'We, the Cavemen'
THERE were only six cavemen — Rada, Misha, Bogoboy, Radivoy, Zdravko, and Jarko. Life could bring together such symphonic names only once. And only once in a lifetime could there have been such men whose souls lived in such perfect harmony.
One not wholly enlightened about our cavemanship might have stated that there were seven cavemen. And I must tell you right now that there were eight at the time of this story. But observe the subtle nuance. The seventh was only our host; and the eighth was only our guest. The former was utterly incapable of even guessing what the cavemanship meant; the latter — But wait — thereby hangs this tale.
First of all, let us finish with our host. A young chap of no consequence whatever. I won’t even give his name. The world, and I am sure this story, will lose nothing by it. He was a stupid and heavy fellow, whose wit had brought him as far as the second year of the Jurisprudence Department of the Great School. There he stayed, and was contented there even as a bullock in a barren field. He was goodnatured, and was unbelievably stupidly flattering to us, which bored us to tears.
But he was idiotically rich — that is to say, his father was. And that same fat father of his owned the cave. The cave’s door had three keys. One of them was in the possession of our sloppy host. This was the sole reason why he was the seventh fellow who went with us to the cave.
In passing, I might add that his only good quality lay in the fact that he slept peacefully and noiselessly when he got drunk. Which really was all we wanted.
Now about the cave. Here was a wonder! Like all real, honest-to-goodness caves, this one was glorious and wondrous. But its location, I am sure, was unique. It was under the Capital’s park, one end of which faced the Save.
To reach the cave from the city you had to come to the cathedral. This somewhat modern edifice was on a hill, lower than that of the park. Now from the cathedral the road led downhill, skirting the park hill. Midway there was a fork — you either turned to the left and went down to the Save port, or went straight on to the Lower Fortress. Just a little above the fork was the entrance to the cave. Over it, fastened to the rock of the hill, was a huge sign which read: ‘Wine Cellar.’ This could be read from all the ships which passed up and down the Save. But from the road you were able to decipher also this: ‘Marko Simonovich, Proprietor, Established 1871.’
The cave was halfway up the hill. To the left of it, and a little distance from it, was the Witch’s Precipice — as though a giant had scooped up a large portion of the hill, leaving a sheer wall, some four hundred yards high. At the bottom of this precipice was the largest woodyard of the city. There were the great piles of stove wood, high, tier upon tier, — resembling the sides of the Great Pyramid, — against the wall of the precipice. Through the woodyard ran the road to the Lower Fortress.
The entrance to the cave was simply stupendous — a monster tunnel. It was over a hundred feet high, three hundred wide, and almost two hundred deep. The end of it was closed with a brick wall in which there was a huge gate, whose one wing had a small door in its middle. This was the door that had three keys.
To the right in the tunnel were the wine presses; to the left the giant stills. All around was the strong, pungent odor of fermentation.
In the daytime there was always great commotion and bustle there: steam hissed; great wagons came and went; barrels large and small ran down the runners from the bowels of the earth; men yelled and sang and swore. At the time of vintage there was a veritable bedlam there. But at nighttime, year in, year out, peace was about, deep and complete. Then we, the cavemen, walked up the zigzag road in darkness, passed through the tunnel, unlocked the small door, and entered the cave. Then it was our domain, our kingdom — of dreams, youth, song, poetry.
It was said that the cave was endless. Perhaps. But we cared naught for that. Geologists and other scientists explored it and wrote about it, and explained its many marvels. But we looked and found different marvels there. Indeed vastly dilferent.
No doubt it was ‘endless.’ But the enterprising wine-merchant used only the upper cave for his extensive business. This was not very high. Perhaps the highest point was a little over a hundred feet. However, it was half a mile long and almost as wide.
There you had ‘streets,’ perfectly straight and quite wide, of barrels and vats and kegs of great dimensions. There you had, in their proper places, pumps and wooden buckets by the dozen. There you had, by the door, a pile of ‘lights’ — tall iron sticks, one end pointed, the other with the hole in it. Above the pile of lights you had, on a shelf in the wall, thousands of candles, one of which you put in the hole, lighted it, and pushed your iron light in the earth wherever you wanted it.
Imagine the picture when a hundred of these lights burned in the streets here and there! But imagine the picture when only one light was burning in the great darkness — in the midst of the cavemen!
And there was that rich, heavy, yeasty odor which played with our senses, caressed them, lulled them, and transformed them into something new and glorious — quite different from what they were outside.
But who were the cavemen?
Had we lived in the Latin Quarter of Paris, we most certainly would have been called Bohemians. And, perchance, one of us at least might have attracted the attention of M. Murger. But we lived in a Balkan capital, when that capital was still rather young as such, in the respectable homes of our highly prosaic parents. Outside the cave, then, we were like thousands of other young men of twenty or thereabouts. It was only when we passed through the little door that we changed and became something so different that our very mothers would not have recognized us. There we became crusaders with a great mission in life. Crusaders verily!
Otherwise, Misha, for instance, was an actor — a member of the Royal Serbian National Theatre; nothing less. He had to fight hard and suffer considerably before he attained this distinction. His male parent wanted him to carry on the most honest and respectable trade of bookbinding, and after he, the parent, had gone, to replace him at the highly coveted position as head of the bookbinders’ guild. But Misha had a horror of the crowd in the great and mighty guild — and the smell of glue was poison to his artistic soul. Secretly he learned all the famous parts of all the famous plays, considering constantly the ways and means by which he could present them to the world through his art. So, at seventeen, he defied his stem father and entered the theatre. From the beginning he was a good actor and progressed rapidly — so much so that even his father forgave him in the course of a year or two. Misha, of course, was very handsome, and suffered tremendously from trials and complexities of love.
Bogoboy, on the other hand, was a painter. Was he a good one? Well, we never knew. Coming from a povertystricken family, he had to earn his own living. So he painted red and blue and yellow robes of saints for a very famous artist, who in his turn, in order to live, had to paint icons for churches, monasteries, and homes of that pious land. He, Bogoboy, never had time for his own work. And that was the great tragedy of his life. Except for a number of sketches — mostly unfinished — and his own confession, his great enthusiasm and equally great lament against his destiny, we should never have known that he was a painter. He was a small fellow, with a little pinched face, very nervous and restless. But what a polemist! It was he who could convince one that white was black, and one most assuredly would have been grateful for it — the mastery of his argument, the marvelous usage of words, the symphony of his voice, were a delight. Moreover, he had read ‘everything under the sun.’
Zdravko, the poet, was even more famous than the actor. In truth, his fame was nation-wide. Though only twenty-two at the time I am telling you about, — that winter when our guest appeared, I mean, — Zdravko had already published two books of poems. Very, very famous they had become. Besides, he was writing a poem a day, which, strange as it may seem, was published right away in some paper or magazine. He was even handsomer than the actor. But, unlike Misha, he enjoyed complete freedom. Outside the cave he was a lonely man, very stately and dignified — for, mind you, he was always in the Muse’s company. On the street, or anywhere else, all a poor mortal girl was able to get from him was a whiff of Fleur d’Amour, which came, rather discreetly, from the tips of his butterfly necktie.
It was Jarko, though, who was the wonder member of our institution. He was exceedingly ugly. Once the poet had said of him, and truly, ‘There are two of you; when I look at you full in the face I see one; when I look at you from the side I see another.’ But Jarko was more than indifferent to this meagre endowment of nature; for he had character and spirit, and brains. One who judges men by their achievements in life might call me a liar. Why? Because, forsooth, he remained five years in a two-year commercial academy! To me — to us—that was the proof of Jarko’s greatness. You see, that academy was the only school where, at the time, men and women studied together. Naturally a thing like that would be of enormous interest to a man like Jarko. Why get a diploma?
He earned his living as a journalist. And that, let me tell you, was a great distinction in that age — a journalist was one of the rarest birds imaginable. In fact, Jarko was rich always — vastly more prosperous than any othermember of the cavemanship. He was a clever and skillful gambler. Besides, he was the only one of us who mingled with ‘common people.’ He knew how to do it, and never suffered from it. He enjoyed life, I believe. He knew everybody and everything, more or less.
Radivoy and myself, alas, were only students. But we were students of Literature, and we too had, in a smaller way, quite a bit of distinction. Radivoy, for instance, was known as a very good essayist and an authority on German, Russian, and other Slavic literatures. I was also an essayist, a polemist, an orator, and an authority on French literature. For had I not translated — or rather begun to translate — Le Rouge et le Noir, only a year or so after Stendhal’s prophecy was fulfilled? Radivoy was an ordinarylooking youth, a bit too tall and thin perhaps, but he was always bright and cheerful; he was ready to laugh at everybody and everything, and his laugh was most infectious. Alas for that — it brought about an ugly death and ruined the cavemanship.
Such were the cavemen.
But in what manner was the cavemanship brought about? Who organized it? Like all great and truly unusual things, this came about by itself. Tentatively I might say that the desire for expression, the outcome of civilization, the voice of the age, the stride of progress, were some of its causes.
Well, at first we six used to meet in my room and discuss ideas. We loved it; it was fascinating — it was glorious for a youth to become conscious of this. To be able to express one’s self; to be able to criticize; to find oneself, of a sudden, a skeptic! It was a new life — one soared to a great height and looked joyously upon the drab and common and ugly things on earth; looked boldly upon the endless beastliness of existence. One understood all — and was young and bold and idealistic enough to say, ‘ I can change that.'
But my room was too small — in fact, was too small for myself alone. When we moved to my mother’s bright and spotless kitchen, she, good soul, became so frightened that we had to abandon the new haven in a hurry. In two or three other homes we had the same experience.
Then we moved from a café to a tavern, from that one to another, with but little success. There were too many ‘common people’ everywhere — our souls were out of place everywhere.
And then, one evening, the thing just happened. We found ourselves in the cave. Of course, we all knew our host. But who broached the subject, who suggested the thing to him, who made him invite us, I simply don’t know.
Suffice that we were there, sitting in a circle on the upturned buckets, at the entrance of the ‘first street.’ In the middle of the circle was another bucket, filled with the very best wine that the cave boasted — and what, oh, what wine it was!
And in our hands we held the tin cup with which to help ourselves now and then while the wondrous conversation developed itself. And we ate a bit of dried sausage and bread which somebody had brought along. And the solitary candle burned peacefully in its holder, three feet above the winebucket, shedding a yellowish-red light on the wreath of young and happy faces.
Thus it was. Who mentioned the word ‘caveman,’ I have n’t the slightest idea. It was in the air; and every one of us saw it and felt it. But a few days later our poet read us a very stirring poem about ‘The Modern Cavemen.’ We were deeply impressed and moved.
The cavemanship was bom.
We had been rebels for a few years, no doubt about that. What we rebelled against was rather doubtful. We were inarticulate before we found ourselves in the cave. We groped in darkness, semidarkness, and grayness, with the vigor and despair of youth, finding no aim, no path.
But in the cave, in that immense hollow darkness, lighted by but one candle, we saw the aim and the path very clearly indeed. Every particle of us found expression. We knew what we wanted. Our mission was holy to us. And following our chosen path was the crusading of old — aye, even more fanatical and necessary to our lives.
And yet I doubt now — after almost half a century. I doubt whether our great mission and crusade would have been sufficiently strong to have kept us together, well-nigh two years, without the life we led in our cave. At that time we, of course, would have said that the life was but an incident — the mission was all! Now — I doubt; I doubt our minds of yore. I have a tragic reason.
Still that life was more — much, much more — than fascinating and beautiful. You of the present and a different clime, how can you understand such a life?
It was never debauchery or orgy — never. Except for our host, we were never drunk. Gay, yes. Boundlessly, irresistibly gay — when every fibre in our bodies danced and vibrated in that glorious, mysterious dance of living.
And then there was singing. I do believe that it was song which was the strongest bond that held our souls together. We all sang beautifully — those sad and gay Slavic songs that sprang from the very bottom of a people’s heart — suffering, loving, and trusting heart.
Poetry was as strong a bond —manytongued poetry, which came out of understanding souls, through honeyed lips. That age, that clime, loved rhymes and beautiful words — their music was a great, great necessity.
Our feelings ran sky-high. And, after a particularly beautiful song or poem, two of us would lean over the wine-bucket, embrace, and kiss on the lips. Do you understand such a kiss? The ecstasy of emotion demanded it; the friendship that hovered above us commanded it. That kiss was the purest of the pure — of youth that dreamed and loved and lived.
Then, at times, fun and mischief took hold of us. We wrote, on open postcards, scathing, biting, and highly sarcastic poems to girls who had, in some way, injured our young pride. We stole numerous fans and wrote sad sonnets on them. Or we criticized and ridiculed, through various means, all the public men and women who did not come quite up to our standard or fancy.
These were strong bonds. But we believed our mission was the only one.
And what was that great mission?
Heavens, when I think how much was written about it by the cavemen! We came to the cave with our pockets bulging with papers, which we read, hour after hour, by the light of that solitary candle. Yes, it was hard to read — but never hard to listen, never!
There, under the runners on which the huge barrels reposed, was a large wooden box — the great secret of the cavemen. There the papers were hidden, waiting to be printed. We believed that the world, by such a grace on our part, would profit enormously — nay, would change completely.
We believed that. Because we understood the world. Because we knew its numerous maladies, and were certain of our remedies. The world was degenerating— mind you, all this was before Nordau had blazed forth — and we were to generate the new force and put vitality into it.
Yes, ‘too much goodness’ was the greatest evil that beset the world. Goodness that had sprung out of old, artificial social customs, city civilizations, and unnatural habits. That kind of goodness was the cancer. Eradicate it! Down with it!
Natural human beings were lost, buried under the heaps of modern junk of laws and philosophies and religions. What we wanted was to clear it away. ‘Give us a natural man!’ was our cry. ‘Free absolutely, and unhampered by your Victorian Age!’
No, we did not want ‘migration back to the primitive’ — no ‘back to barbarism.’ Cavemanship was but a symbol. But we wanted freedom and simplicity.
We were influenced by no man or social group. We laughed at them — socialists, anarchists, and nihilists particularly. They were impractical and impossible. We were not. We were concrete and more than possible.
Here was our remedy, prescribed so ably by Bogoboy: ‘We want to give new food to Mother Nature, so that her breasts will swell with the new milk of kindness with which to feed her children, thereby creating a human and glorious race.’
Kindness was all — pure human kindness. The power that would rejuvenate the old tottering world.
And the food? The food was to be given through Art. Give us a new, strong, natural Art! We saw to the ways and means by which this could speedily be accomplished.
This was our mission and crusade. Neither less nor more.
And all this vanished, utterly and hopelessly, on that December night when our guest spoke for the first time, after three weeks of silence.
Human kindness! How passionately we believed in it for two long years — when we were by ourselves, secure in the glorious isolation of our cave! At the moment when we were called upon to exercise it — to give but a wee bit of it — we failed. Nay, we forgot the cavemanship and its great mission and — imitated a whole continent!
The Koshava was blowing full blast that evening when we met our guest. The cold was fierce, and Jarko was late. We stamped our feet, we ran around the lamp-post on the corner by the cathedral, which was our usual meeting-place. The clock boomed eight above our heads and still Jarko did not come.
And just as we decided to go without him two figures appeared out of the darkness, snow, and storm.
‘Mr.— our guest,’ shouted Jarko to us. We did not hear the name — the storm swallowed it. And to this day I don’t know it. Yet the man must have been famous, or rather notorious, for a time throughout a great continent. All we saw was a giant who did not seem to mind icy wind, and whose laugh of evident pleasure in meeting us rose above even the Koshava. And when we were going downhill to the cave, struggling rather desperately with the wind, he walked beside us straight and quite nonchalantly.
In the cave — after the candle had been lighted, the bucket placed in its proper place, and we were seated around it — I looked at him with great curiosity. I looked at him — and forgot my anger; and I am sure the same thing happened to the other cavemen. You see, it was against our rules to invite anybody. More — it was inconceivable that any one of us should bring into the cave an outsider. Never was a secret society wrapped in greater secrecy. So, when Jarko brought with him a stranger, without a hint of warning, naturally we were angered, if not downright panic-stricken.
One look, however, disarmed us. There he sat before us, our guest; and in a moment he ceased to be that — in fact, he ceased to be anything. Really, as though a mere shadow sat there.
No doubt he was a giant, but his round face, with big gray eyes and chubby little nose, was that of an infinitely good-natured child. An unhappy child, who suffered of some wrong or ailment so peacefully and unobtrusively that he himself appeared unreal, nonexistent.
He sat and smiled for a few minutes. Then he folded his huge arms, hardly breathed, and we noticed, wondering a little, that the unhappy child was transformed into a happy child.
Jarko explained. ‘I met this gentleman in a restaurant. As a boy he left our country and went to America. He was there till four months ago. He came back because something evidently awful happened to him there. His family are all dead; he has no one. He needed, he said, good people; otherwise he would do something rash. I brought him here.’ This was short, but to all purposes it was sufficient. Especially when the giant himself added in a very pleasant voice: —
‘Please, brothers, don’t mind me. Just let me come here; let me sit here — and let me be.’ That was all.
Honestly we forgot him. The usual life of the cave went on. And for three weeks he never said a word — not one. He sat on his bucket, huge and motionless, with crossed arms, a smile of inexpressible contentment on his rosy round face. Thus hour after hour. Only once in a while, after a particularly beautiful song or a remarkable spark of wit, he would cover his face with his enormous hands and remain that way for a minute or so. Evidently his emotions got the better of him. But that was all — for three weeks. He never drank, even!
Then, utterly unexpectedly, he broke the silence with extravagant eagerness, and told us his story.
It was a pitiful little story. And how little of it did we understand! What we did grasp we took in the light in which millions had taken it. Yet there was an excuse for us. I am clutching at straws, you see. Some words we did not understand at all. Those I shall italicize.
‘When I was fifteen I began to work in Montana mines,’ he launched himself, with infinite assurance, eagerness, and faith. ‘I was six feet tall. I was very strong. When I was eighteen I could lick any miner in our miningcamp. I like boxing. It came sort of natural-like to me. I used to box whenever I could. Well, when I was twenty I knocked a local champeen senseless. A trainer seen me do it. So he said, “I’ll make a prize-fighter of you.”So I said, “All right.” I did n’t like anything better. He took me to Butte and there showed me a thing or two. He taught me how to fight — to box, you know. Then I laid down everybody that came to the ring. Then this feller became my mafiager and got lots of money for me and got me more trainers, and pretty soon there was a crowd around me, following me wherever I went. I got all kinds of money. Well, soon we began to travel. Sometimes I fought, sometimes I was exhibiting. Then I began to fight big fellers, and I laid them down. So my manager said, “Now we will tackle the heavy-weight national champeenship.” I said, “ All right.” So I went into training-camp. And then I met a girl. And I liked her, and she said she liked me. By and by she said, “Leave the fighting and I ‘ll marry you.”Well, I liked her better than fighting even, so I said, "All right.” My manager and trainers and people around me went crazy. And newspaper fellers — you know, journalists — went crazy too. My picture was in every paper, you understand. But I said, “No.” I stuck to this girl. I left the camp and all and went to Indiana, where she lived with her folks. And they liked me fine, and said I’d work with them. And to make me better they took me to a revival meetin’ — sort of open-air church, you understand — and I got religion — sort of became religious and pure. Well, I was kneeling there and lots of people around were crying, so I promised all sorts of things. I did not regret the champeenship, or the money, or nothing. I liked the girl fine. Well, I was fine for two or three months, going to church, working hard, and my money in the bank, when the girl up and married the minister, because he was going to the heathens and she wanted to help him. And she left me in the lurch.’
He stopped and looked at us with big appealing eyes, puffing short little breaths of fright.
He was ridiculous; his story oven more so; and — we laughed! Radivoy started as soon as our guest had finished — there was no possibility of interrupting the stream of words — and we followed. We laughed heartily, swaying on the buckets.
But the man’s face darkened. He closed his eyes for a moment, then suddenly grabbed the wine-bucket and began to drink.
He drank for five minutes. The hard breathing that sounded in that big bucket was awful. We sobered and stared at him, nonplused, aghast.
Then he put the bucket on his knees and with one hand wiped his mouth, while he was catching his breath. His face was terrible.
‘All the States laughed at me — you too!’ he gasped.
Then again he lifted the bucket and drank and drank, the sound of that horrible breathing spreading over the cave.
We made furtive motions to stop him. I saw pale faces. For a second we understood the unhappy man. Oh, he wanted only a wee bit of kindness and sympathy and understanding. Nothing more. The very substance of our cavemanship. But we sensed tragedy — and we forgot all else. We stood up, petrified. He still drank.
Suddenly he jumped, tottered, and pitched the bucket over our heads, breaking it into bits against a giant barrel. Then he lurched toward the door, wrenched it open, and ran out, we after him. When we cleared the tunnel, we saw him running up the hill with enormous strides.
It was as light as day. The full moon shone brilliantly on the hard, foot-thick snow. The frost bit our cheeks.
We ran after him, scrambling on all fours, slipping on the snow, shouting to him. He ran on — toward the precipice.
I was the first to reach its edge. He stood fifty yards from me—an unearthly giant. Completely out of breath, I still managed to ejaculate a few words of warning. For a moment he stood; then laughed twice; then jumped. He fell like a sack, but for his right arm, which clutched the air.
Even at that height we heard the thud. He struck the second tier of the great pile of stove wood. He struck it in the middle, and the wood immediately began to slide down, burying him in an awful mess of snow and ice and bark and wood-lengths.
We stood watching, our very blood frozen by the utterly unexpected tragedy. Tragedy because of the cavemen! What bitterness and regret for months and months afterward!
He, the guest of the cavemen, came five thousand miles to find that ‘milk of human kindness’ — and I, for one, went five thousand miles to forget.