THE snow melted away from the fields; the wintry clouds in the sky passed away; wet snow and rain fell upon the earth; the sun was slower and slower in performing his daily journey; the air grew warmer; and it seemed that the joyful spring had already arrived, sportively hiding herself behind the fields, and would soon burst upon the town itself. In the streets there was brown mud; streams ran along the gutters; in the thawed places of Arestantski Square the sparrows hopped joyfully. And in human creatures, also, was apparent the same excitement as was shown by the sparrows. Above the sounds of spring, almost uninterruptedly from morning to night, rang out the Lenten bells, stirring one’s heart with their muffled strokes. In that sound, as in the speech of an old man, there was hidden something of displeasure, as if the bells had said with cold melancholy: “Has been, this has been, has been — ” On my nameday the workmen gave me a small, beautifully painted image of Alexei, the man of God, and Jikharev made an impressive, long speech, which I remember very well.
“What are you?” said he, with much play of finger and raising of eyebrows. “Nothing more than a small boy, an orphan, thirteen years old — and I, nearly four times your age, praise you and approve of you, because you always stand with your face to people and not sideways! Stand like that always, and you will be all right!”
He spoke of the slaves of God, and of his people, but the difference between people and slaves I could never understand, and I don’t believe that he understood it himself. His speech was long-winded, the workshop was laughing at him, and I stood, with the image in my hand, very touched and very confused, not knowing what I ought to do. At length Kapendiukhin called out irritably:
“Oh, leave off singing his praises; his ears are already turning blue!”
Then clapping me on the shoulder, he began to praise me himself:
“What is good in you is what you have in common with all human creatures, and not the fact that it is difficult to scold and beat you when you have given cause for it!”
They all looked at me with kind eyes, making good-natured fun of my confusion. A little more and I believe I should have burst out crying from the unexpected joy of finding myself valued by these people. And that very morning the shopman had said to Petr Vassilich, nodding his head toward me:
“An unpleasant boy that, and good for nothing!”
As usual I had gone to the shop in the morning, but at noon the shopman had said to me:
“Go home and clear the snow off the roof of the warehouse, and clean out the cellar.”
That it was my name-day he did not know, and I had thought that no one knew it. When the ceremony of congratulations had finished in the work — shop, I changed my clothes and climbed up to the roof of the shed to throw off the smooth, heavy snow which had accumulated during that winter. But being excited, I forgot to close the door of the cellar, and threw all the snow into it. When I jumped down to the ground, I saw my mistake, and set myself at once to get the snow away from the door. Being wet, it lay heavily; the wooden spade moved it with difficulty; there was no iron one, and I broke the spade at the very moment when the shopman appeared at the yard-gate. The truth of the Russian proverb, “Sorrow follows on the heels of joy,” was proved to me.
“So — o — o!” said the shopman derisively, “you are a fine workman, the devil take you! If I get hold of your senseless blockhead — “ He flourished the blade of the shovel over me.
I move away, saying angrily:
“I wasn’t engaged as a yardman, anyhow.”
He hurled the stick against my legs. I took up a snowball and threw it right in his face. He ran away snorting, and I left off working, and went into the workshop. In a few minutes his fiancee came running downstairs. She was an agile maiden, with pim — ples on her vacant face.
“Maximich, you are to go upstairs!”
“I am not going!” I said. Larionich asked in an amazed undertone: “What is this? You are not going “?” I told him about the affair. With an anxious frown he went upstairs, muttering to me: “Oh, you impudent youngster — ” The workshop resounded with abuse ©f the shop-man, and Kapendiukhin said:
“Well, they will kick you out this time!” This did not alarm me. My relations with the shopman had already become unbearable. His hatred of me was undisguised and became more and more acute, while, for my part, I could not endure him. But what I wanted to know was: why did he behave so absurdly to me”? He would throw coins about the floor of the shop, and when I was sweeping, I found them, and laid them on the counter in the cup which contained the small money kept for beggars. When I guessed what these frequent finds meant I said to him:
“You throw money about in my way on purpose!” He flew out at me and cried incautiously: “Don’t you dare to teach me! I know what I am doing!”
But he corrected himself immediately: “And what do you mean by my throwing it about purposely? It falls about itself.”
He forbade me to read the books in the shop, saying:
“That is not for you to trouble your head about I
What! Have you an idea of becoming a valuer, sluggard?’
He did not cease his attempts to catch me in the theft of small money, and I realised that if, when I was sweeping the floor, the coin should roll into a crevice between the boards, he would declare that I had stolen it. Then I told him again that he had better give up that game, but that same day, when I re — turned from the tavern with the boiling water, I heard him suggesting to the newly engaged assistant in the neighboring shop:
“Egg him on to steal psalters. We shall soon be having three hampers of them.”
I knew that they were talking about me, for when I entered the shop they both looked confused; and besides these signs, I had grounds for suspecting them of a foolish conspiracy against me.
This was not the first time that that assistant had been in the service of the man next door. He was accounted a clever salesman, but he suffered from alco — holism; in one of his drinking bouts the master had dismissed him, but had afterwards taken him back. He was an anaemic, feeble person, with cunning eyes. Apparently amiable and submissive to the slightest gesture of his master, he smiled a little, clever smile in his beard all the time, was fond of uttering sharp sayings, and exhaled the rotten smell which comes from people with bad teeth, although his own were white and strong.
One day he gave me a terrible surprise; he came towards me smiling pleasantly, but suddenly seized my cap off my head and took hold of my hair. We began to struggle. He pushed me from the gallery into the shop, trying all the time to throw me against the large images which stood about on the floor. If he had succeeded in this, I should have broken the glass, or chipped the carving, and no doubt scratched some of the costly icons. He was very weak, and I soon overcame him; when to my great amazement the bearded man sat on the floor and cried bitterly, rubbing his bruised nose.
The next morning when our masters had both gone out somewhere and we were alone, he said to me in a friendly manner, rubbing the lump on the bridge of his nose and under his eyes with his finger:
“Do you think that it was of my own will or desire that I attacked you? I am not a fool, you know, and I knew that you would be more than a match for me. I am a man of little strength, a tippler. It was your master who told me to do it. ‘Lead him on,’ he said, ‘and get him to break something in the shop while he is fighting you. Let him damage something, anyhow!’ I should never have done it of my own accord; look how you have ornamented my phiz for me.”
I believed him, and I began to be sorry for him. I knew that he lived, half-starved, with a woman who knocked him about. However, I asked him:
“And if he told you to poison a person, I suppose you would do it?”
“He might do that,” said the shopman with a pitiful smile; “he is capable of it.”
Soon after this he asked me:
“Listen, I have not a farthing; there is nothing to eat at home; my missus nags at me. Couldn’t you take an icon out of your stock and give it to me to sell, like a friend, eh? Will you”? Or a breviary?”
I remembered the boot-shop, and the beadle of the church, and I thought: “Will this man give me away?” But it was hard to refuse him, and I gave him an icon. To steal a breviary worth several rubles, that I could not do; it seemed, to me a great crime. What would you have? Arithrnetic always lies concealed in ethics; the holy ingenuousness of “Regula — tions for the Punishment of Criminals” clearly gives away this little secret, behind which the great lie of property hides itself.
When I heard my shopman suggesting that this miserable man should incite me to steal psalters I was afraid. It was clear that he knew how charitable I had been on the other’s behalf, and that the man from next door had told him about the icon.
The abominableness of being charitable at another person’s expense, and the realization of the rotten trap that had been set for me — both these things aroused in me a feeling of indignation and disgust with myself and every one else. For several days I tormented myself cruelly, waiting for the arrival of the hamper with the books. At length they came, and when I was putting them away in the store-room, the shopman from next door came to me and asked me to give him a breviary.
Then I asked him:
“Did you tell my master about the icon?”
“1 did,” he answered in a melancholy voice; “I can keep nothing back, brother.”
This utterly confounded me, and I sat on the floor staring at him stupidly, while he muttered hurriedly, confusedly, desperately miserable:
“You see your man guessed — or rather, mine guessed and told yours — ”
I thought I was lost. These people had been conspiring against me, and now there was a place ready for me in the colony for youthful criminals! If that were so, nothing mattered! If one must drown, it is better to drown in a deep spot. I put a breviary into the hands of the shopman; he hid it in the sleeves of his greatcoat and went away. But he returned suddenly, the breviary fell at my feet, and the man strode away, saying:
“I won’t take it! It would be all over with you.”
I did not understand these words. Why should it be all over with me? But I was very glad that he had not taken the book. After this my little shop-man began to regard me with more disfavor and sus — picion than ever.
I remembered all this when Larionich went upstairs. He did not stay there long, and came back more depressed and quiet than usual, but before supper he said to me privately:
“I tried to arrange for you to be set free from the shop, and given over to the workshop, but it was no good. Kouzma would not have it. You are very much out of favor with him.”
I had an enemy in the house, too — the shopman’s fiancee, an immoderately sportive damsel. All the young fellows in the workshop played about with her; they used to wait for her in the vestibule and embrace her. This did not offend her; she only squeaked like a little dog. She was chewing something from morning to night; her pockets were always full of ginger — bread or buns; her jaws moved ceaselessly. To look at her vacant face with its restless gray eyes was unpleasant. She used to ask Pavl and me riddles which always concealed some coarse obscenity, and repeated catchwords which, being said very quickly, became improper words.
One day one of the elderly workmen said to her:
“You are a shameless hussy, my girl!”
To which she answered swiftly, in the words of a ribald song:
“If a maiden is too modest, She’ll never be a woman worth having.”
It was the first time I had ever seen such a girl. She disgusted and frightened me with her coarse playfulness, and seeing that her antics were not agreeable to me, she became more and more spiteful toward me.
Once when Pavl and I were in the cellar helping her to steam out the casks of kvass and cucumbers she suggested:
“Would you like me to teach you how to kiss, boys?”
“I know how to kiss better than you do” Pavl answered, and I told her to go and kiss her future hus — band. I did not say it very politely, either.
She was angry.
“Oh, you coarse creature! A young lady makes herself agreeable to him and he turns up his nose. Well, I never! What a ninny!”
And she added, shaking a threatening finger at me:
“You just wait. I will remember that of you!”
But Pavl said to her, taking my part:
“Your young man would give you something if he knew about your behavior!”
She screwed up her pimply face contemptuously.
“I am not afraid of him! I have a dowry. I am much better than he is! A girl only has the time till she is married to amuse herself.”
She began to play about with Pavl, and from that time I found in her an unwearying calumniator.
My life in the shop became harder and harder. I read church books all the time. The disputes and conversations of the valuers had ceased to amuse me, for they were always talking over the same things in the same old way. Petr Vassilich alone still interested me, with his knowledge of the dark side of hu — man life, and his power of speaking interestingly and enthusiastically. Sometimes I thought he must be the prophet Elias walking the earth, solitary and vindictive. But each time that I spoke to the old man frankly about people, or about my own thoughts, he repeated all that I had said to the shopman, who either ridiculed me offensively, or abused me angrily.
One day I told the old man that I sometimes wrote his sayings in the note-book in which I had copied various poems taken out of books. This greatly alarmed the valuer, who limped towards me swiftly, asking anxiously:
“What did you do that for? It is not worth while, my lad. So that you may remember? No; you just give it up. What a boy you are! Now you will give me what you have written, won’t you?”
He tried long and earnestly to persuade me to either give him the notebook, or to burn it, and then he began to whisper angrily with the shopman.
As we were going home, the latter said to me:
“You have been taking notes? That has got to be” stopped! Do you hear? Only detectives do that sort of thing!”
Then I asked incautiously:
“And what about Sitanov? He also takes notes.”
“Also. That long fool?”
He was silent for a long time, and then with unusual gentleness he said:
“Listen; if you show me your note-book and Sitanov’s, too, I will give you half a ruble! Only do it on the quiet, so that Sitanov does not see.”
No doubt he thought that I would carry out his wish, and without saying another word, he ran in front of me on his short legs.
When I reached the house, I told Sitanov what the shopman had proposed to me. Evgen frowned.
“You have been chattering purposely. Now he will give some one instructions to steal both our note-books. Give me yours — I will hide it. And he will turn you out before long — you see!”
I was convinced of that, too, and resolved to leave as soon as grandmother returned to the town. She had been living at Balakhania all the winter, invited by some one to teach young girls to make lace. Grandfather was again living in Kunavin Street, but I did not visit him, and when he came to the town, he never came to see me. One day we ran into each other in the street. He was walking along in a heavy racoon pelisse, importantly and slowly. I said “How do you do” to him. He lifted his hands to shade his eyes, looked at me from under them, and then said thoughtfully:
“Oh, it is you; you are an image-painter now. Yes, yes; all right; get along with you.”
Pushing me out of his way, he continued his walk, slowly and importantly.
I saw grandmother seldom. She worked unweariedly to feed grandfather, who was suffering from the malady of old age — senile weakness — and had also taken upon herself the care of my uncle’s children.
The one who caused her the most worry was Sascha,
Mikhail’s son, a handsome lad, dreamy and book-loving. He worked in a dyer’s shop, frequently changed his employers, and in the intervals threw himself on grandmother’s shoulders, calmly waiting until she should find him another place. She had Sascha’s sister on her shoulders, too. She had made an unfor — tunate marriage with a drunken workman, who beat her and turned her out of his house.
Every time I met grandmother, I was more consciously charmed by her personality; but I felt already that that beautiful soul, blinded by fanciful tales, was not capable of seeing, could not understand a revelation of the bitter reality of life, and my disquietude and restlessness were strange to her.
“You must have patience, Oleshal”
This was all she had to say to me in reply to my stories of the hideous lives, of the tortures of people, of sorrow — of all which perplexed me, and with which I was burning.
I was unfitted by nature to be patient, and if occasionally I exhibited that virtue which belongs to cattle, trees, and stones, I did so in the cause of self-discipline, to test my reserves of strength, my degree of stability upon earth. Sometimes young people, with the stupidity of youth, will keep on trying to lift weights too heavy for their muscles and bones; will try boastfully, like full-grown men of proved strength, to cross themselves with heavy weights, envious of the strength of their elders.
I also did this in a double sense, physically and spiritually, and it is only due to some chance that I did not strain myself dangerously, or deform myself for the rest of my life. Besides, nothing disfigures a man more terribly than his patience, the submission of his strength to external conditions.
And though in the end I shall lie in the earth disfigured, I can say, not without pride, to my last hour, that good people did their best for forty years to disfigure my soul, but that their labors were not very successful.
The wild desire to play mischievous pranks, to amuse people, to make them laugh, took more and more hold upon me. I was successful in this. I could tell stories about the merchants in the market-place, impersonating them; I could imitate the peasant men and women buying and selling icons, the shopman skilfully cheating them; the valuers disputing amongst themselves.
The workshop resounded with laughter. Often the workmen left their work to look on at my impersonations, but on all these occasions Larionich would say:
“You had better do your acting after supper; otherwise you hinder the work.”
When I had finished my performance I felt myself easier, as if I had thrown off a burden which weighed upon me. For half an hour or an hour my head felt pleasantly clear, but soon it felt again as if it were full of sharp, small nails, which moved about and grew hot. It seemed to me that a sort of dirty porridge was boiling around me, and that I was being gradually boiled away in it.
I wondered: Was life really like this? And should I have to live as these people lived, never finding, never seeing anything better?
“You are growing sulky, Maximich,” said Jikharev, looking at me attentively.
Sitanov often asked me:
“What is the matter with you?”
And I could not answer him.
Life perseveringly and roughly washed out from my soul its most delicate writings, maliciously changing them into some sort of indistinct trash, and with anger and determination I resisted its violence. I was floating on the same river as all the others, only for me the waters were colder and did not support me as easily as it did the others. Sometimes it seemed to me that I was gently sinking into unfathomable depths.
People behaved better to me; they did not shout at me as they did at Pavl, nor harass me; they called me by my patronymic in order to emphasize their more respectful attitude toward me. This was good; but it was torturing to see how many of them drank vodka, how disgustingly drunk they became, and how injurious to them were their relations with women, although I understood that vodka and women were the only diversions that life afforded.
I often called to mind with sorrow that that most intelligent, courageous woman, Natalia Kozlovski, was also called a woman of pleasure. And what about grandmother? And Queen Margot?
I used to think of my queen with a feeling almost of terror; she was so removed from all the others, it was as if I had seen her in a dream.
I began to think too much about women, and I had already revolved in my own mind the question: Shall I go on the next holiday where all the others go? This was no physical desire. I was both healthy and fastidious, but at times I was almost mad with a desire to embrace some one tender, intelligent, and frankly, unrestrainedly, as to a mother, speak to her of the disturbances of my soul.
I envied Pavl when he told me at night of his affair with a maidservant in the opposite house.
“It is a funny thing, brother! A month ago I was throwing snowballs at her because I did not like her, and now I sit on a bench and hug her. She is dearer to me than any one!”
“What do you talk about?”
“About everything, of course! She talks to me about herself, and I talk to her about myself. And then we kiss — only she is honest. In fact, brother, she is so good that it is almost a misfortune! Why, you smoke like an old soldier!”
I smoked a lot; tobacco intoxicated me, dulled my restless thoughts, my agitated feelings. As for vodka, it only aroused in me a repulsion toward my own odor and taste, but Pavl drank with a will, and when he was drunk, used to cry bitterly:
“I want to go home, I want to go home! Let me go home!”
As far as I can remember he was an orphan; his mother and father had been dead a long time. Brother and sister he had none; he had lived among strangers for eight years.
In this state of restless dissatisfaction the call of spring disturbed me still more. I made up my mind to go on a boat again, and if I could get as far as Astrakhan, to run away to Persia.
I do not remember why I selected Persia particularly. It may have been because I had taken a great fancy to the Persian merchants on the Nijigorodski market-place, sitting like stone idols, spreading their dyed beards in the sun, calmly smoking their hookas, with large, dark, omniscient eyes.
There is no doubt that I should have run away somewhere, but one day in Easter week, when part of the occupants of the workshop had gone to their homes, and the rest were drinking, I was walking on a sunny day on the banks of the Oka, when I met my old master, grandmother’s nephew.
He was walking along in a light gray overcoat, with his hands in his pockets, a cigarette between his teeth, his hat on the back of his head. His pleasant face smiled kindly at me. He had the appearance of a man who is at liberty and is happy, and there was no one beside ourselves in the fields.
“Ah, Pyeshkov, Christ is risen!”
After we had exchanged the Easter kiss, he asked how I was living, and I told him frankly that the workshop, the town and everything in general were abhor — rent to me, and that I had made up my mind to go to Persia.
“Give it up,” he said to me gravely. “What the devil is there in Persia? I know exactly how you arc feeling, brother; in my youth I also had the wander fever.”
I liked him for telling me this. There was something about him good and springlike; he was a being set apart.
“Do you smoke?” he asked, holding out a silver cigarette-case full of fat cigarettes.
That completed his conquest of me.
“What you had better do, Pyeshkov, is to come back to me again,” he suggested. “For this year I have undertaken contracts for the new market-place, you understand. And I can make use of you there; you will be a kind of overseer for me; you will receive all the material; you will see that it is all in its proper place, and that the workmen do not steal it. Will that suit you? Your wages will be five rubles a month, and five copecks for dinner! The women-folk will have nothing to do with you; you will go out in the morning and return in the evening. As for the women; you can ignore them; only don’t let them know that we have met, but just come to see us on Sunday at Phomin Street. It will be a change for you!”
We parted like friends. As he said good-by, he pressed my hand, and as he went away, he actually waved his hat to me affably from a distance.
When I announced in the workroom that I was leaving, most of the workmen showed a flattering regret. Pavl, especially, was upset.
“Think,” he said reproachfully; “how will you live with men of all kinds, after being with us? With carpenters, house-painters — Oh, you — It is going out of the frying-pan into the fire.”
“A fish looks for the deepest place, but a clever young man seeks a worse place!”
The send-off which they gave me from the workshop was a sad one.
“Of course one must try this and that,” said Jikharev, who was yellow from the effects of a drinking bout. “It is better to do it straight off, before you become too closely attached to something or other.”
“And that for the rest of your life,” added Larionich softly.
But I felt that they spoke with constraint, and from a sense of duty. The thread which had bound me to them was somehow rotted and broken.
In the loft drunken Golovev rolled about, and muttered hoarsely:
“I would like to see them all in prison. I know their secrets! Who believes in God here? Aha — a —!”
As usual, faceless, uncompleted icons were propped against the wall; the glass balls were fixed to the ceiling. It was long since we had had to work with a light, and the balls, not being used, were covered with a gray coating of soot and dust. I remember the surroundings so vividly that if I shut my eyes, I can see in the darkness the whole of that basement room: all the tables, and the jars of paint on the windowsills, the bundles of brushes, the icons, the slop-pail under the brass washstand-basin which looked like a fire-man’s helmet, and, hanging from the ceiling, Go — lovev’s bare foot, which was blue like the foot of a drowned man.
I wanted to get away quickly, but in Russia they love long-drawn-out, sad moments. When they are saying good-by, Russian people behave as if they were hearing a requiem mass.
Jikharev, twitching his brows, said to me:
“That book — the devil’s book — I can’t give it back to you. Will you take two greven for it?”
The book was my own, — the old second lieutenant of the fire-brigade had given it to me — and I grudged giving Lermontov away. But when, somewhat offended, I refused the money, Jikharev calmly put the coins back in his purse, and said in an unwavering tone:
“As you like; but I shall not give you back the book. It is not for you. A book like that would soon lead you into sin.”
“But it is sold in shops; I have seen it!”
But he only said with redoubled determination:
“That has nothing to do with the matter; they sell revolvers in shops, too — ”
So he never returned Lermontov to me.
As I was going upstairs to say good-by to my mistress, I ran into her niece in the hall.
“Is it true what they say — that you are leaving?’
“If you had not gone of your own accord, you would have been sent away,” she assured me, not very kindly, but with perfect frankness.
And the tipsy mistress said:
“Good-by, Christ be with you! You are a bad boy, an impudent boy; although I have never seen anything bad in you myself, they all say that you are a bad boy!” And suddenly she burst out crying, and said through her tears:
“Ah, if my dead one, my sweet husband, dear soul, had been alive, he would have known how to deal with you; he would have boxed your ears and you would have stayed on. We should not have had to send you away! But nowadays things are different; if all is not exactly as you like, away you go! Och! And where will you be going, boy, and what good will it do you to stroll from place to place?”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09