Misery – Intermediate Level

“To whom shall I tell my sorrow?”

It will soon be evening and the street lamps have just been lighted. Wet snow is blowing lazily around them and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps.

Iona Potapov, the sledge driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the seat of his sledge without moving. He is bent over as much as a living body can bend to try and stay warm. His little horse is white and motionless too. She is probably lost in thought. The city is full of monstrous lights, never ending noise and hurrying people. Anyone who has been torn away from work on a farm and thrown into this terrible place is sure to think.

It is a long time since Iona and his old horse have moved. They started work before lunch time and have not had a single fare yet. But now the colors of evening are falling on the town. The soft light of the street lamps grows brighter, and the people on the street grow noisier.

“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”

Iona starts, and through his snow-covered eyes sees an army officer in a long military coat.

“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”

To show that he understands, Iona gives a pull on the reins which sends snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. Iona makes a sharp sound with his tongue, sits up straight in his seat, and more from habit than necessity waves his whip. The horse lifts her neck, bends her stick-like legs, and slowly sets off.

Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass of people moving about in front him. “What are you doing, you fool? Where on Earth are you going? Keep to the right!”

“Don’t you know how to drive!” says the officer angrily. “Keep to the right.”

A man driving a carriage the other way shouts at him. A man crossing the road brushes the horse’s nose with his shoulder, looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his coat. Iona moves about on the seat and looks as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

“What terrible people!” says the officer, in a voice that shows that he is making fun of Iona. “They are simply doing their best to run into you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”

Iona looks at his fare and moves his lips as if he means to say something. But nothing comes out.

“What?” asks the officer.

“My son… Er… My son died this week, sir,” Iona says in a voice full of pain.

“H’m! What did he die of?”

Iona turns round to face his fare. “Who can tell!” he says. “It must have been from fever…. He lay three days in the hospital and then he died…. God’s will.”

“Turn round, you fool!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone mad, you old dog? Look where you are going!”

“Drive on! Drive on!” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till tomorrow going on like this. Hurry up!”

The sledge driver sits up straight in his seat again and uses his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer. But the officer keeps his eyes shut as if he does not want to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant. He again sits bent over on the seat to keep warm. Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another.

Three young men, two tall and thin, one short with a hunchback, come up. They are arguing loudly with each other and stamping on the ground to keep their feet warm.

“Taxi, to the Police Bridge!” the hunchback cries. “The three of us… twenty kopecks!”

Iona pulls at the reins and makes a sharp sound with his tongue to ready the horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a hundred kopecks or whether it is five does not matter to him now, so long as he has a fare.

The three young men, pushing each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge. All three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: which two are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long argument they decide that the hunchback must stand.

“Well, drive on,” says the hunchback, standing behind Iona and breathing down his neck. “Let’s go! What an ugly cap you’ve got, my friend! You wouldn’t find a worse one in all Petersburg.”

“He-he! … He-he!” laughs Iona. “It’s nothing to to be proud of!”

“Well, then, Mr ‘nothing to be proud of’, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Must I hit you in the back of the neck to make you go faster?”

“My head aches,” says one of the tall men. “At the Dukmasovs’ yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us.”

“I can’t make out why you talk such stuff,” says the other tall man angrily. “You lie like it means nothing.”

“Strike me dead if its not the truth!”

“It’s about as true as saying that an insect coughs.”

“He-he!” smiles Iona. “Funny gentlemen!”

“Who cares what you think!” cries the hunchback angrily. “You are starting to annoy me. Can’t you go any faster? Is that the way to drive? Give the horse one with the whip. Hit her hard.”

Iona feels the movement of the hunchback behind his back and hears rude words spoken to him. He sees people all around, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him till the words disappear in a cough. His tall friends begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them, waiting till there is a brief break in the conversation. He looks round once more.

“This week… my… er… son died!” he says

“We shall all die,” says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. “Come, drive on! Drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand going as slowly as this! When will he get us there?”

“Well, you could give him a little encouragement. Hit him in the back of the neck!”

“Do you hear that, old man? I’ll make you move. If people sit back and say nothing with drivers like you, they may as well walk. Do you hear, old man? Or don’t you care for anything we say? ”

And Iona hears rather than feels a hit on the back of his neck.

“He-he!” he laughs. “Funny gentlemen. God give you health!”

“Driver, are you married?” asks one of the tall ones.

“I? He-he! Funny gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the wet earth. He-he! Ho-ho! The grave that is! Here my son’s dead and I am alive. It’s a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door. Instead of coming for me it went for my son.”

And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a short sigh. He announces that they have arrived at last, thank God!

After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona watches the party-goers disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him.

The misery which has been made easier for a brief space comes back again. It tears Iona’s heart more painfully than ever. There is a look of great suffering on his face. His eyes search the crowds going here and there on both sides of the street. Can’t he find anyone among those thousands who will listen to him? But the crowds hurry by, not paying any attention to Iona and his misery. His misery is huge, more than anything he has ever known. He feels like if his heart were to burst, and his misery were to flow out, it would flood the whole world. However, no one notices. The misery is hidden in such an unimportant shell that no one will ever find it.

Iona sees a hotel worker carrying a package and makes up his mind to talk to him.

“What time is it, friend?” he asks.

“Going on for ten. Why have you stopped here? Drive on!”

Iona drives a short distance away, then stops and bends himself double again. He knows it is no good to try to talk to people, and gives himself up to his misery. Before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and pulls at the reins. He can bear it no longer.

“I’ve had enough for today,” he thinks. “Time to go home!”

And his little horse, as though she knew his thoughts, breaks into a slow run. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. The door and windows are closed, so the room is airless and full of smells. On the stove, on the floor, and on the seats, other sledge drivers are sleeping. Iona looks at them, scratches himself, and is sorry that he has come home so early.

“I have not earned enough to pay for oats for the horse, even,” he thinks. “That’s why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his work, who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always satisfied.”

In one of the corners a young driver gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water bucket.

“Want a drink?” Iona asks him.

“Seems so.”

“May it do you good… But my son is dead, mate… Do you hear? This week in the hospital… It’s a strange business…”

Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself. Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet. He wants to talk of it properly, with careful thought. He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died. He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son’s clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country. And he wants to talk about her too. Yes, he has a lot to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and cry out, saying how sorry they are. It would be even better to talk to a woman. Though they are silly creatures, they cry at the first word.

“Let’s go out and have a look at the horse,” Iona thinks. “There is always time for sleep. You’ll have sleep enough, no fear.”

He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his horse is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather. He cannot think about his son when he is alone. To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is unbearable pain.

“Are you eating?” Iona asks his horse, seeing her shining eyes. “There, eat away. Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay. Yes, I have grown too old to drive. My son ought to be driving, not I. He was a good driver. He ought to have lived…”

Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on…

“That’s how it is, old girl… Kuzma Ionitch is gone… He said good-by to me… He went and died for no reason… Now, suppose you had a little colt, that you were mother to that little colt… And all at once that same little colt went and died… You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you?”

The little horse eats, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.