Assistant Police Officer Podshiblo, a fat and melancholic Ukrainian, was sitting in his office twisting his moustache and staring balefully out of the window into the yard of the police-station. It was dark and stuffy in the office and very quiet, the only sound being the ticking of the clock pendulum as it monotonously counted off the minutes. Out in the yard it was so bright and inviting!…
The door opened behind him and someone came into the office… Podshiblo turned round and glared at the policeman…
“There’s a woman asking – ”
“A woman -”
“What kind of a woman?”
“A tall one – ”
“Idiot! What does she want?”
“To see you -”
“Ask her what for. Get out!”
“I did ask her. She won’t tell. Says she wants to speak to Your Honour herself.”
“Damn these women! Have her come up. Is she young?”
“Well, show her up. Quick, now,” said Podshiblo in milder tones. He straightened up and leafed through some papers on his desk, and his glum countenance took on a stern official look.
Behind him he heard the rustle of a woman’s skirts.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, half turning to his client and taking her in with a critical eye. She bowed without a word and sailed slowly towards the desk, gazing at the officer with grave blue eyes that looked out from under drawn brows. She was dressed poorly and simply, like a woman of the lower middle class, wearing a shawl on her head and a worn grey cape over her shoulders whose ends she kept twisting in the slender fingers of her pretty little hands. She was tall and plump and full-busted, had a high forehead, and was more grave and stern than most women. She seemed to be about twenty-seven. She walked slowly and thoughtfully, as if saying to herself: perhaps I had better turn back.
“A fine specimen, a regular grenadier,” thought Podshiblo as soon as he caught sight of her. “One of your trouble-makers.”
“I should like to know,” she began in a deep rich voice and then broke off, her blue eyes resting uncertainly on the officer’s bewhiskered face.
“Please sit down. What is it you would like to know?” asked Podshiblo in an official tone, thinking to himself: very nice and juicy.
“I’ve come about those cards,” she said.
“No, not those.”
“Then what ones?”
“Those that – the ones that are given to – to women,” she said falteringly, blushing crimson.
“What’s that? What sort of women?” asked Podshiblo, lifting his eyebrows and smiling playfully.
“Different sorts – who walk the streets – at night.”
“Tut, tut, tut! You mean prostitutes?” grinned Podshiblo.
“Yes, that’s what I mean.” the woman took a deep breath and smiled, too, as if it was easier for her now that the word had been pronounced.
“You don’t say! Hm. Well -” began Podshiblo, anticipating something exciting.
“It’s about those cards I’ve come,” went on the woman, dropping on to a chair with a sigh and giving her head an odd toss as if someone had struck her.
“I see. So you’re thinking of running a house? Hm.”
“No. I want a card for myself,” and she let her head fall very low.
“Oh. Where’s your old card?” asked Podshiblo as he moved his chair closer to hers and reached out for her waist, one eye on the door.
“What old card? I haven’t got any.” She threw him a swift glance but did nothing to avoid his touch.
“So you worked in secret, did you? Without being registered? Some do so. But now you want to be registered? That’s right. Safer,” said Podshiblo encouragingly, pressing his attentions on her more boldly.
“I’ve never done it before,” blurted out the woman, dropping her eyes.
“Really? How’s that? I don’t understand,” said Podshiblo with a shrug of his shoulders.
“I’m just thinking of it. For the first time I came here to the Fair,” explained the woman softly, without raising her eyes.
“So that’s it!” Podshiblo took his hand off her waist, pushed back his chair and leaned back, nonplussed.
Both of them were silent.
“So that’s how it is. Hm. You want – hm. It’s wrong, of course. And hard. That is, you see – But after all – well, it’s very strange. To tell you the truth, I don’t see how you can bring yourself to do it. That is, if what you say is true.”
Being an experienced police officer, he could see it was true. She looked too wholesome and decent to be a member of that well-known profession. The signs of the trade which stamp themselves on a prostitute’s face and manners, however inexperienced she is, were not to be found on hers.
“It’s true, on my honour,” she said, leaning towards him in a burst of confidence. “Would I bother to lie, once I had decided on such a wretched thing? Of course not. But I’ve just got to make money. I’m a widow. My husband – he was a steamboat pilot – was drowned when the ice broke last April. I’ve got two kids – a little boy of nine and a little girl of seven. And no money. Nor relatives. I was an orphan when I got married. My husband’s relatives live far away, but they never liked me – they’re well-off and they look on me as a beggar. Who can I turn to? I could go to work, of course. But I need a lot of money, more than I could ever earn. My boy studies at the gymnasium. I suppose I could file a request to have him study free of charge, but who would pay any attention to it, coming from me, a lone woman? And he’s such a smart little fellow. It would be too bad to take him out of school. My little girl, too – she needs all sorts of things. As for an honest job, there aren’t many of them to be had. And even if I did find one, how much could I make? And what could I do? Be a cook? I’d only make five roubles a month. Not rnough. Not nearly enough. While in this business, if a woman’s lucky she can make enough in one go to feed her family a whole year. One of our women made over four hundred rubles at the last Fair. With that little pile she married the forest warden and now she lives like a lady. Getting on fine. If it wasn’t for the shame – the disgrace. But judge for yourself. It’s fate, I guess. It’s always fate. If this idea could have taken root in my mind, I must be meant to carry it out. Fate put me up to it. If I make money – all well and good; if it brings me nothing but shame and misery – fate again. That’s how I see it.”
Podshiblo grasped every word she said, for her whole face spoke to him. At first she wore a frightened look, but gradually it changed to one of cold resolution.
The Assistant Policed Officer felt very uncomfortable and even a bit nervous…
“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do for you. Apply to the Chief of Police. That’s his business – and the Medical Commission’s. I have nothing to do with it.”
He was anxious to get rid of her. She instantly got up, made him a little bow and glided slowly over to the door. Podshiblo watched her got with tight lips and narrowed eyes, and it was all he could do to keep from spitting after her…
“Good-bye. Thank you,” and she went out.
The Assistant Police Officer put his elbows on his desk and sat there whistling something to himself for about ten minutes.
“The bitch, eh?” he muttered out loud without lifting his head. “Children? What have children got to do with it? Humph! The hussy!”
And again he was silent for a long time.
“But life, too – if what she said was the truth. It twists a person round its little finger. Hm. Very hard on a person.”…
After a moment’s pause he summed up all the work of his brain in a deep sigh, a snap of his fingers, and an energetic ejaculation:
“I suppose I’ll see her again some time. I’m bound to,” he muttered.
And he did.
* * *
One evening as he was standing on duty outside the Main Office, he noticed her about five paces away… Five minutes later he was sitting beside her on one of the benches in the square.
“Don’t you recognize me?” he asked with a smile.
She raised her eyes and regarded him calmly.
“Yes. How do you do,” she said in a dejected tone without offering him her hand.
“Well, how are things? … How are you making out?”…
“How am I making out? Not bad, praise the – ” She broke off and turned red.
“That’s very nice. Congratulations. Hard until you get used to it I suppose, isn’t it?”
Suddenly she leaned towards him, her face white and twisted and her mouth round, as if she wanted to cry out, but she drew back just as suddenly – drew back and assumed her old attitude.
“That’s all right. I’ll get used to it,” she said in a clear even voice, then took out her handkerchief and blew her nose loudly…
* * *
One evening of the following week, as Podshiblo was walking to the Siberian Pier, he stopped on hearing oaths, women’s shrieks, and other scandalous sounds coming from the window of a tavern.
“Help! Police!” gasped a woman. He heard some frightful clanking blows, the bumping of furniture, and a man’s deep voice that drowned out all other sounds:
“That’s it! Give it to her again, straight in the snout!”
The assistant Police officer ran quickly up the stairs, pushed his way through the onlookers clustered about the tavern door, and beheld the following sight: his acquaintance of the blue eyes was lying across a table and holding another woman by the hair with her left hand while she delivered swift and merciless blows to the woman’s swollen face with her right. Her blue eyes were narrowed cruelly, her lips tightly compressed…
Podshiblo felt the blood rush to his head; he had a wild desire to avenge someone for something, and, dashing forward, he seized the infuriated woman by the waist and pulled her away…
“So it’s you, is it? Making a scene? A row?”…
A nimble little man in a long coat explained to Podshiblo what had happened.
“Her, that one, says to this one, Your Honour: ‘you hussy,’ she says, ‘you dirty tart!’ So this one gives her a flip, and that one lets go at her with a glass of tea, and then this one grabs that one by the hair and sails into her – smack! And then another smack! The beating she gives her would do anybody credit! She’s got muscles, that woman!”
“She has, has she?” roared Podshiblo, squeesing the woman in his arms harder and feeling desire to fight himself…
The next morning she stood before him as calm and resolute as she had been the first time they met. She looked straight at him with her blue eyes and waited for him to speak first…
“How did it begin? Come now, speak up.”
“She insulted me,” declared the woman.
“Think of that! What a crime!” said Podshiblo ironically.
“She had no right to. I’m not to be compared with her.”
“Good Lord, and who do you think you are?”
“It’s need drives me to it, but she – ”
“Hm. She does it for pleasure, is that it?”
“She hasn’t got any kids.”
“Enough of that, you scum. Don’t think you can get round me with those children of yours. I’ll let you go this time, but if you make trouble again I’ll give you twenty-four hours to get out of town. Away from the Fair, understand? Never fear, I know your kind! I’ll show you a thinkg or two! A troublemaker, eh? I’ll teach you, you slut!” The words rolled easily off his tongue, each one more insulting than the last. She grew pale and narrowed her eyes as she had the night before in the tavern.
“Get out!” shouted Podshiblo, bringing his fist down on the desk.
“May the Lord be your judge,” she said in a dry and threatening tone, then walked quickly out of the office…
* * *
But there were children after all – a shy, tow-headed little boy in an old worn gymnasium uniform and with a black kershief tied over his ears; and a little girl in a plaid mackintosh that was much too big for her. Both of them were sitting on some boards on the Kashin pier, shivering in an autumn wind and carrying on a quiet conversation. Their mother was standing beside them, leaning against some bales and gazing down at them with adoring blue eyes.
The little boy looked like her. He, too, had blue eyes, and he would frequently twist his head in the cap with the broken peak to smile up at her and say something. The little girl was badly pock-marked. She had a sharp little nose and large grey eyes that had a lively and intelligent sparkle. Various bundles and packages were spread out on the boards about them…
In half an hour the Kashin steamboat was to leave from this pier to go up the Volga…
His acquaintance bought tickets. In her hand she held a bulging brown purse with a roll of bank-notes sticking out of it.
“I want,” she said, “…that it, here’s how it is: the children are to go second class – to Kostroma – and I am to go third. But could I please take one ticket for the two of them? No? You’ll make an exception? Oh, thank you so much. God bless you.”
And she walked away with a beaming face. The children pressed about her, tugging at her skirt and asking for something. Shee listened and smiled.
‘Goodness gracious, I said I’d buy it, didn’t I? Would I deny you anything?”…She went to some stands near the entrance…
“Here’s some nice-smelling soap for you, Varya – sniff it! And a pen-knife for you, Petya. See, I didn’t forget.”…
The steamboat drew up at the pier. A jolt. People were thrown off balance. The woman reached out for her children and hugged them to her, glancing round with startled eyes. Seeing there was no cause for alarm, she laughed. The children did, too. The gangway was thrown down and the passengers streamed on to the boat.
“Take your time! Don’t push!” shouted Podshiblo to the crowd.
“Hey, you idiot!” he roared to a carpenter who was bristling with hammers, saws, drills, files, and other tools. “Damn it all, make way for the woman with the children! Man, what a dolt you are!” he added more gently as the woman – his acquaintance with the blue eyes – smiled at him in passing and bowed when she was on the boat…
The boat shuddered and began to move.
Podshiblo searched among the people on deck for his acquaintance, and when he had found her he doffed his cap and bowed. She responded by making a low Russian bow and crossing herself. And so she and her children went back to Kostroma…