I IMAGINE myself, in my childhood, as a hive to which all manner of simple, undistinguished people brought, as the bees bring honey, their knowledge and thoughts about life, generously enriching my soul with what they had to give. The honey was often dirty, and bitter, but it was all the same knowledge and honey.
After the departure of “Good-business,” Uncle Peter became my friend. He was in appearance like grandfather, in that he was wizened, neat, and clean; but he was shorter and altogether smaller than grandfather. He looked like a person hardly grown-up dressed up like an old man for fun. His face was creased like a square of very fine leather, and his comical, lively eyes, with their yellow whites, danced amidst these wrinkles like siskins in a cage. His raven hair, now growing gray, was curly, his beard also fell into ringlets, and he smoked a pipe, the smoke from which the same color as his hair curled upward into rings too; his style of speech was florid, and abounded in quaint sayings. He always spoke in a buzzing voice, and sometimes very kindly, but I always had an idea that he was making fun of everybody.
“When I first went to her, the lady-countess Tatian her name was Lexievna said to me, ‘You shall be blacksmith’; but after a time she orders me to go and help the gardener. ‘All right, I don’t mind, only I didn’t engage to work as a laborer, and it is not right that I should have to.’ Another time she ‘d say ‘Now, Petrushka, you must go fishing.’ It was all one to me whether I went fishing or not, but I preferred to say ‘good-by’ to the fish, thank you! and I came to the town as a drayman. And here I am, and have never been anything else. So far I have not done much good for myself by the change. The only thing I possess is the horse, which reminds me of the Countess.”
This was an old horse, and was really white, but one day a drunken house painter had begun to paint it in various colors, and had never finished his job. Its legs were dislocated, and altogether it looked as if it were made of rags sewn together; the bony head, with its dim, sadly drooping eyes, was feebly attached to the carcass by swollen veins and old, worn-out skin. Uncle Peter waited upon the creature with much respect, and called it “Tankoe.”
“Why do you call that animal by a Christian name?” asked grandfather one day.
“Nothing of the kind, Vassili Vassilev, nothing of the kind in all respect I say it. There is no such Christian name as Tanka but there is ‘Tatiana’!”
Uncle Peter was educated and well-read, and he and grandfather used to quarrel as to which of the saints was the most holy; and sit in judgment, each more severely than the other, on the sinners of ancient times. The sinner who was most hardly dealt with was Absalom. Sometimes the dispute took a purely grammatical form, grandfather saying that it ought to be “sogryeshiM0#z, bezzakonnovaM0w, nepravdava-khom” and Uncle Peter insisting that it was “sogry.” “I say it one way, and you say it another!” said grandfather angrily, turning livid. Then he jeered: “Vaska! Skiska!”
But Uncle Peter, enveloped in smoke, asked maliciously:
“And what is the use of your ‘Idioms’? Do you think God takes any notice of them? What God says when He listens to our prayers is: Pray how you like, pray what you like.”
“Go away, Lexei!” shrieked grandfather in a fury, with his green eyes flashing.
Peter was very fond of cleanliness and tidiness. When he went into the yard he used to kick to one side any shavings, or pieces of broken crockery, or bones that were lying about, with the scornful remark:
“These things are no use, and they get in the way.”
Although he was usually talkative, good-natured, and merry, there were times when his eyes became bloodshot and grew dim and fixed, like the eyes of a dead person, and he would sit, huddled up in a corner, morose and as dumb as his nephew.
“What is the matter with you, Uncle Peter?”
“Let me alone!” he would say darkly and grimly.
In one of the little houses in our street there lived a gentleman, with wens on his forehead, and the most extraordinary habits; on Sundays he used to sit at the window and shoot from a shot-gun at dogs and cats, hens and crows, or whatever came in his way that did not please him. One day he fired at the side of “Good-business”; the shots did not pierce his leather coat, but some of them fell into his pocket. I shall never forget the interested expression with which the boarder regarded the dark-blue shots. Grandfather tried to persuade him to make a complaint about it, but, throwing the shots into a corner of the kitchen, he replied:
“It is not worth while.”
Another time our marksman planted a few shots in grandfather’s leg, and he, much enraged, got up a petition to the authorities, and set to work to get the names of other sufferers and witnesses in the street; but the culprit suddenly disappeared.
As for Uncle Peter, every time he heard the sound of shooting in the street if he were at home he used to hastily cover his iron-gray head with his glossy Sunday cap, which had large ear-flaps, and rush to the gate. Here he would hide his hands behind his back under his coat-tails, which he would lift up in imitation of a cock, and sticking out his stomach, would strut solemnly along the pavement quite close to the marksman, and then turn back. He would do this over and over again, and our whole household would be standing at the gate; while the purple face of the war-like gentleman could be seen at his window, with the blonde head of his wife over his shoulder, and people coming out of Betlenga yard only the gray, dead house of the Ovsyanikovs showed no signs of animation.
Sometimes Uncle Peter made these excursions without any result, the hunter evidently not looking upon him as game worthy of his skill in shooting; but on other occasions the double-barrelled gun was discharged over and over again.
With leisurely steps Uncle Peter came back to us and exclaimed, in great delight:
“He sent every shot into the field!”
Once he got some shot into his shoulder and neck; and grandmother gave him a lecture while she was getting them out with a needle:
“Why on earth do you encourage the beast? He will blind you one of these days.”
“Impossible, Akulina Ivanna,” drawled Peter contemptuously. “He ‘s no marksman!”
“But why do you encourage him?”
“Do you think I am encouraging him? No! I like teasing the gentleman.”
And looking at the extracted shot in his palm, he said:
“He ‘s no marksman. But up there, at the house of my mistress, the Countess Tatiana Lexievna, there was an Army man Marmont Ilich. He was taken up most of the time with matrimonial duties husbands were in the same category as footmen with her and so he was kept busy about her; but he could shoot, if you like only with bullets though, grandmother; he wouldn’t shoot with anything else. He put Ignashka the Idiot at forty paces or thereabouts from him, with a bottle tied to his belt and placed so that it hung between his legs; and while Ignashka stood there with his legs apart laughing in his foolish way, Marmont Ilich took his pistol and bang! the bottle was smashed to pieces. Only, unfortunately Ignashka swallowed a gadfly, or something, and gave a start, and the bullet went into his knee, right into the kneecap. The doctor was called and he took the leg off; it was all over in a minute, and the leg was buried . . . ”
“But what about the idiot?”
“Oh, he was all right! What does an idiot want with legs and arms? His idiocy brings him in more than enough to eat and drink. Every one loves idiots; they are harmless enough. You know the saying: ‘It is better for underlings to be fools; they can do less harm then.’ ”
This sort of talk did not astonish grandmother, she had listened to it scores of times, but it made me rather uncomfortable, and I asked Uncle Peter:
“Would that gentleman be able to kill any one?”
“And why not? Of cou rse he could! . . . He even fought a duel. A Uhlan, who came on a visit to Tatiana Lexievna, had a quarrel with Marmont, and in a minute they had their pistols in their hands, and went out to the park; and there on the path by the pond that Uhlan shot Marmont bang through the liver. Then Marmont was sent to the churchyard, and the Uhlan to the Caucasus . . . and the whole affair was over in a very short time. That is how they did for themselves. And amongst the peasants, and the rest of them, he is not talked of now. People don’t regret him much; they never regretted him for himself . . . but all the same they did grieve at one time for his property.”
“Well, then they didn’t grieve much,” said grandmother.
Uncle Peter agreed with her:
“That ‘s true! . . . His property . . . yes, that wasn’t worth much.”
He always bore himself kindly towards me, spoke to me good-naturedly, and as if I were a grown person, and looked me straight in the eyes; but all the same there was something about him which I did not like. Having regaled me with my. favorite jam, he would spread my slice of bread with what was left, he would bring me malted gingerbread from the town, and always conversed with me in a quiet and serious tone.
“What are you going to do, young gentleman, when you grow up? Are you going into the Army or the Civil Service?’
“Into the Army.”
“Good! A soldier’s life is not a hard one in these days. A priest’s life isn’t bad either . . . all he has to do is to chant, and pray to God, and that does not take long. In fact, a priest has an easier job than a soldier . . . but a fisherman’s job is easier still; that does not require any education at all, it is simply a question of habit.”
He gave an amusing imitation of the fish hovering round the bait, and of the way perch, mugil, and bream throw themselves about when they get caught on the hook.
“Now, you get angry when grandfather whips you,” he would say soothingly, “but you have no cause to be angry at that, young gentleman; whippings are a part of your education, and those that you get are, after all, mere child’s play. You should just see how my mistress, Tatiana Lexievna, used to thrash! She could do it all right, she could! And she used to keep a man especially for that Christopher his name was and he did his work so well that sometimes neighbors from other manor-houses sent a message to the Countess: ‘Please, Tatiana Lexievna, send Christopher to thrash our footman.’ And she used to let him go.”
In his artless manner, he would give a detailed account of how the Countess, in a white muslin frock with a gauzy, sky-colored handkerchief over her head, would sit on the steps, by one of the pillars, in a red armchair, while Christopher flogged the peasants, male and female, in her presence.
“And this Christopher was from Riazan, and he looked like a gipsy, or a Little Russian, with mustaches sticking out beyond his ears, and his ugly face all blue where he had shaved his beard. And either he was a fool, or he pretended to be one so that he should not be asked useless questions. Sometimes he used to pour water into a cup to catch flies and cockroaches, which are a kind of beetle, and then he used to boil them over the fire.”
I was familiar with many such stories, which I had heard from the lips of grandmother and grandfather. Though they were different, yet they were all curiously alike; each one told of people being tormented, jeered at, or driven away, and I was tired of them, and as I did not wish to hear any more, said to the cab-driver:
“Tell me another kind of story.”
All his wrinkles were gathered about his mouth for a space, then they spread themselves to his eyes, as he said obligingly:
“All right, Greedy! Well, we once had a cook”
“The Countess Tatian Lexievna.”
“Why do you call her Tatian? She wasn’t a man, was she?”
He laughed shrilly.
“Of course she wasn’t. She was a lady; but all the same she had whiskers. Dark she was . . . she came of a dark German race . . . people of the negro type they are. Well, as I was saying, this cook this is a funny story, young gentleman.”
And this “funny story” was that the cook had spoiled a fish pasty, and had been made to eat it all up himself, after which he had been taken ill.
“It is not at all funny!” I said angrily.
“Well, what is your idea of a funny story? Come on! Let ‘s have it.”
“I don’t know”
“Then hold your tongue!” And he spun out another dreary yarn.
Occasionally, on Sundays and holidays, we received a visit from my cousins the lazy and melancholy Sascha Michhailov, and the trim, omniscient Sascha Jaakov. Once, when the three of us had made an excursion up to the roof, we saw a gentleman in a green fur-trimmed coat sitting in the Betlenga yard upon a heap of wood against the wall, and playing with some puppies; his little, yellow, bald head was uncovered. One of the brothers suggested the theft of a puppy, and they quickly evolved an ingenious plan by which the brothers were to go down to the street and wait at the entrance to Betlenga yard, while I did something to startle the gentleman; and when he ran away in alarm they were to rush into the yard and seize a puppy.
“But how am I to startle him?’
“Spit on his bald head,” suggested one of my cousins.
But was it not a grievous sin to spit on a person’s head”? However, I had heard over and over again, and had seen with my own eyes, that they had done many worse things than that, so I faithfully performed my part of the contract, with my usual luck.
There was a terrible uproar and scene; a whole army of men and women, headed by a young, good-looking officer, rushed out of Betlenga House into the yard, and as my two cousins were, at the very moment when the outrage was committed, quietly walking along the street, and knew nothing of my wild prank, I was the only one to receive a thrashing from grandfather, by which the inhabitants of Betlenga House were completely satisfied.
And as I lay, all bruised, in the kitchen, there came to me Uncle Peter, dressed in his best, and looking very happy.
“That was a jolly good idea of yours, young gentleman,” he whispered. “That ‘s just what the silly old goat deserved to be spit upon! Next time throw a stone on his rotten head!”
Before me rose the round, hairless, childlike face of the gentleman, and I remembered how he had squeaked feebly and plaintively, just like the puppies, as he had wiped his yellow pate with his small hands, and I felt overwhelmed with shame, and full of hatred for my cousins; but I forgot all this in a moment when I gazed on the drayman’s wrinkled face, which quivered with a half-fearful, half-disgusted expression, like grandfather’s face when he was beating me.
“Go away!” I shrieked, and struck at him with my hands and feet.
He tittered, and winking at me over his shoulder, went away.
From that time I ceased to have any desire for intercourse with him; in fact, I avoided him. And yet I began to watch his movements suspiciously, with a confused idea that I should discover something about him. Soon after the incident connected with the gentleman of Betlenga House, something else occurred. For a long time I had been very curious about Ovsyanikov House, and I imagined that its gray exterior hid a mysterious romance.
Betlenga House was always full of bustle and gaiety; many beautiful ladies lived there, who were visited by officers and students, and from it sounds of laughter and singing, and the playing of musical instruments, continually proceeded. The very face of the house looked cheerful, with its brightly polished window-panes.
Grandfather did not approve of it.
“They are heretics . . . and godless people, all of them!” he said about its inhabitants, and he applied to the women an offensive term, which Uncle Peter explained to me in words equally offensive and malevolent.
But the stern, silent Ovsyanikov House inspired grandfather with respect.
This one-storied but tall house stood in a well-kept yard overgrown with turf, empty save for a well with a roof supported by two pillars, which stood in the middle. The house seemed to draw back from the street as if it wished to hide from it. Two of its windows, which had chiselled arches, were at some distance from the ground, and upon their dust-smeared panes the sun fell with a rainbow effect. And on the other side of the gateway stood a store-house, with a facade exactly like that of the house, even to the three windows, but they were not real ones; the outlines were built into the gray wall, and the frames and sashes painted on with white paint. These blind windows had a sinister appearance, and the whole storehouse added to the impression which the house gave, of having a desire to hide and escape notice. There was a suggestion of mute indignation, or of secret pride, about the whole house, with its empty stables, and its coachhouse, with wide doors, also empty.
Sometimes a tall old man, with shaven chin and white mustache, the hair of which stuck out stiffly like so many needles, was to be seen hobbling about the yard. At other times another old man, with whiskers and a crooked nose, led out of the stables a gray mare with a long neck a narrow-chested creature with thin legs, which bowed and scraped like an obsequious nun as soon as she came out into the yard. The lame man slapped her with his palms, whistling, and drawing in his breath noisily; and then the mare was again hidden in the dark stable. I used to think that the old man wanted to run away from the house, but could not because he was bewitched.
Almost every day from noon till the evening three boys used to play in the yard all dressed alike in gray coats and trousers, with caps exactly alike, and all of them with round faces and gray eyes; so much alike that I could only tell one from the other by their height.
I used to watch them through a chink in the fence; they could not see me, but I wanted them to know I was there. I liked the way they played together, so gaily and amicably, games which were unfamiliar to me; I liked their dress, and their consideration for each other, which was especially noticeable in the conduct of the elder ones to their little brother, a funny little fellow, full of life. If he fell down, they laughed it being the custom to laugh when any one has a fall but there was no malice in their laughter, and they ran to help him up directly; and if he made his hands or knees dirty, they wiped his fingers and trousers with leaves or their handkerchiefs, and the middle boy said good-naturedly:
They never quarreled amongst themselves, never cheated, and all three were agile, strong and indefatigable.
One day I climbed up a tree and whistled to them; they stood stock-still for a moment, then they calmly drew close together, and after looking up at me, deliberated quietly amongst themselves. Thinking that they were going to throw stones at me, I slipped to the ground, filled my pockets and the front of my blouse with stones, and climbed up the tree again; but they were playing in another corner of the yard, far away from me, and apparently had forgotten all about me. I was very sorry for this; first, because I did not wish to be the one to begin the war, and secondly, because just at that moment some one called to them out of the window:
“You must come in now, children.”
They went submissively, but without haste, in single file, like geese.
I often sat on the tree over the fence hoping that they would ask me to play with them; but they never did. But in spirit I was always playing with them, and I was so fascinated by the games sometimes that I shouted and laughed aloud; whereupon all three would look at me and talk quietly amongst themselves, whilst I, overcome with confusion, would let myself drop to the ground.
One day they were playing hide-and-seek, and when it came to the turn of the middle brother to hide, he stood in the corner by the storehouse and shut his eyes honestly, without attempting to peep, while his brothers ran to hide themselves. The elder one nimbly and swiftly climbed into a broad sledge which was kept in a shed against the storehouse, but the youngest one ran in a comical fashion round and round the well, flustered by not knowing where to hide.
“One” shouted the elder one. “Two”
The little boy jumped on the edge of the well, seized the rope, and stepped into the bucket, which, striking once against the edge with a dull sound, disappeared. I was stupefied, as I saw how quickly and noiselessly the well-oiled wheel turned, but I realized in a moment the possibilities of the situation, and I jumped down into the yard crying:
“He has fallen into the well!”
The middle boy and I arrived at the edge of the well at the same time; he clutched at the rope and, feeling himself drawn upwards, loosed his hands. I was just in time to catch the rope, and the elder brother, having come up, helped me to draw up the bucket, saying:
We quickly pulled up the little boy, who was very frightened; there were drops of blood on the fingers of his right hand, and his cheek was severely grazed. He was wet to the waist, and his face was overspread with a bluish pallor; but he smiled, then shuddered, and closed his eyes tightly, then smiled again, and said slowly:
“Howe ver did I fa all?’
“You must have been mad to do such a thing!” said the middle brother, putting his arm round him and wiping the blood off his face with a handkerchief; and the elder one said frowning:
“We had better go in. We can’t hide it anyhow ”
“Will you be whipped?” I asked.
He nodded, and then he said, holding out his hand:
“How quickly you ran here!”
I was delighted by his praise, but I had no time to take his hand for he turned away to speak to his brothers again.
“Let us go in, or he will take cold. We will say that he fell down, but we need not say anything about the well.”
“No,” agreed the youngest, shuddering. “We will say I fell in a puddle, shall we?” And they went away.
All this happened so quickly that when I looked at the branch from which I had sprung into the yard, it was still shaking and throwing its yellow leaves about.
The brothers did not come into the yard again for a week, and when they appeared again they were more noisy than before; when the elder one saw me in the tree he called out to me kindly:
“Come here and play with us.”
We gathered together, under the projecting roof of the storehouse, in the old sledge, and having surveyed one another thoughtfully, we held a long conversation.
“Did they whip you?” I asked.
It was hard for me to believe that these boys were whipped like myself, and I felt aggrieved about it for their sakes.
“Why do you catch birds’?” asked the youngest.
“Because I like to hear them sing.”
“But you ought not to catch them; why don’t you let them fly about as they like to?”
“Well, I ‘m not going to, so there!”
“Won’t you just catch one then and give it to me?”
“To you! . . . What kind?”
“A lively one, in a cage.”
“A siskin . . . that ‘s what you want.”
“The cat would eat it,” said the youngest one; “and besides, papa would not allow us to have it.”
“No, he wouldn’t allow it,” agreed the elder.
“Have you a mother?”
“No,” said the eldest, but the middle one corrected him:
“We have a mother, but she is not ours really. Ours is dead.”
“And the other is called a stepmother?” I said, and the elder nodded “Yes.”
And they all three looked thoughtful, and their faces were clouded. I knew what a stepmother was like from the stories grandmother used to tell me, and I understood that sudden thoughtfulness. There they sat, all close together, as much alike as a row of peas in a pod; and I remembered the witch-stepmother who took the place of the real mother by means of a trick.
“Your real mother will come back to you again, see if she doesn’t,” I assured them.
The elder one shrugged his shoulders.
“How can she if she is dead? Such things don’t happen.”
“Don’t happen”? Good Lord! how many times have the dead, even when they have been hacked to pieces, come to life again when sprinkled with living water?
How many times has death been neither real, nor the work of God, but simply the evil spell cast by a wizard or a witch !”
I began to tell grandmother’s stories to them excitedly; but the eldest laughed at first, and said under his breath:
“We know all about those fairy-tales!”
His brothers listened in silence; the little one with his lips closely shut and pouting, and the middle one with his elbows on his knees, and holding his brother’s hand which was round his neck.
The evening was far advanced, red clouds hung over the roof, when suddenly there appeared before us the old man with the white mustache and cinnamon-colored clothes, long, like those worn by a priest, and a rough fur cap.
“And who may this be?” he asked, pointing to me.
The elder boy stood up and nodded his head in the direction of grandfather’s house:
“He comes from there.”
“Who invited him in here?”
The boys silently climbed down from the sledge, and went into the house, reminding me more than ever of a flock of geese.
The old man gripped my shoulder like a vice and propelled me across the yard to the gate. I felt like crying through sheer terror, but he took such long, quick steps that before I had time to cry we were in the street, and he stood at the little gate raising his finger at me threateningly, as he said:
“Don’t you dare to come near me again!”
I flew into a rage.
“I never did want to come near you, you old devil!”
Once more I was seized by his long arm and he dragged me along the pavement as he asked in a voice which was like the blow of a hammer on my head:
“Is your grandfather at home?”
To my sorrow he proved to be at home, and he stood before the minacious old man, with his head thrown back and his beard thrust forward, looking up into the dull, round, fishy eyes as he said hastily:
“His mother is away, you see, and I am a busy man, so there is no one to look after him; so I hope you will overlook it this time, Colonel.”
The Colonel raved and stamped about the house like a madman, and he was hardly gone before I was thrown into Uncle Peter’s cart.
“In trouble again, young gentleman?” he asked as he unharnessed the horse. “What are you being punished for now?”
When I told him, he flared up.
“And what do you want to be friends with them for?” he hissed. “The young serpents! Look what they have done for you! It is your turn now to blow on them; see you do it.”
He whispered like this for a long time, and all sore from my beating as I was, I was inclined to listen to him at first; but his wrinkled face quivered in a way which became more and more repellent to me every moment, and reminded me that the other boys would be beaten too, and undeservedly, in my opinion.
“They ought not to be whipped; they are all good boys. As for you, every word you say is a lie,” I said.
He looked at me, and then without any warning cried:
“Get out of my cart!”
“You fool!” I yelled, jumping down to the ground.
He ran after me across the yard, making unsuccessful attempts to catch me, and yelling in an uncanny voice:
“I am a fool, am I? I tell lies, do I? You wait till I get you!”
At this moment grandmother came out of the kitchen, and I rushed to her.
“This little wretch gives me no peace! I am five times older than he is, yet he dares to come and revile me . . . and my mother . . . and all.”
Hearing him lie like this so brazenly, I lost my presence of mind, and could do nothing but stand staring at him stupidly; but grandmother replied sternly:
“Now you are telling lies, Peter, there is no doubt about it. He would never be offensive to you or any one.”
Grandfather would have believed the drayman!
From that day there was silent but none the less bitter warfare between us; he would try to hit me with his reins, without seeming to do it, he would let my birds out of their cage, and sometimes the cat would catch and eat them, and he would complain about me to grandfather on every possible occasion, and was always believed. I was confirmed in my first impression of him that he was just a boy like myself disguised as an old man. I unplaited his bast shoes, or rather I ripped a little inside the shoes so that as soon as he put them on they began to fall to pieces; one day I put some pepper in his cap which set him sneezing for a whole hour, and trying with all his might not to leave off his work because of it.
On Sundays he kept me under observation, and more than once he caught me doing what was forbidden talking to the Ovsyanikovs, and went and told tales to grandfather.
My acquaintance with the Ovsyanikovs progressed, and gave me increasing pleasure. On a little winding pathway between the wall of grandfather’s house and the Ovsyanikovs’ fence grew elms and lindens, with some thick elder bushes, under cover of which I bored a semicircular hole in the fence, and the brothers used to come in turns, or perhaps two of them together, and, squatting or kneeling at this hole, we held long conversations in subdued tones; while one of them watched lest the Colonel should come upon us unawares.
They told me how miserable their existence was, and it made me sad to listen to them; they talked about my caged birds, and of many childish matters, but they never spoke a single word about their stepmother or their father, at least, as far as I can remember. More often than not they asked me to tell them a story, and I faithfully reproduced one of grandmother’s tales, and if I forgot anything, I would ask them to wait while I ran to her and refreshed my memory. This pleased her.
“I told them a lot about grandmother, and the eldest boy remarked once with a deep sigh:
“Your grandmother seems to be good in every way. . . . We had a good grandmother too, once.”
He often spoke sadly like this, and spoke of things which had happened as if he had lived a hundred years instead of eleven. I remember that his hands were narrow, and his ringers very slender and delicate, and that his eyes were kind and bright, like the lights of the church lamps. His brothers were lovable too; they seemed to inspire confidence and to make one want to do the things they liked; but the eldest one was my favorite.
Often I was so absorbed in our conversations that I did not notice Uncle Peter till he was close upon us, and the sound of his voice sent us flying in all directions as he exclaimed:
“A gai ne?”
I noticed that his fits of taciturnity and moroseness became more frequent, and I very soon learned to see at a glance what mood he was in when he returned from work. As a rule he opened the gate in a leisurely manner, and its hinges creaked with a long-drawn-out, lazy sound; but when he was in a bad mood, they gave a sharp squeak, as if they were crying out in pain.
His dumb nephew had been married some time and had gone to live in the country, so Peter lived alone in the stables, in a low stall with a broken window and a close smell of hides, tar, sweat and tobacco; and because of that smell I would never enter his dwelling-place. He had taken to sleep with his lamp burning, and grandfather greatly objected to the habit.
“You see! You’ll burn me out, Peter.”
“No, I shan’t. Don’t you worry. I stand the lamp in a basin of water at night,” he would reply, with a sidelong glance.
He seemed to look askance at every one now, and had long given over attending grandmother’s evenings and bringing her jam; his face seemed to be shriveling, his wrinkles became much deeper, and as he walked he swayed from side to side and shuffled his feet like a sick person.
One week-day morning grandfather and I were clearing away the snow in the yard, there having been a heavy fall that night, when suddenly the latch of the gate clanged loudly and a policeman entered the yard, closing the gate by setting his back against it while he beckoned to grandfather with a fat, gray finger. When grandfather went to him the policeman bent down so that his long-pointed nose looked exactly as if it were chiseling grandfather’s forehead, and said something, but in such a low tone that I could not hear the words; but grandfather answered quickly:
“Here? When? Good God!”
And suddenly he cried, jumping about comically:
“God bless us! Is it possible?”
“Don’t make so much noise,” said the policeman sternly.
Grandfather looked round and saw me.
“Put away your spade, and go indoors,” he said.
I hid myself in a corner and saw them go to the drayman’s stall, and I saw the policeman take off his right glove and strike the palm of his left hand with it as he said:
“He knows we ‘re after him. He left the horse to wander about, and he is hiding here somewhere.”
I rushed into the kitchen to tell grandmother all about it; she was kneading dough for bread, and her floured he’ad was bobbing up and down as she listened to me, and then said calmly:
“He has been stealing something, I suppose. You run away now. What is it to do with you?”
When I went out into the yard again grandfather was standing at the gate with his cap off, and his eyes raised to heaven, crossing himself. His face looked angry; he was bristling with anger, in fact, and one of his legs was trembling.
“I told you to go indoors!” he shouted, stamping at me; but he came with me into the kitchen, calling: “Come here, Mother!”
They went into the next room, and carried on a long conversation in whispers; but when grandmother came back to the kitchen I saw at once from her expression that something dreadful had happened.
“Why do you look so frightened?” I asked her.
“Hold your tongue!” she said quietly.
All day long there was an oppressive feeling about the house. Grandfather and grandmother frequently exchanged glances of disquietude, and spoke together, softly uttering unintelligible, brief words which intensified the feeling of unrest.
“Light lamps all over the house, Mother,” grandfather ordered, coughing.
We dined without appetite, yet hurriedly, as if we were expecting some one. Grandfather was tired, and puffed out his cheeks as he grumbled in a squeaky voice:
“The power of the devil over man! . . . You see it everywhere . . . even our religious people and ecclesiastics! . . . What is the reason of it, eh?”
The hours of that silver-gray winter’s day dragged wearily on, and the atmosphere of the house seemed to become increasingly disturbed and oppressive. Before the evening another policeman came, a red, fat man, who sat by the stove in the kitchen and dozed, and when grandmother asked him: “How did they find this out?” he answered in a thick voice: “We find out everything, so don’t you worry yourself!”
I sat at the window, I remember, warming an old two-kopeck piece in my mouth, preparatory to an attempt to make an impression on the frozen window-panes of St. George and the Dragon. All of a sudden there came a dreadful noise from the vestibule, the door was thrown open, and Petrovna shrieked deliriously:
“Look and see what you ‘ve got out there!”
Catching sight of the policeman, she darted back into the vestibule; but he caught her by the skirt, and cried fearfully:
“Wait! Who are you? What are we to look for?”
Suddenly brought to a halt on the threshold, she fell on her knees and began to scream; and her words and her tears seemed to choke her:
“I saw it when I went to milk the cows . . . what is that thing that looks like a boot in the Kashmirins’ garden? I said to myself ”
But at this grandfather stamped his foot and shouted:
“You are lying, you fool! You could not see anything in our garden, the fence is too high and there are no crevices. You are lying; there is nothing in our garden,”
“Little Father, it is true!” howled Petrovna, stretching out one hand to him, and pressing the other to her head. “It is true, little Father . . . should I lie about such a thing? There were footprints leading to your fence, and the snow was all trampled in one place, and I went and looked through the fence and I saw . . . him . . . lying there . . .”
This question was repeated over and over again, but nothing more was to be got out of her. Suddenly they all made a dash for the garden, jostling each other as if they had gone mad; and there, by the pit, with the snow softly spread over him, lay Uncle Peter, with his back against the burnt beam and his head fallen on his chest. Under his right ear was a deep gash, red, like a mouth, from which jagged pieces of flesh stuck out like teeth.
I shut my eyes in horror at the sight, but I could see, through my eyelashes, the harness-maker’s knife, which I knew so well, lying on Uncle Peter’s knees, clutched in the dark fingers of his right hand; his left hand was cut off and was sinking into the snow. Under the drayman the snow had thawed, so that his diminutive body was sunk deep in the soft, sparkling down, and looked even more childlike than when he was alive. On the right side of the body a strange red design, resembling a bird, had been formed on the snow; but on the left the snow was untouched, and had remained smooth and dazzingly bright. The head had fallen forward in an attitude of submission, with the chin pressed against the chest, and crushing the thick curly beard; and amidst the red streams of congealed blood on the breast there lay a large brass cross. The noise they were all making seemed to set my head spinning. Petrovna never left off shrieking, the policeman shouted orders to Valei as he sent him on an errand, and grandfather cried:
“Take care not to tread in his footprints!”
But he suddenly knit his brows, and looking on the ground said in a loud, imperious tone to the policeman: “There is nothing for you to kick up a row about, Constable! This is God’s affair . . . a judgment from God . . . yet you must be fussing about some nonsense or other bah!”
And at once a hush fell on them all; they stood still and, taking in a long breath, crossed themselves. Several people now came hastily into the garden from the yard. They climbed over Petrovna’s fence and some of them fell down, and uttered exclamations of pain; but for all that they were quite quiet until grandfather cried in a voice of despair:
“Neighbors! why are you spoiling my raspberry bushes? Have you no consciences’?”
Grandmother, sobbing violently, took my hand and brought me into the house.
“What did he do?” I asked.
“Couldn’t you see?” she answered.
For the rest of the evening, until far into the night, strangers tramped in and out of the kitchen and the other rooms talking loudly; the police were in command, and a man who looked like a deacon was making notes, and quacking like a duck :
“Wha at? Wha at?”
Grandmother offered them all tea in the kitchen, where, sitting at the table, was a rotund, whiskered individual, marked with smallpox, who was saying in a shrill voice:
“His real name we don’t know . . . all that we can find out is that his birthplace was Elatma. As for the Deaf Mute . . . that is only a nickname . . . he was not deaf and dumb at all . . . he knew all about the business. . . . And there ‘s a third man in it too . . . we ‘ve got to find him yet. They have been robbing churches for a long time; that was their lay.”
“Good Lord!” ejaculated Petrovna, very red, and perspiring profusely.
As for me, I lay on the ledge of the stove and looked down on them, and thought how short and fat and dreadful they all were.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09