WHEN the snows came, grandfather once more took me to grandmother’s sister.
“It will do you no harm,” he said to me.
I seemed to have had a wonderful lot of experience during the summer. I felt that I had grown older and cleverer, and the dullness of my master’s house seemed worse than ever. They fell ill as often as ever, upsetting their stomachs with offensive poisons, and giv — ing one another detailed accounts of the progress of their illnesses. The old woman prayed to God in the same terrible and malignant way. The young mistress had grown thin, but she moved about just as pompously and slowly as when she was expecting her child. When she stitched at the baby-clothes she always sang the same song softly to herself:
“Spiria, Spiria, Spiridon,
Spiria, my little brother,
I will sit in the sledge myself
And Spiria on the foot-board.”
If any one went into the room she left off singing at once and cried angrily:
“What do you want?”
I fully believed that she knew no other song but that.
In the evenings they used to call me into the sitting-room, and the order was given: i8o
“Now tell us how you lived on the boat.”
I sat on a chair near the door and spoke. I liked to recall a different life from this which I was forced to lead against my will. I was so interested that I forgot my audience, but not for long.
The women, who had never been on a boat, asked me:
“But it was very alarming, wasn’t it?”
I did not understand. Why should it be alarming?
“Why, the boat might go down any moment, and every one would be drowned.”
The master burst out laughing, and I, although I knew that boats did not sink just because there were deep places, could not convince the women. The old woman was certain that the boat did not float on the water, but went along on wheels on the bottom of the river, like a cart on dry land.
“If they are made of iron, how can they float? An ax will not float; no fear!”
“But a scoop does not sink in the water.”
“There’s a comparison to make! A scoop is a small thing, nothing to speak of.”
When I spoke of Smouri and his books they regarded me with contempt. The old lady said that only fools and heretics wrote books.
“What about the Psalms and King David?”
“The Psalms are sacred writings, and King David prayed God to forgive him for writing the Psalms.”
“Where does it say so?”
“In the palms of my hands; that’s where! When I get hold of you by the neck you will learn where.”
She knew everything; she spoke on all subjects with conviction and always savagely.
“A Tatar died on the Pechorka, and his soul came out of his mouth as black as tar.”
“Soul? Spirit?” I said, but she cried contemptuously:
“Of a Tatar! Fool!”
The young mistress was afraid of books, too.
“It is very injurious to read books, and especially when you are young,” she said. “At home, at Grebeshka, there was a young girl of good family who read and read, and the end of it was that she fell in love with the deacon, and the deacon’s wife so shamed her that it was terrible to see. In the street, before everybody.”
Sometimes I used words out of Smouri’s books, in one of which, one without beginning or end, was written, “Strictly speaking, no one person really invented powder; as is always the case, it appeared at the end of a long series of minor observations and discoveries.” I do not know why I remembered these words so well. What I liked best of all was the joining of two phrases, “strictly speaking, no one person really invented powder.” I was aware of force underlying them; but they brought me sorrow, ludicrous sor — row. It happened thus.
One day when my employers proposed that I should tell them about something which had happened on the boat I answered:
“I haven’t anything left to tell, strictly speaking.”
This amazed them. They cried:
“What? What’s that you said?’
And all four began to laugh in a friendly fashion, repeating:
“‘Strictly speaking,’ — ah. Lord!”
Even the master said to me:
“You have thought that out badly, old fellow.”
And for a long time after that they used to call me:
“Hi, ‘strictly speaking,’ come here and wipe up the floor after the baby, strictly speaking.”
This stupid banter did not offend, but it greatly surprised, me. I lived in a fog of stupefying grief, and I worked hard in order to fight against it. I did not feel my inefficiencies when I was at work. In the house were two young children. The nurses never pleased the mistresses, and were continually being changed. I had to wait upon the children, to wash baby-clothes every day, and every week I had to go to the Jandarmski Fountain to rinse the linen. Here I was derided by the washerwomen:
“Why are you doing women’s work?”
Sometimes they worked me up to such a pitch that I slapped them with the wet, twisted linen. They paid me back generously for this, but I found them merry and interesting.
The Jandarmski Fountain ran along the bottom of a deep causeway and fell into the Oka. The causeway cut the town off from the field which was called, from the name of an ancient god, Yarilo. On that field, near Semika, the inhabitants of the town had made a promenade. Grandmother had told me that in the days of her youth people still believed in Yarilo and offered sacrifices to him. They took a wheel, covered it with tarred tow, and let it roll down the hill with cries and songs, watching to see if the burning wheel would roll as far as the Oka. If it did, the god Yarilo had accepted the sacrifice; the summer would be sunny and happy.
The washerwomen were for the most part from Yarilo, bold, headstrong women who had the life of the town at their finger-ends. It was very interesting to hear their tales of the merchants, chinovniks and officers for whom they worked. To rinse the linen in winter in the icy water of the river was work for a galley-slave. All the women had their hands so frost-bitten that the skin was broken. Bending over the stream, inclosed in a wooden trough, under an old penthouse full of crevices, which was no protection against either wind or snow, the women rinsed the linen. Their faces were flushed, pinched by the frost. The frost burned their wet fingers; they could not bend them. Tears trickled from their eyes, but they chatted all the time, telling one another different stories, bearing themselves with a peculiar bravery toward every one and everything.
The best of all the stories were told by Natalia Kozlovski, a woman of about thirty, fresh-faced, strong, with laughing eyes and a peculiarly facile and sharp tongue. All her companions had a high regard for her; she was consulted on all sorts of affairs, and much admired for her skill in work, for the neatness of her attire, and because she had been able to send her daughter to the high school. When, bending under the weight of two baskets of wet linen, she came down the hill on the slippery footpath, they greeted her gladly, and asked solicitously:
“Well, and how is the daughter?”
“Very well, thank you; she is learning well, thank God!”
“Look at that now! She will be a lady.”
“That’s why I am having her taught. Where do the ladies with the painted faces come from? They all come from us, from the black earth. And where else should they come from? He who has the most knowledge has the longest arms and can take more, and the one who takes the most has the honor and glory. God sends us into the world as stupid children and expects to take us back as wise old people, which means that we must learn!”
When she spoke every one was silent, listening attentively to her fluent, self-confident speech. They praised her to her face and behind her back, amazed at her cleverness, her intellect; but no one tried to imitate her. She had sewn brown leather from the leg of a boot, over the sleeve of her bodice which saved her from the necessity of baring her arms to the elbow, and prevented her sleeves from getting wet. They all said what a good idea it was, but not one of them followed her example. When I did so they laughed at me.
“Ekh, you! Letting a woman teach you!” With reference to her daughter she said: “That is an important affair. There will be one more young lady in the world. Is that a small thing? But of course she may not be able to finish her studies; she may die. And it is not an easy life for those who are students, you see. There was that daughter of the Bakhilovs. She studied and studied, and even became a teacher herself. Once you become a teacher, you know, you are settled for life.”
“Of course, if they marry, they can do without education; that is, if they have something else to recom — mend them.”
“A woman’s wit lies not in her head.” It was strange and embarrassing to hear them speak about themselves with such lack of reticence. I knew how sailors, soldiers, and tillers of the soil spoke about women. I heard men always boasting among themselves of their skill in deceiving women, of cunning in their relations with them. I felt that their attitude toward “females” was hostile, but generally there was a ring of something in these boastings which led me to suppose that these stories were merely brag, inventions, and not the truth.
The washerwomen did not tell one another about their love adventures, but in whatever they said about men I detected an undercurrent of derision, of malice, and I thought it might be true that woman was strength.
“Even when they don’t go about among their fellows and make friends, they come to women, every one of them!” said Natalia one day, and an old woman cried to her in a rheumy voice:
“And to whom else should they go? Even from God monks and hermits come to us.”
These conversations amid the weeping splash of the water, the slapping of wet clothes on the ground, or against the dirty chinks, which not even the snow could hide with its clean cover — these shameless, malicious conversations about secret things, about that from which all races and peoples have sprung, roused in me a timid disgust, forced my thoughts and feelings to fix themselves on “the romances” which surrounded and irritated me. For me the understanding of the “romances” was closely intertwined with representations of obscure, immoral stories.
However, whether I was with the washerwomen, or in the kitchen with the orderlies or in cellars where lived the field laborers, I found it much more interesting than to be at home, where the stilted conversa — tions were always on the same lines, where the same things happened over and over again, arousing nothing but a feeling of constraint and embittered bore — dom. My employers dwelt within the magic circle of food, illness, sleep, and the anxieties attendant on preparing for eating and sleeping. They spoke of sin and of death, of which they were much afraid. They rubbed against one another as grains of corn are rubbed against the grindstone, which they expect every moment to crush them. In my free time I used to go into the shed to chop wood, desiring to be alone. But that rarely happened. The orderlies used to come and talk about the news of the yard.
Ermokhin and Sidorov came more often than the others. The former was a long, bow-backed Kalougan, with thick, strong veins all over him, a small head, and dull eyes. He was lazy and irritatingly stupid; he moved slowly and clumsily, and when he saw a woman he blinked and bent forward, just as if he were going to throw himself at her feet. All the yard was amazed by his swift conquest of the cooks and the maids, and envied him. They were all afraid of his bear-like strength. Sidorov, a lean, bony native of Tula, was always sad, spoke softly, and loved to gaze into dark corners. He would relate some incident in a low voice, or sit in silence, looking into the darkest corner.
“What are you looking at?”
“I thought I saw a mouse running about. I love mice; they run to and fro so quietly.”
I used to write letters home for these orderlies — love-letters. I liked this, but it was pleasanter to write letters for Sidorov than for any of the others. Every Saturday regularly he sent a letter to his sister at Tula.
He invited me into his kitchen, sat down beside me at the table, and, rubbing his close-cropped hair hard, whispered in my ear:
“Well, go on. Begin it as it ought to be begun. ‘My dearest sister, may you be in good health for many years’ — you know how it ought to go. And now write, ‘I received the ruble; only you need not have sent it. But I thank you. I want for nothing; we live well here.’ As a matter of fact, we do not live at all well, but like dogs; but there is no need to write that. Write that we live well. She is little, only fourteen years old. Why should she know? Now write by yourself, as you have been taught.”
He pressed upon me from the left side, breathing into my ear hotly and odorously, and whispered perseveringly:
“Write ‘if any one speaks tenderly to you, you are not to believe him. He wants to deceive you, and ruin you.’ ”
His face was flushed by his effort to keep back a cough. Tears stood in his eyes. He leaned on the table and pushed against me.
“You are hindering me!”
“It is all right; go on I ‘Above all, never believe gentlemen. They will lead a girl wrong the first time they see her. They know exactly what to say. And if you have saved any money, give it to the priest to keep for you, if he is a good man. But the best thing, is to bury it in the ground, and remember the spot.’ ”
It was miserable work trying to listen to this whisper, which was drowned by the squeaking of the tin ventilator in the fortochka, I looked at the blackened front of the stove, at the china cupboard covered with flies. The kitchen was certainly very dirty, overrun with bugs, redolent with an acrid smell of burnt fat, kerosene, and smoke. On the stove, among the sticks of wood, cockroaches crawled in and out. A sense of melancholy stole over my heart. I could have cried with pity for the soldier and his sister. Was it possible, was it right that people should live like this?
I wrote something, no longer listening to Sidorov’s whisper. I wrote of the misery and repulsiveness of life, and he said to me, sighing:
“You have written a lot; thank you. Now she will know what she has to be afraid of.”
“There is nothing for her to be afraid of,” I said angrily, although I was afraid of many things myself.
The soldier laughed, and cleared his throat.
“What an oddity you are! How is there nothing to be afraid of? What about gentlemen, and God? Isn’t that something?”
When he received a letter from his sister he said restlessly:
“Read it, please. Be quick!”
And he made me read the badly scrawled, insultingly short, and nonsensical letter three times.
He was good and kind, but he behaved toward women like all the others; that is, with the primitive coarseness of an animal. Willingly and unwillingly, as I observed these affairs, which often went on under my eyes, beginning and ending with striking and impure swiftness, I saw Sidorov arouse in the breast of a woman a kind feeling of pity for him in his soldier’s life, then intoxicate her with tender lies, and then tell Ermokhin of his conquest, frowning and spitting his disgust, just as if he had been taking some bitter medicine. This made my heart ache, and I angrily asked the soldiers why they all deceived women, lied to them, and then, jeering among themselves at the woman they had treated so, gave her away and often beat her.
One of them laughed softly, and said:
“It is not necessary for you to know anything about such things. It is all very bad; it is sin. You are young; it is too early for you.”
But one day I obtained a more definite answer, which I have always remembered.
“Do you think that she does not know that I am deceiving her?” he said, blinking and coughing. “She kno-o-ows. She wants to be deceived. Everybody lies in such affairs; they are a disgrace to all concerned. There is no love on either side; it is simply an amusement. It is a dreadful disgrace. Wait, and you will know for yourself. It was for that God drove them out of paradise, and from that all unhappiness has come.”
He spoke so well, so sadly, and so penitently that he reconciled me a little to these “romances.” I began to have a more friendly feeling toward him than towards Ermokhin, whom I hated, and seized every oc — casion of mocking and teasing. I succeeded in this, and he often pursued me across the yard with some evil design, which only his clumsiness prevented him from executing.
“It is forbidden,” went on Sidorov, speaking of women.
That it was forbidden I knew, but that it was the cause of human unhappiness I did not believe. I saw that people were unhappy, but I did not believe what he said, because I sometimes saw an extraordinary expression in the eyes of people in love, and was aware of a peculiar tenderness in those who loved. To witness this festival of the heart was always pleasant to me.
However, I remember that life seemed to me to grow more and more tedious, cruel, fixed for ever in those forms of it which I saw from day to day. I did not dream of anything better than that which passed interminably before my eyes.
But one day the soldiers told me a story which stirred me deeply. In one of the flats lived a cutter-out, employed by the best tailor in the town, a quiet, meek foreigner. He had a little, childless wife who read books all day long. Over the noisy yard, amid houses full of drunken people, these two lived, invisible and silent. They had no visitors, and never went anywhere themselves except to the theater in holiday-time.
The husband was engaged from early morning until late at night. The wife, who looked like an undersized girl, went to the library twice a week. I often saw her walking with a limp, as if she were slightly lame, as far as the dike, carrying books in a strap, like a school-girl. She looked unaffected, pleasant, new, clean, with gloves on her small hands. She had a face like a bird, with little quick eyes, and everything about her was pretty, like a porcelain figure on a mantel-shelf. The soldiers said that she had some ribs missing in her left side, and that was what made her sway so curiously as she walked; but I thought this very nice, and at once set her above all the other ladies in the yard — the officers’ wives. The latter, despite their loud voices, their variegated attire, and haut tournure had a soiled look about them, as if they had been lying forgotten for a long time, in a dark closet among other unneeded things.
The little wife of the cutter-out was regarded in the yard as half witted. It was said that she had lost her senses over books, and had got into such a condition that she could not manage the housekeeping; that her husband had to go to the market himself in search of provisions, and order the dinner and supper of the cook, a great, huge foreign female. She had only one red eye, which was always moist, and a narrow pink crevice in place of the other. She was like her mistress, they said of her. She did not know how to cook a dish of fried veal and onions properly, and one day she ignominiously bought radishes, thinking she was buying parsley. Just think what a dreadful thing that was I
All three were aliens in the building, as if they had fallen by accident into one of the compartments of a large hen-house. They reminded me of a tit-mouse which, taking refuge from the frost, flies through the fortochka into a stifling and dirty habitation of man.
And then the orderlies told me how the officers had played an insulting and wicked trick on the tailor’s little wife. They took turns to write her a letter every day, declaring their love for her, speaking of their sufferings and of her beauty. She answered them, begging them to leave her in peace, regretting that she had been the cause of unhappiness to any one, and praying God that He would help them to give up loving her. When any one of them received a letter like that, they used to read it all together, and then make up another letter to her, signed by a different person.
When they told me this story, the orderlies laughed too, and abused the lady.
“She is a wretched fool, the crookback,” said Ermokhin in a bass voice, and Sidorov softly agreed with him.
“Whatever a woman is, she likes being deceived. She knows all about it.”
I did not believe that the wife of the cutter-out knew that they were laughing at her, and I resolved at once to tell her about it. I watched for the cook to go down into the cellar, and I ran up the dark staircase to the flat of the little woman, and slipped into the kitchen. It was empty. I went on to the sitting-room. The tailor’s wife was sitting at the table. In one hand she held a heavy gold cup, and in the other an open book. She was startled. Pressing the book to her bosom, she cried in a low voice:
“Who is that? Angus te! Who are you?”
I began to speak quickly and confusedly, expecting every minute that she would throw the book at me. She was sitting in a large, raspberry-colored arm-chair, dressed in a pale-blue wrap with a fringe at the hem and lace on the collar and sleeves over her shoulders was spread her flaxen, wavy hair. She looked like an angel from the gates of heaven. Leaning against the back of her chair, she looked at me with round eyes, at first angrily, then in smiling surprise.
When I had said what I wanted to say, and, losing my courage, turned to the door, she cried after me:
Placing the cup on the tray, throwing the book on the table, and folding her hands, she said in a husky, grown-up voice:
“What a funny boy you are! Come closer!”
I approached very cautiously. She took me by the hand, and, stroking it with her cold, small fingers, said:
“Are you sure that no one sent you to tell me this? No? All right; I see that you thought of it yourself.”
Letting my hand go, she closed her eyes, and said softly and drawingly:
“So that is how the soldiers speak of me?”
“Leave this place,” I advised her earnestly.
“They will get the better of you/’
She laughed pleasantly. Then she asked:
“Do you study? Are you fond of books?”
“I have no time for reading.”
“If you were fond of it, you would find the time. Well, thank you.”
She held out a piece of silver money to me, grasped between her first finger and her thumb. I felt ashamed to take that cold thing from her, but I did not dare to refuse. As I went out, I laid it on the pedestal of the stair-banisters.
I took away with me a deep, new impression from that woman. It was as if a new day had dawned for me. I lived for several days in a state of joy, thinking of the spacious room and the tailor’s wife sitting in it, dressed in pale blue and looking like an angel. Everything around her was unfamiliarly beautiful. A dull-gold carpet lay under her feet; the winter day looked through the silver panes of the window, warming itself in her presence. I wanted very much to look at her again. How would it be if I went to her and asked her for a book?
I acted upon this idea. Once more I saw her in the same place, also with a book in her hand; but she had a red handkerchief tied round her face, and her eyes were swollen. As she gave me a book with a black binding, she indistinctly called out something.
I went away feeling sad, carrying the book, which smelt of creosote and aniseed drops. I hid it in the attic, wrapping it up in a clean shirt and some paper; for I was afraid that my employers might find it and spoil it.
They used to take the “Neva” for the sake of the patterns and prizes, but they never read it. When they had looked at the pictures, they put it away in a cupboard in the bedroom, and at the end of the year they had been bound, placing them under the bed, where already lay three volumes of “The Review of Painting.” When I washed the floor in the bedroom dirty water flowed under these books. The master subscribed to the “Russian Courier,” but when he read it in the evening he grumbled at it.
“What the devil do they want to write all this for? Such dull stuff!”
On Saturday, when I was putting away the linen in the attic, I remembered about the book. I undid it from its wrappings, and read the first lines: “Houses are like people; they all have physiognomies of their own.” The truth of this surprised me, and I went on reading farther, standing at the dormer-window until I was too cold to stay longer. But in the evening, when they had gone to vespers, I carried the book into the kitchen and buried myself in the yellow, worn pages, which were like autumn leaves. Without effort, they carried me into another life, with new names and new standards, showed me noble heroes, gloomy villains, quite unlike the people with whom
I had to do. This was a novel by Xavier de Montepaine. It was long, like all his novels, simply packed with people and incidents, describing an unfamiliar, vehement life. Everything in this novel was wonderfully clear and simple, as if a mellow light hid — den between the lines illuminated the good and evil. It helped one to love and hate, compelling one to follow with intense interest the fates of the people, who seemed so inextricably entangled. I was seized with sudden desires to help this person, to hinder that, forgetting that this life, which had so unexpectedly opened before me, had its existence only on paper. I forgot everything else in the exciting struggles. I was swallowed up by a feeling of joy on one page, and by a feeling of grief on the next.
I read until I heard the bell ring in the front hall. I knew at once who it was that was ringing, and why.
The candle had almost burned out. The candle-stick, which I had cleaned only that morning, was covered with grease; the wick of the lamp, which I ought to have looked after, had slipped out of its place, and the flame had gone out. I rushed about the kitchen trying to hide the traces of my crime. I slipped the book under the stove-hole, and began to put the lamp to rights. The nurse caine running out of the sitting-room.
“Are you deaf? They have rung!”
I rushed to open the door.
“Were you asleep?” asked the master roughly. His wife, mounting the stairs heavily, complained that she had caught cold. The old lady scolded me. In the kitchen she noticed the burned-out candle at once, and began to ask me what I had been doing. I said nothing. I had only just come down from the heights, and I was all to pieces with fright lest they should find the book. She cried out that I would set the house on fire. When the master and his wife came down to supper she complained to them.
“There, you see, he has let the candle gutter, he will set the house on fire.”
While they were at supper the whole four of them lashed me with their tongues, reminding me of all my crimes, wilful and involuntary, threatening me with perdition; but I knew quite well that they were all speaking not from ill-feeling, or for my good, but simply because they were bored. And it was curious to observe how empty and foolish they were compared with the people in books.
When they had finished eating, they grew heavy, and went wearily to bed. The old woman, after disturbing God with her angry complaints, settled her — self on the stove and was silent. Then I got up, took the book from the stove-hole, and went to the window. It was a bright night, and the moon looked straight into the window; but my sight was not good enough to see the small print. My desire to read was tormenting me. I took a brass saucepan from the shelf and reflected the light of the moon from it on the book; but it became still more difficult and blurred. Then I betook myself to the bench in the corner where the icon was, and, standing upon it, began to read by the light of the small lamp. But I was very tired, and dozed, sinking down on the bench. I was awakened by the cries and blows of the old woman. She was hitting me painfully over the shoulders with the book, which she held in her hand. She was red with rage, furiously tossing her brown head, barefooted, and wearing only her night-dress. Victor roared from the loft:
“Mamasha, don’t make such a noise! You make life unbearable.”
“She has found the book. She will tear it up!” I thought.
My trial took place at breakfast-time. The master asked me, sternly:
“Where did you get that book?”
The women exclaimed, interrupting each other. Victor sniffed contemptuously at the pages and said:
“Good gracious! what does it smell of?”
Learning that the book belonged to the priest, they looked at it again, surprised and indignant that the priest should read novels. However, this seemed to calm them down a little, though the master gave me another long lecture to the effect that reading was both injurious and dangerous.
“It is the people who read books who rob trains and even commit murders.”
The mistress cried out, angry and terrified:
“Have you gone out of your mind? What do you want to say such things to him for?”
I took Montepaine to the soldier and told him what had happened. Sidorov took the book, opened a small trunk, took out a clean towel, and, wrapping the novel in it, hid it in the trunk.
“Don’t you take any notice of them. Come and read here. I shan’t tell any one. And if you come when I am not here, you will find the key hanging behind the icon. Open the trunk and read.”
The attitude my employers had taken with regard to the book raised it to the height of an important and terrible secret in my mind. That some “readers” had robbed a train or tried to murder some one did not interest me, but I remembered the question the priest had asked me in confession, the reading of the gymnasiast in the basement, the words of Smouri, the “proper books,” and grandfather’s stories of the black books of freemasonry. He had said:
“In the time of the Emperor Alexander Pavlovich of blessed memory the nobles took up the study of ‘black books’ and freemasonry. They planned to hand over the whole Russian people to the Pope of Rome, if you please! But General Arakcheev caught them in the act, and, without regard to their position, sent them all to Siberia, into prison. And there they were; exterminated like vermin.”
I remembered the “umbra” of Smouri’ s book and “Gervase” and the solemn, comical words:
Profane ones who are curious to know our business,
Never shall your weak eyes spy it out!
I felt that I was on the threshold of the discovery of some great secret, and went about like a lunatic. I wanted to finish reading the book, and was afraid that the soldier might lose it or spoil it somehow. What should I say to the tailor’s wife then?
The old woman watched me sharply to see that I did not run to the orderly’s room, and taunted me:
“Bookworm! Books! They teach dissoluteness. Look at that woman, the bookish one. She can’t even go to market herself. All she can do is to carry on with the officers. She receives them in the daytime. I kno-o-w.”
I wanted to cry, “That’s not true. She does not carry on,” but I was afraid to defend the tailor’s wife, for then the old woman might guess that the book was hers.
I had a desperately bad time of it for several days. I was distracted and worried, and could not sleep for fear that Montepaine had come to grief. Then one day the cook belonging to the tailor’s household stopped me in the yard and said :
“You are to bring back that book.”
I chose the time after dinner, when my employers lay down to rest, and appeared before the tailor’s wife embarrassed and crushed. She looked now as she had the first time, only she was dressed differently. She wore a gray skirt and a black velvet blouse, with a turquoise cross upon her bare neck. She looked like a hen bullfinch. When I told her that I had not had time to read the book, and that I had been forbidden to read, tears filled my eyes. They were caused by mortification, and by joy at seeing this woman.
“Too! what stupid people!” she said, drawing her fine brows together. “And your master has such an interesting face, too! Don’t you fret about it. I will write to him.”
“You must not! Don’t write!” I begged her. “They will laugh at you and abuse you. Don’t you know that no one in the yard likes you, that they all laugh at you, and say that you are a fool, and that some of your ribs are missing?”
As soon as I had blurted this out I knew that I had said something unnecessary and insulting to her. She bit her lower lip, and clapped her hands on her hips as if she were riding on horseback. I hung my head in confusion and wished that I could sink into the earth; but she sank into a chair and laughed merrily, saying over and over again:
“Oh, how stupid I how stupid! Well, what is to be done?” she asked, looking fixedly at me. Then she sighed and said, “You are a strange boy, very strange.”
Glancing into the mirror beside her, I saw a face with high cheek-bones and a short nose, a large bruise on the forehead, and hair, which had not been cut for a long time, sticking out in all directions. That is what she called “a strange boy.” The strange boy was not in the least like a fine porcelain figure.
“You never took the money that I gave you. Why?”
“I did not want it.”
“Well, what is to be done? If they will allow you to read, come to me and I will give you some books.”
On the mantel-shelf lay three books. The one which I had brought back was the thickest. I looked at it sadly. The tailor’s wife held out her small, pink hand to me.
I touched her hand timidly, and went away quickly.
It was certainly true what they said about her not knowing anything. Fancy calling two grevines money! It was just like a child.
But it pleased me.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55