I HAVE sad and ludicrous reasons for remembering the burdensome humiliations, insults, and alarms which my swiftly developed passion for reading brought me.
The books of the tailor’s wife looked as if they were terribly expensive, and as I was afraid that the old mistress might burn them in the stove, I tried not to think of them, and began to buy small colored books from the shop where I bought bread in the mornings.
The shopkeeper was an ill-favored fellow with thick lips. He was given to sweating, had a white, wizen face covered with scrofulous scars and pimples, and his eyes were white. He had short, clumsy fingers on puffy hands. His shop took the place of an evening club for grown-up people; also for the thoughtless young girls living in the street. My master’s brother used to go there every evening to drink beer and play cards. I was often sent to call him to supper, and more than once I saw, in the small, stuffy room behind the shop, the capricious, rosy wife of the shopkeeper sitting on the knee of Victorushka or some other young fellow. Apparently this did not offend the shop-keeper; nor was he offended when his sister, who helped him in the shop, warmly embraced the drunken men, or soldiers, or, in fact any one who took her fancy. The business done at the shop was small. He explained this by the fact that it was a new business, al — though the shop had been open since the autumn. He showed obscene pictures to his guests and customers, allowing those who wished to copy the disgraceful verses beneath them.
I read the foolish little books of Mischa Evstignev, paying so many copecks for the loan of them. This was dear, and the books afforded me no pleasure at all. “Guyak, or, the Unconquerable Truth,” “Franzl, the Venitian,” “The Battle of the Russians with the Kabardines,” or “The Beautiful Mahomedan Girl, Who Died on the Grave of her Husband,” — all that kind of literature did not interest me either, and often aroused a bitter irritation. The books seemed to be laughing at me, as at a fool, when they told in dull words such improbable stories.
“The Marksmen,” “Youri Miloslavski,” “Monks’ Secrets,” “Yapacha, the Tatar Freebooter,” and such books I like better. I was the richer for reading them; but what I liked better than all was the lives of the saints. Here was something serious in which I could believe, and which at times deeply stirred me. All the martyrs somehow reminded me of “Good Business,” and the female martyrs of grandmother, and the holy men of grandfather in his best moments.
I used to read in the shed when I went there to chop wood, or in the attic, which was equally uncomfortable and cold. Sometimes, if a book interested me or I had to read it quickly, I used to get up in the night and light the candle; but the old mistress, noticing that my candle had grown smaller during the night, began to measure the candles with a piece of wood, which she hid away somewhere. In the morning, if my candle was not as long as the measure, or if I, having found the measure, had not broken it to the length of the burned candle, a wild cry arose from the kitchen. Sometimes Victorushka called out loudly from the loft:
“Leave off that howling, Mamasha! You make life unbearable. Of course he burns the candles, because he reads books. He gets them from the shop. I know. Just look among his things in the attic.”
The old woman ran up to the attic, found a book, and burned it to ashes.
This made me very angry, as you may imagine, but my love of reading increased. I understood that if a saint had entered that household, my employers would have set to work to teach him, tried to set him to their own tune. They would have done this for something to do. If they had left off judging people, scolding them, jeering at them, they would have forgotten how to talk, would have been stricken with dumbness, and would not have been themselves at all. When a man is aware of himself, it must be through his relations with other people. My employers could not behave themselves toward those about them otherwise than as teachers, always ready to condemn; and if they had taught somebody to live exactly as they lived themselves, to think and feel in the same way, even then they would have condemned him for that very reason. They were that sort of people.
I continued to read on the sly. The old woman destroyed books several times, and I suddenly found my — self in debt to the shopkeeper for the enormous amount of forty-seven copecks. He demanded the money, and threatened to take it from my employers’ money when they sent me to make purchases.
“What would happen then?” he asked jeeringly.
To me he was unbearably repulsive. Apparently he felt this, and tortured me with various threats from which he derived a peculiar enjoyment. When I went into the shop his pimply face broadened, and he would ask gently:
“Have you brought your debt?”
This startled him. He frowned.
“How is that? Am I supposed to give you things out of charity? I shall have to get it from you by sending you to the reformatory.”
I had no way of getting the money, my wages were paid to grandfather. I lost my presence of mind. What would happen to me? And in answer to my entreaty that he wait for settlement of the debt, the shopkeeper stretched out his oily, puffy hand, like a bladder, and said:
“Kiss my hand and I will wait.”
But when I seized a weight from the counter and brandished it at him, he ducked and cried:
“What are you doing? What are you doing? I was only joking.”
Knowing well that he was not joking, I resolved to steal the money to get rid of him. In the morning when I was brushing the master’s clothes, money jingled in his trousers’ pockets, and sometimes it fell out and rolled on the floor. Once some rolled into a crack in the boards under the staircase. I forgot to say anything about this, and remembered it only several days afterward when I found two greven between the boards. When I gave it back to the master his wife said to him:
“There, you see! You ought to count your money when you leave it in your pockets.”
But my master, smiling at me, said:
“He would not steal, I know.”
Now, having made up my mind to steal, I remembered these words and his trusting smile, and felt how hard it would be for me to rob him. Several times I took silver out of the pockets and counted it, but I could not take it. For three days I tormented myself about this, and suddenly the whole affair settled itself quickly and simply. The master asked me unexpectedly:
“What is the matter with you, Pyeshkov? You have become dull lately. Aren’t you well, or what?”
I frankly told him all my troubles. He frowned.
“Now you see what books lead to! From them, in some way or another, trouble always comes.”
He gave me half a ruble and admonished me sternly:
“Now look here; don’t you go telling my wife or my mother, or there will be a row.”
Then he smiled kindly and said:
“You are very persevering, devil take you! Never mind; it is a good thing. Anyhow, give up books. When the New Year comes, I will order a good paper, and you can read that.”
And so in the evenings, from tea-time till supper-time, I read aloud to my employers “The Moscow Gazette,” the novels of Bashkov, Rokshnin, Rudinskovski, and other literature, for the nourishment of people who suffered from deadly dullness.
I did not like reading aloud, for it hindered me from understanding what I read. But my employers listened attentively, with a sort of reverential eagerness, sighing, amazed at the villainy of the heroes, and saying proudly to one another:
“And we live so quietly, so peacefully; we know nothing of such things, thank God!”
They mixed up the incidents, ascribed the deeds of the famous brigand Churkin to the post-boy Thoma Kruchin, and mixed the names. When I corrected their mistakes they were surprised.
“What a memory he has!”
Occasionally the poems of Leonide Grave appeared in “The Moscow Gazette.” I was delighted with them. I copied several of them into a note-book, but my employers said of the poet:
“He is an old man, you know; so he writes poetry.” “A drunkard or an imbecile, it is all the same.”
I liked the poetry of Strujkin, and the Count Memento Mori, but both the women said the verses were clumsy.
“Only the Petrushki or actors talk in verse.”
It was a hard life for me on winter evenings, under the eyes of my employers, in that close, small room. The dead night lay outside the window, now and again the ice cracked. The others sat at the table in silence, like frozen fish. A snow-storm would rattle the windows and beat against the walls, howl down the chimney, and shake the flue-plate. The children cried in the nursery. I wanted to sit by myself in a dark corner and howl like a wolf.
At one end of the table sat the women, knitting socks or sewing. At the other sat Victorushka, stooping, copying plans unwillingly, and from time to time calling out:
“Don’t shake the table! Goats, dogs, mice!”
At the side, behind an enormous embroidery-frame, sat the master, sewing a tablecloth in cross-stitch. Under his fingers appeared red lobsters, blue fish, yellow butterflies, and red autumn leaves. He had made the design himself, and had sat at the work for three winters. He had grown very tired of it, and often said to me in the daytime, when I had some spare time:
“Come along, Pyeshkov; sit down to the tablecloth and do some of it!”
I sat down, and began to work with the thick needle.
I was sorry for my master, and always did my best to help him. I had an idea that one day he would give up drawing plans, sewing, and playing at cards, and begin doing something quite different, something interesting, about which he often thought, throwing his work aside and gazing at it with fixed, amazed eyes, as at something unfamiliar to him. His hair fell over his forehead and cheeks; he looked like a laybrother in a monastery.
“What are you thinking of?” his wife would ask him.
“Nothing in particular,” he would reply, returning to his work.
I listened in dumb amazement. Fancy asking a man what he was thinking of. It was a question which could not be answered. One’s thoughts were always sudden and many, about all that passed before one’s eyes, of what one saw yesterday or a year ago. It was all mixed up together, elusive, constantly moving and changing.
The serial in “The Moscow Gazette” was not enough to last the evening, and I went on to read the journals which were put away under the bed in the bedroom. The young mistress asked suspiciously:
“What do you find to read there? It is all pictures.”
But under the bed, besides the “Painting Review,” lay also “Flames,” and so we read “Count Tyatin–Baltiski,” by Saliass. The master took a great fancy to the eccentric hero of the story, and laughed mercilessly, till the tears ran down his cheeks, at the mel — ancholy adventures of the hero, crying:
“Really, that is most amusing!”
“Piffle!” said the mistress to show her independence of mind.
The literature under the bed did me a great service. Through it, I had obtained the right to read the papers in the kitchen, and thus made it possible to read at night.
To my joy, the old woman went to sleep in the nursery for the nurse had a drunken fit. Victorushka did not interfere with me. As soon as the household was asleep, he dressed himself quietly, and disappeared somewhere till morning. I was not allowed to have a light, for they took the candles into the bedrooms, and I had no money to buy them for myself; so I began to collect the tallow from the candlesticks on the quiet, and put it in a sardine tin, into which I also poured lamp oil, and, making a wick with some thread, was able to make a smoky light. This I put on the stove for the night.
When I turned the pages of the great volumes, the bright red tongue of flame quivered agitatedly, the wick was drowned in the burning, evil-smelling fat, and the smoke made my eyes smart. But all this unpleasantness was swallowed up in the enjoyment with which I looked at the illustrations and read the description of them. These illustrations opened up be — fore me a world which increased daily in breadth — a world adorned with towns, just like the towns of story-land. They showed me lofty hills and lovely sea — shores. Life developed wonderfully for me. The earth became more fascinating, rich in people, abounding in towns and all kinds of things. Now when I gazed into the distance beyond the Volga, I knew that it was not space which lay beyond, but before that, when I had looked, it used to make me feel oddly miserable. The meadows lay flat, bushes grew in clumps, and where the meadows ended, rose the indented black wall of the forest. Above the meadows it was dull, cold blue. The earth seemed an empty, solitary place. And my heart also was empty. A gentle sorrow nipped it; all desires had departed, and I thought of nothing. All I wanted was to shut my eyes. This melancholy emptiness promised me nothing, and sucked out of my heart all that there was in it.
The description of the illustrations told me in language which I could understand about other countries, other peoples. It spoke of various incidents of the past and present, but there was a lot which I did not understand, and that worried me. Sometimes strange words stuck in my brain, like “metaphysics,” “chiliasm,” “chartist.” They were a source of great anx — iety to me, and seemed to grow into monsters obstruct — ing my vision. I thought that I should never under — stand anything. I did not succeed in finding out the meaning of those words. In fact, they stood like sentries on the threshold of all secret knowledge. Often whole phrases stuck in my memory for a long time, like a splinter in my finger, and hindered me from thinking of anything else.
I remembered reading these strange verses:
“All clad in steel, through the unpeopled land, Silent and gloomy as the grave, Rides the Czar of the Huns, Attilla. Behind him comes a black mass of warriors, crying, ‘Where, then, is Rome; where is Rome the mighty? ”
That Rome was a city, I knew; but who on earth were the Huns? I simply had to find that out.
Choosing a propitious moment, I asked my master.
“The Huns?” he cried in amazement. “The devil knows who they are. Some trash, I expect.”
And shaking his head disapprovingly, he said:
“That head of yours is full of nonsense. That is very bad, Pyeshkov.”
Bad or good, I wanted to know.
I had an idea that the regimental chaplain. Soloviev, ought to know who the Huns were, and when I caught him in the yard, I asked him. The pale, sickly, always disagreeable man, with red eyes, no eyebrows, and a yellow beard, pushing his black staff into the earth, said to me:
“And what is that to do with you, eh?”
Lieutenant Nesterov answered my question by a ferocious:
Then I concluded that the right person to ask about the Huns was the dispenser at the chemist’s. He always looked at me kindly. He had a clever face, and gold glasses on his large nose.
“The Huns,” said the dispenser, “were a nomad race, like the people of Khirgiz. There are no more of these people now. They are all dead.”
I felt sad and vexed, not because the Huns were dead, but because the meaning of the word that had worried me for so long was quite simple, and was also of no use to me.
But I was grateful to the Huns after my collision with the word ceased to worry me so much, and thanks to Attilla, I made the acquaintance of the dispenser Goldberg.
This man knew the literal meaning of all words of wisdom. He had the keys to all knowledge. Setting his glasses straight with two fingers, he looked fixedly into my eyes and said, as if he were driving small nails into my forehead:
“Words, my dear boy, are like leaves on a tree. If we want to find out why the leaves take one form instead of another, we must learn how the tree grows. We must study books, my dear boy. Men are like a good garden in which everything grows, both pleasant and profitable.”
I often had to run to the chemist’s for soda-water and magnesia for the adults of the family, who were continually suffering from heartburn, and for castor-oil and purgatives for the children.
The short instructions which the dispenser gave me instilled into my mind a still deeper regard for books.
They gradually became as necessary to me as vodka to the drunkard. They showed me a new life, a life of noble sentiments and strong desires which incite people to deeds of heroism and crimes. I saw that the people about me were fitted for neither heroism nor crime. They lived apart from everything that I read about in books, and it was hard to imagine what they found interesting in their lives. I had no desire to live such a life. I was quite decided on that point. I would not.
From the letterpress which accompanied the drawings I had learned that in Prague, London, and Paris there are no open drains in the middle of the city, or dirty gulleys choked with refuse. There were straight, broad streets, and different kinds of houses and churches. There they did not have a six-months-long winter, which shuts people up in their houses, and no great fast, when only fermenting cabbage, pickled mushrooms, oatmeal, and potatoes cooked in disgusting vegetable oil can be eaten. During the great fast books are forbidden, and they took away the “Review of Painting” from me, and that empty, meager life again closed about me. Now that I could compare it with the life pictured in books, it seemed more wretched and ugly than ever. When I could read I felt well and strong; I worked well and quickly, and had an object in life. The sooner I was finished, the more time I should have for reading. Deprived of books, I became lazy, and drowsy, and became a victim to forgetfulness, to which I had been a stranger before.
I remember that even during those dull days something mysterious happened. One evening when we had all gone to bed the bell of the cathedral suddenly rang out, arousing every one in the house at once. Half-dressed people rushed to the windows, asking one another:
“Is it a fire? Is that the alarm-bell?”
In the other flats one could hear the same bustle going on. Doors slammed; some one ran across the yard with a horse ready saddled. The old mistress shrieked that the cathedral had been robbed, but the master stopped her.
“Not so loud, Mamasha! Can’t you hear that that is not an alarm-bell?”
“Then the archbishop is dead.”
Victorushka climbed down from the loft, dressed himself, and muttered:
“I know what has happened. I know!”
The master sent me to the attic to see if the sky was red. I ran upstairs and climbed to the roof through the dormer-window. There was no red light in the sky. The bell tolled slowly in the quiet frosty air. The town lay sleepily on the earth. In the darkness invisible people ran about, scrunching the snow under their feet. Sledges squealed, and the bell wailed ominously. I returned to the sitting-room.
“There is no red light in the sky.”
“Foo, you! Good gracious!” said the master, who had on his greatcoat and cap. He pulled up his collar and began to put his feet into his goloshes unde — cidedly.
The mistress begged him:
“Don’t go out! Don’t go out!”
Victorushka, who was also dressed, teased them all.
“I know what has happened.”
When the brothers went out into the street the women, having sent me to get the samovar ready, rushed to the window. But the master rang the street door-bell almost directly, ran up the steps silently, shut the door, and said thickly:
“The Czar has been murdered!”
“How murdered?” exclaimed the old lady.
“He has been murdered. An officer told me so. What will happen now?”
Victorushka rang, and as he unwillingly took off his coat said angrily:
“And I thought it was war!”
Then they all sat down to drink tea, and talked together calmly, but in low voices and cautiously. The streets were quiet now, the bells had given up tolling. For two days they whispered together mysteriously, and went to and fro. People also came to see them, and related some event in detail. I tried hard to understand what had happened, but they hid the news — papers from me. When I asked Sidorov why they had killed the Czar he answered, softly:
“It is forbidden to speak of it.”
But all this soon wore away. The old empty life was resumed, and I soon had a very unpleasant experience.
On one of those Sundays when the household had gone to early mass I set the samovar ready and turned my attention to tidying the rooms. While I was so occupied the eldest child rushed into the kitchen, removed the tap from the samovar, and set himself under the table to play with it. There was a lot of charcoal in the pipe of the samovar, and when the water had all trickled away from it, it came unsoldered. While I was doing the other rooms, I heard an unusual noise. Going into the kitchen, I saw with horror that the samovar was all blue. It was shaking, as if it wanted to jump from the floor. The broken handle of the tap was drooping miserably, the lid was all on one side, the pewter was melted and running away drop by drop. In fact the purplish blue samovar looked as if it had drunken shivers. I poured water over it. It hissed, and sank sadly in ruins on the floor.
The front door-bell rang. I went to open the door. In answer to the old lady’s question as to whether the samovar was ready, I replied briefly:
“Yes; it is ready.”
These words, spoken, of course, in my confusion and terror, were taken for insolence. My punishment was doubled. They half killed me. The old lady beat me with a bunch of fir-twigs, which did not hurt much, but left under the skin of my back a great many splinters, driven in deeply. Before night my back was swollen like a pillow, and by noon the next day the master was obliged to take me to the hospital.
When the doctor, comically tall and thin, examined me, he said in a calm, dull voice:
“This is a case of cruelty which will have to be investigated.”
My master blushed, shuffled his feet, and said something in a low voice to the doctor, who looked over his head and said shortly:
“I can’t. It is impossible.”
Then he asked me:
“Do you want to make a complaint?”
I was in great pain, but I said:
“No, make haste and cure me.”
They took me into another room, laid me on a table, and the doctor pulled out the splinters with pleasantly cold pincers. He said, jestingly:
“They have decorated your skin beautifully, my friend; now you will be waterproof.”
When he had finished his work of pricking me unmercifully, he said:
“Forty-two splinters have been taken out, my friend. Remember that. It is something to boast of! Come back at the same time tomorrow to have the dressing replaced. Do they often beat you?”
I thought for a moment, then said:
“Not so often as they used to.”
The doctor burst into a hoarse laugh.
“It is all for the best, my friend, all for the best.”
When he took me back to my master he said to him:
“I hand him over to you; he is repaired. Bring him back tomorrow without fail. I congratulate you. He is a comical fellow you have there.”
When we were in the cab my master said to me:
“They used to beat me too, Pyeshkov. What do you think of that? They did beat me, my lad! And you have me to pity you; but I had no one, no one. People are very hard everywhere; but one gets no pity — no, not from any one. Ekh! Wild fowl!”
He grumbled all the way home. I was very sorry for him, and grateful to him for treating me like a man.
They welcomed me at the house as if it had been my name-day. The women insisted on hearing in detail how the doctor had treated me and what he had said. They listened and sighed, then kissed me tenderly, wrinkling their brows. This intense interest in illness, pain, and all kinds of unpleasantness always amazed me.
I saw that they were pleased with me for not complaining of them, and I took advantage of the mo — ment to ask if I might have some books from the tail — or’s wife. They did not have the heart to refuse me. Only the old lady cried in surprise:
“What a demon he is!”
The next day I stood before the tailor’s wife, who said to me kindly:
“They told me that you were ill, and that you had been taken to hospital. You see what stories get about.”
I was silent. I was ashamed to tell her the truth. Why should she know of such sad and coarse things? It was nice to think that she was different from other people.
Once more I read the thick books of Dumas pere, Ponson de Terraille, Montepaine, Zakonier, Gaboriau, and Bourgobier. I devoured all these books quickly, one after the other, and I was happy. I felt myself to be part of a life which was out of the ordinary, which stirred me sweetly and aroused my courage. Once more I burned my improvised candle, and read all through the night till the morning, so that my eyes began to hurt me a little. The old mistress said to me kindly:
“Take care, bookworm. You will spoil your sight and grow blind!”
However, I soon realized that all these interestingly complicated books, despite the different incidents, and the various countries and town? about which they were written, had one common theme: good people made unhappy and oppressed by bad people, the latter were always more successful and clever than the good, but in the end something unexpected always overthrowing the wicked, and the good winning. The “love,” of which both men and women spoke in the same terms, bored me. In fact, it was not only uninteresting to me, but it aroused a vague contempt.
Sometimes from the very first chapters I began to wonder who would win or who would be vanquished, and as soon as the course of the story became clear, I would set myself to unravel the skein of events by the aid of my own fancy. When I was not reading I was thinking of the books I had on hand, as one would think about the problems in an arithmetic. I became more skilful every day in guessing which of the characters would enter into the paradise of happiness and which would be utterly confounded.
But through all this I saw the glimmer of living and, to me, significant truths, the outlines of another life, other standards. It was clear to me that in Paris the cabmen, working men, soldiers, and all “black people” 4 were not at all as they were in Nijni, Kazan, or Perm. They dared to speak to gentlefolk, and behaved toward them more simply and independently than our people. Here, for example, was a soldier quite unlike any I had known, unlike Sidorov, unlike the Viatskian on the boat, and still more unlike Ermokhin. He was more human than any of these. He had something of Smouri about him, but he was not so savage and coarse. Here was a shopkeeper, but he was much better than any of the shopkeepers I had known. And the priests in books were not like the priests I knew. They had more feeling, and seemed to enter more into the lives of their flocks. And in general it seemed to me that life abroad, as it appeared in books, was more interesting, easier, better than the life I knew. Abroad, people did not behave so brutally. They never jeered at other human creatures as cruelly as the Viatskian soldier had been jeered at, nor prayed to God as importunately as the old mistress did. What I noticed particularly was that, when villains, misers, and low characters were depicted in books, they did not show that incomprehensible cruelty, that inclination to jeer at humanity, with which I was ac — quainted, and which was often brought to my notice. There was method in the cruelty of these bookish villains. One could almost always understand why they were cruel; but the cruelty which I witnessed was aimless, senseless, an amusement from which no one ex — pected to gain any advantage.
4 The common people.
With every book that I read this dissimilarity between Russian life and that of other countries stood out more clearly, causing a perplexed feeling of irritation within me, strengthening my suspicion of the veracity of the old, well-read pages with their dirty “dogs’-ears.”
And then there fell into my hands Goncourt’s novel, “The Brothers Zemganno.” I read it through in one night, and, surprised at the new experience, read the simple, pathetic story over again. There was nothing complicated about it, nothing interesting at first sight. In fact, the first pages seemed dry, like the lives of the saints. Its language, so precise and stripped of all adornment, was at first an unpleasant surprise to me; but the paucity of words, the strongly constructed phrases, went straight to the heart. It so aptly described the drama of the acrobat brothers that my hands trembled with the enjoyment of reading the book. I wept bitterly as I read how the unfortunate artist, with his legs broken, crept up to the loft where his brother was secretly engaged in his favorite art.
When I returned this glorious book to the tailor’s wife I begged her to give me another one like it.
“How do you mean like that?” she asked, laughing.
This laugh confused me, and I could not explain what I wanted. Then she said:
“That is a dull book. Just wait! I will give you another more interesting.”
In the course of a day or two she gave me Greenwood’s “The True History of a little Waif.” The title of the book at first turned me agairieTit, but the first pages called up a smile of joy, and still smiling, I read it from beginning to end, rereading some of the pages two or three times.
So in other countries, also, boys lived hard and harassing lives! After all, I was not so badly off; I need not complain.
Greenwood gave me a lot of courage, and soon after that I was given a “real” book, “Eugenie Grandet.”
Old Grandet reminded me vividly of grandfather. I was annoyed that the book was so small, and surprised at the amount of truth it contained. Truths which were familiar and boring to me in life were shown to me in a different light in this book, without malice and quite calmly. All the books which I had read before Greenwood’s, condemned people as severely and noisily as my employers did, often arousing my sympathy for the villain and a feeling of irritation with the good people. I was always sorry to see that despite enormous expenditure of intelligence and will-power, a man still failed to obtain his desires. The good characters stood awaiting events from first to last page, as immovable as stone pillars, and although all kinds of evil plots were formed against these stone pillars, stones do not arouse sympathy. No matter how beautiful and strong a wall may be, one does not love it if one wants to get the apple on the tree on the other side of it. It always seemed to me that all that was most worth having, and vigorous was hidden behind the “good” people.
In Goncourt, Greenwood, and Balzac there were no villains, but just simple people, wonderfully alive. One could not doubt that, whatever they were alleged to have said and done, they really did say and do, and they could not have said and done anything else.
In this fashion I learned to understand what a great treat a “good and proper” book can be. But how to find it? The tailor’s wife could not help me in this.
“Here is a good book,” she said, laying before me Arsene Huissier’s “Hands full of Roses, Gold, and Blood.” She also gave me the novels of Beyle, Paul de Kock and Paul Feval, and I read them all with relish. She liked the novels of Mariette and Vernier, which to me appeared dull. I did not care for Spielhagen, but I was much taken with the stories of Auer — bach. Sue and Huga, also, I did not like, preferring Walter Scott. I wanted books which excited me, and made me feel happy, like wonderful Balzac.
I did not care for the porcelain woman as much as I had done at first. When I went to see her, I put on a clean shirt, brushed my hair, and tried to appear good-looking. In this I was hardly successful. I always hoped that, seeing my good looks, she would speak to me in a simple and friendly manner, without that fish-like smile on her frivolous face. But all she did was to smile and ask me in her sweet, tired voice:
“Have you read it? Did you like it?”
Slightly raising her eyebrows, she looked at me, and, drawing in her breath, spoke through her nose.
“I have read about all that before.”
Her eyes twinkled, as she burst out into her honeyed laugh.
““Ach, but you see all books are written about love!”
Sitting in a big arm-chair, she swung her small feet, incased in fur slippers, to and fro, yawned, wrapped her blue dressing-gown around her, and drummed with her pink fingers on the cover of the book on her knee. I wanted to say to her:
“Why don’t you leave this flat? The officers write letters to you, and laugh at you.”
But I had not the audacity to say this, and went away, bearing with me a thick book on “Love,” a sad sense of disenchantment in my heart.
They talked about this woman in the yard more evilly, derisively, and spitefully than ever. It offended me to hear these foul and, no doubt, lying stories. When I was away from her, I pitied the woman, and suffered for her; but when I was with her, and saw her small, sharp eyes, the cat-like flexibility of her small body, and that always frivolous face, pity and fear disappeared, vanished like smoke.
In the spring she suddenly went away, and in a few days her husband moved to new quarters.
While the rooms stood empty, awaiting a new tenant, I went to look at the bare walls, with their square patches where pictures had hung, bent nails, and wounds made by nails. Strewn about the stained floor were pieces of different-colored cloth, balls of paper, broken boxes from the chemist, empty scent-bottles. A large brass pin gleamed in one spot.
All at once I felt sad and wished that I could see the tailor’s little wife once more to tell her how grateful I was to her.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55