The River of Life and Other Stories
THE RIVER OF LIFE
THE RIVER OF LIFE
AND OTHER STORIES
TRANSLATED FROM THE RUSSIAN BY
S. KOTELIANSKY AND J. M. MURRY
JOHN W. LUCE AND COMPANY
Alexander Kuprin was born in 1870. Heattended the Cadet School and the MilitaryCollege at Moscow, and entered the RussianArmy as a lieutenant in 1890. Seven yearslater he resigned his commission to devote himselfto literature.
He achieved fame by a novel, The Duel, inwhich he described with a ruthless realism thearmy life in a garrison town upon the WesternFrontier. The book, which in reality falls intoline with the rest of his work as a severelyobjective presentation of a life which he hasfound vivid and rich, was, fortunately for hissuccess, interpreted as an indictment of theRussian Army and the ill-starred Manchuriancampaign. He was accepted by the propagandistsas one of themselves, and thoughhe protested vigorously against his unsoughtreputation, his position was thenceforwardassured.
But the interest of Kuprin’s talent is independentof the accidents of his material. He isan artist who has found life wide and rich andinexhaustible. He has been fascinated by thevireality itself rather than by the problems withwhich it confronts a differently sensitive mind.Therefore he has not held himself aloof, butplunged into the riotous waters of the River ofLife. He has swum with the stream and battledagainst it as the mood turned in him; and hehas emerged with stories of the joy he has foundin his own eager acceptance. Thus Kuprin isalive as none of his contemporaries is alive, andhis stories are stories told for the delight of thetelling and of the tale. They may not be profoundwith the secrets of the universe; but theyare, within their compass, shaped by the perfectart of one to whom the telling of a story of lifeis an exercise of his whole being in completeharmony with the act of life itself.
J. M. M.
|THE RIVER OF LIFE||1|
THE RIVER OF LIFE
The landlady’s room in the ‘Serbia.’ Yellowwallpaper; two windows with dirty muslincurtains; between them an oval squintingmirror, stuck at an angle of forty-five degrees,reflects a painted floor and chair legs; on thewindow-sills dusty, pimply cactuses; a cagewith a canary hangs from the ceiling. The roomis partitioned off by red screens of printedcalico: the smaller part on the left is the bedroomof the landlady and her children; that onthe right is blocked up with varied odds andends of furniture—bedridden, rickety, and lame.In the corners all kinds of rubbish are in chaoticcobwebbed heaps: a sextant in a ginger leathercase, and with it a tripod and a chain, some oldtrunks and boxes, a guitar without strings,hunting boots, a sewing machine, a ‘Monopan’musical box, a camera, about five lamps, pilesof books, dresses, bundles of linen, and a greatmany things besides. All these things had beendetained at various times by the landlady forrent unpaid, or left behind by runaway lodgers.You cannot move in the room because of them.
The ‘Serbia’ is a third-rate hotel. Permanentlodgers are a rarity, and those are4prostitutes. Mostly they are casual passengerswho float up to town on the Dnieper: smallfarmers, Jewish commission agents, distantprovincials, pilgrims, and village priests whocome to town to inform, or are returning homewhen the information has been lodged. Roomsin the ‘Serbia’ are also occupied by couplesfrom the town for the night or a few days.
Spring. About three in the afternoon. Thecurtains of the open windows stir gently, andthe room smells of kerosene and baked cabbage.It is the landlady warming up on her stove abigoss à la Polonaise of cabbage, pork fat, andsausage, with a great deal of pepper and bayleaves. She is a widow between thirty-six andforty, a strong, quick, good-looking woman.The hair that she wears in curls over her foreheadhas a strong tinge of grey; but her faceis fresh, her big sensual mouth red, and heryoung dark eyes moist and playfully sly. Hername is Anna Friedrichovna. She is halfGerman, half Pole, and comes from the BalticProvinces; but her close friends call herFriedrich simply, which suits her determinedcharacter better. She is quick-tempered, scoldsand talks bawdy. Sometimes she fights withher porters and the lodgers who have been onthe spree; she drinks as well as any man, andhas a mad passion for dancing. She changesfrom abuse to laughing in a second. She hasbut small respect for the law, receives lodgerswithout passports, and with her own hands,as she says, ‘chucks into the street’ those who5don’t pay up—that is, she unlocks his door whilehe is out, and puts all his things in the passageor on the stairs, and sometimes in her own room.The police are friendly with her for her hospitality,her cheerful character, and particularlyfor the gay, easy, unceremonious, disinterestedcomplaisance with which she responds to man’spassing emotions.
She has four children. The two eldest,Romka and Alychka, have not yet come backfrom school, and the younger, Adka, seven, andEdka, five, strong brats with cheeks mottledwith mud, blotches, tear-stains, and the sunburnof early spring, are always to be found near theirmother. Both of them hold on to the table legand beg. They are perpetually hungry, becausetheir mother does not pay much attention tofood; they eat anyhow, at different times, sendinginto a little general shop for anything theywant. Sticking out his lips in a circle, frowning,and looking out under his forehead, Adkaroars in a loud bass: ‘That’s what you’relike. You won’t give me a taste.’ ‘Let metry,’ Edka speaks through his nose, scratchinghis calf with his bare foot.
At the table by the window sits LieutenantValerian Ivanovich Tchijhevich of the ArmyReserve. Before him is the register, in whichhe enters the lodgers’ passports. But after yesterday’saffair the work goes badly; the letterswave about and crawl away. His tremblingfingers quarrel with the pen. There is aroaring in his ears like the telegraph poles in6autumn. At times it seems to him that hishead is beginning to swell, to swell ... andthe table, the book, the inkstand, and thelieutenant’s hand go terribly far away and becomequite tiny. Then again the book comesup to his very eyes, the inkstand grows andrepeats itself, and his head grows small, turns toqueer strange sizes.
Lieutenant Tchijhevich’s appearance speaksof former beauty and lost position; his blackhair bristles, and a bald patch shows on the napeof his neck. His beard is fashionably trimmedto a sharp point. His face is lean, dirty, pale,dissipated. On it is, as it were written, the fullhistory of the lieutenant’s obvious weaknessesand secret diseases.
His situation in the ‘Serbia’ is complicated.He goes to the magistrates on Anna Friedrichovna’sbehalf. He hears the children’s lessonsand teaches them deportment, keeps the houseregister, makes out the lodgers’ accounts, readsthe newspaper aloud in the morning and talksof politics. He usually sleeps in one of thevacant rooms and, in case of an influx of guests,in the passage on an ancient sofa, whose springsand stuffing stick out together. When thishappens the lieutenant carefully hangs all hisproperty on nails above the sofa: his overcoat,cap, his morning coat, shiny with age and whitein the seams but tolerably clean, a ‘Monopole’paper collar, an officer’s cap with a blue band;but he puts his notebook and his handkerchiefwith some one else’s initials under his pillow.
7The widow keeps her lieutenant under herthumb. ‘Marry me and I’ll do anything foryou,’ she promises. ‘Full equipment, all thelinen you want, a fine pair of boots and goloshesas well. You’ll have everything, and onholidays I’ll let you wear my late husband’swatch with the chain.’ But the lieutenant isstill thinking about it. He values his freedom,and sets high store by his former dignity as anofficer. However, he is wearing out some ofthe older portions of the deceased’s linen.
From time to time storms break out in the landlady’sroom. Sometimes it happens that thelieutenant, with the assistance of his pupilRomka, sells a heap of somebody else’s booksto a second-hand dealer. Sometimes he takesadvantage of the landlady’s absence to interceptthe payment for a room by day. Or he secretlybegins to have playful relations with the servant-maid.Just the other day the lieutenantabused Anna Friedrichovna’s credit in the public-houseover the way. This came to light, anda quarrel raged, with abuse and a fight in thecorridor. The doors of all the rooms opened,and men and women poked their heads out incuriosity. Anna Friedrichovna shouted so loudthat she was heard in the street:
‘You get out of here, you blackguard, getout, you tramp! I’ve spent on you everypenny of the money I’ve earned by sweatingblood. You fill your belly with the farthings Isweat for my children!’
‘You fill your belly with our farthings,’squalled the schoolboy Romka, making faces athim from behind his mother’s skirt.
‘You fill your belly!’ Adka and Edkaaccompanied from a distance.
Arseny the porter, in stony silence, pressed9his chest against the lieutenant. From roomNo. 9, the valiant possessor of a magnificentlyparted black beard leaned out to his waist inhis underclothes, with a round hat for somereason perched on his head, and resolutely gavehis advice:
‘Arseny, give him one between the eyes.’
Thus the lieutenant was driven to the stairs;but there was a broad window opening on tothese very stairs from the corridor. AnnaFriedrichovna hung out of it and still went onshouting after the lieutenant:
‘You dirty beast ... you murderer ...scoundrel ... Kiev gutter-sweeping!’
‘Gutter-sweeping!’ ‘Gutter-sweeping!’ thebrats in the corridor strained their voices,shouting.
‘Don’t come eating here any more! Takeyour filthy things away with you. Take them.Take them!’
The things the lieutenant had left upstairsin his haste descended on him: a stick, hispaper collar, and his notebook. The lieutenanthalted on the bottom stair, raised his head, andbrandished his fist. His face was pale, a bruiseshowed red beneath his left eye.
‘You just wait, you scum. I tell everythingin the proper quarter. Ah! ah.... They’re alot of pimps, robbing the lodgers!’
‘You just sling your hook while you’ve gota whole skin,’ said Arseny sternly, pressing onthe lieutenant from behind and pushing himwith his shoulder.
10‘Get away, you swine! You’ve not the rightto lay a finger on an officer,’ the lieutenantproudly exclaimed. ‘I know about everything!You let people in here without passports! Youreceive—you receive stolen goods.... Youkeep a broth——’
At this point Arseny seized the lieutenantadroitly from behind. The door slammed witha shattering noise. The two men rolled out intothe street together like a ball, and thence camean angry: ‘Brothel!’
This morning, as it had always happened before,Lieutenant Tchijhevich came back penitent,with a bouquet of lilac torn out of somebody’sgarden. His face was weary. A dim bluesurrounded his hollow eyes. His forehead wasyellow, his clothes unbrushed, and there werefeathers in his hair. The reconciliation goesslowly. Anna Friedrichovna hasn’t yet had herfill of her lover’s submissive look and repentantwords. Besides, she is a little jealous of thethree nights her Valerian has passed, she knowsnot where.
‘Anna, darling, ... where ...’ the lieutenantbegan in an extraordinarily meek andtender falsetto, slightly tremulous even.
‘Wha-at! Who’s Anna darling, I’d liketo know,’ the landlady contemptuously cut himshort. ‘I’m not Anna darling to any scum ofa road sweeper!’
‘But I only wanted to ask what address Iwas to write for “Praskovia Uvertiesheva, 34years old,” there’s nothing written down here.’
11‘Put her down at the Rag-market, and putyourself there, too. You’re a pretty pair. Orput yourself in a doss-house.’
‘Dirty beast,’ thinks the lieutenant, but heonly gives a deep, submissive sigh. ‘You’revery nervous to-day, Anna, darling!’
‘Nervous! Whatever I am, I know I’m anhonest, hard-working woman.... Get out ofthe way, you bastards,’ she shouts at thechildren,