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 service? 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 today 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:
“Pour out —”
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.”
“With her r
“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 leam 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 over-looked a dirty corner between the shed and the neigh — boring 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 wash-house. 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.”
Soon we had no need to go to the wash-house. Ludmilla’s mother found work with a fur-dresser, and left the house the first thing in the morning. Her sister was at school, and her brother worked at a tile factory. On wet days I went to the girl and helped her to cook, and to clean the sitting-room and kitchen. She said laughingly:
“We live together — just like a husband and wife. In fact, we live better; a husband does not help his wife.”
If I had money, I bought some cakes, and we had tea, afterward cooling the samovar with cold water, lest the scolding mother of Ludmilla should guess that it had been heated. Sometimes grandmother came to see us, and sat down, making lace, sewing, or telling us wonderful stories, and when grandfather went to the town, Ludmilla used to come to us, and we feasted without a care in the world.
“Oh, how happily we live! With our own money we can do what we like.”
She encouraged our friendship.
“It is a good thing when a boy and girl are friends. Only there must be no tricks,” and she explained in the simplest words what she meant by “tricks.” She spoke beautifully, as one inspired, and made me understand thoroughly that it is wrong to pluck the flower before it opens, for then it will have neither fragrance nor fruit.
We had no inclination for “tricks,” but that did not hinder Ludmilla and me from speaking of that subject, on which one is supposed to be silent. Such subjects of conversation were in a way forced upon us because the relationship of the sexes was so often and tiresomely brought to our notice in their coarsest form, and was very offensive to us.
Ludmilla’s father was a handsome man of forty, curly-headed and whiskered, and had an extremely masterful way of moving his eyebrows. He was strangely silent; I do not remember one word uttered by him. When he caressed his children he uttered unintelligible sounds, like a dumb person, and even when he beat his wife he did it in silence.
On the evenings of Sundays and festivals, attired in a light-blue shirt, with wide plush trousers and highly polished boots, he would go out to the gate with a harmonica slung with straps behind his back, and stand there exactly like a soldier doing sentry duty. Presently a sort of “promenade” would be — gin past our gate. One after the other girls and women would pass, glancing at Evsyenko furtively from under their eyelashes, or quite openly, while he stood sticking out his lower lip, and also looking with discriminating glances from his dark eyes. There was something repugnantly dog-like in this silent conversation with the eyes alone, and from the slow, rapt movement of the women as they passed it seemed as if the chosen one, at an imperious flicker of the man’s eyelid, would humbly sink to the dirty ground as if she were killed.
“Tipsy brute! Brazen face!” grumbled Ludmilla’s mother. She was a tall, thin woman, with a long face and a bad complexion, and hair which had been cut short after typhus. She was like a worn-out broom.
Ludmilla sat beside her, unsuccessfully trying to turn her attention from the street by asking questions about one thing and another.
“Stop it, you monster!” muttered the mother, blinking restlessly. Her narrow Mongol eyes were strangely bright and immovable, always fixed on something and always stationary.
“Don’t be angry, Mamochka; it doesn’t matter,” Ludmilla would say. “Just look how the mat-maker’s widow is dressed up!”
“I should be able to dress better if it were not for you three. You have eaten me up, devoured me,” said the mother, pitilessly through her tears, fixing her eyes on the large, broad figure of the mat-maker’s widow.
She was like a small house. Her chest stuck out like the roof, and her red face, half hidden by the green handkerchief which was tied round it, was like a dormer-window when the sun is reflected on it. Evsy — enko, drawing his harmonica to his chest, began to play. The harmonica played many tunes; the sounds traveled a long way, and the children came from all the street around, and fell in the sand at the feet of the performer, trembling with ecstasy.
“You wait; I’ll give you something!” the woman promised her husband.
He looked at her askance, without speaking. And the mat-maker’s widow sat not far off on the Xlistov’s bench, listening intently.
In the field behind the cemetery the sunset was red. In the street, as on a river, floated brightly clothed, great pieces of flesh. The children rushed along like a whirlwind; the warm air was caressing and intoxicating. A pungent odor rose from the sand, which had been made hot by the sun during the day, and peculiarly noticeable was a fat, sweet smell from the slaughter-house — the smell of blood. From the yard where the fur-dresser lived came the salt and bitter odor of tanning. The women’s chatter, the drunken roar of the men, the bell-like voices of the children, the bass melody of the harmonica — all mingled together in one deep rumble. The earth, which is ever creating, gave a mighty sigh. All was coarse and naked, but it instilled a great, deep faith in that gloomy life, so shamelessly animal. At times above the noise certain painful, never-to-be-forgotten words went straight to one’s heart:
“It is not right for you all together to set upon one. You must take turns.” “Who pities us when we do not pity ourselves?” “Did God bring women into the world in order to deride them?”
The night drew near, the air became fresher, the sounds became more subdued. The wooden houses seemed to swell and grow taller, clothing themselves with shadows. The children were dragged away from the yard to bed. Some of them were already asleep by the fence or at the feet or on the knees of their mothers. Most of the children grew quieter and more docile with the night. Evsyenko disappeared unnoticed; he seemed to have melted away. The mat — maker’s widow was also missing. The bass notes of the harmonica could be heard somewhere in the distance, beyond the cemetery. Ludmilla’s mother sat on a bench doubled up, with her back stuck out like a cat. My grandmother had gone out to take tea with a neighbor, a midwife, a great fat woman with a nose like a duck’s, and a gold medal “for saving lives” on her flat, masculine-looking chest. The whole street feared her, regarding her as a witch, and it was related of her that she had carried out of the flames, when a fire broke out, the three children and sick wife of a certain colonel. There was a friendship between grandmother and her. When they met in the street they used to smile at each other from a long way off, as if they had seen something specially pleasant.
Kostrom, Ludmilla, and I sat on the bench at the gate. Tchurka had called upon Ludmilla’s brother to wrestle with him. Locked in each other’s arms they trampled down the sand and became angry.
“Leave off!” cried Ludmilla, timorously.
Looking at her sidewise out of his black eyes, Kostrom told a story about the hunter Kalinin, a gray-haired old man with cunning eyes, a man of evil fame, known to all the village. He had not long been dead, but they had not buried him in the earth in the grave-yard, but had placed his coffin above ground, away from the other graves. The coffin was black, on tall trestles; on the lid were drawn in white paint a cross, a spear, a reed, and two bones. Every night, as soon as it grew dark, the old man rose from his coffin and walked about the cemetery, looking for something, till the first cock crowed.
“Don’t talk about such dreadful things!” begged Ludmilla.
“Nonsense!” cried Tchurka, breaking away from her brother. “What are you telling lies for? I saw them bury the coffin myself, and the one above ground is simply a monument. As to a dead man walking about, the drunken blacksmith set the idea afloat.”
Kostrom, without looking at him, suggested:
“Go and sleep in the cemetery; then you will see.”
They began to quarrel, and Ludmilla, shaking her head sadly, asked:
“Mamochka, do dead people walk about at night?”
“They do,” answered her mother, as if the question had called her back from a distance.
The son of the shopkeeper Valek, a tall, stout, red-faced youth of twenty, came to us, and, hearing what we were disputing about, said:
“I will give three greven and ten cigarettes to whichever of you three will sleep till daylight on the coffin, and I will pull the ears of the one who is afraid — as long as he likes. Well?”
We were all silent, confused, and Ludmilla’s mother said:
“What nonsense! What do you mean by putting the children up to such nonsense?”
“You hand over a ruble, and I will go,” announced Tchurka, gruffly.
Kostrom at once asked spitefully:
“But for two greven — you would be afraid?” Then he said to Valek: “Give him the ruble. But he won’t go; he is only making believe.”
“Well, take the ruble.”
Tchurka rose, and, without saying a word and without hurrying, went away, keeping close to the fence. Kostrom, putting his fingers in his mouth, whistled piercingly after him.; but Ludmilla said uneasily:
“O Lord, what a braggart he is! I never!”
“Where are you going, coward?” jeered Valek. “And you call yourself the first fighter in the street!”
It was offensive to listen to his jeers. We did not like this overfed youth; he was always putting up little boys to do wrong, told them obscene stories of girls and women, and taught them to tease them. The children did what he told them, and suffered dearly for it. For some reason or other he hated my dog, and used to throw stones at it, and one day gave it some bread with a needle in it. But it was still more offensive to see Tchurka going away, shrinking and ashamed.
I said to Valek:
“Give me the ruble, and I will go.”
Mocking me and trying to frighten me, he held out the ruble to Ludmilla’s mother, who would not take it, and said sternly:
“I don’t want it, and I won’t have it!” Then she went out angrily.
Ludmilla also could not make up her mind to take the money, and this made Valek jeer the more. I was going away without obtaining the money when grandmother came along, and, being told all about it, took the ruble, saying to me softly:
“Put on your overcoat and take a blanket with you, for it grows cold toward morning.”
Her words raised my hopes that nothing terrible would happen to me.
Valek laid it down on a condition that I should either lie or sit on the coffin until it was light, not leaving it, whatever happened, even if the coffin shook when the old man Kalinin began to climb out of the tomb. If I jumped to the ground I had lost.
“And remember,” said Valek, “that I shall be watching you all night.”
When I set out for the cemetery grandmother made the sign of the cross over me and kissed me.
“If you should see a glimpse of anything, don’t move, but just say, ‘Hail, Mary.’ ”
I went along quickly, my one desire being to begin and finish the whole thing. Valek, Kostrom, and another youth escorted me thither. As I was getting over the brick wall I got mixed up in the blanket, and fell down, but was up in the same moment, as if the earth had ejected me. There was a chuckle from the other side of the wall. My heart contracted; a cold chill ran down my back.
I went stumblingly on to the black coffin, against one side of which the sand had drifted, while on the other side could be seen the short, thick legs. It looked as if some one had tried to lift it up, and had succeeded only in making it totter. I sat on the edge of the coffin and looked around. The hilly cemetery was simply packed with gray crosses; quivering shadows fell upon the graves.
Here and there, scattered among the graves, slender willows stood up, uniting adjoining graves with their branches. Through the lace-work of their shadows blades of grass stuck up.
The church rose up in the sky like a snow-drift, and in the motionless clouds shone the small setting moon.
The father of Yaz, “the good-for-nothing peasant,” was lazily ringing his bell in his lodge. Each time, as he pulled the string, it caught in the iron plate of the roof and squeaked pitifully, after which could be heard the metallic clang of the little bell. It sounded sharp and sorrowful.
“God give us rest!” I remembered the saying of the watchman. It was very painful and somehow it was suffocating. I was perspiring freely although the night was cool. Should I have time to run into the watchman’s lodge if old Kalinin really did try to creep out of his graved
I was well acquainted with the cemetery. I had played among the graves many times with Yaz and other comrades. Over there by the church my mother was buried.
Every one was not asleep yet, for snatches of laughter and fragments of songs were borne to me from the village. Either on the railway embankment, to which they were carrying sand, or in the village of Katizovka a harmonica gave forth a strangled sound. Along the wall, as usual, went the drunken blacksmith Myachov, singing. I recognized him by his song:
“To our mother’s door One small sin we lay. The only one she loves Is our Papasha.”
It was pleasant to listen to the last sighs of life, but at each stroke of the bell it became quieter, and the quietness overflowed like a river over a meadow, drowning and hiding everything. One’s soul seemed to float in boundless and unfathomable space, to be extinguished like the light of a catch in the darkness, be — coming dissolved without leaving a trace in that ocean of space in which live only the unattainable stars, shining brightly, while everything on earth disappears as being useless and dead. Wrapping myself in the blanket, I sat on the coffin, with my feet tucked under me and my face to the church. Whenever I moved, the coffin squeaked, and the sand under it crunched.
Something twice struck the ground close to me, and then a piece of brick fell near by. I was frightened, but then I guessed that Valek and his friends were throwing things at me from the other side of the wall, trying to scare me. But I felt all the better for the proximity of human creatures.
I began unwillingly to think of my mother. Once she had found me trying to smoke a cigarette. She began to beat me, but I said:
“Don’t touch me; I feel bad enough without that. I feel very sick.”
Afterward, when I was put behind the stove as a punishment, she said to grandmother:
“That boy has no feeling; he doesn’t love any one.”
It hurt me to hear that. When my mother punished me I was sorry for her. I felt uncomfortable for her sake, because she seldom punished me deservedly or justly. On the whole, I had received a great deal of ill treatment in my life. Those people on the other side of the fence, for example, must know that I was frightened of being alone in the cemetery, yet they wanted to frighten me more. Why?
I should like to have shouted to them, “Go to the devil!” but that might have been disastrous. Who knew what the devil would think of it, for no doubt he was somewhere near. There was a lot of mica in the sand, and it gleamed faintly in the moonlight, which reminded me how, lying one day on a raft on the Oka, gazing into the water, a bream suddenly swam almost in my face, turned on its side, looking like a human cheek, and, looking at me with its round, bird-like eyes, dived to the bottom, fluttering like a leaf falling from a maple-tree.
My memory worked with increasing effort, recalling different episodes of my life, as if it were striving to protect itself against the imaginations evoked by terror.
A hedgehog came rolling along, tapping on the sand with its strong paws. It reminded me of a hob-goblin; it was just as little and as disheveled-looking.
I remembered how grandmother, squatting down beside the stove, said, “Kind master of the house, take away the beetles.”
Far away over the town, which I could not see, it grew lighter. The cold morning air blew against my cheeks and into my eyes. I wrapped myself in my blanket. Let come what would!
Grandmother awoke me. Standing beside me and pulling off the blanket, she said:
“Get up! Aren’t you chilled? Well, were you frightened?”
“I was frightened, but don’t tell any one; don’t tell the other boys.”
“But why not?” she asked in amazement. “If you were not afraid, you have nothing to be proud about.”
As he went home she said to me gently:
“You have to experience things for yourself in this world, dear heart. If you can’t teach yourself, no one else can teach you.”
By the evening I was the “hero” of the street, and every one asked me, “Is it possible that you were not afraid?” And when I answered, “I was afraid,” they shook their heads and exclaimed, “Aha I you see!”
The shopkeeper went about saying loudly:
“It may be that they talked nonsense when they said that Kalinin walked. But if he did, do you think he would have frightened that boy? No, he would have driven him out of the cemetery, and no one would know v/here he went.”
Ludmilla looked at me with tender astonishment. Even grandfather was obviously pleased with me. They all made much of me. Only Tchurka said gruffly:
“It was easy enough for him; his grandmother is a witch!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50