My Childhood, by Maksim Gorky

Chapter II

THEN began and flowed on with astonishing rapidity an intense, varied, inexpressibly strange life. It reminded me of a crude story, well told by a good-natured but irritatingly truthful genius. Now, in recalling the past, I myself find it difficult to believe, at this distance of time, that things really were as they were, and I have longed to dispute or reject the facts the cruelty of the drab existence of an unwelcome relation is too painful to contemplate. But truth is stronger than pity, and besides, I am writing not about myself but about that narrow, stifling environment of unpleasant impressions in which lived aye, and to this day lives the average Russian of this class.

My grandfather’s house simply seethed with mutual hostility; all the grown people were infected and even the children were inoculated with it. I had learned, from overhearing grandmother’s conversation, that my mother arrived upon the very day when her brothers demanded the distribution of the property from their father. Her unexpected return made their desire for this all the keener and stronger, because they were afraid that my mother would claim the dowry intended for her, but withheld by my grandfather because she had married secretly and against his wish. My uncles considered that this dowry ought to be divided amongst them all. Added to this, they had been quarreling violently for a long time among themselves as to who should open a workshop in the town, or on the Oka in the village of Kunavin.

One day, very shortly after our arrival, a quarrel broke out suddenly at dinner-time. My uncles started to their feet and, leaning across the table, began to shout and yell at grandfather, snarling and shaking themselves like dogs; and grandfather, turning very red, rapped on the table with a spoon and cried in a piercing tone of voice, like the crowing of a cock: “I will turn you out of doors!”

With her face painfully distorted, grandmother said: “Give them what they ask, Father; then you will have some peace.”

“Be quiet, simpleton!” shouted my grandfather with flashing eyes; and it was wonderful, seeing how small he was, that he could yell with such deafening effect.

My mother rose from the table, and going calmly to the window, turned her back upon us all.

Suddenly Uncle Michael struck his brother on the face with the back of his hand. The latter, with a howl of rage, grappled with him; both rolled on the floor growling, gasping for breath and abusing each other. The children began to cry, and my Aunt Natalia, who was with child, screamed wildly; my mother seized her round the body and dragged her somewhere out of the way; the lively little nursemaid, Eugenia, drove the children out of the kitchen; chairs were knocked down; the young, broad-shouldered foreman, Tsiganok, sat on Uncle Michael’s back, while the head of the works, Gregory Ivanovitch, a bald-headed, bearded man with colored spectacles, calmly bound up my uncle’s hands with towels.

Turning his head and letting his thin, straggly, black beard trail on the floor, Uncle Michael cursed horribly, and grandfather, running round the table, exclaimed bitterly: “And these are brothers! . . . Blood relations! . . . Shame on you!”

At the beginning of the quarrel I had jumped on to the stove in terror; and thence, with painful amazement, I had watched grandmother as she washed Uncle Jaakov’s battered face in a small basin of water, while he cried and stamped his feet, and she said in a sad voice: “Wicked creatures! You are nothing better than a family of wild beasts. When will you come to your senses’?”

Grandfather, dragging his torn shirt over his shoulder, called out to her: “So you have brought wild animals into the world, eh, old woman?”

When Uncle Jaakov went out, grandmother retired to a corner and, quivering with grief, prayed: “Holy Mother of God, bring my children to their senses.”

Grandfather stood beside her, and, glancing at the table, on which everything was upset or spilled, said softly:

“When you think of them, Mother, and then of the little one they pester Varia about . . . who has the best nature?”

“Hold your tongue, for goodness sake! Take off that shirt and I will mend it . . . .” And laying the palms of her hands on his head, grandmother kissed his forehead; and he so small compared to her pressing his face against her shoulder, said:

“We shall have to give them their shares, Mother, that is plain.”

“Yes, Father, it will have to be done.”

Then they talked for a long time; amicably at first, but it was not long before grandfather began to scrape his feet on the floor like a cock before a fight, and holding up a threatening finger to grandmother, said in a fierce whisper:

“I know you! You love them more than me. . . . And what is your Mischka? a Jesuit! And Jaaschka a Freemason! And they live on me. . . . Hangers-on! That is all they are.”

Uneasily turning on the stove, I knocked down an iron, which fell with a crash like a thunder-clap.

Grandfather jumped up on the step, dragged me down, and stared at me as if he now saw me for the first time.

“Who put you on the stove? Your mother?”

“I got up there by myself.”

“You are lying!”

“No I ‘m not. I did get up there by myself. I was frightened.”

He pushed me away from him, lightly striking me on the head with the palm of his hand.

“Just like your father! Get out of my sight!”

And I was only too glad to run out of the kitchen.

I was very well aware that grandfather’s shrewd, sharp green eyes followed me everywhere, and I was afraid of him. I remember how I always wished to hide myself from that fierce glance. It seemed to me that grandfather was malevolent; he spoke to every one mockingly and offensively, and, being provocative, did his best to put every one else out of temper.

“Ugh! Tou!” he exclaimed frequently.

The long-drawn-out sound “U-gh!” always reminds me of a sensation of misery and chill. In the recreation hour, the time for evening tea, when he, my uncles and the workmen came into the kitchen from the workshop weary, with their hands stained with santaline and burnt by sulphuric acid, their hair bound with linen bands, all looking like the dark-featured icon in the corner of the kitchen in that hour of dread my grandfather used to sit opposite to me, arousing the envy of the other grandchildren by speaking to me oftener than to them. Everything about him was trenchant and to the point. His heavy satin waistcoat embroidered with silk was old; his much-scrubbed shirt of colored cotton was crumpled; great patches flaunted themselves on the knees of his trousers; and yet he seemed to be dressed with more cleanliness and more refinement than his sons, who wore false shirtfronts and silk neckties.

Some days after our arrival he set me to learn the prayers. All the other children were older than myself, and were already being taught to read and write by the clerk of Uspenski Church. Timid Aunt Natalia used to teach me softly. She was a woman with a childlike countenance, and such transparent eyes that it seemed to me that, looking into them, one might see what was inside her head. I loved to look into those eyes of hers without shifting my gaze and without blinking; they used to twinkle as she turned her head away and said very softly, almost in a whisper: “That will do. . . . Now please say ‘Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name . . . .’ ” And if I asked, “What does ‘hallowed be Thy name’ mean?” she would glance round timidly and admonish me thus: “Don’t ask questions. It is wrong. Just say after me ‘Our Father . . .’ ’

Her words troubled me. Why was it wrong to ask questions’? The words “hallowed be Thy name” acquired a mysterious significance in my mind, and I purposely mixed them up in every possible way.

But my aunt, pale and almost exhausted, patiently cleared her throat, which was always husky, and said, “No, that is not right. Just say fallowed be Thy name.’ It is plain enough.”

But my aunt, pale and almost exhausted, patiently irritated me, and hindered me from remembering the prayer.

One day my grandfather inquired:

“Well, Oleysha, what have you been doing today?,. Playing? The bruises on your forehead told me as much. Bruises are got cheaply. And how about ‘Our Father? Have you learnt it?”

“He has a very bad memory,” said my aunt softly.

Grandfather smiled as if he were glad, lifting his sandy eyebrows. “And what of it? He must be whipped; that ‘s all.”

And again he turned to me.

“Did your father ever whip you?”

As I did not know what he was talking about, I was silent, but my mother replied:

“No, Maxim never beat him, and what is more, forbade me to do so.”

“And why, may I ask?”

“He said that beating is not education.”

“He was a fool about everything that Maxim. May God forgive me for speaking so of the dead!” exclaimed grandfather distinctly and angrily. He saw at once that these words enraged me. “What is that sullen face for?’ he asked. “Ugh! . . . Ton! . . .” And smoothing down his reddish, silver-streaked hair, he added:’ “And this very Saturday I am going to give Sascha a hiding.”

“What is a hiding?” I asked.

They all laughed, and grandfather said: “Wait a bit, and you shall see.”

In secret I pondered over the word “hiding.” Apparently it had the same meaning as to whip and beat. I had seen people beat horses, dogs and cats, and in Astrakhan the soldiers used to beat the Persians; but I had never before seen any one beat little children. Yet here my uncles hit their own children over the head and shoulders, and they bore it without resentment, merely rubbing the injured part; and if I asked them whether they were hurt, they always answered bravely:

“No, not a bit.”

Then there was the famous story of the thimble.

In the evenings, from tea-time to supper-time, my uncles and the head workman used to sew portions of dyed material into one piece, to which they affixed tickets. Wishing to play a trick on half-blind Gregory, Uncle Michael had told his nine-year-old nephew to make his thimble red-hot in the candle-flame. Sascha heated the thimble in the snuffers, made it absolutely red-hot, and contriving, without attracting attention, to place it close to Gregory’s hand, hid himself by the stove; but as luck would have it, grandfather himself came in at that very moment and, sitting down to work, slipped his finger into the red-hot thimble.

Hearing the tumult, I ran into the kitchen, and I shall never forget how funny grandfather looked nursing his burnt finger as he jumped about and shrieked:

“Where is the villain who played this trick?”

Uncle Michael, doubled up under the table, snatched up the thimble and blew upon it; Gregory unconcernedly went on sewing, while the shadows played on his enormous bald patch. Then Uncle Jaakov rushed in, and, hiding himself in the corner by the stove, stood there quietly laughing; grandmother busied herself with grating up raw potatoes.

“Sascha Jaakov did it!” suddenly exclaimed Uncle Michael.

“Liar!” cried Jaakov, darting out from behind the stove.

But his son, from one of the corners, wept and wailed:

“Papa! don’t believe him. He showed me how to do it himself.”

My uncles began to abuse each other, but grandfather all at once grew calm, put a poultice of grated potatoes on his finger, and silently went out, taking me with him.

They all said that Uncle Michael was to blame. I asked naturally if he would be whipped, or get a hiding.

“He ought to,” answered grandfather, with a side-long glance at me.

Uncle Michael, striking his hand upon the table, bawled at my mother: “Varvara, make your pup hold his jaw before I knock his head off.”

“Go on, then; try to lay your hands on him!” replied my mother. And no one said another word.

She had a gift of pushing people out of her way, brushing them aside as it were, and making them feel very small by a few brief words like these. It was perfectly clear to me that they were all afraid of her; even grandfather spoke to her more quietly than he spoke to the others. It gave me great satisfaction to observe this, and in my pride I used to say openly to my cousins: “My mother is a match for all of them.” And they did not deny it.

But the events which happened on Saturday diminished my respect for my mother.

By Saturday I also had had time to get into trouble. I was fascinated by the ease with which the grown-up people changed the color of different materials; they took something yellow, steeped it in black dye, and it came out dark blue. They laid a piece of gray stuff in reddish water and it was dyed mauve. It was quite simple, yet to me it was inexplicable. I longed to dye something myself, and I confided my desire to Sascha Yaakovitch, a thoughtful boy, always in favor with his elders, always good-natured, obliging, and ready to wait upon every one.

The adults praised him highly for his obedience and his cleverness, but grandfather looked on him with no favorable eye, and used to say:

“An artful beggar that!”

Thin and dark, with prominent, watchful eyes, Sascha Yaakov used to speak in a low, rapid voice, as if his words were choking him, and all the while he talked he glanced fearfully from side to side as if he were ready to run away and hide himself on the slightest pretext. The pupils of his hazel eyes were stationary except when he was excited, and then they became merged into the whites. I did not like him. I much preferred the despised idler, Sascha Michailovitch. He was a quiet boy, with sad eyes and a pleasing smile, very like his kind mother. He had ugly, protruding teeth, with a double row in the upper jaw; and being very greatly concerned about this defect, he constantly had his fingers in his mouth, trying to loosen his back ones, very amiably allowing any one who chose to inspect them. But that was the only interesting thing about him. He lived a solitary life in a house swarming with people, loving to sit in the dim corners in the daytime, and at the window in the evening; quite happy if he could remain without speaking, with his face pressed against the pane for hours together, gazing at the flock of jackdaws which, now rising high above it, now sinking swiftly earthwards, in the red evening sky, circled round the dome of Uspenski Church, and finally, obscured by an opaque black cloud, disappeared somewhere, leaving a void behind them. When he had seen this he had no desire to speak of it, but a pleasant languor took possession of him.

Uncle Jaakov’s Sascha, on the contrary, could talk about everything fluently and with authority, like a grown-up person. Hearing of my desire to learn the process of dyeing, he advised me to take one of the best white tablecloths from the cupboard and dye it blue.

“White always takes the color better, I know,” he said very seriously.

I dragged out a heavy tablecloth and ran with it to the yard, but I had no more than lowered the hem of it into the vat of dark-blue dye when Tsiganok flew at me from somewhere, rescued the cloth, and wringing it out with his rough hands, cried to my cousin, who had been looking on at my work from a safe place:

“Call your grandmother quickly.”

And shaking his black, dishevelled head ominously, he said to me:

“You’ll catch it for this.”

Grandmother came running on to the scene, wailing, and even weeping, at the sight, and scolded me in her ludicrous fashion:

“Oh, you young pickle! I hope you will be spanked for this.”

Afterwards, however, she said to Tsiganok: “You needn’t say anything about this to grandfather, Vanka. I’ll manage to keep it from him. Let us hope that something will happen to take up his attention.”

Vanka replied in a preoccupied manner, drying his hands on his multi-colored apron:

“Me? I shan’t tell: but you had better see that that Sascha doesn’t go and tell tales.”

“I will give him something to keep him quiet,” said grandmother, leading me into the house.

On Saturday, before vespers, I was called into the kitchen, where it was all dark and still. I remember the closely shut doors of the shed and of the room, and the gray mist of an autumn evening, and the heavy patter of rain. Sitting in front of the stove on a narrow bench, looking cross and quite unlike himself, was Tsiganok; grandfather, standing in the chimney corner, was taking long rods out of a pail of water, measuring them, putting them together, and flourishing them in the air with a shrill whistling sound. Grandmother, somewhere in the shadows, was taking snuff noisily and muttering:

“Now you are in your element, tyrant!”

Sascha Jaakov was sitting in a chair in the middle of the kitchen, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles, and whining like an old beggar in a voice quite unlike his usual voice:

“Forgive me, for Christ’s sake. . . .!”

Standing by the chair, shoulder to shoulder, like wooden figures, stood the children of Uncle Michael, brother and sister.

“When I have flogged you I will forgive you,” said grandfather, drawing a long, damp rod across his knuckles.

“Now then . . . take down your breeches!”

He spoke very calmly, and neither the sound of his voice nor the noise made by the boy as he moved on the squeaky chair, nor the scraping of grandmother’s feet, broke the memorable stillness of that almost dark kitchen, under the low, blackened ceiling.

Sascha stood up, undid his trousers, letting them down as far as his knees, then bending and holding them up with his hands, he stumbled to the bench. It was painful to look at him, and my legs also began to tremble.

But worse was to come, when he submissively lay down on the bench face downwards, and Vanka, tying him to it by means of a wide towel placed under his arms and round his neck, bent under him and with black hands seized his legs by the ankles.

“Lexei!” called grandfather. “Come nearer! Come! Don’t you hear me speaking to you? Look and see what a flogging is. . . . One!”

With a mild flourish he brought the rod down on the naked flesh, and Sascha set up a howl.

“Rubbish!” said grandfather. “That’s nothing! . . . But here ‘s something to make you smart.”

And he dealt such blows that the flesh was soon in a state of inflammation and covered with great red weals, and my cousin gave a prolonged howl.

“Isn’t it nice?” asked grandfather, as his hand rose and fell. “You don’t like it? . . . That’s for the thimble!”

When he raised his hand with a flourish my heart seemed to rise too, and when he let his hand fall something within me seemed to sink.

“I won’t do it again,” squealed Sascha, in a dreadfully thin, weak voice, unpleasant to hear. “Didn’t I tell didn’t I tell about the tablecloth?”

Grandfather answered calmly, as if he were reading the “Psalter”:

“Tale-bearing is no justification. The informer gets whipped first, so take that for the tablecloth.”

Grandmother threw herself upon me and seized my hand, crying: “I won’t allow Lexei to be touched! I won’t allow it, you monster!” And she began to kick the door, calling: “Varia! Varvara!”

Grandfather darted across to her, threw her down, seized me and carried me to the bench. I struck at him with my fists, pulled his sandy beard, and bit his fingers. He bellowed and held me as in a vice. In the end, throwing me down on the bench, he struck me on the face.

I shall never forget his savage cry: “Tie him up! I ‘m going to kill him!” nor my mother’s white face and great eyes as she ran along up and down beside the bench, shrieking:

“Father! You mustn’t! Let me have him!”

Grandfather flogged me till I lost consciousness, and I was unwell for some days, tossing about, face downwards, on a wide, stuffy bed, in a little room with one window and a lamp which was always kept burning before the case of icons in the corner. Those dark days had been the greatest in my life. In the course of them I had developed wonderfully, and I was conscious of a peculiar difference in myself. I began to experience a new solicitude for others, and I became so keenly alive to their sufferings and my own that it was almost as if my heart had been lacerated, and thus rendered sensitive.

For this reason the quarrel between my mother and grandmother came as a great shock to me when grandmother, looking so dark and big in the narrow room, flew into a rage, and pushing my mother into the corner where the icons were, hissed:

“Why didn’t you take him away?”

“I was afraid.”

“A strong, healthy creature like you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Varvara! I am an old woman and I am not afraid. For shame!”

“Do leave off, Mother; I am sick of the whole business.”

“No, you don’t love him! You have no pity for the poor orphan!”

“I have been an orphan all my life,” said my mother, speaking loudly and sadly.

After that they both cried for a long time, seated on a box in a corner, and then my mother said:

“If it were not for Alexei, I would leave this place and go right away. I can’t go on living in this hell, Mother, I can’t! I haven’t the strength.”

“Oh! My own flesh and blood!” whispered grandmother.

I kept all this in my mind. Mother was weak, and, like the others, she was afraid of grandfather, and I was preventing her from leaving the house in which she found it impossible to live. It was very unfortunate. Before long my mother really did disappear from the house, going somewhere on a visit.

Very soon after this, as suddenly as if he had fallen from the ceiling, grandfather appeared, and sitting on the bed, laid his ice-cold hands on my head.

“How do you do, young gentleman? Come! answer me. Don’t sulk! Well”? What have you to say?”

I had a great mind to kick away his legs, but it hurt me to move. His head, sandier than ever, shook from side to side uneasily; his bright eyes seemed to be looking for something on the wall as he pulled out of his pocket a gingerbread goat, a horn made of sugar, an apple and a cluster of purple raisins, which he placed on the pillow under my very nose.

“There you are! There ‘s a present for you.”

And he stooped and kissed me on the forehead.

Then, stroking my head with those small, cruel hands, yellow-stained about the crooked, claw-like nails, he began to speak.

“I left my mark on you then, my friend. You were very angry. You bit me and scratched me, and then I lost my temper too. However, it will do you no harm to have been punished more severely than you deserved. It will go towards next time. You must learn not to mind when people of your own family beat you. It is part of your training. It would be different if it came from an outsider, but from one of us it does not count. You must not allow outsiders to lay hands on you, but it is nothing coming from one of your own family. I suppose you think I was never flogged? Oleysha! I was flogged harder than you could ever imagine even in a bad dream. I was flogged so cruelly that God Himself might have shed tears to see it. And what was the result? I an orphan, the son of a poor mother have risen in my present position the head of a guild, and a master workman.”

Bending his withered, well-knit body towards me, he began to tell me in vigorous and powerful language, with a felicitous choice of words, about the days of his childhood. His green eyes were very bright, and his golden hair stood rakishly on end as, deflecting his high-pitched voice, he breathed in my face.

“You traveled here by steamboat . . . steam will take you anywhere now; but when I was young I had to tow a barge up the Volga all by myself. The barge was in the water and I ran barefoot on the bank, which was strewn with sharp stones . . . . Thus I went from early in the morning to sunset, with the sun beating fiercely on the back of my neck, and my head throbbing as if it were full of molten iron. And sometimes I was overcome by three kinds of ill-luck . . . my poor little bones ached, but I had to keep on, and I could not see the way; and then my eyes brimmed over, and I sobbed my heart out as the tears rolled down. Ah! Oleysha! it won’t bear talking about.

“I went on and on till the towing-rope slipped from me and I fell down on my face, and I was not sorry for it either! I rose up all the stronger. If I had not rested a minute I should have died.

“That is the way we used to live then in the sight of God and of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ. This is the way I took the measure of Mother Volga three times, from Simbirsk to Ribinsk, from there to Saratov, as far as Astrakhan and Markarev, to the Fair more than three thousand versts. And by the fourth year I had become a free waterman. I had shown my master what I was made of.”

As he spoke he seemed to increase in size like a cloud before my very eyes, being transformed from a small, wizened old man to an individual of fabulous strength. Had he not pulled a great gray barge up the river all by himself? Now and again he jumped up from the bed and showed me how the barges traveled with the towing-rope round them, and how they pumped water, singing fragments of a song in a bass voice; then, youthfully springing back on the bed, to my ever-increasing astonishment, he would continue hoarsely and impressively.

“Well, sometimes, Oleysha, on a summer’s evening when we arrived at Jigulak, or some such place at the foot of the green hills, we used to sit about lazily cooking our supper while the boatmen of the hill-country used to sing sentimental songs, and as soon as they began the whole crew would strike up, sending a thrill through one, and making the Volga seem as if it were running very fast like a horse, and rising up as high as the clouds; and all kinds of trouble seemed as nothing more than dust blown about by the wind. They sang till the porridge boiled over, for which the cook had to be flicked with a cloth. ‘Play as much as you please, but don’t forget your work,’ we said.”

Several times people put their heads in at the door to call him, but each time I begged him not to go.

And he laughingly waved them away, saying, “Wait a bit.”

He stayed with me and told me stories until it was almost dark, and when, after an affectionate farewell, he left me, I had learned that he was neither malevolent nor formidable. It brought the tears into my eyes to remember that it was he who had so cruelly beaten me, but I could not forget it.

This visit of my grandfather opened the door to others, and from morning till night there was always somebody sitting on my bed, trying to amuse me; I remember that this was not always either cheering or pleasant.

Oftener than any of them came my grandmother, who slept in the same bed with me. But it was Tsiganok who left the clearest impression on me in those days. He used to appear in the evenings square-built, broad-chested, curly headed, dressed in his best clothes a gold-embroidered shirt, plush breeches, boots squeaking like a harmonium. His hair was glossy, his squinting, merry eyes gleamed under his thick eyebrows, and his white teeth under the shadow of his young mustache; his shirt glowed softly as if reflecting the red light of the image-lamp.

“Look here!” he said, turning up his sleeve and displaying his bare arm to the elbow. It was covered with red scars. “Look how swollen it is; and it was worse yesterday it was very painful. When your grandfather flew into a rage and I saw that he was going to flog you, I put my arm in the way, thinking that the rod would break, and then while he was looking for another your grandmother or your mother could take you away and hide you. I am an old bird at the game, my child.”

He laughed gently and kindly, and glancing again at the swollen arm, went on:

“I was so sorry for you that I thought I should choke. It seemed such a shame! . . . But he lashed away at you!”

Snorting and tossing his head like a horse, he went on speaking about the affair. This childish simplicity seemed to draw him closer to me. I told him that I loved him very much, and he answered with a simplicity which always lives in my memory.

“And I love you too! That is why I let myself be hurt because I love you. Do you think I would have done it for any one else”? I should be making a fool of myself.”

Later on he gave me whispered instructions, glancing frequently at the door. “Next time he beats you don’t try to get away from him, and don’t struggle. It hurts twice as much if you resist. If you let yourself go he will deal lightly with you. Be limp and soft, and don’t scowl at him. Try and remember this; it is good advice.”

“Surely he won’t whip me again!” I exclaimed.

“Why, of course!” replied Tsiganok calmly. “Of course he will whip you again, and often too!”

“But why?”

“Because grandfather is on the watch for you.” And again he cautiously advised me: “When he whips you he brings the rod straight down. Well, if you lie there quietly he may possibly hold the rod lower so that it won’t break your skin . . . . Now, do you understand? Move your body towards him and the rod, and it will be all the better for you.”

Winking at me with his dark, squinting eyes, he added: “I know more about such matters than a policeman even. I have been beaten on my bare shoulders till the skin came off, my boy!”

I looked at his bright face and remembered grandmother’s story of Ivan–Czarevitch and Ivanoshka-dourachka.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55