The Bet and Other Stories/The Fit
The medical student Mayer, and Ribnikov, a student at the Moscow school of painting, sculpture, and architecture, came one evening to their friend Vassiliev, law student, and proposed that he should go with them to S——v Street. For a long while Vassiliev did not agree, but eventually dressed himself and went with them.
Unfortunate women he knew only by hearsay and from books, and never once in his life had he been in the houses where they live. He knew there were immoral women who were forced by the pressure of disastrous circumstances—environment, bad up-bringing, poverty, and the like to sell their honour for money. They do not know pure love, have no children and no legal rights; mothers and sisters mourn them for dead, science treats them as an evil, men are familiar with them. But notwithstanding all this they do not lose the image and likeness of God. They all acknowledge their sin and hope for salvation. They are free to avail themselves of every means of salvation. True, Society does not forgive people their past, but with God Mary of Egypt is not lower than the other saints. Whenever Vassiliev recognised an unfortunate woman in the street by her costume or her manner, or saw a picture of one in a comic paper, there came into his mind every time a story he once read somewhere: a pure and heroic young man falls in love with an unfortunate woman and asks her to be his wife, but she, considering herself unworthy of such happiness, poisons herself.
Vassiliev lived in one of the streets off the Tverskoi boulevard. When he and his friends came out of the house it was about eleven o'clock—the first snow had just fallen and all nature was under the spell of this new snow. The air smelt of snow, the snow cracked softly under foot, the earth, the roofs, the trees, the benches on the boulevards—all were soft, white, and young. Owing to this the houses had a different look from yesterday, the lamps burned brighter, the air was more transparent, the clatter of the cabs was dulled and there entered into the soul with the fresh, easy, frosty air a feeling like the white, young, feathery snow. "To these sad shores unknowing" the medico began to sing in a pleasant tenor, "An unknown power entices" . . . "Behold the mill" . . . the painter's voice took him up, "it is now fall'n to ruin."
"Behold the mill, it is now fall'n to ruin," the medico repeated, raising his eyebrows and sadly shaking his head.
He was silent for a while, passed his hand over his forehead trying to recall the words, and began to sing in a loud voice and so well that the passers-by looked back.
- "Here, long ago, came free, free love to me ". . .
All three went into a restaurant and without taking off their coats they each had two thimblefuls of vodka at the bar. Before drinking the second, Vassiliev noticed a piece of cork in his vodka, lifted the glass to his eye, looked at it for a long while with a short-sighted frown. The medico misunderstood his expression and said—
"Well, what are you staring at? No philosophy, please. Vodka's made to be drunk, caviare to be eaten, women to sleep with, snow to walk on. Live like a man for one evening."
"Well, I've nothing to say," said Vassiliev laughingly, "I'm not refusing?"
The vodka warmed his breast. He looked at his friends admiringly, admired and envied them. How balanced everything is in these healthy, strong, cheerful people. Everything in their minds and souls is smooth and rounded off. They sing, have a passion for the theatre, paint, talk continually, and drink, and they never have a headache the next day. They are romantic and dissolute, sentimental and insolent; they can work and go on the loose and laugh at nothing and talk rubbish; they are hot-headed, honest, heroic and as human beings not a bit worse than Vassiliev, who watches his every step and word, who is careful, cautious, and able to give the smallest trifle the dignity of a problem. And he made up his mind if only for one evening to live like his friends, to let himself go, and be free from his own control. Must he drink vodka? He'll drink, even if his head falls to pieces to-morrow. Must he be taken to women? He'll go. He'll laugh, play the fool, and give a joking answer to disapproving passers-by.
He came out of the restaurant laughing. He liked his friends—one in a battered hat with a wide brim who aped aesthetic disorder; the other in a sealskin cap, not very poor, with a pretence of learned Bohemia. He liked the snow, the paleness, the lamp-lights, the clear black prints which the passers' feet left on the snow. He liked the air, and above all the transparent, tender, naive, virgin tone which can be seen in nature only twice in the year: when everything is covered in snow, on the bright days in spring, and on moonlight nights when the ice breaks on the river.
"To these sad shores unknowing," he began to sing sotto-voce, "An unknown power entices."
And all the way for some reason or other he and his friends had this melody on their lips. All three hummed it mechanically out of time with each other.
Vassiliev imagined how in about ten minutes he and his friends would knock at a door, how they would stealthily walk through the narrow little passages and dark rooms to the women, how he would take advantage of the dark, suddenly strike a match, and see lit up a suffering face and a guilty smile. There he will surely find a fair or a dark woman in a white nightgown with her hair loose. She will be frightened of the light, dreadfully confused and say: "Good God! What are you doing? Blow it out!" All this was frightening, but curious and novel.
The friends turned out of Trubnoi Square into the Grachovka and soon arrived at the street which Vassiliev knew only from hearsay. Seeing two rows of houses with brightly lighted windows and wide open doors, and hearing the gay sound of pianos and fiddles—sounds which flew out of all the doors and mingled in a strange confusion, as if somewhere in the darkness over the roof-tops an unseen orchestra were tuning, Vassiliev was bewildered and said:
"What a lot of houses!"
"What's that?" said the medico. "There are ten times as many in London. There are a hundred thousand of these women there."
The cabmen sat on their boxes quiet and indifferent as in other streets; on the pavement walked the same passers-by. No one was in a hurry; no one hid his face in his collar; no one shook his head reproachfully. And in this indifference, in the confused sound of the pianos and fiddles, in the bright windows and wide-open doors, something very free, impudent, bold and daring could be felt. It must have been the same as this in the old times on the slave-markets, as gay and as noisy; people looked and walked with the same indifference.
"Let's begin right at the beginning," said the painter.
The friends walked into a narrow little passage lighted by a single lamp with a reflector. When they opened the door a man in a black jacket rose lazily from the yellow sofa in the hall. He had an unshaven lackey's face and sleepy eyes. The place smelt like a laundry, and of vinegar. From the hall a door led into a brightly lighted room. The medico and the painter stopped in the doorway, stretched out their necks and peeped into the room together:
"Buona sera, signore, Rigoletto—huguenote—traviata!—" the painter began, making a theatrical bow.
"Havanna—blackbeetlano—pistoletto!" said the medico, pressing his hat to his heart and bowing low.
Vassiliev kept behind them. He wanted to bow theatrically too and say something silly. But he only smiled, felt awkward and ashamed, and awaited impatiently what was to follow. In the door appeared a little fair girl of seventeen or eighteen, with short hair, wearing a short blue dress with a white bow on her breast.
"What are you standing in the door for?" she said. "Take off your overcoats and come into the salon."
The medico and the painter went into the salon, still speaking Italian. Vassiliev followed them irresolutely.
"Gentlemen, take off your overcoats," said the lackey stiffly. "You're not allowed in as you are."
Besides the fair girl there was another woman in the salon, very stout and tall, with a foreign face and bare arms. She sat by the piano, with a game of patience spread on her knees. She took no notice of the guests.
"Where are the other girls?" asked the medico.
"They're drinking tea," said the fair one. "Stiepan," she called out. "Go and tell the girls some students have come!"
A little later a third girl entered, in a bright red dress with blue stripes. Her face was thickly and unskilfully painted. Her forehead was hidden under her hair. She stared with dull, frightened eyes. As she came she immediately began to sing in a strong hoarse contralto. After her a fourth girl. After her a fifth.
In all this Vassiliev saw nothing new or curious. It seemed to him that he had seen before, and more than once, this salon, piano, cheap gilt mirror, the white bow, the dress with blue stripes and the stupid, indifferent faces. But of darkness, quiet, mystery, and guilty smile—of all he had expected to meet here and which frightened him—he did not see even a shadow.
Everything was commonplace, prosaic, and dull. Only one thing provoked his curiosity a little, that was the terrible, as it were intentional lack of taste, which was seen in the overmantels, the absurd pictures, the dresses and the white bow. In this lack of taste there was something characteristic and singular.
"How poor and foolish it all is!" thought Vassiliev. "What is there in all this rubbish to tempt a normal man, to provoke him into committing a frightful sin, to buy a living soul for a rouble? I can understand anyone sinning for the sake of splendour, beauty, grace, passion; but what is there here? What tempts people here? But . . . it's no good thinking!"
"Whiskers, stand me champagne." The fair one turned to him.
Vassiliev suddenly blushed.
"With pleasure," he said, bowing politely. "But excuse me if I . . . I don't drink with you. I don't drink."
Five minutes after the friends were off to another house.
"Why did you order drinks?" stormed the medico. "What a millionaire, flinging six roubles into the gutter like that for nothing at all."
"Why shouldn't I give her pleasure if she wants it?" said Vassiliev, justifying himself.
"You didn't give her any pleasure. Madame got that. It's Madame who tells them to ask the guests for drinks. She makes by it."
"Behold the mill," the painter began to sing, "Now fall'n to ruin. . . ."
When they came to another house the friends stood outside in the vestibule, but did not enter the salon. As in the first house, a figure rose up from the sofa in the hall, in a black jacket, with a sleepy lackey's face. As he looked at this lackey, at his face and shabby jacket, Vassiliev thought: "What must an ordinary simple Russian go through before Fate casts him up here? Where was he before, and what was he doing? What awaits him? Is he married, where's his mother, and does she know he's a lackey here?" Thenceforward in every house Vassiliev involuntarily turned his attention to the lackey first of all.
In one of the houses, it seemed to be the fourth, the lackey was a dry little, puny fellow, with a chain across his waistcoat. He was reading a newspaper and took no notice of the guests at all. Glancing at his face, Vassiliev had the idea that a fellow with a face like that could steal and murder and perjure. And indeed the face was interesting: a big forehead, grey eyes, a flat little nose, small close-set teeth, and the expression on his face dull and impudent at once, like a puppy hard on a hare. Vassiliev had the thought that he would like to touch this lackey's hair: is it rough or soft? It must be rough like a dog's.
Because he had had two glasses the painter suddenly got rather drunk, and unnaturally lively.
"Let's go to another place," he added, waving his hands. "I'll introduce you to the best!"
When he had taken his friends into the house which was according to him the best, he proclaimed a persistent desire to dance a quadrille. The medico began to grumble that they would have to pay the musicians a rouble but agreed to be his vis-à-vis. The dance began.
It was just as bad in the best house as in the worst. Just the same mirrors and pictures were here, the same coiffures and dresses. Looking round at the furniture and the costumes Vassiliev now understood that it was not lack of taste, but something that might be called the particular taste and style of S——v Street, quite impossible to find anywhere else, something complete, not accidental, evolved in time. After he had been had been to eight houses he no longer wondered at the colour of the dresses or the long trains, or at the bright bows, or the sailor dresses, or the thick violent painting of the cheeks; he understood that all this was in harmony, that if only one woman dressed herself humanly, or one decent print hung on the wall, then the general tone of the whole street would suffer.
How badly they manage the business? Can't they really understand that vice is only fascinating when it is beautiful and secret, hidden under the cloak of virtue? Modest black dresses, pale faces, sad smiles, and darkness act more strongly than this clumsy tinsel. Idiots! If they don't understand it themselves, their guests ought to teach them. . . .
A girl in a Polish costume trimmed with white fur came up close to him and sat down by his side.
"Why don't you dance, my brown-haired darling?" she asked. "What do you feel so bored about?"
"Because it is boring."
"Stand me a Château Lafitte, then you won't be bored."
Vassiliev made no answer. For a little while he was silent, then he asked:
"What time do you go to bed as a rule?"
"When do you get up?"
"Sometimes two, sometimes three."
"And after you get up what do you do?"
"We drink coffee. We have dinner at seven."
"And what do you have for dinner?"
"Soup or schi as a rule, beef-steak, dessert. Our madame keeps the girls well. But what are you asking all this for?"
"Just to have a talk. . . ."
Vassiliev wanted to ask about all sorts of things. He had a strong desire to find out where she came from, were her parents alive, and did they know she was here; how she got into the house; was she happy and contented, or gloomy and depressed with dark thoughts. Does she ever hope to escape. . . . But he could not possibly think how to begin, or how to put his questions without seeming indiscreet. He thought for a long while and asked:
"How old are you?"
"Eighty," joked the girl, looking and laughing at the tricks the painter was doing with his hands and feet.
She suddenly giggled and uttered a long filthy expression aloud so that every one could hear.
Vassiliev, terrified, not knowing how to look, began to laugh uneasily. He alone smiled: all the others, his friends, the musicians and the women—paid no attention to his neighbour. They might never have heard.
"Stand me a Lafitte," said the girl again.
Vassiliev was suddenly repelled by her white trimming and her voice and left her. It seemed to him close and hot. His heart began to beat slowly and violently, like a hammer, one, two, three.
"Let's get out of here," he said, pulling the painter's sleeve.
"Wait. Let's finish it."
While the medico and the painter were finishing their quadrille, Vassiliev, in order to avoid the women, eyed the musicians. The pianist was a nice old man with spectacles, with a face like Marshal Basin; the fiddler a young man with a short, fair beard dressed in the latest fashion. The young man was not stupid or starved, on the contrary he looked clever, young and fresh. He was dressed with a touch of originality, and played with emotion. Problem: how did he and the decent old man get here? Why aren't they ashamed to sit here? What do they think about when they look at the women?
If the piano and the fiddle were played by ragged, hungry, gloomy, drunken creatures, with thin stupid faces, then their presence would perhaps be intelligible. As it was, Vassiliev could understand nothing. Into his memory came the story that he had read about the unfortunate woman, and now he found that the human figure with the guilty smile had nothing to do with this. It seemed to him that they were not unfortunate women that he saw, but they belonged to another, utterly different world, foreign and inconceivable to him; if he had seen this world on the stage or read about it in a book he would never have believed it. . . . The girl with the white trimming giggled again and said something disgusting aloud. He felt sick, blushed, and went out:
"Wait. We're coming too," cried the painter.
"I had a talk with my mam'selle while we were dancing," said the medico when all three came into the street. "The subject was her first love. He was a bookkeeper in Smolensk with a wife and five children. She was seventeen and lived with her pa and ma who kept a soap and candle shop."
"How did he conquer her heart?" asked Vassiliev.
"He bought her fifty roubles'-worth of under-clothes—Lord knows what!"
"However could he get her love-story out of his girl?" thought Vassiliev. "I can't. My dear chaps, I'm off home," he said.
"Because I don't know how to get on here. I'm bored and disgusted. What is there amusing about it? If they were only human beings; but they're savages and beasts. I'm going, please."
"Grisha darling, please," the painter said with a sob in his voice, pressing close to Vassiliev, let's go to one more—then to Hell with them. Do come, Grigor."
They prevailed on Vassiliev and led him up a staircase. The carpet and the gilded balustrade, the porter who opened the door, the panels which decorated the hall, were still in the same S——v Street style, but here it was perfected and imposing.
"Really I'm going home," said Vassiliev, taking off his overcoat.
"Darling, please, please," said the painter and kissed him on the neck. "Don't be so faddy, Grigri—be a pal. Together we came, together we go. What a beast you are though!"
"I can wait for you in the street. My God, it's disgusting here."
"Please, please . . . You just look on, see, just look on."
"One should look at things objectively," said the medico seriously.
Vassiliev entered the salon and sat down. There were many more guests besides him and his friends: two infantry officers, a grey, bald-headed gentleman with gold spectacles, two young clean-shaven men from the Surveyors' Institute, and a very drunk man with an actor's face. All the girls were looking after these guests and took no notice of Vassiliev. Only one of them dressed like Aïda glanced at him sideways, smiled at something and said with a yawn:
"So the dark one's come."
Vassiliev's heart was beating and his face was burning. He felt ashamed for being there, disgusted and tormented. He was tortured by the thought that he, a decent and affectionate man (so he considered himself up till now), despised these women and felt nothing towards them but repulsion. He could not feel pity for them or for the musicians or the lackeys.
"It's because I don't try to understand them," he thought. "They're all more like beasts than human beings; but all the same they are human beings. They've got souls. One should understand them first, then judge them."
"Grisha, don't go away. Wait for us," called the painter; and he disappeared somewhere.
Soon the medico disappeared also.
"Yes, one should try to understand. It's no good, otherwise," thought Vassiliev, and he began to examine intently the face of each girl, looking for the guilty smile. But whether he could not read faces or because none of these women felt guilty he saw in each face only a dull look of common, vulgar boredom and satiety. Stupid eyes, stupid smiles, harsh, stupid voices, impudent gestures—and nothing else. Evidently every woman had in her past a love romance with a bookkeeper and fifty roubles'-worth of underclothes. And in the present the only good things in life were coffee, a three-course dinner, wine, quadrilles, and sleeping till two in the afternoon . . .
Finding not one guilty smile, Vassiliev began to examine them to see if even one looked clever and his attention was arrested by one pale, rather tired face. It was that of a dark woman no longer young, wearing a dress scattered with spangles. She sat in a chair staring at the floor and thinking of something. Vassiliev paced up and down and then sat down beside her as if by accident.
"One must begin with something trivial," he thought, "and gradually pass on to serious conversation . . ."
"What a beautiful little dress you have on," he said, and touched the gold fringe of her scarf with his finger.
"It's all right," said the dark woman.
"Where do you come from?"
"I? A long way. From Tchernigov."
"It's a nice part."
"It always is, where you don't happen to be."
"What a pity I can't describe nature," thought Vassiliev. "I'd move her by descriptions of Tchernigov. She must love it if she was born there."
"Do you feel lonely here?" he asked.
"Of course I'm lonely."
"Why don't you go away from here, if you're lonely?"
"Where shall I go to? Start begging, eh?"
"It's easier to beg than to live here."
"Where did you get that idea? Have you been a beggar?"
"I begged, when I hadn't enough to pay my university fees; and even if I hadn't begged it's easy enough to understand. A beggar is a free man, at any rate, and you're a slave."
The dark woman stretched herself, and followed with sleepy eyes the lackey who carried a tray of glasses and soda-water.
"Stand us a champagne," she said, and yawned again.
"Champagne," said Vassiliev. "What would happen if your mother or your brother suddenly came in? What would you say? And what would they say? You would say 'champagne' then."
Suddenly the noise of crying was heard. From the next room where the lackey had carried the soda-water, a fair man rushed out with a red face and angry eyes. He was followed by the tall, stout madame, who screamed in a squeaky voice:
"No one gave you permission to slap the girls in the face. Better class than you come here, and never slap a girl. You bounder!"
Followed an uproar. Vassiliev was scared and went white. In the next room some one wept, sobbing, sincerely, as only the insulted weep. And he understood that indeed human beings lived here, actually human beings, who get offended, suffer, weep, and ask for help. The smouldering hatred, the feeling of repulsion, gave way to an acute sense of pity and anger against the wrong-doer. He rushed into the room from which the weeping came. Through the rows of bottles which stood on the marble table-top he saw a suffering tear-stained face, stretched out his hands towards this face, stepped to the table and instantly gave a leap back in terror. The sobbing woman was dead-drunk.
As he made his way through the noisy crowd, gathered round the fair man, his heart failed him, he lost his courage like a boy, and it seemed to him that in this foreign, inconceivable world, they wanted to run after him, to beat him, to abuse him with foul words. He tore down his coat from the peg and rushed headlong down the stairs.
Pressing close to the fence, he stood near to the house and waited for his friends to come out. The sounds of the pianos and fiddles, gay, bold, impudent and sad, mingled into chaos in the air, and this confusion was, as before, as if an unseen orchestra were tuning in the dark over the roof-tops. If he looked up towards the darkness, then all the background was scattered with white, moving points: it was snowing. The flakes, coming into the light, spun lazily in the air like feathers, and still more lazily fell. Flakes of snow crowded whirling about Vassiliev, and hung on his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows. The cabmen, the horses, and the passersby, all were white.
"How dare the snow fall in this street?" thought Vassiliev. "A curse on these houses."
Because of his headlong rush down the staircase his feet failed him from weariness; he was out of breath as if he had climbed a mountain. His heart beat so loud that he could hear it. A longing came over him to get out of this street as soon as possible and go home; but still stronger was his desire to wait for his friends and to vent upon them his feeling of heaviness.
He had not understood many things in the houses. The souls of the perishing women were to him a mystery as before; but it was clear to him that the business was much worse than one would have thought. If the guilty woman who poisoned herself was called a prostitute, then it was hard to find a suitable name for all these creatures, who danced to the muddling music and said long, disgusting phrases. They were not perishing; they were already done for.
"Vice is here," he thought; "but there is neither confession of sin nor hope of salvation. They are bought and sold, drowned in wine and torpor, and they are dull and indifferent as sheep and do not understand. My God, my God!"
It was so clear to him that all that which is called human dignity, individuality, the image and likeness of God, was here dragged down to the gutter, as they say of drunkards, and that not only the street and the stupid women were to blame for it.
A crowd of students white with snow, talking and laughing gaily, passed by. One of them, a tall, thin man, peered into Vassiliev's face and said drunkenly, "He's one of ours. Logged, old man? Aha! my lad. Never mind. Walk up, never say die, uncle."
He took Vassiliev by the shoulders and pressed his cold wet moustaches to his cheek, then slipped, staggered, brandished his arms, and cried out:
"Steady there—don't fall."
Laughing, he ran to join his comrades.
Through the noise the painter's voice became audible.
"You dare beat women! I won't have it. Go to Hell. You're regular swine."
The medico appeared at the door of the house. He glanced round and on seeing Vassiliev, said in alarm:
"Is that you? My God, it's simply impossible to go anywhere with Yegor. I can't understand a chap like that. He kicked up a row—can't you hear? Yegor," he called from the door. "Yegor!"
"I won't have you hitting women." The painter's shrill voice was audible again from upstairs.
Something heavy and bulky tumbled down the staircase. It was the painter coming head over heels. He had evidently been thrown out.
He lifted himself up from the ground, dusted his hat, and with an angry indignant face, shook his fist at the upstairs.
"Scoundrels! Butchers! Bloodsuckers! I won't have you hitting a weak, drunken woman. Ah, you. . . ."
"Yegor . . . Yegor!" the medico began to implore, "I give my word I'll never go out with you again. Upon my honour, I won't."
The painter gradually calmed, and the friends went home.
"To these sad shores unknowing "—the medico began—" An unknown power entices. . . ."
"Behold the mill," the painter sang with him after a pause, "Now fallen into ruin." How the snow is falling, most Holy Mother. Why did you go away, Grisha? You're a coward; you're only an old woman."
Vassiliev was walking behind his friends. He stared at their backs and thought: "One of two things: either prostitution only seems to us an evil and we exaggerate it, or if prostitution is really such an evil as is commonly thought, these charming friends of mine are just as much slavers, violators, and murderers as the inhabitants of Syria and Cairo whose photographs appear in 'The Field.' They're singing, laughing, arguing soundly now, but haven't they just been exploiting starvation, ignorance, and stupidity? They have, I saw them at it. Where does their humanity, their science, and their painting come in, then? The science, art, and lofty sentiments of these murderers remind me of the lump of fat in the story. Two robbers killed a beggar in a forest; they began to divide his clothes between themselves and found in his bag a lump of pork fat. 'In the nick of time,' said one of them. 'Let's have a bite!' 'How can you?' the other cried in terror. 'Have you forgotten to-day's Friday?' So they refrained from eating. After having cut the man's throat they walked out of the forest confident that they were pious fellows. These two are just the same. When they've paid for women they go and imagine they're painters and scholars. . . .
"Listen, you two," he said angrily and sharply. "Why do you go to those places? Can't you understand how horrible they are? Your medicine tells you every one of these women dies prematurely from consumption or something else; your arts tell you that she died morally still earlier. Each of them dies because during her lifetime she accepts on an average, let us say, five hundred men. Each of them is killed by five hundred men, and you're amongst the five hundred. Now if each of you comes here and to places like this two hundred and fifty times in his lifetime, then it means that between you you have killed one woman. Can't you understand that? Isn't it horrible?"
"Ah, isn't this awful, my God?"
"There, I knew it would end like this," said the painter frowning. "We oughtn't to have had anything to do with this fool of a blockhead. I suppose you think your head's full of great thoughts and great ideas now. Devil knows what they are, but they're not ideas. You're staring at me now with hatred and disgust; but if you want my opinion you'd better build twenty more of the houses than look like that. There's more vice in your look than in the whole street. Let's clear out, Volodya, damn him! He's a fool. He's a blockhead, and that's all he is."
"Human beings are always killing each other," said the medico. "That is immoral, of course. But philosophy won't help you. Good-bye!"
The friends parted at Trubnoi Square and went their way. Left alone, Vassiliev began to stride along the boulevard. He was frightened of the dark, frightened of the snow, which fell to the earth in little flakes, but seemed to long to cover the whole world; he was frightened of the street-lamps, which glimmered faintly through the clouds of snow. An inexplicable faint-hearted fear possessed his soul. Now and then people passed him; but he gave a start and stepped aside. It seemed to him that from everywhere there came and stared at him women, only women. . . .
"It's coming on," he thought, "I'm going to have a fit."
At home he lay on his bed and began to talk, shivering all over his body.
"Live women, live. . . . My God, they're alive."
He sharpened the edge of his imagination in every possible way. Now he was the brother of an unfortunate, now her father. Now he was himself a fallen woman, with painted cheeks; and all this terrified him.
It seemed to him somehow that he must solve this question immediately, at all costs, and that the problem was not strange to him, but was his own. He made a great effort, conquered his despair, and, sitting on the side of the bed, his head clutched in his hands, he began to think:
How could all the women he had seen that night be saved? The process of solving a problem was familiar to him as to a learned person; and notwithstanding all his excitement he kept strictly to this process. He recalled to mind the history of the question, its literature, and just after three o'clock he was pacing up and down, trying to remember all the experiments which are practised nowadays for the salvation of women. He had a great many good friends who lived in furnished rooms, Falzfein, Galyashkin, Nechaiev, Yechkin . . . not a few among them were honest and self-sacrificing, and some of them had attempted to save these women. . . .
All these few attempts, thought Vassiliev, rare attempts, may be divided into three groups. Some having rescued a woman from a brothel hired a room for her, bought her a sewing-machine and she became a dressmaker, and the man who saved her kept her for his mistress, openly or otherwise, but later when he had finished his studies and was going away, he would hand her over to another decent fellow. So the fallen woman remained fallen. Others after having bought her out also hired a room for her, bought the inevitable sewing-machine and started her off reading and writing and preached at her. The woman sits and sews as long as it is novel and amusing, but later, when she is bored, she begins to receive men secretly, or runs back to where she can sleep till three in the afternoon, drink coffee, and eat till she is full. Finally, the most ardent and self-sacrificing take a bold, determined step. They marry, and when the impudent, self-indulgent, stupefied creature becomes a wife, a lady of the house, and then a mother, her life and outlook are utterly changed, and in the wife and mother it is hard to recognise the unfortunate woman. Yes, marriage is the best, it may be the only, resource.
"But it's impossible," Vassiliev said aloud and threw himself down on his bed. "First of all, I could not marry one. One would have to be a saint to be able to do it, unable to hate, not knowing disgust. But let us suppose that the painter, the medico, and I got the better of our feelings and married, that all these women got married, what is the result? What kind of effect follows? The result is that while the women get married here in Moscow, the Smolensk bookkeeper seduces a fresh lot, and these will pour into the empty places, together with women from Saratov, Nijni-Novgorod, Warsaw. . . . And what happens to the hundred thousand in London? What can be done with those in Hamburg?
The oil in the lamp was used up and the lamp began to smell. Vassiliev did not notice it. Again he began to pace up and down, thinking. Now he put the question differently. What can be done to remove the demand for fallen women? For this it is necessary that the men who buy and kill them should at once begin to feel all the immorality of their rôle of slaveowners, and this should terrify them. It is necessary to save the men.
Science and art apparently won't do, thought Vassiliev. There is only one way out—to be an apostle.
And he began to dream how he would stand to-morrow evening at the corner of the street and say to each passer-by: "Where are you going and what for? Fear God!"
He would turn to the indifferent cabmen and say to them:
"Why are you standing here? Why don't you revolt? You do believe in God, don't you? And you do know that this is a crime, and that people will go to Hell for this? Why do you keep quiet, then? True, the women are strangers to you, but they have fathers and brothers exactly the same as you. . . ."
Some friend of Vassiliev's once said of him that he was a man of talent. There is a talent for writing, for the theatre, for painting; but Vassiliev's was peculiar, a talent for humanity. He had a fine and noble flair for every kind of suffering. As a good actor reflects in himself the movement and voice of another, so Vassiliev could reflect in himself another's pain. Seeing tears, he wept. With a sick person, he himself became sick and moaned. If he saw violence done, it seemed to him that he was the victim. He was frightened like a child, and, frightened, ran for help. Another's pain roused him, excited him, threw him into a state of ecstasy. . . .
Whether the friend was right I do not know, but what happened to Vassiliev when it seemed to him that the question was solved was very much like an ecstasy. He sobbed, laughed, said aloud the things he would say to-morrow, felt a burning love for the men who would listen to him and stand by his side at the corner of the street, preaching. He sat down to write to them; he made vows.
All this was the more like an ecstasy in that it did not last. Vassiliev was soon tired. The London women, the Hamburg women, those from Warsaw, crushed him with their mass, as the mountains crush the earth. He quailed before this mass; he lost himself; he remembered he had no gift for speaking, that he was timid and faint-hearted, that strange people would hardly want to listen to and understand him, a law-student in his third year, a frightened and insignificant figure. The true apostleship consisted, not only in preaching, but also in deeds. . . .
When daylight came and the carts rattled on the streets, Vassiliev lay motionless on the sofa, staring at one point. He did not think any more of women, or men, or apostles. All his attention was fixed on the pain of his soul which tormented him. It was a dull pain, indefinite, vague; it was like anguish and the most acute fear and despair. He could say where the pain was. It was in his breast, under the heart. It could not be compared to anything. Once on a time he used to have violent toothache. Once, he had pleurisy and neuralgia. But all these pains were as nothing beside the pain of his soul. Beneath this pain life seemed repulsive. The thesis, his brilliant work already written, the people he loved, the salvation of fallen women, all that which only yesterday he loved or was indifferent to, remembered now, irritated him in the same way as the noise of the carts, the running about of the porters and the daylight . . . If someone now were to perform before his eyes a deed of mercy or an act of revolting violence, both would produce upon him an equally repulsive impression. Of all the thoughts which roved lazily in his head, two only did not irritate him: one—at any moment he had the power to kill himself, the other—that the pain would not last more than three days. The second he knew from experience.
After having lain down for a while he got up and walked wringing his hands, not from corner to corner as usually, but in a square along the walls. He caught a glimpse of himself in the glass. His face was pale and haggard, his temples hollow, his eyes bigger, darker, more immobile, as if they were not his own, and they expressed the intolerable suffering of his soul.
In the afternoon the painter knocked at the door.
"Gregory, are you at home?" he asked.
Receiving no answer, he stood musing for a while, and said to himself good-naturedly:
"Out. He's gone to the University. Damn him."
And went away.
Vassiliev lay down on his bed and burying his head in the pillow he began to cry with the pain. But the faster his tears flowed, the more terrible was the pain. When it was dark, he got into his mind the idea of the horrible night which was awaiting him and awful despair seized him. He dressed quickly, ran out of his room, leaving the door wide open, and into the street without reason or purpose. Without asking himself where he was going, he walked quickly to Sadovaia Street.
Snow was falling as yesterday. It was thawing. Putting his hands into his sleeves, shivering, and frightened of the noises and the bells of the trams and of passers-by, Vassiliev walked from Sadovaia to Sukhariev Tower then to the Red Gates, and from here he turned and went to Basmannaia. He went into a public-house and gulped down a big glass of vodka, but felt no better. Arriving at Razgoulyai, he turned to the right and began to stride down streets that he had never in his life been down before. He came to that old bridge under which the river Yaouza roars and from whence long rows of lights are seen in the windows of the Red Barracks. In order to distract the pain of his soul by a new sensation or another pain, not knowing what to do, weeping and trembling, Vassiliev unbuttoned his coat and jacket, baring his naked breast to the damp snow and the wind. Neither lessened the pain. Then he bent over the rail of the bridge and stared down at the black, turbulent Yaouza, and he suddenly wanted to throw himself head-first, not from hatred of life, not for the sake of suicide, but only to hurt himself and so to kill one pain by another. But the black water, the dark, deserted banks covered with snow were frightening. He shuddered and went on. He walked as far as the Red Barracks, then back and into a wood, from the wood to the bridge again.
"No! Home, home," he thought. "At home I believe it's easier."
And he went back. On returning home he tore off his wet clothes and hat, began to pace along the walls, and paced incessantly until the very morning.
The next morning when the painter and the medico came to see him, they found him in a shirt torn to ribbons, his hands bitten all over, tossing about in the room and moaning with pain.
"For God's sake!" he began to sob, seeing his comrades, "Take me anywhere you like, do what you like, but save me, for God's sake now, now! I'll kill myself."
The painter went pale and was bewildered. The medico, too, nearly began to cry; but, believing that medical men must be cool and serious on every occasion of life, he said coldly:
"It's a fit you've got. But never mind. Come to the doctor, at once."
"Anywhere you like, but quickly, for God's sake!"
"Don't be agitated. You must struggle with yourself."
The painter and the medico dressed Vassiliev with trembling hands and led him into the street.
"Mikhail Sergueyich has been wanting to make your acquaintance for a long while," the medico said on the way. "He's a very nice man, and knows his job splendidly. He took his degree in '82, and has got a huge practice already. He keeps friends with the students."
"Quicker, quicker . . ." urged Vassiliev.
Mikhail Sergueyich, a stout doctor with fair hair, received the friends politely, firmly, coldly, and smiled with one cheek only.
"The painter and Mayer have told me of your disease already," he said. "Very glad to be of service to you. Well? Sit down, please."
He made Vassiliev sit down in a big chair by the table, and put a box of cigarettes in front of him.
"Well?" he began, stroking his knees. "Let's make a start. How old are you?"
He put questions and the medico answered. He asked whether Vassiliev's father suffered from any peculiar diseases, if he had fits of drinking, was he distinguished by his severity or any other eccentricities. He asked the same questions about his grandfather, mother, sisters, and brothers. Having ascertained that his mother had a fine voice and occasionally appeared on the stage, he suddenly brightened up and asked:
"Excuse me, but could you recall whether the theatre was not a passion with your mother?"
About twenty minutes passed. Vassiliev was bored by the doctor stroking his knees and talking of the same thing all the while.
"As far as I can understand your questions, Doctor," he said. "You want to know whether my disease is hereditary or not. It is not hereditary."
The doctor went on to ask if Vassiliev had not any secret vices in his early youth, any blows on the head, any love passions, eccentricities, or exceptional infatuations. To half the questions habitually asked by careful doctors you may return no answer without any injury to your health; but Mikhail Sergueyich, the medico and the painter looked as though, if Vassiliev failed to answer even one single question, everything would be ruined. For some reason the doctor wrote down the answers he received on a scrap of paper. Discovering that Vassiliev had already passed through the faculty of natural science and was now in the Law faculty, the doctor began to be pensive. . . .
"He wrote a brilliant thesis last year . . ." said the medico.
"Excuse me. You mustn't interrupt me; you prevent me from concentrating," the doctor said, smiling with one cheek. "Yes, certainly that is important for the anamnesis. . . . Yes, yes. . . . And do you drink vodka?" he turned to Vassiliev.
Another twenty minutes passed. The medico began sotto voce to give his opinion of the immediate causes of the fit and told how he, the painter and Vassiliev went to S——v Street the day before yesterday.
The indifferent, reserved, cold tone in which his friends and the doctor were speaking of the women and the miserable street seemed to him in the highest degree strange. . . .
"Doctor, tell me this one thing," he said, restraining himself from being rude. "Is prostitution an evil or not?"
"My dear fellow, who disputes it?" the doctor said with an expression as though he had long ago solved all these questions for himself. "Who disputes it?"
"Are you a psychiatrist?"
"Yes-s, a psychiatrist."
"Perhaps all of you are right," said Vassiliev, rising and beginning to walk from corner to corner. "It may be. But to me all this seems amazing. They see a great achievement in my having passed through two faculties at the university; they praise me to the skies because I have written a work that will be thrown away and forgotten in three years' time, but because I can't speak of prostitutes as indifferently as I can about these chairs, they send me to doctors, call me a lunatic, and pity me."
For some reason Vassiliev suddenly began to feel an intolerable pity for himself, his friends, and everybody whom he had seen the day before yesterday, and for the doctor. He began to sob and fell into the chair.
The friends looked interrogatively at the doctor. He, looking as though he magnificently understood the tears and the despair, and knew himself a specialist in this line, approached Vassiliev and gave him some drops to drink, and then when Vassiliev grew calm undressed him and began to examine the sensitiveness of his skin, of the knee reflexes, . . . .
And Vassiliev felt better. When he was coming out of the doctor's he was already ashamed; the noise of the traffic did not seem irritating, and the heaviness beneath his heart became easier and easier as though it were thawing. In his hand were two prescriptions. One was for kali-bromatum, the other—morphia. He used to take both before.
He stood still in the street for a while, pensive, and then, taking leave of his friends, lazily dragged on towards the university.