GRANDFATHER unexpectedly sold the house over the tavern and bought another in Kanatoroi Street a ramshackle house overgrown with grass, but clean and quiet; and it seemed to rise up out of the fields, being the last of a row of little houses painted in various colors.
The new house was trim and charming; its fagade was painted in a warm but not gaudy shade of dark raspberry, against which the sky-blue shutters of the three lower windows and the solitary square of the shutter belonging to the attic window appeared very bright. The left side of the roof was picturesquely hidden by thick green elms and lime trees. Both in the yard and in the garden there were many winding paths, so convenient that they seemed to have been placed there on purpose for hide-and-seek.
The garden was particularly good; though not large, it was wooded and pleasantly intricate. In one corner stood a small washhouse, just like a toy building; and in the other was a fair-sized pit, grown over with high grass, from which protruded the thick chimney-stack which was all that remained of the heating apparatus of an earlier washhouse. On the left the garden was bounded by the wall of Colonel Ovsyanikov’s stables, and on the right by Betlenga House; the end abutted on the farm belonging to the dairy-woman Petrovna a stout, red, noisy female, who reminded me of a bell. Her little house, built in a hollow, was dark and dilapidated, and well covered with moss; its two windows looked out with a benevolent expression upon the field, the deep ravine, and the forest, which apppeared like a heavy blue cloud in the distance. Soldiers moved or ran about the fields all day long, and their bayonets flashed like white lightning in the slanting rays of the autumn sun.
The house was filled with people who seemed to me very wonderful. On the first floor lived a soldier from Tartary with his little, buxom wife, who shouted from morn till night, and laughed, and played on a richly ornamented guitar, and sang in a high flute-like voice. This was the song she sang most often:
“There ‘s one you love, but her love you will miss,
Seek on! another you must find. And you will find her for reward a kiss
Seven times as beautiful and kind. Oh, what a glo or i ous reward!”
The soldier, round as a ball, sat at the window and puffed out his blue face, and roguishly turned his red-dish eyes from side to side, as he smoked his everlasting pipe, and occasionally coughed, and giggled with a strange, doglike sound:
“Vookh! Voo kh!”
In the comfortable room which had been built over the cellar and the stables, lodged two draymen little, gray-haired Uncle Peter and his dumb nephew Stepa a smooth, easy-going fellow, whose face reminded me of a copper tray and a long-limbed, gloomy Tartar, Valei, who was an officer’s servant. All these people were to me a complete novelty magnificent “unknowns.” But the one who attracted my attention and held it in a special degree, was the boarder, nicknamed “Good-business.” He rented a room at the back of the house, next to the kitchen a long room with two windows, one looking on the garden, the other on the yard. He was a lean, stooping man with a white face and a black beard, cleft in two, with kind eyes over which he wore spectacles. He was silent and unobtrusive, and when he was called to dinner or tea, his in variable reply was “Good-business!” so grandmother began to call him that both to his face and behind his back. It was: “Lenka! Call ‘Good-business’ to tea,” or “‘Good-business,’ you are eating nothing!”
His room was blocked up and encumbered with all sorts of cases and thick books, which looked strange to me, in Russian characters. Here were also bottles containing liquids of different colors, lumps of copper and iron, and bars of lead; and from morning till night, dressed in a reddish leather jacket, with gray check trousers all smeared with different kinds of paint, and smelling abominable, and looking both untidy and uncomfortable, he melted lead, soldered some kind of brass articles, weighed things in small scales, roared out when he burned his fingers, and then patiently blew on them. Or he would stumblingly approach a plan on the wall, and polishing his glasses, sniff at it, almost touching the paper with his straight, curiously pallid nose; or he would suddenly stand still for a long time in the middle of the room, or at the window, with his eyes closed, and his head raised as if he were in a state of immobile stupefaction.
I used to climb on the roof of the shed, whence I could look across the yard; and in at the open window I could see the blue light of the spirit-lamp on the table, and his dark figure as he wrote something in a tattered notebook, with his spectacles gleaming with a bluish light, like ice. The wizard-like employment of this man often kept me on the roof for hours together, with my curiosity excited to a tormenting pitch. Sometimes he stood at the window, as if he were framed in it, with his hands behind him, looking straight at the roof; but apparently he did not see me, a fact which gave me great offense. Suddenly he would start back to the table, and bending double, would begin to rummage about.
I think that if he had been rich and better dressed I should have been afraid of him; but he was poor a dirty shirt collar could be seen above the collar of his coat, his trousers were soiled and patched, and the slippers on his bare feet were down-trodden and the poor are neither formidable nor dangerous. I had unconsciously learned this from grandmother’s pitiful respect, and grandfather’s contempt for them.
Nobody in the house liked “Good-business.” They all made fun of him. The soldier’s lively wife nicknamed him “Chalk-nose,” Uncle Peter used to call him “The Apothecary” or “The Wizard,” and grandfather described him as “The Black Magician” or “That Freemason.”
“What does he do?” I asked grandmother.
“That is no business of yours. Hold your tongue!”
But one day I plucked up courage to go to his window, and concealing my nervousness with difficulty, I asked him, “What are you doing?”
He started, and looked at me for a long time over the top of his glasses; then stretching out his hand, which was covered with scars caused by burns, he said:
His proposal that I should enter by the window instead of the door raised him still higher in my estimation. He sat on a case, and stood me in front of him; then he moved away and came back again quite close to me, and asked in a low voice:
“And where do you come from?”
This was curious, considering that I sat close to him at table in the kitchen four times a day.
“I am the landlord’s grandson,” I replied.
“Ah yes,” he said, looking at his fingers.
He said no more, so I thought it necessary to explain to him:
“I am not a Kashmirin my name is Pyeshkov.”
“Pyeshkov?” he repeated incredulously. “Good-business!”
Moving me on one side, he rose, and went to the table, saying:
“Sit still now.”
I sat for a long, long time watching him as he scraped a filed piece of copper, put it through a press, from under which the filings fell, like golden groats, on to a piece of cardboard. These he gathered up in the palm of his hand and shook them into a bulging vessel, to which he added white dust, like salt, which he took from a small bowl, and some fluid out of a dark bottle. The mixture in the vessel immediately began to hiss and to smoke, and a biting smell rose to my nostrils which caused me to cough violently.
“Ah!” said the wizard in a boastful tone. “That smells nasty, doesn’t it?”
“That ‘s right! That shows that it has turned out well, my boy.”
“What is there to boast about?” I said to myself; and aloud I remarked severely:
“If it is nasty it can’t have turned out well.”
“Really!” he exclaimed, with a wink. “That does not always follow, my boy. However Do you play knuckle-bones’?”
“You mean dibs?”
“That ‘s it.”
“Would you like me to make you a thrower?”
“Very well, let me have the dibs then.”
He came over to me again, holding the steaming vessel in his hand; and peeping into it with one eye, he said:
“I’ll make you a thrower, and you promise not to come near me again is that agreed?”
I was terribly hurt at this.
“I will never come near you again, never!” And I indignantly left him and went out to the garden, where grandfather was bustling about, spreading manure round the roots of the apple trees, for it was autumn and the leaves had fallen long ago.
“Here! you go and clip the raspberry bushes,” said grandfather, giving me the scissors.
“What work is it that ‘Good-business’ does’?” I asked.
“Work why, he is damaging his room, that ‘s all. The floor is burned, and the hangings soiled and torn. I shall tell him he ‘d better shift.”
“That ‘s the best thing he can do,” I said, beginning to clip the dried twigs from the raspberry bushes.
But I was too hasty.
On wet evenings, whenever grandfather went out, grandmother used to contrive to give an interesting little party in the kitchen, and invited all the occupants of the house to tea. The draymen, the officer’s servant, the robust Petrovna often came, sometimes even the merry little lodger, but always “Good-business” was to be found in his corner by the stove, motionless and mute. Dumb Stepa used to play cards with the Tartar. Valei would bang the cards on the deaf man’s broad nose and yell:
Uncle Peter brought an enormous chunk of white bread, and some jam in large, tall pots; he cut the bread hi slices, which he generously spread with jam, and distributed the delicious raspberry-strewn slices to all, pre senting them on the palm of his hand and bowing low.
“Do me the favor of eating this,” he would beg courteously; and after any one had accepted a slice, he would look carefully at his dark hand, and if he noticed any drops of jam on it, he would lick them off.
Petrovna brought some cherry liqueur in a bottle, the merry lady provided nuts and sweets, and so the feast would begin, greatly to the content of the dear, fat grandmother.
Very soon after “Good-business” had tried to bribe me not to go and see him any more, grandmother gave one of her evenings.
A light autumn rain was falling; the wind howled, the trees rustled and scraped the walls with their branches; but in the kitchen it was warm and cozy as we all sat close together, conscious of a tranquil feeling of kindness towards one another, while grandmother, unusually generous, told us story after story, each one better than the other. She sat on the ledge of the stove, resting her feet on the lower ledge, bending towards her audience with the light of a little tin lamp thrown upon her. Always when she was in a mood for story-telling she took up this position.
“I must be looking down on you,” she would explain. “I can always talk better that way.”
I placed myself at her feet on the broad ledge, almost on a level with the head of “Good-business,” and grandmother told us the fine story of Ivan the Warrior, and Miron the Hermit, in a smooth stream of pithy, well-chosen words.
“Once lived a wicked captain Gordion,
His soul was black, his conscience was of stone;
He hated truth, victims he did not lack,
Fast kept in chains, or stretched upon the rack,
And, like an owl, in hollow tree concealed,
So lived this man, in evil unrevealed.
But there was none who roused his hate and fear
Like Hermit Miron, to the people dear.
Mild and benign, but fierce to fight for truth,
His death was planned without remorse or ruth.
The captain calls most trusted of his band
Ivan the Warrior, by whose practiced hand
The Monk, unarmed and guileless, must be slain.
‘Ivan!’ he said, ‘too long that scheming brain
Of Hermit Miron has defied my power.
This proud Monk merits death, and now the hour
Has struck when he must say farewell to earth.
A curse he has been to it, from his birth.
Go, seize him by his venerable beard,
And to me bring the head which cowards have feared.
My dogs with joy shall greedily devour
The head of him who thirsted after power.’
Ivan, obedient, went upon his way;
But to himself he bitterly did say:
‘It is not I who do this wicked deed;
I go because my master I must heed.’
His sharp word he hid lest it should betray
The evil designs in his mind that day.
The Monk he salutes with dissembling voice:
‘To see you in health I greatly rejoice!
Your blessing, my Father! And God bless you!’
The Monk laughed abrutly, his words were few:
‘Enough, Ivan! Your lies do not deceive.
That God knows all, I hope you do believe.
Against His will, nor good nor ill is done.
I know, you see, why you to me have come.’
In shame before the Monk Ivan stood still;
In fear of this man he had come to kill.
From leathern sheath his sword he proudly drew;
The shining blade he rubbed till it looked new.
‘I meant to take you unawares,’ he said;
‘To kill you prayerless; now I am afraid.
To God you now shall have some time to pray.
I’ll give you time for all you want to say,
For me, for you, for all, born and unborn,
And then I’ll send you where your prayers have gone.’
The Hermit knelt; above him spread an oak
Which bowed its head before him. Then he spoke,
In archness smiling. ‘Oh, Ivan, think well!
How long my prayer will take I cannot tell.
Had you not better kill me straight away
Lest waiting tire you, furious at delay?’
Ivan in anger frowned, and said in boast,
‘My word is given, and though at my post
You keep me a century, I will wait.
So pray in peace, nor your ardor abate.’
The shadows of even fell on the Monk,
And all through the night in prayer he was sunk;
From dawn till sunset, through another night;
From golden summer days to winter’s blight
So ran on, year by year, old Miron’s prayer.
And to disturb him Ivan did not dare.
The sapling oak its lofty branches reared
Into the sky, while all around appeared
Its offshoots, into a thick forest grown.
And all the time the holy prayer went on,
And still continues to this very day.
The old man softly to his God doth pray,
And to Our Lady, the mother of all,
To help men and women who faint and fall,
To succor the weak, to the sad give joy.
Ivanushka, Warrior, stands close by,
His bright sword long has been covered with dust,
Corroded his armor by biting rust,
Long fallen to pieces his brave attire.
His body is naked and covered with mire.
The heat does but sear, no warmth does impart;
Such fate as his would freeze the stoutest heart.
Fierce wolves and savage bears from him do flee,
From snowstorm and from frost alike he ‘s free;
No strength has he to move from that dread spot
Or lift his hands. To speak is not his lot.
Let us be warned by his terrible fate,
Nor of meek obedience let us prate.
If we are ordered to do something wrong,
Our duty is then to stand firm and be strong.
But for us sinners still the Hermit prays,
Still flows his prayer to God, e’en in these days
A dear, bright river, flowing to the sea.”
Before grandmother had reached the end of her story, I had noticed that “Good-business” was, for some reason, agitated; he was fidgeting restlessly with his hands, taking off his spectacles and putting them on again, or waving them to keep time with the rhythm of the words, nodding his head, putting his fingers into his eyes, or rubbing them energetically, and passing the palms of his hands over his forehead and cheeks, as if he were perspiring freely. When any one of the others moved, coughed, or scraped his feet on the floor, the boarder hissed: “Ssh!”; and when grandmother ceased speaking, and sat rubbing her perspiring face with the sleeve of her blouse, he jumped up noisily, and putting out his hands as if he felt giddy, he babbled:
“I say! That ‘s wonderful! It ought to be written down; really, it ought. It is terribly true too. . . . Our . . .”
Every one could see now that he was crying; his eyes were full of tears, which flowed so copiously that his eyes were bathed in them it was a strange and pitiful sight. He looked so comical as he ran about the kitchen, or rather clumsily hopped about swinging his glasses before his nose; desirous of putting them on again but unable to slip the wires over his ears that Uncle Peter laughed, and the others were silent from embarrassment. Grandmother said harshly:
“Write it down by all means, if you like. There ‘s no harm in that. And I know plenty more of the same kind.”
“No, that is the only one I want. It is so dreadfully Russian!” cried the boarder excitedly; and standing stock-still in the middle of the kitchen, he began to talk loudly, clearing the air with his right hand, and holding his glasses in the other. He spoke for some time in a frenzied manner, his voice rising to a squeak, stamping his feet, and often repeating himself:
“If we are ordered to do something wrong our duty is then to be firm and strong. True! True!”
Then suddenly his voice broke, he ceased speaking, looked round on all of us, and quietly left the room, hanging his head with a guilty air.
The other guests laughed, and glanced at each other with expressions of embarrassment. Grandmother moved farther back against the stove, into the shadow, and was heard to sigh heavily.
Rubbing the palm of her hand across her thick red lips, Petrovna observed:
“He seems to be in a temper.”
“No,” replied Uncle Peter; “that ‘s only his way.”
Grandmother left the stove, and in silence began to heat the samovar; and Uncle Peter added, in a slow voice:
“The Lord makes people like that sometimes freaks.”
“Bachelors always play the fool,” Valei threw out gruffly, at which there was a general laugh; but Uncle Peter drawled:
“He was actually in tears. It is a case of the pike nibbling what the roach hardly ”
I began to get tired of all this. I was conscious of a heartache. I was greatly astonished by the behavior of “Good-business,” and very sorry for him. I could not get his swimming eyes out of my mind.
That night he did not sleep at home, but he returned the next day, after dinner quiet, crushed, obviously embarrassed.
“I made a scene last night,” he said to grandmother, with the air of a guilty child. “You are not angry?”
“Why should I be angry T
“Why, because I interrupted . . . and talked . . .”
“You offended no one.”
I felt that grandmother was afraid of him. She did not look him in the face, and spoke in a subdued tone, and was quite unlike herself.
He drew near to her and said with amazing simplicity:
“You see, I am so terribly lonely. I have no one belonging to me. I am always silent silent; and then, all on a sudden, my soul seems to boil over, as if it had been torn open. At such times I could speak to stones and trees ”
Grandmother moved away from him.
“If you were to get married now,” she began.
“Eh?” he cried, wrinkling up his face, and ran out, throwing his arms up wildly.
Grandmother looked after him frowning, and took a pinch of snuff; after which she sternly admonished me:
“Don’t you hang round him so much. Do you hear? God knows what sort of a man he is!”
But I was attracted to him afresh. I had seen how his face changed and fell when he said “terribly lonely”; there was something in those words which I well understood, and my heart was touched. I went to find him.
I looked, from the yard, into the window of his room; it was empty, and looked like a lumber-room into which had been hurriedly thrown all sorts of unwanted things as unwanted and as odd as its occupier. I went into the garden, and there I saw him by the pit. He was bending over, with his hands behind his head, his elbows resting on his knees, and was seated uncomfortably on the end of a half — burnt plank. The greater part of this plank was buried in the earth, but the end of it struck out, glistening like coal, above the top of the pit, which was grown over with nettles.
The very fact of his being in such an uncomfortable place made me look upon this man in a still more favorable light. He did not notice me for some time; he was gazing beyond me with his half-blind, owl-like eyes, when he suddenly asked in a tone of vexation:
“Did you want me for anything?”
“Why are you here then?”
“I couldn’t say.”
He took off his glasses, polished them with his red and black spotted handkerchief, and said:
“Well, climb up here.”
When I was sitting beside him, he put his arm round my shoulders and pressed me to him.
“Sit down. Now let us sit still and be quiet. Will that suit you? This is the same Are you obstinate?”
We were silent a long time. It was a quiet, mild evening, one of those melancholy evenings of late summer, when, in spite of the profusion of flowers, signs of decay are visible, and every hour brings impoverishment; when the earth, having already exhausted its luxuriant summer odors, smells of nothing but a chill dampness; when the air is curiously transparent, and the daws dart aimlessly to and fro against the red sky, arousing a feeling of unhappiness. Silence reigned; and any sound, such as the fluttering of birds or the rustling of fallen leaves, struck one as being unnaturally loud, and caused a shuddering start, which soon died away into that torpid stillness which seemed to encompass the earth and cast a spell over the heart. In such moments as these are born thoughts of a peculiar i86 purity ethereal thoughts, thin, transparent as a cob-web, incapable of being expressed in words. They come and go quickly, like falling stars, kindling a flame of sorrow in the soul, soothing and disturbing it at the same time; and the soul is, as it were, on fire, and, being plastic, receives an impression which lasts for all time.
Pressed close to the boarder’s warm body, I gazed, with him, through the black branches of the apple tree, at the red sky, following the flight of the flapping rooks, and noticing how the dried poppy-heads shook on their stems, scattering their coarse seeds; and I observed the ragged, dark blue clouds with livid edges, which stretched over the fields, and the crows flying heavily under the clouds to their nests in the burial-ground.
It was all beautiful; and that evening it all seemed especially beautiful, and in harmony with my feelings. Sometimes, with a heavy sigh, my companion said:
“This is quite all right, my boy, isn’t it? And you don’t feel it damp or cold?”
But when the sky became overcast, and the twilight, laden with damp, spread over everything, he said:
“Well, it can’t be helped. We shall have to go in.”
He halted at the garden gate and said softly:
“Your grandmother is a splendid woman. Oh, what a treasure!” And he closed his eyes with a smile and recited in a low, very distinct voice:
“‘Let us be warned by his terrible fate, Nor of meek obedience let us prate. If we are ordered to do something wrong, Our duty is then to stand firm and be strong.’ ”
“Don’t forget that, my boy!”
And pushing me before him, he asked:
“Can you write?’
“You must learn; and when you have learned, write down grandmother’s stories. You will find it worth while, my boy.”
And so we became friends; and from that day I went to see “Good-business” whenever I felt inclined; and sitting on one of the cases, or on some rags, I used to watch him melt lead and heat copper till it was red-hot, beat layers of iron on a little anvil with an elegant-handled, light hammer, or work with a smooth file and a saw of emery, which was as fine as a thread. He weighed everything on his delicately adjusted copper scales; and when he had poured various liquids into bulging, white vessels, he would watch them till they smoked and filled the room with an acrid odor, and then with a wrinkled-up face he would consult a thick book, biting his red lips, or softly humming in his husky voice:
“O Rose of Sharon!”
“What are you doing?” i88
“I am making something, my boy.”
“Ah that I can’t tell you. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Grandfather says he would not be surprised if you were coining false money.”
“Your grandfather? M’m! Well, he says that for something to say. Money ‘s all nonsense, my boy.”
“How should we buy bread without it?”
“Well, yes; we want it for that, it is true.”
“And for meat too.”
“Yes, and for meat.”
He smiled quietly, with a kindness which astonished me; and pulling my ear, said:
“It is no use arguing with you. You always get the best of it. I ‘d better keep quiet.”
Sometimes he broke off his work, and sitting beside me he would gaze for a long time out of the window, watching the rain patter down on the roof, and noting how the grass was growing over the yard, and how the apple trees were being stripped of their leaves. “Good-business” was niggardly with his words, but what he said was to the point; more often than not, when he wished to draw my attention to something, he nudged me and winked instead of speaking. The yard had never been particularly attractive to me, but his nudges and his brief words seemed to throw a different complexion on it, and everything within sight seemed worthy of notice. A kitten ran about, and halting before a shining pool gazed at its own reflection, lifting its soft paw as if it were going to strike it.
“Cats are vain and distrustful,” observed “Good-business” quietly.
Then there was the red-gold cock Mamae, who flew on to the garden hedge, balanced himself, shook out his wings, and nearly fell; whereupon he was greatly put out, and muttered angrily, stretching out his neck:
“A consequential general, and not over-clever at that.”
Clumsy Valei passed, treading heavily through the mud, like an old horse; his face, with its high cheek-bones, seemed inflated as he gazed, blinking, at the sky, from which the pale autumn beams fell straight on his chest, making the brass buttons on his coat shine brilliantly. The Tartar stood still and touched them with his crooked fingers “just as if they were medals bestowed on him.”
My attachment to “Good-business” grew apace, and became stronger every day, till I found that he was indispensable both on days when I felt myself bitterly aggrieved, and in my hours of happiness. Although he was taciturn himself, he did not forbid me to talk about anything which came into my head; grandfather, on the other hand, always cut me short by his stern exclamation:
“Don’t chatter, you mill of the devil!”
Grandmother, too, was so full of her own ideas that she neither listened to other people’s ideas nor admitted them into her mind; but “Good-business” always listened attentively to my chatter, and often said to me smilingly:
“No, my boy, that is not true. That is an idea of your own.”
And his brief remarks were always made at the right time, and only when absolutely necessary; he seemed to be able to pierce the outer covering of my heart and head, and see all that went on, and even to see all the useless, untrue words on my lips before I had time to utter them he saw them and cut them off with two gentle blows:
Sometimes I tried to draw out his wizard-like abilities. I made up something and told it to him as if it had really happened; but after listening for a time, he would shake his head.
“Now that ‘s not true, my boy.”
“How do you know?”
“I can feel it, my boy.”
When grandmother went to fetch water from Syeniu
Square, she often used to take me with her; and on one occasion we saw five citizens assault a peasant, throwing him on the ground, and dragging him about as dogs might do to another dog. Grandmother slipped her pail off the yoke, which she brandished as she flew to the rescue, calling to me as she went:
“You run away now!”
But I was frightened, and, running after her, I began to hurl pebbles and large stones at the citizens, while she bravely made thrusts at them with the yoke, striking at their shoulders and heads. When other people came on the scene they ran away, and grandmother set to work to bathe the injured man’s wounds. His face had been trampled, and the sight of him as he pressed his dirty fingers to his torn nostrils and howled and coughed, while the blood spurted from under his fingers over grandmother’s face and breast, filled me with repugnance; she uttered a cry too, and trembled violently.
As soon as I returned home I ran to the boarder and began to tell him all about it. He left off working, and stood in front of me looking at me fixedly and sternly from under his glasses; then he suddenly interrupted me, speaking with unusual impressiveness:
“That ‘s a fine thing, I must say very fine!”
I was so taken up by the sight I had witnessed that his words did not surprise me, and I went on with my story; but he put his arm round me, and then left me and walked about the room uncertainly.
“That will do,” he said; “I don’t want to hear any more. You have said all that is needful, my boy all. Do you understand?”
I felt offended, and did not answer; but on thinking the matter over afterwards, I have still a lively recollection of my astonishment at the discovery that he had stopped me at exactly the right time. I had, in truth, told all there was to tell.
“Do not dwell on this incident, child; it is not a good thing to remember,” he said.
Sometimes on the spur of the moment he uttered words which I have never forgotten. I remember telling him about my enemy Kliushnikov, a warrior from New Street a fat boy with a large head, whom I could not conquer in battle, nor he me. “Good-business” listened attentively to my complaint, and then he said:
“That ‘s all nonsense! That sort of strength does not count. Real strength lies in swift movements. He who is swiftest is strongest. See?”
The next Sunday I used my fists more quickly, and easily conquered Kliushnikov, which made me pay still more heed to what the boarder said.
“You must learn to grasp all kinds of things, do you see”? It is very difficult to learn how to grasp.”
I did not understand him at all, but I involuntarily remembered this, with many other similar sayings; but this one especially, because in its simplicity it was provokingly mysterious. Surely it did not require any extraordinary cleverness to be able to grasp stones, a piece of bread, a cup or a hammer!
In the house, however, “Good-business” became less and less liked; even the friendly cat of the merry lady would not jump on his knees as she jumped on the knees of the others, and took no notice when he called her kindly. I beat her for that and pulled her ears, and, almost weeping, told her not to be afraid of the man.
“It is because my clothes smell of acids that is why he will not come to me,” he explained; but I knew that every one else, even grandmother, gave quite a different explanation uncharitable, untrue, and injurious to him.
“Why are you always hanging about him 9” demanded grandmother angrily. “He’ll be teaching you something bad you’ll see !”
And grandfather hit me ferociously whenever I visited the boarder, who, he was firmly convinced, was a rogue.
Naturally I did not mention to “Good-business” that I was forbidden to make a friend of him, but I did tell him frankly what was said about him in the house:
“Grandmother is afraid of you; she says you are a black magician. And grandfather too he says you are one of God’s enemies, and that it is dangerous to have you here.”
He moved his hand about his head as if he were driving away flies; but a smile spread like a blush over his chalk-white face, and my heart contracted, and a mist seemed to creep over my eyes.
“I see!” he said softly. “It is a pity, isn’t it?”
“It ‘s a pity, my lad yes.”
Finally they gave him notice to quit. One day, when I went to him after breakfast, I found him sitting on the floor packing his belongings in cases, and softly singing to himself about the Rose of Sharon.
“Well, it ‘s good-by now, my friend; I am going.”
He looked at me fixedly as he said:
“Is it possible you don’t know? This room is wanted for your mother.”
“Who said so?’
“Then he told a lie!”
“Good-business” drew me towards him; and when I sat beside him on the floor, he said softly:
“Don’t be angry. I thought that you knew about it and would not tell me; and I thought you were not treating me well.”
So that was why he had been sad and vexed in his manner.
“Listen!” he went on, almost in a whisper. “You remember when I told you not to come and see me?”
“You were offended, weren’t you?”
“But I had no intention of offending you, child. I knew, you see, that if you became friendly with me, you would get into trouble with your family. And wasn’t I right? Now, do you understand why I said it?”
He spoke almost like a child of my own age, and I was beside myself with joy at his words. I felt that I had known this all along, and I said:
“I understood that long ago.”
“Well, there it is. It has happened as I said, my little dove!”
The pain in my heart was almost unbearable.
“Why do none of them like you?”
He put his arm round me, and pressed me to him and answered, blinking down at me:
“I am of a different breed do you see? That’s what it is. I am not like them ”
I just held his hands, not knowing what to say; incapable, in fact, of saying anything.
“Don’t be angry!” he said again; and then he whispered in my ear: “And don’t cry either.” But all the time his own tears were flowing freely from under his smeared glasses.
After that we sat, as usual, in silence, which was broken at rare intervals by a brief word or two; and that evening he went, courteously bidding farewell to every one, and hugging me warmly. I accompanied him to the gate, and watched him drive away in the cart, and being violently jolted as the wheels passed over the hillocks of frozen mud.
Grandmother set to work immediately to clean and scrub the dirty room, and I wandered about from corner to corner on purpose to hinder her.
“Go away!” she cried, when she stumbled over me.
“Why did you send him away then?”
“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.”
“You are fools all of you!” I said.
She flicked me with her wet floorcloth, crying:
“Are you mad, you little wretch?”
“I did not mean you, but the others,” I said, trying to pacify her; but with no success.
At supper grandfather exclaimed:
“Well, thank God he has gone! I should never have been surprised, from what I saw of him, to find him one day with a knife through his heart. Och! It was time he went.”
I broke a spoon out of revenge, and then I relapsed into my usual state of sullen endurance. Thus ended my friendship with the first one of that endless chain of friends belonging to my own country the verv best of her people.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55