EARLY one Saturday morning I made my way to Petrovna’s kitchen-garden to catch robins. I was there a long time, because the pert red-breasts refused to go into the trap; tantalizingly beautiful, they hopped playfully over the silvery frozen snow, and flew on to the branches of the frost-covered bushes, scattering the blue snow-crystals all about. It was such a pretty sight that I forgot my vexation at my lack of success; in fact, I was not a very keen sportsman, for I took more pleasure in the incidents of the chase than in its results, and my greatest delight was to observe the ways of the birds and think about them. I was quite happy sitting alone on the edge of a snowy field listening to the birds chirping in the crystal stillness of the frosty day, when, faintly, in the distance, I heard the fleeting sounds of the bells of a troika like the melancholy song of a skylark in the Russian winter. I was benumbed by sitting in the snow, and I felt that my ears were frost-bitten, so I gathered up the trap and the cages, climbed over the wall into grandfather’s garden, and made my way to the house.
The gate leading to the street was open, and a man of colossal proportions was leading three steaming horses, harnessed to a large, closed sledge, out of the yard, whistling merrily the while. My heart leaped.
“Whom have you brought here?”
He turned and looked at me from under his arms, and jumped on to the driver’s seat before he replied:
But I was not convinced; and if it was the priest, he must have come to see one of the lodgers.
“Gee-up!” cried the driver, and he whistled gaily as he slashed at the horses with his reins.
The horses tore across the fields, and I stood looking after them; then I closed the gate. The first thing I heard as I entered the empty kitchen was my mother’s energetic voice in the adjoining room, saying very distinctly:
“What is the matter now? Do you want to kill me?’
Without taking off my outdoor clothes, I threw down the cages and ran into the vestibule, where I collided with grandfather; he seized me by the shoulder, looked into my face with wild eyes, and swallowing with difficulty, said hoarsely:
“Your mother has come back . . . go to her . . . wait . . .!” He shook me so hard that I was nearly taken off my feet, and reeled against the door of the room. “Goon! . . Go .!”
I knocked at the door, which was protected by felt and oilcloth, but it was some time before my hand, benumbed with cold, and trembling with nervousness, found the latch; and when at length I softly entered, I halted on the threshold, dazed and bewildered.
“Here he is!” said mother. “Lord! how big he is grown. Why, don’t you know me? . . . What a way you ‘ve dressed him! . . . And, yes, his ears are going white! Make haste, Mama, and get some goose-grease.”
She stood in the middle of the room, bending over me as she took off my outdoor clothes, and turning me about as if I were nothing more than a ball; her massive figure was clothed in a warm, soft, beautiful dress, as full as a man’s cloak, which was fastened by black buttons, running obliquely from the shoulder to the hem of the skirt. I had never seen anything like it before.
Her face seemed smaller than it used to be, and her eyes larger and more sunken; while her hair seemed to be of a deeper gold. As she undressed me, she threw the garments across the threshold, her red lips curling in disgust, and all the time her voice rang out:
“Why don’t you speak”? Aren’t you glad to see me”? Phoo! what a dirty shirt . . . .”
Then she rubbed my ears with goose-grease, which hurt; but such a fragrant, pleasant odor came from her while she was doing it, that the pain seemed less than usual.
I pressed close to her, looking up into her eyes, too moved to speak, and through her words I could hear grandmother’s low, unhappy voice:
“He is so self-willed . . . he has got quite out of hand. He is not afraid of grandfather, even. . . . Oh, Varia! . . . Varia!”
“Don’t whine, Mother, for goodness’ sake; it doesn’t make things any better.”
Everything looked small and pitiful and old beside mother. I felt old too, as old as grandfather.
Pressing me to her knees, and smoothing my hair with her warm, heavy hand, she said:
“He wants some one strict over him. And it is time he went to school. . . . You will like to learn lessons, won’t you?”
“I ‘ve learned all I want to know.”
“You will have to learn a little more. . . . Why! How strong you ‘ve grown!” And she laughed heartily in her deep contralto tones as she played with me.
When grandfather came in, pale as ashes, with blood-shot eyes, and bristling with rage, she put me from her and asked in a loud voice:
“Well, what have you settled, Father? Am I to go?”
He stood at the window scraping the ice off the panes with his finger-nails, and remained silent for a long while. The situation was strained and painful, and, as was usual with me in such moments of tension, my body felt as if it were all eyes and ears, and something seemed to swell within my breast, causing an in tense desire to scream.
“Lexei, leave the room!” said grandfather roughly.
“Why?” asked mother, drawing me to her again. “You shall not go away from this place. I forbid it!” Mother stood up, gliding up the room, just like a rosy cloud, and placed herself behind grandfather.
“Listen to me, Papasha ”
He turned upon her, shrieking “Shut up!”
“I won’t have you shouting at me,” said mother coolly.
Grandmother rose from the couch, raising her finger admonishingly.
And grandfather sat down, muttering:
“Wait a bit! I want to know who? Eh? Who was it? . . . How did it happen?”
And suddenly he roared out in a voice which did not seem to belong to him:
“You have brought shame upon me, Varka!”
“Go out of the room!” grandmother said to me; and I went into the kitchen, feeling as if I were being suffocated, climbed on to the stove, and stayed there a long time listening to their conversation, which was audible through the partition. They either all talked at once, interrupting one another, or else fell into a long silence as if they had fallen asleep. The subject of their conversation was a baby, lately bom to my mother and given into some one’s keeping; but I could not understand whether grandfather was angry with mother for giving birth to a child without asking his permission, or for not bringing the child to him.
He came into the kitchen later, looking dishevelled; his face was livid, and he seemed very tired. With him came grandmother, wiping the tears from her cheeks with the basque of her blouse. He sat down on a bench, doubled up, resting his hands on it, tremulously biting his pale lips; and she knelt down in front of him, and said quietly but with great earnestness:
“Father, forgive her! For Christ’s sake forgive her! You can’t get rid of her in this manner. Do you think that such things don’t happen amongst the gentry, and in merchants’ families’? You know what women are. Now, forgive her! No one is perfect, you know.”
Grandfather leaned back against the wall and looked into her face; then he growled, with a bitter laugh which was almost a sob:
“Well what next”? Who wouldn’t you forgive?
I wonder! If you had your way every one would be forgiven. . . . Ugh! You!”
And bending over her he seized her by the shoulders and shook her, and said, speaking in a rapid whisper:
“But, by God, you needn’t worry yourself. You will find no forgiveness in me. Here we are almost in our graves overtaken by punishment in our last days . . . there is neither rest nor happiness for us . . . nor will there be. . . . And what is more . . . mark my words! . . . we shall be beggars before we ‘re done beggars!”
Grandmother took his hand, and sitting beside him laughed gently as she said:
“Oh, you poor thing! So you are afraid of being a beggar. Well, and suppose we do become beggars’? All you will have to do is to stay at home while I go out begging. . . . They’ll give to me, never fear! . . . We shall have plenty; so you can throw that trouble aside.”
He suddenly burst out laughing, moving his head about just like a goat; and seizing grandmother round the neck, pressed her to him, looking small and crumpled beside her.
“Oh, you fool!” he cried. “You blessed fool! . . . You are all that I ‘ve got now! . . . You don’t worry about anything because you don’t understand. But you must look back a little . . . and remember how you and I worked for them . . . how I sinned for their sakes . . . yet, in spite of all that, now ”
Here I could contain myself no longer; my tears would not be restrained, and I jumped down off the stove and flew to them, sobbing with joy because they were talking to each other in this wonderfully friendly fashion, and because I was sorry for them, and because mother had come, and because they took me to them, tears and all, and embraced me, and hugged me, and wept over me; but grandfather whispered to me:
“So you are here, you little demon! Well, your mother ‘s come back, and I suppose you will always be with her now. The poor old devil of a grandfather can go, eh”? And grandmother, who has spoiled you so . . . she can go to . . . eh? Ugh you! . .
He put us away from him and stood up as he said in a loud, angry tone:
“They are all leaving us all turning away from us. . . . Well, call her in. What are you waiting for? Make haste!”
Grandmother went out of the kitchen, and he went and stood in the corner, with bowed head.
“All-merciful God!” he began. “Well . . . Thou seest how it is with us!” And he beat his breast with his fist.
I did not like it when he did this; in fact the way he spoke to God always disgusted me, because he seemed to be vaunting himself before his Maker.
When mother came in her red dress lighted up the kitchen, and as she sat down by the table, with grandfather and grandmother one on each side of her, her wide sleeves fell against their shoulders. She related something to them quietly and gravely, to which they listened in silence, and without attempting to interrupt her, just as if they were children and she were their mother.
Worn out by excitement, I fell fast asleep on the couch.
In the evening the old people went to vespers, dressed in their best. Grandmother gave a merry wink in the direction of grandfather, who was resplendent in the uniform he wore as head of the Guild, with a racoon pelisse over it, and his stomach sticking out importantly; and as she winked she observed to mother:
“Just look at father! Isn’t he grand. . . . As spruce as a little goat.” And mother laughed gaily.
When I was left alone with her in her room, she sat on the couch, with her feet curled under her, and pointing to the place beside her, she said:
“Come and sit here. Now, tell me how do you like living here? Not much, eh?”
How did I like it?
“I don’t know.”
“Grandfather beats you, does he?”
“Not so much now.”
“Oh? . . . Well, now, you tell me all about it . . . tell me whatever you like . . . well?”
As I did not want to speak about grandfather, I told her about the kind man who used to live in that room, whom no one liked, and who was turned out by grandfather. I could see that she did not like this story as she said:
‘‘Well, and what else?”
I told her about the three boys, and how the Colonel had driven me out of his yard; and her hold upon me tightened as she listened.
“What nonsense!” she exclaimed with flashing eyes, and was silent a minute, gazing on the floor.
“Why was grandfather angry with you?” I asked.
“Because I have done wrong, according to him.”
“In not bringing that baby here?”
She started violently, frowning, and biting her lips; then she burst into a laugh and pressed me more closely to her, as she said:
“Oh, you little monster! Now, you are to hold your tongue about that, do you hear? Never speak about it forget you ever heard it, in fact.”
And she spoke to me quietly and sternly for some time; but I did not understand what she said, and presently she stood up and began to pace the room, strumming on her chin with her fingers, and alternately raising and depressing her thick eyebrows.
A guttering tallow candle was burning on the table, and was reflected in the blank face of the mirror; murky shadows crept along the floor; a lamp burned before the icon in the corner; and the ice-clad windows were silvered by moonlight. Mother looked about her as if she were seeking something on the bare walls or on the ceiling.
“What time do you go to bed?”
“Let me stay a little longer.”
“Besides, you have had some sleep today,” she reminded herself.
“Do you want to go away?” I asked her.
“Where to?” she exclaimed, in a surprised tone; and raising my head she gazed for such a long time at my face that tears came into my eyes.
“What is the matter with you?” she asked.
“My neck aches.”
My heart was aching too, for I had suddenly realized that she would not remain in our house, but would go away again.
“You are getting like your father,” she observed, kicking a mat aside. “Has grandmother told you anything about him?”
“She loved Maxim very much very much indeed; and he loved her ”
Mother looked at the candle and frowned; then she extinguished it, saying: “That ‘s better!”
Yes, it made the atmosphere fresher and clearer, and the dark, murky shadows disappeared; bright blue patches of light lay on the floor, and golden crystals shone on the window-panes.
“But where have you lived all this time?”
She mentioned several towns, as if she were trying to remember something which she had forgotten long ago; and all the time she moved noiselessly round the room, like a hawk.
“Where did you get that dress?”
“I made it myself. I make all my own clothes.”
I liked to think that she was different from others, but I was sorry that she so rarely spoke; in fact, unless I asked questions, she did not open her mouth.
Presently she came and sat beside me again on the couch; and there we stayed without speaking, pressing close to each other, until the old people returned, smelling of wax and incense, with a solemn quietness and gentleness in their manner.
We supped as on holidays, ceremoniously, exchanging very few words, and uttering those as if we were afraid of waking an extremely light sleeper.
Almost at once my mother energetically undertook the task of giving me Russian lessons. She bought some books, from one of which “Kindred Words” I acquired the art of reading Russian characters in a few days; but then my mother must set me to learn poetry by heart to our mutual vexation.
The verses ran:
“Bolshaia doroga, priamaia doroga Prostora ne malo beresh twi ou Boga Tebia ne rovniali topor ee lopata Miagka twi kopitou ee pwiliu bogata.”
But I read “prostovo” for “prostora,” and “roubili” for “rovniali,” and “kopita” for “kopitou.”
“Now, think a moment,” said mother. “How could it be ‘prostovo,’ you little wretch? . . . Tro sto ra’-; now do you understand?”
I did understand, but all the same I read “pros-tovo,” to my own astonishment as much as hers.
She said angrily that I was senseless and obstinate. This made bitter hearing, for I was honestly trying to remember the cursed verses, and I could repeat them in my own mind without a mistake, but directly I tried to say them aloud they went wrong. I loathed the elusive lines, and began to mix the verses up on purpose, putting all the words which sounded alike together anyhow. I was delighted when, under the spell
I placed upon them, the verses emerged absolutely meaningless.
But this amusement did not go for long unpunished. One day, after a very successful lesson, when mother asked me if I had learned my poetry, I gabbled almost involuntarily:
“Doroga, dvouroga, tvorog, nedoroga, Kopwita, popwito, korwito ”
I recollected myself too late. Mother rose to her feet, and resting her hands on the table, asked in very distinct tones:
“What is that you are saying?”
“I don’t know,” I replied dully.
“Oh, you know well enough!”
“It was just something ”
“Go into the corner.”
“Go into the corner,” she repeated quietly, but her aspect was threatening.
Without replying, she gazed so fixedly at my face that I began to feel quite flustered, for I did not understand what she wanted me to do. In one corner, under the icon, stood a small table on which was a vase containing scented dried grass and some flowers; in another stood a covered trunk. The bed occupied the third, and there was no fourth, because the door came close up to the wall.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, despairing of being able to understand her.
She relaxed slightly, and wiped her forehead and her cheeks in silence; then she asked:
“Didn’t grandfather put you in the corner?”
“Never mind when! Has he ever done so?” she cried, striking the table twice with her hand.
“No at least I don’t remember it.”
She sighed. “Phew! Come here!”
I went to her, saying: “Why are you so angry with me?”
“Because you made a muddle of that poetry on purpose.”
I explained as well as I was able that I could remember it word for word with my eyes shut, but that if I tried to say it the words seemed to change.
“Are you sure you are not making that up?”
I answered that I was quite sure; but on second thoughts I was not so sure, and I suddenly repeated the verses quite correctly, to my own utter astonishment and confusion. I stood before my mother burning with shame; my face seemed to be swelling, my tingling ears to be filled with blood, and unpleasant noises surged through my head. I saw her face through my tears, dark with vexation, as she bit her lips and frowned.
“What is the meaning of this?” she asked in a voice which did not seem to belong to her. “So you did make it up?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t mean to!”
“You are very difficult,” she said, letting her head droop. “Run away!”
She began to insist on my learning still more poetry, but my memory seemed to grow less capable every day of retaining the smooth, flowing lines, while my insane desire to alter or mutilate the verses grew stronger and more malevolent in proportion. I even substituted different words, by which I somewhat surprised myself, for a whole series of words which had nothing to do with the subject would appear and get mixed up with the correct words out of the book. Very often a whole line of the verse would seem to be obliterated, and no matter how conscientiously I tried, I could not get it back into my mind’s eye. That pathetic poem of Prince Biazemskov (I think it was his) caused me a great deal of trouble:
‘At eventide and early morn
The old man, widow and orphan
For Christ’s sake ask for help from man.
But the last line:
At windows beg, with air forlorn.
I always rendered correctly. Mother, unable to make anything of me, recounted my exploits to grandfather, who said in an ominous tone:
“It is all put on! He has a splendid memory. He learned the prayers by heart with me. . . . He is making believe, that ‘s all. His memory is good enough. . . . Teaching him is like engraving on a piece of stone . . . that will show you how good it is! . . . You should give him a hiding.”
Grandmother took me to task too.
“You can remember stories and songs . . . and aren’t songs poetry?”
All this was true and I felt very guilty, but all the same I no sooner set myself to learn verses than from somewhere or other different words crept in like cockroaches, and formed themselves into lines.
“We too have beggars at our door, Old men and orphans very poor. They come and whine and ask for food, Which they will sell, though it is good. To Petrovna to feed her cows And then on vodka will carouse.”
At night, when I lay in bed beside grandmother, I used to repeat to her, till I was weary, all that I had learned out of books, and all that I had composed myself. Sometimes she giggled, but more often she gave me a lecture.
“There now! You see what you can do. But it is not right to make fun of beggars, God bless them! Christ lived in poverty, and so did all the saints.”
“Paupers I hate, Grandfather too. It ‘s sad to relate, Pardon me, God! Grandfather beats me Whenever he can.”
“What are you talking about? I wish your tongue may drop out!” cried grandmother angrily. “If grandfather could hear what you are saying ”
“He can hear if he likes.”
“You are very wrong to be so saucy; it only makes your mother angry, and she has troubles enough without you,” said grandmother gravely and kindly.
“What is the matter with her?’
“Never mind! You wouldn’t understand.”
“I know! It is because grandfather ”
“Hold your tongue, I tell you!”
My lot was a hard one, for I was desperately trying to find a kindred spirit, but as I was anxious that no one should know of this, I took refuge in being saucy and disagreeable. The lessons with my mother became gradually more distasteful and more difficult to me. I easily mastered arithmetic, but I had not the patience to learn to write, and as for grammar, it was quite unintelligible to me.
But what weighed upon me most of all was the fact, which I both saw and felt, that it was very hard for mother to go on living in grandfather’s house. Her expression became more sullen every day; she seemed to look upon everything with the eyes of a stranger. She used to sit for a long time together at the window overlooking the garden, saying nothing, and all her brilliant coloring seemed to have faded.
In lesson-time her deep-set eyes seemed to look right through me, at the wall, or at the window, as she asked me questions in a weary voice, and straightway forgot the answers; and she flew into rages with me much oftener which hurt me, for mothers ought to behave better than any one else, as they do in stories.
Sometimes I said to her:
“You do not like living with us, do you?”
“Mind your own business!” she would cry angrily.
It began to dawn upon me that grandfather was up to something which worried grandmother and mother. He often shut himself up with mother in her room, and there we heard him wailing and squeaking like the wooden pipe of Nikanora, the one-sided shepherd, which always affected me so unpleasantly. Once when one of these conversations was going on, mother shrieked so that every one in the house could hear her:
“I won’t have it! I won’t!”
And a door banged and grandfather set up a howl.
This happened in the evening. Grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table making a shirt for grandfather and whispering to herself. When the door banged, she said, listening intently:
“O Lord! she has gone up to the lodgers.”
At this moment grandfather burst into the kitchen, and rushing up to grandmother, gave her a blow on the head, and hissed as he shook his bruised fist at her:
“Don’t you go chattering about things there ‘s no need to talk about, you old hag!”
“You are an old fool!” retorted grandmother quietly, as she put her knocked-about hair straight. “Do you think I am going to keep quiet? I’ll tell her everything I know about your plots always.”
He threw himself upon her and struck at her large head with his fists.
Making no attempt to defend herself, or to strike him back, she said:
“Go on! Beat me, you silly fool! . . . That’s right! Hit me!”
I threw cushions and blankets at him from the couch, and the boots which were round the stove, but he was in such a frenzy of rage that he did not heed them. Grandmother fell to the floor and he kicked her head, till he finally stumbled and fell down himself, over-turning a pailful of water. He jumped up spluttering and snorting, glanced wildly round, and rushed away to his own room in the attic.
Grandmother rose with a sigh, sat down on the bench, and began to straighten her matted hair. I jumped oil the couch, and she said to me in an angry tone:
“Put these pillows and things in their places. The idea! Fancy throwing pillows at any one! . . . And was it any business of yours? As for that old devil, he has gone out of his mind the fool!”
Then she drew in her breath sharply, wrinkling up her face as she called me to her, and holding her head down said:
“Look! What is it that hurts me so?”
I put her heavy hair aside, and saw that a hairpin had been driven deep intc the skin of her head. I pulled it out; but finding another one, my ringers seemed to lose all power of movement and I said: “I think I had better call mother. I am frightened.”
She waved me aside.
“What is the matter? . . . Call mother indeed! I’ll call you! . . . Thank God that she has heard and seen nothing of it! As for you Now then, get out of my way!”
And with her own flexible lace-worker’s fingers she rummaged in her thick mane, while I plucked up sufficient courage to help her pull out two more thick, bent hairpins.
“Does it hurt you?’
“Not much. I’ll heat the bath tomorrow and wash my head. It will be all right then.”
Then she began persuasively: “Now, my darling, you won’t tell your mother that he beat me, will you? There is enough bad feeling between them without that. So you won’t tell, will you?”
“Now, don’t you forget! Come, let us put things straight. . . . There are no bruises on my face, are there? So that’s all right; we shall be able to keep it quiet.”
Then she set to work to clean the floor, and I exclaimed, from the bottom of my heart:
“You are just like a saint . . . they torture you, and torture you, and you think nothing of it.”
“What is that nonsense you are jabbering? Saint? Where did you ever see one?”
And going on all fours, she kept muttering to herself, while I sat by the side of the stove and thought on ways and means of being revenged on grandfather. It was the first time in my presence that he had beaten grandmother in such a disgusting and terrible manner. His red face and his dishevelled red hair rose before me in the twilight; my heart was boiling over with rage, and I was irritated because I could not think of an adequate punishment.
But a day or two after this, having been sent up to his attic with something for him, I saw him sitting on the floor before an open trunk, looking through some papers; while on a chair lay his favorite calendar consisting of twelve leaves of thick, gray paper, divided into squares according to the number of days in the month, and in each square was the figure of the saint of the day. Grandfather greatly valued this calendar, and only let me look at it on those rare occasions when he was very pleased with me; and I was conscious of an indefinable feeling as I gazed at the charming little gray figures placed so close together. I knew the lives of some of them too Kirik and Uliti, Barbara, the great martyr, Panteleimon, and many others; but what I liked most was the sad life of Alexei, the man of God, and the beautiful verses about him. Grandmother often repeated them to me feelingly. One might consider hundreds of such people and console oneself with the thought that they were all martyrs.
But now I made up my mind to tear up the calendar; and when grandfather took a dark blue paper to the window to read it, I snatched up several leaves, and flying downstairs stole the scissors off grandmother’s table, and throwing myself on the couch began to cut off the heads of the saints.
When I had beheaded one row I began to feel that it was a pity to destroy the calendar, so I decided to just cut out the squares; but before the second row was in pieces grandfather appeared in the doorway and asked:
“Who gave you permission to take away my calendar?”
Then seeing the squares of paper scattered over the table he picked them up, one after the other, holding each close to his face, then dropping it and picking up another; his jaw went awry, his beard jumped up and down, and he breathed so hard that the papers flew on to the floor.
“What have you done?” he shrieked at length, dragging me towards him by the foot.
I turned head over heels, and grandmother caught me, with grandfather striking her with his fist and screaming:
“I’ll kill him!”
At this moment mother appeared, and I took refuge in the corner of the stove, while she, barring his way, caught grandfather’s hands, which were being flourished in her face, and pushed him away as she said:
“What is the meaning of this unseemly behavior? Recollect yourself.”
Grandfather threw himself on the bench under the window, howling:
“You want to kill me. You are all against me every one of you!”
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” My mother’s voice sounded subdued. “Why all this pretense?”
Grandfather shrieked, and kicked the bench, with his beard sticking out funnily towards the ceiling and his eyes tightly closed; it seemed to me that he really was ashamed before mother, and that he was really pretending and that was why he kept his eyes shut.
“I’ll gum all these pieces together on some calico, and they will look even better than before,” said mother, glancing at the cuttings and the leaves. “Look they were crumpled and torn; they had been lying about.”
She spoke to him just like she used to speak to me in lesson-time when I could not understand something, and he stood up at once, put his shirt and waistcoat straight, in a business-like manner, expectorated and said:
“Do it today. I will bring you the other leaves at once.”
He went to the door, but he halted on the threshold and pointed a crooked finger at me:
“And he will have to be whipped.”
“That goes without saying,” agreed mother, bending towards me. “Why did you do it?”
“I did it on purpose. He had better not beat grandmother again, or I’ll cut his beard off.”
Grandmother, taking off her torn bodice, said, shaking her head reproachfully:
“Hold your tongue now, as you promised.” And she spat on the floor. “May your tongue swell up if you don’t keep it still!”
Mother looked at her, and again crossed the kitchen to me.
“When did he beat her?’
“Now, Varvara, you ought to be ashamed to ask him about it. Is it any business of yours?” said grandmother angrily.
Mother went and put her arm round her. “Oh, little mother my dear little mother!”
“Oh, go away with your little mother’! Get away!”
They looked at each other in silence. Grandfather could be heard stamping about in the vestibule.
When she first came home mother had made friends with the merry lady, the soldier’s wife, and almost every evening she went up to the front room of the half-house, where she sometimes found people from
Betlenga House beautiful ladies, and officers. Grandfather did not like this at all, and one day, as he was sitting in the kitchen, he shook his spoon at her threateningly and muttered:
“So you are starting your old ways, curse you! We don’t get a chance of sleeping till the morning now.”
He soon cleared the lodgers out, and when they had gone he brought from somewhere or other two loads of assorted furniture, placed it in the front room, and locked it up with a large padlock.
“We have no need to take lodgers,” he said. “I am going to entertain on my own account now.”
And so on Sundays and holidays visitors began to appear. There was grandmother’s sister, Matrena Sergievna, a shrewish laundress with a large nose, in a striped silk dress and with hair dyed gold; and with her came her sons Vassili, a long-haired draughtsman, good-natured and gay, who was dressed entirely in gray; and Victor, in all colors of the rainbow, with a head like a horse, and a narrow face covered with freckles, who, even while he was in the vestibule taking off his goloshes, sang in a squeaky voice just like Petrushka’s: “Andrei-papa! Andrei-papa!” which occasioned me some surprise and alarm.
Uncle Jaakov used to come too, with his guitar, and accompanied by a bent, bald-headed man a clock-winder, who wore a long, black frock-coat and had a smooth manner; he reminded me of a monk. He used to sit in a corner with his head on one side, and smiling curiously as he tapped his shaven, clefted chin with his ringers. He was dark, and there was something peculiar in the way he stared at us with his one eye; he said very little, and his favorite expression was: “Pray don’t trouble; it doesn’t matter in the least.”
When I saw him for the first time I suddenly remembered one day long ago, while we were living in New Street, hearing the dull, insistent beating of a drum outside the gate, and seeing a night-cart, surrounded by soldiers and people in black, going from the prison to the square; and seated on a bench in the cart was a man of medium size, with a round cap made of woolen stuff, in chains and upon his breast a black tablet was displayed, on which there were written some words in large white letters. The man hung his head as if he were reading what was written there, and he shook all over and his chains rattled. So when mother said to the winder: “This is my son,” I shrank away from him in terror, and put my hands behind me.
“Pray don’t trouble!” he said, and his whole mouth seemed to stretch, in a ghastly fashion, as far as his right ear, as he seized me by the belt, drew me to him, turned me round swiftly and lightly, and let me go.
“He ‘s all right. He ‘s a sturdy little chap.”
I betook myself to the corner, where there was an armchair upholstered in leather so large that one could lie in it; and grandfather used to brag about it, and call it “Prince Gruzincki’s armchair” and in this I settled myself and looked on, thinking that grown-up people’s ideas of enjoyment were very boring, and that the way the clock-winder’s face kept on changing was very strange, and was not calculated to inspire confidence.
It was an oily, flexible face, and it seemed to be melting and always softly on the move; if he smiled, his thick lips shifted to his right cheek, and his little nose turned that way too, and looked like a meat pasty on a plate. His great projecting ears moved strangely too, one being lifted every time he raised his eyebrow over his seeing eye, and the other moving in unison with his cheek-bone; and when he sneezed it seemed as if it were as easy to cover his nose with them as with the palm of his hand. Sometimes he sighed, and thrust out his dark tongue, round as a pestle, and licked his thick, moist lips with a circular movement. This did not strike me as being funny, but only as something wonderful, which I could not help looking at.
They drank tea with rum in it, which smelt like burnt onion tops; they drank liqueurs made by grandmother, some yellow like gold, some black like tar, some green; they ate curds, and buns made of butter, eggs and honey; they perspired, and panted, and lavished praises on grandmother; and when they had finished eating, they settled themselves, looking flushed and puffy, decorously in their chairs, and languidly asked Uncle Jaakov to play.
He bent over his guitar and struck up a disagreeable, irritating song:
“Oh, we have been out on the spree,
The town rang with our voices free,
And to a lady from Kazan
We ‘ve told our story, every man.”
I thought this was a miserable song, and grandmother said:
“Why don’t you play something else, Jaasha, a real song! Do you remember, Matrena, the sort of songs we used to sing?”
Spreading out her rustling frock, the laundress reminded her:
“There ‘s a new fashion in singing now, Matushka.”
Uncle looked at grandmother, blinking as if she were a long way off, and went on obstinately producing those melancholy sounds and foolish words.
Grandfather was carrying on a mysterious conversation with the clock-winder, pointing his finger at him; and the latter, raising his eyebrow, looked over to mother’s side of the room and shook his head, and his mobile face assumed a new and indescribable shape.
Mother always sat between the Sergievnas, and as she talked quietly and gravely to Vassili, she sighed:
“Ye es! That wants thinking about.”
And Victor smiled the smile of one who has eaten to satiety, and scraped his feet on the floor; then he suddenly burst shrilly into song:
They all stopped talking in surprise and looked at him; while the laundress explained in a tone of pride:
“He got that from the theater; they sing it there.”
There were two or three evenings like this, made memorable by their oppressive dullness, and then the winder appeared in the daytime, one Sunday after High Mass. I was sitting with mother in her room helping her to mend a piece of torn beaded embroidery, when the door flew open unexpectedly and grandmother rushed into the room with a frightened face, saying in a loud whisper: “Varia, he has come!” and disappeared immediately.
Mother did not stir, not an eyelash quivered; but the door was soon opened again, and there stood grandfather on the threshold.
“Dress yourself, Varvara, and come along!”
She sat still, and without looking at him said:
“Come along, for God’s sake! Don’t begin arguing.
He is a good, peaceable man, in a good position, and he will make a good father for Lexei.”
He spoke in an unusually important manner, stroking his sides with the palms of his hands the while; but his elbows trembled, as they were bent backwards, exactly as if his hands wanted to be stretched out in front of him, and he had a struggle to keep them back.
Mother interrupted him calmly.
“I tell you that it can’t be done.”
Grandfather stepped up to her, stretching out his hands just as if he were blind, and bending over her, bristling with rage, he said, with a rattle in his throat:
“Come along, or I’ll drag you to him by the hair.”
“You’ll drag me to him, will you?” asked mother, standing up. She turned pale and her eyes were painfully drawn together as she began rapidly to take off her bodice and skirt, and finally, wearing nothing but her chemise, went up to grandfather and said:
“Now, drag me to him.”
He ground his teeth together and shook his fist in her face:
“Varvara! Dress yourself at once!”
Mother pushed him aside with her hand, and took hold of the door handle.
“Well? Come along!”
“Curse you!” whispered grandfather.
“I am not afraid come along!”
She opened the door, but grandfather seized her by her chemise and fell on his knees, whispering:
“Varvara! You devil! You will ruin us. Have you no shame?”
And he wailed softly and plaintively:
“Mo ther! Mo ther!”
Grandmother was already barring mother’s way; waving her hands in her face as if she were a hen, she now drove her away from the door, muttering through her closed teeth:
“Varka! You fool! What are you doing? Go away, you shameless hussy!”
She pushed her into the room and secured the door with the hook; and then she bent over grandfather, helping him up with one hand and threatening him with the other.
“Ugh! You old devil!”
She sat him on the couch, and he went down all of a heap, like a rag doll, with his mouth open and his head waggling.
“Dress yourself at once, you!” cried grandmother to mother.
Picking her dress up from the floor, mother said:
“But I am not going to him do you hear?”
Grandmother pushed me away from the couch.
“Go and fetch a basin of water. Make haste!”
She spoke in a low voice, which was almost a whisper, and with a calm, assured manner.
I ran into the vestibule. I could hear the heavy tread of measured footsteps in the front room of the half — house, and mother’s voice came after me from her room:
“I shall leave this place tomorrow!”
I went into the kitchen and sat down by the window as if I were in a dream.
Grandfather groaned and shrieked; grandmother muttered; then there was the sound of a door being banged, and all was silent oppressively so.
Remembering what I had been sent for, I scooped up some water in a brass basin and went into the vestibule. From the front room came the clock-winder with his head bent; he was smoothing his fur cap with his hand, and quacking. Grandmother with her hands folded over her stomach was bowing to his back, and saying softly:
“You know what it is yourself you can’t be forced to be nice to people.”
He halted on the threshold, and then stepped into the yard; and grandmother, trembling all over, crossed herself and did not seem to know whether she wanted to laugh or cry.
“What is the matter?” I asked, running to her.
She snatched the basin from me, splashing the water over my legs, and cried:
“So this is where you come for water. Bolt the door!” And she went back into mother’s room; and I went into the kitchen again and listened to them sighing and groaning and muttering, just as if they were moving a load, which was too heavy for them, from one place to another.
It was a brilliant day. Through the ice-covered window-panes peeped the slanting beams of the winter sun; on the table, which was laid for dinner, was the pewter dinner-service; a goblet containing red kvass, and another with some dark-green vodka made by grandfather from betony and St. John’s wort, gleamed dully. Through the thawed places on the window could be seen the snow on the roofs, dazzlingly bright and sparkling like silver on the posts of the fence. Hanging against the window-frame in cages, my birds played in the sunshine: the tame siskins chirped gaily, the robins uttered their sharp, shrill twitter, and the goldfinch took a bath.
But this radiant, silver day, in which every sound was clear and distinct, brought no joy with it, for it seemed out of place everything seemed out of place. I was seized with a desire to set the birds free, and was about to take down the cages when grandmother rushed in, clapping her hands to her sides, and flew to the stove, calling herself names.
“Curse you! Bad luck to you for an old fool, Akulina!”
She drew a pie out of the oven, touched the crust with her finger, and spat on the floor out of sheer exasperation.
“There you are absolutely dried up! It is your own fault that it is burnt. Uch! Devil! A plague upon all your doings! Why don’t you keep your eyes open, owl”? . . . You are as unlucky as bad money!”
And she cried, and blew on the pie, and turned it over, first on this side, then on that, tapping the dry crust with her fingers, upon which her large tears splashed forlornly.
When grandfather and mother came into the kitchen she banged the pie on the table so hard that all the plates jumped.
“Look at that! That ‘s your doing . . . there’s no crust for you, top or bottom!”
Mother, looking quite happy and peaceful, kissed her, and told her not to get angry about it; while grandfather, looking utterly crushed and weary, sat down to table and unfolded his serviette, blinking, with the sun in his eyes, and muttered:
“That will do. It doesn’t matter. We have eaten plenty of pies that were not spoilt. When the Lord buys He pays for a year in minutes . . . and allows no interest. Sit down, do, Varia! . . . and have done with it.”
He behaved just as if he had gone out of his mind, and talked all dinner-time about God, and about ungodly Ahab, and said what a hard lot a father’s was, until grandmother interrupted him by saying angrily:
“You eat your dinner . . . that ‘s the best thing you can do!”
Mother joked all the time, and her clear eyes sparkled.
“So you were frightened just now?” she asked, giving me a push.
No, I had not been so frightened then, but now I felt uneasy and bewildered. As the meal dragged out to the weary length which was usual on Sundays and holidays, it seemed to me that these could not be the same people who, only half an hour ago, were shouting at each other, on the verge of fighting, and bursting out into tears and sobs. I could not believe, that is to say, that they were in earnest now, and that they were not ready to weep all the time. But those tears and cries, and the scenes which they inflicted upon one another, happened so often, and died away so quickly, that I began to get used to them, and they gradually ceased to excite me or to cause me heartache.
Much later I realized that Russian people, because of the poverty and squalor of their lives, love to amuse themselves with sorrow to play with it like children, and are seldom ashamed of being unhappy.
Amidst their endless week-days, grief makes a holiday, and a fire is an amusement a scratch is an ornament to an empty face.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50