Stench. The cold and the stench. The dirt, the cold and the stench. The dirt, the cold, the stench, the powdering snow and all-consuming fog. In the milky-white fog, the nightlife is in full swing. Footsteps are heard. The creak of wheels. The clatter of hooves. The dogs’ barking. The striking of a city clock. The echoes of speeches full of abuse and idleness. The very bottom of the metropolis. A foul place.
The streets of the city are filled with assorted emigrants who fled from their homes in search of a better fate. Things are bad enough for them here, and one can hardly imagine that life is much worse anywhere else. But that’s the way it is. And it has always been so. Now, these people are forced to settle on each other’s heads. Only a few of them have some kind of job, and even they earn a pittance. Extreme poverty plunges them all into the abyss of vice.
Numerous thieves, robbers, beggars, tramps, completely fallen drunkards, scammers, swindlers, serial killers and rapists have become common in these places, the part of harsh reality. Sometimes it seems that there are more prostitutes than ordinary females now — too many women see no other way to save themselves from starvation.
Natives feel nothing but ardent hate for foreigners. These feelings are mutual.
Noisy demonstrations take place from time to time. At least, they attract some attention of the city authorities. But by and large, the authorities continue to turn a blind eye to everything that happens. However, they have neither the opportunity nor the desire to change things.
The police conduct raids sometimes: harsh constables beat everybody they can get their hands on and arrange for demonstrative arrests while catching the instigators. Such measures are not efficient and just add fuel to the fire of people’s anger. They simply can’t change anything. Rot always becomes the abode of worms, but worms themselves don’t cause it: you can extract the largest specimen, but this will not reverse the rotting process.
That’s no way to live, but people have to survive…
…A man walks through the melting snow. He is wearing a cylinder and a black cloak with a cape falling down to his knees. In his hands, it’s a heavy cane with a hidden three-edged stiletto. His grey eyes are blank. His moustache is short and elegantly curled.
He has spent his relatively short life in a tall white ivory tower. Until now. But the sea of stinking sewage that surrounded the tower rose high. Furious waves struck over and over again, crushing the walls and shattering the base. And the fall of that tower was terrible indeed.
Now — the man must learn to swim in the slops unless he wants to drown in them. Only those who are accustomed to deep plunging into the abyss of vice feel comfortable and related to it. But he is not among them yet — he has only learned to stay afloat.
There were many drowning people in this sea, naturally. Some of them huddled together, climbed drifting debris, pulled others up, and even made attempts to fight the elements. Or, at least, they tried to survive the hard times and keep all the small things that had not sunk to the bottom yet.
But there are others — they behave as passengers of a balloon hovering over a stinking abyss. They are not “against” the altering world, but they are not “for” it either. The current situation doesn’t please them. However, they believe that everything has a certain meaning. It may be Higher Purpose or some historical pattern. The old world had done its time long ago; it appeared to be not ready for changes and must be slipped away under the onslaught of fierce waves, collapse to the ground so that the new system’s foundation could be laid on its ruins.
A large-scale crisis always promises large-scale changes. For better or more often, for worse. But it also depends on which camp the evaluator belongs to…
...The man in the cylinder passes through the square briskly. A late stagecoach rushes besides. Once again, the old lock has not endured a prolonged shaking. One of the coach doors swings open. A man who was sitting peacefully on a folding chair by this very door suddenly falls out at full speed. His short flight ends with a landing in the wet mud.
He’s hurting. It seems that he is severely injured. Such incidents are not exceptional, and recently, they have become more frequent. There come the sounds of passers’ shouts and horse neighing. The driver pulls the reins, forcibly interrupting his way. Gapers converge to the place. They are curious and even excited — they like observing as someone sheds blood if nothing threatens them personally. It seems that no one thinks to help the poor fellow — but everyone is watching carefully so that they will have something to chat about in the pubs later and subsequently forget about the next day.
But wait — two or three individuals have stepped forward from the crowd and moved closer; now, one of them is even trying to relieve the victim’s suffering.
The man in the cylinder is walking by. It’s none of his business. Theoretically, he feels sorry for the victim; he despises the indifferent mob and reflects on the quality of modern roads and stagecoaches with a certain degree of irony since they apparently leave a lot to be desired. However — he is busy and in a hurry. Right now, he has more important business and more exciting things to do. A serious meeting was scheduled after all, and he is already late and has to pick up his pace.
Someone else is already helping, and he can’t do more, so — he will not interfere and waste his precious time.
That’s the way it is…
...The road. The street. The next turn. The dim lantern. Another street. Another turn. The coach. Horses. Give way. Continue the interrupted path. Low-key signboards. Red lights. Whores. Leave me alone. Some people look askance. They have such faces that you can call the constables right away, without waiting for any action on their part. Move. Quickly, without attracting too much attention. Go on the lighter side. Stay away from the shadows of narrow gateways. The main thing is not to go wandering in the dark. The grim streets are full of thieves and murderers.
A lonely grey-haired tramp sits with his legs outstretched. No doubt, he risks getting frostbite in all parts of his body. But nobody cares at all. He doesn’t care either.
The greenish bottle. A habitually long sip. The world is not getting any better: it’s here, it’s still the same, but it has become somehow distant. At such moments, the drinker is always surrounded by other people’s problems: someone else’s poverty, someone else’s wounds and bruises, someone else’s cold, someone else’s diseases, someone’s fear, someone’s pain, someone’s tears, someone’s hunger and someone’s infinitely foreign, wasted youth…
A shabby limping dog approaches the beggar with a whine. One can see the whole universe of grief in the animal’s big dark eyes. Having recognized a fellow in misfortune, the man invites the dog to drink with a simple and silent, but quite sincere gesture. The dog refuses (also silently) and turns up its nose, limping on.
The mind of the tramp persistently tries to produce a profound philosophical thought, but he is no longer able to formulate it clearly. With a curse, he looks up into the starless dark sky, as if searching for some answer…
In a vague guess, the drunkard peers up and sees the face of a person on the other side of the book. For a while, he looks straight in your eyes intently and takes another gulp from the bottle. But the delusion passes soon: blaming the alcohol, the man waves the vision away and, having lost his balance, falls on the pavement.
For a short time, the shivering street philosopher reflects on what will happen if he takes over all the countries in the world and all the stars in the sky someday. Well, then his stomach rumbling with all sorts of variations still won’t contain more food than allowed by human nature. Soon, a peaceful sleep comes to the drunkard.
Caring snow covers the tramp with a cold white blanket. Frosty shroud, the last gift of the white-faced Winter Maiden. The next day, the bum will probably be found in this very spot — stiffened, clutching a bottle in his hand, cold as the surrounding pavement stones…
But no — this time, a passing constable notices the man. The last thing he wants is to find some frostbitten vagrant in his area. However, if it were the only reason, the guardian of law and order would simply remove the body from his street and leave the guy to freeze elsewhere.
Instead, he leans over and decisively shakes the poor fellow, bringing him to his senses. The drunkard opens his eyes, not realizing where he is, who he is, and what’s going on. The constable raises him to his feet and leads him away from these places, giving the moralizing speech with irritation. At this time, London cells are packed with other vagabonds, and of course, jail is not a shelter of mercy. And yet it’s better than the street that promises frozen death. At least, you can sleep yourself sober there, and even get some food, if you are lucky.
The young constable is already sick of the man he has undertaken to accompany and the smell of his body. It disgusts him to touch the vagrant with his hands. But he fights his revulsion and goes on, without a moment of hesitation.
Patrolling the streets at this hour is the last thing the peace officer would do if he has any choice. He thinks about the warmth of the home. His young wife. The old parents and small but boisterous children. His modest salary is barely enough to feed the family and cover their needs.
The servant of law assures himself that it is the reason why he turns a blind eye to minor offences, charging a bribe for them. By doing so, he can also save precious time and concentrate limited effort on truly important and serious cases.
Heroics is a lot of single people, free from any obligations. You can’t be a hero when you have to treat elderly parents, raise sons and collect dowries for daughters. And in general, the constable is deeply convinced that people’s morality is largely determined by how far they are from making serious decisions. But in the moments when he is candid with himself, the constable admits that everything is much more prosaic.
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