Cain and Artyom

Cain was a nimble little Jew, with a head running up to a point, and a lean, sallow face. Tufts of coarse red hair grew on his cheek-bones and chin, giving his face the appearance of being set in a frame of crumpled plush, the upper part of which was formed by the visor of his dirty cap.

Under the visor could be seen two bright, little gray eyes, ornamented with red eyebrows, which looked as if they had been plucked. These eyes very rarely rested for any length of time on the same object; they wandered with quick, furtive glances from one side to the other, casting timid, obsequious smiles in all directions.

It was impossible to see these and not at once become aware that the dominant feeling in the man who smiled that way was a fear of everything and everybody, a fear which in a moment could grow to abject terror.

Hence, all those who were not too lazy to do so, in creased this tenseness of the Jew by cuffs and cruel jokes. Everything about him seemed to participate in this feeling, from his nerves to the folds of the canvas garment that hung loosely over his thin body, from shoulder to heel, and which seemed continually quivering.

The Jew’s name was Khaim Aaron Purvitz, but he was known as Cain. It was a simpler and more familiar name than Khaim, and, added to this, it was very insulting. Little as it suited his frail and timid figure, everybody seemed to think that it exactly described the Jew, both in body and soul, and that at the same time it was humiliating.

He lived in the midst of those who had suffered at the hands of fate, and such as these always find pleasure in offering offense to their neighbors, and, what is more, they always know how to do it—it is the only means they have of avenging themselves. And it was an easy thing with Cain; when they mocked him, he only gave a deprecating smile, and at times, he even took part himself in their ridicule of him, as if he wished to pay his tormentors in advance for the right to live among them. He lived, of course, by trade. He went about the streets with a wooden box before him, calling out in a thin, mawkish voice: “Shoe polish! Matches! Pins! Needles! Haberdashery! Notions!”

He had another characteristic feature; he had very large ears, which stood out from his head, and which were continually moving like those of a sensitive horse.

He carried on his trade at Shikhan, the suburb where the poorest and raggedest lived, all kinds of riffraff. Shikhan consisted of one narrow street, lined with old, high, and repulsive-looking houses. Among these were night-refuges, taverns, bakers’ shops, groceries and places where they sold old iron and various utensils. The population consisted of thieves and receivers of stolen goods, small second-hand dealers, and female costermongers. There was always plenty of shadow, thanks to the height of the houses, and plenty of mud, and drunkards; in summer the street continually reeked with the heavy smell of decaying matter and brandy. The sun looked in only at early morning, and then cautiously and for a very short time, as if fearing the contact with the mud would soil its rays.

The street, which ran along the slope of the hill beside a large river, was always full of dockyard workers, sailors on shore leave, and stevedores. Here they got drunk and amused themselves in their own way, and here, too, pickpockets lurked in convenient corners waiting their opportunity when the drink should have done its work. Along the foot-paths stood the earthenware pots, filled with little meat patties, and here, too, were the trays belonging to the confectioners and the liver-sellers. The workmen from the docks crowded round and eagerly devoured the hot food; those among them who were tipsy sang in loud coarse voices and reviled one another; the vendors cried their wares in strident tones, puffing up their goods; carts rumbled along, with difficulty making their way through the press of people who were either bent on buying or selling, waiting for work, or watching an opportunity for this or that. The chaos of sounds whirled through the street, which was as narrow as a ditch, breaking against the filthy walls of the houses which looked as though they were covered with sores, their decaying plaster falling away everywhere in little bits.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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