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Maxim Gorky's 'Twenty-Six Men and a Girl'

In this famous short story, first published in 1899 in the collection 'Creatures That Once Were Men', Maxim Gorky drew on his own early life experience to depict the abject misery of working life in pre-revolutionary Russia.

There were six-and-twenty of us—six-and-twenty living machines in a damp, underground cellar, where from morning till night we kneaded dough and rolled it into kringels… The window was protected from outside with a close iron grating, and the light of the sun could not pierce through the window panes, covered as they were with flour dust.

These men are, in effect, prisoners – though outside is hardly better, the bars designed to prevent the men giving  “a bit of his bread to passing beggars, or to any of our fellows who were out of work and hungry.”

Gorky gives a precise and knowledgeable account of the monotonous work routine:

Unrefreshed, and with a feeling of not having had our sleep out, we used to get up at five o’clock in the morning; and before six, we were already seated, worn out and apathetic, at the table, rolling out the dough which our mates had already prepared while we slept.

The effect of such monotony on the men is deadening:

We had all studied each other so constantly, that each of us knew every wrinkle of his mates’ faces. It was not long also before we had exhausted almost every topic of conversation; that is why we were most of the time silent, unless we were chaffing each other.

Why is this material not off-putting and stultifying to the modern reader?  First, I think, because it genuinely shocks us.  Second, the level of informative detail renders the situation real and believable. Third, there is a richness of imagery, which goes beyond flat description:

The giant oven was like the misshapen head of a monster in a fairy tale; it thrust itself up out of the floor, opened wide jaws, full of glowing fire, and blew hot breath upon us.

The fairytale reference serves to depict modern relations of production in mythical terms, with the implicit expectation of rescue by some outside magical agency – which of course will never arrive.  The story’s whole style is fabulistic, which makes capitalist exploitation appear to be something eternal, an outlook which reflects the inmates’ sense of helplessness and imprisonment.

One solace they do have is singing, which allows the men a temporary escape into another state.  Gorky describes the process of this transition from servitude to a kind of powerless power brilliantly: 

…the song would roll forward like a wave, would grow louder and swell upward, till it would seem as if the damp, foul walls of our stone prison were widening out and opening. Then, all six-and-twenty of us would be singing; our loud, harmonious song would fill the whole cellar, our voices would travel outside and beyond...

The beauty of the sound evoked here, and the way it embodies the men’s feelings, is not sentimentalised; the narrator never forgets the “moaning sobs and sights… the old wounds”. Even their dream of escape is qualified by the phrases “as it were” and “in thought”, which remind us that this comfort exists only in the mind:

Another would exclaim in a stifled voice, “Ah!” and would shut his eyes, while the deep, full sound waves would show him, as it were, a road, in front of him—a sunlit, broad road in the distance, which he himself, in thought wandered along.

Their other, more central, solace is a Cinderella-like girl, Tanya, who comes daily to collect “kringels” or pretzels, and being the only outsider to acknowledge their existence, has assumed an all-important place in their world.  They revere her as a kind of goddess.  Indeed, the language used to describe their attitude is clearly religious, reminiscent of the ritual of the mass: “But we, ugly, dirty and misshapen as we were, looked up at her—the threshold door was four steps above the floor— looked up at her with heads thrown back, wishing her good-morning, and speaking strange, unaccustomed words, which we kept for her only.”  They give her their kringels “like a daily sacrifice to our idol”. 

The story goes on to trace the destruction of this idol, tested by the men to breaking point in their desperate desire to prove her perfection. 

When a new master baker, a former soldier, joins the firm and parades himself as a paragon of virility, boasting of his success with women, the men are at first admiring.   He, like Tanya, is presented in almost superhuman terms: “The ice-cold air, which streamed in through the open door, curled in streaks of vapour round his feet.”

The contrast between his sexual self-confidence and the miserable specimens is made clear:  

Many of us would have liked to have shown the soldier that we also were tremendous fellows with the girls, but not one of us could do so; and one of our number confessed as much, when he said in a low voice: 

“That sort of thing is not in our line.” 

“Well, no; it wouldn’t quite do for you,” said the soldier with conviction, after having looked us over.” 

As soon as they have thrown down their terrible gauntlet – offering their pure goddess to the master baker as the ultimate test of his powers of seduction – their attitude towards him changes from admiration to loathing for what he might do. 

Yet in spite of their growing unease, their lives have never been so exciting.  This is Gorky’s masterly touch, to acknowledge the (short-lived) benefits corruption brings.  They have entered a Faustian pact, which gives them a glimpse, albeit a vicarious one, of a fulfilled human life.  There is something akin to the consumption of porn or drugs in the “burning curiosity” they feel, which is “most agreeable to us… we felt a sort of delighted terror, and life was so interesting that we did not even notice that our employer had taken advantage of our pre-occupation to increase our work by fourteen pounds of dough a day.” 

All their hopes are vested in her remaining a pure symbol they can worship.

Finally, the fortnight’s deadline is up, and the men watch as Tanya enters a store cellar with the master baker and emerges a while later  “radiant with joy and happiness… And she walked as though in a dream, staggering, with unsteady steps.”  Once again, we see corruption’s near-narcotic effect.

The men, incensed by her fall from grace, “dashed out into the yard and–hissed at her, reviled her viciously, loudly,wildly.”  They blame her, abuse her and at first the girl is crushed.  But she quickly asserts herself:  

Suddenly her eyes flashed; deliberately she raised her head and straightening her hair she said loudly but calmly, straight in our faces:

“Ah, you miserable prisoners!”

This is the same term she has used for them at the start of the story.  Then it was a term of compassion and endearment, of innocent fellow-feeling, whereas now it has become a contemptuous curse.  She sees that they have turned against her and suddenly feels superior to them, as though her experience of physical love has elevated her above their pathetic impotence.  Yet she too is has made a pact with the devil.  Soon she will be cast aside, ruined.

We realise that all the humans in this microcosm are reduced “creatures”, not fully human. Indeed, Tanya never was a deity but a poor worker, a servant to the gold-embroiderers who also work in the building, and in her moment of sexual bliss, which should spell joy, she is destroyed.  Even the master baker is a victim, his whole being having been subsumed into his sexuality:  “There are men to whom the most precious and best thing in their lives appears to be some disease of their soul of body…”

In the bleak ending, Gorky seems to suggest that the men never had a choice,  bound to crush their one saving grace with their need. In the playing out of this inevitability, the lack of possibility in their lives is revealed.  They are, by the end, deprived of even their fantasy.  We are led to conclude that faith is flimsy, and that what is needed is a material foundation for real, realisable hope.
 
The story, whether intentionally or not, dashes the romantic vision of workers combining together naturally and heroically by virtue of their class.  The creation of class consciousness – though latent in the story, particularly in the collective narrative voice and desires – is a hard task, which needs conscious application. 

Maxim Gorky, 1868-1936


TWENTY-SIX MEN AND A GIRL

by Maxim Gorky
 

There were six-and-twenty of us—six-and-twenty living machines in a damp, underground cellar, where from morning till night we kneaded dough and rolled it into kringels. Opposite the underground window of our cellar was a bricked area, green and mouldy with moisture. The window was protected from outside with a close iron grating, and the light of the sun could not pierce through the window panes, covered as they were with flour dust.

Our employer had bars placed in front of the windows, so that we should not be able to give a bit of his bread to passing beggars, or to any of our fellows who were out of work and hungry. Our employer called us rogues, and gave us half-rotten tripe to eat for our mid-day meal, instead of meat. It was swelteringly close for us cooped up in that stone underground chamber, under the low, heavy, soot-blackened, cobwebby ceiling. Dreary and sickening was our life between its thick, dirty, mouldy walls. 

Unrefreshed, and with a feeling of not having had our sleep out, we used to get up at five o’clock in the morning; and before six, we were already seated, worn out and apathetic, at the table, rolling out the dough which our mates had already prepared while we slept. 

The whole day, from ten in the early morning until ten at night, some of us sat round that table, working up in our hands the yielding paste, rolling it to and fro so that it should not get stiff; while the others kneaded the swelling mass of dough. And the whole day the simmering water in the kettle, where the kringels were being cooked, sang low and sadly; and the baker’s shovel scraped harshly over the oven floor, as he threw the slippery bits of dough out of the kettle on the heated bricks. 

From morning till evening wood was burning in the oven, and the red glow of the fire gleamed and flickered over the walls of the bake-shop, as if silently mocking us. The giant oven was like the misshapen head of a monster in a fairy tale; it thrust itself up out of the floor, opened wide jaws, full of glowing fire, and blew hot breath upon us; it seemed to be ever watching out of its black air-holes our interminable work. Those two deep holes were like eyes: the cold, pitiless eyes of a monster. They watched us always with the same darkened glance, as if they were weary of seeing before them such eternal slaves, from whom they could expect nothing human, and therefore scorned them with the cold scorn of wisdom. 

In meal dust, in the mud which we brought in from the yard on our boots, in the hot, sticky atmosphere, day in, day out, we rolled the dough into kringels, which we moistened with our own sweat. And we hated our work with a glowing hatred; we never ate what had passed through our hands, and preferred black bread to kringels.

Sitting opposite each other, at a long table—nine facing nine— we moved our hands and fingers mechanically during endlessly long hours, till we were so accustomed to our monotonous work that we ceased to pay any attention to it. 

We had all studied each other so constantly, that each of us knew every wrinkle of his mates’ faces. It was not long also before we had exhausted almost every topic of conversation; that is why we were most of the time silent, unless we were chaffing each other; but one cannot always find something about which to chaff another man, especially when that man is one’s mate. Neither were we much given to finding fault with one another; how, indeed, could one of us poor devils be in a position to find fault with another, when we were all of us half dead and, as it were, turned to stone? For the heavy drudgery seemed to crush all feeling out of us. But silence is only terrible and fearful for those who have said everything and have nothing more to say to each other; for men, on the contrary, who have never begun to communicate with one another, it is easy and simple. 

Sometimes, too, we sang; and this is how it happened that we began to sing: one of us would sigh deeply in the midst of our toil, like an overdriven horse, and then we would begin one of those songs whose gentle swaying melody seems always to ease the burden on the singer’s heart. 

At first one sang by himself, and we others sat in silence listening to his solitary song, which, under the heavy vaulted roof of the cellar, died gradually away, and became extinguished, like a little fire in the steppes, on a wet autumn night, when the gray heaven hangs like a heavy mass over the earth. 

Then another would join in with the singer, and now two soft, sad voices would break into song in our narrow, dull hole of a cellar. Suddenly others would join in, and the song would roll forward like a wave, would grow louder and swell upward, till it would seem as if the damp, foul walls of our stone prison were widening out and opening. Then, all six-and-twenty of us would be singing; our loud, harmonious song would fill the whole cellar, our voices would travel outside and beyond, striking, as it were, against the walls in moaning sobs and sighs, moving our hearts with soft, tantalizing ache, tearing open old wounds, and awakening longings. 

The singers would sigh deeply and heavily; suddenly one would become silent and listen to the others singing, then let his voice flow once more in the common tide. Another would exclaim in a stifled voice, “Ah!” and would shut his eyes, while the deep, full sound waves would show him, as it were, a road, in front of him—a sunlit, broad road in the distance, which he himself, in thought wandered along. 

But the flame flickers once more in the huge oven, the baker scrapes incessantly with his shovel, the water simmers in the kettle, and the flicker of the fire on the wall dances as before in silent mockery. While in other men’s words we sing out our dumb grief, the weary burden of live men robbed of the sunlight, the burden of slaves. 

So we lived, we six-and-twenty, in the vault-like cellar of a great stone house, and we suffered each one of us, as if we had to bear on our shoulders the whole three storys of that house. 

But we had something else good, besides the singing—something we loved, that perhaps took the place of the sunshine. 

In the second storey of our house there was established a gold-embroiderer’s shop, and there, living among the other embroidery girls, was Tanya, a little maid-servant of sixteen. Every morning there peeped in through the glass door a rosy little face, with merry blue eyes; while a ringing, tender voice called out to us: 

“Little prisoners! Have you any kringels, please, for me?” 

At that clear sound, we knew so well, we all used to turn round, gazing with simple-hearted joy at the pure girlish face which smiled at us so sweetly. The sight of the small nose pressed against the window-pane, and of the white teeth gleaming between the half-open lips, had become for us a daily pleasure. Tumbling over each other we used to jump up to open the door, and she would step in, bright and cheerful, holding out her apron, with her head thrown on one side, and a smile on her lips. Her thick, long chestnut hair fell over her shoulder and across her breast. But we, ugly, dirty and misshapen as we were, looked up at her—the threshold door was four steps above the floor— looked up at her with heads thrown back, wishing her good-morning, and speaking strange, unaccustomed words, which we kept for her only. 

Our voices became softer when we spoke to her, our jests were lighter. For her—everything was different with us. The baker took from his oven a shovel of the best and the brownest kringels, and threw them deftly into Tanya’s apron. 

“Be off with you now, or the boss will catch you!” we warned her each time. She laughed roguishly, called out cheerfully: “Good-bye, poor prisoners!” and slipped away as quick as a mouse. 

That was all. But long after she had gone we talked about her to one another with pleasure. It was always the same thing as we had said yesterday and the day before, because everything about us, including ourselves and her, remained the same—as yesterday— and as always. 

Painful and terrible it is when a man goes on living, while nothing changes around him; and when such an existence does not finally kill his soul, then the monotony becomes with time, even more and more painful. Generally we spoke about women in such a way, that sometimes it was loathsome to us ourselves to hear our rude, shameless talk. The women whom we knew deserved perhaps nothing better. But about Tanya we never let fall an evil word; none of us ever ventured so much as to lay a hand on her, even too free a jest she never heard from us. Maybe this was so because she never remained for long with us; she flashed on our eyes like a star falling from the sky, and vanished; and maybe because she was little and very beautiful, and everything beautiful calls forth respect, even in coarse people. 

And besides—though our life of penal labor had made us dull beasts, oxen, we were still men, and, like all men, could not live without worshipping something or other. Better than her we had none, and none but her took any notice of us, living in the cellar— no one, though there were dozens of people in the house. And then, too – most likely, this was the chief thing—we all regarded her as something of our own, something existing as it were only by virtue of our kringels. We took on ourselves in turns the duty of providing her with hot kringels, and this became for us like a daily sacrifice to our idol, it became almost a sacred rite, and every day it bound us more closely to her. Besides kringels, we gave Tanya a great deal of advice to wear warmer clothes, not to run upstairs too quickly, not to carry heavy bundles of wood. She listened to all our counsels with a smile, answered them by a laugh, and never took our advice, but we were not offended at that; all we wanted was to show how much care we bestowed upon her. 

Often she would apply to us with different requests, she asked us, for instance; to open the heavy door into the store-cellar, and to chop wood: with delight and a sort of pride, we did this for her, and everything else she wanted. 

But when one of us asked her to mend his solitary shirt for him, she said, with a laugh of contempt: 

“What next! A likely idea!” 

We made great fun of the queer fellow who could entertain such an idea, and—never asked her to do anything else. We loved her—all is said in that. 

Man always wants to lay his love on someone, though sometimes he crushes, sometimes he sullies, with it; he may poison another life because he loves without respecting the beloved. We were bound to love Tanya, for we had no one else to love. 

At times one of us would suddenly begin to reason like this: 

“And why do we make so much of the wench? What is there in her? eh? What a to-do we make about her!”

The man who dared to utter such words we promptly and coarsely cut short— we wanted something to love: we had found it and loved it, and what we twenty-six loved must be for each of us unalterable, as a holy thing, and anyone who acted against us in this was our enemy. We loved, maybe, not what was really good, but you see there were twenty-six of us, and so we always wanted to see what was precious to us held sacred by the rest. 

Our love is not less burdensome than hate, and maybe that is just why some proud souls maintain that our hate is more flattering than our love. But why do they not run away from us, if it is so? 

                                    *          *          *          *          *          *          * 

Besides our department, our employer had also a bread-bakery; it was in the same house, separated from our hole only by a wall; but the bakers—there were four of them—held aloof from us, considering their work superior to ours, and therefore themselves better than us; they never used to come into our workroom, and laughed contemptuously at us when they met us in the yard. We, too, did not go to see them; this was forbidden by our employer, from fear that we should steal the fancy bread. 

We did not like the bakers, because we envied them; their work was lighter than ours, they were paid more, and were better fed; they had a light, spacious workroom, and they were all so clean and healthy—and that made them hateful to us. We all looked gray and yellow; three of us had syphilis, several suffered from skin diseases, one was completely crippled by rheumatism. On holidays and in their leisure time the bakers wore pea-jackets and creaking boots, two of them had accordions, and they all used to go for strolls in the town garden— we wore filthy rags and leather clogs or plaited shoes on our feet, the police would not let us into the town gardens— could we possibly like the bakers? 

And one day we learned that their chief baker had been drunk, the master had sacked him and had already taken on another, and that this other was a soldier, wore a satin waistcoat and a watch and gold chain. We were inquisitive to get a sight of such a dandy, and in the hope of catching a glimpse of him we kept running one after another out into the yard. 

But he came of his own accord into our room. Kicking at the door, he pushed it open, and leaving it ajar, stood in the doorway smiling, and said to us: 

“God help the work! Good-morning, mates!” 

The ice-cold air, which streamed in through the open door, curled in streaks of vapor round his feet. He stood on the threshold, looked us up and down, and under his fair, twisted mustache gleamed big yellow teeth. His waistcoat was really something quite out of the common, blue-flowered, brilliant with shining little buttons of red stones. He also wore a watch chain. 

He was a fine fellow, this soldier; tall, healthy, rosy-cheeked, and his big, clear eyes had a friendly, cheerful glance. He wore on his head a white starched cap, and from under his spotlessly clean apron peeped the pointed toes of fashionable, well-blacked boots. 

Our baker asked him politely to shut the door. The soldier did so without hurrying himself, and began to question us about the master. We explained to him, all speaking together, that our employer was a thorough-going brute, a rogue, a knave, and a slave-driver; in a word, we repeated to him all that can and must be said about an employer, but cannot be repeated here. The soldier listened to us, twisted his mustache, and watched us with a friendly, open-hearted look. 

“But haven’t you got a lot of girls here?” he asked suddenly. 

Some of us began to laugh deferentially, others put on a meaning expression, and one of us explained to the soldier that there were nine girls here. 

“You make the most of them?” asked the soldier, with a wink. 

We laughed, but not so loudly, and with some embarrassment. Many of us would have liked to have shown the soldier that we also were tremendous fellows with the girls, but not one of us could do so; and one of our number confessed as much, when he said in a low voice: 

“That sort of thing is not in our line.” 

“Well, no; it wouldn’t quite do for you,” said the soldier with conviction, after having looked us over. 

“There is something wanting about you all you don’t look the right sort. You’ve no sort of appearance; and the women, you see, they like a bold appearance, they will have a well set-up body. Everything has to be tip-top for them. That’s why they respect strength. They want an arm like that!” 

The soldier drew his right hand, with its turned-up shirt sleeve, out of his pocket, and showed us his bare arm. It was white and strong, and covered with shining yellow hairs. 

“Leg and chest, all must be strong. And then a man must be dressed in the latest fashion, so as to show off his looks to advantage. Yes, all the women take to me. Whether I call to them, or whether I beckon them, they with one accord, five at a time, throw themselves at my head.” 

He sat down on a flour sack, and told at length all about the way women loved him, and how bold he was with them. Then he left, and after the door had creaked to behind him, we sat for a long time silent, and thought about him and his talk. Then we all suddenly broke silence together, and it became apparent that we were all equally pleased with him. He was such a nice, open-hearted fellow; he came to see us without any standoffishness, sat down and chatted. No one else came to us like that, and no one else talked to us in that friendly sort of way. And we continued to talk of him and his coming triumph among the embroidery girls, who passed us by with contemptuous sniffs when they saw us in the yard, or who looked straight through us as if we had been air. 

But we admired them always when we met them outside, or when they walked past our windows; in winter, in fur jackets and toques to match; in summer, in hats trimmed with flowers, and with colored parasols in their hands. We talked, however, about these girls in a way that would have made them mad with shame and rage, if they could have heard us. 

“If only he does not get hold of little Tanya!” said the baker, suddenly, in an anxious tone of voice. 

We were silent, for these words troubled us. Tanya had quite gone out of our minds, supplanted, put on one side by the strong, fine figure of the soldier. 

Then began a lively discussion; some of us maintained that Tanya would never lower herself so; others thought she would not be able to resist him, and the third group proposed to give him a thrashing if he should try to annoy Tanya. And, finally, we all decided to watch the soldier and Tanya, and to warn the girl against him. This brought the discussion to an end. 

Four weeks had passed by since then; during this time the soldier baked white bread, walked about with the gold-embroidery girls, visited us often, but did not talk any more about his conquests; only twisted his mustache, and licked his lips lasciviously. 

Tanya called in as usual every morning for “little kringels,” and was as gay and as nice and friendly with us as ever. We certainly tried once or twice to talk to her about the soldier, but she called him a “goggle-eyed calf,” and made fun of him all round, and that set our minds at rest. We saw how the gold-embroidery girls carried on with the soldier, and we were proud of our girl; Tanya’s behavior reflected honor on us all; we imitated her, and began in our talks to treat the soldier with small consideration. 

She became dearer to us, and we greeted her with more friendliness and kindliness every morning.

One day the soldier came to see us, a bit drunk, and sat down and began to laugh. When we asked him what he was laughing about, he explained to us: 

“Why two of them—that Lydka girl and Grushka—have been clawing each other on my account. You should have seen the way they went for each other! Ha! ha! One got hold of the other one by the hair, threw her down on the floor of the passage, and sat on her! Ha! ha! ha! They scratched and tore each others’ faces. It was enough to make one die with laughter! Why is it women can’t fight fair? Why do they always scratch one another, eh?” 

He sat on the bench, healthy, fresh and jolly; he sat there and went on laughing. We were silent. This time he made an unpleasant impression on us. 

“Well, it’s a funny thing what luck I have with the women-folk! Eh? I’ve laughed till I’m ill! One wink, and it’s all over with them! It’s the d-devil!” 

He raised his white hairy hands, and slapped them down on his knees. And his eyes seem to reflect such frank astonishment, as if he were himself quite surprised at his good luck with women. His fat, red face glistened with delight and self satisfaction, and he licked his lips more than ever. 

Our baker scraped the shovel violently and angrily along the oven floor, and all at once he said sarcastically: 

“There’s no great strength needed to pull up fir saplings, but try a real pine-tree.” 

“Why-what do you mean by saying that to me?” asked the soldier. 

“Oh, well. . . .” 

“What is it?” 

“Nothing-it slipped out!” 

“No, wait a minute! What’s the point? What pinetree?” 

Our baker did not answer, working rapidly away with the shovel at the oven; flinging into it the half-cooked kringels, taking out those that were done, and noisily throwing them on the floor to the boys who were stringing them on bast. He seemed to have forgotten the soldier and his conversation with him. But the soldier had all at once dropped into a sort of uneasiness. He got up on to his feet, and went to the oven, at the risk of knocking against the handle of the shovel, which was waving spasmodically in the air.

“No, tell me, do—who is it? You’ve insulted me. I? There’s not one could withstand me, n-no! And you say such insulting things to me?”

He really seemed genuinely hurt. He must have had nothing else to pride himself on except his gift for seducing women; maybe, except for that, there was nothing living in him, and it was only that by which he could feel himself a living man. 

There are men to whom the most precious and best thing in their lives appears to be some disease of their soul or body. They spend their whole life in relation to it, and only living by it, suffering from it, they sustain themselves on it, they complain of it to others, and so draw the attention of their fellows to themselves. 

For that they extract sympathy from people, and apart from it they have nothing at all. Take from them that disease, cure them, and they will be miserable, because they have lost their one resource in life— they are left empty then. Sometimes a man’s life is so poor, that he is driven instinctively to prize his vice and to live by it; one may say for a fact that often men are vicious from boredom. 

The soldier was offended, he went up to our baker and roared: 

“No, tell me do-who?” 

“Tell you?” the baker turned suddenly to him.
 
“Well?” 

“You know Tanya?”

“Well?” 

“Well, there then! Only try.” 

“You!” 

“Her? Why that’s nothing to me-pooh!”

“We shall see!” 

“You will see! Ha! ha!” 

“She’ll——” 

“Give me a month!”
 
“What a braggart you are, soldier!”
 
“A fortnight! I’ll prove it! Who is it? Tanya! Pooh!” 

“Well, get out. You’re in my way!” 

“A fortnight—and it’s done! Ah, you——”

“Get out, I say!” 

Our baker, all at once, flew into a rage and brandished his shovel. The soldier staggered away from him in amazement, looked at us, paused, and softly, malignantly said, “Oh, all right, then!” and went away. 

During the dispute we had all sat silent, absorbed in it. But when the soldier had gone, eager, loud talk and noise arose among us. 

Some one shouted to the baker: “It’s a bad job that you’ve started, Pavel!” 

“Do your work!” answered the baker savagely. 

We felt that the soldier had been deeply aggrieved, and that danger threatened Tanya. We felt this, and at the same time we were all possessed by a burning curiosity, most agreeable to us. What would happen? Would Tanya hold out against the soldier? And almost all cried confidently: “Tanya? She’ll hold out! You won’t catch her with your bare arms!” 

We longed terribly to test the strength of our idol; we forcibly proved to each other that our divinity was a strong divinity and would come victorious out of this ordeal. We began at last to fancy that we had not worked enough on the soldier, that he would forget the dispute, and that we ought to pique his vanity more keenly. From that day we began to live a different life, a life of nervous tension, such as we had never known before. We spent whole days in arguing together; we all grew, as it were, sharper; and got to talk more and better. It seemed to us that we were playing some sort of game with the devil, and the stake on our side was Tanya. And when we learned from the bakers that the soldier had begun “running after our Tanya,” we felt a sort of delighted terror, and life was so interesting that we did not even notice that our employer had taken advantage of our pre-occupation to increase our work by fourteen pounds of dough a day. 

We seemed, indeed, not even tired by our work. Tanya’s name was on our lips all day long. And every day we looked for her with a certain special impatience. Sometimes we pictured to ourselves that she would come to us, and it would not be the same Tanya as of old, hut somehow different. We said nothing to her, however, of the dispute regarding her. We asked her no questions, and behaved as well and affectionately to her as ever. But even in this a new element crept in, alien to our old feeling for Tanya—and that new element was keen curiosity, keen and cold as a steel knife. 

“Mates! To-day the time’s up!” our baker said to us one morning, as he set to work. 

We were well aware of it without his reminder; but still we were thrilled. 

“Look at her. She’ll he here directly,” suggested the baker. 

One of us cried out in a troubled voice, “Why! as though one could notice anything!” 

And again an eager, noisy discussion sprang up among us. To-day we were about to prove how pure and spotless was the vessel into which we had poured all that was best in us. This morning, for the first time, it became clear to us, that we really were playing a great game; that we might, indeed, through the exaction of this proof of purity, lose our divinity altogether. 

During the whole of the intervening fortnight we had heard that Tanya was persistently followed by the soldier, but not one of us had thought of asking her how she had behaved toward him. And she came every morning to fetch her kringels, and was the same toward us as ever.
 
This morning, too, we heard her voice outside: “You poor prisoners! Here I am!” 

We opened the door, and when she came in we all remained, contrary to our usual custom, silent. Our eyes fixed on her, we did not know how to speak to her, what to ask her. And there we stood in front of her, a gloomy, silent crowd. She seemed to be surprised at this unusual reception; and suddenly we saw her turn white and become uneasy, then she asked, in a choking voice: 

“Why are you—like this?” 

“And you?” the baker flung at her grimly, never taking his eyes off her. 

“What am I?” 

“N—-nothing.” 

“Well, then, give me quickly the little kringels.” 

Never before had she bidden us hurry. 

“There’s plenty of time,” said the baker, not stirring, and not removing his eyes from her face. 

Then, suddenly, she turned round and disappeared through the door. 

The baker took his shovel and said, calmly turning away toward the oven: 

“Well, that settles it! But a soldier! a common beast like that— a low cur!” 

Like a flock of sheep we all pressed round the table, sat down silently, and began listlessly to work. Soon, however, one of us remarked: 

“Perhaps, after all——”
 
“Shut up!” shouted the baker. 

We were all convinced that he was a man of judgment, a man who knew more than we did about things. And at the sound of his voice we were convinced of the soldier’s victory, and our spirits became sad and downcast. 

At twelve o’clock—while we were eating our dinners—the soldier came in. He was as clean and as smart as ever, and looked at us—as usual— straight in the eyes. But we were all awkward in looking at him. 

“Now then, honored sirs, would you like me to show you a soldier’s quality?” he said, chuckling proudly. 

“Go out into the passage, and look through the crack— do you understand?” 

We went into the passage, and stood all pushing against one another, squeezed up to the cracks of the wooden partition of the passage that looked into the yard. We had not to wait long. Very soon Tanya, with hurried footsteps and a careworn face, walked across the yard, jumping over the puddles of melting snow and mud: she disappeared into the store cellar. Then whistling, and not hurrying himself, the soldier followed in the same direction. His hands were thrust in his pockets; his mustaches were quivering. 

Rain was falling, and we saw how its drops fell into the puddles, and the puddles were wrinkled by them. The day was damp and gray— a very dreary day. Snow still lay on the roofs, but on the ground dark patches of mud had begun to appear.

And the snow on the roofs too was covered by a layer of brownish dirt. The rain fell slowly with a depressing sound. It was cold and disagreeable for us waiting. 

The first to come out of the store cellar was the soldier; he walked slowly across the yard, his mustaches twitching, his hands in his pockets—the same as always. 

Then—Tanya, too, came out. Her eye~her eyes were radiant with joy and happiness, and her lips—were smiling. And she walked as though in a dream, staggering, with unsteady steps. 

We could not bear this quietly. All of us at once rushed to the door, dashed out into the yard and—hissed at her, reviled her viciously, loudly, wildly. 

She started at seeing us, and stood as though rooted in the mud under her feet. We formed a ring round her! and malignantly, without restraint, abused her with vile words, said shameful things to her. 

We did this not loudly, not hurriedly, seeing that she could not get away, that she was hemmed in by us, and we could deride her to our hearts’ content. I don’t know why, but we did not beat her. She stood in the midst of us, and turned her head this way and that, as she heard our insults. And we-more and more violently flung at her the filth and venom of our words.

The color had left her face. Her blue eyes, so happy a moment before, opened wide, her bosom heaved, and her lips quivered. 

We in a ring round her avenged ourselves on her as though she had robbed us. She belonged to us, we had lavished on her our best, and though that best was a beggar’s crumb, still we were twenty-six, she was one, and so there was no pain we could give her equal to her guilt! 

How we insulted her! She was still mute, still gazed at us with wild eyes, and a shiver ran all over her. 

We laughed, roared, yelled. Other people ran up from somewhere and joined us. One of us pulled Tanya by the sleeve of her blouse.

Suddenly her eyes flashed; deliberately she raised her hands to her head and straightening her hair she said loudly but calmly, straight in our faces:

“Ah, you miserable prisoners!”
 
And she walked straight at us, walked as directly as though we had not been before her, as though we were not blocking her way.

And hence it was that no one did actually prevent her passing.

 Walking out of our ring, without turning round, she said loudly and with indescribable contempt:

“Ah, you scum—brutes.” 

And—was gone. 

We were left in the middle of the yard, in the rain, under the gray sky without the sun. 

Then we went mutely away to our damp stone cellar. As before— the sun never peeped in at our windows, and Tanya came no more!

 

Translated from the Russian by J. M. Shirazi and others

Creatures That Once Were Men, by Maxim Gorky, The Echo Library, 2006, £6.90 or from Dodo Press, £7.99, (both available on Amazon)