Creatures that once were men

The street leading into the town is flanked by two rows of miserable-looking one-story huts, with warped windows and crooked walls pressing against each other. The roofs of these time-worn habitations are full of holes, have been patched up here and there with laths, and are overgrown with moss. Here and there above them project boxes for starlings on tall poles, shaded by dusty-leaved elder-trees and gnarled white willows—the pitiable flora of suburbs inhabited by the poor.

The dull-green, time-stained panes of the windows look upon each other with the glances of cowardly cheats. Along the street a sinuous path runs hillward, winding its way through deep gullies formed by the rains. Here and there lie piles of crushed stone and all kinds of rubbish—the remains or the beginnings of structures raised by the inhabitants in a vain struggle against the streams of rainwater rushing impetuously from the town. On the top of the hill, among green gardens with dense foliage, beautiful stone houses lie hidden, belfries of churches rise proudly towards the blue sky, and their gilded crosses shine dazzlingly in the rays of the sun.

During the rainy weather, the town pours all its mud into this street; when the weather is dry it covers it with dust, and all these dingy houses, too, seem, as it were, thrown down from the hill, swept together like refuse by someone’s powerful hand. Crushed to the ground, they dot the sides of the hill; half rotten, sickly-looking, they have acquired, in the sun, the dust, and the rain, the dirty gray color of old wood.

At the end of the street, as though pushed out of the town, stood a rambling two-story house belonging to Petunikoff the merchant. It was the last one in the line, right at the foot of the hill; behind it lay an open field, which about half a mile away ended in a steep slope descending to the river. The large old house seemed the most dismal of all its neighbors. It was bent to one side and not one in its two rows of windows had kept its shape; the remaining fragments of glass in the broken frames of the windows had the dull green shine of water from the marshes. The spaces of plastered wall between the windows were covered with rents and dark stains as if time had written the history of the old house in hieroglyphics. The tottering roof added still more to its pitiable aspect. It seemed as if the whole building bowed towards the ground, meekly awaiting the last stroke of that fate which would transform it into a shapeless mass of rotting remains.

The gates were open. One side, torn off its hinges, was lying on the ground at the entrance, and between its bars grew the grass, which covered up all the large and empty courtyard. In the depths of this yard stood a low, iron-roofed, smoke-begrimed building. The house itself was unoccupied, but this structure, formerly a smithy, was now turned into a doss-house, kept by a retired captain named Aristid Fomich Kuvalda.

The interior of the doss-house was a long sinister den measuring twenty-eight by forty-two feet. It was lighted on one side only by four small square windows and a wide door. The unplastered brick walls were black with smoke and so was the ceiling, built out of the remains of a barge. In the middle stood a large stove, the foundation of which was a furnace, and around the stove and along the walls were wide shelves with piles of rags, which served as beds for the lodgers. The walls smelt of smoke, the earthen floor of dampness, and the shelves of rotting rags. The proprietor’s nook was on the top of the stove; the boards surrounding it were places of distinction and occupied only by those who were on good terms with him.

The Captain spent most of his day sitting on a brick bench which he had built for himself at the entrance to the doss-house, or else, across the road, in the eating-house belonging to Egor Vaviloff, where he took all his meals and drank vodka.

Before renting this house, Aristid Kuvalda had kept a registry office for servants in the town. If we look further back into his life, we shall find that he once owned printing works, and, previous to this, in his own words, he “just lived, and lived well too—by Jove, and like one who knew howl”

He was a tall broad-shouldered man about fifty, with a pock-marked face, bloated with drunkenness, framed by a large beard of a dirty-yellow hue. His eyes were huge, gray, insolently cheerful. He spoke

  By PanEris using Melati.

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