Glimmer of Hunger

The Glimmer of Hunger

Sergei Matveyevich Moshkin had dined very well that day—that is comparatively well—when you stop to consider that he was only a village schoolmaster who had lost his place, and had been knocking about already a year or so on strange stairways, in search of work. Nevertheless, the glimmer of hunger persisted in his dark, sad eyes, and it gave his lean, smooth face a kind of unlooked-for significance.

Moshkin spent his last three-rouble note on this dinner, and now a few coppers jingled in his pocket, while his purse contained a smooth fifteen-copeck piece. He banqueted out of sheer joy. He knew quite well that it was stupid to rejoice prematurely and without sufficient cause. But he had been seeking work so long, and had been having such a time of it, that even the shadow of a hope gave him joy.

Moshkin had put an advertisement in the Novo Vremya. He announced himself a pedagogue who had command of the pen; he based his claim on the fact that he corresponded for a provincial newspaper. This, indeed, was why he had lost his place; it was discovered that he had written articles reflecting unfavourably on the authorities; the chief official of the district called the attention of the inspector of public schools to this, and the inspector, of course, would not brook such doings by any of his staff.

"We don't want that kind," the inspector said to him in a personal interview.

Moshkin asked: "What kind do you want?"

The inspector, without replying to this irrelevant question, remarked dryly: "Good-bye. I hope to meet you in the next world."

Moshkin stated further in his advertisement that he wished to be a secretary, a permanent collaborator on a newspaper, a private tutor; also that he was willing to accompany his employer to the Caucasus or the Crimea, and to make himself useful in the house, etc. He gave an assurance of his reasonableness, and that he had no objections to travelling.

He waited. One postcard came. It inspired him with hope; he hardly knew why.

It came in the morning while Moshkin was drinking his tea. The landlady brought it in herself. There was a glitter in her dark, snake-like eyes as she remarked tauntingly:

"Here's some correspondence for Mr. Sergei Matveyevich Moshkin."

And while he was reading she smoothed her black hair down her triangular yellow forehead, and hissed: "What's the good of getting letters? Much better if you paid for your board and lodging. A letter won't feed your hunger; you ought to go among people, look for a job and not expect things to come to you."

He read:

"Be so good as to come in for a talk, between  6 and  7 in the evening, at Row  6, House  78, Apartment  57."

There was no signature.

Moshkin glanced angrily at his landlady. She was broad and erect, and as she stood there at the door quite calm, with lowered arms, she was like a doll; she seemed deliberately malicious, and she looked at him with her motionless, anger-provoking eyes.

Moshkin exclaimed: "Basta!"

He hit the table with his fist. Then he rose, and paced up and down the room. He kept on repeating: "Basta!"

The landlady asked quietly and spitefully: "Are you going to pay or not, you Kazan and Astrakhan correspondent, you impudent face?"

Moshkin stopped in front of her, put out his empty palm, and said: "That's all I have."

He said nothing about his last three-rouble note. The landlady hissed: "I'm not hard on you, but I need money. Wood's seven roubles a load now, how am I to pay it? You can't live on nothing. Can't you find some one to look after you? You're a young man of ability, and you have quite a charming appearance. You can always get hold of some goose or other. But how am I to pay? Whichever way you turn you've got to put down money."

Moshkin replied: "Don't worry, Praskovya Petrovna, I am getting a job to-night, and I'll pay what I owe you."

He began to pace the room again, making a flapping noise with his slippers.

The landlady paused at the door, and kept on with her grumbling. When she went at last, she cried out: "Another in my place would have shown you the door long ago."

For some time after she had left there still remained in his memory her strange, erect figure, with relaxed arms; her broad, yellow forehead, shaped like a triangle under her smoothly-oiled hair; her worn yellow dress, cut away like a narrow triangle, and her red, sniffling nose shaped like a small triangle. Three triangles in all.

All day long Moshkin was hungry, cheerful, and indignant. He walked aimlessly in the streets. He looked at the girls, and they all seemed to him to be lovable, happy, and accessible—to the rich. He stopped before the shop windows, where expensive goods were displayed. The glimmer of hunger in his eyes grew keener and keener.

He bought a newspaper. He read as he sat on a form in the square, where the children laughed and ran, where the nurses tried to look fashionable, where there was a smell of dust and of consumptive trees—and where the smells of the street and of the garden mingled unpleasantly, reminding him of the smell of gutta-percha. Moshkin was very much struck by an account in the newspaper of a hungry fanatic who had slashed a picture by a celebrated artist in the museum.

"Now that's something I can understand!"

Moshkin walked briskly along the path. He repeated: "Now that's something I can understand!"

And afterwards, as he walked in the streets and looked at the huge and stately houses, at the exposed wealth of the shops, at the elegant dress of the people of fashion, at the swiftly moving carriages, at all these beauties and comforts of life, accessible to all who have money, and inaccessible to him—as he looked and observed and envied, he felt more and more keenly the mood of destructive rage.

"Now that's something I can understand!"

He walked up to a stout and pompous house-porter, and shouted: "Now that's something I can understand!"

The porter looked at him with silent scorn. Moshkin laughed joyously, and said: "Clever chaps those anarchists!"

"Be off with you!" exclaimed the porter angrily. "And see that you don't over-eat yourself."

Moshkin was about to leave him but stopped short in fright. There was a policeman quite near, and his white gloves stood out with startling sharpness. Moshkin thought in his sadness:

"A bomb might come in handy here."

The porter spat angrily after him, and turned away.

Moshkin walked on. At six o'clock he entered a restaurant of the middle rank. He chose a table by the window. He had some vodka, and followed it with anchovies. He ordered a seventy-five copeck dinner. He had a bottle of chablis on ice; after dinner a liqueur. He got slightly intoxicated. His head went round at the sound of music. He did not take his change. He left, reeling slightly, accompanied respectfully by a porter, into whose hand he stuck a twenty-copeck piece.

He looked at his nickelled watch. It was just past seven. It was time to go. He had to make haste. They might hire another. He strode impetuously toward his destination.

He was hindered by: dug up pavements; superannuated, eternally somnolent cabbies, at street crossings; passers-by, especially muzhiks  and women; those who came toward him, without stepping aside at all, or who stepped aside more often to the left than to the right—while those whom he had to overtake joggled along indifferently on the narrow way, and it was hard to tell at once on which side to pass them; beggars—these clung to him; and the mechanical process of walking itself.

How difficult to conquer space and time when one is in a hurry! Truly the earth drew him to itself and he purchased every step with violence and exhaustion. He felt pains in his legs. This increased his spite, and intensified the glimmer of hunger in his eyes.

Moshkin thought:

"I'd like to chuck it all to the devil! To all the devils!"

At last he got there.

Here was the Row, and here was House No. 78. It was a four-storey house, in a state of neglect; the two approaches had a gloomy look, the gates in the middle stood wide agape. He looked at the plates at the approaches; the first numbers were here, and there was no No. 57. No one was in sight. There was a white button at the gates; and on the brass plate, below, buried under dirt, was the word "porter."

He pressed the button and entered the gate to look for the directory of the tenants. Before he had got that far he was met by the porter, a man of insinuating appearance, with a black beard.

"Where is apartment No. 57?"

Moshkin asked the question in a careless manner, borrowed from the district official who had caused him to lose his place. He also knew from experience that one must address porters just like this, and not like that. Wandering in strange gates and on strange staircases gives one a certain polish.

The porter asked somewhat suspiciously: "Who do you want?"

Moshkin drawled out his words with artless carelessness: "I don't exactly know. I've come in answer to an announcement. I've received a letter, but the name is not signed. Only the address is given. Who lives at No. 57?"

"Madame Engelhardova," said the porter.

"Engelhardt?" asked Moshkin.

The porter repeated: "Engelhardova."

Moshkin smiled. "And what's her Russian name?"

"Elena Petrovna," the porter answered.

"Is she a bad-tempered hag?" asked Moshkin for some reason or other.

"No-o, she's a young lady. Quite stylish. Turn to the right of the gate."

"Only the first numbers are given there," said Moshkin.

The porter said: "No, you'll also find 57 there. At the very bottom."

Moshkin asked: "What does she do? Does she run a business of some sort? A school? Or a journal?"

No. Madame Engelhardova had neither a school, nor a journal.

"She lives on her capital," explained the porter.

Madame Engelhardova's maid, who looked like a village girl, led him into the drawing-room, to the right of the dark ante-room, and asked him to wait.

He waited. It was tedious and annoying. He began to examine the contents of the elaborately furnished room. There were arm-chairs, tables, stools, folding screens, fire-screens, book-shelves, and small columns upon which rested busts, lamps, and artistic gew-gaws; there were mirrors, lithographs, and clocks on the walls; while the windows were decorated with hangings and flowers. All these made the room crowded, oppressive and dark. Moshkin paced through this depression over the rugs. He looked at the pictures and the statues with hate.

"I'd like to chuck all this to the devil! To all the devils!"

But when the mistress of the house walked in suddenly he lowered his eyes, and hid his glimmer of hunger.

She was young, pink, and tall and quite good-looking. She walked quickly and with decision, like the mistress of a village house, and swung, not altogether gracefully, her strong, handsome white arms bared from above the elbows.

She came to him and held out her hand, a little high—to be pressed, or to be kissed, as he chose. He kissed it. There was spite in his kiss. He did it with a quick, resounding smack, and one of his teeth scratched her skin slightly, so that she winced. But she said nothing. She walked toward the divan, got behind the table and sat down. She showed him an armchair.

When he had seated himself, she asked him: "Was that your announcement in yesterday's paper?"

He said: "Mine."

He reconsidered, and said more politely: "Yes, mine."

He felt vexed, and he thought to himself: "I'd like to send her to the devil!"

She went on talking. She asked him what he could do, where he had studied, where he had worked. She approached the subject very cautiously, as though afraid to say too much before the proper time.

He gathered that she wished to publish a journal—she had not yet decided what sort. Some sort. A small one. She was negotiating for the purchase of a property. Of the nature of the journal she said nothing.

She needed some one for the office. As he had said in his announcement that he was a pedagogue she thought that he had taught in one of the higher schools.

In any case, she wanted some one to keep the books in the office, to receive subscriptions, to carry on the editorial and the office correspondence, to receive money by post, to put the journals in wrappers, to send them to the post, to read proofs, and something else ... and still something else....

The young woman spoke for half an hour. She recounted the various duties in an unintelligent way.

"You need several people for all these tasks," said Moshkin sharply.

The young woman grew red with vexation. She made a wry face as she remarked eagerly: "The journal will be a small one, of a special nature. If I hired several people for such a small undertaking they would have nothing to do."

He smiled, and observed: "Well, anyhow there'll be no chance for boredom. How many hours a day will you want me to work?"

"Well, let us say from nine in the morning until seven in the evening. Sometimes, when the work is in a hurry you might remain a little longer, or you might come in on a holiday—I believe you are free?"

"How much do you think of paying?"

"Would eighteen roubles a month be enough for you?"

He reflected a while, then he laughed.

"Too little."

"I can't afford more than twenty-two."

"Very well."

He rose suddenly in his rage, thrust his hand into his pocket, drew out the latchkey to his house, and said quietly but resolutely: "Hands up!"

"Oh!" exclaimed the young woman, and she quickly raised her arms.

She was sitting on the divan. She was pale and trembling.

They formed a contrast—she large and strong; and he small and meagre.

The sleeves of her dress fell to her shoulders, and the two bare white arms, stretching upward, seemed like the plump legs of a woman acrobat practising at home. She was evidently strong enough to hold up her arms for a long time. But her frightened face betrayed the deep terror of her ordeal.

Moshkin, enjoying her plight, uttered slowly and sternly: "Move, if you dare! Or give a single whisper!"

He approached a picture.

"How much does this cost?"

"Two hundred and twenty, without the frame," said the young woman in a trembling voice.

He searched in his pocket and found a penknife. He cut the picture from top to bottom, and from right to left.

"Oh!" the young woman cried out.

He approached a small marble head.

"What does this cost?"

"Three hundred."

He used his latchkey, and struck off the ear and the nose, and he mutilated the cheeks. The young woman sighed quietly; and it was pleasant to hear her quiet sighing.

He cut up a few more pictures, and the armchair coverings, and broke a few of the gew-gaws.

He then approached the young woman, and exclaimed: "Get under the divan!"

She obeyed.

"Lie there quietly, until some one comes. Or else I'll throw a bomb."

He left. He met no one, either in the ante-room, or on the stairs.

The same house-porter stood at the gates. Moshkin went up to him and said: "What a strange young lady you have in your house."

"Why?"

"She doesn't know how to behave. She loves a brawl. You had better go to her."

"No use my going as long as I'm not called."

"Just as you please."

He left. The glimmer of hunger grew fainter in his eyes.

Moshkin continued to walk the streets. His mind realized in a slow, dull way the drawing-room scene, the mutilated pictures, and the young woman under the divan.

The dull waters of the canal lured him. The receding light of the setting sun made their surface beautiful and sad, like the music of a mad composer. How rough the stone slabs were on the canal's banks, and how dusty the stones of the pavements, and what stupid and dirty children ran to meet him! Everything seemed shut against him and everything seemed hostile to him.

The green, golden waters of the canal lured him, and the glimmer of hunger in his eyes went out for ever.

What a noise the swift splash of water made, as, ring after ring, the dead black rings spread out and out, and cut the green golden waters of the canal.