The Kiss and Other Stories/Women
IN the village of Riabuzhka, directly opposite the church, stands a two-storied house with stone foundations and an iron roof. In the lower story, with his family, lives the owner, Philip Ivanoff Kamin, nick-named “Diudya”; overhead, in rooms very hot in summer and very cold in winter, lodge passing officials, traders, and country gentlemen. Diudya rents land, keeps a drink-shop on the main road, trades in tar and honey and magpies; and is worth a good eight thousand roubles safely lodged in bank.
Feodor, his elder son, is foreman mechanic at a factory; and, as the peasants say, he is so far up the hill that you can't get near him. Ugly and delicate Sophia, Feodor's wife, lives at home with her father-in-law, cries half the day, and every Sunday drives to hospital for treatment. Hunchbacked Aliosha, Diudya's second son, also lives at home. He lately married Varvara, whom he took to wife out of an impoverished house. Varvara is young, pretty, healthy, and fond of dress. The passing officials and traders let no one bring the samovar and make the beds but Varvara.
One evening in July as the sun set, and the air reeked of hay, hot manure, and new milk, into Diudya's yard came a cart with three men. One, aged about thirty, wore a canvas suit; the boy of seven or eight beside him wore a long black coat with big buttons; the third, a young lad in a red shirt, was the driver.
The driver unhitched the horses and walked them up and down the street; and the man of thirty washed, prayed towards the church, and spreading a fur rug beside the cart, sat down with the boy to supper. He ate slowly and gravely; and Diudya, who had studied many a traveller in his day, found him a capable, serious man, who knew his own worth.
Diudya, capless, and in shirt-sleeves, sat on the steps and waited for the traveller to speak. His patrons usually spent the evening story-telling, and their stories gave him pleasure. His old wife Afanasievna and his daughter-in-law Sophia milked cows in a shed; Varvara, wife of his younger son, sat upstairs at an open window and ate sunflower seeds.
“I suppose this boy is your son?” asked Diudya.
“My adopted son,” answered the traveller. “I took him, orphan, for the saving of my soul.”
The pair soon gossiped at ease. The traveller seemed a talkative, eloquent man; and Diudya learned that he was a petty burgher from town, a house-owner, by name Matvei Savvitch, that he was on his way to inspect some gardens which he rented from German colonists, and that the boy's name was Euzka. It was hot and stifling; no one wished to sleep. When it grew dark, and the sky was dotted with pale stars, Matvei Savvitch began to tell the story of Kuzka. Afanasievna and Sophia stood some way off, and Kuzka loitered at the gate.
“I may say, grandfather, that this story is involved in the extreme,” began Matvei Savvitch. “If I were to tell you everything that happened it would last all night. Well! About ten years ago in our street, exactly in a line with us, where now stands the candle factory and oil mill, lived Marya Semionovna Kapluntseff, an old widow with two sons. One of these sons was a tram-conductor; the other, Vasya, a lad of my own age, lived at home with his mother. Old KapluntsclF had kept horses — five pairs of them — and sent his draymen all over town; and his widow continued the business, and, as she managed the draymen no worse than her husband, on some days she made a clear five roubles profit.
“And Vasya, too, had his earnings. He kept prize tumblers and sold them to fanciers; I remember him standing on the roof, throwing up a broom and whistling, and the pigeons would fly right into the sky. He trapped goldfinches and starlings, and made good cages. A trifling business, you think, but you can easily make your ten roubles a month out of trifles. Well . . . as time passed the old woman lost the use of her legs, and lay all day in bed. The house remained without mistress, and what is that but a man without eyes? The old woman resolved to marry her Vasya. She hired a match-maker, did everything quickly . . . woman's talk . . . and Vasya went to have a look at his bride. She was the widow Samokvalika's Mashenka. Vasya didn't waste time over it; in one week the whole business was finished. She was a young girl, little, shortish, with a white, pleasant face — all the qualities of a young lady; and a portion too, not bad — five hundred roubles, a cow, a bed! And the old woman — she felt it coming — two days after the wedding set out for Jerusalem of the hills, where there is neither sickness nor sighs. The young ones said mass for her soul and began to live. Six months they lived together happily; and then, suddenly, a new misfortune! Vasya was summoned to draw lots as a conscript. They took him, poor fellow, as a soldier, and remitted nothing. They shaved his head, and packed him off to the kingdom of Poland. It was God's will, and there was no appeal. When he said good-bye to his wife in the yard he was cool enough, but, looking upwards at the hayloft with the pigeons, he cried as if his heart would break. It hurt me to see him. For company's sake Mashenka took her mother to live with her; and the mother stayed till child was the born, that is, this same Kuzka; and then went away to another married daughter who lived at Oboyan, So Mashenka was left with her child. And there were five draymen, all drunken and impudent; horses and carts; broken fences and soot catching fire in the chimneys — ^no affair at all for a woman. And as I was a neighbour, she would come to me on all sorts of business ; and I did my best for her, arranged more than one affair, gave her advice. And sometimes I would go to her house, have a diink, and a bit of a chat. I was a young man, clever, and I loved to talk about things; and she, too, was educated and had good manners. She dressed neatly and carried a parasol in summer. I remember; I would start upon theology or politics, and she felt flattered by this, and would treat me to tea and jam. . . . In short, grandfather, I will waste no more words on it, a year had not passed when the unclean spirit seized me, the enemy of all mankind! I noticed that when a day passed without meeting Mashenka I felt out of sorts, and was bored. And all my time was spent in finding excuses to call on her. ‘It's time,’ I'd say to myself, ‘to put in the double window-frames’; and I would spend the whole day in her house putting in the frames, and carefully leaving the work unfinished, so as to return next day. ‘We ought to count Vasya's pigeons, and make sure none are lost.’ And so on always. I spent hours talking to her across the fence; and at last, to avoid going round to the door, I made a little gate in the fence. Woman's sex is the cause of much evil and offence in this world! Not only we, sinners, but even holy men are seduced. Mashenka did not repulse me. When she ought to have thought of her husband, and kept guard on her conduct, she fell in love with me. I noticed soon that she also was tired of it, and that she spent all day walking along the fence and looking through the crevices into my yard.
“My head whirled round. On Thursday in Holy Week I was up early, before daybreak; I had to go to market. I had to pass the gate; and the devil was there! The grating of the gate was raised, and there stood Mashenka in the middle of the yard, already up, and busy feeding the ducks. I lost control of myself. I called her by name. She came up and looked at me through the grating. Her face was white, her eyes were sleepy and caressing. I liked her very much! And I began to pay her compliments as if we were not at the gate, but as if it were a birthday visit. And Mashenka blushed, laughed, and looked at me with the same eyes, never taking them off me. I went quite mad, and told her straight that I loved her. She opened the gate, let me in, and from that day forward we lived as man and wife.”
Matvei paused. Into the yard, breathless, came hunchback Aliosha, and, without looking at the group, ran into the house; a minute later he rushed out with a concertina, and, jingling the coppers in his pocket and chewing a sunflower seed, disappeared behind the gate.
“Who is that man?” asked Matvei Savvitch.
“My son Alexei,” answered Diudya. “He's gone off to amuse himself, rascal! God cursed him with a hump, so we're not hard on him!”
“He does nothing but play with the children,” sighed Afanasievna. “Before Shrovetide we married him, and thought he'd improve, but he's got worse than ever.”
“It was no use,” said Diudya. “We only made a strange girl happy, without profit.”
From behind the church came the sound of a mournful but pleasant song. The words were indistinguishable, but the voices, two tenors and a bass, could easily be made out. All listened. Suddenly two of the singers, with a loud laugh, ceased to sing, but the third, the tenor, continued, and sang so high that all mechanically looked upward as if they thought the voice had reached the sky. Varvara came out of the house, and, shading her eyes with her hand as if the sun dazzled her, looked at the church.
“It's the priest's sons and the schoolmaster,” she said. Again all three voices sang together. Matvei Savvitch sighed and continued: —
“So it happened, grandfather! . . . Well, in two years a letter came from Vasya. He wrote from Warsaw and told us that he had been discharged for ill-health. He was invalided. But by that time I had driven my madness out of my head, and, what's more, I was thinking of making a good match, and was only waiting an excuse to get rid of my lovebird. Every day I resolved to speak to Mashenka, but I never knew how to begin, and I can't abide a woman's howl. The letter gave me ray chance. As Mashenka read it aloud to me she turned white as snow, and I said to her, ‘Glory be to God,’ I said. ‘Thou wilt again be an honest woman.’ She answered, ‘I will not live with him.’ ‘But he is your husband.’ ‘That is nothing to me,’ she answered. ‘I never loved him, and I married him against my will. My mother forced me to.’ “But that doesn't get round the question, fool,” I said. ‘Were you married to him in church or not?’ ‘I was marrted in church,’ she answered tne, ‘but I love only thee, and I will be thy wife till thy very death. Let people jeer at me! I care nothing for them!’ ‘You are a believing woman,’ I said to her. ‘You read the Bible; what is there written there?’”
“Once given to her husband with her husband she must live,” said Diudya.
“Husband and wife are of one flesh and blood,” resumed Matvei Savvitch. “‘Thou and I have sinned,’ I said. ‘We must listen to our consciences and have the fear of God. We will ask forgiveness of Vasya. He is a peaceful, timid man — he won't murder you. But better,’ I added, ‘far better in this world to tolerate torture from thy lawful husband than gnash thy teeth when the Day of Judgment is nigh!’ The silly wouldn't listen to me. Not a word would she say but ‘I love thee!’ and nothing more. Vasya came home on the Saturday before Trinity early in the morning. I watched the whole business through the fence. In ran Vasya into the house, and a minute later out he came with Kuzka in his arms, laughing and crying at the same time. He kissed Kuzka and looked up at the hayloft; he wanted to go to his pigeons, but he wouldn't let hold of Kuzka. He was a soft sort of man — sentimental! The day passed quietly enough. They rang the bells for the vesper service, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘Why don't they decorate the gates and the yard with birches? Something is wrong,’ I thought. I went into their house and looked. Vasya sat on the floor in the middle of the room, twitching his eyes as if in drink; the tears flowed down his cheeks, his hands shook; he took out of his handkerchief cracknels, necklaces, gingerbread — all sorts of gifts — and threw them on the floor. Kuzka — he was then aged three — crept on the floor and chewed the gingerbreads; and Mashenka stood by the stove, pale and trembling, and muttered, ‘I am not thy wife; I will not live with thee,’ and a lot more nonsense of that kind. I threw myself on the boards at Vasya's feet and said, ‘We two are guilty before thee, Vassili Maksimuitch; forgive us for the love of Christ!’ and then I rose and said to Mashenka, ‘It is your duty, Marya Semionovna, to wash Vassili Maksimuitch's feet, and be to him an obedient wife, and pray for me to God that He, the All-Merciful, may forgive me my sin.’ I was inspired by a heavenly angel! I spoke edification; spoke with such feeling that I began to cry. And two dajs later up to me comes Vasya. ‘I forgive you,’ says he ; ‘I forgive you, Matiusha, and I forgive my wife; God be with you both. She is a soldier's wife after all, and women are queer things; she is young, it was hard for her to guard herself. She is not the first, and she will not be the last. There is only one thing,’ he added. ‘I beg you henceforth to live as if there was nothing between us; let nothing be seen, and I,’ he says, ‘will try to please her in everything so that she may love me again.’ He gave me his hand on it, drank some tea, and went away contented. ‘Glory be to God!’ I said to myself; and I felt happy that all had been settled so well. But hardly had Vasya got outside the yard when Mashenka appears. I had no peace, you see! She hung on my neck, howled, and implored me ‘For the love of God do not forsake me! I cannot live without thee! I cannot, I cannot!’”
“The shameless trull!” sighed Diudya. “But I bawled at her, stamped my feet, dragged her into the hall, and locked the door. ‘Go back!’ I shouted, ‘to thy husband. Do not shame me before the people! Have the fear of God in thy heart.’ And every day this history was repeated. I stood one morning in the yard near the stable and mended a bridle. Suddenly up I looked, and saw her running through the gate, bare-footed, with nothing on but a petticoat. Straight up to me she ran, seized the bridle, and got covered with tar, and trembling all over, howled, ‘I cannot live with that brute! It is beyond my strength. If thou no longer lovest me, then kill me!’ It was too much for my patience. I struck her twice with the bridle. But at that moment in runs Vasya and cries despairingly, ‘Don't strike her, don't strike her!’ But he himself seemed to have gone out of his mind, for, flourishing his arms, he began to beat her with his clenched fists with all his might, then flung her down in the dust, and trampled her into it. I tried to defend her, but he seized hold of the reins, and beat her without mercy. Beat her as he'd beat a horse, gee, gee, gee!”
“A good thing if they did it to you,” growled Varvara, walking away. “You murdered our sister between you, accursed!”
“Hold your tongue!” shouted Diudya. “Mare!”
“Gee, gee, gee!” continued Matvei Savvitch. “One of the draymen ran in from his yard; I called up some of my workmen, and between us we rescued Mashenka and carried her home. It was a shame! She lay there in bed, all bandaged, all in compi'esses — only her eyes and nose could be seen — and looked up at the ceiling.
“‘Good day, Marya Semionovna,’ I would say to her. But she spoke not a word.
“And Vasya sat in another room, tore his hair, and cried, ‘I am a ruffian! I have murdered my wife! Send me in Thy mercy, Lord, death!’
“I sat half an hour with Mashenka, and spoke edification. I frightened her.
“‘The righteous,’ I said. ‘The righteous of this world are rewarded in Paradise, but thy place is fiery Gehenna with all adulteresses. . . . Do not dare resist thy husband, go down on thy knees to him!’ But she hadn't a word for me; even her eyes were still; I might as well have preached to a pillar.
“A day later Vasya was taken ill — something, it was, like cholera ; and that same evening I heard he was dead. They buried him. Mashenka was not at the funeral; she wouldn't let people see her shameless face and her blue marks. But soon they began to say in town that Vasya's death was not natural, that he was murdered by Mashenka. The police soon heard it They dug up Vasya, cut him open, and found his stomach full of arsenic. It was a simple case. Of course, the police took away Mashenka, and with her nnocent Kuzka. They put her in gaol. . . . About eight months later she was tried. She sat, I remember, in the dock in a grey gown with a white handkerchief on her head — thin, pale, sharp-eyed, the picture of misery. And behind her a soldier with a rifle! Of course she denied it. Some said she'd poisoned her husband ; others argued that he had poisoned himself from grief. Anyway, I was a witness. When they questioned me I told them the honest truth. ‘She was a sinful woman,’ I told them. ‘She did not love her husband — it's no use hiding it. She was an obstinate woman. . . .’ The trial began in the morning and didn't end till night. It was penal servitude in Siberia, thirteen years of it.
“Mashenka remained in our local gaol three months after trial. I used to go and see her. I was sorry for her, and would bring her tea and sugar. . . . And she — I remember — when she caught sight of me, would wring her hands, and mutter, ‘Go away! Go away.’ And Kuzka would press himself to her dress, as if he feared I might take him. ‘Look !’ I would say to Mashenka. ‘See what you've brought yourself to! Ahh, Masha, Masha, perishing soul! When I tried to teach you reason, you wouldn't listen; so weep now! It is you yourself,’ I would say, ‘who are guilty; accuse yourself!’ And I spoke edification to her; but the only words she answered were, ‘Go away! Go away!’ Then she'd press little Kuzka to the wall, and tremble all over. Well! When she was taken out of our province, I went to see her off at the railway station, and put into her hand a rouble, for Christ's sake. She didn't reach Siberia. Before she had crossed the government frontier she was down with gaol-fever, and in gaol she died.”
“To a dog a dog's death!” said Diudya.
“Kuzka was sent back. I thought the matter out, and took him to live with me. What else could I do ? He's a sprig of a gaol-bird, that's true, but all the same he's a Christian, a living soul. I was sorry for him. I will make him a clerk, and if I have no children of mine, a trader. Nowadays, wherever I go I take him with me ; he is learning business.”
While Matvei Savvitch told his story, Kuzka sat on a stone at the gate, and, resting his head on his hands, looked at the sky; when it grew dusk he looked like a stump of a tree.
“Kuzka, go to bed!” cried Matvei Savvitch.
“It's time,” said Diudya, rising. He yawned audibly, and added, “They think themselves clever and disobey their elders — that's the cause of their troubles.”
The moon already shone in the sky overhead; it seemed to speed swiftly to one side and the clouds beneath it to the other; the clouds drifted away and the moon was soon clear of them. Matvei Savvitch prayed towards the church, bade the others good night, and lay on the ground near his cart. Kuzka also prayed, lay down in the cart, and covered himself with a coat; to increase his comfort he made a hollow in the hay, and bent in two until his elbows touched his knees. From the yard could be seen Diudya, lighting a candle in the lower story; after which he took his spectacles, stood in the comer with a book, bowed before the ikon, and read.
The travellers slept. Afanasievna and Sophia crept up to the cart, and looked at Kuzka.
“The orphan's asleep,” said the old woman. “All skin and bone, poor lad! No mother on earth, and no one to feed him on his journey.”
“My Grishutka, I think, is about two years older,” said Sophia. “He lives in that factory like a slave, and has no mother either. . . . His master beats him. When I first looked at this lad he reminded me of my Grishutka; the blood in my heart froze up.”
Five minutes passed in silence.
“I wonder does he remember his mother,” said the old woman.
“How should he remember?”
And from Sophia's eyes fell big tears.
“He's twisted himself into a roll,” she said, sobbing and laughing from pity and emotion. “Poor little orphan!”
Kuzka started and opened his eyes. He saw above him an ugly, wrinkled, tear-stained face; and near it another face, old and toothless, with a sharp chin and a humped nose; and above the faces was the unfathomable sky with its flying clouds and moon. He cried out with terror. Sophia also cried out; an echo answered both; and the heavy air seemed to tremble with restlessness. A watchman not far off signalled; a dog barked. Matvei Savvitch muttered in his sleep, and turned on the other side.
Late at night when the others—Diudya, his wife, and the watchman—were asleep, Sophia came out to the gate and sat on a bench. The heat was still stifling, and her head ached from crying. The street was wide and long; it stretched two versts to the right, and two more to the left—there was no end to it. One side only was lighted by the moon; the other lay in deep gloom; the long shadows from poplars and starling-cotes stretched across it, and the black and menacing shadow of the church spread far, embracing Diudya's gate and half his house. No one moved or spoke. But from the end of the street came faint sounds of music. Aliosha played on his concertina.
Something moved in the shadow of the church fence; but no one could say whether it was man or cow, or neither—perhaps the sound came from some big bird rustling in the trees. But suddenly out of this shadow came a figure, and this figure stopped, said something in a man's voice, and disappeared down a lane near the church. A minute later, two fathoms from the gate emerged a woman, who, seeing Sophia on the bench, stood still.
“Varvara, is it you?” asked Sophia.
It was Varvara. She stood still a moment longer, then came up to the bench and sat down.
“Where have you been?” asked Sophia.
Varvara was silent.
“You will bring the same end on yourself, young one,” said Sophia. “You heard about Mashenka, and the trampling underfoot . . . and the reins. Take care that something of that sort doesn't happen to you.”
“I don't care if jt does.”
Varvara laughed in her handkerchief, and said in a whisper —
“I have been with the priest's son.”
“It's a sin!” whispered Sophia.
“I don't care. It's nothing to regret. A sin is a sin, and better the lightning strike me than lead such a life. I am young . . . and healthy, and my husband is a hunchback, miserable, surly, worse than Diudya accursed! Before I was married I had not enough to eat and walked barefoot; but for the sake of Aliosha's money I became a slave, like a fish in a net, and I would sooner sleep with a serpent than with this scabby Aliosha. And your life? Can you bear it? Your Feodor sent you home to his father from the factory, and lives there with another woman; he took your boy away from you and sold you into slavery. You work like a horse, and never hear a decent word. Better never marry, better take half-roubles from the son of the priest, better beg for bread, drown yourself in a well . . .”
“It's a sin!” sighed Sophia.
“I don't care.”
Prom the church again came the mournful song of the three voices, the two tenors and the bass. And again the words were indistinguishable.
And Varvara began to whisper that she went out at night with the priest's son, and told what he said to her, and what his friends were like; and that she carried on also with passing officials and traders. And Sophia began to laugh; she felt it was sinful and awful and sweet to listen ; and she envied Varvara, and felt sorry that she had not been a sinner when she was young and handsome.
The church bells struck midnight.
“It's time for bed,” said Sophia, rising. “Diudya may catch us.”
Both went cautiously into the yard.
“I went away and didn't hear what happened to Mashenka afterwards,” said Varvara, spreading her bed under the window. “She died, he said, in prison. She poisoned her husband.”
Varvara lay down beside Sophia, thought, and said softly —
“I could murder my Aliosha without a qualm.”
“You talk nonsense, God be with you.”
When Sophia was almost asleep Varvara pressed against her and whispered in her ear —
“Let us murder Diudya and Aliosha!”
Sophia shuddered and said nothing at first. After a moment she opened her eyes and looked steadfastly at the sky.
“People would find out,” she said.
“Nobody'll find out. Diudya is old; his time, in any case, has come; and Aliosha, they'll say, killed himself with drink.”
Neither of the women slept. Both thought, silently.
“It's cold,” said Sophia, beginning to shudder. “I expect it will soon be light. Are you asleep?”
“No. . . . Pay no attention to what I said to you,” whispered Varvara. “I lose my temper with them, accursed, and sometimes don't myself know what I say. . . . Go to sleep!”
The two women were silent, and gradually calmed down and went to sleep.
Old Afanasievna awoke first of all. She called Sophia, and both went to the shed to milk the cows. Next appeared hunchback Aliosha, hopelessly drunk, and without his concertina. His chest and knees were covered with dust and straw; it was plain he had fallen on the road. Rolling tipsily from side to side, he went into the shed and, without undressing, threw himself on a sledge and at once began to snore. When the rising sun burnt with a fierce glow the crosses on the church, when later the windows imaged it, when across the yard through the dewy grass stretched shadows from the trees, only then did Matvei Savvitch rise and begin to bustle about.
“Kuzka, get up!” he shouted. “It's time to yoke the horses. Look sharp!”
The morning's work began. A young Jewess in a brown, flounced dress led a horse to water. The windlass creaked plaintively, the bucket rattled. Kuzka, sleepy, unrested, covered with dew, sat on the cai't and drew on his coat lazily and, listening to the water splashing in the well, shuddered from the cold.
“Auntie!” cried Matvei Savvitch. “Sing out to my lad to come and yoke the horses!”
And at the same minute Diudya called out of the window —
“Sophia, make the Jewess pay a kopeck for the water. They take it always, the scabbies!”
Up and down the street ran bleating sheep; women bawled at the shepherd; and the shepherd played his reed, flourished his whip, and answered in a rough, hoarse bass. Three sheep ran into the yard and crowded together at the fence. The noise awoke Varvara, who took her bed in her arms and went towards the house.
“You might at least drive out the sheep!” cried the old woman. “My fine lady!”
“What more? You think I'll work for a pack of Herods like you,” growled Varvara, entering the house.
The axles were soon oiled and the horses harnessed. From the house came Diudya with an abacus, and, sitting on the steps, made up his account against the travellers for lodging, oats, and water.
“You charge high, grandfather, for the oats,” said Matvei Savvitch.
" If they're too dear, don't take them. We won't force you to."
When the travellers were ready to climb into the cart an accident delayed them. Kuzka had lost his cap.
“What have you done with it, swine?” bawled Matvei Savvitch angrily. “Where is it gone to?”
Kuzka's face was contorted with terror. He searched about the cart and, finding no cap there, went to the gates. The old woman and Sophia also searched.
“I'll cut off your ears,” roared Matvei Savvitch. “Accursed pup!” The cap was found at the bottom of the cart. Kuzka brushed the hay from it, put it on timidly as if he expected a blow from behind, and took his seat. Matvei Savvitch crossed himself, the driver pulled the reins, and the cart rolled slowly out of the yard.