Franz Kafka

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"One Autumn Night" a Short Tale by Maxim Gorky (Макси́м Го́рький)

 

Lev Tolstoy with Gorky in Yasnaya Polyana, 1900

 

ONE AUTUMN NIGHT 

 
 Once in the autumn I happened to be in a very unpleasant and
inconvenient position. In the town where I had just arrived and where
I knew not a soul, I found myself without a farthing in my pocket and
without a night's lodging.

Having sold during the first few days every part of my costume without
which it was still possible to go about, I passed from the town into
the quarter called "Yste," where were the steamship wharves--a quarter
which during the navigation season fermented with boisterous,
laborious life, but now was silent and deserted, for we were in the
last days of October.

Dragging my feet along the moist sand, and obstinately scrutinising it
with the desire to discover in it any sort of fragment of food, I
wandered alone among the deserted buildings and warehouses, and
thought how good it would be to get a full meal.

In our present state of culture hunger of the mind is more quickly
satisfied than hunger of the body. You wander about the streets, you
are surrounded by buildings not bad-looking from the outside and--you
may safely say it--not so badly furnished inside, and the sight of
them may excite within you stimulating ideas about architecture,
hygiene, and many other wise and high-flying subjects. You may meet
warmly and neatly dressed folks--all very polite, and turning away
from you tactfully, not wishing offensively to notice the lamentable
fact of your existence. Well, well, the mind of a hungry man is always
better nourished and healthier than the mind of the well-fed man; and
there you have a situation from which you may draw a very ingenious
conclusion in favour of the ill fed.

The evening was approaching, the rain was falling, and the wind blew
violently from the north. It whistled in the empty booths and shops,
blew into the plastered window-panes of the taverns, and whipped into
foam the wavelets of the river which splashed noisily on the sandy
shore, casting high their white crests, racing one after another into
the dim distance, and leaping impetuously over one another's
shoulders. It seemed as if the river felt the proximity of winter, and
was running at random away from the fetters of ice which the north
wind might well have flung upon her that very night. The sky was heavy
and dark; down from it swept incessantly scarcely visible drops of
rain, and the melancholy elegy in nature all around me was emphasised
by a couple of battered and misshapen willow-trees and a boat, bottom
upwards, that was fastened to their roots.

The overturned canoe with its battered keel and the miserable old
trees rifled by the cold wind--everything around me was bankrupt,
barren, and dead, and the sky flowed with undryable tears...
Everything around was waste and gloomy ... it seemed as if everything
were dead, leaving me alone among the living, and for me also a cold
death waited.

I was then eighteen years old--a good time!

I walked and walked along the cold wet sand, making my chattering
teeth warble in honour of cold and hunger, when suddenly, as I was
carefully searching for something to eat behind one of the empty
crates, I perceived behind it, crouching on the ground, a figure in
woman's clothes dank with the rain and clinging fast to her stooping
shoulders. Standing over her, I watched to see what she was doing. It
appeared that she was digging a trench in the sand with her
hands--digging away under one of the crates.

"Why are you doing that?" I asked, crouching down on my heels quite
close to her.

She gave a little scream and was quickly on her legs again. Now that
she stood there staring at me, with her wide-open grey eyes full of
terror, I perceived that it was a girl of my own age, with a very
pleasant face embellished unfortunately by three large blue marks.
This spoilt her, although these blue marks had been distributed with a
remarkable sense of proportion, one at a time, and all were of equal
size--two under the eyes, and one a little bigger on the forehead just
over the bridge of the nose. This symmetry was evidently the work of
an artist well inured to the business of spoiling the human
physiognomy.

The girl looked at me, and the terror in her eyes gradually died
out... She shook the sand from her hands, adjusted her cotton
head-gear, cowered down, and said:

"I suppose you too want something to eat? Dig away then! My hands are
tired. Over there"--she nodded her head in the direction of a
booth--"there is bread for certain ... and sausages too... That booth
is still carrying on business."

I began to dig. She, after waiting a little and looking at me, sat
down beside me and began to help me.

We worked in silence. I cannot say now whether I thought at that
moment of the criminal code, of morality, of proprietorship, and all
the other things about which, in the opinion of many experienced
persons, one ought to think every moment of one's life. Wishing to
keep as close to the truth as possible, I must confess that apparently
I was so deeply engaged in digging under the crate that I completely
forgot about everything else except this one thing: What could be
inside that crate?

The evening drew on. The grey, mouldy, cold fog grew thicker and
thicker around us. The waves roared with a hollower sound than before,
and the rain pattered down on the boards of that crate more loudly and
more frequently. Somewhere or other the night-watchman began springing
his rattle.

"Has it got a bottom or not?" softly inquired my assistant. I did not
understand what she was talking about, and I kept silence.

"I say, has the crate got a bottom? If it has we shall try in vain to
break into it. Here we are digging a trench, and we may, after all,
come upon nothing but solid boards. How shall we take them off? Better
smash the lock; it is a wretched lock."

Good ideas rarely visit the heads of women, but, as you see, they do
visit them sometimes. I have always valued good ideas, and have always
tried to utilise them as far as possible.

Having found the lock, I tugged at it and wrenched off the whole
thing. My accomplice immediately stooped down and wriggled like a
serpent into the gaping-open, four cornered cover of the crate whence
she called to me approvingly, in a low tone:

"You're a brick!"

Nowadays a little crumb of praise from a woman is dearer to me than a
whole dithyramb from a man, even though he be more eloquent than all
the ancient and modern orators put together. Then, however, I was less
amiably disposed than I am now, and, paying no attention to the
compliment of my comrade, I asked her curtly and anxiously:

"Is there anything?"

In a monotonous tone she set about calculating our discoveries.

"A basketful of bottles--thick furs--a sunshade--an iron pail."

All this was uneatable. I felt that my hopes had vanished... But
suddenly she exclaimed vivaciously:

"Aha! here it is!"

"What?"

"Bread ... a loaf ... it's only wet ... take it!"

A loaf flew to my feet and after it herself, my valiant comrade. I had
already bitten off a morsel, stuffed it in my mouth, and was chewing
it...

"Come, give me some too!... And we mustn't stay here... Where shall we
go?" she looked inquiringly about on all sides... It was dark, wet,
and boisterous.

"Look! there's an upset canoe yonder ... let us go there."

"Let us go then!" And off we set, demolishing our booty as we went,
and filling our mouths with large portions of it... The rain grew more
violent, the river roared; from somewhere or other resounded a
prolonged mocking whistle--just as if Someone great who feared nobody
was whistling down all earthly institutions and along with them this
horrid autumnal wind and us its heroes. This whistling made my heart
throb painfully, in spite of which I greedily went on eating, and in
this respect the girl, walking on my left hand, kept even pace with
me.

"What do they call you?" I asked her--why I know not.

"Natasha," she answered shortly, munching loudly.

I stared at her. My heart ached within me; and then I stared into the
mist before me, and it seemed to me as if the inimical countenance of
my Destiny was smiling at me enigmatically and coldly.

       *       *       *       *       *

The rain scourged the timbers of the skiff incessantly, and its soft
patter induced melancholy thoughts, and the wind whistled as it flew
down into the boat's battered bottom through a rift, where some loose
splinters of wood were rattling together--a disquieting and depressing
sound. The waves of the river were splashing on the shore, and sounded
so monotonous and hopeless, just as if they were telling something
unbearably dull and heavy, which was boring them into utter disgust,
something from which they wanted to run away and yet were obliged to
talk about all the same. The sound of the rain blended with their
splashing, and a long-drawn sigh seemed to be floating above the
overturned skiff--the endless, labouring sigh of the earth, injured
and exhausted by the eternal changes from the bright and warm summer
to the cold misty and damp autumn. The wind blew continually over the
desolate shore and the foaming river--blew and sang its melancholy
songs...

Our position beneath the shelter of the skiff was utterly devoid of
comfort; it was narrow and damp, tiny cold drops of rain dribbled
through the damaged bottom; gusts of wind penetrated it. We sat in
silence and shivered with cold. I remembered that I wanted to go to
sleep. Natasha leaned her back against the hull of the boat and curled
herself up into a tiny ball. Embracing her knees with her hands, and
resting her chin upon them, she stared doggedly at the river with
wide-open eyes; on the pale patch of her face they seemed immense,
because of the blue marks below them. She never moved, and this
immobility and silence--I felt it--gradually produced within me a
terror of my neighbour. I wanted to talk to her, but I knew not how to
begin.

It was she herself who spoke.

"What a cursed thing life is!" she exclaimed plainly, abstractedly,
and in a tone of deep conviction.

But this was no complaint. In these words there was too much of
indifference for a complaint. This simple soul thought according to
her understanding--thought and proceeded to form a certain conclusion
which she expressed aloud, and which I could not confute for fear of
contradicting myself. Therefore I was silent, and she, as if she had
not noticed me, continued to sit there immovable.

"Even if we croaked ... what then...?" Natasha began again, this time
quietly and reflectively, and still there was not one note of
complaint in her words. It was plain that this person, in the course
of her reflections on life, was regarding her own case, and had
arrived at the conviction that in order to preserve herself from the
mockeries of life, she was not in a position to do anything else but
simply "croak"--to use her own expression.

The clearness of this line of thought was inexpressibly sad and
painful to me, and I felt that if I kept silence any longer I was
really bound to weep... And it would have been shameful to have done
this before a woman, especially as she was not weeping herself. I
resolved to speak to her.

"Who was it that knocked you about?" I asked. For the moment I could
not think of anything more sensible or more delicate.

"Pashka did it all," she answered in a dull and level tone.

"And who is he?"

"My lover... He was a baker."

"Did he beat you often?"

"Whenever he was drunk he beat me... Often!"

And suddenly, turning towards me, she began to talk about herself,
Pashka, and their mutual relations. He was a baker with red moustaches
and played very well on the banjo. He came to see her and greatly
pleased her, for he was a merry chap and wore nice clean clothes. He
had a vest which cost fifteen rubles and boots with dress tops. For
these reasons she had fallen in love with him, and he became her
"creditor." And when he became her creditor he made it his business to
take away from her the money which her other friends gave to her for
bonbons, and, getting drunk on this money, he would fall to beating
her; but that would have been nothing if he hadn't also begun to "run
after" other girls before her very eyes.

"Now, wasn't that an insult? I am not worse than the others. Of course
that meant that he was laughing at me, the blackguard. The day before
yesterday I asked leave of my mistress to go out for a bit, went to
him, and there I found Dimka sitting beside him drunk. And he, too,
was half seas over. I said, 'You scoundrel, you!' And he gave me a
thorough hiding. He kicked me and dragged me by the hair. But that was
nothing to what came after. He spoiled everything I had on--left me
just as I am now! How could I appear before my mistress? He spoiled
everything ... my dress and my jacket too--it was quite a new one; I
gave a fiver for it ... and tore my kerchief from my head... Oh, Lord!
What will become of me now?" she suddenly whined in a lamentable
overstrained voice.

The wind howled, and became ever colder and more boisterous... Again
my teeth began to dance up and down, and she, huddled up to avoid the
cold, pressed as closely to me as she could, so that I could see the
gleam of her eyes through the darkness.

"What wretches all you men are! I'd burn you all in an oven; I'd cut
you in pieces. If any one of you was dying I'd spit in his mouth, and
not pity him a bit. Mean skunks! You wheedle and wheedle, you wag your
tails like cringing dogs, and we fools give ourselves up to you, and
it's all up with us! Immediately you trample us underfoot... Miserable
loafers"

She cursed us up and down, but there was no vigour, no malice, no
hatred of these "miserable loafers" in her cursing that I could hear.
The tone of her language by no means corresponded with its
subject-matter, for it was calm enough, and the gamut of her voice was
terribly poor.

Yet all this made a stronger impression on me than the most eloquent
and convincing pessimistic books and speeches, of which I had read a
good many and which I still read to this day. And this, you see, was
because the agony of a dying person is much more natural and violent
than the most minute and picturesque descriptions of death.

I felt really wretched--more from cold than from the words of my
neighbour. I groaned softly and ground my teeth.

Almost at the same moment I felt two little arms about me--one of them
touched my neck and the other lay upon my face--and at the same time
an anxious, gentle, friendly voice uttered the question:

"What ails you?"

I was ready to believe that some one else was asking me this and not
Natasha, who had just declared that all men were scoundrels, and
expressed a wish for their destruction. But she it was, and now she
began speaking quickly, hurriedly.

"What ails you, eh? Are you cold? Are you frozen? Ah, what a one you
are, sitting there so silent like a little owl! Why, you should have
told me long ago that you were cold. Come ... lie on the ground ...
stretch yourself out and I will lie ... there! How's that? Now put
your arms round me?... tighter! How's that? You shall be warm very
soon now... And then we'll lie back to back... The night will pass so
quickly, see if it won't. I say ... have you too been drinking?...
Turned out of your place, eh?... It doesn't matter."

And she comforted me... She encouraged me.

May I be thrice accursed! What a world of irony was in this single
fact for me! Just imagine! Here was I, seriously occupied at this very
time with the destiny of humanity, thinking of the re-organisation of
the social system, of political revolutions, reading all sorts of
devilishly-wise books whose abysmal profundity was certainly
unfathomable by their very authors--at this very time, I say, I was
trying with all my might to make of myself "a potent active social
force." It even seemed to me that I had partially accomplished my
object; anyhow, at this time, in my ideas about myself, I had got so
far as to recognise that I had an exclusive right to exist, that I had
the necessary greatness to deserve to live my life, and that I was
fully competent to play a great historical part therein. And a woman
was now warming me with her body, a wretched, battered, hunted
creature, who had no place and no value in life, and whom I had never
thought of helping till she helped me herself, and whom I really would
not have known how to help in any way even if the thought of it had
occurred to me.

Ah! I was ready to think that all this was happening to me in a
dream--in a disagreeable, an oppressive dream.

But, ugh! it was impossible for me to think that, for cold drops of
rain were dripping down upon me, the woman was pressing close to me,
her warm breath was fanning my face, and--despite a slight odor of
vodka--it did me good. The wind howled and raged, the rain smote upon
the skiff, the waves splashed, and both of us, embracing each other
convulsively, nevertheless shivered with cold. All this was only too
real, and I am certain that nobody ever dreamed such an oppressive and
horrid dream as that reality.

But Natasha was talking all the time of something or other, talking
kindly and sympathetically, as only women can talk. Beneath the
influence of her voice and kindly words a little fire began to burn up
within me, and something inside my heart thawed in consequence.

Then tears poured from my eyes like a hailstorm, washing away from my
heart much that was evil, much that was stupid, much sorrow and dirt
which had fastened upon it before that night. Natasha comforted me.

"Come, come, that will do, little one! Don't take on! That'll do! God
will give you another chance ... you will right yourself and stand in
your proper place again ... and it will be all right..."

And she kept kissing me ... many kisses did she give me ... burning
kisses ... and all for nothing...

Those were the first kisses from a woman that had ever been bestowed
upon me, and they were the best kisses too, for all the subsequent
kisses cost me frightfully dear, and really gave me nothing at all in
exchange.

"Come, don't take on so, funny one! I'll manage for you to-morrow if
you cannot find a place." Her quiet persuasive whispering sounded in
my ears as if it came through a dream...

There we lay till dawn...

And when the dawn came, we crept from behind the skiff and went into
the town... Then we took friendly leave of each other and never met
again, although for half a year I searched in every hole and corner
for that kind Natasha, with whom I spent the autumn night just
described.

If she be already dead--and well for her if it were so--may she rest
in peace! And if she be alive ... still I say "Peace to her soul!" And
may the consciousness of her fall never enter her soul ... for that
would be a superfluous and fruitless suffering if life is to be
lived...

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