There were six-and-twenty of ussix-and-twenty living machines locked up in a damp basement, where
from morning till night we kneaded dough and rolled it into pretzels and cracknels. Opposite the windows
of our basement was a bricked area, green and moldy with moisture. The windows were protected from
outside with a close iron grating, and the light of the sun could not pierce through the windowpanes,
covered as they were with flour dust.
Our employer had bars placed in front of the windows, so that we should not be able to give a bit of
his bread to passing beggars, or to any of our fellows who were out of work and hungry. Our employer
called us crooks, and gave us half-rotten tripe to eat for our midday meal, instead of meat. It was swelteringly
close for us cooped up in that stone underground chamber, under the low, heavy, soot-blackened, cobwebby
ceiling. Dreary and sickening was our life within its thick, dirty, moldy walls.
Unrefreshed, and with a feeling of not having had our sleep out, we used to get up at five oclock in the
morning; and at six, we were already seated, worn out and apathetic, at the table, rolling out the dough
which our mates had already prepared while we slept. The whole day, from early morning until ten at
night, some of us sat round that table, working up in our hands the unyielding dough, swaying to and fro
so as not to grow numb; while the others mixed flour and water. And the whole day the simmering water
in the kettle, where the pretzels were being cooked, sang low and sadly; and the bakers shovel scraped
harshly over the oven floor, as he threw the slippery bits of dough out of the kettle on the heated bricks.
From morning till evening wood was burning in the oven, and the red glow of the fire gleamed and flickered
over the walls of the bake-shop, as if silently mocking us. The giant oven was like the misshapen head
of a monster in a fairy tale; it thrust itself up out of the floor, opened wide jaws, full of glowing fire, and
blew hot breath upon us; it seemed to be ever watching out of its black air-holes our interminable work.
Those two deep holes were like eyesthe cold, pitiless eyes of a monster. They watched us always
with the same darkened glance, as if they were weary of seeing before them such slaves, from whom
they could expect nothing human, and therefore scorned them with the cold scorn of wisdom.
In meal dust, in the mud which we brought in from the yard on our boots, in the hot, sticky atmosphere,
day in, day out, we rolled the dough into pretzels, which we moistened with our own sweat. And we
hated our work with a bitter hatred; we never ate what had passed through our hands, and preferred
black bread to pretzels. Sitting opposite each other, at a long tablenine facing ninewe moved our
hands and fingers mechanically during endlessly long hours, till we were so accustomed to our monotonous
work that we ceased to pay any attention to our own motions.
We had all stared at each other so long, that each of us knew every wrinkle of his mates faces. It was
not long also before we had exhausted almost every topic of conversation; that is why we were most of
the time silent, unless we were chaffing each other; but one cannot always find something about which
to chaff another man, especially when that man is ones mate. Neither were we much given to finding
fault with one another; how, indeed, could one of us poor devils be in a position to find fault with another,
when we were all of us half dead and, as it were, turned to stone? For the heavy drudgery seemed to
crush all feeling out of us. But silence is only terrible and fearful for those who have said everything and
have nothing more to say to each other; for men, on the contrary, who have never begun to communicate
with one another, it is easy and simple.
Sometimes, too, we sang; and this is how it happened that we began to sing: one of us would sigh deeply
in the midst of our toil, like an overdriven horse, and then we would begin one of those songs whose
gentle drawnout melody seems always to ease the burden on the singers heart.
At first one sang by himself, and we others sat in silence listening to his solitary song, which, under
the heavy vaulted roof of the basement, died gradually away and became extinguished, like a little fire
in the steppes, on a wet autumn night, when the gray heaven hangs like a leaden roof over the earth.
Then another would join in with the singer, and now two soft, sad voices would break into song in our narrow, dull hole of a basement. Suddenly others would join in, and the song would surge up like a
wave, would grow louder and swell upward, till it would seem as if the damp, foul walls of our stone
prison were widening out and opening. Then, all six-and-twenty of us would be singing; our loud, harmonious
song would fill the whole shop; the song felt cramped, it was striking, as it were, against the walls in
moaning sobs and sighs, moving our hearts with a soft, tantalizing ache, tearing open old wounds, and
The singers would sigh deeply and heavily; suddenly one would become silent and listen to the others
singing, then let his voice flow once more in the common tide. Another would exclaim in a stifled voice,
Ah! and would shut his eyes, while the deep, full sound waves would show him, as it were, a road, in
front of hima sunlit, broad road in the distance, which he himself, in thought, wandered along.
But the flame flickers once more in the huge oven, the baker scrapes incessantly with his shovel, the
water simmers in the kettle, and the flicker of the fire on the wall dances as before in silent mockery.
While in other mens words we sing out our dumb grief, the weary burden of live men robbed of the
sunlight, the heartache of slaves.
So we lived, we six-and-twenty, in the vault-like basement of a great stone house, and we suffered each
one of us, as if we had to bear on our shoulders the whole three storys of that house.
But we had something else good, besides the singingsomething we loved, that perhaps took the place
of the sunshine.
In the second story of our house there was established a gold-embroiderers shop, and there, living
among the other embroidery girls, was Tanya, a little maid-servant of sixteen. Every morning there peeped
in through the glass door a rosy little face, with merry blue eyes; while a ringing, tender voice called out
Little prisoners! Have you any pretzels, please, for me?
At that clear sound we knew so well, we all used to turn round, gazing with good-natured joy at the pure
girlish face which smiled at us so sweetly. The sight of the little nose pressed against the windowpane,
and of the small white teeth gleaming between the half-open lips, had become for us a daily pleasure.
Tumbling over each other we used to jump up to open the door, and she would step in, bright and cheerful,
holding out her apron, with her head bent to one side, and a smile on her lips. Her thick, long chestnut
braid fell over her shoulder and across her breast. We, ugly, dirty and misshapen as we were, looked
up at herthe door was four steps above the floorlooked up at her with heads thrown back, wishing
her good morning, and speaking strange, unaccustomed words, which we kept for her only. Our voices
became softer when we spoke to her, our jests were lighter. For hereverything was different with us.
The baker took from his oven a shovelful of the best and the brownest pretzels, and threw them deftly
into Tanyas apron.
Be off with you now, or the boss will catch you! we warned her each time. She laughed roguishly,
called out cheerfully: Good-by, poor prisoners! and slipped away as quick as a mouse.
That was all. But long after she had gone we talked about her to one another with pleasure. It was
always the same thing as we had said yesterday and the day before, because everything about us, including
ourselves and her, remained the sameas yesterdayand as always.
Painful and terrible it is when a man goes on living, while nothing changes around him; and when such
an existence does not finally kill his soul, then the monotony becomes with time, even more and more
painful. Generally we spoke about women in such a way that sometimes it was loathsome to us ourselves
to hear our rude, shameless talk. The women whom we knew deserved perhaps nothing better. But
about Tanya we never let fall an evil word; none of us ever ventured so much as to lay a hand on her,
even too free a jest she never heard from us. Maybe this was so because she never remained with us for long; she flashed on our eyes like a star falling from the sky, and vanished; and maybe because
she was little and very beautiful, and everything beautiful calls forth respect, even in coarse people.
And besidesthough our life of drudgery had made us dull beasts, oxen, we were still men, and, like
all men, could not live without worshiping something or other. Better than her we had none, and none
but her took any notice of us, living in the basementno one, though there were dozens of people in
the house. And then, toomost likely, this was the chief thingwe all regarded her as something of
our own, something existing as it were only by virtue of our pretzels. We took on ourselves in turns the
duty of providing her with hot pretzels, and this became for us like a daily sacrifice to our idol, it became
almost a sacred rite, and every day it bound us more closely to her. Besides pretzels, we gave Tanya a
great deal of adviceto wear warmer clothes, not to run upstairs too quickly, not to carry heavy bundles
of wood. She listened to all our counsels with a smile, answered them by a laugh, and never took our
advice, but we were not offended at that; all we wanted was to show how concerned we were for her
Often she would apply to us with different requests, she asked us, for instance, to open the heavy door
into the cellar, to chop wood: with delight and a sort of pride, we did this for her, and everything else she
But when one of us asked her to mend his solitary shirt for him, she said, with a laugh of contempt:
What next! A likely idea!
We made great fun of the queer fellow who could entertain such an idea, andnever asked her to do
anything else. We loved herall is said in that. Man always wants to give his love to someone, though
sometimes he crushes, sometimes he sullies, with it. We were bound to love Tanya, for we had no one
else to love.
At times one of us would suddenly begin to reason like this:
And why do we make so much of the wench? What is there in her, eh? What a to-do we make about
The man who dared to utter such words we promptly and coarsely cut shortwe wanted something
to love: we had found it and loved it, and what we twenty-six loved must be for each of us unshakable,
as a holy thing, and anyone who acted against us in this was our enemy. We loved, maybe, not what
was really good, but you see there were twenty-six of us, and so we always wanted to see what was
precious to us held sacred by the rest.
Our love is not less burdensome than hate, and maybe that is just why some proud souls maintain that
our hate is more flattering than our love. But why do they not run away from us, if it is so?
Besides our department, our employer had also a bakery where they made rolls; it was in the same house,
separated from our hole only by a wall; but the bakersthere were four of themheld aloof from us,
considering their work superior to ours, and therefore themselves better than us; they never used to come
into our workroom, and laughed contemptuously at us when they met us in the yard. We, too, did not go
to see them; this was forbidden by our employer, for fear that we should steal the fancy rolls. We did
not like the bakers, because we envied them; their work was lighter than ours, they were paid more, and
were better fed; they had a light, spacious workroom, and they were all so clean and healthyand that
made them hateful to us. We all looked gray and yellow; three of us had syphilis, several suffered from
skin diseases, one was completely crippled by rheumatism. On holidays and in their leisure time the
bakers wore pea-jackets and creaking boots, two of them had accordions, and they all used to go for
strolls in the public parkwe wore filthy rags and torn leather shoes or bast slippers on our feet, the
police would not let us into the public parkcould we possibly like the bakers? And one day we learned that one of their men had gone on a spree, the master had sacked him and
had already taken on another, and that this other was an ex-soldier, wore a satin waistcoat and a watch
and gold chain. We were anxious to get a sight of such a dandy, and in the hope of catching a glimpse
of him we kept running one after another out into the yard.
But he came of his own accord into our workroom. Kicking at the door, he pushed it open, and leaving it
ajar, stood in the doorway smiling, and said to us:
God help the work! Good morning, mates!
The frosty air, which streamed in through the open door, curled in streaks of vapor round his feet. He
stood on the threshold, looked down upon us, and under his fair, twisted mustache gleamed big yellow
teeth. His waistcoat was really something quite out of the common, blue-flowered, brilliant with shining
little red stone buttons. He also wore a watch chain.
He was a fine fellow, this soldier; tall, healthy, rosy-cheeked, and his big, clear eyes had a friendly, cheerful
glance. He wore on his head a white starched cap, and from under his spotlessly clean apron peeped
the pointed toes of fashionable, well-blacked boots.
Our baker asked him politely to shut the door. The soldier did so without hurrying himself, and began
to question us about the master. We explained to him, all speaking together, that our employer was a
thorough-going brute, a crook, a knave, and a slave-driver; in a word, we repeated to him all that can
and must be said about an employer, but cannot be repeated here. The soldier listened to us, twitched
his mustache, and watched us with a friendly, open-hearted look.
But havent you got a lot of girls here? he asked suddenly.
Some of us began to laugh deferentially, others leered, and one of us explained to the soldier that there
were nine girls here.
You make the most of them? asked the soldier, with a wink.
We laughed, but not so loudly, and with some embarrassment. Many of us would have liked to have
shown the soldier that we also were tremendous fellows with the girls, but not one of us could do so; and
one of our number confessed as much, when he said in a low voice:
That sort of thing is not in our line.
Well, no; it wouldnt quite do for you, said the soldier with conviction, after having looked us over. There
is something wanting about you all. You dont look the right sort. Youve no sort of appearance; and the
women, you see, they like a bold appearance, they will have a well-set-up body. Everything has to be
tip-top for them. Thats why they respect strength. They want an arm like that!
The soldier drew his right hand, with its turned-up shirt sleeve, out of his pocket, and showed us his
bare arm. It was white and strong, and covered with shining golden wool.
Leg and chest, all must be strong. And then a man must be dressed in the latest fashion, so as to
show off his looks to advantage. Yes, all the women take to me. I dont call to them, I dont beckon
them, yet with one accord, five at a time, they throw themselves at my head.
He sat down on a flour sack, and told at length all about the way women loved him, and how bold he
was with them. Then he left, and after the door had creaked to behind him, we sat for a long time silent,
and thought about him and his talk. Then we all suddenly broke silence together, and it became apparent
that we were all equally pleased with him. He was such a nice, open-hearted fellow; he came to see us
without any stand-offishness, sat down and chatted. No one else had ever come to us like that, and no
one else had talked to us in that friendly sort of way. And we continued to talk of him and his coming triumph among the embroidery girls, who passed us by with contemptuous sniffs when they saw us in
the yard, or who looked straight through us as if we had been air. But we admired them always when
we met them outside, or when they walked past our windows; in winter, in fur jackets and toques to match; in
summer, in hats trimmed with flowers, and carrying colored parasols. Among ourselves, however, we
talked about these girls in a way that would have made them mad with shame and rage, if they could
have heard us.
If only he does not get hold of little Tanya! said the baker, suddenly, in an anxious tone of voice.
We were silent, for these words troubled us. Tanya had quite gone out of our minds, supplanted, put on
one side by the strong, fine figure of the soldier.
Then began a lively discussion; some of us maintained that Tanya would never lower herself so; others
thought she would not be able to resist him, and the third group proposed to break his ribs for him if he
should try to annoy Tanya. And, finally, we all decided to watch the soldier and Tanya, and to warn the
girl against him. This brought the discussion to an end.
Four weeks had passed by since then; during this time the soldier baked white rolls, walked out with the
gold-embroidery girls, visited us often, but did not talk any more about his conquests; only twisted his
mustache and licked his lips lasciviously.
Tanya called in as usual every morning for little pretzels, and was as gay and as nice and friendly
with us as ever. We certainly tried once or twice to talk to her about the soldier, but she called him a
goggle-eyed calf, and made fun of him all round, and that set our minds at rest. We saw how the gold-
embroidery girls carried on with the soldier, and we were proud of our girl; Tanyas behavior reflected
honor on us all; we imitated her, and began in our talks to treat the soldier with small consideration. She
became dearer to us, and we greeted her with more friendliness and kindliness every morning.
One day the soldier came to see us, a bit drunk, and sat down and began to laugh. When we asked
him what he was laughing about, he explained to us:
Why, two of themthat Lydka girl and Grushkahave been clawing each other on my account. You
should have seen the way they went for each other! Ha! ha! One got hold of the other one by the hair,
threw her down on the floor of the passage, and sat on her! Ha! ha! ha! They scratched and tore each
others faces. It was enough to make one die with laughter! Why is it women cant fight fair? Why do
they always scratch one another, eh?
He sat on the bench, in fine fettle, fresh and jolly; he sat there and went on laughing. We were silent.
This time he made an unpleasant impression on us.
Well, its a funny thing what luck I have with the women-folk! Eh? One wink, and its all over with them!
Its the d-devil!
He raised his white arms covered with golden wool, and dropped them down on his knees. And his
eyes seemed to reflect such frank astonishment, as if he were himself quite surprised at his good luck
with women. His fat, red face glistened with delight and self-satisfaction, and he licked his lips more
Our baker scraped the shovel violently and angrily along the oven floor, and all at once he said sarcastically:
Theres no great strength needed to pull up fir saplings, but try a real pine-tree.
Whywhat do you mean by saying that to me? asked the soldier.
What is it?
Nothingit slipped out!
No, wait a minute! Whats the point? What pine-tree?
Our baker did not answer, working rapidly away with the shovel at the oven; flinging into it the half-cooked
pretzels, taking out those that were done, and noisily throwing them on the floor to the boys who were
stringing them on bast. He seemed to have forgotten the soldier and his conversation with him. But
the soldier had all at once grown uneasy. He got up onto his feet, and went to the oven, at the risk of
knocking against the handle of the shovel, which was waving spasmodically in the air.
No, tell me, dowho is it? Youve insulted me. I? Theres not one could withstand me, n-no! And you
say such insulting things to me?
He really seemed genuinely hurt. He must have had nothing else to pride himself on except his gift for
seducing women; maybe, except for that, there was nothing living in him, and it was only that by which
he could feel himself a living man.
There are men to whom the most precious and best thing in their lives appears to be some disease of
their soul or body. They fuss over it all their lives, and only living by it, suffering from it, they feed on
it, they complain of it to others, and so draw the attention of their fellows to themselves. For that they
extract sympathy from people, and apart from it they have nothing at all. Take from them that disease,
cure them, and they will be miserable, because they have lost their one resource in lifethey are left
empty then. Sometimes a mans life is so poor, that he is driven instinctively to prize his vice and to live
by it; one may say for a fact that often men are vicious out of boredom.
The soldier was offended, he went up to our baker and roared:
No, tell me, dowho?
Tell you? the baker turned suddenly to him.
You know Tanya?
Well, there then! Only try.
Her? Why, thats nothing to mepooh!
We shall see!
You will see! Ha! ha!
Give me a month!
What a braggart you are, soldier!
A fortnight! Ill prove it! Who is it? Tanya! Pooh!
Well, get out. Youre in my way!
A fortnightand its done! Ah, you
Get out, I say!
Our baker, all at once, flew into a rage and brandished his shovel. The soldier staggered away from him
in amazement, looked at us, paused, and softly, malignantly said, Oh, all right, then! and went away.
During the dispute we had all sat silent, absorbed in it. But when the soldier had gone, eager, loud talk
and noise arose among us.
Someone shouted to the baker: Its a bad job that youve started, Pavel!
Do your work! answered the baker savagely.
We felt that the soldier had been touched to the quick, and that danger threatened Tanya. We felt this,
and at the same time we were all possessed by a burning curiosity, most agreeable to us. What would
happen? Would Tanya hold out against the soldier? And almost all cried confidently: Tanya? Shell hold
out! You wont catch her with your bare arms!
We longed terribly to test the strength of our idol; we were forcibly trying to persuade each other that our
divinity was a strong divinity and would come victorious out of this ordeal. We began at last to fancy
that we had not worked enough on the soldier, that he would forget the dispute, and that we ought to
pique his vanity further. From that day we began to live a different life, a life of nervous tension, such as
we had never known before. We spent whole days in arguing together; we all grew, as it were, sharper; and
got to talk more and better. It seemed to us that we were playing some sort of game with the devil, and
the stake on our side was Tanya. And when we learned from the bakers that the soldier had begun
running after our Tanya, we felt a sort of delighted terror, and life was so interesting that we did not
even notice that our employer had taken advantage of our preoccupation to increase our work by three
hundred pounds of dough a day. We seemed, indeed, not even tired by our work. Tanyas name was
on our lips all day long. And every day we looked for her with a certain peculiar impatience. Sometimes
we pictured to ourselves that she would come to us, and it would not be the same Tanya as of old, but
somehow different. We said nothing to her, however, of the dispute regarding her. We asked her no
questions, and behaved as well and affectionately to her as ever. But even in this a new element crept
in, alien to our old feeling for Tanyaand that new element was keen curiosity, keen and cold as a steel
Mates! Today the times up! our baker said to us one morning, as he set to work.
We were well aware of it without his reminder; but still we became alert.
Have a good look at her. Shell be here directly, suggested the baker.
One of us cried out in a troubled voice, Why! as though one could see anything! You need more than
And again an eager, noisy discussion sprang up among us. Today we were at last to discover how pure
and spotless was the vessel into which we had poured all that was best in us. This morning, for the first
time, it became clear to us that we really were playing for high stakes; that we might, indeed, through the
exaction of this proof of purity, lose our divinity altogether. All this time we had been hearing that Tanya was stubbornly and persistently pursued by the soldier, but
not one of us had thought of asking her what she thought of him. And she came every morning to fetch
her pretzels and was the same toward us as ever.
This morning, too, we heard her voice outside: You poor prisoners! Here I am!
We opened the door hastily, and when she came in we all remained, contrary to our usual custom, silent.
Our eyes fixed on her, we did not know what to say to her, what to ask her. And there we stood in front
of her, a gloomy, silent crowd. She seemed to be surprised at this unusual reception; and suddenly we
saw her turn white and become uneasy, then she asked, in a choking voice:
Why are youlike this?
And you? the baker flung at her grimly, never taking his eyes off her.
What about me?
Well, then, give me the little pretzels quickly.
Never before had she bidden us hurry.
Theres plenty of time, said the baker, not stirring and not removing his eyes from her face.
Then, suddenly, she turned round and disappeared through the door.
The baker took his shovel and said, calmly turning away toward the oven:
Well, that settles it! Theres a soldier for youthe low cur!
Like a flock of sheep we all pressed round the table, sat down silently, and began listlessly to work.
Soon, however, one of us remarked:
Perhaps, after all
Shut up! shouted the baker.
We were all convinced that he was a man of judgment, a man who knew more than we did about things.
And at the sound of his voice we were convinced of the soldiers victory, and our spirits became sad and
At twelve oclockwhile we were eating our dinnersthe soldier came in. He was as clean and as
smart as ever, and looked at usas usualstraight in the eyes. But we were all awkward in looking
Now then, honored sirs, would you like me to show you a soldiers prowess? he said, chuckling proudly.
Go out into the passage and look through the crackdo you understand?
We went into the passage, and stood all pushing against one another, squeezed up to the cracks of the
wooden partition of the passage that looked into the yard. We had not to wait long. Very soon Tanya,
with hurried footsteps and an anxious face, walked across the yard, jumping over the puddles of melting
snow and mud: she disappeared into the cellar. Then whistling, and not hurrying himself, the soldier
followed in the same direction. His hands were thrust in his pockets; his mustaches were quivering. Rain was falling, and we saw how its drops struck the puddles, and the puddles were wrinkled by them.
The day was damp and graya very dreary day. Snow still lay on the roofs, but on the ground dark
patches of mud had begun to appear. And the snow on the roofs too was covered by a layer of brownish
dirt. The rain fell slowly with a depressing sound. It was cold and disagreeable for us waiting.
The first to come out of the cellar was the soldier; he walked slowly across the yard, his mustaches twitching,
his hands in his pocketsthe same as always.
ThenTanya, too, came out. Her eyesher eyes were radiant with joy and happiness, and her lipswere
smiling. And she walked as though in a dream, staggering, with unsteady steps.
We could not bear this calmly. All of us at once rushed to the door, dashed out into the yard andhissed
at her, reviled her viciously, loudly, wildly.
She started at seeing us, and stood as though rooted in the mud under her feet. We formed a ring
round her, and maliciously, without restraint, abused her with vile words, said shameful things to her.
We did this quietly, slowly, seeing that she could not get away, that she was hemmed in by us, and we
could rail at her to our hearts content. I dont know why, but we did not beat her. She stood in the midst
of us, and turned her head this way and that, as she heard our insults. And wemore and more violently
flung at her the filth and venom of our words.
The color had left her face. Her blue eyes, so happy a moment before, opened wide, her bosom heaved,
and her lips quivered.
We in a ring round her avenged ourselves on her, for she had robbed us. She belonged to us, we had
lavished on her our best, and though that best was beggars crumbs, still there were twenty-six of us,
she was one, and so there was no pain we could give her equal to her guilt! How we insulted her! She
was still mute, still gazed at us with wild eyes, and a shiver ran through her.
We laughed, roared, yelled. Other people ran up from somewhere and joined us. One of us pulled Tanya
by the sleeve of her blouse.
Suddenly her eyes flashed; deliberately she raised her hands to her head and straightening her hair she
said loudly but calmly, straight in our faces:
Ah, you miserable prisoners!
And she walked straight at us, walked as directly as though we had not been before her, as though we
were not blocking her way.
And hence none of us did actually block her way.
Walking out of our circle without turning round, she added loudly, with pride and indescribable contempt:
Ah, you scumbrutes.
Andwas gone, erect, beautiful, proud.
We were left in the middle of the yard, in the rain, under the gray sunless sky.
Then we went mutely away to our damp stone basement. As beforethe sun never peeped in at our
windows, and Tanya came no more. Never!