The Burglar—A Story by Leonid Andreyev
The author of this story (which is translated for Current Literature from the Russian, by Thomas Seltzer) is now in a Russian prison, where he was recently sent, together with his friend, Maxim Gorky, on political charges relating to the recent troubles in St. Petersburg. Gorky has been released, but Andreyev is, presumably, still held.
A great burglary is to be committed; perhaps also a murder.
To-night is the time appointed for this deed. Alone in his room, waiting, sits one of the men who is to commit the crime.
He must make haste to find his comrade and not sit alone and idle in the house. The lonely and idle man is a prey to all imaginable terrors, and he is everywhere surrounded by a mocking, jeering throng, whose hollow, malicious laughter penetrates and torments his soul.
A mouse terrifies him. It scratches mysteriously at the boards underneath the floor, and will not be silenced even when he raps with his cane until he is seized with fear himself. For a moment it remains silent, but as soon as, reassured, he reclines his head on his pillow, it is there again under his bed, gnawing away at the boards so loud . . . so loud . . . that it might be heard in the street . . . that someone might come and make inquiries.
The dog terrifies him, which, outside in the yard, rattles the chain sharply and barks at somebody.
Then the dog and the people are silent for a long while, and something happens out yonder. No footsteps are heard, but something is approaching the door, and a hand lays hold of the latch and holds it with a powerful grip without opening it.
The entire old moldy house terrifies, as if it had acquired, in its long existence with the groaning, weeping and teeth-gnashing inhabitants, the ability to speak and to utter indefinite, horrible threats. Something looks staringly out of the darkness of the narrow corner, and when he brings the lamp near it springs back noiselessly and is transformed into a tall dark shadow which dances and laughs—so quaintly dances and laughs on the round beams of the walls. Overhead on the low ceiling someone is treading with heavy footsteps; no footsteps are heard, but the boards are bending and fine dust is falling into the joints. How could it fall if there were no one upon the dark floor, walking about and looking for something? Yet the dust keeps falling, and sooty cobwebs tremble and wriggle and squirm. The mute, insidious, monstrous darkness greedily engorges the little windows, and—who knows?—perhaps there are shadowy faces peeping in with the uncanny composure of the invisible, and pointing at him: "See . . . see! Look at him!"
When a man is alone even his old acquaintances terrify him. They come and he is glad to see them. He laughs cheerfully and looks tranquilly into that corner in which someone had just been hidden, looks boldly at the ceiling over which someone had been walking back and forth. Now there is no one there; the boards do not bend, and no fine dust is falling. Yet—the men speak too much and too loud. They shout as if he were deaf, and in so doing their words vanish and lose their meaning. They cry so loudly and so long that their cries turn into stillness and their words into muteness. He knows their faces, but their eyes seem strange and unusual, and appear to live apart from their faces and their smiles, as if from the hollows of the eyes of old and trusted faces there looked out some stranger, a new man, who knew all and was so hideously treacherous.
And the man who has projected a great burglary, perhaps a murder, steps forth from the old rickety house. He steps forth into the street and breathes a sigh of relief.
But the street also—the deserted, hushed street of the suburb, where the pure white snow of the fields grapples with the noisy city, and forcibly penetrates into it with its white streams—the street also terrifies the man when he is alone. Already night is on, but darkness is not yet to conceal him. Somewhere in the distance, before and behind, it coils itself up in the dark houses with their closed shutters; but it steps back before him; he is forever walking in a luminous circle apart from but visible to all, as if he were carried along raised upon the broad white palm of a hand. And in every house which his bent form passes by there are doors, and even they stare at him with such a watchful and intent look, as if behind each there stood a man ready to rush forth upon him. And behind the fences, behind the long fences, stretches forth the invisible distance. There are gardens and vegetable beds, and surely no one can be there in this cold winter night; but if someone lies hidden there and looks at him through the dark crevices with strange and wily eyes, he will not be able to discover his presence.
And this is why he goes in the middle of the street, and there walks on apart from and visible to all, persecuted by the looks directed upon him from the gardens, the fences, the houses.
Thus he emerges upon the shore of the frozen river. The houses, full of men, remain outside the confines of the luminous circle, and only the field and the sky look at each other with hollow cold eyes. Yet the field is without motion and the sky flows rapidly onward, and the dim whitish moon falls headlong into the emptiness of measureless space. And not a sound, not a breath, not a stirring shadow is upon the snow. He stretches himself to his full length in the midst of the free and open country, looks up into the great arch of heaven, then angrily at the deserted street, and remains standing. "Let us smoke!" he says aloud in a husky voice. The match feebly illumines his broad black beard, but falls immediately from his lifted hand when an answer comes to his words — a strange, unexpected answer in the dead stillness of the night. He can not make it out. Is it a groan? Is it far or near, threatening or calling for help? Some sound arose and died away again. Long he listens, aghast with fright; the sound is not repeated; he waits and then asks softly: "Who is there?"
So surprisingly, so astoundingly simple is the answer that the man laughs out aloud and breaks into meaningless oaths. A little dog whines, a very ordinary and apparently very young dog. That is evident from its voice — weak, plaintive, and full of that peculiar assurance which knows that it will be heard and will be pitied, that peculiar sound which is heard in the crying of children. A little dog whines in the midst of the snow — a little dog, where all was so unusual and terrifying and the whole world hunted the man with a thousand open eyes. The man follows the soft call.
Upon the trodden snow of the wide road sits a little black dog. Helplessly stretching out his hind feet, he supports himself on his fore feet. He trembles in his entire body. The feet on which he supports himself tremble, the little black nose trembles, and the coiled end of the tail strikes out a pitiful, caressing curl upon the snow. He has been freezing long, astray in the infinite waste, urgently calling to all who came near him but heeded by none. Now a man has stopped in front of him, and no longer has he need to cry out for help.
"This seems to be our dog," muses the man as he scans him carefully. He vaguely recalls something, small, black and moving, which beat a tattoo with his paws, always got entangled under one's feet and whined. The folks played with him and petted him, and once someone said: "Look at him, what a comical fellow he is!"
He does not recall whether he had seen him then, whether he had looked at him then; perhaps these words had never been spoken, perhaps there was never a young dog in his house, and these recollections come perhaps from the distance, from that indefinite past in which there were so much sunshine and beautiful rare sounds, and in which, as he thinks of it, everything seems to flow into everything else and form a vague mass of confused ideas and remembrances.
"Hey, little fellow, how came you here, you son of a dog?"
The dog turns his little head, but does not whine. He looks aside and trembles with an expression of patient forlornness. It is a very ordinary young dog, yet the man had been so shamefully frightened that he begins to shudder. And he is about to commit a great burglary, perhaps a murder!
"Get along with you," he cries with a threatening voice; "go home, you monster."
The dog acts as if he does not hear him. He looks aside and trembles with the same persistent, agonizing quaver, so that the man's heart begins to ache, and a cold shiver runs through his body.
He grows angry. "Get along with you! Am I speaking to you?" he cries. "Away with you, miserable hound, or I will crack your skull. C-l-e-a-r out!"
The dog looks aside as if he does not hear the terrible words which would have made anybody else tremble, or as if he does not attach any importance to them; and the man is seized with rage because his fierce and terrible words are received with indifference and inattention.
"Now, you rot here," he says, and goes resolutely forward. Whereupon the little dog sets up a piteous whimper as if in imminent peril of life, and convinced, like a child, that it will be heard. "Aha, now you are whining," says the man with triumphant malice. He turns rapidly backward and finds the dog sitting mutely and slumbering.
"Will you go now or not?" he says, but receives no answer. Again he asks and receives no answer.
Now begins the strange, senseless struggle of a huge, powerful man with the little freezing animal. The man tries to chase it home, he is angered, he cries, he stamps with his powerful feet, and the dog looks aside, trembles with cold and with fear, and does not budge from the spot. The man pretends that he is going back home, and calls to make the dog run after him; but he sits and trembles, and when the man goes off begins to whimper pitifully, persistently. The man returns and kicks him with his foot. The dog starts with fright, turns around and whines, then sits down again supported on his fore legs, and trembles.
Something incomprehensible, vexatious and hopeless takes possession of the man's whole being. He forgets his comrade who is awaiting him, forgets the work that is to be accomplished that night, and with his whole excited spirit abandons himself to the dumb dog. He cannot convince himself that the dog does not comprehend either the danger, or his words, or the necessity of going home at once. He lifts him angrily by the skin of his neck and so carries him ten steps nearer to the house. There he deposits him carefully on the snow and commands: "Away with you, go home!"
Then without looking around he proceeds toward the city. After walking a hundred steps he stops, sunk in thought, and looks back. Nothing is to be seen; not a sound is heard. The frozen expanse of river stretches far and free. Stealthily prowling along, he returns to the place where he had left the dog, and on arriving there breaks out into desperate profanity. On the very spot where he had put him sits the dog and trembles. The man inclines his head, and sees the little round, dripping eyes, the piteous, small, wet nose, together with the entire body a-tremble.
"Will you be gone now? I will strike you dead on the spot!" he cries, raising his hand with a threatening gesture. Gathering the whole vehemence of his rage and excitement into his gaze, with rolling eyes he fixes a momentary glare upon the dog, and bawls aloud to frighten him. The dog looks aside with his tearful eyes and trembles.
"What am I to do with you?" says the man in consternation.
He squats down, curses and swears, because he does not know what to do. He speaks of his comrade; of the work which he has on hand that night, and threatens the dog with swift and terrible death.
The dog looks aside and trembles mutely.
"Ah, you fool," he cries in desperation, then seizes the little body as if it were something hideous, as if he entertains a deadly hatred for it, deals him two hard blows and—carries him home.
And the houses, the fences and the gardens break into a wild laughter as he passes by them. The gardens and the vegetable beds laugh with a dull, sullen mockery. The lighted windows snigger with malice, and the mute dark houses with their frozen timbers and their mysterious menacing inmates, laugh a dumb somber laugh: 'Look! look! There goes a man who has murder in his mind, and he carries a shabby dog. Look at him! Look at him!" And his heart grows anxious and he grows greatly embarrassed. Wrath and fear envelop him as in a cloud of smoke, and a new, strange feeling possesses him, such as he had never yet experienced in the entire course of his perilous and tormenting existence as a thief — an amazing impotence, an inner weakness. So powerful his muscles, so clenched his fist, yet his heart so soft, so void of will! He hates the dog and carries him with clenched hands as carefully, as watchfully, as if it were something infinitely precious, which a capricious fate has bestowed upon him. And he apologizes sullenly:
"What could I do with him if he would not go himself? How could I help it? There was no other way."
And the mute laughter grows and enshrouds the man who has been planning a murder for that night, and who now carries a black, shabby dog. It is not only the houses and the gardens now that laugh: all the men he has ever known laugh—all the thefts, robberies, burglaries and acts of violence he has ever committed laugh; all the prisons, all the blows, all the insults that his old emaciated body has ever suffered laugh.
"Look! he was to commit a robbery to-night, and he carries a dog in his hands! He was going to commit a burglary, but he is too late on account of this little, shabby dog, ha— ha—ha—old fool!"
"Look, look at him!"
And swifter and ever swifter he pushes onward, his body doubled up, his head drooping, like an ox ready to strike out with his horns as if he has to make his way through invisible ranks of unseen foes, and as if he carries a banner inscribed with the mysterious and mighty words:
"But how could it be helped? How could it be otherwise? Impossible!"
And ever softer, ever duller, grows the suppressed laughter of the invisible foes, and ever thinner, ever rarer, grow their compact ranks. This is perhaps because the clouds melt down in fluffy flakes of snow, and a white, moving bridge joins heaven and earth. Feeling more at ease, the man walks more slowly, and in his angry hands the half-frozen, black little dog gradually returns to life. Somewhere deep down into his little body the frost had chased the tender warmth, but now he steps forth, awake, bright and as strangely beautiful in its mystery and incomprehensiveness as the appearance of light and fire in the midst of deep darkness and the tempest.