My Childhood, by Maksim Gorky

Chapter V

BEFORE long another nightmare began. One evening when we had finished tea and grandfather and I sat over the Psalter, while grandmother was washing up the cups and saucers, Uncle Jaakov burst into the room, as dishevelled as ever, and bearing a strange resemblance to one of the household brooms. Without greeting us, he tossed his cap into a corner and began speaking rapidly, with excited gestures.

“Mischka is kicking up an utterly uncalled-for row. He had dinner with me, drank too much, and began to show unmistakable signs of being out of his mind; he broke up the crockery, tore up an order which had just been completed it was a woolen dress broke the windows, insulted me and Gregory, and now he is coming here, threatening you. He keeps shouting, ‘I’ll pull father’s beard for him! I’ll kill him!’ so you had better look out.”

Grandfather rose slowly to his feet, resting his hands on the table. He was frowning heavily, and his face seemed to dry up, growing narrow and cruel, like a hatchet.

“Do you hear that, Mother?” he yelled. “What do you think of it, eh? Our own son coming to kill his father! But it is quite time; it is quite time, my children.”

He went up the room, straightening his shoulders, to the door, sharply snapped the heavy iron hook, which fastened it, into its ring, and turned again to Uncle Jaakov saying:

“This is all because you want to get hold of Varvara’s dowry. That ‘s what it is!”

And he laughed derisively in the face of my uncle, who asked in an offended tone:

“What should I want with it?”

“You? I know you!”

Grandmother was silent as she hastily put the cups and saucers away in the cupboard.

“Well?” cried grandfather, laughing bitterly. “Very good! Thank you, my son. Mother, give this fox a poker, or an iron if you like. Now, Jaakov Vassilev, when your brother breaks in, kill him before my eyes!”

My uncle thrust his hands into his pockets and retired into a corner.

“Of course, if you won’t believe me ”

“Believe you?” cried grandfather, stamping his feet. “No! I’ll believe an animal a dog, a hedge-hog even but I have no faith in you. I know you too well. You made him drunk, and then gave him his instructions. Very well! What are you waiting for? Kill me now him or me, you can take your choice!”

Grandmother whispered to me softly: “Run upstairs and look out of the window, and when you see Uncle Michael coming along the street, hurry back and tell us. Run along now! Make haste!”

A little frightened by the threatened invasion of my turbulent uncles, but proud of the confidence placed in me, I leaned out of the window which looked out upon the broad road, now thickly coated with dust through which the lumpy, rough cobblestones were just visible. The street stretched a long way to the left, and crossing the causeway continued to Ostrojni Square, where, firmly planted on the clay soil, stood a gray building with a tower at each of its four corners the old prison, about which there was a suggestion of melancholy beauty. On the right, about three houses away, there was an opening in Syenia Square, which was built round the yellow domicile of the prison officials, and on the leaden-colored fire-tower, on the look-out gallery of the tower, revolved the figures of the watchmen, looking like dogs on chains. The whole square was cut off from the causeway at one end stood a green thicket, and, more to the right, lay the stagnant Dinka Pond, into which, so grandmother used to tell the story, my uncles had thrown my father one winter, with the intention of drowning him. Almost opposite our windows was a lane of small houses of various colors which led to the dumpy, squat church of the “Three Apostles.” If you looked straight at it the roof appeared exactly like a boat turned upside down on the green waves of the garden. Defaced by the snow-storms of a long winter, washed by the continuous rains of autumn, the discolored houses in our street were powdered with dust. They seemed to look at each other with half-closed eyes, like beggars in the church porch, and, like me, they seemed to be waiting for some one, and their open windows had an air of suspicion.

There were a few people moving about the street in a leisurely manner, like thoughtful cockroaches on a warm hearth; a suffocating heat rose up to me, and the detestable odor of pie and carrots and onions cooking forced itself upon me a smell which always made me feel melancholy.

I was very miserable ridiculously, intolerably miserable! My breast felt as if it were full of warm lead which pressed from within and exuded through my ribs. I seemed to feel myself inflating like a bladder, and yet there I was, compressed into that tiny room, under a coffin-shaped ceiling.

There was Uncle Michael peeping from the lane round the corner of the gray houses. He tried to pull his cap down over his ears, but they stuck out all the same. He was wearing a brown pea-jacket and high boots which were very dusty; one hand was in the pocket of his check trousers, and with the other he tugged at his beard. I could not see his face, but he stood almost as if he were prepared to dart across the road and seize grandfather’s house in his rough, black hands. I ought to have run downstairs to say that he had come, but I could not tear myself away from the window, and I waited till I saw my uncle kick the dust about over his gray boots just as if he were afraid, and then cross the road. I heard the door of the wineshop creak, and its glass panels rattle as he opened it, before I ran downstairs and knocked at grandfather’s door.

“Who is it?” he asked gruffly, making no attempt to let me in. “Oh, it ‘s you! Well, what is it?”

“He has gone into the wineshop!”

“All right! Run along!”

“But I am frightened up there.”

“I can’t help that.”

Again I stationed myself at the window. It was getting dark. The dust lay more thickly on the road, and looked almost black; yellow patches of light oozed out from the adjacent windows, and from the house opposite came strains of music played on several stringed instruments melancholy but pleasing. There was singing in the tavern, too; when the door opened the sound of a feeble, broken voice floated out into the street. I recognized it as belonging to the io8 beggar cripple, Nikitoushka a bearded ancient, with one glass eye and the other always tightly closed. When the door banged it sounded as if his song had been cut off with an ax.

Grandmother used to quite envy this beggar-man. After listening to his songs she used to say, with a sigh:

“There ‘s talent for you! What a lot of poetry he knows by heart. It ‘s a gift that ‘s what it is!”

Sometimes she invited him into the yard, where he sat on the steps and sang, or told stories, while grandmother sat beside him and listened, with such exclamations as:

“Go on. Do you mean to tell me that Our Lady was ever at Ryazin?”

To which he would reply in a low voice which carried conviction with it:

“She went everywhere through every province.”

An elusive, dreamy lassitude seemed to float up to me from the street, and place its oppressive weight upon my heart and my eyes. I wished that grandmother would come to me or even grandfather. I wondered what kind of a man my father had been that grandfather and my uncles disliked him so, while grandmother and Gregory and Nyanya Eugenia spoke so well of him. And where was my mother? I thought of her more and more every day, making her the center of all the fairy-tales and old legends related to me by grandmother. The fact that she did not choose to live with her own family increased my respect for her. I imagined her living at an inn on a highroad, with robbers who waylaid rich travelers, and shared the spoils with beggars. Or it might be that she was living in a forest in a cave, of course with good robbers, keeping house for them, and taking care of their stolen gold. Or, again, she might be wandering about the earth reckoning up its treasures, as the robber-chieftainess Engalitchev went with Our Lady, who would say to her, as she said to the robber-chieftainess:

“Do not steal, O grasping slave, The gold and silver from every cave; Nor rob the earth of all its treasure For thy greedy body’s pleasure.”

To which my mother would answer in the words of the robber-chieftainess:

“Pardon, Lady, Virgin Blest! To my sinful soul give rest; Not for myself the gold I take, I do it for my young son’s sake.”

And Our Lady, good-natured, like grandmother, would pardon her, and say:

“Maroushka, Maroushka, of Tartar blood, For you, luckless one, ‘neath the Cross I stood; Continue your journey and bear your load, And scatter your tears o’er the toilsome road. no

But with Russian people please do not meddle; Waylay the Mongol in the woods Or rob the Kalmuck of his goods.”

Thinking of this story, I lived in it, as if it had been a dream. I was awakened by a trampling, a tumult, and howls from below in the sheds and in the yard. I looked out of the window and saw grandfather, Uncle Jaakov, and a man employed by the tavern-keeper the funny-looking bartender, Melyan pushing Uncle Michael through the wicker-gate into the street. He hit out, but they struck him on the arms, the back, and the neck with their hands, and then kicked him. In the end he went flying headlong through the gate, and landed in the dusty road. The gate banged, the latch and the bolt rattled; all that remained of the fray was a much ill-used cap lying in the gateway, and all was quiet.

After lying still for a time, my uncle dragged himself to his feet, all torn and dishevelled, and picking up one of the cobblestones, hurled it at the gate with such a resounding clangor as might have been caused by a blow on the bottom of a cask. Shadowy people crept out of the tavern, shouting, cursing, gesticulating violently; heads were thrust out of the windows of the houses round; the street was alive with people, laughing and talking loudly. It was all like a story which aroused one’s curiosity, but was at the same time unpleasant and full of horrors. Suddenly the whole thing was obliterated; the voices died away, and every one disappeared from my sight.

On a box by the door sat grandmother, doubled up, motionless, hardly breathing. I went and stood close to her and stroked her warm, soft, wet cheeks, but she did not seem to feel my touch, as she murmured over and over again hoarsely:

“O God! have You no compassion left for me and my children”? Lord! have mercy!”

It seems that grandfather had only lived in that house in Polevoi Street for a year from one spring to another yet during that time it had acquired an unpleasant notoriety. Almost every Sunday boys ran about our door, chanting gleefully:

“There ‘s another row going on at the Kashmirins!” Uncle Michael generally put in an appearance in the evening and held the house in a state of siege all night, putting its occupants into a frenzy of fear: sometimes he was accompanied by two or three assistants repulsive-looking loafers of the lowest class. They used to make their way unseen from the causeway to the garden, and, once there, they indulged their drunken whims to the top of their bent, stripping the raspberry and currant bushes, and sometimes making a raid on the washhouse and breaking everything in it which could be broken washing-stools, benches, kettles smashing the stove, tearing up the flooring, and pulling down the framework of the door.

Grandfather, grim and mute, stood at the window listening to the noise made by these destroyers of his property; while grandmother, whose form could not be descried in the darkness, ran about the yard, crying in a voice of entreaty:

“Mischka! what are you thinking of? Mischka!”

For answer, a torrent of abuse in Russian, hideous as the ravings of a madman, was hurled at her from the garden by the brute, who was obviously ignorant of the meaning, and insensible to the effect of the words which he vomited forth.

I knew that I must not run after grandmother at such a time, and I was afraid to be alone, so I went down to grandfather’s room; but directly he saw me, he cried:

“Get out! Curse you!”

I ran up to the garret and looked out on the yard and garden from the dormer-window, trying to keep grandmother in sight. I was afraid that they would kill her, and I screamed, and called out to her, but she did not come to me; only my drunken uncle, hearing my voice, abused my mother in furious and obscene language.

On one of these evenings grandfather was unwell, and as he uneasily moved his head, which was swathed in a towel, upon his pillow, he lamented shrilly:

“For this I have lived, and sinned, and heaped up riches! If it were not for the shame and disgrace of it, I would call in the police, and let them be taken before the Governor tomorrow. But look at the dis grace! What sort of parents are they who bring the law to bear on their children? Well, there ‘s nothing for you to do but to lie still under it, old man!”

He suddenly jumped out of bed, and went, staggeringly, to the window.

Grandmother caught his arm: “Where are you going?” she asked.

“Light up!” he said, breathing hard.

When grandmother had lit the candle, he took the candlestick from her, and holding it close to him, as a soldier would hold a gun, he shouted from the window in loud, mocking tones:

“Hi, Mischka! You burglar! You mangy, mad cur!”

Instantly the top pane of glass was shattered to atoms, and half a brick fell on the table beside grandmother.

“Why don’t you aim straight?” shrieked grandfather hysterically.

Grandmother just took him in her arms, as she would have taken me, and carried him back to bed, saying over and over again in a tone of terror:

“What are you thinking of? What are you thinking of? May God forgive you! I can see that Siberia will be the end of this for him. But in his madness he can’t realize what Siberia would mean.”

Grandfather moved his legs angrily, and sobbing dryly, said in a choked voice:

“Let him kill me!”

From outside came howls, and the sound of trampling feet, and a scraping at walls. I snatched the brick from the table and ran to the window with it, but grandmother seized me in time, and hurling it into a corner, hissed:

“You little devil!”

Another time my uncle came armed with a thick stake, and broke into the vestibule of the house from the yard by breaking in the door as he stood on the top of the dark flight of steps. However, grandfather was waiting for him on the other side, stick in hand, with two of his tenants armed with clubs, and the tall wife of the innkeeper holding a rolling-pin in readiness. Grandmother came softly behind them, murmuring in tones of earnest entreaty:

“Let me go to him! Let me have one word with him!”

Grandfather was standing with one foot thrust forward like the man with the spear in the picture called “The Bear Hunt.” When grandmother ran to him, he said nothing, but pushed her away by a movement of his elbow and his foot. All four were standing in formidable readiness. Hanging on the wall above them was a lantern which cast an unflattering, spasmodic light on their countenances. I saw all this from the top staircase, and I was wishing all the time that I could fetch grandmother to be with me up there.

My uncle had carried out the operation of breaking in the door with vigor and success. It had slipped out of its place and was ready to spring out of the upper hinge the lower one was already broken away and jangled discordantly.

Grandfather spoke to his companions-in-arms in a voice which repeated the same jarring sound:

“Go for his arms and legs, but let his silly head alone, please.”

In the wall, at the side of the door, there was a little window, through which you could just put your head. Uncle had smashed the panes, and it looked, with the splinters sticking out all round it, like some one’s black eye. To this window grandmother rushed, and putting her hand through into the yard, waved it warningly as she cried:

“Mischka! For Christ’s sake go away; they will tear you limb from limb. Do go away!” u6

He struck at her with the stake he was holding. A broad object could be seen distinctly to pass the window and fall upon her hand, and following on this grandmother herself fell; but even as she lay on her back she managed to call out:

“Mischka! Mi i schka! Run!”

“Mother, where are you?” bawled grandfather in a terrific voice.

The door gave way, and framed in the black lintel stood my uncle; but a moment later he had been hurled, like a lump of mud off a spade, down the steps.

The wife of the innkeeper carried grandmother to grandfather’s room, to which he soon followed her, asking morosely:

“Any bones broken?”

“Och! I should think every one of them was broken,” replied grandmother, keeping her eyes closed. “What have you done with him’? What have you done with him?”

“Have some sense!” exclaimed grandfather sternly. “Do you think I am a wild beast”? He is lying in the cellar bound hand and foot, and I ‘ve given him a good drenching with water. I admit it was a bad thing to do; but who caused the whole trouble?”

Grandmother groaned.

“I have sent for the bone-setter. Try and bear it till he comes,” said grandfather, sitting beside her on the bed. “They are ruining us, Mother and in the shortest time possible.”

“Give them what they ask for then.”

“What about Varvara?”

They discussed the matter for a long time grandmother quietly and pitifully, and grandfather in loud and angry tones.

Then a little, humpbacked old woman came, with an enormous mouth, extending from ear to ear; her lower jaw trembled, her mouth hung open like the mouth of a fish, and a pointed nose peeped over her upper lip. Her eyes were not visible. She hardly moved her feet as her crutches scraped along the floor, and she carried in her hand a bundle which rattled.

It seemed to me that she had brought death to grandmother, and darting at her I yelled with all my force:

“Go away!”

Grandfather seized me, not too gently, and, looking very cross, carried me to the attic.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37