Misery – Pre-Intermediate Level

It will soon be evening and the street lamps have just been lighted. Wet snow is blowing lazily around them. It forms a thin cover 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 also white and still. She is probably lost in thought. The city is full of monstrous lights, never ending noise and people running about everywhere. Anyone who has been taken from work on a farm and sent to 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 sits up quickly. Through his snow-covered eyes he sees an army officer in a long coat.

“To Vyborgskaya,” the officer says again. “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 sits up straight in his seat. He makes a sound with his tongue and waves his whip in the air to tell the horse to start. The horse lifts her neck, bends her stick-like legs, and slowly sets off.

The moment she starts moving, Iona hears shouts from the people moving about on the road 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 sledge the other way shouts at him. The horse’s nose touches the shoulder of man crossing the road. The man gives him an angry look and brushes the snow off his coat. Iona moves about on the seat and looks as though he does not know where he is or why he is 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. It seems to be part of some plan.”

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 the officer. “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!” says a voice from the darkness. “Have you gone mad? Look where you are going!”

“Drive on! Drive on!” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till tomorrow like this. Go faster!”

Iona 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. The officer gets off at Vyborgskaya, and 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 badly bent back, come up. They are arguing loudly with each other.

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

Iona pulls at the reins and makes a sound with his tongue to start the horse moving. 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 answered: which two are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long argument they decide that the short man with the bent back must stand.

“Well, drive on,” says the short man, 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. “Yes, it is pretty ugly, isn’t it!”

“Well, then, drive on Mr ‘ugly cap’! 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 hurts,” says one of the tall men. “Vaska and I drank four bottles of strong wine between us at the Dukmasovs’ party yesterday.”

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

“May I drop dead if its not the truth!”

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

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

“Who cares what you think!” cries the short man angrily. “Will you go faster, or won’t you? Is that the way to drive? Give the horse one with the whip. Hit her hard.”

Iona feels the movement of the short man behind his back and hears rude words spoken to him. He sees people all around, and the feeling of sadness at having no one to talk to begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The short man shouts 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 they stop speaking so that he can say something. He looks round once more.

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

“We shall all die,” says the short man with a sigh, drying his lips after coughing. “Come, drive on! Drive on! My friends, I can’t take going as slowly as this any more! When will he get us there?”

“Well, you could do something to help him go faster. 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 more than he 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. It should have come for me, but it went for my son.”

And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the short man gives a short sigh. “We are here at last, thank God!” he says.

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 short time comes back again. It feels more painful than ever. There is a look of great suffering on Iona’s face. His eyes search the crowds going here and there on both sides of the street. Is there anyone among those thousands who will listen to him? But the crowds go quickly by, not giving any thought to Iona. The misery he feels in his heart is huge, more than anything he has ever known. Yet no one notices. The misery is hidden in such an unimportant place 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 over again as much as he can. 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 can bear it no longer. He sits up straight, moves his head from side to side as though he feels a sharp pain, and pulls at the reins.

“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 and is sorry that he has come home so early.

“I have not made enough money today to pay for oats for the horse,” 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, always feels like it has been a good day.”

In one of the corners a young driver gets up, coughs 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, friend… 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. Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for talk. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet. He wants to tell someone all about it, 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 should sigh and cry out, saying how sorry they are. The best thing would be to talk to a woman. Though they are sometimes silly, 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, that’s for sure.”

He puts on his coat and goes outside to where the horses are kept. 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 too painful.

“Are you eating?” Iona asks his horse, seeing her shining eyes. “There, eat away. Since we have not made enough money for oats, we will eat hay. Yes, I have grown too old to drive. My son should be driving, not I. He was a good driver. He should 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, what do you think would happen if you were mother to a young horse… And all at once that young horse went and died… You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you?”

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