Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The cellar resembles a cave, with only one small window to illuminate its dank recesses. In a corner, thin boards partition off the room of Vaska, the young thief. In the kitchen live Kvashnya, a vendor of meat pies, the decrepit Baron, and the streetwalker Nastya. All around the room are bunks occupied by other lodgers.
Nastya, her head bent down, is absorbed in reading a novel titled Fatal Love. The Baron, who lives largely on Nastya’s earnings, seizes the book and reads its title aloud. Then he bangs Nastya over the head with it and calls her a lovesick fool. Satine raises himself painfully from his bunk at the noise. His memory is vague, but he knows he took a beating the night before, and the others tell him he had been caught cheating at cards. The Actor stirs in his bed on top of the stove. He predicts that some day Satine will be beaten to death.
The Actor reminds the Baron to sweep the floor. The landlady is strict and makes them clean every day. The Baron loudly announces that he has to go shopping; he and Kvashnya leave to make the day’s purchases.
The Actor climbs down from his bunk and declares that the doctor has told him he has an organism poisoned by alcohol, and sweeping the floor would be bad for his health. Anna coughs loudly in her bunk. She is dying of consumption—there is no hope for her. Her husband, Kleshtch, is busy at his bench, where he fits old keys and locks. Anna sits up and calls to Kleshtch, offering him the dumplings that Kvashnya has left for her in the pot. Kleshtch agrees that there is no use feeding a dying woman, and so with a clear conscience he eats the dumplings.
The Actor helps Anna down from her high bed and out into the drafty hall. The sick woman is wrapped in rags. As they go through the door, the landlord, Kostilyoff, enters, nearly knocking them down. Kostilyoff looks around the dirty cellar and glances several times at Kleshtch, working at his bench. Loudly, the landlord says that the locksmith occupies too much room for two rubles a month and that henceforth the rent will be two and one-half rubles. Then Kostilyoff edges toward Vaska’s room and inquires furtively if his wife has been in. Kostilyoff has good reason to suspect that his wife, Vassilisa, is sleeping with Vaska.
At last, Kostilyoff gets up the courage to call out to Vaska. The thief comes out of his room and denounces the landlord for not paying his debts, saying that Kostilyoff still owes seven rubles for a watch he had bought. Ordering Kostilyoff to produce the money immediately, Vaska sends him roughly out of the room.
The others admire Vaska for his courage and urge him to kill Kostilyoff and marry Vassilisa; then he could be landlord. Vaska thinks the idea over for a time but decides that he is too softhearted to be a landlord. Besides, he is thinking of discarding Vassilisa for her sister, Natasha. Satine asks...
(The entire section is 1192 words.)
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