WE walked a long way, as far as Little Avenue. She was almost running. At last she went into a little shop. I stood still and waited. “Surely she doesn’t live at the shop,” I thought.
She did in fact come out a minute later, but without the books. Instead of the books she had an earthenware cup in her hand. Going on a little further she went in at the gateway of an unattractive-looking house. It was an old stone house of two storeys, painted a dirty-yellow colour, and not large. In one of the three windows on the ground floor there was a miniature red coffin — as a sign that a working coffin-maker lived there. The windows of the upper storey were extremely small and perfectly square with dingy-green broken panes, through which I caught a glimpse of pink cotton curtains. I crossed the road, went up to the house, and read on an iron plate over the gate, “Mme. Bubnov.”
But I had hardly deciphered the inscription when suddenly I heard a piercing female scream, followed by shouts of abuse in Mme. Bubnov’s yard. I peeped through the gate. On the wooden steps of the house stood a stout woman, dressed like a working woman with a kerchief on her head, and a green shawl. Her face was of a revolting purplish colour. Her little, puffy, bloodshot eves were gleaming with spite. It was evident that she was not sober, though it was so early in the day. She was shrieking at poor Elena, who stood petrified. before her with the cup in her hand. A dishevelled female, painted and rouged, peeped from the stairs behind the purple-faced woman.
A little later a door opened on the area steps leading to the basement, and a poorly dressed, middle-aged woman of modest and decent appearance came out on the steps, probably attracted by the shouting. The other inhabitants of the basement, a decrepit-looking old man and a girl, looked out from the half-opened door. A big, hulking peasant, probably the porter, stood still in the middle of the yard with the broom in his hand, looking lazily at the scene.
“Ah, you damned slut, you bloodsucker, you louse!” squealed the woman, letting out at one breath all her store of abuse, for the most part without commas or stops, but with a sort of gasp.
So this is how you repay, me for my care of you, you ragged wench. She was just sent for some cucumbers and off she slipped. My heart told me she’d slip off when I sent her out! My heart ached it did! Only last night I all but pulled her hair out for it, and here she runs off again today. And where have you to go, you trollop? Where have you to go to? Who do you go to, you damned mummy, you staring viper, you poisonous vermin, who, who is it? Speak, you rotten scum, or I’ll choke you where you stand!”
And the infuriated woman flew at the poor girl, but, seeing the woman looking at her from the basement steps, she suddenly checked herself and, addressing her, squealed more shrilly than ever, waving her arms as though calling her to witness the monstrous crimes of her luckless victim.
“Her mother’s hopped the twig! You all know, good neighbours, she’s left alone in the world. I saw she was on your hands, poor folks as you are, though you’d nothing to eat for yourselves. There, thought I, for St. Nikolay’s sake I’ll put myself out and take the orphan. So I took her. and would you believe it, here I’ve been keeping her these two months, and upon my word she’s been sucking my blood and wearing me to a shadow, the leech, the rattlesnake, the obstinate limb of Satan. You may beat her, or you may let her alone, she won’t speak. She might have a mouth full of water, the way she holds her tongue! She breaks my heart holding her tongue! What do you take yourself for, you saucy slut, you green monkey? If it hadn’t been for me you’d have died of hunger in the street. You ought to be ready to wash my feet and drink the water, you monster, you black French poker! You’d have been done for but for me!”
“But why are you upsetting yourself so, Anna Trifonovna? How’s she vexed you again?” respectfully inquired the woman who had been addressed by the raving fury.
“You needn’t ask, my good soul, that you needn’t. I don’t like people going against me! I am one for having things my own way, right or wrong — I’m that sort! She’s almost sent me to my grave this morning! I sent her to the shop to get some cucumbers, and it was three hours before she was back. I’d a feeling in my heart when I sent her—it ached it did, didn’t it ache! Where’s she been? Where did she go? What protectors has she found for herself? As though I’d not been a good friend to her. Why, I forgave her slut of a mother a debt of fourteen roubles, buried her at my own expense, and took the little devil to bring up, you know that, my dear soul, you know it yourself! Why, have I no rights over her, after that? She should feel it, but instead of feeling it she goes against me! I wished for her good. I wanted to put her in a muslin frock, the dirty slut! I bought her boots at the Gostiny Dvor, and decked her out like a peacock, a sight for a holiday! And would you believe it, good friends, two days later she’d torn up the dress, torn it into rags, and that’s how she goes about, that’s how she goes about! And what do you think, she tore it on purpose — I wouldn’t tell a lie, I saw it myself; as much as to say she would go in rags, she wouldn’t wear muslin! Well, I paid, her out! I did give her a drubbing! Then I called in the doctor afterwards and had to pay him, too. If I throttled you, you vermin, I should be quit with not touching milk for a week; that would be penance enough for strangling you. I made her scrub the floor for a punishment; and what do you think, she scrubbed and scrubbed, the jade! It vexed me to see her scrubbing. Well, thought I, she’ll run away from me now. And I’d scarcely thought it when I looked round and off she’d gone, yesterday. You heard how I beat her for it yesterday, good friends. I made my arms ache. I took away her shoes and stockings — she won’t go off barefoot, thought I; yet she gave me the slip today, too! Where have you been? Speak! Who have you been complaining of me to, you nettle-seed? Who have you been telling tales to? Speak, you gipsy, you foreign mask! Speak!
And in her frenzy, she rushed at the little girl, who stood petrified with horror, clutched her by the hair, and flung her on the ground. The cup with the cucumbers in it was dashed aside and broken. This only increased the drunken fury’s rage. She beat her victim about the face and the head; but Elena remained obstinately mute; not a sound, not a cry, not a complaint escaped her, even under the blows.
I rushed into the yard, almost beside myself with indignation, and went straight to the drunken woman.
“What are you about? How dare you treat a poor orphan like that?” I cried, seizing the fury by her arm.
“What’s this? Why, who are you?” she screamed, leaving Elena, and putting her arms akimbo. “What do you want in my house?”
“To tell you you’re a heartless woman.” I cried. “How dare you bully a poor child like that? She’s not yours. I’ve just heard that she’s only adopted, a poor orphan.”
“Lord Jesus!” cried the fury. “But who are you, poking your nose in! Did you come with her, eh? I’ll go straight to the police-captain! Andrey Timofeyitch himself treats me like a lady. Why, is it to see you she goes, eh? Who is it? He’s come to make an upset in another person’s house. Police!”
And she flew at me, brandishing her fists. But at that instant we heard a piercing, inhuman shriek. I looked. Elena, who had been standing as though unconscious, uttering a strange, unnatural scream, fell with a thud on the ground, writhing in awful convulsions. Her face was working. She was in an epileptic fit. The dishevelled female and the woman from the basement ran, lifted her up, and hurriedly carried her up the steps.
“She may choke for me, the damned slut the woman shrieked after her. “That’s the third fit this month! ... Get off, you pickpocket” and she rushed at me again. “Why are you standing there, porter? What do you get your wages for?”
“Get along, get along! Do you want a smack on the head?” the porter boomed out lazily, apparently only as a matter of form. “Two’s company and three’s none. Make your bow and take your hook!”
There was no help for it. I went out at the gate, feeling that my interference had been useless. But I was boiling with indignation. I stood on, the pavement facing the gateway, and looked through the gate. As soon as I had gone out the woman rushed up the steps, and the porter having done his duty vanished. Soon after, the woman who had helped to carry up Elena hurried down the steps on the way to the basement. Seeing me she stood still and looked at me with curiosity. Her quiet, good-natured face encouraged me. I went back into the yard and straight up to her.
“Allow me to ask,” I said, “who is that girl and what is that horrible woman doing with her? Please don’t imagine that I ask simply from curiosity. I’ve met the girl, and owing to special circumstances I am much interested in her.”
“If you’re interested in her you’d better take her home or find some place for her than let her come to ruin here,” said the woman with apparent reluctance, making a movement to get away from me.
“But if you don’t tell me, what can I do? I tell you I know nothing about her. I suppose that’s Mme. Bubnov herself, the woman of the house?”
“Then how did the girl fall into her hands? Did her mother die here?”
“Oh, I can’t say. It’s not our business.”
And again she would have moved away.
“But please do me a kindness. I tell you it’s very interesting to me. Perhaps I may be able to do something. Who is the girl? What was her mother? Do you know?”
“She looked like a foreigner of some sort; she lived down below with us; but she was ill; she died of consumption.”
“Then she must have been very poor if she shared a room in the basement?”
“Ough ! she was poor! My heart was always aching for her. We simply live from hand to mouth, yet she owed us six roubles in the five months she lived with us. We buried her, too. My husband made the coffin.”
“How was it then that woman said she’d buried her?”
“As though she’d buried her!”
“And what was her surname?”
“I can’t pronounce it, sir. It’s difficult. It must have been German.”
“No, not quite that. Well, Anna Trifonovna took charge of the orphan, to bring her up, she says. But it’s not the right thing at all.”
“I suppose she took her for some object?”
“She’s a woman who’s up to no good,” answered the woman, seeming to ponder and hesitate whether to speak or not. “What is it to us? We’re outsiders.”
“You’d better keep a check on your tongue,” I heard a man’s voice say behind us.
It was a middle-aged man in a dressing-gown, with a full-coat over the dressing-gown, who looked like an artisan, the woman’s husband.
“She’s no call to be talking to you, sir; it’s not our business,” he said, looking askance at me. “And you go in. Good-bye, sir; we’re coffin-makers. If you ever need anything in our way we shall be pleased . . . but apart from that we’ve nothing to say.
I went out, musing, and greatly excited. I could do nothing, but I felt that it was hard for me to leave it like this. Some words dropped by the coffin-maker’s wife revolted me particularly. There was something wrong here; I felt that.
I was walking away, looking down and meditating, when suddenly a sharp voice called me by my surname. I looked up. Before me stood a man who had been drinking and was almost staggering, dressed fairly neatly, though he had a shabby overcoat and a greasy cap. His face was very familiar. I looked more closely at it. He winked at me and smiled ironically.
“Don’t you know me?”