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Coloured by poverty and horrifying brutality, Gorky's childhood equipped him to understand - in a way denied to a Tolstoy or a Turgenev - the life of the ordinary Russian. After his father, a paperhanger and upholsterer, died of cholera, five-year-old Gorky was taken to live with his grandfather, a polecat-faced tyrant who would regularly beat him unconscious, and with his grandmother, a tender mountain of a woman and a wonderful storyteller, who would kneel beside their bed (with Gorky inside it pretending to be asleep) and give God her views on the day's happenings, down to the last fascinating details. She was, in fact, Gorky's closest friend and the epic heroine of a book swarming with characters and with the sensations of a curious and often frightened little boy.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
I went out into the world as "shop-boy" at a fashionable boot-shop in the main street of the town. My master was a small, round man. He had a brown, rugged face, green teeth, and watery, mud-colored eyes. At first I thought he was blind, and to see if my supposition was correct, I made a grimace.
"Don't pull your face about!" he said to me gently, but sternly. The thought that those dull eyes could see me was unpleasant, and I did not want to believe that this was the case. Was it not more than probable that he had guessed I was making grimaces?
"I told you not to pull your face about," he said again, hardly moving his thick lips.
"Don't scratch your hands," his dry whisper came to me, as it were, stealthily. "You are serving in a first-class shop in the main street of the town, and you must not forget it. The door-boy ought to stand like a statue."
I did not know what a statue was, and I could n't help scratching my hands, which were covered with red pimples and sores, for they had been simply devoured by vermin.
"What did you do for a living when you were at home?" asked my master, looking at my hands.
I told him, and he shook his round head, which was closely covered with gray hair, and said in a shocked voice:
"Rag-picking! Why, that is worse than begging or stealing!"
I informed him, not without pride:
"But I stole as well."
At this he laid his hands on his desk, looking just like a cat with her paws up, and fixed his eyes on my face with a terrified expression as he whispered:
"Wha—a—t? How did you steal?"
I explained how and what I had stolen.
"Well, well, I look upon that as nothing but a prank. But if you rob me of boots or money, I will have you put in prison, and kept there for the rest of your life."
He said this quite calmly, and I was frightened, and did not like him any more.
Besides the master, there were serving in the shop my cousin, Sascha Jaakov, and the senior assistant, a competent, unctuous person with a red face. Sascha now wore a brown frock-coat, a false shirt-front, a cravat, and long trousers, and was too proud to take any notice of me.
When grandfather had brought me to my master, he had asked Sascha to help me and to teach me. Sascha had frowned with an air of importance as he said warning:
"He will have to do what I tell him, then."
Laying his hand on my head, grandfather had forced me to bend my neck.
"You are to obey him; he is older than you both in years and experience."
And Sascha said to me, with a nod:
"Don't forget what grandfather has said." He lost no time in profiting by his seniority.
"Kashirin, don't look so goggle-eyed," his master would advise him.
"I—I'm all right," Sascha would mutter, putting his head down. But the master would not leave him alone.
"Don't butt; the customers will think you are a goat."
The assistant smiled respectfully, the master stretched his lips in a hideous grin, and Sascha, his face flushing, retreated behind the counter. I did not like the tone of these conversations. Many of the words they used were unintelligible to me, and sometimes they seemed to be speaking in a strange language. When a lady customer came in, the master would take his hands out of his pockets, tug at his mustache, and fix a sweet smile upon his face—a smile which wrinkled his cheeks, but did not change the expression of his dull eyes. The assistant would draw himself up, with his elbows pressed closely against his sides, and his wrists respectfully dangling. Sascha would blink shyly, trying to hide his protruding eyes, while I would stand at the door, surreptitiously scratching my hands, and observing the ceremonial of selling.
Kneeling before the customer, the assistant would try on shoes with wonderfully deft fingers. He touched the foot of the woman so carefully that his hands trembled, as if he were afraid of breaking her leg. But the leg was stout enough. It looked like a bottle with sloping shoulders, turned neck downward.
One of these ladies pulled her foot away one day, shrieking:
"Oh, you are tickling me!"
"That is—because—you are so sensitive," the assistant explained hastily, with warmth.
It was comical to watch him fawning upon the customers, and I had to turn and look through the glass of the door to keep myself from laughing. But something used to draw me back to watch the sale. The proceedings of the assistant were very interesting, and while I looked at him I was thinking that I should never be able to make my fingers move so delicately, or so deftly put boots on other people's feet.
It often happened that the master went away from the shop into a little room behind it, and he would call Sascha to him, leaving the assistant alone with the customer. Once, lingering over the foot of a red-haired woman, he took it between his fingers and kissed it.
"Oh," breathed the woman, "what a bold man you are!"
He puffed out his cheeks and emitted a long-drawn-out sound:
At this I laughed so much that, to keep my feet, I had to hang on to the handle of the door. It flew open, and my head knocked against one of the panes of glass and broke it. The assistant stamped his foot at me, my master hit me on the head with his heavy gold ring, and Sascha tried to pull my ears. In the evening, when we were on our way home, he said to me, sternly:
"You will lose your place for doing things like that. I 'd like to know where the joke comes in." And then he explained: "If ladies take a fancy to the assistant, it is good for trade. A lady may not be in need of boots, but she comes in and buys what she does not want just to have a look at the assistant, who pleases her. But you—you can't understand! One puts oneself out for you, and—"
This incensed me. No one put himself out for me, and he least of all.
In the morning the cook, a sickly, disagreeable woman, used to call me before him. I had to clean the boots and brush the clothes of the master, the assistant, and Sascha, get the samovar ready, bring in wood for all the stoves, and wash up. When I got to the shop I had to sweep the floor, dust, get the tea ready, carry goods to the customers, and go home to fetch the dinner, my duty at the door being taken in the meantime by Sascha, who, finding it lowering to his dignity, rated me.
"Lazy young wretch! I have to do all your work for you."
This was a wearisome, dull life for me. I was accustomed to live independently in the sandy streets of Kunavin, on the banks of the turbid Oka, in the fields or woods, from morning to night. I was parted from grandmother and from my comrades. I had no one to speak to, and life was showing me her seamy, false side. There were occasions on which a customer went away without making a purchase, when all three would feel themselves affronted. The master would put his sweet smile away in his pocket as he said:
"Kashirin, put these things away." Then he would grumble:
"There's a pig of a woman The fool found it dull sitting at home, so she must come and turn our shop upside down! If you were my wife, I'd give you something!"
His wife, a dried-up woman with black eyes and a large nose, simply made a door-mat of him. She used to scold him as if he were a servant.
Often, after he had shown out a frequent customer with polite bows and pleasant words, they would all begin to talk about her in a vile and shameless manner, arousing in me a desire to run into the street after her and tell her what they said. I knew, of course, that people generally speak evil of one another behind one another's backs, but these spoke of every one in a particularly revolting manner, as if they were in the front rank of good people and had been appointed to judge the rest of the world. Envious of many of them, they were never known to praise any one, and knew something bad about everybody.
One day there came to the shop a young woman with bright, rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes, attired in a velvet cloak with a collar of black fur. Her face rose out of the fur like a wonderful flower. When she had thrown the cloak off her shoulders and handed it to Sascha, she looked still more beautiful. Her fine figure was fitted tightly with a blue-gray silk robe; diamonds sparkled in her ears. She reminded me of "Vassilissa the Beautiful," and I could have believed that she was in truth the governor's wife. They received her with particular respect, bending before her as if she were a bright light, and almost choking themselves in their hurry to get out polite words. All three rushed about the shop like wild things: their reflections bobbed up and down in the glass of the cupboard. But when she left, after having bought some expensive boots in a great hurry, the master, smacking his lips, whistled and said:
"An actress—that sums her up," said the assistant, contemptuously. They began to talk of the lovers of the lady and the luxury in which she lived.
After dinner the master went to sleep in the room behind the shop, and I, opening his gold watch, poured vinegar into the works. It was a moment of supreme joy to me when he awoke and came into the shop, with his watch in his hand, muttering wildly:
"What can have happened? My watch is all wet. I never remember such a thing happening before. It is all wet; it will be ruined."
In addition to the burden of my duties in the shop and the housework, I was weighed down by depression. I often thought it would be a good idea to behave so badly that I should get my dismissal. Snow-covered people passed the door of the shop without making a sound. They looked as if on their way to somebody's funeral. Having meant to accompany the body to the grave, they had been delayed, and, being late for the funeral procession, were hurrying to the grave-side. The horses quivered with the effort of making their way through the snow-drifts. From the belfry of the church behind the shop the bells rang out with a melancholy sound every day. It was Lent, and every stroke of the bell fell upon my brain as if it had been a pillow, not hurting, but stupefying and deafening, me. One day when I was in the yard unpacking a case of new goods just received, at the door of the shop, the watchman of the church, a crooked old man, as soft as if he were made of rags and as ragged as if he had been torn to pieces by dogs, approached me.
"Are you going to be kind and steal some goloshes for me?" he asked.
I was silent. He sat down on an empty case, yawned, made the sign of the cross over his mouth, and repeated:
"Will you steal them for me?"
"It is wrong to steal," I informed him.
"But people steal all the same. Old age must have its compensations."
He was pleasantly different from the people among whom I lived. I felt that he had a firm belief in my readiness to steal, and I agreed to hand him the goloshes through the window.
"That's right," he said calmly, without enthusiasm. "You are not deceiving me? No, I see that you are not."
He was silent for a moment, trampling the dirty, wet snow with the soles of his boots. Then he lit a long pipe, and suddenly startled me.
"But suppose it is I who deceive you? Suppose I take the goloshes to your master, and tell him that you have sold them to me for half a ruble? What then? Their price is two rubles, and you have sold them for half a ruble. As a present, eh?"
I gazed at him dumbly, as if he had already done what he said he would do; but he went on talking gently through his nose, looking at his boots, and blowing out blue smoke.
"Suppose, for example, that your master has said to me, 'Go and try that youngster, and see if he is a thief? What then?"
"I shall not give you the goloshes," I said, angry and frightened.
"You must give them now that you have promised."
He took me by the arm and drew me to him, and, tapping my forehead with his cold fingers, drawled:
"What are you thinking of, with your 'take this' and 'take that'?"
"You asked me for them yourself."
"I might ask you to do lots of things. I might ask you to come and rob the church. Would you do it? Do you think you can trust everybody? Ah, you young fool!" He pushed me away from him and stood up.
"I don't want stolen goloshes. I am not a gentleman, and I don't wear goloshes. I was only making fun of you. For your simplicity, when Easter comes, I will let you come up into the belfry and ring the bells and look at the town."
"I know the town."
"It looks better from the belfry."
Dragging his broken boots in the snow, he went slowly round the corner of the church, and I looked after him, wondering dejectedly and fearfully whether the old man had really been making fun of me, or had been sent by my master to try me. I did not want to go back to the shop.
Sascha came hurriedly into the yard and shouted: "What the devil has become of you?"
I shook my pincers at him in a sudden access of rage. I knew that both he and the assistant robbed the master. They would hide a pair of boots or slippers in the stovepipe, and when they left the shop, would slip them into the sleeves of their overcoats. I did not like this, and felt alarmed about it, for I remembered the threats of the master.
"Are you stealing?" I had asked Sascha.
"Not I, but the assistant," he would explain crossly. "I am only helping him. He says, 'Do as I tell you,' and I have to obey. If I did not, he would do me some mischief. As for master, he was an assistant himself once, and he understands. But you hold your tongue."
As he spoke, he looked in the glass and set his tie straight with just such a movement of his naturally spreading fingers as the senior assistant employed. He was unwearying in his demonstrations of his seniority and power over me, scolding me in a bass voice, and ordering me about with threatening gestures. I was taller than he, but bony and clumsy, while he was compact, flexible, and fleshy. In his frock-coat and long trousers he seemed an important and substantial figure in my eyes, and yet there was something ludicrous and unpleasing about him. He hated the cook, a curious woman, of whom it was impossible to decide whether she was good or bad.
"What I love most in the world is a fight," she said, opening wide her burning black eyes. "I don't care what sort of fight it is, cock-fights, dog-fights, or fights between men. It is all the same to me."
And if she saw cocks or pigeons fighting in the yard, she would throw aside her work and watch the fight to the end, standing dumb and motionless at the window. In the evenings she would say to me and Sascha:
"Why do you sit there doing nothing, children? You had far better be fighting."
This used to make Sascha angry.
"I am not a child, you fool; I am junior assistant."
"That does not concern me. In my eyes, while you remain unmarried, you are a child."
"The devil is clever, but God does not love him."
Her talk was a special source of irritation to Sascha, and he used to tease her; but she would look at him contemptuously, askance, and say:
"Ugh, you beetle! One of God's mistakes!"
Sometimes he would tell me to rub blacking or soot on her face when she was asleep, stick pins into her pillow, or play other practical jokes on her; but I was afraid of her. Besides, she slept very lightly and used to wake up frequently. Lighting the lamp, she would sit on the side of her bed, gazing fixedly at something in the corner. Sometimes she came over to me, where I slept behind the stove, and woke me up, saying hoarsely:
"I can't sleep, Leksyeka. I am not very well. Talk to me a little."
Half asleep, I used to tell her some story, and she would sit without speaking, swaying from side to side. I had an idea that her hot body smelt of wax and incense, and that she would soon die. Every moment I expected to see her fall face downward on the floor and die. In terror I would begin to speak loudly, but she would check me.
"'S-sh! You will wake the whole place up, and they will think that you are my lover."
She always sat near me in the same attitude, doubled up, with her wrists between her knees, squeezing them against the sharp bones of her legs. She had no chest, and even through the thick linen night-dress her ribs were visible, just like the ribs of a broken cask. After sitting a long time in silence, she would suddenly whisper:
"What if I do die, it is a calamity which happens to all." Or she would ask some invisible person, "Well, I have lived my life, have n't I?"
"Sleep!" she would say, cutting me short in the middle of a word, and, straightening herself, would creep noiselessly across the dark kitchen.
"Witch!" Sascha used to call her behind her back.
I put the question to him:
"Why don't you call her that to her face?"
"Do you think that I am afraid to?" But a second later he said, with a frown: "No, I can't say it to her face. She may really be a witch."
Treating every one with the same scornful lack of consideration, she showed no indulgence to me, but would drag me out of bed at six o'clock every morning, crying:
"Are you going to sleep forever? Bring the wood in! Get the samovar ready! Clean the doorplate!"
Sascha would wake up and complain:
"What are you bawling like that for? I will tell the master. You don't give any one a chance to, sleep."
Moving quickly about the kitchen with her lean, withered body, she would flash her blazing, sleepless eyes upon him.
"Oh, it's you, God's mistake? If you were my son, I would give you something!"
Sascha would abuse her, calling her "accursed one," and when we were going to the shop he said to me: "We shall have to do something to get her sent away. We 'll put salt in everything when she's not looking. If everything is cooked with too much salt, they will get rid of her. Or paraffin would do. What are you gaping about?"
"Why don't you do it yourself?"
He snorted angrily:
The cook died under our very eyes. She bent down to pick up the samovar, and suddenly sank to the floor without uttering a word, just as if some one had given her a blow on the chest. She moved over on her side, stretched out her arms, and blood trickled from her mouth.
We both understood in a flash that she was dead, but, stupefied by terror, we gazed at her a long time without strength to say a word. At last Sascha rushed headlong out of the kitchen, and I, not knowing what to do, pressed close to the window in the light. The master came in, fussily squatted down beside her, and touched her face with his finger.
"She is dead; that's certain," he said. "What can have caused it?" He went into the corner where hung a small image of Nikolai Chudovortz and crossed himself; and when he had prayed he went to the door and commanded:
"Kashirin, run quickly and fetch the police!"
The police came, stamped about, received money for drinks, and went. They returned later, accompanied by a man with a cart, lifted the cook by the legs and the head, and carried her into the street. The mistress stood in the doorway and watched them. Then she said to me:
"Wash the floor!"
And the master said:
"It is a good thing that she died in the evening."
I could not understand why it was a good thing. When we went to bed Sascha said to me with unusual gentleness:
"Don't put out the lamp!"
"Are you afraid?"
He covered his head with the blanket, and lay silent a long time. The night was very quiet, as if it were listening for something, waiting for something. It seemed to me that the next minute a bell rang out, and suddenly the whole town was running and shouting in a great terrified uproar.
Sascha put his nose out of the blanket and suggested softly:
"Let's go and lie on the stove together."
"It is hot there."
After a silence he said:
"How suddenly she went off, did n't she? I am sure she was a witch. I can't get to sleep."
"Nor I, either."
He began to tell tales about dead people—how they came out of their graves and wandered till midnight about the town, seeking the place where they had lived and looking for their relations.
"Dead people can only remember the town," he said softly; "but they forget the streets and houses at once."
It became quieter and quieter and seemed to be getting darker. Sascha raised his head and asked:
"Would you like to see what I have got in my trunk?"
I had long wanted to know what he hid in his trunk. He kept it locked with a padlock, and always opened it with peculiar caution. If I tried to peep he would ask harshly:
"What do you want, eh?"
When I agreed, he sat up in bed without putting his feet to the floor, and ordered me in a tone of authority to bring the trunk to the bed, and place it at his feet. The key hung round his neck with his baptismal cross. Glancing round at the dark corners of the kitchen, he frowned importantly, unfastened the lock, blew on the lid of the trunk as if it had been hot, and at length, raising it, took out several linen garments.
The trunk was half-full of chemist's boxes, packets of variously colored tea-paper, and tins which had contained blacking or sardines.
"What is it?"
"You shall see."
He put a foot on each side of the trunk and bent over it, singing softly:
I expected to see toys. I had never possessed any myself, and pretended to despise them, but not without a feeling of envy for those who did possess them. I was very pleased to think that Sascha, such a serious character, had toys, although he hid them shamefacedly; but I quite understood his shame.
Opening the first box, he drew from it the frame of a pair of spectacles, put them on his nose, and, looking at me sternly, said:
"It does not matter about there not being any glasses. This is a special kind of spectacle."
"Let me look through them."
"They would not suit your eyes. They are for dark eyes, and yours are light," he explained, and began to imitate the mistress scolding; but suddenly he stopped, and looked about the kitchen with an expression of fear.
In a blacking tin lay many different kinds of buttons, and he explained to me with pride:
"I picked up all these in the street. All by myself! I already have thirty-seven."
In the third box was a large brass pin, also found in the street; hobnails, worn-out, broken, and whole; buckles off shoes and slippers; brass door-handles, broken bone cane-heads; girls' fancy combs, 'The Dream Book and Oracle;' and many other things of similar value.
When I used to collect rags I could have picked up ten times as many such useless trifles in one month. Sascha's things aroused in me a feeling of disillusion, of agitation, and painful pity for him. But he gazed at every single article with great attention, lovingly stroked them with his fingers, and stuck out his thick lips importantly. His protruding eyes rested on them affectionately and solicitously; but the spectacles made his childish face look comical.
"Why have you kept these things?"
He flashed a glance at me through the frame of the spectacles, and asked:
"Would you like me to give you something?"
"No; I don't want anything."
He was obviously offended at the refusal and the poor impression his riches had made. He was silent a moment; then he suggested quietly:
"Get a towel and wipe them all; they are covered with dust."
When the things were all dusted and replaced, he turned over in the bed, with his face to the wall. The rain was pouring down. It dripped from the roof, and the wind beat against the window. Without turning toward me, Sascha said:
"You wait! When it is dry in the garden I will show you a thing—something to make you gasp."
I did not answer, as I was just dropping off to sleep.
After a few seconds he started up, and began to scrape the wall with his hands. With quivering earnestness, he said:
"I am afraid—Lord, I am afraid! Lord, have mercy upon me! What is it?"
I was numbed by fear at this. I seemed to see the cook standing at the window which looked on the yard, with her back to me, her head bent, and her forehead pressed against the glass, just as she used to stand when she was alive, looking at a cock-fight. Sascha sobbed, and scraped on the wall. I made a great effort and crossed the kitchen, as if I were walking on hot coals, without daring to look around, and lay down beside him. At length, overcome by weariness, we both fell asleep.
A few days after this there was a holiday. We were in the shop till midday, had dinner at home, and when the master had gone to sleep after dinner, Sascha said to me secretly:
I guessed that I was about to see the thing which was to make me gasp. We went into the garden. On a narrow strip of ground between two houses stood ten old lime-trees, their stout trunks covered with green lichen, their black, naked branches sticking up lifelessly, and not one rook's nest between them. They looked like monuments in a graveyard. There was nothing besides these trees in the garden; neither bushes nor grass. The earth on the pathway was trampled and black, and as hard as iron, and where the bare ground was visible under last year's leaves it was also flattened, and as smooth as stagnant water.
Sascha went to a corner of the fence which hid us from the street, stood under a lime-tree, and, rolling his eyes, glanced at the dirty windows of the neighboring house. Squatting on his haunches, he turned over a heap of leaves with his hands, disclosing a thick root, close to which were placed two bricks deeply embedded in the ground. He lifted these up, and beneath them appeared a piece of roof iron, and under this a square board. At length a large hole opened before my eyes, running under the root of the tree.
Sascha lit a match and applied it to a small piece of wax candle, which he held over the hole as he said to me:
"Look in, only don't be frightened."
He seemed to be frightened himself. The piece of candle in his hand shook, and he had turned pale. His lips drooped unpleasantly, his eyes were moist, and he stealthily put his free hand behind his back. He infected me with his terror, and I glanced very cautiously into the depths under the root, which he had made into a vault, in the back of which he had lit three little tapers that filled the cave with a blue light. It was fairly broad, though in depth no more than the inside of a pail. But it was broad, and the sides were closely covered with pieces of broken glass and broken earthenware. In the center, on an elevation, covered with a piece of red cloth, stood a little coffin ornamented with silver paper, half covered with a fragment of material which looked like a brocaded pall. From beneath this was thrust out a little gray bird's claw and the sharp-billed head of a sparrow. Behind the coffin rose a reading-stand, upon which lay a brass baptismal cross, and around which burned three wax tapers, fixed in candlesticks made out of gold and silver paper which had been wrapped round sweets.
The thin flames bowed toward the entrance to the cave. The interior was faintly bright with many colored gleams and patches of light. The odor of wax, the warm smell of decay and soil, beat against my face, made my eyes smart, and conjured up a broken rainbow, which made a great display of color. All this aroused in me such an overwhelming astonishment that it dispelled my terror.
"Is it good?"
"What is it for?"
"It is a chapel," he explained. "Is it like one?"
"I don't know."
"And the sparrow is a dead person. Perhaps there will be relics of him, because he suffered undeservedly."
"Did you find him dead?"
"No. He flew into the shed and I put my cap over him and smothered him."
"Because I chose to."
He looked into my eyes and asked again:
"Is it good?"
Then he bent over the hole, quickly covered it with the board, pressed the bricks into the earth with the iron, stood up, and, brushing the dirt from his knees, asked sternly:
"Why don't you like it?"
"I am sorry for the sparrow."
He stared at me with eyes which were perfectly stationary, like those of a blind person, and, striking my chest, cried:
"Fool, it is because you are envious that you say that you do not like it! I suppose you think that the one in your garden in Kanatnoe Street was better done."
I remembered my summer-house, and said with conviction:
"Certainly it was better."
Sascha pulled off his coat and threw it on the ground, and, turning up his sleeves, spat on his hands and said:
"If that is so, we will fight about it."
I did not want to fight. My courage was undermined by depression; I felt uneasy as I looked at the wrathful face of my cousin. He made a rush at me, struck my chest with his head, and knocked me over. Then he sat astride of me and cried:
"Is it to be life or death?"
But I was stronger than he and very angry. In a few minutes he was lying face downward with his hands behind his head and a rattling in his throat. Alarmed, I tried to help him up, but he thrust me away with his hands and feet. I grew still more alarmed. I went away to one side, not knowing what else to do, and he raised his head and said:
"Do you know what you have brought on yourself? I will work things so that when the master and mistress are not looking I shall have to complain of you, and then they will dismiss you."
He went on scolding and threatening me, and his words infuriated me. I rushed to the cave, took away the stones, and threw the coffin containing the sparrow over the fence into the street. I dug Out all the inside of the cave and trampled it under my feet.
Sascha took my violence strangely. Sitting on the ground, with his mouth partly covered and his eyebrows drawn together, he watched me, saying nothing. When I had finished, he stood up without any hurry, shook out his clothes, threw on his coat, and then said calmly and ominously:
"Now you will see what will happen; just wait a little! I arranged all this for you purposely; it is witchcraft. Aha!"
I sank down as if his words had physically hurt me, and I felt quite cold inside. But he went away without glancing back at me, which accentuated his calmness still more. I made up my mind to run away from the town the next day, to run away from my master, from Sascha with his witchcraft, from the whole of that worthless, foolish life.
The next morning the new cook cried out when she called me:
"Good gracious! what have you been doing to your face?"
"The witchcraft is beginning to take effect," I thought, with a sinking heart.
But the cook laughed so heartily that I also smiled involuntarily, and peeped into her glass. My face was thickly smeared with soot.
"Sascha did this?" I asked.
"Or I," laughed the cook.
When I began to clean the boots, the first boot into which I put my hand had a pin in the lining, which ran into my finger.
"This is his witchcraft!"
There were pins or needles in all the boots, put in so skilfully that they always pricked my palm. Then I took a bowl of cold water, and with great pleasure poured it over the head of the wizard, who was either not awake or was pretending to sleep.
But all the same I was miserable. I was always thinking of the coffin containing the sparrow, with its gray crooked claws and its waxen bill pathetically sticking upward, and all around the colored gleams which seemed to be trying unsuccessfully to form themselves into a rainbow. In my imagination the coffin was enlarged, the claws of the bird grew, stretched upward quivering, were alive.
I made up my mind to run away that evening, but in warming up some food on an oil-stove before dinner I absent-mindedly let it catch fire. When I was trying to put the flames out, I upset the contents of the vessel over my hand, and had to be taken to the hospital. I remember well that oppressive nightmare of the hospital. In what seemed to be a yellow-gray wilderness there were huddled together, grumbling and groaning, gray and white figures in shrouds, while a tall man on crutches, with eyebrows like whiskers, pulled his black beard and roared:
"I will report it to his Eminence!"
The pallet beds reminded me of the coffin, and the patients, lying with their noses upward, were like dead sparrows. The yellow walls rocked, the ceiling curved outward like a sail, the floor rose and fell beside my cot. Everything about the place was hopeless and miserable, and the twigs of trees tapped against the window like rods in some one's hand.
At the door there danced a red-haired, thin dead person, drawing his shroud round him with his thin hands and squeaking:
"I don't want mad people."
The man on crutches shouted in his ear:
"I shall report it to his Eminence!"
Grandfather, grandmother, and every one had told me that they always starved people in hospitals, so I looked upon my life as finished. A woman with glasses, also in a shroud, came to me, and wrote something on a slate hanging at the head of the bed. The chalk broke and fell all over me.
"What is your name?"
"I have no name."
"But you must have one."
"Now, don't be silly, or you will be whipped."
I could well believe that they would whip me; that was why I would not answer her. She made a hissing sound like a cat, and went out noiselessly, also like a cat.
Two lamps were lit. The yellow globes hung down from the ceiling like two eyes, hanging and winking, dazzled, and trying to get closer together.
Some one in the corner said:
"How can I play without a hand?"
"Ah, of course; they have cut off your hand."
I came to the conclusion at once that they cut off a man's hand because he played at cards! What would they do with me before they starved me?
My hands burned and smarted just as if some one were pulling the bones out of them. I cried softly from fright and pain, and shut my eyes so that the tears should not be seen; but they forced their way through my eyelids, and, trickling over my temples, fell into my ears.
The night came. All the inmates threw themselves upon their pallet beds, and hid themselves under gray blankets. Every minute it became quieter. Only some one could be heard muttering in a comer, "It is no use; both he and she are rotters."
I would have written a letter to grandmother, telling her to come and steal me from the hospital while I was still alive, but I could not write; my hands could not be used at all. I would try to find a way of getting out of the place.
The silence of the night became more intense every moment, as if it were going to last forever. Softly putting my feet to the floor, I went to the double door, half of which was open. In the corridor, under the lamp, on a wooden bench with a back to it, appeared a gray, bristling head surrounded by smoke, looking at me with dark, hollow eyes. I had no time to hide myself.
"Who is that wandering about? Come here!"
The voice was not formidable; it was soft. I went to him. I saw a round face with short hair sticking out round it. On the head the hair was long and stuck out in all directions like a silver halo, and at the belt of this person hung a bunch of keys. If his beard and hair had been longer, he would have looked like the Apostle Peter.
"You are the one with the burned hands? Why are you wandering about at night? By whose authority?"
He blew a lot of smoke at my chest and face, and, putting his warm hands on my neck, drew me to him.
"Are you frightened?"
"Every one is frightened when they come here first, but that is nothing. And you need not be afraid of me, of all people. I never hurt any one. Would you like to smoke? No, don't! It is too soon; wait a year or two. And where are your parents? You have none? Ah, well, you don't need them; you will be able to get along without them. Only you must not be afraid, do you see?"
It was a long time since I had come across any one who spoke to me simply and kindly in language that I could understand, and it was inexpressibly pleasant to me to listen to him. When he took me back to my cot I asked him:
"Come and sit beside me."
"All right," he agreed.
"Who are you?"
"I? I am a soldier, a real soldier, a Cossack. And I have been in the wars—well, of course I have! Soldiers live for war. I have fought with the Hungarians, with the Circassians, and the Poles, as many as you like. War, my boy, is a great profession."
I closed my eyes for a minute, and when I opened them, there, in the place of the soldier, sat grandmother, in a dark frock, and he was standing by her. She was saying:
"Dear me! So they are all dead?"
The sun was playing in the room, now gilding every object, then hiding, and then looking radiantly upon us all again, just like a child frolicking.
Babushka bent over me and asked:
"What is it, my darling? They have been mutilating you? I told that old red devil—"
"I will make all the necessary arrangements," said the soldier, going away, and grandmother, wiping the tears from her face, said:
"Our soldier, it seems, comes from Balakhna."
I still thought that I must be dreaming, and kept silence. The doctor came, bandaged my burns, and, behold! I was sitting with grandmother in a cab, and driving through the streets of the town. She told me:
"That grandfather of ours he is going quite out of his mind, and he is so greedy that it is sickening to look at him. Not long ago he took a hundred rubles out of the office-book of Xlist the furrier, a new friend of his. What a set-out there was! E-h-h-h!"
The sun shone brightly, and clouds floated in the sky like white birds. We went by the bridge across the Volga. The ice groaned under us, water was visible under the planks of the bridge, and the golden cross gleamed over the red dome of the cathedral in the market-place.
We met a woman with a broad face. She was carrying an armful of willow-branches. The spring was coming; soon it would be Easter.
"I love you very much, Grandmother!"
This did not seem to surprise her. She answered in a calm voice:
"That is because we are of the same family. But—and I do not say it boastfully—there are others who love me, too, thanks to thee, O Blessed Lady!" She added, smiling:
"She will soon be rejoicing; her Son will rise again! Ah, Variusha, my daughter!"
Then she was silent.
Grandfather met me in the yard; he was on his knees, chopping a wedge with a hatchet. He raised the ax as if he were going to throw it at my head, and then took off his cap, saying mockingly: "How do you do, your Holiness? Your Highness? Have you finished your term of serviced Well, now you can live as you like, yes. U-ugh! you—"
"We know all about it, we know all about it!" said grandmother, hastily waving him away, and when she went into her room to get the samovar ready she told me:
"Grandfather is fairly ruined now. What money there was he lent at interest to his godson Nikolai, but he never got a receipt for it. I don't quite know yet how they stand, but he is ruined; the money is lost. And all this because we have not helped the poor or had compassion on the unfortunate. God has said to Himself, 'Why should I do good to the Kashirins?' and so He has taken everything from us." Looking round, she went on:
"I have been trying to soften the heart of the Lord toward us a little, so that He may not press too hardly on the old man, and I have begun to give a little in charity, secretly and at night, from what I have earned. You can come with me to-day if you like. I have some money—"
Grandfather came in blinking and asked:
"Are you going to have a snack?"
"It is not yours," said grandmother. "However, you can sit down with us if you like; there's enough for you."
He sat down at the table, murmuring:
Everything in the room was in its old place. Only my mother's corner was sadly empty, and on the wall over grandfather's bed hung a sheet of paper on which was inscribed in large, printed letters:
"Jesus save, Life of the world! May Thy holy name be with me all the days and hours of my life!"
"Who wrote that?"
Grandfather did not reply, and grandmother, waiting a little, said with a smile:
"The price of that paper is—a hundred rubles!"
"That is not your business!" cried grandfather. "I give away everything to others."
"It is all right to give now, but time was when you did not give," said grandmother, calmly.
"Hold your tongue!" he shrieked.
This was all as it should be, just like old times.
In the corner, on a box, in a wicker basket, Kolia woke up and looked out, his blue, washed-out eyes hardly visible under their lids. He was grayer, more faded and fragile-looking, than ever. He did not recognize me, and, turning away in silence, closed his eyes. Sad news awaited me in the street. Viakhir was dead. He had breathed his last in Passion Week. Khabi had gone away to live in town. Yaz's feet had been taken off, and he would walk no more.
As he was giving me this information, black-eyed Kostrom said angrily:
"Boys soon die!"
"Well, but only Viakhir is dead."
"It is the same thing. Whoever leaves the streets is as good as dead. No sooner do we make friends, get used to our comrades, than they either are sent into the town to work or they die. There are new people living in your yard at Chesnokov's; Evsyenki is their name. The boy, Niushka, is nothing out of the ordinary. He has two sisters, one still small, and the other lame. She goes about on crutches; she is beautiful!"
After thinking a moment he added:
"Tchurka and I are both in love with her, and quarrel."
"Why with her? Between ourselves. With her—very seldom."
Of course I knew that big lads and even men fell in love. I was familiar also with coarse ideas on this subject. I felt uncomfortable, sorry for Kostrom, and reluctant to look at his angular figure and angry, black eyes.
I saw the lame girl on the evening of the same day. Coming down the steps into the yard, she let her crutch fall, and stood helplessly on the step, holding on to the balustrade with her transparent, thin, fragile hands. I tried to pick up the crutch, but my bandaged hands were not much use, and I had a lot of trouble and vexation in doing it. Meanwhile she, standing above me, and laughing gently, watched me.
"What have you done to your hands?" she said.
"And I—am a cripple. Do you belong to this yard? Were you long in the hospital? I was there a lo-o-ong time." She added, with a sigh, "A very long time."
She had a white dress and light blue overshoes, old, but clean; her smoothly brushed hair fell across her breast in a thick, short plait. Her eyes were large and serious; in their quiet depths burned a blue light which lit up the pale, sharp-nosed face. She smiled pleasantly, but I did not care about her. Her sickly figure seemed to say, "Please don't touch me!" How could my friends be in love with her?
"I have been lame a long time," she told me, willingly and almost boastfully. "A neighbor bewitched me; she had a quarrel with mother, and then bewitched me out of spite. Were you frightened in the hospital?"
I felt awkward with her, and went indoors.
About midnight grandmother tenderly awoke me.
"Are you coming? If you do something for other people, your hand will soon be well."
She took my arm and led me in the dark, as if I had been blind. It was a black, damp night; the wind blew continuously, making the river flow more swiftly and blowing the cold sand against my legs. Grandmother cautiously approached the darkened windows of the poor little houses, crossed herself three times, laid a five-copeck piece and three cracknel biscuits on the window-sills, and crossed herself again. Glancing up into the starless sky, she whispered:
"Holy Queen of Heaven, help these people! We are all sinners in thy sight, Mother dear."
Now, the farther we went from home, the denser and more intense the darkness and silence became. The night sky was pitch black, unfathomable, as if the moon and stars had disappeared forever. A dog sprang out from somewhere and growled at us. His eyes gleamed in the darkness, and I cravenly pressed close to grandmother.
"It is all right," she said; "it is only a dog. It is too late for the devil; the cocks have already begun to crow."
Enticing the dog to her, she stroked it and admonished it:
"Look here, doggie, you must not frighten my grandson."
The dog rubbed itself against my legs, and the three of us went on. Twelve times did grandmother place "secret alms" on a window-sill. It began to grow light: gray houses appeared out of the darkness; the belfry of Napolni Church rose up white like a piece of sugar; the brick wall of the cemetery seemed to become transparent.
"The old woman is tired," said grandmother; "it is time we went home. When the women wake up they will find that Our Lady has provided a little for their children. When there is never enough, a very little comes in useful. O Olesha, our people live so poorly and no one troubles about them!
"The rich man about God never thinks;
Of the terrible judgment he does not dream;
The poor man is to him neither friend nor brother;
All he cares about is getting gold together.
But that gold will be coal in hell!
"That's how it is. But we ought to live for one another, while God is for us all. I am glad to have you with me again."
And I, too, was calmly happy, feeling in a confused way that I had taken part in something which I should never forget. Close to me shivered the brown dog, with its bare muzzle and kind eyes which seemed to be begging forgiveness.
"Will it live with us?"
"What? It can, if it likes. Here, I will give it a cracknel biscuit. I have two left. Let us sit down on this bench. I am so tired."
We sat down on a bench by a gate, and the dog lay at our feet, eating the dry cracknel, while grandmother informed me:
"There's a Jewess living here; she has about ten servants, more or less. I asked her, 'Do you live by the law of Moses?' But she answered, 'I live as if God were with me and mine; how else should I live?'"
I leaned against the warm body of grandmother and fell asleep.
Once more my life flowed on swiftly and full of interest, with a broad stream of impressions bringing something new to my soul every day, stirring it to enthusiasm, disturbing it, or causing me pain, but at any rate forcing me to think. Before long I also was using every means in my power to meet the lame girl, and I would sit with her on the bench by the gate, either talking or in silence. It was pleasant to be silent in her company. She was very neat, and had a voice like a singing bird. She used to tell me prettily of the way the Cossacks lived on the Don, where she had lived with her uncle, who was employed in some oil-works. Then her father, a locksmith, had gone to live at Nijni. "And I have another uncle who serves the czar himself."
In the evenings of Sundays and festivals all the inhabitants of the street used to stand "at the gate." The boys and girls went to the cemetery, the men to the taverns, and the women and children remained in the street. The women sat at the gate on the sand or on a small bench.
The children used to play at a sort of tennis, at skittles, and at sharmazl. The mothers watched the games, encouraging the skilful ones and laughing at the bad players. It was deafeningly noisy and gay. The presence and attention of the "grown-ups" stimulated us; the merest trifles brought into our games extra animation and passionate rivalry. But it seemed that we three, Kostrom, Tchurka, and I, were not so taken up with the game that we had not time, one or the other of us, to run and show off before the lame girl.
"Ludmilla, did you see that I knocked down five of the ninepins in that game of skittles?"
She would smile sweetly, tossing her head.
In old times our little company had always tried to be on the same side in games, but now I saw that Kostrom and Tchurka used to take opposite sides, trying to rival each other in all kinds of trials of skill and strength, often aggravating each other to tears and fights. One day they fought so fiercely that the adults had to interfere, and they had to pour water over the combatants, as if they were dogs. Ludmilla, sitting on a bench, stamped her sound foot on the ground, and when the fighters rolled toward her, pushed them away with her crutch, crying in a voice of fear:
Her face was white, almost livid; her eyes blazed and rolled like a person possessed with a devil.
Another time Kostrom, shamefully beaten by Tchurka in a game of skittles, hid himself behind a chest of oats in the grocer's shop, and crouched there, weeping silently. It was terrible to see him. His teeth were tightly clenched, his cheek-bones stood out, his bony face looked as if it had been turned to stone, and from his black, surly eyes flowed large, round tears. When I tried to console him he whispered, choking back his tears:
"You wait! I'll throw a brick at his head. You'll see."
Tchurka had become conceited; he walked in the middle of the street, as marriageable youths walk, with his cap on one side and his hands in his pocket. He had taught himself to spit through his teeth like a fine bold fellow, and he promised:
"I shall learn to smoke soon. I have already tried twice, but I was sick."
All this was displeasing to me. I saw that I was losing my friends, and it seemed to me that the person to blame was Ludmilla. One evening when I was in the yard going over the collection of bones and rags and all kinds of rubbish, she came to me, swaying from side to side and waving her right hand.
"How do you do?" she said, bowing her head three times. "Has Kostrom been with you? And Tchurka?"
"Tchurka is not friends with us now. It is all your fault. They are both in love with you and they have quarreled."
She blushed, but answered mockingly:
"What next! How is it my fault?"
"Why do you make them fall in love with you?"
"I did not ask them to," she said crossly, and as she went away she added: "It is all nonsense. I am older than they are; I am fourteen. People do not fall in love with big girls."
"A lot you know!" I cried, wishing to hurt her. "What about the shopkeeper, Xlistov's sister? She is quite old, and still she has the boys after her."
Ludmilla turned on me, sticking her crutch deep into the sand of the yard.
"You don't know anything yourself," she said quickly, with tears in her voice and her pretty eyes flashing finely. "That shopkeeper is a bad woman, and I—what am I? I am still a little girl; and—but you ought to read that novel, 'Kamchadalka," the second part, and then you would have something to talk about."
She went away sobbing. I felt sorry for her. In her words was the ring of a truth of which I was ignorant. Why had she embroiled my comrades? But they were in love; what else was there to say?
The next day, wishing to smooth over my difference with Ludmilla, I bought some barley sugar, her favorite sweet, as I knew well.
"Would you like some?"
She said fiercely:
"Go away! I am not friends with you!" But presently she took the barley sugar, observing: "You might have had it wrapped up in paper. Your hands are so dirty!"
"I have washed them, but it won't come off."
She took my hand in her dry, hot hand and looked at it.
"How you have spoiled it!"
"Well, but yours are roughened."
"That is done by my needle. I do a lot of sewing." After a few minutes she suggested, looking round: "I say, let's hide ourselves somewhere and read 'Kamchadalka.' Would you like it?"
We were a long time finding a place to hide in, for every place seemed uncomfortable. At length we decided that the best place was the wash-house. It was dark there, but we could sit at the window, which overlooked a dirty corner between the shed and the neighboring slaughter-house. People hardly ever looked that way. There she used to sit sidewise to the window, with her bad foot on a stool and the sound one resting on the floor, and, hiding her face with the torn book, nervously pronounced many unintelligible and dull words. But I was stirred. Sitting on the floor, I could see how the grave eyes with the two pale-blue flames moved across the pages of the book. Sometimes they were filled with tears, and the girl's voice trembled as she quickly uttered the unfamiliar words, running them into one another unintelligibly. However, I grasped some of these words, and tried to make them into verse, turning them about in all sorts of ways, which effectually prevented me from understanding what the book said.
On my knees slumbered the dog, which I had named "Wind," because he was rough and long, swift in running, and howled like the autumn wind down the chimney.
"Are you listening?" the girl would ask. I nodded my head.
The mixing up of the words excited me more and more, and my desire to arrange them as they would sound in a song, in which each word lives and shines like a star in the sky, became more insistent. When it grew dark Ludmilla would let her pale hand fall on the book and ask:
"Isn't it good? You will see."
After the first evening we often sat in the washhouse. Ludmilla, to my joy, soon gave up reading "Kamchadalka." I could not answer her questions about what she had read from that endless book—endless, for there was a third book after the second part which we had begun to read, and the girl said there was a fourth. What we liked best was a rainy day, unless it fell on a Saturday, when the bath was heated. The rain drenched the yard. No one came out or looked at us in our dark comer. Ludmilla was in great fear that they would discover us.
I also was afraid that we should be discovered. We used to sit for hours at a time, talking about one thing and another. Sometimes I told her some of grandmother's tales, and Ludmilla told me about the lives of the Kazsakas, on the River Medvyedietz.
"How lovely it was there!" she would sigh. "Here, what is it? Only beggars live here."
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