BEFORE the departure of the tailor’s wife there had come to live under the flat occupied by my employers a black-eyed young lady, with her little girl and her mother, a gray-haired old woman, everlastingly smoking cigarettes in an amber mouthpiece. The young lady was very beautiful, imperious, and proud. She spoke in a pleasant, deep voice. She looked at every one with head held high and unblinking eyes, as if they were all far away from her, and she could hardly see them. Nearly every day her black soldier-servant, Tuphyaev, brought a thin-legged, brown horse to the steps of her flat. The lady came out in a long, steel-colored, velvet dress, wearing white gauntleted gloves and tan boots. Holding the train of her skirt and a whip with a lilac-colored stone in its handle in one hand, with the other little hand she lovingly stroked the horse’s muzzle. He fixed his great eyes upon her, trembling all over, and softly trampled the soaked ground under his hoofs.
“Robaire, Robaire,” she said in a low voice, and patted the beautiful, arched neck of the steed with a firm hand.
Then setting her foot on the knee of Tuphyaev, she sprang lightly into the saddle, and the horse, prancing proudly, went through the gateway. She sat in the saddle as easily as if she were part of it. She was beautiful with that rare kind of beauty which always seems new and wonderful, and always fills the heart with an intoxicating joy. When I looked at her I thought that Diana of Poitiers, Queen Margot, the maiden La Valliere, and other beauties, heroines of historical novels, were like her.
She was constantly surrounded by the officers of the division which was stationed in the town, and in the evenings they used to visit her, and play the piano, violin, guitar, and dance and sing. The most frequent of her visitors was Major Olessov, who revolved about her on his short legs, stout, red-faced, gray-haired, and as greasy as an engineer on a steamboat. He played the guitar well, and bore himself as the humble, devoted servant of the lady.
As radiantly beautiful as her mother was the little five-year-old, curly-haired, chubby girl. Her great, dark-blue eyes looked about her gravely, calmly expectant, and there was an air of thoughtfulness about her which was not at all childish.
Her grandmother was occupied with housekeeping from morning to night, with the help of Tuphyaev, a morose, taciturn man, and a fat, cross-eyed housemaid. There was no nursemaid, and the little girl lived almost without any notice being taken of her, playing about all day on the front steps or on a heap of planks near them. I often went out to play with her in the evenings, for I was very fond of her. She soon became used to me, and would fall asleep in my arms while I was telling her a story. When this happened, I used to carry her to bed. Before long it came about that she would not go to sleep, when she was put to bed, unless I went to say good night to her. When I went to her, she would hold out her plump hand with a grand air and say:
“Good-by till tomorrow. Grandmother, how ought I to say it?”
“God preserve you!” said the grandmother, blowing a cloud of dark-blue smoke from her mouth and thin nose.
“God preserve you till tomorrow! And now I am going to sleep,” said the little girl, rolling herself up in the bedclothes, which were trimmed with lace.
The grandmother corrected her.
“Not till tomorrow, but for always.”
“But doesn’t tomorrow mean for always?”
She loved the word “tomorrow,” and whatever pleased her specially she carried forward into the future. She would stick into the ground flowers that had been plucked or branches that had been broken by the wind, and say:
“Tomorrow this will be a garden.”
“Tomorrow, some time, I shall buy myself a horse, and ride on horseback like mother.”
She was a clever child, but not very lively, and would often break off in the midst of a merry game to become thoughtful, or ask unexpectedly:
“Why do priests have hair like women?”
If she stung herself with nettles, she would shake her finger at them, saying:
“You wait! I shall pray God to do something vewy bady to you. God can do bad things to every one; He can even punish mama.” Sometimes a soft, serious melancholy descended upon her. She would press close to me, gazing up at the sky with her blue, expectant eyes, and say:
“Sometimes grandmother is cross, but mama never; she on’y laughs. Every one loves her, because she never has any time. People are always coming to see her and to look at her because she is so beautiful. She is ‘ovely, mama is. ‘Oseph says so — ‘ovely!”
I loved to listen to her, for she spoke of a world of which I knew nothing. She spoke willingly and often about her mother, and a new life gradually opened out before me. I was again reminded of Queen Margot, which deepened my faith in books and also my interest in life. One day when I was sitting on the steps waiting for my people, who had gone for a walk, and the little girl had dozed off in my arms, her mother rode up on horseback, sprang lightly to the ground, and, throwing back her head, asked:
“What, is she asleep?”
The soldier Tuphyaev came running to her and took the horse. She stuck her whip into her belt and, holding out her arms, said:
“Give her to me!”
“I’ll carry her in myself.”
“Come on!” cried the lady, as if I had been a horse, and she stamped her foot on the step.
The little girl woke up, blinking, and, seeing her mother, held out her arms to her. They went away.
I was used to being shouted at, but I did not like this lady to shout at me. She had only to give an order quietly, and every one obeyed her.
In a few minutes the cross-eyed maid came out for me. The little girl was naughty, and would not go to sleep without saying good night.
It was not without pride in my bearing toward the mother that I entered the drawing-room, where the little girl was sitting on the knees of her mother, who was deftly undressing her.
“Here he is,” she said. “He has come — this monster.”
“He is not a monster, but my boy.”
“Really? Very good. Well, you would like to give something to your boy, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, I should.”
“A good idea! I will see to it, and you will go to bed.”
“Good-by till tomorrow,” said the little girl, holding out her hand to me. “God preserve you till to — morrow!”
The lady exclaimed in surprise:
“Who taught you to say that? Grandmother?’
When the child had left the room the lady beckoned to me.
“What shall we give you?”
I told her that I did not want anything; but could she let me have a book to read?
She lifted my chin with her warm, scented fingers, and asked, with a pleasant smile:
“So you are fond of reading? Yes; what books have you read?”
When she smiled she looked more beautiful than ever. I confusedly told her the names of several books.
“What did you find to like in them?” she asked, laying her hand on the table and moving her fingers slightly.
A strong, sweet smell of some sort of flowers came from her, mixed with the odor of horse-sweat. She looked at me through her long eyelashes, thoughtfully grave. No one had ever looked at me like that before.
The room was packed as tightly as a bird’s nest with beautiful, soft furniture. The windows were covered with thick green curtains; the snowy white tiles of the stove gleamed in the half-light; beside the stove shone the glossy surface of a black piano; and from the walls, in dull-gold frames, looked dark writings in large Russian characters. Under each writing hung a large dark seal by a cord. Everything about her looked at that woman as humbly and timidly as I did.
I explained to her as well as I could that my life was hard and uninteresting and that reading helped me to forget it.
“Yes; so that’s what it is,” she said, standing up. “It is not a bad idea, and, in fact, it is quite right. Well, what shall we do? I will get some books for you, but just now I have none. But wait! You can have this one.”
She took a tattered book with a yellow cover from the couch.
“When you have read this I will give you the second volume; there are four.”
I went away with the “Secrets of Peterburg,” by Prince Meshtcheski, and began to read the book with great attention. But before I had read many pages I saw that the Peterburgian “secrets” were considerably less interesting than those of Madrid, Lon — don, or Paris. The only part which took my fancy was the fable of Svoboda (Liberty) and Palka (stick).
“I am your superior,” said Svoboda, “because I am cleverer.”
But Palka answered her:
“No, it is I who am your superior, because I am stronger than you.”
They disputed and disputed and fought about it. Palka beat Svoboda, and, if I remember rightly, Svoboda died in the hospital as the result of her injuries.
There was some talk of nihilists in this book. I remember that, according to Prince Meshtcheski, a ni — hilist was such a poisonous person that his very glance would kill a fowl. What he wrote about nihilists struck me as being offensive and rude, but I un derstood nothing else, and fell into a state of melan — choly. It was evident that I could not appreciate good books; for I was convinced that it was a good book. Such a great and beautiful lady could never read bad books.
“Well, did you like it?” she asked me when I took back the yellow novel by Meshtcheski.
I found it very hard to answer no; I thought it would make her angry. But she only laughed, and going behind the portiere which led into her sleeping-chamber, brought back a little volume in a binding of dark — blue morocco leather.
“You will like this one, only take care not to soil it.”
This was a volume of Pushkin’s poems. I read all of them at once, seizing upon them with a feeling of greed such as I experienced whenever I happened to visit a beautiful place that I had never seen before. I always tried to run all over it at once. It was like roaming over mossy hillocks in a marshy wood, and suddenly seeing spread before one a dry plain covered with flowers and bathed in sunrays. For a second one gazes upon it enchanted, and then one begins to race about happily, and each contact of one’s feet with the soft growth of the fertile earth sends a thrill of joy through one.
Pushkin had so surprised me with the simplicity and music of poetry that for a long time prose seemed unnatural to me, and it did not come easy to read it. The prologue to “Ruslan” reminded me of grandmother’s best stories, all wonderfully compressed into one, and several lines amazed me by their striking truth.
There, by ways which few observe, Are the trails of invisible wild creatures.
I repeated these wonderful words in my mind, and I could see those footpaths so familiar to me, yet hardly visible to the average being. I saw the mysterious footprints which had pressed down the grass, which had not had time to shake off the drops of dew, as heavy as mercury. The full, sounding lines of poetry were easily remembered. They adorned everything of which they spoke as if for a festival. They made me happy, my life easy and pleasant. The verses rang out like bells heralding me into a new life. What happiness it was to be educated!
The magnificent stories of Pushkin touched me more closely, and were more intelligible to me than anything I had read. When I had read them a few times I knew them by heart, and when I went to bed I whispered the verses to myself, with my eyes closed, until I fell asleep. Very often I told these stories to the orderlies, who listened and laughed, and abused me jokingly. Sidorov stroked my head and said softly:
“That’s fine, isn’t it? O Lord —”
The awakening which had come to me was noticed by my employers. The old lady scolded me.
“You read too much, and you have not cleaned the samovar for four days, you young monkey! I shall have to take the rolling-pin to you — ”
What did I care for the rolling-pin? I took refuge in verses.
Loving black evil with all thy heart, O old witch that thou art!
The lady rose still higher in my esteem. See what books she read! She was not like the tailor’s porcelain wife.
When I took back the book, and handed it to her with regret, she said in a tone which invited confidence:
“Did you like it? Had you heard of Pushkin before?”
I had read something about the poet in one of the newspapers, but I wanted her to tell me about him, so I said that I had never heard of him.
Then she briefly told me the life and death of Pushkin, and asked, smiling like a spring day:
“Do you see how dangerous it is to love women?”
All the books I had read had shown me it was really dangerous, but also pleasant, so I said:
“It is dangerous, yet every one falls in love. And women suffer for love, too.”
She looked at me, as she looked at every one, through her lashes, and said gravely:
“You think so? You understand that? Then the best thing I can wish you is that you may not forget it.”
And then she asked me what verses I liked best.
I began to repeat some from memory, with gesticulations. She listened silently and gravely, then rose, and, walking up and down the room, said thoughtfully:
“We shall have to have you taught, my little wild animal. I must think about it.,Your employers — are they relatives of yours?”
When I answered in the affirmative she exclaimed: “Oh!” as if she blamed me for it.
She gave me “The Songs of Beranger,” a special edition with engravings, gilt edges, and a red leather binding. These songs made me feel giddy, with their strange mixture of bitter grief and boisterous happiness.
With a cold chill at my heart I read the bitter words of “The Old Beggar.”
Homeless worm, have I disturbed you?
Crush me under your feet!
Why be pitiful? Crush me quickly!
Why is it that you have never taught me,
Nor given me an outlet for my energy?
From the grub an ant might have come.
I might have died in the love of my fellows.
But dying as an old tramp,
I shall be avenged on the world!
And directly after this I laughed till I cried over the “Weeping Husband.” I remembered especially the words of Beranger:
A happy science of life
Is not hard for the simple.
Beranger aroused me to moods of joyfulness, to a desire to be saucy, and to say something rude to people, — rude, sharp words. In a very short time I had become proficient in this art. His verses I learned by heart, and recited them with pleasure to the orderlies, running into the kitchen, where they sat for a few minutes at a time.
But I soon had to give this up because the lines,
But such a hat is not becoming To a young girl of seventeen, gave rise to an offensive conversation about girls that made me furiously disgusted, and I hit the soldier Ermokhin over the head with a saucepan. Sidorov and the other orderlies tore me away from his clumsy hands, but I made up my mind from that time to go no more to the officers’ kitchen.
I was not allowed to walk about the streets. In fact, there was no time for it, since the work had so increased. Now, in addition to my usual duties as housemaid, yardman, and errand-boy, I had to nail calico to wide boards, fasten the plans thereto, and copy calculations for my master’s architectural work. I also had to verify the contractor’s accounts, for my master worked from morning to night, like a machine.
At that time the public buildings of the Yarmarka 5 were private property. Rows of shops were built very rapidly, and my master had the contracts for the reconstruction of old shops and the erection of new ones. He drew up plans for the rebuilding of vaults, the throwing out of a dormer-window, and such changes. I took the plans to an old architect, together with an envelop in which was hidden paper money to the value of twenty-five rubles. The architect took the money, and wrote under the plans: “The plans are correct, and the inspection of the work has been performed by me. Imraik.” As a matter of fact, he had not seen the original of the plans, and he could not inspect the work, as he was always obliged to stay at home by reason of his malady.
I used to take bribes to the inspector of the Yarmarka and to other necessary people, from whom I re — ceived what the master called papers, which permitted all kinds of illegalities. For this service I obtained the right to wait for my employers at the door on the front steps when they went out to see their friends in the evenings. This did not often happen, but when it did, they never returned until after midnight. I used to sit at the top of the steps, or on the heap of planks opposite them, for hours, looking into the windows of my lady’s flat, thirstily listening to the gay conversation and the music.
The windows were open. Through the curtains and the screen of flowers I could see the fine figures of officers moving about the room. The rotund major waddled about, and she floated about, dressed with astonishing simplicity, but beautifully.
In my own mind I called her “Queen Margot.”
“This is the gay life that they write about in French books,” I thought, looking in at the window. And I always felt rather sad about it. A childish jealousy made it painful for me to see “Queen Margot” surrounded by men, who buzzed about her like bees over flowers.
Her least-frequent visitor was a tall, unhappy-looking officer, with a furrowed brow and deep-sunken eyes, who always brought his violin with him and played marvelously — so marvelously that the passers-by used to stop under the window, and all the dwellers in the street used to gather round. Even my employers, if they happened to be at home, would open the window, listen, and praise. I never remember their praising any one else except the subdeacon of the cathedral, and I knew that a fish-pie was more pleasing to them than any kind of music.
Sometimes this officer sang, or recited verses in a muffled voice, sighing strangely and pressing his hand to his brow. Once when I was playing under the window with the little girl and “Queen Margot” asked him to sing, he refused for a long time. Then he said clearly:
“Only a song has need of beauty, While beauty has no need of songs.”
I thought these lines were lovely, and for some reason I felt sorry for the officer.
What I liked best was to look at my lady when she sat at the piano, alone in the room, and played. Music intoxicated me, and I could see nothing but the window, and beyond that, in the yellow light of the lamp, the finely formed figure of the woman, with her haughty profile and her white hands hovering like birds over the keys. I gazed at her, listened to the plaintive music, and dreamed. If I could find some treasure, I would give it all to her, so that she should be rich. If I had been Skobelev, I would have declared war on the Turks again. I would have taken money for ransoms, and built a house for her on the Otkossa, the best site in the whole town, and made her a present of it. If only she would leave this street, where every one talked offensively about her. The neighbors, the servants belonging to our yard, and my employers more than all spoke about “Queen Margot” as evilly and spitefully as they had talked about the tailor’s wife, though more cautiously, with lowered voices, and looking about them as they spoke.
They were afraid of her, probably because she was the widow of a very distinguished man. The writings on the walls of her rooms, too, were privileges be — stowed on her husband’s ancestors by the old Russian emperors Goudonov, Alexei, and Peter the Great. This was told me by the soldier Tuphyaev, a man of education, who was always reading the gospels. Or it may have been that people were afraid lest she should thrash them with her whip with the lilac-colored stone in the handle. It was said that she had once struck a person of position with it.
But words — uttered under the breath are no better than words uttered aloud. My lady lived in a cloud of enmity — an enmity which I could not understand and which, tormented me.
Now that I knew there was another life; that there were different people, feelings, and ideas, this house and all its tenants aroused in me a feeling of disgust that oppressed me more and more. It was entangled in the meshes of a dirty net of disgraceful tittle-tattle, there was not a single person in it of whom evil was not spoken. The regimental chaplain, though he was ill and miserable, had a reputation for being a drunkard and a rake; the officers and their wives were living, according to my employers, in a state of sin; the soldiers’ conversation about women, which ran on the same lines, had become repulsive to me. But my employers disgusted me most of all. I knew too well the real value of their favorite amusement, namely, the merciless judgment of other people. Watching and com menting on the crimes of others was the only amuse — ment in which they could indulge without paying for it. They amused themselves by putting those about them verbally on the rack, and, as it were, revenged themselves on others because they lived so piously, laboriously, and uninterestingly themselves.
When they spoke vilely about “Queen Margot” I was seized by a convulsion of feeling which was not childish at all. My heart swelled with hatred for the backbiters. I was overcome by an irresistible desire to do harm to every one, to be insolent, and sometimes a flood of tormenting pity for myself and every one else swept over me. That dumb pity was more painful than hatred.
I knew more about my queen than they did, and I was always afraid that they would find out what I knew.
On Sundays, when my employers had gone to the cathedral for high mass, I used to go to her the first thing in the morning. She would call me into her bedroom, and I sat in a small armchair, upholstered in gold-colored silk, with the little girl on my knee, and told the mother about the books I had read. She lay in a wide bed, with her cheek resting on her small hands, which were clasped together. Her body was hidden under a counterpane, gold in color, like everything else in the bedroom; her dark hair lay in a plait over her swarthy shoulder and her breast, and sometimes fell over the side of the bed till it touched the floor.
As she listened to me she looked into my face with her soft eyes and a hardly perceptible smile and said:
Even her kind smile was, in my eyes, the condescending smile of a queen. She spoke in a deep, tender voice, and it seemed to me that it said always:
“I know that I am immeasurably above all other people; no one of them is necessary to me.”
Sometimes I found her before her mirror, sitting in a low chair and doing her hair, the ends of which lay on her knees, over the arms, and back of the chair, and fell almost to the floor. Her hair was as long and thick as grandmother’s. She put on her stockings in my presence, but her clean nudity aroused in me no feeling of shame. I had only a joyful feeling of pride in her. A flowerlike smell always came from her, protecting her from any evil thoughts concerning her.
I felt sure that the love of the kitchen and the pantry was unknown to Queen Margot. She knew something different, a higher joy, a different kind of love.
But one day, late in the afternoon, on going into her drawing-room, I heard from the bedroom the ringing laugh of the lady of my heart. A masculine voice said:
“Wait a minute! Good Lord! I can’t believe — ” I ought to have gone away. I knew that, but I could not.
“Who is that?” she asked. “You? Come in!” The bedroom was heavy with the odor of flowers. It was darkened, for the curtains were drawn. Queen Margot lay in bed, with the bedclothes drawn up to her chin, and beside her, against the wall, sat, clad only in his shirt, with his chest bared, the officer violinist. On his breast was a scar which lay like a red streak from the right shoulder to the nipple and was so vivid that even in the half-light I could see it distinctly. The hair of the officer was ruffled comically, and for the first time I saw a smile on his sad, furrowed countenance. He was smiling strangely. His large, feminine eyes looked at the “queen” as if it were the first time he had gazed upon her beauty.
“This is my friend,” said Queen Margot. I did not know whether she were referring to me or to him.
“What are you looking so frightened about?” I heard her voice as if from a distance. “Come here.”
When I went to her she placed her hands on my bare neck and said:
“You will grow up and you will be happy. Go along!”
I put the book on the shelf, took another, and went away as best I could.
Something seemed to grate in my heart. Of course I did not think for a moment that my queen loved as other women nor did the officer give me reason to think so. I saw his face before me, with that smile. He was smiling for joy, like a child who has been pleasantly surprised, and his sad face was wonderfully transfigured. He had to love her. Could any one not love her? And she also had cause to bestow her love upon him generously. He played so wonderfully, and could quote poetry so touchingly.
But the very fact that I had to find these consolations showed me clearly that all was not well with my attitude toward what I had seen or even toward Queen Margot herself. I felt that I had lost something, and I lived for several days in a state of deep dejection. One day I was turbulently and recklessly insolent, and when I went to my lady for a book, she said to me sternly:
“You seem to be a desperate character from what I have heard. I did not know that.”
I could not endure this, and I began to explain how nauseating I found the life I had to lead, and how hard it was for me to hear people speaking ill of her. Standing in front of me, with her hand on my shoulder, she listened at first attentively and seriously; but soon she was laughing and pushing me away from her gently.
“That will do; I know all about it. Do you understand? I know.”
Then she took both my hands and said to me very tenderly:
“The less attention you pay to all that, the better for you. You wash your hands very badly.”
She need not have said this. If she had had to clean the brasses, and wash the floor and the dirty cloths, her hands would not have been any better than mine, I think.
“When a person knows how to live, he is slandered; they are jealous of him. And if he doesn’t know how to live, they despise him,” she said thoughtfully, drawing me to her, and looking into my eyes with a smile. “Do you love me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Thank you! You are a good boy. I like people to love me.” She smiled, looked as if she were going to say something more, but remained silent, still keeping me in her arms. “Come oftener to see me; come whenever you can.”
I took advantage of this, and she did me a lot of good. After dinner my employers used to lie down, and I used to run downstairs. If she was at home, I would stay with her for an hour and sometimes even longer.
“You must read Russian books; you must know all about Russian life.”
She taught me, sticking hair-pins into her fragrant hair with rosy fingers. And she enumerated the Russian authors, adding:
“Will you remember them?”
She often said thoughtfully, and with an air of slight vexation:
“We must have you taught, and I am always forgetting. Ach, my God!”
After sitting with her, I ran downstairs with a new book in my hands, feeling as if I had been washed inside.
I had already read Aksakov’s “Family Chronicle,” the glorious Russian poem “In the Forests,” the amazing “Memoirs of a Hunter,” several volumes of Greb — enkov and Solugub, and the poetry of Venevitinov, Odoevski, and Tutchev. These books laved my soul, washing away the husks of barren and bitter reality. I felt that these were good books, and realized that they were indispensable to me. One result of reading them was that I gained a firm conviction that I was not alone in the world, and the fact that I should not be lost took root in my soul.
When grandmother came to see me I used to tell her joyfully about Queen Margot, and she, taking a pinch of snuff with great enjoyment, said heartily:
Well, well; that is very nice. You see, there are plenty of good people about. You only have to look for them, and then you will find them.”
And one day she suggested:
“How would it be if I went to her and said thank you for what she does for you?”
“No; it is better not.”
“Well, if you don’t want me to Lord! Lord! how good it all is! I would like to go on living for ever and ever!”
Queen Margot never carried out her project of having me taught, for an unpleasant affair happened on the feast of the Holy Trinity that nearly ruined me.
Not long before the holiday my eyelids became terribly swollen, and my eyes were quite closed up. My employers were afraid that I should go blind, and I also was afraid. They took me to the well-known doctor, Genrikh Rodzevich, who lanced my eyelids and for days I lay with my eyes bandaged, in tormenting, black misery. The day before the feast of the Trinity my bandages were taken off, and I walked about once more, feeling as if I had come back from a grave in which I had been laid alive. Nothing can be more terrible than to lose one’s sight. It is an unspeakable injury which takes away a hundred worlds from a man.
The joyful day of the Holy Trinity arrived, and, as an invalid, I was off duty from noon and went to the kitchen to pay a visit to the orderlies. All of them, even the strict Tuphyaev, were drunk, and toward evening Ermokhin struck Sidorov on the head with a block of wood. The latter fell senseless to the ground, and Ermokhin, terrified, ran out to the causeway.
An alarming rumor that Sidorov had been murdered soon spread over the yard. People gathered on the steps and looked at the soldier stretched motionless across the threshold. There were whispers that the police ought to be sent for, but no one went to fetch them, and no one could be persuaded to touch the soldier.
Then the washerwoman Natalia Kozlovski, in a new, blue frock, with a white neckerchief, appeared on the scene. She pushed the people aside angrily, went into the entrance passage, squatted down, and said loudly:
“Fools! He is alive! Give me some water!”
They began to protest.
“Don’t meddle with what is not your business!”
“Water, I tell you!” she cried, as if there were a fire. She lifted her new frock over her knees in a businesslike manner, spread out her underskirt, and laid the soldier’s bleeding head on her knees.
The crowd dispersed, disapproving and fearful.
In the dim light of the passage I could see the eyes of the washerwoman full of tears, flashing angrily in her white, round face. I took her a pail of water, and she ordered me to throw it over the head and breast of Sidorov with the caution:
“Don’t spill it over me. I am going to pay a visit to some friends.”
The soldier came to himself, opened his dull eyes, and moaned.
“Lift him up,” said Natalia, holding him under the armpits with her hands outstretched lest he should soil her frock. We carried the soldier into the kitchen and laid him on the bed. She wiped his face with a wet cloth, and went away, saying:
“Soak the cloth in water and hold it to his head. I will go and find that fool. Devils! I suppose they won’t be satisfied until they have drunk themselves into prison.”
She went out, after slipping her soiled under-petticoat to the floor, flinging it into a corner and carefully smoothing out her rustling, crumpled frock.
Sidorov stretched himself, hiccupped, sighed. Warm drops of thick blood fell on my bare feet from his head. This was unpleasant, but I was too frightened to move my feet away from those drops.
It was bitter. The sun shone festively out in the yard; the steps of the houses and the gate were decorated with young birch; to each pedestal were tied freshly cut branches of maple and mountain ash. The whole street was gay with foliage; everything was young, new. Ever since the morning I had felt that the spring holiday had come to stay, and that it had made life cleaner, brighter, and happier.
The soldier was sick. The stifling odor of warm vodka and green onion filled the kitchen. Against the window were pressed dull, misty, broad faces, with flattened noses, and hands held against their cheeks, which made them look hideous.
The soldier muttered as he recollected himself:
“What happened to me? Did I fall, Ermokhin? Go-o-od comrade!” Then he began to cough, wept drunken tears, and groaned, “My little sister! my little sister!”
He stood up, tottering, wet. He staggered, and, falling back heavily upon the bed, said, rolling his eyes strangely:
“They have quite killed me!”
This struck me as funny.
“What the devil are you laughing at?” he asked, looking at me dully. “What is there to laugh at? I am killed forever!”
He began to hit out at me with both hands, muttering:
“The first time was that of Elias the prophet; the second time, St. George on his steed; the third — Don’t come near me! Go away, wolf!”
“Don’t be a fool!” I said.
He became absurdly angry, roared, and stamped his feet.
“I am killed, and you — ”
With his heavy, slow, dirty hand he struck me in the eyes. I set up a howl, and blindly made for the yard, where I ran into Natalia leading Ermokhin by the arm, crying: “Come along, horse! What is the matter with you?” she asked, catching hold of me.
“He has come to himself.”
“Come to himself, eh?” she drawled in amazement. And drawing Ermokhin along, she said, “Well, werwolf, you may thank your God for this!”
I washed my eyes with water, and, looking through the door of the passage, saw the soldiers make their peace, embracing each other and crying. Then they both tried to embrace Natalia, but she hit out at them, shouting:
“Take your paws off me, curs! What do you take me for? Make haste and get to sleep before your masters come home, or there will be trouble for you!”
She made them lie down as if they were little children, the one on the floor, the other on the pallet — bed, and when they began to snore, came out into the porch.
“I am in a mess, and I was dressed to go out visiting, too! Did he hit you”? What a fool! That’s what it does — vodka! Don’t drink, little fellow, never drink.”
Then I sat on the bench at the gate with her, and asked how it was that she was not afraid of drunken people.
“I am not afraid of sober people, either. If they come near me, this is what they get!” She showed me her tightly clenched, red list. “My dead husband was also given to drink too much, and once when he was drunk I tied his hands and feet. When he had slept it off, I gave him a birching for his health. ‘Don’t drink; don’t get drunk when you are married,’ I said. ‘Your wife should be your amusement, and not vodka.’ Yes, I scolded him until I was tired, and after that he was like wax in my hands.”
“You are strong,” I said, remembering the woman Eve, who deceived even God Himself.
Natalia replied, with a sigh:
“A woman needs more strength than a man. She has to have strength enough for two, and God has bestowed it upon her. Man is an unstable creature.”
She spoke calmly, without malice, sitting with her arms folded over her large bosom, resting her back against the fence, her eyes fixed sadly on the dusty gutter full of rubbish. Listening to her clever talk, I forgot all about the time. Suddenly I saw my master coming along arm in arm with the mistress. They were walking slowly, pompously, like a turkey-cock with his hen, and, looking at us attentively, said something to each other.
I ran to open the front door for them, and as she came up the steps the mistress said to me, venomously:
“So you are courting the washerwoman? Are you learning to carry on with ladies of that low class?”
This was so stupid that it did not even annoy me but I felt offended when the master said, laughing:
“What do you expect? It is time.”
The next morning when I went into the shed for the wood I found an empty purse, in the square hole which was made for the hook of the door. As I had seen it many times in the hands of Sidorov I took it to him at once.
“Where is the money gone?” he asked, feeling inside the purse with his fingers. “Thirty rubles there were! Give them here!”
His head was enveloped in a turban formed of a towel. Looking yellow and wasted, he blinked at me angrily with his swollen eyes, and refused to believe that I had found the purse empty.
Ermokhin came in and backed him up, shaking his head at me.
“It is he who has stolen it. Take him to his master. Soldiers do not steal from soldiers.”
These words made me think that he had stolen the money himself and had thrown the purse into my shed. I called out to his face, without hesitation:
“Liar! You stole it yourself!”
I was convinced that I had guessed right when I saw his wooden face drawn crooked with fear and rage. As he writhed, he cried shrilly:
How could I prove it? Ermokhin dragged me, with a shout, across the yard. Sidorov followed us, also shouting. Several people put their heads out of the windows. The mother of Queen Margot looked on, smoking calmly. I realized that I had fallen in the esteem of my lady, and I went mad.
I remember the soldiers dragging me by the arms and my employers standing before them, sympathetically agreeing with them, as they listened to the com plaint. Also the mistress saying:
“Of course he took it! He was courting the washerwoman at the gate last evening, and he must have had some money. No one gets anything from her without money.”
“That’s true,” cried Ermokhin.
I was swept off my feet, consumed by a wild rage. I began to abuse the mistress, and was soundly beaten.
But it was not so much the beating which tortured me as the thought of what my Queen Margot was now thinking of me. How should I ever set myself right in her eyes? Bitter were my thoughts in that dreadful time. I did not strangle myself only because I had not the time to do so.
Fortunately for me, the soldiers spread the story over the whole yard, the whole street, and in the evening, as I lay in the attic, I heard the loud voice of Natalia Kozlovski below.
“No! Why should I hold my tongue? No, my dear fellow, get away! Get along with you! Go away, I say! If you don’t, I will go to your gentleman, and he will give you something!”
I felt at once that this noise was about me. She was shouting near our steps; her voice rang out loudly and triumphantly.
“How much money did you show me yesterday? Where did you get it from? Tell us!”
Holding my breath with joy, I heard Sidorov drawl sadly:
“Ate, aze! Ermokhin — ”
“And the boy has had the blame for it? He has been beaten for it, eh?”
I felt like running down to the yard, dancing there for joy, kissing the washerwoman out of gratitude; but at that moment, apparently from the window, my mistress cried:
“The boy was beaten because he was insolent. No one believed that he was a thief except you, you slut!”
“Slut yourself, madam! You are nothing better than a cow, if you will permit me to say so.”
I listened to this quarrel as if it were music. My heart burned with hot tears of self-pity, and gratitude to Natalia. I held my breath in the effort to keep them back.
Then the master came slowly up to the attic, sat on a projecting beam near me, and said, smoothing his hair:
“Well, brother Pyeshkov, and so you had nothing to do with it?”
I turned my face away without speaking.
“All the same, your language was hideous,” he went on. I announced quietly:
“As soon as I can get up I shall leave you.”
He sat on in silence, smoking a cigarette. Looking fixedly at its end, he said in a low voice:
“What of it? That is your business. You are not a little boy any longer; you must look about and see what is the best thing for yourself.”
Then he went away. As usual, I felt sorry for him.
Four days after this I left that house. I had a passionate desire to say good-by to Queen Margot, but I had not the audacity to go to her, though I confess I thought that she would have sent for me herself.
When I bade good-by to the little girl I said:
“Tell your mother that I thank her very much, will you?”
“Yes, I will,” she promised, and she smiled lovingly and tenderly. “Good-by till tomorrow, eh? Yes?”
I met her again twenty years later, married to an officer in the gendarmerie.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55