The Little Angel and Other Stories/The Spy

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THE SPY


A young little student girl—almost a child. Her nose was thin, beautiful, with a slight upward tilt; and from her full lips there seemed to come the scent of chocolates and red caramels. And her fine hair, which covered her head like a heavy and caressing wave, was so generously rich that a glance at it gave rise to thoughts of all that is best and brightest on earth: of a golden morning upon a blue sea, of Autumn larks, of lilies of the valley and of fragrant and full-grown lilacs—a cloudless sky and lilacs, large, endless lilac bushes, and larks soaring over them.

And her eyes were young, bright, naively indifferent. But when you looked closely at her you could see upon her face the fine shades of fatigue, of lack of food, of sleepless nights spent in conversation in smoke-filled little rooms, by the exhausting lamp-light. Perhaps there had also been tears upon those eyes—big, not childish, venomous tears; all her bearing was full of restrained alarm; her face was cheerful, her lips smiled slightly, and her foot, in a little, mud-bespattered rubber shoe, stamped on the floor impatiently, as though to hurry the slow car and to drive it ahead faster, faster.

All this was noticed by the observing Mitrofan Krilov while the car slowly passed a small station. He stood on the platform, opposite the girl, and to while his time away he scrutinized her, somewhat fastidiously and inimically, as a very simple and familiar algebraic formula written in chalk upon the blackboard, which stared at him persistently. At first he felt cheerful, like everyone else who looked at the girl, but this feeling did not last long—there were causes which killed all cheerfulness in him.

"She must have come recently from some provincial town," he remarked to himself sternly. "And why the deuce do they come here? I would gladly have run away from here to the most deserted spot, to the end of the world. I suppose she is occupied with all sorts of serious discussions and convictions, and, of course, cannot sew a ribbon around her skirt. She doesn't bother with such things. What hurts me most is that such a good looking girl should be like that."

The girl noticed his cross look and became confused, more confused than is usual under such circumstances; the smile vanished from her eyes, an expression of childish fear and perplexity appeared on her face, and her left hand quickly moved up to her chest and stopped there, clutching something.

"See!" Mitrofan wondered, looking aside, and his face assumed an apathetic expression. "She was frightened by my blue eyeglasses. She thinks that I am a detective; she is carrying some papers under her waist. There was a time when they used to carry love letters on their breasts—now they carry bulletins. And what an absurd name—bulletins."

He cast another furtive glance at her in order to verify his expression, then he turned aside. The student girl gazed at him continuously, as though bewitched, and she pressed her hand firmly against her left side. Krilov grew angry.

"What a fool! Since I wear blue eyeglasses I must be, according to her ideas, a spy. But she does not understand that a man's eyes may be sore from hard work. How naïve she is. Just think of it! And these people undertake to do work to save the fatherland. What she needs is a milk bottle and not a fatherland. No, we are not ripe yet. Lasalle, for instance—his was a great mind! But here every beetle is trying to do things! She can't solve a simple mathematical problem, and yet she is bothering about finance, politics, documents. You deserve to be scared properly—then you will know what you are about!"

Mitrofan Krilov drew his head into his shoulders with a sharp gesture, his face assumed a cunning and mean expression which, in his opinion, was peculiar to real spies, and he cast a sinister look at the girl which almost turned his eyes out. And he was satisfied with his work: the girl shuddered and quivered with fear, and her eyes began to wander alarmedly.

"There is no escape!" Mitrofan Krilov interpreted her restlessness. "You may jump, you may jump, my dove, and I'll make it still stronger."

And growing ever more and more inspired, forgetting his hunger, and the nasty weather, elated with his creative power, he began to simulate a spy as cleverly as if he were a real actor or as if he actually served in the secret police department. His body wriggled in fine serpentine twists and turns, his eyes beamed with treachery, and his right hand, lowered in his pocket, clutched the torn car ticket energetically, as if it were not a piece of paper, but a revolver loaded with six bullets, or a spy's notebook. And now he attracted the attention of other people as well as that of the girl. A stout, red-haired merchant, who occupied one-third of the platform, suddenly contracted his body imperceptibly, as though he had grown thin at once, and turned aside. A tall fellow, with a cape over his top coat, blinked his rabbit-like eyes as he stared at Krilov, and suddenly, pushing the girl aside, jumped off the car and disappeared among the carriages.

"Excellent!" Mitrofan Krilov praised himself, overjoyed with the hidden and spiteful delight of a choleric man. In renouncing his individuality, in the fact that he pretended he was such an odious creature as a spy, and that people feared and despised him—in all this there was something keen, something pleasantly alarming, something intensely interesting. In the grey shroud of everyday life some dark, dreadful vistas opened, full of noiselessly moving shadows.

"Indeed, the occupation of a spy must be very interesting. A spy risks a great deal, and how he risks! One spy was even killed! He was slaughtered like a hog!"

For a moment he was frightened, and wanted to cease being a spy, but the teacher's skin into which he was to return was so meagre, dull, and repulsive that he inwardly renounced it, and his face assumed as forbidding an expression as it could. The student girl no longer looked at him, but her whole youthful figure, the tip of her pink ear which peeped from under her heavy hair, her body bent slightly forward, and her chest working slowly and deeply, betrayed her terrible agitation and her one thought of escape. She must have been dreaming of wings, of wings. Twice she made an irresolute step, and slightly turned her head toward Mitrofan, but her flushed cheek felt his penetrating gaze, and she became as petrified. Her hand remained on the platform rail, and her black glove, torn at the middle finger, quivered slightly. She felt ashamed that everybody saw her torn glove and the protruding finger, her tiny, orphan-like, and timid finger—and yet she was powerless to take off her hand.

"Ah!" thought Mitrofan Krilov. "There you are! There is no escape for you. That's a good lesson for you; you'll know how to do such things. At first you acted as though you were going to a ball; that wouldn't do, you mustn't think of pleasures only. Now jump a bit, jump a bit!"

He pictured to himself the life of the girl he pursued, and it appeared to him to be just as interesting, just as full and as varied as the life of a spy. There was also something in it that the life of a spy lacked—a certain offended pride, a certain harmony of strife, mystery, quick terror, and quick, courageous joy. People were pursuing her.

Mitrofan Krilov looked askance, with aversion, at his outworn coat, rubbed out at the sleeves; he recalled the button below, which was torn out together with a piece of cloth, pictured to himself his own yellow, sour face, which he hid; his blue spectacles; and with venomous joy he discovered that he really resembled a spy. Particularly that button. Spies have nobody that would sew on their buttons for them.

Now he looked at everything with the same eyes that the girl did, and all was new to him. He had never before in all his life given any thought as to what evening and night meant—mysterious, voiceless night, which brings forth darkness, which hides people. Now he saw its silent advent, wondered at the lanterns that were lit, saw something in the struggle between light and darkness, and was amazed at the calm of the crowd walking on the sidewalks. Was it possible that they did not see the light? The girl looked greedily at the passing black spaces of the still dark side streets and he looked at them with the same eyes as she did, and the corridors, luring into the darkness, were eloquent. She looked mournfully at the dull houses which were fenced off from the streets by rocks, and at the shelterless people—and these massive, angry fortresses seemed new to her.

Availing herself of the teacher's distractedness, the student girl lifted her hand in the torn glove from the platform rail—this made her braver—and she jumped off at the corner of a large street. At this point people got off and many others boarded the car, and a thin woman with a huge bundle obstructed the way, so that Mitrofan Krilov could not leave the car. He said "Please," and tried to force himself out, but he got stuck in the doorway and ran to the other side of the car. But there the way was obstructed by the conductor and the red merchant.

"Let me pass," Mitrofan Krilov shouted. "Conductor, what disgraceful business is this? I'll make a complaint against you!"

"They didn't hear you," the conductor defended himself timidly. "Please, let him pass."

Out of breath, he finally freed himself, jumped off so awkwardly that he almost fell down and he threatened the departing red light of the car with his fist.

Mitrofan overtook the girl in a small deserted street, into which he turned by intuition. She walked briskly and kept looking around, and when she noticed her pursuer she started to run, thus naïvely betraying her helplessness. Mitrofan also started to run after her, and now in the dark, unfamiliar, side street, where there were no other people but they, he and the girl, running, he was seized with a strange feeling; he felt that he was too much of a spy, and he even became frightened.

"I must end this matter at once," he thought, running quickly, out of breath, but, for some reason, not daring to run at full speed.

At the entrance of a many storied house the student girl stopped, and while she was tugging at the knob of the heavy door Mitrofan Krilov overtook her and looked at her face with a generous smile in order to show her that the joke was ended, and that all was well. But breathing with difficulty, she passed into the half opened door, hurling at his smiling face:

"Scoundrel!"

And she disappeared. Through the glass her silhouette flashed—and then she disappeared completely. Still smiling generously, Mitrofan touched the cold knob of the door, made an attempt to open it, but in the hallway, under the staircase, he saw the porter's galoons, and he walked away slowly. He stopped a few steps away and for about two minutes stood shrugging his shoulders. He adjusted his spectacles with dignity, threw his head back and thought: "How stupid. She did not allow me to say a word, but scolded me at once. The nasty girl could not understand that it was all a joke. I was doing it all for her own sake, while she—As if I needed her with her papers. Break your neck as much as you please. I suppose she is sitting now and telling all sorts of students, all sorts of long-haired students, how a spy was pursuing her. And they are sighing. The idiots! I am a university graduate myself, and am no worse than you are."

He felt warm after his brisk walk, and he unbuttoned his coat, but he recalled that he might catch a cold, so he buttoned his coat again, tugging with aversion at the loose, dangling button.

He stood in the same spot for a time, cast a helpless glance at the rows of lighted and dark windows and went on thinking:

"And the shaggy students are no doubt happy, and they believe her. Fools! I myself was a shaggy student—my hair was so long! I would not have cut my hair even now if it weren't falling out. It is falling out rapidly. I'll soon be bald. And I can't wear a wig like—a spy."

He lit a cigarette and felt that it was too much for him—the smoke was so bitter and unpleasant.

"Shall I go up and say to them: 'Ladies and gentlemen, it was all a joke, just a joke'? But they will not believe me. They may even give me a thrashing."

Mitrofan walked away about twenty steps and paused. It was growing cold.

He felt his light coat and the newspaper in his side pocket—and he was seized with a sense of bitterness. He felt so offended that he was on the point of crying. He could have gone home, had his dinner, drunk his tea and read his newspaper—and his soul would have been calm, cloudless; the copy books had already been corrected, and to-morrow, Saturday, there would be a whist party at the inspector's house. And there, in her little room, his deaf grandmother was sitting and knitting socks—the dear, kind, devoted grandmother had already finished two pairs of socks for him. And the little oil lamp must be burning in her room—and he recalled that he had been scolding her for using too much oil. Where was he now? In some kind of a side street. In front of some house—in which there were shaggy students.

Two students came out of the lighted entrance of the house, slamming the door loudly, and turned in the direction of Mitrofan.

He came to himself somewhere on the boulevard and for a long time was unable to recognise the neighbourhood. It was quiet and deserted. A rain was falling. The students were not there. He smoked two cigarettes, one after another, and his hands were trembling when he lit the cigarettes. . . .

"I must compose myself and look at the affair soberly," he thought. "It isn't so bad, after all. The deuce take that girl. She thinks that I am a spy; well, let her think what she pleases. But she does not know me. And the students didn't see me either. I am no fool—I raised the collar of my coat!"

He laughed for joy, and even opened his mouth—but suddenly he stood still as though petrified by a terrible thought.

"My God! But she saw me! I demonstrated my face to her for a whole hour. She may meet me somewhere——"

And a long series of possibilities occurred to Mitrofan Krilov; he was an intelligent man, fond of science and art; he frequented theatres, attended various meetings and lectures, and he might meet that girl at any of those places. She never goes alone to such places, he thought; such girls never go alone, but with a whole crowd of student girls and audacious students—and he was terrified at the thought of what might happen when she pointed her finger at him and said: "Here's a spy!"

"I must take off my spectacles, shave off my beard," thought Mitrofan. "Never mind the eyes—it may be that the doctor was lying about them. But will my face be changed any if I remove my beard? Is this a beard?"

He touched his thin little beard with his fingers and felt his face.

"Even my beard does not grow properly!" He thought with sorrow and aversion.

"But it is all nonsense. Even if she recognised me it wouldn't matter. Such a thing must be proven. It must be proven calmly and logically, even as a theorem must be proven."

He pictured to himself a meeting of the shaggy students, before whom he was defending himself firmly and calmly.

Mitrofan Krilov adjusted his spectacles sternly, with dignity, and smiled contemptuously. Then he began to prove to them—but he convinced himself, to his horror, that all logic and theorem are one thing, while his life was quite another thing, and there were no logic, no proofs in his life to show that Mitrofan Krilov was not a spy. If some one, even that girl, accused him of being a spy, would he find anything definite, clear, convincing in his life by which he could offset this base accusation? Now it seemed to him she looked at him naively, with fearless eyes and called him "spy"—and from that straightforward look, and from that cruel word, all the false phantoms of convictions and decency melted away as from fire. Emptiness everywhere. Mitrofan was silent, but his soul was filled with a cry of despair and horror. What did all this mean? Where had it all disappeared? What would he lean upon in order to save himself from falling into that dark and terrible abyss?

"My convictions," he muttered. "My convictions. Everybody knows them, my convictions. For instance——"

He searched his mind. He was grasping in his memory at fragments of conversations, he was looking for something clear, strong, convincing; he found nothing. He recalled absurd phrases such as this: "Ivanov, I am convinced that you have copied the problem from Sirotkin." But is this a conviction? Fragments of newspaper articles passed before him, other people's speeches, quite convincing—but where was that which he had said himself, which he himself had thought? He spoke as everyone else spoke, and thought as everybody else did, and it was just as impossible to find an unmarked grain in a heap of grain. Some people are religious, some are not religious, while he—

"Wait," he said to himself. "Is there a God, or is there not? I don't know. I don't know anything. And who am I—a teacher? Do I exist, I wonder?"

Mitrofan Krilov's hands and feet grew cold.

"Nonsense! Nonsense!" he consoled himself. "My nerves are simply upset. What are convictions after all? Words. A man reads words in a book, and there are his convictions. Acts, these are things that count chiefly. A fine spy who——"

But there were no acts of which he could think. There were school affairs, family affairs, other affairs, but there were no acts to speak of. Some one was persistently demanding of him: "Tell me, what have you done?" and he was searching his mind, desperately, sorrowfully—he was passing over the years he had lived as over the keyboard of a piano, and each year struck the same empty, wooden sound—"bya," without meaning, without significance.

"Ivanov, I am convinced that you copied the problem from Sirotkin." No, no, that is not the proper thing.

"Listen, madam, listen to me," he muttered, lowering his head, gesticulating calmly and properly. "How absurd it is to think that I am a spy. I—a spy? What nonsense! Please, let me convince you. Now, you see——"

Emptiness. Where had everything disappeared? He knew that he had done something, but what? All his kin and his acquaintances regarded him as a sensible, kind and just man—and they must have reasons for their opinion. Yes, he had bought goods for a dress for grandmother, and his wife even said to him: "You are too kind, Mitrofan!" But, then, spies may also love their grandmothers, and they may also buy goods for their grandmothers—perhaps even the same black goods with little dots. What else? But, no, no. That is all nonsense!

Unconsciously Mitrofan came back from the boulevard to the house where the student girl disappeared, but he did not notice it. He felt that it was late, that he was tired, and that he was on the point of crying.

Mitrofan stopped in front of the many storied house and looked at it with a sense of unpleasant perplexity.

"What a repulsive house! Oh, yes, it is the same house."

He walked away from the house quickly as though from a bomb, then he paused and reflected.

"The best thing for me to do is to write to her—to consider the matter calmly and write to her. Of course, I will not mention my name. Simply: that 'the man whom you mistook for a spy'—Point by point I will analyse it. She'll be a fool if she will not believe me."

After a time, Mitrofan touched the cold knob several times, opened the heavy door, and entered with a stern look. The porter appeared in the doorway of the little room under the staircase, and his face bespoke his willingness to be of service.

"Listen, friend, a student girl passed here a little while ago—what is the number of her room?"

"What do you want to know it for?"

Mitrofan Krilov stared at him abruptly through his spectacles, in silence, and the porter understood: he shook his head strangely and extended his hand to him.

"Come in to my room," called the porter.

"What for? I simply—" But the porter had already turned into his little room, and Mitrofan, gnashing his teeth, followed him meekly.

"He believed me—he believed me at once! The scoundrel!" he thought.

The little room was narrow; there was but one chair, and the porter occupied it calmly.

"Are you single?" asked Mitrofan good naturedly.

But the porter did not think it necessary to reply. Surveying the teacher from head to foot with an audacious glance, he maintained silence, and after a time, asked:

"One of you was here the day before yesterday. A light-haired fellow, with moustaches. Do you know him?"

"Of course I do. He is light-haired——"

"I suppose there are lots of you people roaming about nowadays," the porter remarked indifferently.

"Look here," Mitrofan said, growing indignant, "I haven't come here—I simply want to——"

But the porter paid no attention to his words, and continued:

"Do you get a large salary? The light-haired fellow said he was getting fifty. Too little."

"Two hundred," lied Mitrofan Krilov, and noticed an expression of delight on the porter's face.

"Really? Two hundred! I can understand that. Won't you have a cigarette?"

Mitrofan took a cigarette from the porter's fingers with thanks, and recalled sadly his own Japanese cigarette case, his study, his dear blue copy books. It was nauseating. The tobacco was strong, foul odoured—tobacco for spies. It was nauseating.

"Do you often get a drubbing?"

"Look here——"

"The light-haired fellow told me that he had never been thrashed yet. I suppose he lied. How is it possible that you people shouldn't get any thrashing," the porter smiled good naturedly.

"I must find out——"

"One must have ability and a suitable face. I have seen a spy whose face was crooked and one eye was missing. What is a man like that good for? His face was crooked, and in place of an eye there was a hole. You, for instance——"

"Look here!" Mitrofan exclaimed softly. "I have no time. I have other things to attend to."

Unwillingly dropping this interesting theme, the porter questioned Mitrofan about the girl, what she looked like, and said:

"I know her. She comes here often. No. 7, Ivanova. Why do you throw the cigarette on the floor? There is a stove. All I have to do is to sweep here after you."

"Blockhead!" Mitrofan replied quietly, and walked out into the side street, looking for an izvozchik.

"Home, I must go home at once! My God. Why didn't I think of it before. I was so absent-minded." He recalled that he had a diary, in which he had written long ago, when he was still a student, during his first term, something liberal, very strong, free and even beautiful. He recalled clearly that evening, and his room, and the tobacco that lay scattered on the table, and the feeling of pride, enthusiasm, and delight with which he wrote down those energetic, firm lines. He would tear out those pages and send them to her—and that would settle it. She would see, she would understand—she was a sensible and noble girl. How fine! and how hungry he was!

In the hallway Mitrofan was met by his alarmed wife.

"Where were you? What happened to you? Why do you look so upset?"

And throwing off his coat quickly, he shouted:

"With you I might be still more upset! The house is full of people and yet there is nobody to sew a button on my coat. The devil knows what you are doing here. I have told you a hundred times. Sew on this button. It's disgraceful, disgraceful!"

And he walked away to his study.

"And how about dinner?"

"Later. Don't bother me! Don't follow me!"

There were many books there, many copy books, but the diary was not there. Sitting on the floor, he threw out of the lower drawer of the closet various papers, books, copy-books, sighing and despairing, angry at his cold, stiff fingers—until at last! There was the blue, slightly grease-stained cover, his careful hand-writing, dried flowers, the stale, sourish odour of perfume—how young he had been at that time!

Mitrofan seated himself at the table and for a long time turned the leaves of the diary, but the desired place was not to be found. And he recalled that five years ago, when the police had searched Anton's house, he became so frightened that he tore out of his diary all the pages that might compromise him, and he burned them. It was useless to look for them—they were no more—they had been burned.

With lowered head, his face covered with his hands, he sat for a long time, motionless, before the desolate diary. But one candle was burning—it was unusually dark in the room, and from the black, formless chairs came the breath of cold, desolate loneliness. Far away in those rooms children were playing, shouting, laughing; in the dining-room tea was being served; people were walking, talking—while here all was silent as in a graveyard. If an artist had peeped into the room, felt this cold, gloomy darkness and noticed the heap of scattered papers and books, the dark figure of the man with his covered face, bent over the table in helpless grief—he would have painted a picture and would have called it "The Suicide."

"But I can recall that passage," thought Mitrofan. "I can recall it. Even if the paper was burned, the sentiments remained somewhere; they existed. I must recall them."

But he recalled only that which was unimportant—the size of the paper, the handwriting, even the commas and the periods, but the essential part, the dear, beloved, bright part that could clear him—that was dead forever. It had lived and died, even as human beings die, as everything dies. If he knelt, cried, prayed that it come to life again—if he threatened, gnashed his teeth—the enormous emptiness would have remained silent, for it will never give up that which has fallen into its hands. Did ever tears or sobs bring a dead man back to life? There is no forgiveness, no mercy, no return—such is the law of cruel death.

It was dead. It had been killed. Base murderer! He himself had burned with his own hands the best flowers that had perhaps once in his life blossomed in his fruitless, beggarly soul! Poor perished flowers! Perhaps they were not bright, perhaps they had no power or beauty of creative thought, but they were the best that his soul had brought forth, and now they were no more and they will never blossom again. There is no forgiveness, no mercy, no return—such is the law of cruel death.

"What's this? Wait," he muttered to himself. "I have convinced myself that you, Ivanov, copied the problem—nonsense! I must speak to my wife. Masha! Masha!"

Maria entered. Her face was round, kind natured; her hair was thin and colourless. In her hands she held some work—a child's dress.

"Well, Mitrosha, will you have dinner now?"

"No. Wait. I want to speak to you."

Maria put her work aside with alarm and gazed into her husband's face. Mitrofan turned away and said:

"Sit down."

Maria sat down, adjusted her dress, folded her arms, and prepared to listen to him.

"I am listening," she said, adjusting her dress once more.

"Do you know, Masha—I am a spy!" he said in a whisper, his voice quivering.

"What?"

"A spy, do you understand?"

Maria wrung her hands quietly and exclaimed:

"I knew it, unfortunate woman that I am—my God! my God!"

Jumping over to his wife, Mitrofan waved his fist at her very face, restrained himself with difficulty from striking her, and shouted so loudly that all became quiet in the house.

"Fool! Blockhead! You knew it. My God! How could you know it? My wife—my friend, all my thoughts—my money, everything——"

He stationed himself at the stove and began to cry.

Mitrofan turned furiously to her and asked:

"Am I a spy? Well! Speak! Am I a spy, or am I not?"

"How do I know? Perhaps you are a spy."

Avoiding certain details, Mitrofan confusedly told his wife the story of the student girl and of that meeting.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Maria carelessly. "I thought there was really something seriously wrong. Is it worth bothering about this? Just shave yourself, take off your spectacles, and there's the end of it. And at school, during the lesson, you may even wear your spectacles."

"Do you think so? Is this what you call a beard?"

"Never mind it. Say what you like, you leave the beard alone. I have always said that your beard was all right, and I will say so now, too."

Mitrofan recalled that the students called him "goat," and he was very glad now. If his beard were not a good one they would never have nicknamed him "goat." And in this joy he kissed his wife and, jestingly, even tickled her ear with his beard.

At about twelve o'clock at night, when all grew quiet in the house, and his wife had gone to sleep, Mitrofan brought a mirror, warm water, and soap into his study and sat down to shave himself. In addition to the lamp, he had to light two candles, and he felt somewhat ashamed and restless because of the bright light, and he looked only at the side of the face he was shaving.

He shaved his cheek; then he thought awhile, lathered his moustaches, and shaved them off. He looked at his face again. To-morrow people would laugh at that face.

Pressing his razor resolutely, Mitrofan threw his head back and carefully passed the dull side of the knife across his neck.

"It would be good to kill myself," he thought, "but how could I?"

"Coward! Scoundrel!" he said aloud, indifferently.

To-morrow people would laugh at him—his comrades, his pupils. And his wife would also laugh at him.

He longed to be sunk in despair, to cry, to strike the mirror, to do something, but his soul was empty and dead, and he was sleepy.

"Perhaps that is due to the fact that I was out long in the fresh air," he thought, yawning.

He removed his shaving cup, put out the light of the lamp and candles, and scraping with his slippers he went to his bedroom. He soon fell asleep, having pushed into the pillow his shaven face, at which everybody would laugh to-morrow: his friends, his wife—and he himself.