ONCE more I was in the town, in a two-storied white house which reminded me of a coffin meant to hold a lot of people. It was a new house, but it looked as if were in ill health, and was bloated like a beggar who has suddenly become rich and has over-eaten. It stood sidewise to the street, and had eight windows to each floor, but where the face of the house ought to have been there were only four windows. The lower windows looked on a narrow passage and on the yard, and the upper windows on the laundress’s little house and the causeway.
No street, as I understood the term, existed. In front of the house a dirty causeway ran in two directions, cut in two by a narrow dike. To the left, it extended to the House of Detention, and was heaped with rubbish and logs, and at the bottom stood a thick pool of dark-green filth. On the right, at the end of the causeway, the slimy Xvyexdin Pond stagnated. The middle of the causeway was exactly opposite the house, and half of it was strewn with filth and over-grown with nettles and horse sorrel, while in the other half the priest Doriedont Pokrovski had planted a garden in which was a summer-house of thin lathes painted red. If one threw stones at it, the lathes split with a crackling sound.
The place was intolerably depressing and shamelessly dirty. The autumn had ruthlessly broken up the filthy, rotten earth, changing it into a sort of red resin which clung to one’s feet tenaciously. I had never seen so much dirt in so small a space before, and after being accustomed to the cleanliness of the fields and forests, this corner of the town aroused my disgust.
Beyond the causeway stretched gray, broken-down fences, and in the distance I recognized the little house in which I had lived when I was shop-boy. The nearness of that house depressed me still more. I had known my master before; he and his brother used to be among mother’s visitors. His brother it was who had sung so comically:
“Andrei — papa, Andrei — papa — ”
They were not changed. The elder, with a hook nose and long hair, was pleasant in manner and seemed to be kind; the younger, Victor, had the same horse-like face and the same freckles. Their mother, grandmother’s sister, was very cross and fault-finding. The elder son was married. His wife was a splendid creature, white like bread made from Indian corn, with very large, dark eyes. She said to me twice during the first day:
“I gave your mother a silk cloak trimmed with jet.”
Somehow I did not want to believe that she had given, and that my mother had accepted, a present. When she reminded me of it again, I said:
“You gave it to her, and that is the end of the matter; there is nothing to boast about.”
She started away from me. “Wh-a-at? To whom are you speaking?”
Her face came out in red blotches, her eyes rolled, and she called her husband.
He came into the kitchen, with his compasses in his hand and a pencil behind his ear, listened to what his wife had to say, and then said to me:
“You must speak properly to her and to us all. There must be no insolence.” Then he said to his wife, impatiently, “Don’t disturb me with your nonsense!”
“What do you mean — nonsense? If your relatives — ”
“The devil take my relatives!” cried the master, rushing away.
I myself was not pleased to think that they were relatives of grandmother. Experience had taught me that relatives behave worse to one another than do strangers. Their gossip is more spiteful, since they know more of the bad and ridiculous sides of one another than strangers, and they fall out and fight more often.
I liked my master. He used to shake back his hair with a graceful movement, and tuck it behind his ears, and he reminded me somehow of “Good Business.” He often laughed merrily; his gray eyes looked kindly upon me, and funny wrinkles played divertingly about his aquiline nose.
“You have abused each other long enough, wild fowl,” he would say to his mother and his wife, showing his small, closely set teeth in a gentle smile.
The mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law abused each other all day. I was surprised to see how swiftly and easily they plunged into a quarrel. The first thing in the morning, with their hair unbrushed and their clothes unfastened, they would rush about the rooms as if the house were on fire, and they fussed about all day, only pausing to take breath in the dining-room at dinner, tea, or supper. They ate and drank till they could eat and drink no more, and at dinner they talked about the food and disputed lethargically, preparing for a big quarrel. No matter what it was that the mother-in-law had prepared, the daughter-in-law was sure to say:—
“My mother did not cook it this way.”
“Well, if that is so, she did it badly, that’s all.”
“On the contrary, she did it better.”
“Well, you had better go back to your mother.”
“I am mistress here.”
“And who am I?”
Here the master would intervene.
“That will do, wild fowl! What is the matter with you? Are you mad?”
For some inexplicable reason everything about that house was peculiar and mirth-provoking. The way from the kitchen to the dining-room lay through a small closet, the only one in the house, through which they carried the samovar and the food into the dining-room. It was the cause of merry witticisms and often of laughable misunderstandings. I slept in the kitchen, between that door and the one leading to the stairs. My head was hot from the heat of the cooking-stove, but the draft from the stairs blew on my feet. When I retired to bed, I used to take all the mats off the floor and wrap them round my feet.
The large reception-room, with its two pier-glasses, its pictures in gilt frames, its pair of card-tables, and its dozen Vienna chairs, was a dreary, depressing place. The small drawing-room was simply packed with a medley of soft furniture, with wedding presents, silver articles, and a tea-service. It was adorned with three lamps, one larger than the other two.
In the dark, windowless bedroom, in addition to the wide bed, there were trunks and cupboards from which came the odors of leaf tobacco and Persian camomile. These three rooms were always unoccupied, while the entire household squeezed itself into the little dining-room. Directly after breakfast, at eight o’clock, the master and his brother moved the table, and, laying sheets of white paper upon it, with cases, pencils, and saucers containing Indian ink, set to work, one at each end of the table. The table was shaky, and took up nearly the whole of the room, and when the mistress and the nurse came out of the nursery they had to brush past the corners.
“Don’t come fussing about here!” Victor would cry.
“Vassia, please tell him not to shout at me,” the mistress would say to her husband in an offended tone.
“All right; but don’t come and shake the table,” her husband would reply peaceably.
“I am stout, and the room is so small.”
“Well, we will go and work in the large drawing-room.”
But at that she cried indignantly:
“Lord! why on earth should you work in the large drawing-room?”
At the door of the closet appeared the angry face of Matrena Ivanovna, flushed with the heat of the stove. She called out:
“You see how it is, Vassia? She knows that you are working, and yet she can’t be satisfied with the other four rooms.”
Victor laughed maliciously, but the master said:
“That will do!”
And the daughter-in-law, with a venomously eloquent gesture, sank into a chair and groaned:
“I am dying! I am dying!”
“Don’t hinder my work, the devil take you!” roared the master, turning pale with the exertion. “This is nothing better than a mad-house. Here am I breaking my back to feed you. Oh, you wild fowl!”
At first these quarrels used to alarm me, especially when the mistress, seizing a table knife, rushed into the closet, and, shutting both the doors, began to shriek like a mad thing. For a minute the house was quiet, then the master, having tried to force the door, stooped down, and called out to me:
“Climb up on my back and unfasten the hook.” I swiftly jumped on his back, and broke the pane of glass over the door; but when I bent down, the mistress hit me over the head with the blade of the knife. However, I succeeded in opening the door, and the master, dragging his wife into the dining-room after a struggle, took the knife away from her. As I sat in the kitchen rubbing my bruised head, I soon came to the conclusion that I had suffered for nothing. The knife was so blunt that it would hardly cut a piece of bread, and it would certainly never have made an incision in any one’s skin. Besides, there had been no need for me to climb on the master’s back. I could have broken the glass by standing on a chair, and in any case it would have been easier for a grown person to have unfastened the hook, since his arms would have been longer. After that episode the quarrels in the house ceased to alarm me.
The brothers used to sing in the church choir; sometimes they used to sing softly over their work. The elder would begin in a baritone:
“The ring, which was the maiden’s heart, I cast from me into the sea.”
And the younger would join with his tenor:
“And I with that very ring Her earthly joy did ruin.”
The mistress would murmur from the nursery: “Have you gone out of your minds? Baby is asleep,” or: “How can you, Vassia, a married man, be singing about girls? Besides, the bell will ring for vespers in a minute.”
“What’s the matter now? We are only singing a church tune.”
But the mistress intimated that it was out ox place to sing church tunes here, there, and everywhere. Besides, and she pointed eloquently to the little door.
“We shall have to change our quarters, or the devil knows what will become of us,” said the master.
He said just as often that he must get another table, and he said it for three years in succession.
When I listened to my employers talking about people, I was always reminded of the boot-shop. They used to talk in the same way there. It was evident to me that my present masters also thought themselves better than any one in the town. They knew the rules of correct conduct to the minutest detail, and, guided by these rules, which were not at all clear to me, they judged others pitilessly and unsparingly. This sitting in judgment aroused in me a ferocious resentment and anger against the laws of my employers, and the breaking of those laws became a source of pleasure to me.
I had a lot of work to do. I fulfilled all the duties of a housemaid, washed the kitchen over on Wednesday, cleaning the samovar and all the copper vessels, and on Saturday cleaned the floor of the rest of the house and both staircases. I had to chop and bring in the wood for the stoves, wash up, prepare vegetables for cooking, and go marketing with the mis — tress, carrying her basket of purchases after her, be — sides running errands to the shops and to the chemist.
My real mistress, grandmother’s sister, a noisy, indomitable, implacably fierce old woman, rose early at six o’clock, and after washing herself in a hurry, knelt before the icon with only her chemise on, and complained long to God about her life, her children, and her daughter-in-law.
“Lord,” she would exclaim, with tears in her voice, pressing her two first fingers and her thumbs against her forehead — “Lord, I ask nothing, I want nothing; only give me rest and peace, Lord, by Thy power!”
Her sobs used to wake me up, and, half asleep, I used to peep from under the blanket, and listen with terror to her passionate prayers. The autumn morning looked dimly in at the kitchen window through panes washed by the rain. On the floor in the cold twilight her gray figure swayed from side to side; she waved her arms alarmingly. Her thin, light hair fell from her small head upon her neck and shoulders from under the swathing handkerchief, which kept slipping off. She would replace it angrily with her left hand, muttering “Oh, bother you!”
Striking her forehead with force, beating her breast and her shoulders, she would wail:
“And my daughter-in-law — punish her, O Lord, on my account! Make her pay for all that she has made me suffer! And open the eyes of my son — open his eyes and Victor’s! Lord, help Victor; be merciful to him!”
Victorushka also slept in the kitchen, and, hearing the groans of his mother, would cry in a sleepy voice:
“Mamasha, you are running down the young wife again. It is really dreadful.”
“All right; go to sleep,” the old woman would whisper guiltily. She would be silent for a minute perhaps, and then she would begin to murmur vindictively, “May their bones be broken, and may there be no shelter for them on earth. Lord!”
Even grandfather had never prayed so terribly.
When she had said her prayers she used to wake me up.
“Wake up! You will never get on if you do not get up early. Get the samovar ready! Bring the wood in! Didn’t you get the sticks ready overnight?’
I tried to be quick in order to escape hearing the frothy whisper of the old woman, but it was impossible to please her. She went about the kitchen like a winter snow-storm, hissing:
“Not so much noise, you little devil! Wake Victorushka up, and I will give you something! Now run along to the shop!”
On weekdays I used to buy two pounds of wheaten bread and two copecks’ worth of rolls for the young mistress. When I brought it in, the women would look at it suspiciously, and, weighing it in the palms of their hands, would ask:
“Wasn’t there a make-weight? No? Open your mouth!” And then they would cry triumphantly: “He has gobbled up the make-weight; here are the crumbs in his teeth! You see, Vassia?”
I worked willingly enough. It pleased me to abolish dirt from the house, to wash the floors, to clean the copper vessels, the warm-holes, and the door-handles. More than once I heard the women remark about me in their peaceful moments:
“He is zealous.”
“Only he is very impudent.”
“Well, Mother, who has educated him?’
They both tried to educate me to respect them, but I regarded them as half witted. I did not like them; I would not obey them, and I used to answer them back. The young mistress must have noticed what a bad effect their speeches had upon me, for she said with increasing frequency:
“You ought to remember from what a poor family you have been taken. I gave your mother a silk cloak trimmed with jet.”
One day I said to her:
“Do you want me to skin myself to pay for the cloak?”
“Good gracious!” she cried in a tone of alarm, “this boy is capable of setting fire to the place!”
I was extremely surprised. Why did she say that?
They both complained to the master about me on this occasion, and he said to me sternly:
“Now, my boy, you had better look out.” But one day he said coolly to his wife and his mother: “You are a nice pair! You ride the boy as if he were a gelding! Any other boy would have run away long ago if you had not worked him to death first.”
This made the women so angry that they wept, and his wife stamped her foot, crying:
“How can you speak like that before him, you long-haired fool? What can I do with him after this? And in my state of health, too!”
The mother cried sadly:
“May God forgive you, Vassia Vassilich! Only, mark my words, you are spoiling that boy.”
When they had gone away raging, the master said to me sternly:
“You see, you little devil, what rows you cause! I shall take you back to your grandfather, and you can be a rag-picker again.”
This insult was more than I could bear, and I said:
“I had a better life as a rag-picker than I have with you. You took me as a pupil, and what have you taught me? To empty the dish-water!”
He took me by the hair, but not roughly, and looked into my eyes, saying in a tone of astonishment:
“I see you are rebellious. That, my lad, won’t suit me. N-o-o.”
I thought that I should be sent away for this, but a few days later he came into the kitchen with a roll of thick paper, a pencil, a square, and a ruler in his hands.
“When you have finished cleaning the knives, draw this.”
On one sheet of paper was outlined the fagade of a two-storied house, with many windows and absurd decorations.
“Here are compasses for you. Place dots on the paper where the ends of the lines come, and then draw from point to point with a ruler, lengthwise first — that will be horizontal — and then across — that will be vertical. Now get on with it.”
I was delighted to have some clean work to do, but I gazed at the paper and the instruments with reverent fear, for I understood nothing about them. However, after washing my hands, I sat down to learn. I drew all the horizontal lines on the sheet and compared them. They were quite good, although three seemed superfluous. I drew the vertical lines, and observed with astonishment that the face of the house was absurdly disfigured. The windows had crossed over to the partition wall, and one came out behind the wall and hung in mid-air. The front steps were raised in the air to the height of the second floor; a cornice appeared in the middle of the roof; and a dormer-window on the chimney.
For a long time, hardly able to restrain my tears, I gazed at those miracles of inaccuracy, trying to make out how they had occurred; and not being able to arrive at any conclusion, I decided to rectify the mistakes by the aid of fancy. I drew upon the fagade of the house, upon the cornices, and the edge of the roof, crows, doves, and sparrows, and on the ground in front of the windows, people with crooked legs, under umbrellas which did not quite hide their deformities. Then I drew slanting lines across the whole, and took my work to my master.
He raised his eyebrows, ruffled his hair, and gruffly inquired:
“What is all this about?”
“That is rain coming down,” I explained. “When it rains, the house looks crooked, because the rain itself is always crooked. The birds — you see, these are all birds — are taking shelter. They always do that when it rains. And these people are running home. There — that is a lady who has fallen down, and that is a peddler with lemons to sell.”
“I am much obliged to you,” said my master, and bending over the table till his hair swept the paper, he burst out laughing as he cried:
“Och! you deserve to be torn up and thrown away yourself, you wild sparrow!”
The mistress came in, and having looked at my work, said to her husband:
But the master said peaceably:
“That’s all right; I myself did not begin any better.”
Obliterating the spoiled house with a red pencil, he gave me some paper.
“Try once more.”
The second copy came out better, except that a window appeared in place of the front door. But I did not like to think that the house was empty, so I filled it with all sorts of inmates. At the windows sat ladies with fans in their hands, and cavaliers with cigarettes. One of these, a non-smoker, was making a “long nose” at all the others. A cabman stood on the steps, and near him lay a dog.
“Why, you have been scribbling over it again!” the master exclaimed angrily.
I explained to him that a house without inhabitants was a dull place, but he only scolded me.
“To the devil with all this foolery! If you want to learn, learn! But this is rubbish!”
When at length I learned to make a copy of the fagade which resembled the original he was pleased.
“There, you see what you can do! Now, if you choose, we shall soon get on,” and he gave me a lesson.
“Make a plan of this house, showing the arrangement of the rooms, the places of the doors and win — dows, and the rest. I shall not show you how. You must do it by yourself.”
I went to the kitchen and debated. How was I to do it? But at this point my studies in the art of drawing came to a standstill.
The old mistress came to me and said spitefully:
“So you want to draw?”
Seizing me by the hair, she bumped my head on the table so hard that my nose and lips were bruised. Then she darted upon and tore up the paper, swept the instruments from the table, and with her hands on her hips said triumphantly:
“That was more than I could stand. Is an outsider to do the work while his only brother, his own flesh and blood, goes elsewhere?”
The master came running in, his wife rushed after him, and a wild scene began. All three flew at one another, spitting and howling, and it ended in the women weeping, and the master saying to me:
“You will have to give up the idea for a time, and not learn. You can see for yourself what comes of it!”
I pitied him. He was so crushed, so defenseless, and quite deafened by the shrieks of the women. I had realized before that the old woman did not like my studying, for she used to hinder me purposely, so I always asked her before I sat down to my drawing:
“There is nothing for me to do?”
She would answer frowningly:
“When there is I will tell you,” and in a few minutes she would send me on some errand, or she would say: “How beautifully you cleaned the staircase today! The corners are full of dirt and dust. Go and sweep them!”
I would go and look, but there was never any dust.
“Do you dare to argue with me?” she would cry.
One day she upset kvass all over my drawings, and at another time she spilt oil from the image lamp over them. She played tricks on me like a young girl, with childish artfulness, and with childish ignorance trying to conceal her artfulness. Never before or since have I met a person who was so soon put into a temper and for such trivial reasons, nor any one so passionately fond of complaining about every one and everything. People, as a rule, are given to complaining, but she did it with a peculiar delight, as if she were singing a song.
Her love for her son was like an insanity. It amused me, but at the same time it frightened me by what I can only describe as its furious intensity. Sometimes, after her morning prayers, she would stand by the stove, with her elbows resting on the mantel-board, and would whisper hotly:
“My luck! My idol! My little drop of hot blood, like a jewel! Light as an angel! He sleeps. Sleep on, child! Clothe thy soul with happy dreams! Dream to thyself a bride, beautiful above all others, a princess and an heiress, the daughter of a merchant! As for your enemies, may they perish as soon as they are born! And your friends, may they live for a hundred years, and may the girls run after you like ducks after the drake!”
All this was inexpressibly ludicrous to me. Coarse, lazy Victor was like a woodpecker, with a woodpecker’s large, mottled nose, and the same stubborn and dull nature. Sometimes his mother’s whispers awoke him, and he muttered sleepily:
“Go to the devil, Mamasha! What do you mean by snorting right in my face? You make life unbearable.”
Sometimes she stole away humbly, laughing:
“Well, go to sleep! Go to sleep, saucy fellow!”
But sometimes her legs seemed to give way, her feet came down heavily on the edge of the stove, and she opened her mouth and panted loudly, as if her tongue were on fire, gurgling out caustic words.
“So-o? It’s your mother you are sending to the devil. Ach! you! My shame! Accursed heart-sore! The devil must have set himself in my heart to ruin you from birth!”
She uttered obscene words, words of the drunken streets. It was painful to listen to her. She slept little, fitfully jumping down from the stove sometimes several times in the night, and coming over to the couch to wake me.
“What is it?”
“Be quiet!” she would whisper, crossing herself and looking at something in the darkness. “O Lord, Elias the prophet, great martyr Varvara, save me from sudden death!”
She lighted the candle with a trembling hand. Her round, nosy face was swollen tensely; her gray eyes, blinking alarmingly, gazed fixedly at the surroundings, which looked different in the twilight. The kitchen, which was large, but encumbered with cupboards and trunks, looked small by night. There the moonbeams lived quietly; the flame of the lamp burning before the icon quivered; the knives gleamed like icicles on the walls; on the floor the black frying-pans looked like faces without eyes.
The old woman would clamber down cautiously from the stove, as if she were stepping into the water from a river-bank, and, slithering along with her bare feet, went into the corner, where over the wash-stand hung a ewer that reminded me of a severed head. There was also a pitcher of water standing there. Choking and panting, she drank the water, and then looked out of the window through the pale-blue pattern of hoar-frost on the panes.
“Have mercy on me, O God! have mercy on me!” she prayed in a whisper. Then putting out the candle, she fell on her knees, and whispered in an aggrieved tone: “Who loves me, Lord? To whom am I necessary?’
Climbing back on the stove, and opening the little door of the chimney, she tried to feel if the flue-plate lay straight, soiling her hands with soot, and fell asleep at that precise moment, just as if she had been struck by an invisible hand. When I felt resentful toward her I used to think what a pity it was that she had not married grandfather. She would have led him a life!
She often made me very miserable, but there were days when her puffy face became sad, her eyes were suffused with tears, and she said very touchingly:
“Do you think that I have an easy time? I brought children into the world, reared them, set them on their feet, and for what”? To live with them and be their general servant. Do you think that is sweet to me”?
My son has brought a strange woman and new blood into the family. Is it nice for me? Well?”
“No, it is not,” I said frankly.
“Aha! there you are, you seel” And she began to talk shamelessly about her daughter-in-law. “Once I went with her to the bath and saw her. Do you think she has anything to flatter herself about? Can she be called beautiful?”
She always spoke objectionably about the relations of husband and wife. At first her speeches aroused my disgust, but I soon accustomed myself to listen to them with attention and with great interest, feeling that there was something painfully true about them.
“Woman is strength; she deceived God Himself. That is so,” she hissed, striking her hand on the table. “Through Eve are we all condemned to hell. What do you think of that?”
On the subject of woman’s power she could talk endlessly, and it always seemed as if she were trying to frighten some one in these conversations. I particularly remembered that “Eve deceived God.”
Overlooking our yard was the wing of a large building, and of the eight flats comprised in it, four were occupied by officers, and the fifth by the regimental chaplain. The yard was always full of officers’ servants and orderlies, after whom ran laundresses, house — maids, and cooks. Dramas and romances were being carried on in all the kitchens, accompanied by tears, quarrels, and fights. The soldiers quarreled among themselves and with the landlord’s workmen; they used to beat the women.
The yard was a seething pot of what is called vice, immorality, the wild, untamable appetites of healthy lads. This life, which brought out all the cruel sensuality, the thoughtless tyranny, the obscene boastful — ness of the conqueror, was criticized in every detail by my employers at dinner, tea, and supper. The old woman knew all the stories of the yard, and told them with gusto, rejoicing in the misfortunes of others. The younger woman listened to these tales in silence, smiling with her swollen lips. Victor used to burst out laughing, but the master would frown and say:
“That will do, Mamasha!”
“Good Lord! I mustn’t speak now, I suppose!” the story-teller complained; but Victor encouraged her.
“Go on, Mother! What is there to hinder you? We are all your own people, after all.”
I could never understand why one should talk shamelessly before one’s own people.
The elder son bore himself toward his mother with contemptuous pity, and avoided being alone with her, for if that happened, she would surely overwhelm him with complaints against his wife, and would never fail to ask him for money. He would hastily press into her hand a ruble or so or several pieces of small silver.
“It is not right, Mother; take the money. I do not grudge it to you, but it is unjust.”
“But I want it for beggars, for candles when I go to church.”
“Now, where will you find beggars there? You will end by spoiling Victor.”
“You don’t love your brother. It is a great sin on your part.”
He would go out, waving her away.
Victor’s manner to his mother was coarse and derisive. He was very greedy, and he was always hun — gry. On Sundays his mother used to bake custards, and she always hid a few of them in a vessel under the couch on which I slept. When Victor left the dinner-table he would get them out and grumble:
“Couldn’t you have saved a few more, you old fool?”
“Make haste and eat them before any one sees you.”
“I will tell how you steal cakes for me behind their backs.”
Once I took out the vessel and ate two custards, for which Victor nearly killed me. He disliked me as heartily as I disliked him. He used to jeer at me and make me clean his boots about three times a day, and when I slept in the loft, he used to push up the trap-door and spit in the crevice, trying to aim at my head.
It may be that in imitation of his brother, who often said “wild fowl,” Victor also needed to use some catch-words, but his were all senseless and particularly ab — surd.
“Mamasha! Left wheel! where are my socks?”
And he used to follow me about with stupid questions.
“Alesha, answer me. Whv do we write ‘sinenki’ and pronounce it ‘phiniki? Why do we say ‘Kolokola’ and not ‘Okolokola”? Why do we say ‘K’derevou’ and not ‘gdye plachou?”
I did not like the way any of them spoke, and having been educated in the beautiful tongue which grand — mother and grandfather spoke, I could not understand at first how words that had no sort of connection came to be coupled together, such as “terribly funny,” “I am dying to eat,” “awfully happy.” It seemed to me that what was funny could not be terrible, that to be happy could not be awful, and that people did not die for something to eat.
“Can one say that?” I used to ask them; but they jeered at me:
“I say, what a teacher! Do you want your ears plucked?”
But to talk of “plucking” ears also appeared incorrect to me. One could “pluck” grass and flowers and nuts, but not ears. They tried to prove to me that ears could be plucked, but they did not convince me, and I said triumphantly:
“Anyhow, you have not plucked my ears.”
All around me I saw much cruel insolence, filthy shamelessness. It was far worse here than in the Kunavin streets, which were full of “houses of resort” and “street-walkers.” Beneath the filth and brutality in Kunavin there was a something which made itself felt, and which seemed to explain it all — a strenuous, half-starved existence and hard work. But here they were overfed and led easy lives, and the work went on its way without fuss or worry. A corrosive, fretting weariness brooded over all.
My life was hard enough, anyhow, but I felt it still harder when grandmother came to see me. She would appear from the black flight of steps, enter the kitchen, cross herself before the icon, and then bow low to her younger sister. That bow bent me down like a heavy weight, and seemed to smother me.
“Ah, Akulina, is it you?” was my mistress’s cold and negligent greeting to grandmother.
I should not have recognized grandmother. Her lips modestly compressed, her face changed out of knowledge, she set herself quietly on a bench near the door, keeping silence like a guilty creature, except when she answered her sister softly and submissively. This was torture to me, and I used to say angrily:
“What are you sitting there for?”
Winking at me kindly, she replied:
“You be quiet. You are not master here.”
“He is always meddling in matters which do not concern him, however we beat him or scold him,” and the mistress was launched on her complaints.
She often asked her sister spitefully:
“Well, Akulina, so you are living like a beggar?”
“That is a misfortune.”
“It is no misfortune where there is no shame.”
“They say that Christ also lived on charity.”
“Blockheads say so, and heretics, and you, old fool, listen to them! Christ was no beggar, but the Son of God. He will come, it is said, in glory, to judge the quick and dead — and dead, mind you. You will not be able to hide yourself from Him, Matushka, although you may be burned to ashes. He is punishing you and Vassili now for your pride, and on my account, because I asked help from you when you were rich.”
“And I helped you as much as it was in my power to do,” answered grandmother, calmly, “and God will pay us back, you know.” <
“It was little enough you did, little enough.”
Grandmother was bored and worried by her sister’s untiring tongue. I listened to her squeaky voice and wondered how grandmother could put up with it. In that moment I did not love her.
The young mistress came out of her room and nodded affably to grandmother.
“Come into the dining-room. It is all right; come along!”
The master would receive grandmother joyfully.
“Ah, Akulina, wisest of all, how are you? Is old man Kashirin still alive?”
And grandmother would give him her most cordial smile.
“Are you still working your hardest?”
“Yes; always working, like a convict.”
Grandmother conversed with him affectionately and well, but in the tone of a senior. Sometimes he called my mother to mind.
“Ye-es, Varvara Vassilievna. What a woman! A heroine, eh?”
His wife turned to grandmother and put in:
“Do you remember my giving her that cloak — black silk trimmed with jet?”
“Of course I do.”
“It was quite a good one.”
“Ye-es,” muttered the master, “a cloak, a palm; and life is a trickster.” 1
1 A play on the words “ tal’ma, cloak; pal’ma, palm; shelma, trickster.
“What are you talking about?” asked his wife, suspiciously.
“I? Oh, nothing in particular. Happy days and good people soon pass away.”
“I don’t know what is the matter with you,” said my mistress, uneasily.
Then grandmother was taken to see the new baby, and while I was clearing away the dirty cups and saucers from the table the master said to me:
“She is a good old woman, that grandmother of yours.”
I was deeply grateful to him for those words, and when I was alone with grandmother, I said to her, with a pain in my heart:
“Why do you come here? Why? Can’t you see how they — ”
“Ach, Olesha, I see everything,” she replied, looking at me with a kind smile on her wonderful face, and I felt conscience-stricken. Why, of course she saw everything and knew everything, even what was going on in my soul at that moment. Looking round carefully to see that no one was coming, she embraced me, saying feelingly:
“I would not come here if it were not for you. What are they to me? As a matter of fact, grandfather is ill, and I am tired with looking after him. I have not been able to do any work, so I have no money, and my son Mikhail has turned Sascha out. I have him now to give food and drink, too. They promised to give you six rubles a month, and I don’t suppose you have had a ruble from them, and you have been here nearly half a year.” Then she whispered in my ear: “They say they have to lecture you, scold you, they say that you do not obey; but, dear heart, stay with them. Be patient for two short years while you grow strong. You will be patient, yes?”
I promised. It was very difficult. That life oppressed me; it was a threadbare, depressing existence. The only excitement was about food, and I lived as in a dream. Sometimes I thought that I would have to run away, but the accursed winter had set in. Snow-storms raged by night, the wind rushed over the top of the house, and the stanchions cracked with the pressure of the frost. Whither could I run away?
They would not let me go out, and in truth it was no weather for walking. The short winter day, full of the bustle of housework, passed with elusive swiftness. But they made me go to church, on Saturday to vespers and on Sunday to high mass.
I liked being in church. Standing somewhere in a corner where there was more room and where it was darker, I loved to gaze from a distance at the iconastasis, which looked as if it were swimming in the candlelight flowing in rich, broad streams over the floor of the reading-desk. The dark figures of the icons moved gently, the gold embroidery on the vestments of the priests quivered joyfully, the candle flames burned in the dark-blue atmosphere like golden bees, and the heads of the women and children looked like flowers. All the surroundings seemed to blend harmoniously with the singing the choir. Everything seemed to be imbued with the weird spirit of legends. The church seemed to oscillate like a cradle, rocking in pitch-black space.
Sometimes I imagined that the church was sunk deep in a lake in which it lived, concealed, a life peculiar to itself, quite different from any other form of life. I have no doubt now that this idea had its source in grandmother’s stories of the town of Kitej, and I often found myself dreamily swaying, keeping time, as it were, with the movement around me. Lulled into somnolence by the singing of the choir, the murmur of prayers, the breath of the congregation, I concentrated myself upon the melodious, melancholy story:
“They are closing upon us, the accursed Tatars. Yes, these unclean beasts are closing in upon Kitej The glorious; yea, at the holy hour of matins.
O Lord, our God!
Holy Mother of God!
Save Thy servants
To sing their morning praises,
To listen to the holy chants!
Oi, let not the Tatars
Jeer at holy church;
Let them not put to shame
Our women and maidens;
Seize the little maids to be their toys,
And the old men to be put to a cruel death!
And the God of Sabaoth heard,
The Holy Mother heard,
These human sighs,
These Christians’ plaints.
And He said, the Lord of Sabaoth,
To the Holy Angel Michael,
‘Go thou, Michael,
Make the earth shake under Kitej;
Let Kitej sink into the lake!’
And there to this day
The people do pray.
Never resting, and never weary
From matins to vespers.
Through all the holy offices.
Forever and evermore!”
At that time my head was full of grandmother’s poetry, as full as a beehive of honey. I used even to think in verse.
I did not pray in church. I felt ashamed to utter the angry prayers and psalms of lamentation of grandfather’s God in the presence of grandmother’s God, Who, I felt sure, could take no more pleasure in them than I did myself, for the simple reason that they were all printed in books, and of course He knew them all by heart, as did all people of education. And this is why, when my heart was oppressed by a gentle grief or irritated by the petty grievances of every day, I tried to make up prayers for myself. And when I began to think about my uncongenial work, the words seemed to form themselves into a complaint without any effort on my part:
“Lord, Lord! I am very miserable! Oh, let me grow up quickly. For this life I can’t endure. O Lord, forgive! From my studies I get no benefit. For that devil’s puppet. Granny Matrena, Howls at me like a wolf, And my life is very bitter!”
To this day I can remember some of these prayers. The workings of the brain in childhood leave a very deep impression; often they influence one’s whole life.
I liked being in church; I could rest there as I rested in the forests and fields. My small heart, which was already familiar with grief and soiled by the mire of a coarse life, laved itself in hazy, ardent dreams. But I went to church only during the hard frosts, or when a snow-storm swept wildly up the streets, when it seemed as if the very sky were frozen, and the wind swept across it with a cloud of snow, and the earth lay frozen under the snow-drifts as if it would never live again.
When the nights were milder I used to like to wander through the streets of the town, creeping along by all the darkest corners. Sometimes I seemed to walk as if I had wings, flying along like the moon in the sky. My shadow crept in front of me, extinguishing the sparkles of light in the snow, bobbing up and down comically. The night watchman patrolled the streets, rattle in hand, clothed in a heavy sheepskin, his dog at his side. Vague outlines of people came out of yards and flitted along the streets, and the dog gave chase. Sometimes I met gay young ladies with their escorts. I had an idea that they also were playing truant from vespers.
Sometimes through a lighted fortochka 2 there came a peculiar smell, faint, unfamiliar, suggestive of a kind of life of which I was ignorant. I used to stand under the windows and inhale it, trying to guess what it was to live like the people in such a house lived. It was the hour of vespers, and yet they were singing merrily, laughing, and playing on a sort of guitar. The deep, stringy sound flowed through the fortochka.
2 A small square of glass in the double window which is set on hinges and serves as a ventilator.
Of special interest to me were the one-storied, dwarfed houses at the corners of the deserted streets, Tikhonovski and Martinovski. I stood there on a moonlight night in mid-Lent and listened to the weird sounds — it sounded as if some one were singing loudly with his mouth closed — which floated out through the fortochka together with a warm steam. The words were indistinguishable, but the song seemed to be familiar and intelligible to me; but when I listened to that, I could not hear the stringy sound which languidly interrupted the flow of song. I sat on the curbstone thinking what a wonderful melody was being played on some sort of insupportable violin — in supportable because it hurt me to listen to it. Some — times they sang so loudly that the whole house seemed to shake, and the panes of the windows rattled. Like tears, drops fell from the roof, and from my eyes also.
The night watchman had come close to me without my being aware of it, and, pushing me off the curbstone, said:
“What are you stuck here for?”
“The music,” I explained.
“A likely tale! Be off now!”
I ran quickly round the houses and returned to my place under the window, but they were not playing now. From the fortochka proceeded sounds of revelry, and it was so unlike the sad music that I thought I must be dreaming. I got into the habit of running to this house every Saturday, but only once, and that was in the spring, did I hear the violoncello again, and then it played without a break till midnight. When I reached home I got a thrashing.
These walks at night beneath the winter sky througn the deserted streets of the town enriched me greatly. I purposely chose streets far removed from the center, where there were many lamps, and friends of my master who might have recognized me. Then he would find out how I played truant from vespers. No “drunkards,” “street-walkers,” or policemen interfered with me in the more remote streets, and I could see into the rooms of the lower floors if the windows were not frozen over or curtained.
Many and diverse were the pictures which I saw through those windows. I saw people praying, kissing, quarreling, playing cards, talking busily and soundlessly the while. It was a cheap panoramic show representing a dumb, fish-like life.
I saw in one basement room two women, a young one and another who was her senior, seated at a table; opposite them sat a school-boy reading to them. The younger woman listened with puckered brows, leaning back in her chair; but the elder, who was thin, with luxuriant hair, suddenly covered her face with her hands, and her shoulders heaved. The school-boy threw down the book, and when the younger woman had sprung to her feet and gone away, he fell on his knees before the woman with the lovely hair and began to kiss her hands.
Through another window I saw a large, bearded man with a woman in a red blouse sitting on his knee. He was rocking her as if she had been a baby, and was evidently singing something, opening his mouth wide and rolling his eyes. The woman was shaking with laughter, throwing herself backward and swinging her feet. He made her sit up straight again, and again began to sing, and again she burst out laughing. I gazed at them for a long time, and went away only when I realized that they meant to keep up their merriment all night.
There were many pictures of this kind which will always remain in my memory, and often I was so attracted by them that I was late in returning home. This aroused the suspicions of my employers, who asked me:
“What church did you go to? Who was the officiating priest?”
They knew all the priests of the town; they knew what gospel would be read, in fact, they knew everything. It was easy for them to catch me in a lie.
Both women worshiped the wrathful God of my grandfather — the God Who demanded that we should approach Him in fear. His name was ever on their lips; even in their quarrels they threatened one another:
“Wait! God will punish you! He will plague you for this! Just wait!”
On the Sunday in the first week of Lent the old woman cooked some butters and burned them all. Flushed with the heat of the stove, she cried angrily:
“The devil take you!” And suddenly, sniffing at the frying-pan, her face grew dark, and she threw the utensil on the floor and moaned: “Bless me, the pan has been used for flesh food! It is unclean! It did not catch when I used it clean on Monday.”
Falling on her knees, she entreated with tears:
“Lord God, Father, forgive me, accursed that I am! For the sake of Thy sufferings and passion forgive me! Do not punish an old fool, Lord!”
The burned fritters were given to the dog, the pan was destroyed, but the young wife began to reproach her mother-in-law in their quarrels.
“You actually cooked fritters in Lent in a pan which had been used for flesh-meat.”
They dragged their God into all the household affairs, into every corner of their petty, insipid lives, and thus their wretched life acquired outward significance and importance, as if every hour was devoted to the service of a Higher Power. The dragging of God into all this dull emptiness oppressed me, and I used to look involuntarily into the corners, aware of being observed by invisible beings, and at night I was wrapped in a cloud of fear. It came from the corner where the ever-burning lamp flickered before the icon.
On a level with this shelf was a large window with two sashes joined by a stanchion. Fathomless, deep-blue space looked into the window, and if one made a quick movement, everything became merged in this deep-blue gulf, and floated out to the stars, into the deathly stillness, without a sound, just as a stone sinks when it is thrown into the water.
I do not remember how I cured myself of this terror, but I did cure myself, and that soon. Grandmother’s good God helped me, and I think it was then that I realized the simple truth, namely, that no harm could come to me; that I should not be punished without fault of my own; that it was not the law of life that the innocent should suffer; and that I was not responsible for the faults of others.
I played truant from mass too, especially in the spring, the irresistible force of which would not let me go to church. If I had a seven-copeck piece given me for the collection, it was my destruction. I bought hucklebones, played all the time mass was going on, and was inevitably late home. And one day I was clever enough to lose all the coins which had been given me for prayers for the dead and the blessed bread, so that I had to take some one else’s portion when the priest came from the altar and handed it round.
I was terribly fond of gambling, and it became a craze with me. I was skilful enough, and strong, and I swiftly gained renown in games of hucklebones, billiards, and skittles in the neighboring streets.
During Lent I was ordered to prepare for communion, and I went to confession to our neighbor Father Dorimedont Pokrovski. I regarded him as a hard man, and had committed many sins against him personally. I had thrown stones at the summer-house in his garden, and had quarreled with his children. In fact he might call to mind, if he chose, many similar acts annoying to him. This made me feel very uneasy, and when I stood in the poor little church awaiting my turn to go to confession my heart throbbed tremulously.
But Father Dorimedont greeted me with a good-natured, grumbling exclamation.
“Ah, it is my neighbor! Well, kneel down! What sins have you committed?”
He covered my head with a heavy velvet cloth. I inhaled the odor of wax and incense. It was difficult to speak, and I felt reluctant to do so.
“Have you been obedient to your elders?”
“Say, 1 have sinned.’ ”
To my own surprise I let fall:
“I have stolen.”
“How was that? Where?” asked the priest, thoughtfully and without haste.
“At the church of the three bishops, at Pokrov, and at Nikoli.”
“Well, that is in all the churches. That was wrong, my child; it was a sin. Do you understand?”
“Say, ‘I have sinned.’ What did you steal for? Was it for something to eat?”
“Sometimes and sometimes it was because I had lost money at play, and, as I had to take home some blessed bread, I stole it.”
Father Dorimedont whispered something indistinctly and wearily, and then, after a few more ques — tions, suddenly inquired sternly:
“Have you been reading forbidden books?”
Naturally I did not understand this question, and I asked: ’
“What books do you mean?”
“Forbidden books. Have you been reading any?”
“No; not one.”
“Your sins are remitted. Stand up!”
I glanced at his face in amazement. He looked thoughtful and kind. I felt uneasy, conscience-stricken. In sending me to confession, my employers had spoken about its terrors, impressing on me to confess honestly even my slightest sins.
“I have thrown stones at your summer-house,” I deposed.
The priest raised his head and, looking past me, said:
“That was very wrong. Now go!”
“And at your dog.”
“Next!” called out Father Dorimedont, still looking past me.
I came away feeling deceived and offended. To be put to all that anxiety about the terrors of confession, and to find, after all, that it was not only far from terrible, but also uninteresting! The only interesting thing about it was the question about the forbidden books, of which I knew nothing. I remembered the schoolboy reading to the women in that basement room, and “Good Business,” who also had many black, thick books, with unintelligible illustrations.
The next day they gave me fifteen copecks and sent me to communion. Easter was late. The snow had been melted a long time, the streets were dry, the roadways sent up a cloud of dust, and the day was sunny and cheerful. Near the church was a group of workmen gambling with hucklebones. I decided that there was plenty of time to go to communion, and asked if I might join in.
“Let me play.”
“The entrance-fee is one copeck,” said a pock-marked, ruddy-faced man, proudly. Not less proudly I replied: “I put three on the second pair to the left.” “The stakes are on!” And the game began. I changed the fifteen-copeck piece and placed my three copecks on the pair of hucklebones. Whoever hit that pair would receive that money, but if he failed to hit them, he had to give me three copecks. I was in luck. Two of them took aim and lost. I had won six copecks from grown-up men. My spirits rose greatly. But one of the players remarked:
“You had better look out for that youngster or he will be running away with his winnings.”
This I regarded as an insult, and I said hotly: “Nine copecks on the pair at the extreme left.” However, this did not make much impression on the players. Only one lad of my own age cried:
“See how lucky he is, that little devil from the Zvezdrinki; I know him.”
A thin workman who smelt like a furrier said maliciously:
“He is a little devil, is he Goo-oo-ood!”
Taking a sudden aim, he coolly knocked over my stake, and, bending down to me, said: “Will that make you howl?’
“Three copecks on the pair to the right!”
“I shall have another three,” he said, but he lost. One could not put money on the same “horse” more than three times running, so I chose other nucklebones and won four more copecks. I had a heap of nucklebones. But when my turn came again, I placed money — three times, and lost it all. Simultaneously mass was finished, the bell rang, and the people came out of church.
“Are you married?” inquired the furrier, intending to seize me by the hair; but I eluded him, and overtaking a lad in his Sunday clothes I inquired politely:
“Have you been to communion?”
“Well, and suppose I have; what then?” he answered, looking at me contemptuously.
I asked him to tell me how people took communion, what words the priest said, and what I ought to have done.
The young fellow shook me roughly and roared out in a terrifying voice:
“You have played the truant from communion, you heretic! Well, I am not going to tell you anything. Let your father skin you for it!”
I ran home expecting to be questioned, and certain that they would discover that I had not been to communion; but after congratulating me, the old woman asked only one question:
“How much did you give to the clerk? Much?”
“Five copecks,” I answered, without turning a hair.
“And three copecks for himself; that would leave you seven copecks, animal!”
It was springtime. Each succeeding spring was clothed differently, and seemed brighter and pleasanter than the preceding one. The young grass and the fresh green birch gave forth an intoxicating odor. I had an uncontrollable desire to loiter in the fields and listen to the lark, lying face downward on the warm earth; but I had to clean the winter coats and help to put them away in the trunks, to cut up leaf tobacco, and dust the furniture, and to occupy myself from morning till night with duties which were to me both unpleasant and needless.
In my free hours I had absolutely nothing to live for. In our wretched street there was nothing, and beyond that I was not allowed to go. The yard was full of cross, tired workmen, untidy cooks, and washer-women, and every evening I saw disgusting sights so offensive to me that I wished that I was blind.
I went up into the attic, taking some scissors and some colored paper with me, and cut out some lace-like designs with which I ornamented the rafters. It was, at any rate, something on which my sorrow could feed. I longed with all my heart to go to some place where people slept less, quarreled less, and did not so wearisomely beset God with complaints, and did not so frequently offend people with their harsh judgments.
On the Saturday after Easter they brought the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Vlandimirski from the Oranski Monastery to the town. The image became the guest of the town for half of the month of June, and blessed all the dwellings of those who attended the church. It was brought to my employers’ house on a weekday. I was cleaning the copper things in the kitchen when the young mistress cried out in a scared voice from her room:
“Open the front door. They are bringing the Oranski icon here.”
I rushed down, very dirty, and with greasy hands as rough as a brick opened the door. A young man with a lamp in one hand and a thurible in the other grumbled gently:
“Are you all asleep? Give a hand here!”
Two of the inhabitants carried the heavy icon-case up the narrow staircase. I helped them by supporting the edge, of it with my dirty hands and my shoulder. The monk came heavily behind me, chanting unwillingly with his thick voice:
“Holy Mother of God, pray for us!”
I thought, with sorrowful conviction:
“She is angry with me because I have touched her with dirty hands, and she will cause my hands to wither.”
They placed the icon in the corner of the anti-chamber on two chairs, which were covered with a clean sheet, and on each side of it stood two monks, young and beautiful like angels. They had bright eyes, joyful expressions, and lovely hair.
Prayers were said.
“O, Mother Renowned,” the big priest chanted, and all the while he was feeling the swollen lobe of his ear, which was hidden in his luxuriant hair.
“Holy Mother of God, pray for u-u-us!” sang the monks, wearily.
I loved the Holy Virgin. According to grandmother’s stories it was she who sowed on the earth, for the consolation of the poor, all the flowers, all the joys, every blessing and beauty. And when the time came to salute her, without observing how the adults conducted themselves toward her, I kissed the icon palpitatingly on the face, the lips. Some one with pow — erful hands hurled me to the door. I do not remem — ber seeing the monks go away, carrying the icon, but I remember very well how my employers sat on the floor around me and debated with much fear and anxiety what would become of me.
“We shall have to speak to the priest about him and have him taught,” said the master, who scolded me without rancor.
“Ignoramus! How is it that you did not know that you should not kiss the lips? You must have been taught that at school.”
For several days I waited, resigned, wondering what actually would happen to me. I had touched the icon with dirty hands; I had saluted it in a forbidden manner; I should not be allowed to go unpunished.
But apparently the Mother of God forgave the involuntary sin which had been prompted by sheer love, or else her punishment was so light that I did not notice it among the frequent punishments meted out to me by these good people.
Sometimes, to annoy the old mistress, I said compunctiously:
“But the Holy Virgin has evidently forgotten to punish me.”
“You wait,” answered the old woman, maliciously. “We shall see.”
While I decorated the rafters of the attic with pink tea-wrappers, silver paper, leaves from trees, and all kinds of things, I used to sing anything that came into my head, setting the words to church melodies, as the Kalmucks do on the roads.
“I am sitting in the attic With scissors in my hand, Cutting paper — paper. A dunce am I, and dull. If I were a dog, I could run where’er I wished; But now they all cry out to me: ‘Sit down! Be silent, rogue, While your skin is whole!’ ”
The old woman came to look at my work, and burst out laughing.
“You should decorate the kitchen like that.”
One day the master came up to the attic, looked at my performance, and said, with a sigh:
“You are an amusing fellow, Pyeshkov; the devil you are! I wonder what you will become, a conjurer or what? One can’t guess.” And he gave me a large Nikolaivski five-copeck piece.
By means of a thin wire I fastened the coin in the most prominent position among my works of art. In the course of a few days it disappeared. I believe that the old woman took it.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50