“Kind sir, be so good as to notice a poor, hungry man. I have not tasted food for three days. I have not a five-kopeck piece for a night’s lodging. I swear by God! For five years I was a village schoolmaster and lost my post through the intrigues of the Zemstvo. I was the victim of false witness. I have been out of a place for a year now.”
Skvortsov, a Petersburg lawyer, looked at the speaker’s tattered dark blue overcoat, at his muddy, drunken eyes, at the red patches on his cheeks, and it seemed to him that he had seen the man before.
“And now I am offered a post in the Kaluga province,” the beggar continued, “but I have not the means for the journey there. Graciously help me! I am ashamed to ask, but . . . I am compelled by circumstances.”
Skvortsov looked at his goloshes, of which one was shallow like a shoe, while the other came high up the leg like a boot, and suddenly remembered.
“Listen, the day before yesterday I met you in Sadovoy Street,” he said, “and then you told me, not that you were a village schoolmaster, but that you were a student who had been expelled. Do you remember?”
“N-o. No, that cannot be so!” the beggar muttered in confusion. “I am a village schoolmaster, and if you wish it I can show you documents to prove it.”
“That’s enough lies! You called yourself a student, and even told me what you were expelled for. Do you remember?”
Skvortsov flushed, and with a look of disgust on his face turned away from the ragged figure.
“It’s contemptible, sir!” he cried angrily. “It’s a swindle! I’ll hand you over to the police, damn you! You are poor and hungry, but that does not give you the right to lie so shamelessly!”
The ragged figure took hold of the door-handle and, like a bird in a snare, looked round the hall desperately.
“I . . . I am not lying,” he muttered. “I can show documents.”
“Who can believe you?” Skvortsov went on, still indignant. “To exploit the sympathy of the public for village schoolmasters and students — it’s so low, so mean, so dirty! It’s revolting!”
Skvortsov flew into a rage and gave the beggar a merciless scolding. The ragged fellow’s insolent lying aroused his disgust and aversion, was an offence against what he, Skvortsov, loved and prized in himself: kindliness, a feeling heart, sympathy for the unhappy. By his lying, by his treacherous assault upon compassion, the individual had, as it were, defiled the charity which he liked to give to the poor with no misgivings in his heart. The beggar at first defended himself, protested with oaths, then he sank into silence and hung his head, overcome with shame.
“Sir!” he said, laying his hand on his heart, “I really was . . . lying! I am not a student and not a village schoolmaster. All that’s mere invention! I used to be in the Russian choir, and I was turned out of it for drunkenness. But what can I do? Believe me, in God’s name, I can’t get on without lying — when I tell the truth no one will give me anything. With the truth one may die of hunger and freeze without a night’s lodging! What you say is true, I understand that, but . . . what am I to do?”
“What are you to do? You ask what are you to do?” cried Skvortsov, going close up to him. “Work — that’s what you must do! You must work!”
“Work. . . . I know that myself, but where can I get work?”
“Nonsense. You are young, strong, and healthy, and could always find work if you wanted to. But you know you are lazy, pampered, drunken! You reek of vodka like a pothouse! You have become false and corrupt to the marrow of your bones and fit for nothing but begging and lying! If you do graciously condescend to take work, you must have a job in an office, in the Russian choir, or as a billiard-marker, where you will have a salary and have nothing to do! But how would you like to undertake manual labour? I’ll be bound, you wouldn’t be a house porter or a factory hand! You are too genteel for that!”
“What things you say, really . . .” said the beggar, and he gave a bitter smile. “How can I get manual work? It’s rather late for me to be a shopman, for in trade one has to begin from a boy; no one would take me as a house porter, because I am not of that class. . . . And I could not get work in a factory; one must know a trade, and I know nothing.”
“Nonsense! You always find some justification! Wouldn’t you like to chop wood?”
“I would not refuse to, but the regular woodchoppers are out of work now.”
“Oh, all idlers argue like that! As soon as you are offered anything you refuse it. Would you care to chop wood for me?”
“Certainly I will. . .”
“Very good, we shall see. . . . Excellent. We’ll see!” Skvortsov, in nervous haste; and not without malignant pleasure, rubbing his hands, summoned his cook from the kitchen.
“Here, Olga,” he said to her, “take this gentleman to the shed and let him chop some wood.”
The beggar shrugged his shoulders as though puzzled, and irresolutely followed the cook. It was evident from his demeanour that he had consented to go and chop wood, not because he was hungry and wanted to earn money, but simply from shame and amour propre, because he had been taken at his word. It was clear, too, that he was suffering from the effects of vodka, that he was unwell, and felt not the faintest inclination to work.
Skvortsov hurried into the dining-room. There from the window which looked out into the yard he could see the woodshed and everything that happened in the yard. Standing at the window, Skvortsov saw the cook and the beggar come by the back way into the yard and go through the muddy snow to the woodshed. Olga scrutinized her companion angrily, and jerking her elbow unlocked the woodshed and angrily banged the door open.
“Most likely we interrupted the woman drinking her coffee,” thought Skvortsov. “What a cross creature she is! “
Then he saw the pseudo-schoolmaster and pseudo-student seat himself on a block of wood, and, leaning his red cheeks upon his fists, sink into thought. The cook flung an axe at his feet, spat angrily on the ground, and, judging by the expression of her lips, began abusing him. The beggar drew a log of wood towards him irresolutely, set it up between his feet, and diffidently drew the axe across it. The log toppled and fell over. The beggar drew it towards him, breathed on his frozen hands, and again drew the axe along it as cautiously as though he were afraid of its hitting his golosh or chopping off his fingers. The log fell over again.
Skvortsov’s wrath had passed off by now, he felt sore and ashamed at the thought that he had forced a pampered, drunken, and perhaps sick man to do hard, rough work in the cold.
“Never mind, let him go on . . .” he thought, going from the dining-room into his study. “I am doing it for his good!”
An hour later Olga appeared and announced that the wood had been chopped up.
“Here, give him half a rouble,” said Skvortsov. “If he likes, let him come and chop wood on the first of every month. . . . There will always be work for him.”
On the first of the month the beggar turned up and again earned half a rouble, though he could hardly stand. From that time forward he took to turning up frequently, and work was always found for him: sometimes he would sweep the snow into heaps, or clear up the shed, at another he used to beat the rugs and the mattresses. He always received thirty to forty kopecks for his work, and on one occasion an old pair of trousers was sent out to him.
When he moved, Skvortsov engaged him to assist in packing and moving the furniture. On this occasion the beggar was sober, gloomy, and silent; he scarcely touched the furniture, walked with hanging head behind the furniture vans, and did not even try to appear busy; he merely shivered with the cold, and was overcome with confusion when the men with the vans laughed at his idleness, feebleness, and ragged coat that had once been a gentleman’s. After the removal Skvortsov sent for him.
“Well, I see my words have had an effect upon you,” he said, giving him a rouble. “This is for your work. I see that you are sober and not disinclined to work. What is your name?”
“I can offer you better work, not so rough, Lushkov. Can you write?”
“Then go with this note to-morrow to my colleague and he will give you some copying to do. Work, don’t drink, and don’t forget what I said to you. Good-bye.”
Skvortsov, pleased that he had put a man in the path of rectitude, patted Lushkov genially on the shoulder, and even shook hands with him at parting.
Lushkov took the letter, departed, and from that time forward did not come to the back-yard for work.
Two years passed. One day as Skvortsov was standing at the ticket-office of a theatre, paying for his ticket, he saw beside him a little man with a lambskin collar and a shabby cat’s-skin cap. The man timidly asked the clerk for a gallery ticket and paid for it with kopecks.
“Lushkov, is it you?” asked Skvortsov, recognizing in the little man his former woodchopper. “Well, what are you doing? Are you getting on all right?”
“Pretty well. . . . I am in a notary’s office now. I earn thirty-five roubles.”
“Well, thank God, that’s capital. I rejoice for you. I am very, very glad, Lushkov. You know, in a way, you are my godson. It was I who shoved you into the right way. Do you remember what a scolding I gave you, eh? You almost sank through the floor that time. Well, thank you, my dear fellow, for remembering my words.”
“Thank you too,” said Lushkov. “If I had not come to you that day, maybe I should be calling myself a schoolmaster or a student still. Yes, in your house I was saved, and climbed out of the pit.”
“I am very, very glad.”
“Thank you for your kind words and deeds. What you said that day was excellent. I am grateful to you and to your cook, God bless that kind, noble-hearted woman. What you said that day was excellent; I am indebted to you as long as I live, of course, but it was your cook, Olga, who really saved me.”
“How was that?”
“Why, it was like this. I used to come to you to chop wood and she would begin: ‘Ah, you drunkard! You God-forsaken man! And yet death does not take you!’ and then she would sit opposite me, lamenting, looking into my face and wailing: ‘You unlucky fellow! You have no gladness in this world, and in the next you will burn in hell, poor drunkard! You poor sorrowful creature!’ and she always went on in that style, you know. How often she upset herself, and how many tears she shed over me I can’t tell you. But what affected me most — she chopped the wood for me! Do you know, sir, I never chopped a single log for you — she did it all! How it was she saved me, how it was I changed, looking at her, and gave up drinking, I can’t explain. I only know that what she said and the noble way she behaved brought about a change in my soul, and I shall never forget it. It’s time to go up, though, they are just going to ring the bell.”
Lushkov bowed and went off to the gallery.