WHEN I was well again I realized that Tsiganok occupied an important position in the house-hold. Grandfather did not storm at him as he did at his sons, and would say behind his back, half — closing his eyes and nodding his head:
“He is a good workman Tsiganok. Mark my words, he will get on; he will make his fortune.”
My uncles too were polite and friendly with Tsiganok, and never played practical jokes on him as they did on the head workman, Gregory, who was the object of some insulting and spiteful trick almost every evening. Sometimes they made the handles of his scissors red-hot, or put a nail with the point upwards on the seat of his chair, or placed ready to his hand pieces of material all of the same color, so that when he, being half blind, had sewed them all into one piece, grandfather should scold him for it.
One day when he had fallen asleep after dinner in the kitchen, they painted his face with fuchsin, and he had to go about for a long time a ludicrous and terrifying spectacle, with two round, smeared eyeglasses looking out dully from his gray beard, and his long, livid nose drooping dejectedly, like a tongue.
They had an inexhaustible fund of such pranks, but the head workman bore it all in silence, only quackling softly, and taking care before he touched either the iron, the scissors, the needlework or the thimble, to moisten his fingers copiously with saliva. This became a habit with him, and even at dinner-time before he took up his knife and fork he slobbered over his fingers, causing great amusement to the children. When he was hurt, his large face broke into waves of wrinkles, which curiously glided over his forehead, and, raising his eyebrows, vanished mysteriously on his bald cranium.
I do not remember how grandfather bore himself with regard to his sons’ amusements, but grandmother used to shake her fist at them, crying:
“Shameless, ill-natured creatures!”
But my uncles spoke evil of Tsiganok too behind his back; they made fun of him, found fault with his work, and called him a thief and an idler.
I asked grandmother why they did this. She explained it to me without hesitation, and, as always, made the matter quite clear to me. “You see, each wants to take Vaniushka with him when he sets up in business for himself; that is why they run him down to each other. Say they, ‘He ‘s a bad workman’; but they don’t mean it. It is their artfulness. In addition to this, they are afraid that Vaniushka will not go with either of them, but will stay with grandfather, who always gets his own way, and might set up a third workshop with Ivanka, which would do your uncles no good. Now do you understand?” She laughed softly. “They are crafty about everything, setting God at naught; and grandfather, seeing their artfulness, teases them by saying: ‘I shall buy Ivan a certificate of exemption so that they won’t take him for a soldier. I can’t do without him.’ This makes them angry; it is just what they don’t want; besides, they grudge the money. Exemptions cost money.”
I was living with grandmother again, as I had done on the steamer, and every evening before I fell asleep she used to tell me fairy stories, or tales about her life, which were just like a story. But she spoke about family affairs, such as the distribution of the property amongst the children, and grandfather’s purchase of a new house, lightly, in the character of a stranger regarding the matter from a distance, or at the most that of a neighbor, rather than that of the person next in importance to the head of the house.
From her I learned that Tsiganok was a foundling; he had been found one wet night in early spring, on a bench in the porch.
“There he lay,” said grandmother pensively and mysteriously, “hardly able to cry, for he was nearly numb with cold.”
“But why do people abandon children?”
“It is because the mother has no milk, or anything to feed her baby with. Then she hears that a child which has been born somewhere lately is dead, and she goes and leaves her own there.”
She paused and scratched her head; then sighing and gazing at the ceiling, she continued:
“Poverty is always the reason, Oleysha; and a kind of poverty which must not be talked about, for an unmarried girl dare not admit that she has a child people would cry shame upon her.
“Grandfather wanted to hand Vaniushka over to the police, but I said ‘No, we will keep him ourselves to fill the place of our dead ones. For I have had eighteen children, you know. If they had all lived they would have filled a street eighteen new families! I was married at eighteen, you see, and by this time I had had fifteen children, but God so loved my flesh and blood that He took all of them all my little babies to the angels, and I was sorry and glad at the same time.”
Sitting on the edge of the bed in her nightdress, huge and dishevelled, with her black hair falling about her, she looked like the bear which a bearded woodman from Cergatch had led into our yard not long ago.
Making the sign of the cross on her spotless, snow-white breast, she laughed softly, always ready to make light of everything.
“It was better for them to be taken, but hard for me to be left desolate, so I was delighted to have Ivanka but even now I feel the pain of my love for you, my little ones! . . . Well, we kept him, and baptized him, and he still lives happily with us. At first I used to call him ‘Beetle,’ because he really did buzz sometimes, and went creeping and buzzing through the rooms just like a beetle. You must love him. He is a good soul.”
I did love Ivan, and admired him inexpressibly. On Saturday when, after punishing the children for the transgressions of the week, grandfather went to vespers, we had an indescribably happy time in the kitchen.
Tsiganok would get some cockroaches from the stove, make a harness of thread for them with great rapidity, cut out a paper sledge, and soon two pairs of black horses were prancing on the clean, smooth, yellow table. Ivan drove them at a canter, with a thin splinter of wood as a whip, and urged them on, shouting:
“Now they have started for the Bishop’s house.”
Then he gummed a small piece of paper to the back of one of the cockroaches and sent him to run behind the sledge.
“We forgot the bag,” he explained. “The monk drags it with him as he runs. Now then, gee-up!”
He tied the feet of another cockroach together with cotton, and as the insect hopped along, with its head thrust forward, he cried, clapping his hands:
“This is the deacon coming out of the wine-shop to say vespers.”
After this he showed us a mouse which stood up at the word of command, and walked on his hind legs, dragging his long tail behind him and blinking comically with his lively eyes, which were like black glass beads.
He made friends of mice, and used to carry them about in his bosom, and feed them with sugar and kiss them.
“Mice are clever creatures,” he used to say in a tone of conviction. “The house-goblin is very fond of them, and whoever feeds them will have all his wishes granted by the old hob-goblin.”
He could do conjuring tricks with cards and coins too, and he used to shout louder than any of the children; in fact, there was hardly any difference between them and him. One day when they were playing cards with him they made him “booby” several times in succession, and he was very much offended. He stuck his lips out sulkily and refused to play any more, and he complained to me afterward, his nose twitching as he spoke:
“It was a put-up job! They were signaling to one another and passing the cards about under the table. Do you call that playing the game? If it comes to trickery I ‘m not so bad at it myself.”
Yet he was nineteen years old and bigger than all four of us put together.
I have special memories of him on holiday evenings, when grandfather and Uncle Michael went out to see their friends, and curly headed, untidy Uncle Jaakov appeared with his guitar while grandmother prepared tea with plenty of delicacies, and vodka in a square bottle with red flowers cleverly molded in glass on its lower part. Tsiganok shone bravely on these occasions in his holiday attire. Creeping softly and sideways came Gregory, with his colored spectacles gleaming; came Nyanya Eugenia pimply, red-faced and fat like a Toby-jug, with cunning eyes and a piping voice; came the hirsute deacon from Uspenski, and other dark slimy people bearing a resemblance to pikes and eels. They all ate and drank a lot, breathing hard the while; and the children had wineglasses of sweet syrup given them as a treat, and gradually there was kindled a warm but strange gaiety.
Uncle Jaakov tuned his guitar amorously, and as he did so he always uttered the same words:
“Well, now let us begin!”
Shaking his curly head, he bent over the guitar, stretching out his neck like a goose; the expression on his round, careless face became dreamy, his passionate, elusive eyes were obscured in an unctuous mist, and lightly touching the chords, he played something disjointed, involuntarily rising to his feet as he played. His music demanded an intense silence. It rushed like a rapid torrent from somewhere far away, stirring one’s heart and penetrating it with an incomprehensible sensation of sadness and uneasiness. Under the influence of that music we all became melancholy, and the oldest present felt themselves to be no more than children. We sat perfectly still lost in a dreamy silence. Sascha Michailov especially listened with all his might as he sat upright beside our uncle, gazing at the guitar open-mouthed, and slobbering with delight. And the rest of us remained as if we had been frozen, or had been put under a spell. The only sound besides was the gentle murmur of the samovar which did not interfere with the complaint of the guitar.
Two small square windows threw their light into the darkness of the autumn night, and from time to time some one tapped on them lightly. The yellow lights of two tallow candles, pointed like spears, flickered on the table.
Uncle Jaakov grew more and more rigid, as though he were in a deep sleep with his teeth clenched; but his hands seemed to live with a separate existence. The bent fingers of his right hand quivered indistinctly over the dark keyboard, just like fluttering and struggling birds, while his left passed up and down the neck with elusive rapidity.
When he had been drinking he nearly always sang through his teeth in an unpleasantly shrill voice, an endless song:
“If Jaakove were a dog
He ‘d howl from morn to night.
Oie! I am a-weary!
Oie! Life is dreary!
In the streets the nuns walk,
On the fence the ravens talk.
Oie! I am a-weary!
The cricket chirps behind the stove
And sets the beetles on the move. Oie! I am a-weary!
One beggar hangs his stockings up to dry,
The other steals it away on the sly.
Oie! I am a-weary! Yes! Life is very dreary!”
I could not bear this song, and when my uncle came to the part about the beggars I used to weep in a tempest of ungovernable misery.
The music had the same effect on Tsiganok as on the others; he listened to it, running his fingers through his black, shaggy locks, and staring into a corner, half-asleep.
Sometimes he would exclaim unexpectedly in a complaining tone, “Ah! if I only had a voice. Lord! how I should sing.”
And grandmother, with a sigh, would say: “Are you going to break our hearts, Jaasha? . . . Suppose you give us a dance, Vanyatka?”
Her request was not always complied with at once, but it did sometimes happen that the musician suddenly swept the chords with his hands, then, doubling up his fists with a gesture as if he were noiselessly casting an invisible something from him to the floor, cried sharply:
“Away, melancholy! Now, Vanka, stand up!”
Looking very smart, as he pulled his yellow blouse straight, Tsiganok would advance to the middle of the kitchen, very carefully, as if he were walking on nails, and blushing all over his swarthy face and simpering bashfully, would say entreatingly:
“Faster, please, Jaakov Vassilitch!”
The guitar jingled furiously, heels tapped spasmodically on the floor, plates and dishes rattled on the table and in the cupboard, while Tsiganok blazed amidst the kitchen lights, swooping like a kite, waving his arms like the sails of a windmill, and moving his feet so quickly that they seemed to be stationary; then he stooped to the floor, and spun round and round like a golden swallow, the splendor of his silk blouse shedding an illumination all around, as it quivered and rippled, as if he were alight and floating in the air. He danced unweariedly, oblivious of everything, and it seemed as though, if the door were to open, he would have danced out, down the street, and through the town and away . . . beyond our ken.
“Cross over!” cried Uncle Jaakov, stamping his feet, and giving a piercing whistle; then in an irritating voice he shouted the old, quaint saying:
“Oh, my! if I were not sorry to leave ray spade I ‘d from my wife and children a break have made.”
The people sitting at table pawed at each other, and from time to time shouted and yelled as if they were being roasted alive. The bearded chief workman slapped his bald head and joined in the uproar. Once he bent towards me, brushing my shoulder with his soft beard, and said in my ear, just as he might speak to a grown-up person:
“If your father were here, Alexei Maximitch, he would have added to the fun. A merry fellow he was always cheerful. You remember him, don’t you?”
“You don’t? Well, once he and your grandmother but wait a bit.”
Tall and emaciated, somewhat resembling a conventional icon, he stood up, and bowing to grandmother, entreated in an extraordinarily gruff voice:
“Akulina Ivanovna, will you be so kind as to dance for us as you did once with Maxim Savatyevitch? It would cheer us up.”
“What are you talking about, my dear man? What do you mean, Gregory Ivanovitch?” cried grandmother, smiling and bridling. “Fancy me dancing at my time of life! I should only make people laugh.”
But suddenly she jumped up with a youthful air, arranged her skirts, and very upright, tossed her ponderous head and darted across the kitchen, crying:
“Well, laugh if you want to! And a lot of good may it do you. Now, Jaasha, play up!”
My uncle let himself go, and, closing his eyes, went on playing very slowly. Tsiganok stood still for a moment, and then leaped over to where grandmother was and encircled her, resting on his haunches, while she skimmed the floor without a sound, as if she were floating on air, her arms spread out, her eyebrows raised, her dark eyes gazing into space. She appeared very comical to me, and I made fun of her; but Gregory held up his finger sternly, and all the grown-up people looked disapprovingly over to my side of the room.
“Don’t make a noise, Ivan,” said Gregory, and Tsiganok obediently jumped to one side, and sat by the door, while Nyanya Eugenia, thrusting out her Adam’s apple, began to sing in her low-pitched, pleasant voice:
“All the week till Saturday She does earn what e’er she may, Making lace from morn till night Till she ‘s nearly lost her sight.”
Grandmother seemed more as if she were telling a story than dancing. She moved softly, dreamily; swaying slightly, sometimes looking about her from under her arms, the whole of her huge body wavering uncertainly, her feet feeling their way carefully. Then she stood still as if suddenly frightened by something; her face quivered and became overcast . . . but directly after it was again illuminated by her pleasant, cordial smile. Swinging to one side as if to make way for some one, she appeared to be refusing to give her hand, then letting her head droop seemed to die; again, she was listening to some one and smiling joyfully . . . and suddenly she was whisked from her place and turned round and round like a whirligig, her figure seemed to become more elegant, she seemed to grow taller, and we could not tear our eyes away from her so triumphantly beautiful and altogether charming did she appear in that moment of marvelous rejuvenation. And Nyanya Eugenia piped:
“Then on Sundays after Mass Till midnight dances the lass, Leaving as late as she dare, Holidays with her are rare.”
When she had finished dancing, grandmother returned to her place by the samovar. They all applauded her, and as she put her hair straight, she said:
“That is enough! You have never seen real dancing. At our home in Balakya, there was one young girl I have forgotten her name now, with many others but when you saw her dance you cried for joy. To look at her was a treat. You didn’t want anything else. How I envied her sinner that I was!”
“Singers and dancers are the greatest people in the world,” said Nyanya Eugenia gravely, and she began to sing something about King David, while Uncle Jaakov, embracing Tsiganok, said to him:
“You ought to dance in the wine-shops. You would turn people’s heads.”
“I wish I could sing!” complained Tsiganok. “If God had given me a voice I should have been singing ten years by now, and should have gone on singing if only as a monk.”
They all drank vodka, and Gregory drank an extra lot. As she poured out glass after glass for him, grandmother warned him:
“Take care, Grisha, or you’ll become quite blind.”
“I don’t care! I ‘ve no more use for my eyesight,” he replied firmly.
He drank, but he did not get tipsy, only becoming more loquacious every moment; and he spoke to me about my father nearly all the time.
“A man with a large heart was my friend Maxim Savatyevitch . . . ”
Grandmother sighed as she corroborated:
“Yes, indeed he was a true child of God.”
All this was extremely interesting, and held me spell-bound, and filled my heart with a tender, not unpleasant sadness. For sadness and gladness live within us side by side, almost inseparable; the one succeeding the other with an elusive, unappreciable swiftness.
Once Uncle Jaakov, being rather tipsy, began to rend his shirt, and to clutch furiously at his curly hair, his grizzled mustache, his nose and his pendulous lip.
“What am I?” he howled, dissolved in tears. “Why am I here?” And striking himself on the cheek, forehead and chest, he sobbed: “Worthless, degraded creature! Lost soul!”
“A ah! You ‘re right!” growled Gregory.
But grandmother, who was also not quite sober, said to her son, catching hold of his hand:
“That will do, Jaasha. God knows how to teach us.”
, When she had been drinking, she was even more attractive; her eyes grew darker and smiled, shedding the warmth of her heart upon every one. Brushing aside the handkerchief which made her face too hot, she would say in a tipsy voice:
“Lord! Lord! How good everything is! Don’t you see how good everything is?”
And this was a cry from her heart the watchword of her whole life.
I was much impressed by the tears and cries of my happy-go-lucky uncle, and I asked grandmother why he cried and scolded and beat himself so.
“You want to know everything!” she said reluctantly, quite unlike her usual manner. “But wait a bit. You will be enlightened about this affair quite soon enough.”
My curiosity was still more excited by this, and I went to the workshop and attacked Ivan on the subject, but he would not answer me. He just laughed quietly with a sidelong glance at Gregory, and hustled me out, crying:
“Give over now, and run away. If you don’t I’ll put you in the vat and dye you.”
Gregory, standing before the broad, low stove, with vats cemented to it, stirred them with a long black poker, lifting it up now and again to see the colored drops fall from its end. The brightly burning flames played on the skin-apron, multi-colored like the chasuble of a priest, which he wore. The dye simmered in the vats; an acrid vapor extended in a thick cloud to the door. Gregory glanced at me from under his glasses, with his clouded, bloodshot eyes, and said abruptly to Ivan:
“You are wanted in the yard. Can’t you see?”
But when Tsiganok had gone into the yard, Gregory, sitting on a sack of santaline, beckoned me to him.
Drawing me on to his knee, and rubbing his warm, soft beard against my cheek, he said in a tone of reminiscence:
“Your uncle beat and tortured his wife to death, and now his conscience pricks him. Do you understand? You want to understand everything, you see, and so you get muddled.”
Gregory was as simple as grandmother, but his words were disconcerting, and he seemed to look through and through every one.
“How did he kill her?” he went on in a leisurely tone. “Why, like this. He was lying in bed with her, and he threw the counterpane over her head, and held it down while he beat her. Why”? He doesn’t know himself why he did it.”
And paying no attention to Ivan, who, having returned with an armful of goods from the yard, was squatting before the fire, warming his hands, the head workman suggested:
“Perhaps it was because she was better than he was, and he was envious of her. The Kashmirins do not like good people, my boy. They are jealous of them. They cannot stand them, and try to get them out of the way. Ask your grandmother how they got rid of your father. She will tell you everything; she hates deceit, because she does not understand it. She may be reckoned among the saints, although she drinks wine and takes snuff. She is a splendid woman. Keep hold of her, and never let her go.”
He pushed me towards the door, and I went out into the yard, depressed and scared. Vaniushka overtook me at the entrance of the house, and whispered softly:
“Don’t be afraid of him. He is all right. Look him straight in the eyes. That ‘s what he likes.”
It was all very strange and distressing. I hardly knew any other existence, but I remembered vaguely that my father and mother used not to live like this; they had a different way of speaking, and a different idea of happiness. They always went about together and sat close to each other. They laughed very frequently and for a long time together, in the evenings, as they sat at the window and sang at the top of their voices; and people gathered together in the street and looked at them. The raised faces of these people as they looked up reminded me comically of dirty plates after dinner. But here people seldom laughed, and when they did it was not always easy to guess what they were laughing at. They often raged at one another, and secretly muttered threats against each other in the corners. The children were subdued and neglected; beaten down to earth like the dust by the rain. I felt myself a stranger in the house, and all the circumstances of my existence in it were nothing but a series of stabs, pricking me on to suspicion, and compelling me to study what went on with the closest attention.
My friendship with Tsiganok grew apace. Grandmother was occupied with household duties from sunrise till late at night, and I hung round Tsiganok nearly the whole day. He still used to put his hand under the rod whenever grandfather thrashed me, and the next day, displaying his swollen fingers, he would complain:
“There ‘s no sense in it! It does not make it any lighter for you, and look what it does to me. I won’t stand it any longer, so there!”
But the next time he put himself in the way of being needlessly hurt just the same.
“But I thought you did not mean to do it again?” I would say.
“I didn’t mean to, but it happened somehow. I did it without thinking.”
Soon after this I learned something about Tsiganok which increased my interest in and love for him.
Every Friday he used to harness the bay gelding Sharapa, grandmother’s pet a cunning, saucy, dainty creature to the sledge. Then he put on his fur coat, which reached to his knees, and his heavy cap, and tightly buckling his green belt, set out for the market to buy provisions. Sometimes it was very late before he returned, and the whole household became uneasy. Some one would run to the window every moment, and breathing on the panes to thaw the ice, would look up and down the road.
“Isn’t he in sight yet?’
Grandmother was always more concerned than any of them.
“Alas!” she would exclaim to her sons and my grandfather, “you have ruined both the man and the horse. I wonder you aren’t ashamed of yourselves, you conscienceless creatures! Ach! You family of fools, you tipplers! God will punish you for this.”
“That is enough!” growled grandfather, scowling. “This is the last time it happens.”
Sometimes Tsiganok did not return till midday. My uncles and grandfather hurried out to the yard to meet him, and grandmother ambled after them like a bear, taking snuff with a determined air, because it was her hour for taking it. The children ran out, and the joyful unloading of the sledge began. It was full of pork, dead birds, and joints of all kinds of meat.
“Have you bought all we told you to?” asked grandfather, probing the load with a sidelong glance of his sharp eyes.
“Yes, it is all right,” answered Ivan gaily, as he jumped about the yard, and slapped his mittened hands together, to warm himself.
“Don’t wear your mittens out. They cost money,” said grandfather sternly. “Have you any change?”
Grandfather walked quietly round the load and said in a low tone:
“Again you have bought too much. However, you can’t do it without money, can you? I’ll have no more of this.” And he strode away scowling.
My uncles joyfully set to work on the load, whistling as they balanced bird, fish, goose-giblets, calves’ feet, and enormous pieces of meat on their hands.
“Well, that was soon unloaded!” they cried with loud approval.
Uncle Michael especially was in raptures, jumping about the load, sniffing hard at the poultry, smacking his lips with relish, closing his restless eyes in ecstasy. He resembled his father; he had the same dried-up appearance, only he was taller and his hair was dark.
Slipping his chilled hands up his sleeves, he inquired of Tsiganok:
“How much did my father give you?”
“There is fifteen roubles’ worth here! How much did you spend?”
“Four roubles, ten kopecks.”
“Perhaps the other ninety kopecks is in your pocket. Haven’t you noticed, Jaakov, how money gets all over the place?’
Uncle Jaakov, standing in the frost in his shirt-sleeves, laughed quietly, blinking in the cold blue light.
“You have some brandy for us, Vanka, haven’t you?” he asked lazily.
Grandmother meanwhile was unharnessing the horse.
“There, my little one! There! Spoiled child! There, God’s plaything!”
Great Sharapa, tossing his thick mane, fastened his white teeth in her shoulder, pushed his silky nose into her hair, gazed into her face with contented eyes, and shaking the frost from his eyelashes, softly neighed.
“Ah! you want some bread.”
She thrust a large, salted crust in his mouth, and making her apron into a bag under his nose, she thoughtfully watched him eat.
Tsiganok, himself as playful as a young horse, sprang to her side.
“He is such a good horse, Grandma! And so clever!”
“Get away! Don’t try your tricks on me!” cried grandmother, stamping her foot. “You know that I am not fond of you today.”
She afterwards explained to me that Tsiganok had not bought so much in the market as he had stolen. “If grandfather gives him five roubles, he spends three and steals three roubles’ worth,” she said sadly. “He takes a pleasure in stealing. He is like a spoiled child. He tried it once, and it turned out well; he was laughed at and praised for his success, and that is how he got into the habit of thieving. And grandfather, who in his youth ate the bread of poverty till he wanted no more of it, has grown greedy in his old age, and money is dearer to him now than the blood of his own children! He is glad even of a present! As for Michael and Jaakov . . .”
She made a gesture of contempt and was silent a moment; then looking fixedly at the closed lid of her snuff-box, she went on querulously:
“But there, Lenya, that ‘s a bit of work done by a blind woman . . . Dame Fortune . . . there she sits spinning for us and we can’t even choose the pattern. . . . But there it is! If they caught Ivan thieving they would beat him to death.”
And after another silence she continued quietly:
“Ah! we have plenty of principles, but we don’t put them into practice.”
The next day I begged Vanka not to steal any more. “If you do they’ll beat you to death.”
“They won’t touch me . . . I should soon wriggle out of their clutches. I am as lively as a mettlesome horse,” he said, laughing; but the next minute his face fell. “Of course I know quite well that it is wrong and risky to steal. I do it . . . just to amuse myself, because I am bored. And I don’t save any of the money. Your uncles get it all out of me before the week is over. But I don’t care! Let them take it. I have more than enough.”
Suddenly he took me up in his arms, shaking me gently.
“You will be a strong man, you are so light and slim, and your bones are so firm. I say, why don’t you learn to play on the guitar? Ask Uncle Jaakov! But you are too small yet, that ‘s a pity! You ‘re little, but you have a temper of your own! You don’t like your grandfather much, do you?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t like any of the Kashmirins except your grandmother. Let the devil like them!”
“What about me?”
“You? You are not a Kashmirin. You are a Pyeshkov. . . . That’s different blood a different stock altogether.”
Suddenly he gave me a violent squeeze.
“Ah!” he almost groaned. “If only I had a good voice for singing! Good Lord! what a stir I should make in the world! . . . Run away now, old chap. I must get on with my work.”
He set me down on the floor, put a handful of fine nails into his mouth, and began to stretch and nail damp breadths of black material on a large square board.
His end came very soon after this.
It happened thus. Leaning up against a partition by the gate in the yard was placed a large oaken cross with stout, knotty arms. It had been there a long time. I had noticed it in the early days of my life in the house, when it had been new and yellow, but now it was blackened by the autumn rains. It gave forth the bitter odor of barked oak, and it was in the way in the crowded, dirty yard.
Uncle Jaakov had bought it to place over the grave of his wife, and had made a vow to carry it on his shoulders to the cemetery on the anniversary of her death, which fell on a Saturday at the beginning of winter.
It was frosty and windy and there had been a fall of snow. Grandfather and grandmother, with the three grandchildren, had gone early to the cemetery to hear the requiem; I was left at home as a punishment for some fault.
My uncles, dressed alike in short black fur coats, lifted the cross from the ground and stood under its arms. Gregory and some men not belonging to the yard raised the heavy beams with difficulty, and placed the cross on the broad shoulders of Tsiganok. He tottered, and his legs seemed to give way.
“Are you strong enough to carry it?” asked Gregory.
“I don’t know. It seems heavy.”
“Open the gate, you blind devil!” cried Uncle Michael angrily.
And Uncle Jaakov said:
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Vanka. You are stronger than the two of us together.”
But Gregory, throwing open the gate, persisted in advising Ivan:
“Take care you don’t break down! Go, and may God be with you!”
“Bald-headed fool!” cried Uncle Michael, from the street.
All the people in the yard, meanwhile, laughed and talked loudly, as if they were glad to get rid of the cross.
Gregory Ivanovitch took my hand and led me to the workshop, saying kindly:
“Perhaps, under the circumstances, grandfather won’t thrash you today.”
He sat me on a pile of woolens ready for dyeing, carefully wrapping them round me as high as my shoulders; and inhaling the vapor which rose from the vats, he said thoughtfully:
“I have known your grandfather for thirty-seven years, my dear. I saw his business at its commencement, and I shall see the end of it. We were friends then in fact, we started and planned out the business together. He is a clever man, is your grandfather! He meant to be master, but I did not know it. However, God is more clever than any of us. He has only to smile and the wisest man will blink like a fool. You don’t understand yet all that is said and done, but you must learn to understand everything. An orphan’s life is a hard one. Your father, Maxim Savatyevitch, was a trump. He was well-educated too. That is why your grandfather did not like him, and would have nothing to do with him.”
It was pleasant to listen to these kind words and to watch the red and gold flames playing in the stove, and the milky cloud of steam which rose from the vats and settled like a dark blue rime on the slanting boards of the roof, through the uneven chinks of which the sky could be seen, like strands of blue ribbon. The wind had fallen; the yard looked as if it were strewn with glassy dust; the sledges gave forth a sharp sound as they passed up the street; a blue smoke rose from the chimneys of the house; faint shadows glided over the snow . . . also telling a story.
Lean, long-limbed Gregory, bearded and hatless, large-eared, just like a good-natured wizard, stirred the boiling dye, instructing me the while.
“Look every one straight in the eyes. And if a dog should fly at you, do the same; he will let you alone then.”
His heavy spectacles pressed on the bridge of his nose, the tip of which was blue like grandmother’s and for the same reason.
“What is that?” he exclaimed suddenly, listening; then closing the door of the stove with his foot, he ran, or rather hopped, across the yard, and I dashed after him. In the middle of the kitchen floor lay Tsiganok, face upwards; broad streaks of light from the window fell on his head, his chest, and on his feet. His forehead shone strangely; his eyebrows were raised; his squinting eyes gazed intently at the blackened ceiling; a red-flecked foam bubbled from his discolored lips, from the corners of which also flowed blood over his cheeks, his neck, and on to the floor; and a thick stream of blood crept from under his back. His legs were spread out awkwardly, and it was plain that his trousers were wet; they clung damply to the boards, which had been polished with sand, and shone like the sun. The rivulets of blood intersected the streams of light, and, showing up very vividly, flowed towards the threshold.
Tsiganok was motionless, except for the fact that as he lay with his hands alongside his body, his fingers scratched at the floor, and his stained fingernails shone in the sunlight.
Nyanya Eugenia, crouching beside him, put a slender candle into his hand, but he could not hold it and it fell to the floor, the wick being drenched in blood. Nyanya Eugenia picked it up and wiped it dry, and made another attempt to fix it in those restless fingers. A gentle whispering made itself heard in the kitchen; it seemed to blow me away from the door like the wind, but I held firmly to the door-post.
“He stumbled!” Uncle Jaakov was explaining, in a colorless voice, shuddering and turning his head about. His face was gray and haggard; his eyes had lost their color, and blinked incessantly. “He fell, and it fell on top of him . . . and hit him on the back. We should have been disabled if we had not dropped the cross in time.”
“This is your doing,” said Gregory dully.
“But how . . .?”’
All this time the blood was flowing, and by the door had already formed a pool which seemed to grow darker and deeper. With another effusion of blood-flecked foam, Tsiganok roared out as if he were dreaming, and then collapsed, seeming to grow flatter and flatter, as if he were glued to the floor, or sinking through it.
“Michael went on horseback to the church to find father,” whispered Uncle Jaakov, “and I brought him here in a cab as quickly as I could. It is a good job that I was not standing under the arms myself, or I should have been like this.”
Nyanya Eugenia again fixed the candle in Tsiganok’s hand, dropping wax and tears in his palm.
“That ‘s right! Glue his head to the floor, you careless creature,” said Gregory gruffly and rudely.
“What do you mean?”
“Why don’t you take off his cap”?”
Nyanya dragged Ivan’s cap from his head, which struck dully on the floor. Then it fell to one side and the blood flowed profusely from one side of his mouth only. This went on for a terribly long time. At first
I expected Tsiganok to sit up on the floor with a sigh, and say sleepily, “Phew! It is baking hot!” as he used to do after dinner on Sundays.
But he did not rise; on the contrary he seemed to be sinking into the ground. The sun had withdrawn from him now; its bright beams had grown shorter, and fell only on the window-sill. His whole form grew darker; his fingers no longer moved; the froth had disappeared from his lips. Round his head three candles stood out from the darkness, waving their golden flames, lighting up his dishevelled blue-black hair, and throwing quivering yellow ripples on his swarthy cheek, illuminating the tip of his pointed nose and his blood-stained teeth.
Nyanya, kneeling at his side, shed tears as she lisped: “My little dove! My bird of consolation!”
It was painfully cold. I crept under the table and hid myself there. Then grandfather came tumbling into the kitchen, in his coat of racoon fur; with him came grandmother in a cloak with a fur collar, Uncle Michael, the children, and many people not belonging to the house.
Throwing his coat on the floor, grandfather cried:
“Riff-raff! See what you have done for me, between you, in your carelessness! He would have been worth his weight in gold in five years that ‘s certain!”
The coats which had been thrown on the floor hindered me from seeing Ivan, so I crept out and knocked myself against grandfather’s legs. He hurled me to one side, as he shook his little red fist threateningly at my uncles.
He sat down on a bench, and resting his arms upon itj burst into dry sobs, and said in a shrill voice:
“I know all about it! . . . He stuck in your gizzards! That was it! Oh, Vaniushka, poor fool! What have they done to you, eh? ‘Rotten reins are good enough for a stranger’s horse!’ Mother! God has not loved us for the last year, has He? Mother!”
Grandmother, doubled up on the floor, was feeling Ivan’s hands and chest, breathing upon his eyes, holding his hands and chafing them. Then, throwing down all the candles, she rose with difficulty to her feet, looking very somber in her shiny black frock, and with her eyes dreadfully wide open, she said in a low voice: “Go, accursed ones!”
All, with the exception of grandfather, straggled out of the kitchen.
Tsiganok was buried without fuss, and was soon forgotten.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55