The Russian Review/Volume 1/February 1916/A Present
By Leonid Andreyev.
(Translated for "The Russian Review").
"So you'll come, won't you?" Senista repeated this for the third time, and for the third time Sazonka answered hastily:
"Sure I'll come, sure I'll come. Why shouldn't I? Sure I'll come."
And again they were silent. Senista was lying on his back, covered up to the chin with a gray hospital blanket, and was looking steadily at Sazonka. He did not want Sazonka to go away, wanted him to say again that he would come to see him, and not leave him a prey to loneliness, disease, and fear. Sazonka, on the other hand, was anxious to get away, but he did not know how to do it without giving offense to the boy. He would blow his nose every little while, slide off the chair, and then sit straight and firmly again, as though resolved to remain there for all time. He would have stayed longer if there were anything to talk about. But there was no subject he could converse upon and the thoughts that came to his head were so foolish, that he felt ashamed of himself. He wanted all the time to call Senista by his full name, Semyon Erofeyevich, which, of course, would have been preposterous. Senista was only a boy, a mere apprentice, while he was a full master in his trade and a drunkard into the bargain. Everybody called him Sazonka merely through force of habit. Only two weeks ago, he had given Senista his last box on the ear, which, of course, was very bad of him; but he could not talk about that in the hospital.
Sazonka began to slide off his chair determinedly, but before getting off half-way he suddenly slid back again, and said half-reproachfully, half-sympathetically:
"So that's the way it goes. Hurts, don't it?"
Senista nodded and answered quietly:
"Well, I guess it's time for you to go. You'll get it, if you don't."
"That's so, too," answered Sazonka cheerfully, glad to have found a good excuse. "As it is, he told me to get back as soon as I could. Take it over,' said he, 'and get back the same moment. And see that you don't touch whiskey on the way.' The devil!"
But, together with the realization that he could leave any moment, Sazonka began to feel a great pity for the large-headed Senista. The whole environment predisposed him to pity. The room was filled with beds placed close to each other, on which lay pale, gloomy men. The air was spoiled to the last ounce with the nauseating odors of medicines and human perspiration. Everything reminded him of his own health and strength. No longer trying to avoid Senista's questioning glance, Sazonka bent over him and said:
"Don't be afraid Semyon... Senia, I mean. Til come, all right. Soon as I have time, I'll come right over. Ain't I human? My Lord, I can understand something, too. D'you believe me?"
And Senista answered with a smile on his black, parched lips:
"Yes, I believe you."
"Now you see!" Now Sazonka felt light and comfortable. He could even talk of the box on the ear he had given Senista two weeks ago. He mentioned it casually, touching Senista's head.
"And if people hit you on the head, it wasn't because they meant you harm. Lord, no! Only because your head is so handy. It's so big, and the hair is all cut so low."
Senista smiled again and Sazonka got up from his chair. He was very tall, and his curly hair, combed with a fine comb, rose like a soft cap. His shining eyes with their swollen eyelids, smiled at the boy.
"Well, good-a-by," said he, without moving away from his place, however. He purposely said "good-a-by," instead of "good-by", because he thought it would sound more sincere and heart-felt. But it did not seem enough. He felt that he ought to do something even more sincere, something good and big, after which Senista would not mind remaining at the hospital, and he, himself, could go away with a light heart. And he stood there in childish embarrassment, when Senista again helped him out:
"Good-by," said he in a thin childish voice, for which he was nicknamed "flute," and freed his hand from under the blanket and quite simply, as though he were Sazonka's equal, extended it to the man. And Sazonka, feeling that this was precisely what he was looking for, gently clasped the thin fingers with his large hand, held them for a while, and then let them go. There was something sad and mysterious in the slight pressure of those fingers, as though Senista were not only an equal of all men on earth, but above them all, freer than all. And it seemed so because he now belonged to an unknown, though terrible and powerful master. Sazonka felt that he could call him Semyon Erofeyevich.
"So you'll come, won't you?" For the fourth time Senista begged of him, and this plaintive appeal drove away that something awful and magnificent, which but a moment ago had enveloped the boy in its noiseless wings. Senista again became for Sazonka a poor, sick boy, and he was again full of pity for him.
When Sazonka walked away from the hospital, he thought that he was followed for some time by the odor of medicines and the piteous appeal:
"So you'll come, won't you?"
And Sazonka answered his absent implorer,
"Sure, I'll come. Ain't I human?"
Easter was coming on, and there was so much work in the tailor's shop that Sazonka got a chance to get drunk only once, on a Sunday. He had to sit all day long near his window. He had a sort of platform, on which he sat Turkish fashion. The spring days were very light and very long, and Sazonka sat there sewing, gloomily whistling a melancholy tune. In the morning there was no sun in Sazonka's window, and streams of cool air forced their way through the loose woodwork. But towards mid-day a sharp yellow band appeared in the window, and in it particles of dust were dancing merrily. And half an hour later, the whole window-sill, with the scissors and the scraps of cloth scattered over it, was already burning with a blinding light, and it became so hot that the window had to be opened. And together with a stream of fresh air, mixed with the odors of manure, drying mud, and opening buds, a weak, early fly flew into the room, followed by the confused noises of the street. Chickens were pecking the ground near the house wall, or cackling contentedly, lying in the round holes they had made for themselves in the soft ground. On the opposite side of the street, children were playing "knuckle-bones," and their loud, joyous voices, mixed with the sounds of small iron boards hitting the bones, rang with vigor and freshness. There was very little traffic in this street, situated on the outskirts of the city of Orel, and only occasionally a peasant cart would rattle by slowly, jumping from one deep rut still filled with mud, to another. The parts of the cart, loosely made, constantly struck against each other, producing dull sounds that reminded one of the coming summer and the vast expanses of fields.
When Sazonka's back bones would begin to ache, and his tired fingers would be able to hold the needle no longer, he would jump out into the street, barefooted as he was, make a couple of gigantic leaps over the pools of water, and join the playing children.
"Come on, let me try it," he would say, and a dozen dirty hands would extend the boards towards him, and a dozen eager voices would beg him:
"Do it for me, Sazonka! For me!"
Sazonka would choose a heavy board, roll up his sleeve and, assuming the posture of the athlete hurling the disk, he would begin measuring the distance with his eyes. Then the heavy board would leave his hand with a soft "swish," and, bounding up and down on the ground, would cut its way into the very center of the long cone, scattering the bones all around. The feat would be applauded by the enthusiastic shouts of the children. After a couple of throws, Sazonka would sit down to rest and say to the children:
"And Senista is still in the hospital, boys."
But the children, busy with their own affairs, would take this piece of news coolly and indifferently.
"I ought to take him some present. Well, just wait, I'll do it."
The word "present" aroused the interest of several of the boys. Little Mishka, nicknamed the Suckling Pig, holding his breeches with one hand, and with the other his upturned shirt in which lay the sheep-bones, advised him:
"You give 'im a dime."
A dime was the sum that Mishka's grandfather had promised him for Easter, and the boy's conception of human happiness did not go beyond this. But there was no time for discussing the question of the present. A couple of gigantic leaps brought Sazonka back to the other side of the street, and to his work.
His eye-lids were still swollen, but his face became pale-yellow and the freckles on his nose and around the eyes became even more numerous and darker than before. Only his carefully combed hair still had the appearance of a fine cap, and whenever his employer, Gabriel Ivanovich, loked at Sazonka's head, he was, for some reason or other, reminded of a small saloon and of whiskey,—which recollection would cause him to spit, and curse furiously.
Sazonka's head was heavy. Sometimes the same thought would roll over in his mind for hours; and it would be either about his new boots, or his new harmonica. But he often thought of Senista and the present he was going to take over to him. The sewing machine was running monotonously, the proprietor cursed everybody, but Sazonka's tired brain could only conceive of the picture of how he would come to the hospital and give Senista a present, wrapped up in a red handkerchief. Sometimes a heavy drowsiness would come over him and then he would not be able to recall even Senista's face. He only saw clearly the red handkerchief, and it seemed to him all the time that the knots were not well tied. He told everybody that he would go to see Senista on the first day of Easter.
"Got to do it," he would repeat. "I'll comb my hair and run straight over. 'Here you are, kid, that's for you!'" But as he would be saying this, another scene would come before him. He would see the open doors of the saloon, with the counter wet with spilled whiskey, inside. A bitter realization of his own weakness, against which he could not struggle, would overwhelm him, and an irresistible desire would come over him to shout out:
"I'll go to Senista! To Senista!"
And his brain would again become heavy and irresponsive to everything, except the red handkerchief. But there was no joy in this one thought that persisted in his brain; rather a stern lesson, a terrible warning.
On the first day of Easter, Sazonka was drunk. On the second day, he was still more drunk, got into a fight, and had to spend the night in jail. It was only on the fourth day that he finally decided to visit Senista.
The sun-lit street was bright with red shirts and the brilliant glitter of white teeth shelling the sun-flower seeds. Harmonicas were heard here and there; iron boards struck piles of knuckle-bones, scattering them in all directions; a rooster was crowing bravely, challenging another rooster to combat. But Sazonka paid attention to none of these things. His face, with one eye blackened, and the lip cut, was gloomy and serious, and his hair was dishevelled, no longer having the appearance of a fine cap. He was ashamed of his debauch, ashamed because he had broken his word, because he could not go to see Senista in the holiday array he had planned,—wearing a red woolen shirt and a vest,—ashamed because he was going, dirty, unkempt, his breath reeking with liquor. But the nearer he came to the hospital, the calmer he grew. More and more his eyes sought the bundle containing the present which he was carrying carefully in his left hand. And Senista's face, with its appealing look and parched lips seemed to be constantly before him, as clear and as life-like as though the boy himself were there.
"Ain't we human, kid? Oh, Lord!" Sazonka kept on saying to himself, as he hurried along. Now he is in front of the large yellow hospital-building, with its black-framed windows, which look like gloomy eyes. Now he is in the long corridor, in the midst of the medicine odors and an atmosphere of indistinct fear and unpleasantness. Now he is in the ward, right by Senista's bed . . .
But where is Senista?
"Whom are you looking for," asked the nurse, following him into the ward.
"There was a boy here, Semyon. Semyon Erofeyev. Right in this place." And Sazonka pointed to the empty bed.
"You ought to ask first, and not break in like this," said the nurse rudely. "It wasn't Semyon Erofeyev, either, but Semyon Pustoshkin."
"Erofeyev, that's according to his father. His father's name was Erofey, so he is Erofeyich," explained Sazonka, slowly turning paler and paler.
"Oh, he's dead, your Erofeyich. And we don't care for his father's name. For us, he's Semyon Pustoshkin. He's dead, I say."
"Is that so?" There was reverent astonishment in Sazonka's voice, as he stood there, so pale that the freckles on his face appeared almost like ink stains. "When did he die?"
"And may I . . ." Sazonka did not finish his stammered request.
"Why not?" answered the nurse indifferently. "Just ask where the morgue is, they'll show you. If I were you, I wouldn't be so upset about it. He was sickly anyhow; couldn't live long."
Sazonka's tongue inquired about his way, very politely. His legs bore him in the direction indicated, but his eyes saw nothing. Only when the face of the dead Senista was directly in front of him did his eyes begin to see. Then, too, he began to feel the coldness of the morgue. The walls of the dreary room were bespotted with moisture, the single window was covered with a thick layer of spiders' webs. No matter how brightly the sun shone outside, its rays never penetrated through this window, and the sky always appeared gray and gloomy, as in autumn. A fly was buzzing somewhere. Drops of water were falling from the ceiling. After each drop, the air would reverberate with a pitiful, ringing noise.
Sazonka stepped back and said aloud:
"Good-by, Semyon Erofeyich."
Then he knelt down, touched the wet floor with his forehead, and rose up again.
"Forgive me, Semyon Erofeyich," said he, just as loudly and distinctly, and then knelt down again, and pressed his head against the floor.
The fly stopped buzzing, and everything was still, with that peculiar stillness which sets in when a dead man is in the room. At regular intervals drops of water fell into a metal basin, striking the bottom gently and softly.
The hospital stood on the outskirts of the city, and immediately beyond it began a large field. Sazonka went there. The level field, uninterrupted by a single tree or building, stretched in all directions, and the light breeze seemed to be its warm, even breath. Sazonka followed a dry road at first, but after a while he turned to the left and began to walk across the field itself, towards the river. In some places the ground was still wet and his boots left deep marks in it.
Reaching the river, Sazonka lay down on its bank in a spot where the air was warm and perfectly still, as in a green-house. He closed his eyes. The rays of the sun passed through his lowered eye-lids in red waves. A lark was pouring forth its song in the blue sky, and it was so pleasant to lie there without a single thought in his head. The spring waters had already subsided, leaving the marks of their recent activity in the form of large pieces of ice, stranded on the opposite shore. The white triangular pieces of ice were steadily disappearing under the merciless, hot rays of the sun. Sazonka lay there half asleep, and, accidentally, threw out one arm. His hand came in contact with a hard object, covered with cloth.
Jumping up to a sitting position, Sazonka exclaimed:
"God! What is this?"
He had forgotten his bundle entirely and now looked at it with frightened eyes. It seemed to him that the bundle had come there by its own will, and he was afraid to touch it. Sazonka gazed at it, without lifting his eyes, and a stormy, rumbling pity, a furious wrath was rising in him. He looked at the bundle, and he seemed to see how on the first day, and the second, and the third, Senista was waiting for him, turning his head towards the door, expecting him in vain. And he died lonely, forsaken, like a puppy thrown out into the backyard. Only one day sooner, and the boy's closing eyes might have seen the present, and his childish heart might have been filled with joy, and his soul might have soared to Heaven without suffering the torment of loneliness.
Sazonka began to sob, tearing his fine hair, and rolling on the ground. He cried aloud, lifting his hands to Heaven in pitiful justification:
"O God! Ain't we human?"
And then he fell on the ground, his cut lip touching the earth. And there he remained, overwhelmed with dumb grief. The new grass tickled his face gently; a sweet, quieting odor came from the ground, and the earth seemed to exhale a feeling of mighty power, of a passionate appeal for life. The eternal mother earth was enfolding a sinning son in her embrace, and was filling his suffering heart with warmth, love, and hope.
And far away, in the city, the joyful holiday bells were ringing their discordant melody.