Every day the factory whistle bellowed forth its shrill, roaring, trembling noises into the smoke-begrimed and greasy atmosphere of the workingmen's suburb; and obedient to the summons of the power of steam, people poured out of little gray houses into the street. With somber faces they hastened forward like frightened roaches, their muscles stiff from insufficient sleep. In the chill morning twilight they walked through the narrow, unpaved street to the tall stone cage that waited for them with cold assurance, illumining their muddy road with scores of greasy, yellow, square eyes. The mud plashed under their feet as if in mocking commiseration. Hoarse exclamations of sleepy voices were heard; irritated, peevish, abusive language rent the air with malice; and, to welcome the people, deafening sounds floated about—the heavy whir of machinery, the dissatisfied snort of steam. Stern and somber, the black chimneys stretched their huge, thick sticks high above the village.
In the evening, when the sun was setting, and red rays languidly glimmered upon the windows of the houses, the factory ejected its people like burned-out ashes, and again they walked through the streets, with black, smoke-covered faces, radiating the sticky odor of machine oil, and showing the gleam of hungry teeth. But now there was animation in their voices, and even gladness. The servitude of hard toil was over for the day. Supper awaited them at home, and respite.
The day was swallowed up by the factory; the machine sucked out of men's muscles as much vigor as it needed. The day was blotted out from life, not a trace of it left. Man made another imperceptible step toward his grave; but he saw close before him the delights of rest, the joys of the odorous tavern, and he was satisfied.
On holidays the workers slept until about ten o'clock. Then the staid and married people dressed themselves in their best clothes and, after duly scolding the young folks for their indifference to church, went to hear mass. When they returned from church, they ate pirogs, the Russian national pastry, and again lay down to sleep until the evening. The accumulated exhaustion of years had robbed them of their appetites, and to be able to eat they drank, long and deep, goading on their feeble stomachs with the biting, burning lash of vodka.
In the evening they amused themselves idly on the street; and those who had overshoes put them on, even if it was dry, and those who had umbrellas carried them, even if the sun was shining. Not everybody has overshoes and an umbrella, but everybody desires in some way, however small, to appear more important than his neighbor.
Meeting one another they spoke about the factory and the machines, had their fling against their foreman, conversed and thought only of matters closely and manifestly connected with their work. Only rarely, and then but faintly, did solitary sparks of impotent thought glimmer in the wearisome monotony of their talk. Returning home they quarreled with their wives, and often beat them, unsparing of their fists. The young people sat in the taverns, or enjoyed evening parties at one another's houses, played the accordion, sang vulgar songs devoid of beauty, danced, talked ribaldry, and drank.
Exhausted with toil, men drank swiftly, and in every heart there awoke and grew an incomprehensible, sickly irritation. It demanded an outlet. Clutching tenaciously at every pretext for unloading themselves of this disquieting sensation, they fell on one another for mere trifles, with the spiteful ferocity of beasts, breaking into bloody quarrels which sometimes ended in serious injury and on rare occasions even in murder.
This lurking malice steadily increased, inveterate as the incurable weariness in their muscles. They were born with this disease of the soul inherited from their fathers. Like a black shadow it accompanied them to their graves, spurring on their lives to crime, hideous in its aimless cruelty and brutality.
On holidays the young people came home late at night, dirty and dusty, their clothes torn, their faces bruised, boasting maliciously of the blows they had struck their companions, or the insults they had inflicted upon them; enraged or in tears over the indignities they themselves had suffered; drunken and piteous, unfortunate and repulsive. Sometimes the boys would be brought home by the mother or the father, who had picked them up in the street or in a tavern, drunk to insensibility. The parents scolded and swore at them peevishly, and beat their spongelike bodies, soaked with liquor; then more or less systematically put them to bed, in order to rouse them to work early next morning, when the bellow of the whistle should sullenly course through the air.
They scolded and beat the children soundly, notwithstanding the fact that drunkenness and brawls among young folk appeared perfectly legitimate to the old people. When they were young they, too, had drunk and fought; they, too, had been beaten by their mothers and fathers. Life had always been like that. It flowed on monotonously and slowly somewhere down the muddy, turbid stream, year after year; and it was all bound up in strong ancient customs and habits that led them to do one and the same thing day in and day out. None of them, it seemed, had either the time or the desire to attempt to change this state of life.
Once in a long while a stranger would come to the village. At first he attracted attention merely because he was a stranger. Then he aroused a light, superficial interest by the stories of the places where he had worked. Afterwards the novelty wore off, the people got used to him, and he remained unnoticed. From his stories it was clear that the life of the workingmen was the same everywhere. And if so, then what was there to talk about?
Occasionally, however, some stranger spoke curious things never heard of in the suburb. The men did not argue with him, but listened to his odd speeches with incredulity. His words aroused blind irritation in some, perplexed alarm in others, while still others were disturbed by a feeble, shadowy glimmer of the hope of something, they knew not what. And they all began to drink more in order to drive away the unnecessary, meddlesome excitement.
Noticing in the stranger something unusual, the villagers cherished it long against him and treated the man who was not like them with unaccountable apprehension. It was as if they feared he would throw something into their life which would disturb its straight, dismal course. Sad and difficult, it was yet even in its tenor. People were accustomed to the fact that life always oppressed them with the same power. Unhopeful of any turn for the better, they regarded every change as capable only of increasing their burden.
And the workingmen of the suburb tacitly avoided people who spoke unusual things to them. Then these people disappeared again, going off elsewhere, and those who remained in the factory lived apart, if they could not blend and make one whole with the monotonous mass in the village.
Living a life like that for some fifty years, a workman died.
Thus also lived Michael Vlasov, a gloomy, sullen man, with little eyes which looked at everybody from under his thick eyebrows suspiciously, with a mistrustful, evil smile. He was the best locksmith in the factory, and the strongest man in the village. But he was insolent and disrespectful toward the foreman and the superintendent, and therefore earned little; every holiday he beat somebody, and everyone disliked and feared him.
More than one attempt was made to beat him in turn, but without success. When Vlasov found himself threatened with attack, he caught a stone in his hand, or a piece of wood or iron, and spreading out his legs stood waiting in silence for the enemy. His face overgrown with a dark beard from his eyes to his neck, and his hands thickly covered with woolly hair, inspired everybody with fear. People were especially afraid of his eyes. Small and keen, they seemed to bore through a man like steel gimlets, and everyone who met their gaze felt he was confronting a beast, a savage power, inaccessible to fear, ready to strike unmercifully.
"Well, pack off, dirty vermin!" he said gruffly. His coarse, yellow teeth glistened terribly through the thick hair on his face. The men walked off uttering coward abuse.
"Dirty vermin!" he snapped at them, and his eyes gleamed with a smile sharp as an awl. Then holding his head in an attitude of direct challenge, with a short, thick pipe between his teeth, he walked behind them, and now and then called out: "Well, who wants death?"
No one wanted it.
He spoke little, and "dirty vermin" was his favorite expression. It was the name he used for the authorities of the factory, and the police, and it was the epithet with which he addressed his wife: "Look, you dirty vermin, don't you see my clothes are torn?"
When Pavel, his son, was a boy of fourteen, Vlasov was one day seized with the desire to pull him by the hair once more. But Pavel grasped a heavy hammer, and said curtly:
"Don't touch me!"
"What!" demanded his father, bending over the tall, slender figure of his son like a shadow on a birch tree.
"Enough!" said Pavel. "I am not going to give myself up any more."
And opening his dark eyes wide, he waved the hammer in the air.
His father looked at him, folded his shaggy hands on his back, and, smiling, said:
"All right." Then he drew a heavy breath and added: "Ah, you dirty vermin!"
Shortly after this he said to his wife:
"Don't ask me for money any more. Pasha will feed you now."
"And you will drink up everything?" she ventured to ask.
"None of your business, dirty vermin!" From that time, for three years, until his death, he did not notice, and did not speak to his son.
Vlasov had a dog as big and shaggy as himself. She accompanied him to the factory every morning, and every evening she waited for him at the gate. On holidays Vlasov started off on his round of the taverns. He walked in silence, and stared into people's faces as if looking for somebody. His dog trotted after him the whole day long. Returning home drunk he sat down to supper, and gave his dog to eat from his own bowl. He never beat her, never scolded, and never petted her. After supper he flung the dishes from the table—if his wife was not quick enough to remove them in time—put a bottle of whisky before him, and leaning his back against the wall, began in a hoarse voice that spread anguish about him to bawl a song, his mouth wide open and his eyes closed. The doleful sounds got entangled in his mustache, knocking off the crumbs of bread. He smoothed down the hair of his beard and mustache with his thick fingers and sang—sang unintelligible words, long drawn out. The melody recalled the wintry howl of wolves. He sang as long as there was whisky in the bottle, then he dropped on his side upon the bench, or let his head sink on the table, and slept in this way until the whistle began to blow. The dog lay at his side.
When he died, he died hard. For five days, turned all black, he rolled in his bed, gnashing his teeth, his eyes tightly closed. Sometimes he would say to his wife: "Give me arsenic. Poison me."
She called a physician. He ordered hot poultices, but said an operation was necessary and the patient must be taken at once to the hospital.
"Go to the devil! I will die by myself, dirty vermin!" said Michael.
And when the physician had left, and his wife with tears in her eyes began to insist on an operation, he clenched his fists and announced threateningly:
"Don't you dare! It will be worse for you if I get well."
He died in the morning at the moment when the whistle called the men to work. He lay in the coffin with open mouth, his eyebrows knit as if in a scowl. He was buried by his wife, his son, the dog, an old drunkard and thief, Daniel Vyesovshchikov, a discharged smelter, and a few beggars of the suburb. His wife wept a little and quietly; Pavel did not weep at all. The villagers who met the funeral in the street stopped, crossed themselves, and said to one another: "Guess Pelagueya is glad he died!" And some corrected: "He didn't die; he rotted away like a beast."
When the body was put in the ground, the people went away, but the dog remained for a long time, and sitting silently on the fresh soil, she sniffed at the grave.