Maxim Gorky April 1902
An Autumn Night
Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. VI No. 4, April, 1902, pp. 123-128, (3,761 words);
Translated: by Emily Jakowleff and Dora B. Montefiore;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
I found myself one autumn night in an uncomfortable and awkward position. I had just arrived in a town where I did not know a single creature; I had not a penny in my pocket, nor a corner where to lay my head.
For a day or two I kept things going by disposing of all such articles of clothing as were not absolutely indispensable. When the proceeds of my wardrobe were exhausted, I determined to set out for a place called Oustya, where I knew there were some wharves and dockyards, which would offer a chance of work. When, however, I arrived there the stir and bustle of the year were over—for it was already the latter end of October, and the place was now empty and deserted.
I tramped about the wet sands, sending the water splashing at every step. I took. Eagerly I scanned the ground) under my feet, hoping to find some refuse that might be eatable. I had arrived at that state when I would have eaten anything. I prowled about the deserted huts and stalls, thinking how pleasant it would be to feel my hunger satisfied for once in my life. Under existing social conditions it is so much easier to quench the hunger of the mind than it is to satisfy the hunger of the body. As one wanders about the streets, with their richly decorated buildings, which one feels certain are just as luxurious inside as they are outside; exulting thoughts arise in one’s mind, as one contemplates the wonders achieved by architecture, sanitation, and many other elevating and improving arts and sciences. One meets people warmly and comfortably clad—they are well behaved, they always make way for one, anxious, to the point of fastidiousness, to avoid even the knowledge of the existence of beings such as we are. But, thank God, the souls of the starving are often far better nourished than are those of the rich and prosperous! Such a state of affairs gives the rich many a chance of drawing witty comparisons in their own favour.
Evening drew on, the rain pattered down, the north wind blew in fitful gusts; it whistled among the empty stalls and sheds, and rattled against the boarded windows of the deserted vodka-shops. The waves of the river turned to spray under the stroke of the blast, as they dashed boisterously against the sandy shore, throwing their white crests high up into the air; then, as if anxious to return to the vast expanse they had just left, they jostled and leaped back one over the other. The river seemed to have a presentiment that winter was near, and to be making nervous attempts to escape the icy bonds, which the bleak north wind might lay upon it that very night. The sky was dark and lowering, a cold, cutting drizzle, so fine that the drops were scarcely visible, swept through the air. The depressing landscape which surrounded me seemed sadder still for the stumps of two disfigured, broken down willows, and the overturned boat lying near their roots. A battered, overturned boat, and two melancholy old trees stripped naked by the cold wind. Everything suggested ruin, desolation, and disuse. The sky, shedding endless tears, gave a last finishing touch to the whole mournful picture. So desolate and so gloomy seemed all around, that it began to appear to me as if everything in the world, with the exception of myself, were decaying, and that very soon, I alone should remain in the world—the only living being left—I, for whom cold death might be already lurking somewhere near.
I was only eighteen then, and what beauty there is in that age! Thus I walked about the cold damp sands, my teeth chattering an accompaniment to my thoughts in honour of hunger and cold, when suddenly as I turned sharply round the corner of a stall I came across a stooping figure wearing the dress of a woman. Her clothes were wet, and hung closely around her. I stopped and tried to find out what she was doing; and then. I discovered that she was scraping a hole in the sand with her hands under one of the market stalls.
“Why are you doing that?” I enquired, sitting down beside her. She uttered a low cry, and sprang quickly to her feet. As she stood up facing me, her large grey eyes full of terror, I noticed she was a girl of about my own age with a very pretty face, which, I regret to say, was somewhat disfigured by three large bruises. The bruises, though placed in symmetrical order, still had the effect of spoiling her beauty. One bruise was just above the bridge of her nose; the others consisted of two black eyes. All of them were exactly of the same size, and had been evidently inflicted by an artist in the art of disfiguring people’s faces. The girl stood staring at me, but the expression of terror gradually disappeared from her eyes. She shook the sand from her hands, straightened the cotton handkerchief on her head, and said; with a slight shiver in her voice:
“Well, I suppose you are hungry also; if so, come and dig for a little while, my hands are aching. Look there,” she continued, nodding towards the stall she had been trying to undermine, “in that stall we shall be sure to find some bread, and maybe some sausage. You see this stall has not been regularly closed yet.”
I started digging. After some few minutes rest, spent in watching me, she squatted down beside me, and began to work as well.
We grubbed away for some time in silence. It is difficult to say at this distance of time whether any thought of the civil code, any considerations of morality, or of the rights of property; or of other good things, which wise people tell us should ever be present in our minds, troubled me at that moment. But as I desire to keep as near as possible to the truth, I fear I must acknowledge that at the time I was so engrossed with my work of undermining the stall, that no room was left in my mind for anything but expectation of the treasure I hoped to discover as a reward of my toil. Evening came on apace. The gloom, damp, cold, and raw, grew every moment more and more dense. The swish of the waves was heard less distinctly, but the rain beat louder and more insistently against the boards of the stall. Not far off we heard the night watchman’s rattle.
“Has the stall a floor or not?” enquired my companion in a low voice.
Not understanding exactly what she meant, I did not answer.
“I am asking you if the stall has a floor or not; because if it has there is no use in our going on digging—if we come across thick boards, what can we do? In that case had we not better break the lock; it’s a trumpery little thing,”
A bright thought seldom comes into a woman’s head; but still, as in this case “happy thoughts” do come into their minds occasionally. I always have a respect for “happy thoughts,” and try and avail myself of them as well as I can.
Acting on this principle, I felt for the lock, gave it a wrench, and pulled it off, screws and all. My accomplice immediately stooped down, and gliding like a snake through the square, raised the lid of the stall. When there, she uttered a cry of encouragement.
“Well done, my brave lad!”
A word of approbation from, a woman is worth more to me than a hymn of praise from a man, even if he be as eloquent as all the orators, ancient and modern, put together. Under the circumstances I am describing however, I was not in such an amiable frame of mind as I am now; I paid no heed, therefore, to the girl’s exclamation, but briefly and impatiently queried:
“What have you found there?”
Instead of replying, she began to enumerate in a monotonous voice the various articles sire had discovered.
“A hamper of bottles, some empty bags, an umbrella, an iron pail.”
None of these, however, were eatable, and thy hopes were fast fading away. Suddenly she shouted joyfully:
“I have found it at last!”
“What have you found?” “Bread! A whole loaf! Only it’s a little damp. Here, catch!”
At the same moment a loaf of bread rolled at my feet; and my brave little friend soon stood by my side.
Meanwhile I had broken off a hunch of bread, and, cramming it into my mouth, devoured it greedily.
“Come, I say, give me a bit, too. We must get away from this place at once. Where do you think we had better go?” Her searching glance tried to penetrate the gloom of the dark, damp and stormy night.
“Over yonder there: is an old boat turned upside dawn; let us get under it.”
“All right; come along!”
We made for the boat, breaking off and eating pieces of bread, and cramming them into our mouths as we walked along. The rain fell ever more heavily, and the river roared louder. A prolonged, derisive whistle sounded some way off—it seemed as if some strong, desperate being were laughing mockingly at everything on earth at the wretched autumn night, and at us, its two heroes. Our hearts throbbed painfully at each shriek of the whistle; but nothing prevented me from eating my bread greedily; the girl walking by my side did the same.
“What is your name?” I enquired, vaguely.
“Natasha,” was the curt, answer, as the girl continued to chew her bread noisily.
I looked at her, and my heart ached for her. Then I turned my glance, ahead into the gloom, and it seemed to me as if the mocking face of my fate were smiling at me, with a cold, enigmatic smile.
Ceaselessly the drops of rain beat against the timber of the: old boat, and their soft patter awoke many a sad thought. The wind whistling through the crevices of the timber howled fiercely; a chip of wood hanging loosely inside rattled and quivered out an anxious, sad dirge. So monotonous and so despairing was the sound of the waves as they dashed against the river banks, that it seemed as if they wished to confide the story of some, oppression, of some insupportable grief, of which they were utterly weary, and of which they desired to unburden themselves, so that it might be shared with someone else. The noise of the rain, mingled with the rush of the waves, together produced the effect of a long, endlessly deep sound, floating in the air—the sigh of the earth, weary of the never-ceasing changes of the weather—the hot, bright summers, succeeded by the damp, cold and dreary autumns. The wind still continued to sweep and howl over the desolate shore; the foaming river moaned its sad monotonous complaint. Our shelter under the boat was destitute of anything like comfort; it was damp and narrow, and ice-cold drops of rain, mingled with piercing gusts of wind, penetrated through the rotting timbers. We sat in silence, shivering with the cold. I remember getting very sleepy. Natasha, who had curled herself up into a ball, leant back against the side of the boat; her arms encircled her knees, on which rested her head. She gazed steadily out towards the river. Her wide-open eyes shone brightly, and seemed to grow larger for the black bruises beneath them. She neither spoke nor moved, and her silent, motionless figure inspired me with awe. I longed to say something to her, but did not know how to begin. At last she broke silence.
“What a wretched business our life is!” She spoke each word distinctly, slowly, and with deep conviction. She did not seem to be complaining; there was too much indifference in her voice for that. Apparently she had been reviewing her life, and had put into words, as well as she was able, the conclusion she had arrived at concerning it. A conclusion that I at least could not dispute without being false to myself. I preferred, therefore, to leave her words unanswered, and she once more assumed her silent and motionless attitude, taking no notice whatever of me.
“If one could but croak, and have done with it all,” she murmured, in a low and pensive tone. But still there was no note of complaint in her voice. It seemed as if she had reviewed her past life, and had come to the conclusion that there was no use in continuing to live; and that the only way to escape the mockery of existence was, as she expressed it, “to croak.”
Her clear, cold reasoning made me feel thoroughly sick at, heart. I felt I had no alternative but either to speak or burst into tears. To cry before a woman, however, seemed disgraceful, the more so, as she herself had not shed a single tear.
At last I managed to speak.
“Who has been knocking you about?” I asked, unable to find a more delicate way of alluding to her disfigurement.
“Why, Pashka, of course!”
“Who is he?”
“He’s my lover. He’s a baker.”
“Does he behave like that often?”
“Yes, very often; every time he is drunk.”
Then leaning towards me she began to tell all about her relations with Pashka. She was a “girl of the town,” he, a baker with an auburn moustache; he played the accordian splendidly. He had met her at the “establishment,” had charmed her by his gay manners, his smart, well-polished top-boots, and his splendid clothes. Why, he wore a coat that was worth at least fifteen roubles! She fell in love with him for all these fine qualities, and put herself under his “protection.” No sooner did he realise his position than he began to appropriate the money she earned from the other “visitors”; this money he would spend in drink, and when drunk he beat her without mercy. All this, she explained, would not have troubled her much, if it were not that he shamelessly courted other girls under her very nose.
“That was what hurt me most! I saw he was only making game of me, the rascal; and I was no worse looking than the other girls! The day before yesterday I asked permission of my ‘mistress’ to go out. I went straight to the house where Pashka lives, and found him there with Dounija; she was full of drink, and he not much better. I went for him, I can tell you. ‘You rascal, you dog!’ I shouted. Then he began. He knocked me down, he dragged me about by the hair, he abused me in every way he could think of. But even all that would not have mattered so much. The worst part of the business was that he tore my dress and jacket to pieces. Now I do not know what to do! I dare not go back to my mistress in this state, with all my clothes torn. I paid five roubles for my jacket. He dragged the handkerchief from my head. Oh! great God! what can I do now?”
The last few words were uttered in a plaintive, trembling voice. The ever howling wind grew louder and colder. My teeth began once more to chatter. The girl shivered and crept closer to me—so close that I could see her eyes flashing in the gloom. “What brutes you men! I should like to crush you all under my feet! I would, disfigure you, all if I could. If I saw any of you dying in the gutter I would only spit in your faces, and leave you there without a spark of pity. You miserable, wretches! You come cringing and fawning to us like mean dogs, but as soon as some silly girl trusts you, and gives way to you, all is over. You spurn and deride her, you dirty rascals!”
She possessed an endless stock of abusive epithets, but none of them were uttered with any force. One felt they expressed neither anger nor hatred for these “dirty rascals.”
The tone of her voice, was not in harmony with the words she spoke; but what she said made a deeper impression on me than could have been made by the most eloquent, forcible, and pessimistic book or argument that I had ever come across, either before that night or since. I can only express it in this way; and compare it to the death agony, which must itself be always more real, more poignant, and truer to nature than the best description by a master-hand can ever be.
Well, I was suffering acutely, though whether my sufferings were caused entirely by the cold, or by my companion’s words, I cannot now exactly say. I uttered a low groan, and gnashed my teeth. At the same moment I felt two cold little hands fluttering near me—one of them touched my neck and the other my cheek, and a soft, caressing voice enquired sympathetically:
“Will you not tell me who you are?”
It seemed almost for a moment as if someone else were. speaking, and not the Natasha who, only a few moments before, had been reviling all mankind, and calling down evil on the heads of men. She was speaking now, however, in quick, hurried tones.
“What is the matter with you? Are you cold? Are you freezing? Poor fellow! Why did you not say so? Why did you not tell me before that you were cold? Come and lie down here. Stretch yourself out like, that, and I will lie down also. Now, just put your arms round me, come closer to me. Now you will be nice and warm. By-and-bye we will lie back to back, and so warm our backs. And so we shall manage to get through the night. Why are you in such a miserable state? Have you been drinking, or have you been dismissed from your situation? Well, whatever it is, it does not matter! Don’t fret about it.”
This girl was actually trying to comfort me. She was even trying to encourage me!
Damn it all! What frightful irony there was in all this Just when I was busily occupied, settling the destiny of the whole human race, when I was dreaming of reforming the whole social order of things, and plotting all kinds of political revolutions; reading also extremely wise books, the meaning of which, in all probability, was never quite clear, even to, their authors; when I was endeavouring in every way to make of myself a prominent social and active force, just, in a word, when I seemed to have fulfilled the greater part of my task, and presumed that I had at least won a right to existence by making myself indispensable to the human race, and by taking a prominent place in the history of mankind—to think that such a person should stand in need of warmth, lent by the body of a fallen woman, an unhappy, shattered, persecuted creature, for whom there is no room and no place in the world! A woman whom I ought to have protected and cared for, instead of allowing her to console and comfort me, though, indeed, if the thought of my duty toward her had ever entered my mind, I confess I should not have known how to set about accomplishing it. I tried to make myself believe that it was all only a dream, an absurd nightmare, which had come across me during heavy sleep.
But, alas! The cold rain drops continued to pour down on me; the warm breast of the girl was pressed close against mine; her hot breath, tainted, it must be acknowledged with the faint odour of vodka, but oh, so wonderfully revivifying, awoke me to reality; and proved to me almost against my will that it was no dream. The wind howled and moaned pitifully. The rain beat ever louder against the old boat, and the waves outside hissed, whilst we, lying still in a close embrace, shivered still from the cold. This was indeed stern reality. I felt convinced that no dream, however monstrous, however unbearable, could ever have vied in oppressiveness with this crushing actuality. Natasha continued to talk softly, soothingly, kindly, as none but a woman can do.
Her simple gentle words caused warm feelings to creep into my heart, and I felt it melting within me.
A flood of tears poured down my cheeks, washing away the anger, the grief, the self-conceit, the evil that had accumulated in my heart in the course of that terrible night. Once more Natasha endeavoured to comfort me.
“Do, not weep like that dear. Do stop crying. Please God, something will turn up. You will find another place. You will be all right soon”. Kisses, hot, caressing, and soothing mingled with her words.
They were the very first kisses I had ever received from a woman; and they were the best. All those I received later were bought at much too high a price.
“Come, come! Stop that noise; what a strange fellow you are. Tomorrow I will try and find you some work, if that’s what’s the matter.”
The low, soft, persuasive whispers came wafted to me as though through a dream. Thus we remained in each other’s arms till daybreak. As soon as dawn appeared we crawled out from under the boat, and made our way towards the town. There we bid each other a warm farewell, and parted - never to meet, again; though for more than six months I searched for that sweet girl through all the slums of the town—the girl with whom I had spent an autumn night.
If she is dead—the best thing that could have happened to her—may her soul rest in peace. If she is still alive, God grant her a quiet mind, and may she never realise her fall; for that would be only a cruel and futile suffering, and would serve no useful purpose in this world.
(Translated by Emily Jakowleff and Dora B. Montefiore.)