The story takes place at the steelworks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The factory whistle was roaring, announcing the beginning of the working day. The dull dawn of the rainy August day gave him a touch of sadness and threat. The buzzer caught the engineer Andrei Ilyich Bobrov at tea. Recently, Andrei Ilyich suffered greatly from insomnia. The reason for this was a long habit of morphine, with which Bobrov recently began a stubborn struggle. From the window, Andrei Ilyich could see a small square lake surrounded by shaggy willows. Everything was gray and faded. At seven o’clock, putting on an oilcloth cloak with a hood, Bobrov left the house. As always, he felt unwell in the mornings, but worst of all, he was affected by the emotional discord he had noticed in himself from recent times. Bobrov could not look at life from a practical point of view, as his fellow engineers. Every day he grew disgust, almost horror, to the service at the plant. Engineering did not satisfy him, and if it were not for his mother’s wish, he would have left the institute in his third year. Bobrov compared himself to the man with whom he had been skinned alive.
The exterior of Bobrov was not bright. He was not tall and rather thin. First of all, a large white forehead was conspicuous. Dense, uneven eyebrows converged at the nose, giving his dark eyes a severe expression. The lips of Andrei Ilyich were thin, but not evil, and slightly asymmetrical; mustache and beard are small, liquid, whitish. The beauty of his ugly face was a smile. When Bobrov laughed, his face became attractive.
Bobrov climbed the hillock, and the panorama of the plant opened. It was a real city, full of the smell of sulfur and iron fumes, stunned forever by the rumbling clatter. Thousands of people were fussing around here, like ants on an anthill. It was a terrible and fascinating picture. Looking at the hard work of the workers, Bobrov himself seemed to be experiencing a part of their physical suffering, and he felt ashamed of his well-being.
Andrei Ilyich stood by the welding furnace, when one of his colleagues Stanislav Ksaverevich Svezhevsky came up to him. This man with always a little bent figure, always fawning before someone and dissolving gossip, did not like Bobrov very much. Svezhevsky said that one of the members of the board, millionaire Vasily Terentyevich Kvashnin, will come to the plant to fill the new blast furnace. Kvashnin was a huge, fat man with red hair, a famous lover of delicious food and beautiful women. Peculiar stories were written about him in St. Petersburg.
Returning from the factory and having had a quick dinner, Bobrov ordered his driver Mitrofan to saddle the Fairway, and went on a visit to the Zinenkas. Zinenok’s family, living in the Shepetivska economy, consisted of a father, mother and five daughters. My father was in charge of the warehouse at the plant and was under the shoe of his wife Anna Afanasyevna. Each of the daughters in the family was assigned its own role. The eldest, Maca, a girl with a fish profile, enjoyed the reputation of an angel. Beta was considered clever, wore a pince-nez, and even somehow wanted to enter a course. The third daughter, Shurochka, chose the game of fools with all the bachelor engineers in turn. Nina was considered in the family as a common favorite, a spoiled, but adorable child. She was completely different from the sisters with their massive figures and rude, vulgar faces. It is unknown where Nina got this tender, fragile figure, almost aristocratic hands, a pretty dark complexion, small ears and delicate curvy hair. Her parents placed high hopes on her, and so she was allowed much more than her sisters. The youngest, Casse, was only fourteen years old, but she far surpassed the sisters in a magnificent form, and her figure aroused the watchful eyes of the factory youth.
This division of family charms was known to everyone. From morning till evening engineers and students-interns were pouring into Zinenok’s house, but Bobrov was not liked there. The petty-bourgeois tastes of Madame Zinenko were offended by the conduct of Andrei Ilyich. Bobrov felt this deaf enmity, but still continued to visit Zynyonok. The reason for this was Nina. Andrei Ilyich did not know whether he loved her. When he did not see Nina for several days, he began to miss her, but when he visited Zinenok three nights in a row, how he began to torment their society, their constant patterned conversations. In Bobrov’s soul there was a longing for Nina, with disgust for the boredom and the mannerisms of her family.
This evening, Bobrov managed to stay alone with Nina on the balcony. The warm evening, the moon and the presence of Nina acted on him, he increasingly inclined to the idea of marriage and was sure that Nina shared his feelings. In the living room the conversation was about Kvashnina. Anna Afanastevna said that tomorrow she would take her girls to the station, where a solemn meeting would take place. It was said that Kvashnin had three hundred thousand annual incomes, and this figure accurately electrified the entire society. Bobrov’s heart froze and shrank. He quietly found his hat and went out onto the porch. No one noticed his departure.
At home Bobrov found his good friend, Dr. Goldberg. He genuinely loved this meek Jew for his versatile mind and passion for the disputes of an abstract property. Such a dispute has begun now. Bobrov considered his work useless, aimless. Goldberg, objecting, said that with his work the engineer moves progress forward.
Do not tell me about the benefits! cried Bobrov. Each worker gives the entrepreneur three months of his life a year, a week a month or six hours a day. Two days of work of the whole factory devour the whole man! The brass gentlemen, Moloch and Dagon, would have blushed with shame and resentment at the figures I have just given.
This peculiar mathematics impressed not only Goldberg, but Bobrov himself. Andrei Ilyich opened the window, and Goldberg saw a factory, over which stood a huge red oscillating glow. The electric lights blended their bluish, deadly gleam to the purple light of the red-hot iron. The incessant clank and rumbling swept from there.
Here it is Moloch, who demands warm human blood! Bobrov shouted, stretching his thin hand out the window. Grasped with pity and fear, Dr. Goldberg laid Bobrov in bed, and sat for a long time beside him, stroking him on the head and saying affectionate, soothing words.
The next day, a solemn meeting of Vasily Terentyevich Kvashnin took place at Ivankovo station. Already at eleven o’clock the whole factory board headed by the director, Sergei Valeryanovich Shelkovnikov, was there. Few knew that Shelkovnikov was the director only on paper. In fact, all affairs were turned by the Belgian engineer Andrea, a half-Polish, half-Swede by nationality. There was also the Zynenok family. At the sight of them, Andrei Ilyich experienced at the same time two vague feelings. On the one hand, he was ashamed of the tactless arrival of this family; on the other hand, he was delighted to see Nina. In his sick, tormented soul, the unbearable desire of tender maidenly love, a thirst for a soothing female affection, was suddenly lit up.
Bobrov was looking for an opportunity to approach Nina, but she was always busy. This incident introduced itself when everyone came to the platform. For a few minutes Andrei Ilyich was alone with Nina, but could not confess her feelings to her again. He was confused by the duality in Nina’s character when, from a tender, refined girl, she suddenly turned into a provincial young lady with a template set of phrases. Nina said that she is a product of the environment in which she grew up and is conscious of her everyday life, but she can not struggle with her and is aware of her burden only during her communication with Bobrov, because she has never met such a person as him. It seemed to her that she spoke sincerely. Under the influence of the moment, Nina felt the need to speak pleasantly to Bobrov.
Barely had Andrei the courage to utter a confession, as a courier train jumped out from behind the turn of the railway. Kvashnin was one of the shareholders of the N-th railway and traveled in his own car. From the window of the car Kvashnin noticed Nina and immediately became interested in her. After hearing a short report, Kvashnin left the car on a glassed-in area. He stood behind a glass wall, similar to the Japanese idol of rough work. The meetingmen looked at Kvashnin with servility, almost with fright. Looking into Nina’s face, Bobrov bitterly noticed on him the same smile and the same alarming fear of a savage looking at his idol.
The laying of a new blast furnace and moleben took place four days after Kvashnin’s arrival. Nearly three thousand workers attended the service. Something spontaneous, powerful and at the same time childish, touching seemed to Bobrov in this common prayer of the gray huge mass. Tomorrow the workers will take up their hard work. Some of them are already destined to pay with their lives on this work. And do not they think about this now, weighing low obeisances. A cold wave of nervous excitement ran through these thoughts on the back and the back of Andrei Ilyich’s head.
After the moleben, the shareholders were led through the plant, showing in turn all the shops. In the end, all gathered in the steam boilers. It was the “heart of the plant”. Shelkovnikov led the guests to a gala dinner, and Bobrov stayed near the steam boilers. Standing on the edge of a deep stone pit, he looked at the...heavy work of the stokers. Bobrov felt that they were feeding an insatiable, gluttonous monster. Doctor Goldberg came up to him. Bobrov told him how easy it is to destroy this Moloch, it’s enough just to properly heat the cauldron, and then put cold water into it. Bobrov joked, but his voice was strangely serious, and his eyes looked stern and sad. For dinner, Andrei Ilyich did not go he could not stand “engineering lunches.”
Evil tongues began to ring. No one doubted the real reason for Kvashnin’s sudden rapprochement with the Zynyonok family. Kvashnin spent their evenings with them every day, and in the morning the young ladies invited them to breakfast. Regarding all five girls, Kvashnin behaved like a bachelor and merry uncle, fulfilling all their whims and showering with expensive gifts. Svezhevsky became a regular guest in Zinenok’s house. Nobody called him, he appeared himself and immediately managed to become necessary for all members of the family. His instinct told him that the circumstances were very convenient for his future career. Kvashnin silently tolerated Svezhevsky in his presence. All this became known to Bobrov, but he was worried only by the fact that gossip can touch the dirty tail and Nina. Jealousy was alien to the trusting nature of Andrei Ilyich.
All these days, Bobrov recalled the conversation at the station. He was drawn to Zinenkov irresistibly, but he was embarrassed by the presence of Kvashnin, and Andrei Ilyich eagerly awaited his departure. However, the case helped him to see Nina before Kvashnin left. This happened on Sunday two days after the celebration while riding. Nina rode on an English mare, presented by Kvashnin, accompanied by her Svezhevsky. Nina invited Bobrov to a chic picnic, which Kvashnin arranged for her on Wednesday in the Mad Beam. Bobrov did not want to go, but Nina insisted on this. Saying good-bye to her, Andrei Ilyich felt the warmth of her hand through the glove, and Nina’s dark eyes looked in love.
A picnic was invited to ninety people. All of them gathered on the platform of the railway station. The first surprise Kvashnina was an extra train, richly decorated with flowers. He had to take the participants of the picnic to 303 versts, from which there were no more than five hundred paces to go to the Frenzied Beam. In the morning, the wife, sisters and mothers of workers began to gather at the station. They answered the questions of the station commanders that they needed a “red and fat boss”. As soon as Vasily Terentyevich appeared, they rushed to him with a request to insulate their barracks and put the ovens for cooking. Kvashnin confidently promised to fulfill their request as soon as possible, and then said in a low voice to Shelkovnikov:
You will order that two bricks be laid down next to the barracks of the cart tomorrow. This will comfort them for a long time. Let them admire.
The behavior of Nina confused Andrei Ilyich. He waited anxiously at the station of her arrival and believed in her near happiness, but Nina did not even look at him. When Andrei Ilyich came up to help Nina get out of the carriage, she quickly and easily jumped out of the carriage on the other side. Bobrov realized from the face of Anna Afanasyevna that she did not approve of their relationship. Nevertheless, Bobrov decided to go on a picnic and get a reply from Nina.
The picnic area surrounded by forest was strewn with fine sand. At one end of it stood an octagonal pavilion decorated with flags and greens, on the other a covered stage for musicians. The tables were laid in the pavilion. Two weeks ago this site was a slope dotted with rare bushes. As soon as the invitees appeared on the court, the orchestra played a march, and then a waltz. Dancing began. Bobrov did not like to dance, but nevertheless decided to invite Nina to quadrille in order to explain to her during the dance, but it turned out that all the dances at Nina are painted. For a long time familiar, dull and indifferent melancholy seized Bobrov. Dimensional sounds of music were a headache. But he has not lost hope yet.
When it was getting dark, long chains of multicolored Chinese lanterns were lit around the pavilion, and two electric searchlights flashed from both ends of the platform with a blinding bluish light. The ball continued all the time. Bobrov managed to stay alone with Nina only about nine o’clock in the evening. He decided at some point not to make her explain. At first, Nina tried to avoid conversation, but later admitted that it was her mother’s will. Immediately Anna Afanasyevna appeared and took her daughter by the hand, ordering her to invite Kvashnin to dance. Exactly in a distant gray fog Bobrov saw how Nina carried out her mother’s order.
Gremya chairs, society sat at the tables, but Bobrov continued to stand where Nina left him. Tear was not there, but something burning burned his eyes, and in the throat was a dry and thorny tangle. Bob Goldova was found by Dr. Goldberg and dragged him to the table. Bobrova’s neighbor on the other side was Andrea. He was drunk. Only six months later it became known that this industrious, talented person, erudite and speaking all European languages, every night got drunk alone before losing consciousness. Bobrov also decided to drink brandy, hoping that it would make him feel better. But the wine had no effect on him. On the contrary, he grew even more sad.
Meanwhile, Kvashnin rose from the table with a glass of champagne in his hand and uttered a rant, after which everyone shouted to him, “Hooray!”. Then began some orgy of eloquence. Some toasts were ambiguous and playfully indecent. Suddenly Kvashnin again rose and announced the engagement of Nina and Svezhevsky. Andrea, who heard a painful groan beside him, turned around and saw Bobrov’s pale face, distorted by inner suffering. Andre stood up confidently and said an ironic toast in which he congratulated Svezhevsky on his appointment as manager of the affairs of the board of the society. This appointment was a wedding gift for the young from Kvashnin. Andr wished the groom luck in a new career in St. Petersburg.
His speech was interrupted by a loud horse stamping. From the thicket a man with a face twisted in horror emerged. He was a ten’s manager, he said that the factory was in turmoil. Panic and crush started. Someone extinguished the electric lights, and this further aggravated the general confusion. The pale half-light of the engaging day gave this picture a terrible, almost fantastic character. Bobrov could not find Mitrofan in any way. Suddenly a bright torch lit up over the crowd, people quickly parted, and along the formed road, Kvashnin rode on his triple gray horses. For a moment Bobrov felt that it was not Kvashnin who was going at all, but some kind of colored, ugly and formidable deity, like the idol of Eastern cults. Bobrov shivered with impotent rage. Turning around, Andrei Ilyich found himself standing next to his own passage. He sat in it and told Mitrofan to drive to the plant.
On the horizon a huge glow reflected in creeping clouds across the sky. Bobrov looked at him, and triumphant gloating was moving in him. Andrey’s cheeky toast opened his eyes to everything: to Nina’s cold restraint, and to the indignation of her mother, and to Svezhevsky’s closeness to Vasily Terentyevich, and to the gossip about courting Nina himself Kvashnin. Drunk wine did not intoxicate Andrei Ilyich. His thought worked quickly, brightly and randomly, as in a fever.
Soon, a factory was seen, enveloped in milky pink smoke. Behind, like a giant fire, a forest depot burned. The red glow of the fire was reflected in the brown water of the quadrangular pond. The dam of this pond was covered by a huge black crowd, which seemed to be boiling. The stones flew to Bobrov, one blow fell a little above the temple. A warm, sticky blood flowed. Suddenly the horses became. Ahead Bobro saw a black, uneven wall, which turned out to be a crowd of workers. After a few steps forward, Bobrov lost his way. Weakened by all that had happened, he lost consciousness. Waking up from a swoon, Bobrov discovered that he was near the factory. He struggled to his feet and walked towards the blast furnaces.
Bobrov wandered among the empty factory buildings and spoke to himself aloud. He wanted to hold back, to straighten up the flailing thoughts. Bobrov felt that he had to do something big and important, but what he had forgotten and could not remember. In one of the light intervals of consciousness he saw himself standing over a stoker pit. He recalled with unusual brightness the recent conversation with the doctor at this very spot. The stokers were not there. Andrei Ilyich jumped down, grabbed a shovel and began to poke coal into both furnace openings, slyly smiling and making useless exclamations. A painful and vengeful thought possessed him more and more. At last everything was ready, it only remained to turn the small valve, but the unusual work exhausted Bobrov, and this last movement he did not.
The sun had already risen above the horizon when Andrei Ilyich came to the factory hospital. The sight of Bobrov was terrible. He begged Goldberg to inject him with morphine. The doctor took his hand and led him to another room, where he tried to dissuade him from this fateful step. He did not succeed. The doctor sighed and took out a case with a syringe from the medicine cabinet. Soon Bobrov was already lying on the couch in a deep sleep. A sweet smile played on his pale face. The doctor carefully washed his head.