ONE day I fell asleep before the evening, and when I woke up I felt that my legs had waked up too. I put them out of bed, and they became numb again; but the fact remained that my legs were cured and that I should be able to walk. This was such glorious news that I shouted for joy, and put my feet to the floor with the whole weight of my body on them. I fell down, but I crawled to the door and down the staircase, vividly representing to myself the surprise of those downstairs when they should see me.
I do not remember how I got into mother’s room on my knees; but there were some strangers with her, and one, a dried-up old woman in green, said sternly, drowning all other voices:
“Give him some raspberry syrup to drink, and cover up his head.”
She was green all over: her dress, and hat, and her face, which had warts under the eyes; even the tufts of hair on the warts were like grass. Letting her lower lip droop, she raised the upper one and looked at me with her green teeth, covering her eyes with a hand in a black thread mitten.
“Who is that?” I asked, suddenly growing timid.
Grandfather answered in a disagreeable voice:
“That ‘s another grandmother for you.”
Mother, laughing, brought Eugen Maximov to me.
“And here is your father!”
She said something rapidly which I did not understand, and Maximov, with twinkling eyes, bent towards me and said:
“I will make you a present of some paints.”
The room was lit up very brightly; silver candelabra, holding five candles each, stood on the table, and between them was placed grandfather’s favorite icon “Mourn not for me, Mother.” The pearls with which it was set gave forth an intermittent brilliancy as the lights played on them flickeringly, and the gems in the golden crown shone radiantly; heavy, round faces like pancakes were pressing against the window-panes from outside, flattening their noses against the glass, and everything round me seemed to be floating. The old green woman felt my ears with her cold fingers and said:
“By all means! By all means!”
“He is fainting,” said grandmother, and she carried me to the door.
But I was not fainting. I just kept my eyes shut, and as soon as she had half-dragged, half-carried me up the staircase, I asked:
“Why wasn’t I told of this’?”
“That will do. . . . Hold your tongue!”
“You are deceivers all of you!”
Laying me on the bed, she threw herself down with her head on the pillow and burst into tears, shaking from head to foot; her shoulders heaved, and she muttered chokingly:
“Why don’t you cry?”
I had no desire to cry. It was twilight in the attic, and cold. I shuddered, and the bed shook and creaked; and ever before my eyes stood the old green woman. I pretended to be asleep, and grandmother went away.
Several uneventful days, all alike, flowed by like a thin stream. Mother had gone away somewhere after the betrothal, and the house was oppressively quiet.
One morning grandfather came in with a chisel and began to break away the cement around the attic window-frames which were put in for the winter; then grandmother appeared with a basin of water and a cloth, and grandfather asked softly:
“Well, old woman, what do you think of it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, are you pleased, or what?”
She answered him as she had answered me on the staircase:
“That will do. . . . Hold your tongue!”
The simplest words had a peculiar significance for me now, and I imagined that they concealed something of tremendous import and sorrow of which no one might speak, but of which every one knew.
Carefully taking out the window-frame, grandfather carried it away, and grandmother went to the window and breathed the air. In the garden the starling was calling; the sparrows chirped; the intoxicating odor of the thawing earth floated into the room. The dark blue tiles of the stove seemed to turn pale with confusion; it made one cold to look at them. I climbed down from the bed to the floor.
“Don’t go running about with your feet bare,” said grandmother.
“I am going into the garden.”
“It is not dry enough there yet. Wait a bit!”
But I would not listen to her; in fact the very sight of grown-up people affected me unpleasantly now. In the garden the light green spikes of young grass were already pushing their way through, the buds on the apple trees were swelling and ready to break, the moss on the roof of Petrovna’s cottage was very pleasing to the eye in its renewed green; all around were birds, and sounds of joy, and the fresh, fragrant air caused a pleasant sensation of giddiness. By the pit, where Uncle Peter cut his throat, there was long grass red, and mixed up with the broken snow. I did not like looking at it; there was nothing spring-like about it. The black chimney-stack reared itself up dejectedly, and the whole pit was an unnecessary eyesore. I was seized with an angry desire to tear up and break off the long grass, to pull the chimney-stack to pieces brick by brick, and get rid of all that useless muck, and to build a clean dwelling for myself in the pit, where I could live all the summer without grown-up people.
I had no sooner thought of it than I set myself to do it, and it immediately diverted my mind from what went on in the house, and kept it occupied for a long time; and although many things occurred to upset me, they became of less importance to me every day.
“What are you sulking about?” mother and grandmother used to ask me; and it made me feel awkward when they asked this question, for I was not angry with them it was simply that every one in the house had become a stranger to me. At dinner, at evening tea, and supper the old, green woman often appeared looking just like a rotten paling in an old fence. The eyes seemed to be sewn on her face with invisible threads, and looked as if they would easily roll out of their bony sockets, as she turned them rapidly in every direction, seeing and taking notes of everything raising them to the ceiling when she talked of God, and looking down her nose when she spoke of household matters. Her eyebrows looked exactly as if they had been cut out of pieces and stuck on. Her large, protruding teeth noiselessly chewed whatever she put in her mouth with a funny curve of her arm, and her little finger stuck out; while the bones about her ears moved like little round balls, and the green hairs on her warts went up and down as if they were creeping along her yellow, wrinkled, disgustingly clean skin.
She was always so very clean like her son, and it was unpleasant to go near them. The first day she put her dead hand against my lips, it smelled strongly of yellow Kazan soap and incense, and I turned away and ran off. She said to her son very often:
“That boy is greatly in need of discipline; do you understand that, Jenia?”
Inclining his head obediently, he would frown and remain silent. Every one frowned in the presence of the green woman.
I hated the old woman, and her son too, with an intense hatred, and many blows did that feeling cost me. One day at dinner she said, rolling her eyes horribly:
“Oh Aleshenka, why do you eat in such a hurry, and take such big pieces’? Give it up, my dear!”
I took the piece out of my mouth, put it on the fork again, and handed it to her.
“Take it only it is hot.”
Mother took me away from the table, and I was ignominiously banished to the attic, where grandmother joined me, trying to keep her giggling from being heard by placing her hand over her mouth.
“Lor! you are a cheeky young monkey. Bless you!”
It irritated me to see her with her hand over her mouth, so I ran away, climbed on the roof of the house, and sat there a long time by the chimney. Yes, I wanted to be insolent and to use injurious words to them all, and it was hard to fight against this feeling, but it had to be fought against.
One day I covered the chair of my future stepfather with grease, and that of my new grandmother with cherry-gum, and they both stuck to their seats; it was very funny, but when grandfather had hit me, mother came up to me in the attic, and drawing me to her, pressed me against her knees saying:
“Listen now! Why are you so ill-natured? If you only knew how miserable it makes me.” And her eyes overflowed with bright tears as she pressed my head against her cheek.
This was very painful; I had rather she had struck me. I told her I would never again be rude to the Maximovs never again, if only she would not cry.
“There, there!” she said softly. “Only you must not be impudent. Very soon we shall be married, and then we shall go to Moscow; afterwards we shall come back and you will live with us. Eugen Vassilivitch is very kind and clever, and you will get on well with him. You will go to a grammar school, and afterwards you shall be a student like he is now; then you shall be a doctor whatever you like. You may study whatever you choose. Now run and play.”
These “afterwards” and “thens” one after the other seemed to me like a staircase leading to some place deep down and far away from her, into darkness and solitude a staircase which led to no happiness for me. I had a good mind to say to my mother:
“Please don’t get married. I will earn money for your keep.”
But somehow the words would not come. Mother always aroused in me many tender thoughts about herself, but I never could make up my mind to tell them to her.
My undertaking in the garden was progressing; I pulled up the long grass, or cut it down with a knife, and I built, with pieces of brick, against the edge of the pit where the earth had fallen away, a broad seat, large enough, in fact, to lie down upon. I took a lot of pieces of colored glass and fragments of broken crockery and stuck them in the chinks between the bricks, and when the sun looked into the pit they all shone with a rainbow effect, like one sees in churches.
“Very well thought out!” said grandfather one day, looking at my work. “Only you have broken off the grass and left the roots. Give me your spade and I will dig them up for you; come, bring it to me!”
I brought him the yellow spade; he spat on his hands, and making a noise like a duck, drove the spade into the earth with his foot.
“Throw away the roots,” he said. “Later on I will plant some sunflowers here for you, and some raspberry bushes. That will be nice very nice!” And then, bending over his spade, he fell into a dead silence.
I looked at him; fine tear-drops were falling fast from his small, intelligent, doglike eyes to the ground.
“What is the matter?”
He shook himself, wiped his face with his palms, and dimly regarded me.
“I was sweating. Look there what a lot of worms!”
Then he began to dig again, and after a time he said abruptly:
“You have done all this for nothing for nothing, my boy. I am going to sell the house soon. I must sell it before autumn without fail. I want the money for your mother’s dowry. That ‘s what it is! I hope she will be happy. God bless her!”
He threw down the spade, and with a gesture of renunciation went behind the washhouse where he had a forcing-bed, and I began to dig; but almost at once I crushed my toes with the spade.
This prevented me from going to the church with mother when she was married; I could only get as far as the gate, and from there I saw her on Maximov’s arm, with her head bowed, carefully setting her feet on the pavement and on the green grass, and stepping over the crevices as if she were walking on sharp nails.
It was a quiet wedding. When they came back from church they drank tea in a depressed manner, and mother changed her dress directly and went to her own room to pack up. My stepfather came and sat beside me, and said:
“I promised to give you some paints, but there are no good ones to be got in this town, and I cannot give my own away; but I will bring you some from Moscow.”
“And what shall I do with them?”
“Don’t you like drawing?”
“I don’t know how to draw.”
“Well, I will bring you something else.”
Then mother came in.
“We shall soon come back, you know. Your father, there, has to sit for an examination, and when he has finished his studies we shall come back.”
I was pleased that they should talk to me like this, as if I were grown-up; but it was very strange to hear that a man with a beard was still learning,
“What are you learning?” I asked.
“Surveying,” he replied.
I did not trouble to ask what surveying was. The house seemed to be full of a dull quietness; there was a woolly sort of rustling going on, and I wished that the night would make haste and come. Grandfather stood with his back pressed against the stove, gazing out of the window with a frown. The old green woman was helping mother to pack, grumbling and sighing; and grandmother, who had been tipsy since noon, ashamed on that account, had retired to the attic and shut herself up there.
Mother went away early the next morning. She held me in her arms as she took leave of me; lifting me lightly off the ground, and gazing into my eyes with eyes which seemed unfamiliar to me, she said as she kissed me:
“Tell him that he has got to obey me,” said grandfather gruffly, looking up at the sky which was still rosy.
“Do what grandfather tells you,” said mother, making the sign of the Cross over me.
I expected her to say something else, and I was furious with grandfather because he had prevented her.
They seated themselves in the droshky, and mother was a long time angrily trying to free her skirt which had got caught in something.
“Help her, can’t you”? Are you blind?” said grandfather to me.
But I could not help I was too wrapped up in my grief.
Maximov patiently squeezed his long legs, clothed in dark blue trousers, into the droshky, while grandmother put some bundles into his hand. He piled them up on his knees,and keeping them in place with his chin, his white face wrinkled with embarrassment, he drawled: “That ‘s eno ugh!”
In another droshky sat the old green woman with her eldest son, the officer, who was scratching his beard with his sword handle, and yawning.
“So you are going to the war?” said grandfather.
“I am compelled to go.”
“A good thing too! . . . we must beat the Turks.”
They drove off. Mother turned round several times and waved her handkerchief. Grandmother, dissolved in tears, supporting herself by resting her hand against the wall, also waved her hand. Grandfather wiped away the tears from his eyes and muttered brokenly: “No good will come of this.”
I sat on the gate-post and watched the droshky jolting up and down and then they turned the corner and it seemed as if a door in my heart had been suddenly shut and barred. It was very early, the shutters had not been taken from the windows of the houses, the street was empty; I had never seen such an utter absence of life. In the distance the shepherd could be heard playing irritatingly.
“Come in to breakfast,” said grandfather, taking me by the shoulder. “It is evident that your lot is to live with me; so you are beginning to leave your mark on me like the striking of a match leaves on a brick.”
From morning till night we busied ourselves in the garden; he laid out beds, tied up the raspberry bushes, stripped the lichen off the apple trees, and killed the caterpillars, while I went on building and decorating my dwelling. Grandfather cut off the end of the burnt beam, made sticks out of it, and stuck them in the earth, and I hung my bird-cages on them; then I wove a close netting with the dried grass, and made a canopy over the seat to keep off the sun and the dew. The result was very satisfactory.
“It is very useful,” said grandfather, “for you to learn how to make the best of things for yourself.”
I attached great importance to his words. Sometimes he lay down on the seat, which I had covered with turf, and taught me, very slowly, as if he had a difficulty in finding words.
“Now you are cut right off from your mother; other children will come to her, and they will be more to her than you are. And grandmother there she has taken to drink.”
He was silent for a long time as if he were listening to something; then again he unwillingly let fall gloomy words:
“This is the second time she has taken to drink; when Michael went for a soldier she started to drink too. And the old fool persuaded me to buy his discharge. . . . He might have turned out quite differently if he had gone for a soldier . . . . Ugh! . . . You . . .! I shall be dead soon that means that you will be left alone . . . all on your own . . . to earn your living. Do you understand”? . . . Good! . . . You must learn to work for yourself . . . and don’t give way to others! Live quietly, peaceably and uprightly. Listen to what others say, but do what is best for yourself.”
All the summer, except, of course, when the weather was bad, I lived in the garden, and on warm nights I even slept out there on a piece of felt which grandmother had made me a present of; not infrequently she slept in the garden herself, and bringing out a bundle of hay, which she spread out close to my couch, she would lie down on it and tell me stories for a long time, interrupting her speech from time to time by irrelevant remarks:
“Look! . . . A star fell then! That is some pure soul suffering . . . a mother thinking of earth! That means that a good man or woman has just been bom.”
Or she would point out to me:
“There’s a new star appeared; look! It looks like a large eye. . . . Oh, you bright creature of the sky! . . . You holy ornament of God! . . .”
“You will catch cold, you silly woman!” grandfather would growl, “and have an apoplectic fit. Thieves will come and kill you.”
Sometimes, when the sun set, rivers of light streamed across the sky, looking as if they were on fire, and red-gold ashes seemed to fall on the velvety-green garden; then everything became perceptibly a shade darker, and seemed to grow larger to swell, as the warm twilight closed round. Tired of the sun, the leaves drooped, the grass bowed its head; everything seemed to be softer and richer, and gently breathed out various odors as soothing as music. And music there was, too, floating from the camps in the fields, where they were playing spasmodically.
Night came, and with it there came into one’s heart something vigorous and fresh, like the loving caress of a mother; the quietness softly smoothed one’s heart with its warm, rough hands, and all that ought to be forgotten all the bitterness, the fine dust of the day was washed away. It was enchanting to lie with upturned face watching the stars flaming in the infinite profundity of the sky a profundity which, as it stretches higher and higher, opens out a new vista of stars; to raise yourself lightly from the ground and how strange! either the earth has grown smaller before your eyes, or you yourself, grown wonderfully big, are being absorbed into your surroundings. It grows darker and quieter every moment, but there is a succession of minute, hardly perceptible, prolonged sounds, and each sound whether it be a bird singing in its sleep, or a hedgehog running along, or a human voice softly raised somewhere differs from the sounds of daytime, and has something peculiarly its own, amorously underlying its sensitive quietness.
A harmonium is being played somewhere, a woman’s laugh rings out, a sword rattles on the stone flags of the pavement, a dog yelps but all these sounds are nothing more than the falling of the last leaves of the day which has blossomed and died.
Sometimes in the night a drunken cry would suddenly rise from the field or the street, and the sound of some one running noisily; but this was a common occurrence, and passed unheeded.
Grandmother never slept long, and as she lay with her head resting on her folded arms, she would begin, at the slightest hint, to tell me a story, obviously not caring whether I was listening to her or not. She was always able to choose stories which would make the night still more precious and beautiful to me.
Under the influence of her measured flow of words I insensibly sank into slumber, and awoke with the birds; the sun was looking straight into my eyes, and, warmed by his rays, the morning air flowed softly round us, the leaves of the apple tree were shaking off the dew, the moist green grass looked brighter and fresher than ever, with its newly acquired crystal transparency, and a faint mist floated over it. High up in the sky, so high as to be invisible, a lark sang, and all the colors and sounds produced by the dew evoked a peaceful gladness, and aroused a desire to get up at once and do some work, and to live in amity with all living creatures.
This was the quietest and most contemplative period of my whole life, and it was during this summer that the consciousness of my own strength took root and developed in me. I became shy and unsociable, and when I heard the shouts of the Ovsyanikov children I had no desire to go to them; and when my cousins came, I was more than a little annoyed, and the only feeling they aroused in me was the fear lest they should destroy my structure in the garden the first work I had ever done by myself.
Grandfather’s conversation, drier, more querulous, and more doleful every day, had lost all interest for me. He had taken to quarreling with grandmother frequently, and to turn her out of the house, when she would go either to Uncle Jaakov’s or to Uncle Michael’s. Once she stayed away for several days and grandfather did all the cooking himself, burned his hands, roared with pain, swore, and smashed the crockery, and developed a noticeable greediness. Sometimes he would come to my hut, make himself comfortable on the turfy seat, and after watching me in silence for some time, would ask abruptly:
“Why are you so quiet?”
“Because I feel like it. Why?’
Then he would begin his sermon:
“We are not gentlefolk. No one takes the trouble to teach us. We have got to find everything out for ourselves. For other folk they write books, and build schools; but no time is wasted on us. We have to make our own way.”
And he fell into a brooding silence sitting motionless, oblivious, till his presence became almost oppressive.
He sold the house in the autumn, and not long before the sale he exclaimed abruptly one morning, over his tea:
“Well, Mother, I have fed and clothed you fed and clothed you but the time has come for you to earn your own bread.”
Grandmother received this announcement quite calmly, as if she had been expecting it a long time. She reached for her snuff-box in a leisurely manner, charged her spongy nose, and said:
“Well, that’s all right! If it is to be like that, so let it be.”
Grandfather took two dark rooms in the basement of an old house, at the foot of a small hill.
When we went to this lodging, grandmother took an old bast shoe, put it under the stove, and, squatting on her heels, invoked the house-demon:
“House-demon, family-demon, here is your sledge; come to us in our new home, and bring us good luck.”
Grandfather looked in at the window from the yard, crying: “I will make you smart for this, you heretic! You are trying to put me to shame.”
“Oie! Take care that you don’t bring harm to yourself, Father,” said grandmother seriously; but he only raged at her, and forbade her to invoke the house-demon.
The furniture and effects were sold by him to a second-hand dealer who was a Tartar, after three days’ bargaining and abuse of each other; and grandmother looked out of the window, sometimes crying and sometimes laughing, and exclaiming under her breath:
“That ‘s right! Drag them about. Smash them.”
I was ready to weep myself as I mourned for my garden and my little hut.
We journeyed thither in two carts, and the one wherein I was placed, amongst various utensils, jolted alarmingly, as if it were going to throw me out then and there, with a part of the load. And for two years, till close upon the time of my mother’s death, I was dominated with the idea that I had been thrown out somewhere. Soon after the move mother made her appearance, just as grandfather had settled down in his basement, very pale and thin, and with her great eyes strangely brilliant. She stared just as if she were seeing her father and mother and me for the first time, just stared, and said nothing; while my stepfather moved about the room, whistling softly, and clearing his throat, with his hands behind his back and his fingers twitching.
“Lord! how dreadfully you have grown,” said mother to me, pressing her hot hands to my cheeks. She was dressed unattractively in a full brown dress, and she looked very swollen about the stomach.
My stepfather held out his hand to me.
“How do you do, my lad? How are you getting on?” Then sniffing the air, he added: “Do you know it is very damp down here?”
They both looked worn out, as if they had been running for a long time; their clothes were in disorder, and soiled, and all they wanted, they said, was to lie down and rest. As they drank some tea with an air of constraint, grandfather, gazing at the rain-washed windows, asked:
“And so you have lost everything in a fire?”
“Everything!” answered my stepfather in a resolute tone. “We only escaped ourselves by good luck.”
“So! . . . A fire is no joke.”
Leaning against grandmother’s shoulder, my mother whispered something in her ear, and grandmother blinked as if the light were in her eyes. The air of constraint grew more noticeable.
Suddenly grandfather said very clearly, in a cool, malicious tone:
“The rumor which came to my ears, Eugen Vassilev, my good sir, said that there was no fire, but that you simply lost everything at cards.”
There was a dead silence, broken only by the hissing of the samovar and the splashing of the rain against the window-panes; at length mother said in a persuasive tone:
“What do you mean ‘papasha’?” cried grandfather in a deafening voice. “What next? Didn’t I tell you that a person of thirty does not go well with one of twenty years’? . . . There you are . . . and there he is cunning rogue! A nobleman! . . . What? . . . Well, little daughter?’
They all four shouted at the tops of their voices, and my stepfather shouted loudest of all. I went out to the porch and sat on a heap of wood, stupefied by my amazement at finding mother so changed, so different from what she used to be. This fact had not struck me so forcibly when I was in the room with her, as it did now in the twilight with the memory of what she had been clearly before my mind.
Later on, though I have forgotten the circumstances connected with it, I found myself at Sormova, in a house where everything was new; the walls were bare and hemp grew out of the chinks between the beams, and in the hemp were a lot of cockroaches. Mother and my stepfather lived in two rooms with windows looking on to the street, and I lived with grandmother in the kitchen, which had one window looking out on the roof. On the other side of the roof the chimneys of a factory rose up to the sky, belching forth a thick smoke, and the winter wind blew this smoke over the entire village; and our cold rooms were always filled with the odor of something burning. Early in the morning the wolves howled: “Khvou ou ou ou!”
By standing on a stool one could see through the top window-pane, across the roof, the gate of the factory lit up by lanterns, half-open like the black, toothless mouth of an old beggar, and a crowd of little people crawling into it. At noon the black lips of the gate again opened and the factory disgorged its chewed-up people, who flowed along the street in a black stream till a rough, snowy wind came flying along and drove them into their houses. We very seldom saw the sky over the village; from day to day, over the roofs of the houses, and over the snow-drifts sprinkled with soot, hung another roof, gray and flat, which crushed the imagination, and blinded one with its overwhelming drabness.
In the evenings a dim red glow quivered over the factory, lighting up the chimney-pots, and making the chimneys look, not as if they rose from the earth to the sky, but as if they were falling to the earth from that smoky cloud; and as they fell they seemed to be breathing out flames, and howling.
It was unbearably tedious to look at all this, and the monotony of it preyed evilly on my heart. Grandmother did the work of a general servant, cooked, washed the floors, chopped wood, and fetched water from morning till night, and came to bed weary, grumbling, and sighing. Sometimes when she had finished cooking she would put on her short, padded bodice, and with her skirt well lifted, she would repair to the town.
“I will go and have a look at the old man, and see how he is getting on.”
“Take me with you.”
“You would be frozen. Look how it is snowing!” And she would walk seven versts, by the roads, or across the snowy fields.
Mother, yellow, pregnant, and shivering with cold, went about wrapped in a gray, torn shawl with a fringe.
I hated that shawl, which disfigured the large, well-built body; I hated the tails of the fringe, and tore them off; I hated the house, the factory, and the village. Mother went about in downtrodden felt boots, coughing all the time, and her unbecomingly fat stomach heaved, her gray-blue eyes had a bright, hard gleam in them, and she often stood about against the bare walls just as if she were glued to them. Sometimes she would stand for a whole hour looking out of the window on to the street, which was like a jaw in which half the teeth were blackened and crooked from age, and the other half had quite decayed and had been replaced by false ones.
“Why do we live here?” I asked.
“Ach! . . . You hold your tongue, can’t you?” she answered.
She spoke very seldom to me, and when she did speak it was only to order me about:
“Go there! . . Come here! . . Fetch this!”
I was not often allowed out in the street, and on each occasion I returned home bearing signs of having been knocked about by other boys; for fighting was my favorite, indeed, my only enjoyment, and I threw myself into it with ardor. Mother whipped me with a strap, but the punishment only irritated me further, and the next time I fought with childish fury and mother gave me a worse punishment. This went on till one day I warned her that if she did not leave off beating me I should bite her hand, and run away to the fields and get frozen to death. She pushed me away from her in amazement, and walked about the room, panting from exhaustion as she said:
“You are getting like a wild animal!”
That feeling which is called love began to blossom in my heart now, full of life, and tremulous as a rainbow; and my resentment against every one burst out oftener, like a dark blue, smoky flame, and an oppressive feeling of irritation smoldered in my heart a consciousness of being entirely alone in that gray, meaningless existence.
My stepfather was severe with me, and hardly ever speaking to mother, went about whistling or coughing, and after dinner would stand in front of a mirror and assiduously pick his uneven teeth with a splinter of wood. His quarrels with mother became more frequent angrily addressing her as “you” (instead of “thou”), a habit which exasperated me beyond measure. When there was a quarrel on he used to shut the kitchen door closely, evidently not wishing me to hear what he said, but all the same the sound of his deep bass voice could be heard quite plainly. One day he cried, with a stamp of his foot:
“Just because you are fool enough to become pregnant, I can’t ask any one to come and see me you cow!”
I was so astonished, so furiously angry, that I jumped up in the air so high that I knocked my head against the ceiling and bit my tongue till it bled.
On Saturdays workmen came in batches of ten to see my stepfather and sell him their food-tickets, which they ought to have taken to the shop belonging to the works to spend in place of money; but my stepfather used to buy them at half-price. He received the workmen in the kitchen, sitting at the table, looking very important, and as he took the cards he would frown and say:
“A rouble and a half!”
“Now, Eugen Vassilev, for the love of God ”
“A rouble and a half!”
This muddled, gloomy existence only lasted till mother’s confinement, when I was sent back to grandfather. He was then living at Kunavin, where he rented a poky room with a Russian stove, and two windows looking on to the yard, in a two-storied house on a sandy road, which extended to the fence of the Napolno churchyard.
“What’s this?” he cried, squeaking with laughter, as he met me. “They say there ‘s no better friend than your own mother; but now, it seems, it is not the mother but the old devil of a grandfather who is the friend. Ugh you!”
Before I had time to look about my new home grandmother arrived with mother and the baby. My stepfather had been dismissed from the works for pilfering from the workmen, but he had gone after other employment and had been taken on in the booking-office of the railway station almost at once.
After a long, uneventful period, once more I was living with mother in the basement of a storehouse. As soon as she was settled mother sent me to school and from the very first I took a dislike to it.
I went thither in mother’s shoes, with a coat made out of a bodice belonging to grandmother, a yellow shirt, and trousers which had been lengthened. My attire immediately became an object of ridicule, and for the yellow shirt I received “The ace of diamonds.”
I soon became friendly with the boys, but the master and the priest did not like me.
The master was a jaundiced-looking, bold man who suffered from a continuous bleeding of the nose; he used to appear in the schoolroom with his nostrils stopped up with cotton-wool, and as he sat at his table, asking us questions in snuffling tones, he would suddenly stop in the middle of a word, take the wool out of his nostrils and look at it, shaking his head. He had a flat, copper-colored face, with a sour expression, and there was a greenish tint in his wrinkles; but it was his literally pewter-colored eyes which were the most hideous feature of it, and they were so unpleasantly glued to my face that I used to feel that I must brush them off my cheek with my hands.
For several days I was in the first division, and at the top of the class, quite close to the master’s table, and my position was almost unbearable. He seemed to see no one but me, and he was snuffling all the time:
“Pyesh kov, you must put on a clean shirt. Pyesh kov, don’t make a noise with your feet. Pyesh kov, your bootlaces are undone again.”
But I paid him out for his savage insolence. One day I took the half of a frozen watermelon, cut out the inside, and fastened it by a string over a pulley on the outer door. When the door opened the melon went up, but when my teacher shut the door the hollow melon descended upon his bald head like a cap. The janitor was sent with me with a note to the head-master’s house, and I paid for my prank with my own skin.
Another time I sprinkled snuff over his table, and he sneezed so much that he had to leave the class and send his brother-in-law to take his place. This was an officer who set the class singing: “God save the Czar!” and “Oh, Liberty! my Liberty!” Those who did not sing in tune he rapped over the head with a ruler, which made a funny, hollow noise, but it hurt.
The Divinity teacher, the handsome, young, luxuriant-haired priest, did not like me because I had no Bible, and also because I mocked his way of speaking. The first thing he did when he entered the classroom was to ask me:
“Pyeshkov, have you brought that book or not? Yes. The book!”
“No,” I answered, “I have not brought it. Yes.”
“What do you mean yes?”
“Well, you can just go home. Yes home, for I don’t intend to teach you. Yes! I don’t intend to do it.”
This did not trouble me much. I went out and kicked my heels in the dirty village street till the end of the lesson, watching the noisy life about me.
This priest had a beautiful face, like a Christ, with caressing eyes like a woman’s, and little hands gentle, like everything about him. Whatever he handled a book, a ruler, a penholder, whatever it might be he handled carefully, as if it were alive and very fragile, and as if he loved it and were afraid of spoiling it by touching it. He was not quite so gentle with the children, but all the same they loved him.
Notwithstanding the fact that I learned tolerably well, I was soon told that I should be expelled from the school for unbecoming conduct. I became depressed, for I saw a very unpleasant time coming, as mother was growing more irritable every day, and beat me more than ever.
But help was at hand. Bishop Khrisanph l paid an unexpected visit to the school. He was a little man, like a wizard, and, if I remember rightly, was humpbacked.
Sitting at the table, looking so small in his wide black clothes, and with a funny hat like a little pail on his head, he shook his hands free from his sleeves and said:
“Now, children, let us have a talk together.”
And at once the classroom became warm and bright, and pervaded by an atmosphere of unfamiliar pleasantness.
J The author of the famous work, in three volumes, entitled “Religions of the Ancient World,” and the article on “Egyptian Metempsychosis,” as well as several articles of public interest such as “Concerning Marriage, and Women.” That last article made a deep impression on me when I read it in my youth. It seems to me that I have not remembered its title correctly, but it was published in some theological journal in the seventies.
Calling me to the table, after many others had had their turns, he asked me gravely:
“And how old are you? Is that all? Why, what a tall boy you are! I suppose you have been standing out in the rain pretty often, have you? Eh?”
Placing one dried-up hand with long, sharp nails on the table, and catching hold of his sparse beard with the fingers of the other, he placed his face, with its kind eyes, quite close to mine, as he said:
“Well, now tell me which you like best of the Bible stones.”
When I told him that I had no Bible and did not learn Scripture history, he pulled his cowl straight, saying:
“How is that? You know it is absolutely necessary for you to learn it. But perhaps you have learned some by listening? You know the Psalms? Good! And the prayers? . . . There, you see! And the lives of the Saints too? . . . In rhyme? . . . Then I think you are very well up in the subject.”
At this moment our priest appeared flushed and out of breath. The Bishop blessed him, but when he began to speak about me, he raised his hand, saying:
“Excuse me . . . just a minute. . . . Now, tell me the story of Alexei, the man of God.
“Fine verses those eh, my boy?” he said, when I came to a full stop, having forgotten the next verse.
“Let us have something else now something about King David. . . . Go on, I am listening very attentively.”
I saw that he was really listening, and that the verses pleased him. He examined me for a long time, then he suddenly stood up and asked quickly:
“You have learned the Psalms? Who taught you? A good grandfather, is he? Eh? Bad? You don’t say so! . . . But aren’t you very naughty?”
I hesitated, but at length I said:
The teacher and the priest corroborated my confession garrulously, and he listened to them with his eyes cast down; then he said with a sigh:
“You hear what they say about you? Come here!”
Placing his hand, which smelt of cypress wood, on my head, he asked:
“Why are you so naughty?”
“It is so dull learning.”
“Dull? Now, my boy, that is not true. If you found it dull you would be a bad scholar, whereas your teachers testify that you are a very apt pupil. That means that you have another reason for being naughty.”
Taking a little book from his breast, he said as he wrote in it:
“Pyeshkov, Alexei. There! . . . All the same, my boy, you must keep yourself in hand, and try not to be too naughty. . . . We will allow you to be just a little naughty; but people have plenty to plague them without that. Isn’t it so, children?”
Many voices answered gaily:
“But I can see that you are not very naughty yourselves. Am I right?”
And the boys laughingly answered all together:
“No. We are very naughty too very!”
The Bishop leaned over the back of a chair, drew me to him, and said surprisingly, causing us all even the teacher and the priest to laugh:
“It is a fact, my brothers that when I was your age I was very naughty too. What do you think of that?”
The children laughed, and he began to ask them questions, adroitly contriving to muddle them, so that they began to answer each other; and the merriment redoubled. At length he stood up, saying:
“Well, it is very nice to be with you, but it is time for me to go now.”
Raising his hand and throwing back his sleeve, he made the sign of the Cross over us all with one wide gesture, and blessed us:
“In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, I bless you and your labors. Good-by!”
They all cried:
“Good-by, my lord. Come again soon.”
Shaking his cowl, he said:
“I shall come again. I shall come again, and bring you some little books.”
And he said to the teacher as he sailed out of the classroom:
“Let them go home now.”
He led me by the hand to the porch, where he said quietly, bending down to me:
“So you will hold yourself in, won’t you? . . . Is that settled? . . . I understand why you are naughty, you know . . . . Good-by, my boy!”
I was very excited; my heart was seething with strange feelings, and when the teacher, having dismissed the rest of the class, kept me in to tell me that now I ought to be quieter than water and humbler than grass, I listened to him attentively and willingly.
The priest, putting on his fur-coat, chimed in gently:
“And from today you will have to assist at my lessons. Yes, you’ll have to. And sit still too. Yes sit still.”
But while matters were improving at school, an unpleasant incident occurred at home. I stole a rouble from mother. The crime had been committed without forethought. One evening mother went out and left me to keep house and mind the baby; feeling bored, I began to turn over the leaves of a book belonging to my stepfather “The Memoirs of a Doctor,” by Dumas Pere and between the pages I came across two notes, one for ten roubles and the other for one rouble. I could not understand the book, so I shut it up; then it suddenly dawned upon me that if I had a rouble I could buy not only the Bible, but also the book about Robinson. That such a book existed I had learned at school not long before this. One frosty day in recreation time, I was telling the boys a fairy-story, when one of them observed in a tone of contempt:
“Fairy-tales are bosh! ‘Robinson’ is what I like. It is a true story.”
Finding several other boys who had read “Robinson” and were full of its praises, I felt offended at their not liking grandmother’s stories, and made up my mind to read “Robinson” for myself, so that I should be able to tell them it was “bosh!”
The next day I brought the Bible and two torn volumes of Andersen’s fairy-tales to school, together with three pounds of white bread and a pound of sausages. In the little dark shop by the wall of Vladinursk Church there had also been a “Robinson” a thin little book with a yellow cover, and a picture of a bearded man in a fur nightcap, with the skin of a wild beast over his shoulders, on the front page; but I did not like the look of it. Even the exterior of the fairy-tales was pleasing, in spite of their being torn.
In the long playtime I distributed the bread and sausages amongst the boys, and we began to read that wonderful story “The Nightingale,” which took all our hearts by storm.
“In China all the people are Chinese, and even the Emperor is a Chinaman” I remember how pleasantly this phrase struck me with its simple, joyful, smiling music. There were many other points about the story too which were wonderfully good.
But I was not to be allowed to read “The Nightingale” in school. There was not time enough, for when I returned home mother, who was standing before the fire holding a frying-pan in which she had been cooking some eggs, asked me in a strange, subdued voice:
“Did you take that rouble?’
“Yes, I took it out of that book there.”
She gave me a sound beating with the frying-pan, and took away Andersen’s book and hid it somewhere so that I could never find it again, which was a far worse punishment to me than the beating.
I did not go to school for several days, and during that time my stepfather must have told one of his friends about my exploit, who told his children, who carried the story to school, and when I went back I was met with the new cry “Thief!”
It was a brief and clear description, but it did not happen to be a true one, seeing that I had not attempted to conceal the fact that it was I who had taken the rouble. I tried to explain this, but they did not believe me; and when I went home I told mother that I was not going to school any more.
Sitting by the window, again pregnant, with a gray face and distraught, weary eyes, she was feeding my brother Sascha, and she stared at me with her mouth open, like a fish.
“You are wrong,” she said quietly. “No one could possibly know that you took the rouble.”
“Come yourself and ask them.”
“You must have chattered about it yourself. Confess now you told it yourself? Take care, for I shall find out for myself tomorrow who spread that story in school.”
I gave her the name of the pupil. Her face wrinkled pitifully and her tears began to fall.
I went away to the kitchen and lay down on my bed, which consisted of a box behind the stove. I lay there and listened to my mother wailing:
“My God! My God!”
Not being able to bear the disgusting smell of greasy cloths being dried any longer, I rose and went out to the yard; but mother called after me:
“Where are you going to? Where are you going? Come here to me!”
Then we sat on the floor; and Sascha lay on mother’s knees, and taking hold of the buttons of her dress bobbed his head and said “boovooga,” which was his way of saying “poogorka” (button).
I sat pressed to mother’s side, and she said, kissing me:
“We . . . are poor, and every kopeck . . . every kopeck . . .”
But she never finished what she began to say, pressing me with her hot arm.
“What trash trash!” she exclaimed suddenly, using a word I had heard her use before.
He was a queer little boy; clumsily formed, with a large head, he looked around on everything with his beautiful dark blue eyes, smiling quietly, exactly as if he were expecting some one. He began to talk unusually early, and lived in a perpetual state of quiet happiness. He was a weakly child, and could hardly crawl about; and he was always very pleased to see me, and used to ask to be taken up in my arms, and loved to crush my ears in his soft little fingers, which always, somehow, smelled of violets. He died unexpectedly, without having been ill at all; in the morning he was quietly happy as usual, and in the evening, when the bells were ringing for vespers, he was laid out upon the table. This happened soon after the birth of the second child, Nikolai. Mother had done as she had promised, and matters were put right for me at school, but I was soon involved in another scrape.
One day, at the time of evening tea, I was coming into the kitchen from the yard when I heard a distressful cry from mother:
“Eugen, I beg you, I beg!”
“Non sense!” said my stepfather.
“But you are going to her I know it!”
For some seconds they were both silent; then mother said, coughing:
“What vile trash you are!”
I heard him strike her, and rushing into the room I saw that mother, who had fallen on to her knees, was resting her back and elbows against a chair, with her chest forward and her head thrown back, with a rattling in her throat, and terribly glittering eyes; while he, dressed in his best, with a new overcoat, was striking her in the chest with his long foot. I seized a knife from the table a knife with a bone handle set in silver, which they used to cut bread with, the only thing belonging to my father which remained to mother I seized it and struck with all my force at my step-father’s side.
By good luck mother was in time to push Maximov away, and the knife going sideways tore a wide hole in his overcoat, and only grazed his skin. My step-father, gasping, rushed from the room holding his side, and mother seized me and lifted me up; then with a groan threw me on the floor. My stepfather took me away from her when he returned from the yard.
Late that evening, when, in spite of everything, he had gone out, mother came to me behind the stove, gently took me in her arms, kissed me, and said, weeping:
“Forgive me; it was my fault! Oh, my dear! How could you? . . . And with a knife . . .?”
I remember with perfect clearness how I said to her that I would kill my stepfather and myself too. And I think I should have done it; at any rate I should have made the attempt. Even now I can see that contemptible long leg, in braided trousers, flung out into the air, and kicking a woman’s breast. Many years later that unfortunate Maximov died before my eyes in a hospital. I had then become strangely attached to him, and I wept to see the light in his beautiful, roving eyes grow dim, and finally go out altogether; but even in that sad moment, although my heart was full of a great grief, I could not forget that he had kicked my mother.
As I remember these oppressive horrors of our wild Russian life, I ask myself often whether it is worth while to speak of them. And then, with restored confidence, I answer myself “It is worth while because it is actual, vile fact, which has not died out, even in these days a fact which must be traced to its origin, and pulled up by the root from the memories, the souls of the people, and from our narrow, sordid lives.”
And there is another and more important reason impelling me to describe these horrors. Although they are so disgusting, although they oppress us and crush many beautiful souls to death, yet the Russian is still so healthy and young in heart that he can and does rise above them. For in this amazing life of ours not only does the animal side of our nature flourish and grow fat, but with this animalism there has grown up, triumphant in spite of it, bright, healthful and creative a type of humanity which inspires us to look forward to our regeneration, to the time when we shall all live peacefully and humanely.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55