Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:
“This week… er… my… er… son died!”
“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 crawling like this! When will he get us there?”
“Well, you give him a little encouragement… one in the neck!”
“Do you hear, you old plague? I’ll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don’t you care a hang what we say?”
And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.
“He-he!…” he laughs. “Merry gentlemen… God give you health!”
“Cabman, are you married?” asks one of the tall ones.
“I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth… 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 faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him… The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona’s eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery… His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona’s heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight…
Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.
“What time will it be, friend?” he asks.
“Going on for ten… Why have you stopped here? Drive on!”
Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins… He can bear it no longer.
“Back to the yard!” he thinks. “To the yard!”
And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early…
“Tfoo! the devil take you!”
“I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, 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 at ease…”
In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.
“Want a drink?” Iona asks him.
“May it do you good… But my son is dead, mate… Do you hear? This week in the hospital… It’s a queer 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 deliberation… 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 plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament… It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.
“Let’s go out and have a look at the mare,” 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 mare 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 insufferable anguish…
“Are you munching?” Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. “There, munch away, munch 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 real cabman… 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, and you were own 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 mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.
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