to stretch out his legs. A whole mountain of clothes lay upon him as a protection against the cold of the basement, but he did not feel their weight, and his body remained cold. And at every sound speaking of life he seemed to himself to be monstrous and unveiled, and he hugged himself together all the tighter, and silently groaned—neither with voice nor in thought—since he feared now his own voice and his own thoughts. He prayed to some one that the day might not come, so that he might always lie under the heap of rags, without movement or thought, and he concentrated his whole will to keep back the coming day, and to persuade himself that it was still night. And more than anything in the world he wished that some one from behind would put a revolver to the back of his head, just at the place where there is a cavity, and blow his brains out.

But daylight unfolded, broad, irresistible, calling forcibly to life, and all the world began to move, to talk, to work, to think. The first in the basement to wake was the landlady, old Matryona. She got up from the side of her twenty-five-year-old lover, and began to stamp about the kitchen, clatter with the buckets, and busy herself about something close to Khinyakov's very door. He felt her approach, and lay quiet, determined not to answer if she called him. But she kept silence, and went away somewhere. In the course of an hour or two the two other lodgers woke up, an unfortunate named Dunyasha, and the old woman's lover Abram Petrovich. He was so called in spite of his youth out of respect, because he was a daring and skilful thief, and something else besides, which was guessed at, but not spoken about.

The waking up of these terrified Khinyakov more than anything, since they had a hold on him, and the right to come in and sit on his bed, to touch him, and recall him to thought and speech. He had become intimate with Dunyasha one day when he was drunk, and had promised her marriage, and although she had laughed and slapped him on the back, she sincerely considered him as her lover, and patronized him, although she was herself a stupid, dirty, unwashed slut, who had spent many a night at the police-station. With Abram Petrovich he had only the day before yesterday been drinking, and they had kissed one another and sworn eternal friendship.

When the fresh loud voice of Abram Petrovich and his quick steps resounded near the door, Khinyakov's heart's blood curdled with fear and suspense, and he could not help groaning aloud, and then was all the more frightened. In one distinct picture that drinking-bout passed befoie him: how they had sat in some dark tavern or other, illumined by a single lamp, amid dark people who kept whispering together about something, while they themselves also whispered together. Abram Petrovich was pale and excited, and complained of the hardships of a thief's life; for some reason or other he had bared his arms and allowed him to feel the badly-mended bones of his once broken arm, and Khinyakov had kissed him and said:

"I love thieves, they are so bold," and proposed to him that they should drink to "brotherhood," although they had for long been on quite intimate terms.

"And I love you, because you are educated, and understand us so well," replied Abram Petrovich.

"Look again at my arm; here it is, eh?"

And again the white arm had passed before his eyes, seeming to be sorry for its own whiteness, and suddenly realizing something (which he did not now remember or understand), he had kissed that arm, and Abram Petrovich had proudly cried:

"Indeed, brother, death before surrender!"

And then something dirty whirling round and round, howls, whistles, and jumping lights. Then he had felt cheerful, but now when death was hiding in the corners, and when day was rushing in upon him from every direction with the inexorable necessity to live and do something, to struggle after something and ask for something—he felt tortured and inexpressibly frightened.

"Are you asleep, sir?" Abram Petrovich inquired sarcastically through the door, and receiving no answer, added:

"Well, then, sleep away; devil take you!"

Many acquaintances visited Abram Petrovich, and throughout the day the door squeaked on its hinges, and bass voices were to be heard. And it seemed to Khinyakov at every sound that they were coming for him, and he buried himself the deeper in his bedclothes, and listened long to catch to whom the voice belonged. He waited and waited in agony, trembling all over his body, although there was no one in the whole world who would come to fetch him.

He had once had a wife—long ago—but she was dead. Still further back in the past he had had brothers and sisters, and still earlier—something indistinct and beautiful, which he called Mother. All these were dead, or possibly some one of them might be still alive, only so lost in the wide, wide world, that he was as though dead. And he himself would soon be dead too—he knew it. When he should get up to-day his legs would tremble and give way under him, and his hands would make uncertain strange motions—and this was death. But meanwhile he must need live, and that is such a serious task for a man who has neither money, health, nor will, that Khinyakov was seized with despair. He threw off his blanket, clasped his hands, and breathed out into the void such prolonged groans, that they seemed to proceed from a thousand suffering breasts, therefore was it that they were so full, brimming over with insupportable torture.

"Open, you devil!" cried Dunyasha from the other side of the door, pounding it with her fists. "Or I'll break the door down!"

Trembling with tottering steps, Khinyakov reached the door, opened it, and quickly lay down again, nay almost fell, on his bed. Dunyasha, already befrizzled and bepowdered, sat down at his side, shoving him against the wall, and, crossing her legs, said with an air of importance:

"I have brought you news. Katya expired yesterday?"

"What Katya?" asked Khinyakov, using his tongue clumsily and uncertainly, as though it did not belong to him.

"Come, now, you can't have forgotten!" laughed Dunyasha. "The Katya who used to live here. How can you have forgotten her, when she has been gone only a week?"

"Died?"

"Why, of course died, as all die." Dunyasha moistened the tip of her little finger and wiped the powder from her thin eye-lashes.

"What of?"

"What all die of. Who knows what? They told me yesterday at the cafe, Katya was dead."

"Did you love her?"

"Certainly I loved her! What are you talking about!"

Dunyasha's stupid eyes looked at Khinyakov in dull indifference as she swung her fat leg. She did not know what more to say, and tried to look at him, as he lay there, in such a manner as to show to him her love, and with that intent she gently winked her eye, and dropped the corners of her full lips.

The day had begun.

II

That day, a Saturday, the frost was so severe that the boys did not go to school, and the horseraces were postponed for fear of the horses catching cold. When Natalya Vladimirovna came out from the lying-in hospital, she was for the first moment glad that it was evening, that there was no one on the embankment, that none met her—an unmarried girl, with a six-day-old child in her arms. It had seemed to her that, as soon as she should cross the threshold, she would be met by a shouting, hissing crowd, among whom would be her senile, paralytic, and almost blind lather, her acquaintances, students, officers and their young ladies; and that all these would point the finger at her and cry:

"There goes a girl who has passed through six classes at the high-school, had acquaintances among the students both intellectual and of good birth, who used to blush at a word spoken unadvisedly, and who six days ago gave birth to a child, in the lying-in hospital, side by side with other fallen women."

But the embankment was deserted. Along it the icy wind traveled unrestrained, lifted a grey cloud of snow, ground by the frost into a biting dust, and covered with it everything living and dead which met it in its path. With a gentle whistle it wove itself round the metal pillars of the railings, so that they shone again, and looked so cold and lonely that it was a pain to look at them. And the girl felt herself to be just such a cold thing, an outcast from mankind and life. She had on a little short jacket, the one which she usually wore skating, and which she had hurriedly thrown on when she left her home suffering the premonitory pains of childbirth. And when the wind seized her, and wrapped her thin skirt about her ankles, and chilled her head, she began to fear that she might be frozen to death; and her fear of a crowd disappeared, and the world expanded into a boundless icy wilderness, in which was neither man, nor light, nor warmth. Two burning tear-drops gathered in her eyes, and froze there. Bending her head down, she wiped them away with the formless bundle she was carrying, and went on faster. Now she no longer loved herself nor the child, and both lives seemed to her worthless; only certain words, which had, as it were, sunk into her brain, persistently repeated themselves, and went before her calling:

"Nyemchinovskaya Street, the second house from the corner. Nyemchinovskaya Street, the second house from the corner."

These words she had repeated for six days as she lay on the bed and fed her infant. They meant, that she must go to Nyemchinovskaya Street, where her foster-sister, an nfortunate, lived, because only with her could she find an asylum for herself and her child. A year ago, when all was still well and she was continually laughing and singing, she had visited Katya, who was ill, and had helped her with money, and now she was the only human being remaining before whom she was not ashamed.

"Nyemchinovskaya Street, the second house from the corner. Nyemchinovskaya Street, the second house from the corner."

She walked on, and the wind whirled angrily round her; and when she came upon the bridge it greedily dashed at her bosom, and dug its iron nails into her cold face. Vanquished, it dropped noisily from the bridge, and circled along the snow-covered surface of the river, and again swept upwards, overshadowing the road with cold, trembling wings. Natalya Vladimirovna stood still, and in utter weakness leaned against the rail. From the depth below there looked up at her a dull black eye—a spot of unfrozen water—and its gaze was mysterious and terrible. But before her resounded and called persistently the words:

"Nyemchinovskaya Street, the second house from the corner. Nyemchinovskaya Street, the second house from the corner."

Khinyakov dressed, and lay down again on his bed rolled to the very eyes in a warm overcoat, his sole remaining possession. The room was cold, there was ice in the corners, but he breathed into the astrakhan collar, and so became warm and comfortable. The whole long day he kept deceiving himself, that to-morrow he would go and seek work, and ask for something; but meanwhile he was content not to think at all, but merely to tremble at the sound of a raised voice the other side of the wall, or at the sound of a sharply slammed door. He had lain long in this way, perfectly still, when at the entrance door he heard an uneven rapping, timid, and yet hurried and sharp, as if some one was knocking with the back of the hand. His room was the one next to the entrance door, and by craning his head and pricking up his ears he could distinguish everything which took place near it. Matryona went to the door and opened it, let some one in and closed it again. Then followed an expectant silence.

"Whom do you want?" asked Matryona in a hoarse, unfriendly tone. A stranger's voice, gentle and broken, bashfully replied:

"I want Katya Nyechayeva. She lives here?"

"She did. But what do you want with her?"

"I want her very badly. Is she not at home?" and in her voice there was a note of fear.

"Katya is dead. She died, I say—in the hospital."

Again there was a long silence, so long indeed that Khinyakov felt a pain at his back; but he did not dare to move it, while the people there kept silence.

Then the stranger's voice pronounced gently and without expression, the one word:

"Good-bye!"

But evidently she did not go away, since in the course of a minute Matryona asked: "What have you there? Have you brought something for Katya?"

Some one knelt down, striking her knees on the floor, and the stranger's voice, convulsed with suppressed sobs, uttered quickly the words:

"Take it, take it! For the love of God, take it! And then I—I'll go away."

"But what is it?"

Again there was a long silence, and then a gentle weeping, broken, and hopeless. There was in it a deadly weariness, and a black despair, without a single gleam of hope. It was as though a hand had impotently drawn the bow across the over-tightened, the last remaining, string of an expensive instrument, and when the, string snapped the soft wailing note had been silenced for ever.

"Why, you have nearly smothered it!" exclaimed Matryona in a rough, angry tone. "You see what sort of people undertake to bear children. How could you do it? Whoever would wrap up babies like that? Come now, come along; do, I say. How could you do such a thing?"

Once more all was silent near the door.

Khinyakov listened a little longer and then lay down, delighted that no one had come to fetch him, and not taking the trouble to guess the truth about what he had not understood in that which had just taken place. He began already to feel the approach of night, and wished that some one would turn the lamp up higher. He became restless, and, clenching his teeth, he endeavoured to restrain his thoughts. In the past there was nothing but mire, falls, and horror, and—there was the same horror in the future. He was just beginning by degrees to snuggle himself together, and draw up his hands and feet, when Dunyasha came in, dressed to go out in a red blouse, and already slightly intoxicated. She plopped down on the bed, and said with a gesture of surprise:

"Oh Lord!" She shook her head and smiled. "They have brought a little baby here. Such a tiny one, my friend, but he shouts just like a police-inspector. Just like a police-inspector!"

She swore whimsically, and coquettishly flipped Khinyakov's nose.

"Let's go and see. Why not, indeed! Yes, we'll just take a look at him. Matryona is going to bathe it; she is boiling the samovar. Abram Petrovich is blowing up the charcoal with his boot. How funny it all is. And the baby is crying: 'Wa, wa, wa!'"

Dunyasha made a face which she meant to represent the baby, and again went on puling: "'Wa, wa, wa!' Just like a police-inspector! Let's go. Don't you want to?—well, then devil take you! Turn up your toes where you are, rotten egg, you!"

And she danced out of the room. But half an hour after Khinyakov, tottering on his weak legs and hanging on to the doorposts, hesitatingly opened the door of the kitchen.

"Shut it! You've made a draught," cried Abram Petrovich.

Khinyakov hastily slammed the door behind him, and looked round apologetically; but no one took any notice of him, so he calmed down. The combined heat of the stove, the urn, and the company made the kitchen pretty warm, and the vapour rose, and then rolled down the colder walls in thick drops. Matryona with a severe and irritated mien was washing the child in a trough, and with pock-marked hands was splashing the water over him, while she crooned:

"Little lambkin, then, it s'all be clean. It s'all be white."

Whether it was because the kitchen was light and cheerful, or because the water was warm and caressing, at all events the child was quiet, and wrinkled up its little red face as though about to sneeze. Dunyasha looked at the tub over Matryona's shoulder, and seizing her opportunity, splashed the little one with three fingers.

"Get away!" the old woman cried in a threatening tone, "where are you coming to? I know what to do without your help. I have had children of my own."

"Don't meddle. She's quite right, children are such tender things," said Abram Petrovich, in support of her; "they want some handling."

He sat down on the table, and with condescending satisfaction contemplated the litle rosy body. The baby wriggled its fingers, and Dunyasha with wild delight wagged her head and laughed.

"Just like a police-inspector!"

"But have you seen a police-inspector in a trough?" asked Abram Petrovich.

All laughed, and even Khinyakov smiled; but almost immediately the smile left his face affright, and he looked round at the mother. She was sitting wearily on the bench, with her head thrown back, and her black eyes, abnormally large from sickness and suffering, lighted up with a peaceful gleam, and on her pale lips hovered the proud smile of a mother. And when he saw this Khinyakov burst into a solitary, belated laugh:

"He! he! he!"

He even looked proudly round on all sides. Matryona took the baby out of the tub, and wrapped it in a bath-sheet. The child burst into loud crying, but was soon quieted again, and Matryona, unrolling the sheet, smiled in confusion, and said:

"What a dear little body, just like velvet."

"Let me feel," entreated Dunyasha.

"What next!"

Dunyasha began suddenly to tremble all over, and stamped her feet; choking with longing, and mad with the desire, which overwhelmed her, she cried in such a shrill voice as none had ever heard from her:

"Let me! let me!"

"Yes, let her," entreated Natalya Vladimirovna in a fright. And Dunyasha just as suddenly became quiet again. She cautiously touched the child's little shoulder with two fingers, and following her example, Abram Petrovich, with a condescending wink, also reached out to that little red shoulder.

"Yes, indeed, children are tender things," said he in self-justification.

Last of all Khinyakov tried it. His fingers felt for a moment the touch of something living, downy like velvet, and withal so tender and feeble that his fingers seemed no longer to belong to him, and became as tender as the something he touched. And thus, craning their necks, and unconsciously lighting up into a smile of strange happiness, stood the three, the thief, the prostitute, and the lonely broken man, and that little life, feeble as a distant light on the steppe, was vaguely calling them somewhither, and promising them something beautiful, bright, immortal. And the happy mother looked proudly on, while above the low ceiling the house rose in a heavy mass of stone, and in the upper flats the rich sauntered about, and yawned with ennui.

Night had come on, black, malign, as all nights are, and had pitched her tent in darkness over the distant snowy fields; and the lonely branches of trees became chilled with fear, just those branches which first welcomed the morning sun. With feeble artificial light man fought against her, but strong and malign she girded the isolated lights in a hopeless circle, and filled the hearts of men with darkness. And in many a heart she extinguished the feeble flickering sparks.

Khinyakov did not sleep. Huddled up together into a little ball, he hid himself under a soft heap of rags from the cold and from the night, and wept, without effort, without pain or convulsion, as those weep whose heart is pure and without sin, as the heart of a little child. He pitied himself huddled up into a heap, and it seemed to him that he pitied all mankind and the whole of human life, and in this feeling there was a secret, profound gladness. He saw the child, just born, and it seemed to him that he himself was reborn to a new life, and would live long, and that his life would be beautiful. He loved and yet pitied this new life, and he felt so happy, that he laughed so that he shook the heap of rags, and then asked himself:

"Why am I weeping?"

But he could not discover the answer to his own question, and so replied:

"So!"

And such a profound thought was conveyed by this short word, that this wreck of a man, whose life was so pitiable and lonely, was convulsed with a fresh burst of scalding tears. But at his bedside rapacious death was noiselessly taking its seat, and waiting—quietly, patiently, persistently.