AFTER this incident mother suddenly asserted herself, made a firm stand, and was soon mistress of the house, while grandfather, grown thoughtful and quiet, and quite unlike himself, became a person of no account.
He hardly ever went out of the house, but sat all day up in the attic reading, by stealth, a book called “The Writings of My Father.” He kept this book in a trunk under lock and key, and one day I saw him wash his hands before he took it out. It was a dumpy, fat book bound in red leather; on the dark blue title page a figured inscription in different colored inks flaunted itself: “To worthy Vassili Kashmirin, in gratitude, and sincere remembrance”; and underneath were written some strange surnames, while the frontispiece depicted a bird on the wing.
Carefully opening the heavy binding, grandfather used to put on his silver-rimmed spectacles, and gazing at the book, move his nose up and down for a long time, in order to get his spectacles at the right angle.
I asked him more than once what book it was that he was reading, but he only answered in an impressive tone:
“Never mind. . . . Wait a bit, and when I die it will come to you. I will leave you my racoon pelisse too.”
He began to speak to mother more gently, but less often; listening attentively to her speeches with his eyes glittering like Uncle Peter’s, and waving her aside as he muttered:
“There! that ‘s enough. Do what you like . . .”
In that trunk of his lay many wonderful articles of attire skirts of silken material, padded satin jackets, sleeveless silk gowns, cloth of woven silver and head-bands sewn with pearls, brightly colored lengths of material and handkerchiefs, with necklaces of colored stones. He took them all, panting as he went, to mother’s room and laid them about on the chairs and tables clothes were mother’s delight and he said to her:
“In our young days dress was more beautiful and much richer than it is now. Dress was richer, and people seemed to get on better together. But these times are past and cannot be called back . . . well, here you are; take them, and dress yourself up.”
One day mother went to her room for a short time, and when she reappeared she was dressed in a dark blue sleeveless robe, embroidered with gold, with a pearl head-band; and making a low obeisance to grandfather, she asked:
“Well, how does this suit you, my lord Father?” Grandfather murmured something, and brightening wonderfully, walked round her, holding up his hands, and said indistinctly, just as if he were talking in his sleep:
“Ech! Varvara! . . . if you had plenty of money you would have the best people round you . . .!”
Mother lived now in two front rooms in the half-house, and had a great many visitors, the most frequent being the brothers Maximov: Peter, a well-set-up, handsome officer with a large, light beard and blue eyes the very one before whom grandfather thrashed me for spitting on the old gentleman’s head; and Eugen, also tall and thin, with a pale face and a small, pointed beard. His large eyes were like plums, and he was dressed in a green coat with gold buttons and gold letters on his narrow shoulders. He often tossed his head lightly, throwing his long, wavy hair back from his high, smooth forehead, and smiled indulgently; and whenever he told some story in his husky voice, he invariably began his speech with these insinuating words: “Shall I tell you how it appears to me?” Mother used to listen to him with twinkling eyes, and frequently interrupted him laughingly with: “You are a baby, Eugen Vassilovitch forgive me for saying so!”
And the officer, slapping his broad palms on his knees, would cry:
“A queer sort of baby!”
The Christmas holidays were spent in noisy gaiety, and almost every evening people came to see mother in full dress; or she put on gala dress better than any of them wore and went out with her guests.
Every time she left the house, in company with her gaily attired guests, it seemed to sink into the earth, and a terrifying silence seemed to creep into every corner of it. Grandmother flapped about the room like an old goose, putting everything straight. Grandfather stood with his back against the warm tiles of the stove, and talked to himself.
“Well . . . that will do . . . very good! . . . We’ll have a look and see what family . . .”
After the Christmas holidays mother sent Sascha, Uncle Michael’s son, and me to school. Sascha’s father had married again, and from the very first the stepmother had taken a dislike to her stepson, and had begun to beat him; so at grandmother’s entreaty, grandfather had taken Sascha to live in his house. We went to school for a month, and all I learned, as far as I remember, was that when I was asked “What . is your surname?” I must not reply “Pyeshkov” simply, but “My surname is Pyeshkov.” And also that I must not say to the teacher: “Don’t shout at me, my dear fellow, I am not afraid of you!”
At first I did not like school, but my cousin was very pleased with it in the beginning, and easily made friends for himself; but once he fell asleep during a lesson, and suddenly called out in his sleep:
“I wo on’t!”
He awoke with a start and ran out of the class-room without ceremony. He was mercilessly laughed at for this; and the next day, when we were in the passage by Cyenvi Square, on our way to school, he came to a halt saying:
“You go on . . . I am not coming . . . I would rather go for a walk.”
He squatted on his heels, carelessly dug his bundle of books into the snow, and went off. It was a clear January day, and the silver rays of the sun fell all round me. I envied my cousin very much, but, hardening my heart, I went on to school. I did not want to grieve my mother. The books which Sascha buried disappeared, of course, so he had a valid reason for not going to school the next day; but on the third day his conduct was brought to grandfather’s notice. We were called up for judgment; in the kitchen grandfather, grandmother, and mother sat at the table and cross-examined us and I shall never forget how comically Sascha answered grandfather’s questions.
“Why didn’t you go to school?”
“I forgot where it was.”
“Yes. I looked and looked”
“But you went with Alexei; he remembered where it was.”
“And I lost him.”
“How did that happen?”
Sascha reflected a moment, and then said, drawing in his breath:
“There was a snowstorm, and you couldn’t see anything.”
They all smiled and the atmosphere began to clear; even Sascha smiled cautiously. But grandfather said maliciously, showing his teeth:
“But you could have caught hold of his arm or his belt, couldn’t you?”
“I did catch hold of them, but the wind tore them away,” explained Sascha.
He spoke in a lazy, despondent tone, and I listened uncomfortably to this unnecessary, clumsy lie, amazed at his obstinacy.
We were thrashed, and a former fireman, an old man with a broken arm, was engaged to take us to school, and to watch that Sascha did not turn aside from the road of learning. But it was no use. The next day, as soon as my cousin reached the causeway, he stooped suddenly, and pulling off one of his high boots threw it a long way from him; then he took off the other and threw it in the opposite direction, and in his stockinged feet ran across the square. The old man, breathing hard, picked up the boots, and thereupon, terribly flustered, took me home.
All that day grandfather, grandmother, and my mother searched the town for the runaway, and it was evening before they found him in the bar at Tchirkov’s Tavern, entertaining the public by his dancing. They took him home, and actually did not beat the shaking, stubborn, silent lad; but as he lay beside me in the loft, with his legs up and the soles of his feet scraping against the ceiling, he said softly:
“My stepmother does not love me, nor my father. Grandfather does not love me either; why should I live with them? So I shall ask grandmother to tell me where the robbers live, and I shall run away to them . . . then you will understand, all of you. . . . Why shouldn’t we run away together?”
I could not run away with him, for in those days I had a work before me I had resolved to be an officer with a large, light beard, and for that study was indispensable. When I told my cousin of my plan, he agreed with me, on reflection.
“That ‘s a good idea too. By the time you are an officer I shall be a robber-chief, and you will have to capture me, and one of us will have to kill the other, or take him prisoner. I shan’t kill you.”
“Nor I you.”
On that point we were agreed.
Then grandmother came in, and climbing on to the stove, glanced up at us and said:
“Well, little mice? E ekh! Poor orphans! . . . Poor little mites!”
Having pitied us, she began to abuse Sascha’s step-mother fat Aunt Nadejda, daughter of the inn-keeper, going on to abuse stepmothers in general, and, apropos, told us the story of the wise hermit lona, and how when he was but a lad he was judged, with his step-mother, by an act of God. His father was a fisherman of the White Lake:
“By his young wife his ruin was wrought,
A potent liquor to him she brought,
Made of herbs which bring sleep.
She laid him, slumbering, in a bark
Of oak, like a grave, so close and dark,
And plied the maple oars.
In the lake’s center she dug a hole,
For there she had planned, in that dark pool,
To hide her vile witch deed.
Bent double she rocked from side to side,
And the frail craft o’erturned that witch bride!
And her husband sank deep.
And the witch swam quickly to the shore
And fell to the earth with wailings sore,
And womanly laments.
The good folk all, believing her tale,
Wept with the disconsolate female,
And in bitterness cried:
‘Oi! As wife thy life was all too brief!
O’erwhelmed art thou by wifely grief;
But life is God’s affair.
Death too He sends when it doth please Him.’
Stepson lonushka alone looked grim,
Her tears not believing.
With his little hand upon his heart
He swiftly at her these words did dart:
‘Oi! Fateful stepmother!
Oi! Artful night-bird, born to deceive!
Those tears of yours I do not believe!
It is joy you feel not pain.
But we’ll ask our Lord, my charge to prove,
And the aid of all the saints above.
Let some one take a knife,
And throw it up to the cloudless sky;
Blameless you, to me the knife will fly.
If I am right, you die!’
The stepmother turned her baleful gaze
On him, and with hate her eyes did blaze
As she rose to her feet.
And with vigor replied to the attack
Of her stepson, nor words did she lack.
‘Oh! creature without sense!
Abortion you! fit for rubbish heap!
By this invention, what do you reap?
Answer you cannot give!’
The good folk looked on, but nothing said;
Of this dark business they were afraid.
Sad and pensive they stood;
Then amongst themselves they held a debate,
And a fisherman old and sedate
Bowing, advanced and said:
‘In my right hand, good people, give me
A steel knife, which I will throw, and ye
Shall see on whom it falls.’
A knife to his hand was their reply.
High above his gray head, to the sky,
The sharp blade he did fling.
Like a bird, up in the air it went;
Vainly they waited for its descent,
The crystal height scanning.
Their hats they doffed, and closer pressed they stood,
Silent; yea, Night herself seemed to brood;
But the knife did not fall.
The ruby dawn rose over the lake,
The stepmother, flushed, did courage take
And scornfully did smile.
When like a swallow the knife did dart
To earth, and fixed itself in her heart.
Down on their knees the people did fall
Praising God Who is Ruler of All:
‘Thou are just, O God!’
lona, the fisherman, did take,
And of him a hermit did make.
Far away by the bright River Kerjentza
In a cell almost invisible from the town Kite j a.” 1
1 In the year ‘90 in the village of Kolinpanovka, in the Government of Tambov, and the district Borisoglebsk, I heard another version of this legend, in which the knife kills the stepson who ha’s calumniated his stepmother.
The next day I woke up covered with red spots, and this was the beginning of smallpox.
They put me up in the back attic, and there I lay for a long time, blind, with my hands and feet tightly bandaged, living through horrible nightmares, in one of which I nearly died. No one but grandmother came near me, and she fed me with a spoon as if I were a baby, and told me stories, a fresh one every time, from her endless store.
One evening, when I was convalescent, and lay without bandages, except for my hands, which were tied up to prevent me from scratching my face, grandmother, for some reason or ‘other, had not come at her usual time, which alarmed me; and all of a sudden I saw her. She was lying outside the door on the dusty floor of the attic, face downwards, with her arms outspread, and her neck half sawed through, like Uncle Peter’s; while from the corner, out of the dusty twilight, there moved slowly towards her a great cat, with its green eyes greedily open. I sprang out of bed, bruising my legs and shoulders against the window-frame, and jumped down into the yard into a snowdrift. It happened to be an evening when mother had visitors, so no one heard the smashing of the glass, or the breaking of the window-frame, and I had to lie in the snow for some time. I had broken no bones, but I had dislocated my shoulder and cut myself very much with the broken glass, and I had lost the use of my legs, and for three months I lay utterly unable to move. I lay still and listened, and thought how noisy the house had become, how often they banged the doors downstairs, and what a lot of people seemed to be coming and going.
Heavy snowstorms swept over the roof; the wind came and went resoundingly outside the door, sang a funereal song down the chimney, and set the dampers rattling; by day the rooks cawed, and in the quiet night the doleful howling of wolves reached my ears such was the music under whose influence my heart developed. Later on shy spring peeped into the window with the radiant eyes of the March sun, timidly and gently at first, but growing bolder and warmer every day; she-cats sang and howled on the roof and in the loft; the rustle of spring penetrated the very walls the crystal icicles broke, the half-thawed snow fell off the stable-roof, and the bells began to give forth a sound less clear than they gave in winter. When grandmother came near me her words were more often impregnated with the odor of vodka, which grew stronger every day, until at length she began to bring a large white teapot with her and hide it under my bed, saying with a wink:
“Don’t you say anything to that grandfather of ours, will you, darling?”
“Why do you drink?”
“Never mind! When you are grown-up you’ll know.”
She pulled at the spout of the teapot, wiped her lips with her sleeve, and smiled sweetly as she asked:
“Well, my little gentleman, what do you want me to tell you about this evening?”
“About my father.”
“Where shall I begin?”
I reminded her, and her speech flowed on like a melodious stream for a long time.
She had begun to tell me about my father of her own accord one day when she had come to me, nervous, sad, and tired, saying:
“I have had a dream about your father. I thought I saw him coming across the fields, whistling, and followed by a piebald dog with its tongue hanging out. For some reason I have begun to dream about Maxim Savatyevitch very often . . . it must mean that his soul is not at rest . . . ”
For several evenings in succession she told me my father’s history, which was interesting, as all her stories were.
My father was the son of a soldier who had worked his way up to be an officer and was banished to Siberia for cruelty to his subordinates; and there somewhere in Siberia my father was born. He had an unhappy life, and at a very early age he used to run away from home. Once grandfather set the dogs to track him down in the forest, as if he were a hare; another time, having caught him, he beat him so unmercifully that the neighbors took the child away and hid him.
“Do they always beat children?” I asked, and grandmother answered quietly:
My father’s mother died early, and when he was nine years old grandfather also died, and he was taken by a cross-maker, who entered him on the Guild of the town of Perm and began to teach him his trade; but my father ran away from him, and earned his living by leading blind people to the fairs. When he was sixteen he came to Nijni and obtained work with a joiner who was a contractor for the Kolchin steamboats. By the time he was twenty he was a skilled carpenter, upholsterer and decorator. The workshop in which he was employed was next door to grandfather’s house in Kovalikh Street.
“The fences were not high, and certain people were not backward,” said grandmother, laughing. “So one day, when Varia and I were picking raspberries in the garden, who should get over the fence but your father! . . . I was frightened, foolishly enough; but there he went amongst the apple trees, a fine-looking fellow, in a white shirt, and plush breeches . . . bare-footed and hatless, with long hair bound with leather bands. That ‘s the way he came courting. When I saw him for the first time through the window, I said to myself: ‘That’s a nice lad!’ So when he came close to me now I asked him:
“‘Why do you come out of your way like this, young man?’
“And he fell on his knees. ‘Akulina, he says, Tvanovna! . . . because my whole heart is here . . . with Varia. Help us, for God’s sake! We want to get married.’
“At this I was stupefied and my tongue refused to speak. I looked, and there was your mother, the rogue, hiding behind an apple tree, all red as red as the raspberries and making signs to him; but there were tears in her eyes.
“‘Oh, you rogues!’ I cried. ‘How have you managed all this? Are you in your senses, Varvara? And you, young man,’ I said, ‘think what you are doing! Do you intend to get your way by force?’
“At that time grandfather was rich, for he had not given his children their portions, and he had four houses of his own, and money, and he was ambitious; not long before that they had given him a laced hat and a uniform because he had been head of the Guild for nine years without a break and he was proud in those days. I said to them what it was my duty to say, but all the time I trembled for fear and felt very sorry for them too; they had both become so gloomy. Then said your father:
“‘I know quite well that Vassili Vassilitch will not consent to give Varia to me, so I shall steal her; only you must help us.’
“So I was to help them. I could not help laughing at him, but he would not be turned from his purpose. ‘You may stone me or you may help me, it is all the same to me I shall not give in,’ he said.
“Then Varvara went to him, laid her hand on his shoulder, and said: ‘We have been talking of getting married a long time we ought to have been married in May.’
“How I started! Good Lord!”
Grandmother began to laugh, and her whole body shook; then she took a pinch of snuff, dried her eyes and said, sighing comfortably:
“You can’t understand that yet . . . you don’t know what marrying means . . . but this you can understand that for a girl to give birth to a child before she is married is a dreadful calamity. Remember that, and when you are grown-up never tempt a girl in that way; it would be a great sin on your part the girl would be disgraced, and the child illegitimate. See that you don’t forget that! You must be kind to women, and love them for their own sakes, and not for the sake of self-indulgence. This is good advice I am giving you.”
She fell into a reverie, rocking herself in her chair; then, shaking herself, she began again:
“Well, what was to be done? I hit Maxim on the forehead, and pulled Varia’s plait; but he said reasonably enough: ‘Quarreling won’t put things right.’ And she said: ‘Let us think what is the best thing to do first, and have a row afterwards.’
“‘Have you any money?’ I asked him.
“‘I had some,’ he replied, ‘but I bought Varia a ring with it.’
“‘How much did you have then?’
“‘Oh,’ says he, ‘about a hundred roubles.’
“Now at that time money was scarce and things were dear, and I looked at the two your mother and father and I said to myself: ‘What children! . . . What young. fools!’
“‘I hid the ring under the floor,’ said your mother, ‘so that you should not see it. We can sell it.’
“Such children they were both of them! However, we discussed the ways and means for them to be married in a week’s time, and I promised to arrange the matter with the priest. But I felt very uncomfortable myself, and my heart went pit-a-pat, because I was so frightened of grandfather; and Varia was frightened too, painfully so. Well, we arranged it all!
“But your father had an enemy a certain workman, an evil-minded man who had guessed what was going on long ago, and now watched our movements. Well, I arrayed my only daughter in the best things I could get, and took her out to the gate, where there was a troika waiting. She got into it, Maxim whistled, and away they drove. I was going back to the house, in tears, when I ran across this man, who said in a cringing tone:
“‘I have a good heart, and I shall not interfere with the workings of Fate; only, Akulina Ivanovna, you must give me fifty roubles for keeping quiet.’
“But I had no money; I did not like it, nor care to save it, and so I told him, like a fool:
“‘I have no money, so I can’t give you any.’
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘you can promise it to me.’
“‘How can I do that? Where am I to get it from after I have promised?’
“‘Is it so difficult to steal from a rich husband?’ he says.
“‘If I had not been a fool I should have temporized with him; but I spat full in his ugly mug, and went into the house. And he rushed into the yard and raised a hue and cry.”
Closing her eyes, she said, smiling:
“Even now I have a lively remembrance of that daring deed of mine. Grandfather roared like a wild beast, and wanted to know if they were making fun of him. As it happened, he had been taking stock of Varia lately, and boasting about her: ‘I shall marry her to a nobleman a gentleman!’ Here was a pretty nobleman for him! here was a pretty gentleman! But the Holy Mother of God knows better than we do what persons ought to be drawn together.
“Grandfather tore about the yard as if he were on fire, calling Jaakov and Michael and even at the suggestion of that wicked workman Klima, the coachman too. I saw him take a leathern strap with a weight tied on the end of it, and Michael seized his gun. We had good horses then, full of spirit, and the carriage was light. ‘Ah well!’ I thought, ‘they are sure to overtake them.’ But here Varia’s Guardian Angel suggested something to me. I took a knife and cut the ropes belonging to the shafts. ‘There! they will break down on the road now.’ And so they did. The shafts came unfastened on the way, and nearly killed grandfather and Michael and Klima too, besides delaying them; and by the time they had repaired it, and dashed up to the church, Varia and Maxim were standing in the church porch married thank God!
“Then our people started a fight with Maxim; but he was in very good condition and he was rare and strong. He threw Michael away from the porch and broke his arm. Klima also was injured; and grandfather and Jaakov and that workman were all frightened!
“Even in his rage he did not lose his presence of mind, but he said to grandfather:
“‘You can throw away that strap. Don’t wave it about over me, for I am a man of peace, and what I have taken is only what God gave me, and no man shall take from me . . . and that is all I have to say to you.’
“They gave it up then, and grandfather returned to the carriage crying:
“‘It is good-by now, Varvara! You are no daughter of mine, and I never wish to see you again, either alive or dead of hunger.’
“When he came ‘home he beat me, and he scolded me; but all I did was to groan and hold my tongue.
“Everything passes away, and what is to be will be. After this he said to me:
“‘Now, look here, Akulina, you have no daughter now. Remember that.’
“But I only said to myself:
“‘Tell more lies, sandy-haired, spiteful man say that ice is warm!’ ’
I listened attentively, greedily. Some part of her story surprised me, for grandfather had given quite a different account of mother’s wedding; he said that he had been against the marriage and had forbidden mother to his house after it, but the wedding had not been secret, and he had been present in the church. I did not like to ask grandmother which of them spoke the truth, because her story was the more beautiful of the two, and I liked it best.
When she was telling a story she rocked from side to side all the time, just as if she were in a boat. If she was relating something sad or terrible, she rocked more violently, and stretched out her hands as if she were pushing away something in the air; she often covered her eyes, while a sightless, kind smile hid itself in her wrinkled cheek, but her thick eyebrows hardly moved. Sometimes this uncritical friendliness of hers to everybody touched my heart, and sometimes I wished that she would use strong language and assert herself more.
“At first, for two weeks, I did not know where
Varvara and Maxim were; then a little barefooted boy was sent to tell me. I went to see them on a Saturday I was supposed to be going to vespers, but I went to them instead. They lived a long way off, on the Suetinsk Slope, in the wing of a house overlooking a yard belonging to some works a dusty, dirty, noisy place; but they did not mind it they were like two cats, quite happy, purring, and even playing together. I took them what I could tea, sugar, cereals of various kinds, jam, flour, dried mushrooms, and a small sum of money which I had got from grandfather on the quiet. You are allowed to steal, you know, when it is not for yourself.
“But your father would not take anything. ‘What! Are we beggars’?’ he says.
“And Varvara played the same tune. ‘Ach! . . . What is this for, Mamasha’?’
“I gave them a lecture. ‘You young fools!’ I said. ‘Who am I, I should like to know? . . . I am the mother God gave you . . . and you, silly, are my own flesh and blood. Are you going to offend me? Don’t you know that when you offend your mother on earth, the Mother of God in Heaven weeps bitterly?’
“Then Maxim seized me in his arms and carried me round the room . . . he actually danced he was strong, the bear! And Varvara there, the hussy, was as proud as a peacock of her husband, and kept looking at him as if he were a new doll, and talked about house-keeping with such an air you would have thought she was an old hand at it! It was comical to listen to her. And she gave us cheese-cakes for tea which would have broken the teeth of a wolf, and curds all sprinkled with dust.
“Things went on like this for a long time, and your birth was drawing near, but still grandfather never said a word he is obstinate, our old man! I went to see them on the quiet, and he knew it; but he pretended not to. It was forbidden to any one in the house to speak of Varia, so she was never mentioned. I said nothing about her either, but I knew that a father’s heart could not be dumb for long. And at last the critical moment arrived. It was night; there was a snowstorm raging, and it sounded as if bears were throwing themselves against the window. The wind howled down the chimneys; all the devils were let loose. Grandfather and I were in bed but we could not sleep.
“‘It is bad for the poor on such a night as this,’ I remarked; ‘but it is worse for those whose minds are not at rest.’
“Then grandfather suddenly asked:
“‘How are they getting on? All right?’
“‘Who are you talking about?’ I asked. ‘About our daughter Varvara and our son-in-law Maxim?’
“‘How did you guess who I meant?’
“‘That will do, Father,’ I said. ‘Suppose you leave off playing the fool”? What pleasure is to be got out of it?
“He drew in his breath. ‘Ach, you devil!’ he said. ‘You gray devil!’
“Later on he said: ‘They say he is a great fool’ (he was speaking of your father). ‘Is it true that he is a fool?’
“‘A fool,’ I said, ‘is a person who won’t work, and hangs round other people’s necks. You look at Jaakov and Michael, for instance; don’t they live like fools? Who is the worker in this house? Who earns the money? You! And are they much use as assistants?’
“Then he fell to scolding me I was a fool, an abject creature and a bawd, and I don’t know what else. I held my tongue.
“‘How can you allow yourself to be taken in by a man like that, when no one knows where he came from or what he is?’
“I kept quiet until he was tired, and then I said:
“‘You ought to go and see how they are living. They are getting along all right.’
“‘That would be doing them too much honor,’ he said. ‘Let them come here.’
“At this I cried for joy, and he loosened my hair (he loved to play with my hair) and muttered:
“‘Don’t upset yourself, stupid. Do you think I have not got a heart?’
“He used to be very good, you know, our grandfather, before he got an idea into his head that he was cleverer than any one else, and then he became spiteful and stupid.
“Well, so they came, your father and mother, one Saint’s Day both of them large and sleek and neat; and Maxim stood in front of grandfather, who laid a hand on his shoulder he stood there and he said:
“‘Don’t think, Vassili Vassilitch, that I have come to you for a dowry; I have come to do honor to my wife’s father.’
“Grandfather was very pleased at this, and burst out laughing. ‘Ach! you fighter!’ he said. ‘You robber! Well,’ he said, ‘we’ll be indulgent for once. Come and live with me.’
“Maxim wrinkled his forehead. ‘That must be as Varia wishes,’ he said. ‘It is all the same to me.’
“And then it began. They were at each other tooth and nail all the time; they could not get on together anyhow. I used to wink at your father and kick him under the table, but it was no use; he would stick to his own opinion. He had very fine eyes, very bright and clear, and his brows were dark, and when he drew them together his eyes were almost hidden, and his face became stony and stubborn. He would not listen to any one but me. I loved him, if possible, more than my own children, and he knew this and loved me too. Sometimes he would hug me, and catch me up in his arms, and drag me round the room, saying: ‘You are my real mother, like the earth. I love you more than I love Varvara.’ And your mother (when she was happy she was very saucy) would fly at him and cry: ‘How dare you say such a thing, you rascal?’ And the three of us would romp together. Ah! we were happy then, my dear. He used to dance wonderfully well too and such beautiful songs he knew. He picked them up from the blind people; and there are no better singers than the blind.
“Well, they settled themselves in the outbuilding in the garden, and there you were born on the stroke of noon. Your father came home to dinner, and you were there to greet him. He was so delighted that he was almost beside himself, and nearly tired your mother out; as if he did not realize, the stupid creature, what an ordeal it is to bring a child into the world. He put me on his shoulder and carried me right across the yard to grandfather to tell him the news that another grandson had appeared on the scene. Even grandfather laughed: ‘What a demon you are, Maxim!’ he said.
“But your uncles did not like him. He did not drink wine, he was bold in his speech, and clever in all kinds of tricks for which he was bitterly paid out. One day, for instance, during the great Fast, the wind sprang up, and all at once a terrible howling resounded through the house. We were all stupefied. What did it mean? Grandfather himself was terrified, ordered lamps to be lit all over the house, and ran about, shouting at the top of his voice: ‘We must offer up prayers together!’
“And suddenly it stopped which frightened us still more. Then Uncle Jaakov guessed. ‘This is Maxim’s doing, I am sure!’ he said. And afterwards Maxim himself confessed that he had put bottles and glasses of various kinds in the dormer-window, and the wind blowing down the necks of the vessels produced the sounds, all by itself. ‘These jokes will land you in Siberia again if you don’t take care, Maxim,’ said grandfather menacingly.
“One year there was a very hard frost and wolves began to come into the towns from the fields; they killed the dogs, frightened the horses, ate up tipsy watchmen, and caused a great panic. But your father took his gun, put on his snow-shoes, and tracked down two wolves. He skinned them, cleaned out their heads, and put in glass eyes made quite a good job of it, in fact. Well, Uncle Michael went into the vestibule for something, and came running back at once, with his hair on end, his eyes rolling, gasping for breath, and unable to speak. At length he whispered: ‘Wolf!’ Every one seized anything which came to hand in the shape of a weapon, and rushed into the vestibule with lights; they looked and saw a wolf’s head sticking out from behind a raised platform. They beat him, they fired at him and what do you think he was? They looked closer, and saw that it was nothing but a skin and an empty head, and its front feet were nailed to the platform. This time grandfather was really very angry with Maxim.
“And then Jaakov must begin to join in these pranks. Maxim cut a head out of cardboard, and made a nose, eyes, and a mouth on it, glued tow on it to represent hair, and then went out into the street with Jaakov, and thrust that dreadful face in at the windows; and of course people were terrified and ran away screaming. Another night they went out wrapped in sheets and frightened the priest, who rushed into a sentry-box; and the sentry, as much frightened as he was, called the police. And many other wanton tricks like this they played; and nothing would stop them. I begged them to give up their nonsense, and so did Varia, but it was no good; they would not leave off. Maxim only laughed. It made his sides ache with laughing, he said, to see how folk ran wild with terror, and broke their heads because of his nonsense. ‘Come and speak to them!’ he would say.
“And it all came back on his own head and nearly caused his ruin. Your Uncle Michael, who was always with grandfather, was easily offended and vindictively disposed, and he thought out a way to get rid of your father. It was in the beginning of winter and they were coming away from a friend’s house, four of them Maxim, your uncles, and a deacon, who was degraded afterwards for killing a cabman. They came out of Yamski Street and persuaded Maxim to go round by the Dinkov Pond, pretending that they were going to skate. They began to slide on the ice like boys and drew him on to an ice-hole, and then they pushed him in but I have told you about that.”
“Why are my uncles so bad?”
“They are not bad,” said grandmother calmly, taking a pinch of snuff. “They are simply stupid. Mischka is cunning and stupid as well, but Jaakov is a good fellow, taking him all round. Well, they pushed him into the water, but as he went down he clutched at the edge of the ice-hole, and they struck at his hands, crushing his fingers with their heels. By good luck he was sober, while they were tipsy, and with God’s help he dragged himself from under the ice, and kept himself face upwards in the middle of the hole, so that he could breathe; but they could not get hold of him, and after a time they left him, with his head surrounded by ice, to drown. But he climbed out, and ran to the police-station it is quite close, you know, in the market-place. The Inspector on duty knew him and all the family, and he asked: ‘How did this happen?’ ”
Grandmother crossed herself and went on in a grateful tone:
“God rest the soul of Maxim Savatyevitch! He deserves it, for you must know that he hid the truth from the police. ‘It was my own fault,’ he said. ‘I had been drinking, and I wandered on to the pond, and tumbled down an ice-hole.’
“‘That ‘s not true,’ said the Inspector; ‘you ‘ve not been drinking.’
“Well, the long and short of it was that they rubbed him with brandy, put dry clothes on him, wrapped him in a sheepskin, and brought him home the Inspector himself and two others. Jaaschka and Mischka had not returned; they had gone to a tavern to celebrate the occasion. Your mother and I looked at Maxim. He was quite unlike himself; his face was livid, his fingers were bruised, and there was dry blood on them, and his curls seemed to be flecked with snow only it did not melt. He had turned gray!
“Varvara screamed out ‘What have they done to you?’
“The Inspector, scenting the truth, began to ask questions, and I felt in my heart that something very bad had happened.
“I put Varia off on to the Inspector, and I tried to get the truth out of Maxim quietly. ‘What has happened?’
“‘The first thing you must do,’ he whispered, ‘is to lie in wait for Jaakov and Michael and tell them that they are to say that they parted from me at Yamski Street and went to Pokrovski Street, while I turned off at Pryadilni Lane. Don’t mix it up now, or we shall have trouble with the police.’
“I went to grandfather and said: ‘Go and talk to the Inspector while I go and wait for our sons to tell them what evil has befallen us.’
“He dressed himself, all of a tremble, muttering: T knew how it would be! This is what I expected.’
“All lies! He knew nothing of the kind. Well, I met my children with my hands before my face. Fear sobered Mischka at once, and Jaashenka, the dear boy, let the cat out of the bag by babbling: ‘I don’t know anything about it. It is all Michael’s doing. He is the eldest.’
“However, we made it all right with the Inspector. He was a very nice gentleman. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘but you had better take care; if anything bad happens in your house I shall know who is to blame.’ And with that he went away.
“And grandfather went to Maxim and said: ‘Thank you! Any one else in your place would not have acted as you have done that I know! And thank you, daughter, for bringing such a good man into your father’s house.’ Grandfather could speak very nicely when he liked. It was after this that he began to be silly, and keep his heart shut up like a castle.
“We three were left together. Maxim Savatyevitch began to cry, and became almost delirious. ‘Why have they done this to me? What harm have I done them? Mama . . . why did they do it?’ He never called me ‘mamasha,’ but always ‘mama,’ like a child . . . and he was really a child in character. ‘Why . . .?’ he asked.
“I cried too what else was there for me to do? I was so sorry for my children. Your mother tore all the buttons off her bodice, and sat there, all dishevelled as if she had been fighting, calling out: ‘Let us go away, Maxim. My brothers are our enemies; I am afraid of them. Let us go away!’
“I tried to quieten her. ‘Don’t throw rubbish on the fire,’ I said. ‘The house is full of smoke without that.’
“At that very moment that fool of a grandfather must go and send those two to beg forgiveness; she sprang at Mischka and slapped his face. ‘There ‘s your forgiveness!’ she said. And your father complained: ‘How could you do such a thing, brothers? You might have crippled me. What sort of a workman shall I be without hands’?’
“However, they were reconciled. Your father was ailing for some time; for seven weeks he tossed about, and got no better, and he kept saying: Ekh! Mama, let us go to another town; I am weary of this place.’
“Then he had a chance of going to Astrakhan; they expected the Emperor there in the summer, and your father was entrusted with the building of a triumphal arch. They sailed on the first boat. It cut me to the heart to part from them, and he was grieved about it too, and kept saying to me that I ought to go with them to Astrakhan; but Varvara rejoiced, and did not even try to hide her joy the hussy! And so they went away . . . and that is all!”
She drank a drop of vodka, took a pinch of snuff, and added, gazing out of the window at the dark blue sky:
“Yes, your father and I were not of the same blood, but in soul we were akin.”
Sometimes, while she was telling me this, grandfather came in with his face uplifted, sniffed the air with his sharp nose, and looking suspiciously at grandmother, listened to what she was saying and muttered:
“That’s not true! That’s not true!”
Then he would ask, without warning:
“Lexei, has she been drinking brandy here?”
“That ‘s a lie, for I saw her with my own eyes!” And he would go out in an undecided manner.
Grandmother would wink at him behind his back and utter some quaint saying:
“Go along, Avdye, and don’t frighten the horses.”
One day, as he stood in the middle of the room, staring at the floor, he said softly:
“You see what is going on?”
“Yes, I see!”
“What do you think of it?”
“There’ll be a wedding, Father. Do you remember how you used to talk about a nobleman?”
“Well here he is!”
“He ‘s got nothing.”
“That ‘s her business.”
Grandfather left the room, and conscious of a sense of uneasiness, I asked:
“What were you talking about?”
“You want to know everything,” she replied querulously, rubbing my feet. “If you know everything when you are young, there will be nothing to ask questions about when you get old.” And she laughed and shook her head at me.
“Oh, grandfather! grandfather! you are nothing but a little piece of dust in the eyes of God. Lenka now don’t you tell any one this, but grandfather is absolutely ruined. He lent a certain gentleman a large sum of money, and now the gentleman has gone bankrupt.”
Smiling, she fell into a reverie, and sat without speaking for a long time; and her face became wrinkled, and sad, and gloomy.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I am thinking of something to tell you,” she answered, with a start. “Shall we have the story about Evstignia? Will that do? Well, here goes then.
“A deacon there was called Evstignia,
He thought there was no one more wise than he,
Be he presbyter, or be he boyard;
Not even a huntsman knew more than he.
Like a spike of spear grass he held himself,
So proud, and taught his neighbors great and small;
He found fault with this, and grumbled at that;
He glanced at a church ‘Not lofty enough!’
He passed up a street ‘How narrow!’ he said.
An apple he plucked ‘It not red!’ he said.
The sun rose too soon for Evstignia!
In all the world there was nothing quite right!”
Grandmother puffed out her cheeks, and rolled her eyes; her kind face assumed a stupid, comical expression as she went on in a lazy, dragging voice:
“ ‘There is nothing I could not do myself,
And do it much better, I think,’ he said,
‘If I only had a little more time!’ ”
She was smilingly silent for a moment, and then she continued:
“To the deacon one night some devils came;
‘So you find it dull here, deacon?’ they said.
‘Well, come along with us, old fellow, to hell,
You’ll have no fault to find with the fires there.’
Ere the wise deacon could put on his hat
The devils seized hold of him with their paws
And, with titters and howls, they dragged him down.
A devil on each of his shoulders sat,
And there, in the flames of hell they set him.
‘Is it all right, Evstignyeushka?’
The deacon was roasting, brightly he burned,
Kept himself up with his hands to his sides,
Puffed out his lips as he scornfully said:
‘It ‘s dreadfully smoky down here in hell!’ ”
Concluding in an indolent, low-pitched, unctuous voice, she changed her expression and, laughing quietly, explained:
“He would not give in that Evstignia, but stuck to his own opinion obstinately, like our grandfather. . . . That ‘s enough now; go to sleep; it is high time.”
Mother came up to the attic to see me very seldom, and she did not stay long, and spoke as if she were in a hurry. She was getting more beautiful, and was dressed better every day, but I was conscious of something different about her, as about grandmother; I felt that there was something going on which was being kept from me and I tried to guess what it was.
Grandmother’s stories interested me less and less, even the ones she told me about my father; and they did not soothe my indefinable but daily increasing alarm.
“Why is my father’s soul not at rest?” I asked grandmother.
“How can I tell?” she replied, covering her eyes. “That is God’s affair . . . it is supernatural . . . and hidden from us.”
At night, as I gazed sleeplessly through the dark blue windows at the stars floating so slowly across the sky, I made up some sad story in my mind in which the chief place was occupied by my father, who was always wandering about alone, with a stick in his hand, and with a shaggy dog behind him.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55