In 1888, great events began to take place in my life: I was sent off to Odessa to study. It happened this way: My mother’s nephew, Moissey Filippovich Schpentzer, a man of about twenty-eight, spent a summer in our village. He was a fine and intelligent person who for a minor political offense had been barred from the university on his graduation from high school. He was a bit of a journalist and a bit of a statistician. He came out to the country to fight off tuberculosis. Monya, as he was called, was the pride of his mother and of his several sisters, both because of his abilities and be cause of his fine character. My family inherited this respect for him. Everybody was pleased at the prospect of his arrival. Quietly I shared this feeling. When Monya entered the dining-room I was at the threshold of the so-called “nursery” — a tiny corner room and did not have enough courage to come forward because my shoes had two gaping holes. This was not due to poverty the family at the time was already well-to-do but to the indifference of country folk, to over-burdening toil, to the low level of our home standards.
“Hello, boy,” said Moissey Filippovich, “come here.”
“Hello,” the boy answered, but did not budge from his place. They explained to the guest, with a guilty laugh, why I did not stir. He gaily relieved me of my embarrassment by lifting me across the threshold and embracing me heartily.
Monya was the centre of attention at dinner. Mother served him the best cuts, asking how he enjoyed his food and what his favorite dishes were. In the evening, after the herd had been driven into the cowpen, Monya said to me: “Come on, let’s get some fresh milk. Take along some glasses . . . Now darling, you should hold the glasses with your fingers on the outside, not on the inside”
From Monya I learned many things I did not know: how to hold a glass, how to wash, how to pronounce certain words, and why milk fresh from the cow is good for the chest. He walked a lot, he wrote, he played ninepins, he taught me arithmetic and Russian grammar, preparing me for the first class of the gymnasium. He enraptured me but at the same time disquieted me. One sensed in him the element of a more exacting discipline in life — the element of city civilization.
Monya was friendly to his country relatives. He jested a lot and sometimes hummed in a soft tenor voice. At times he seemed gloomy and at the dinner-table would sit silent, sunk in meditation. He would get anxious glances and would be asked if something ailed him. His answers were brief and evasive. Only toward the end of his stay in the village, and then only vaguely, did I begin to surmise the cause of his moody spells. Monya was upset by the rude manners of the village or by some injustice. It was not that his uncle or aunt were especially stern masters that cannot be said under any circumstances. The nature of the prevailing relations with the laborers and peasants was in no sense worse than on other estates. But it was not much better and this means that it was oppressive. When the overseer once struck a shepherd with a long knout because he had kept the horses out late, Monya grew pale and hissed between his teeth, “How shameful!” And I felt that it was shameful. I do not know if I would have felt the same way if he had not made his remark I am inclined to think I would. But in any event he helped me to feel that way, and this alone was enough to instil in me a lifelong sense of gratitude.
Schpentzer was about to marry the principal of the State School for Jewish Girls. No one in Yanovka knew her, but everybody assumed that she must be out of the ordinary, because she was a school principal and Monya’s bride. It was decided to send me to Odessa the following spring; there I would live with the Schpentzers and attend the gymnasium. The tailor of the colony somehow fitted me out. A large trunk was packed with vessels containing butter, jars full of jam and other gifts for the city relatives. The farewell was a long one. I wept copiously, so did my mother, and so did my sisters, and for the first time I felt how dear to me was Yanovka, with all it held. We drove to the station across the steppe, and I wept until we came out on the main road.
From Novy Bug we took the train to Nikolayev, where we transferred to a steamboat. The siren sent shivers down my spine; it sounded like the call to a new life. The sea was ahead of us, for we were still on the River Bug. A great deal indeed was ahead. There was the pier, the cabman, the Pokrovsky Alley, and a big old house where the School for Girls and its principal were lodged. I was scrutinized from every angle. First a young woman, then an older one, her mother, kissed me on the forehead and both cheeks. Moissey Filippovich jested in his usual manner, inquiring about Yanovka, its inhabitants, and even the familiar cows. To me the cows seemed such insignificant beings that I was embarrassed to discuss them in such select company. The apartment was none too large. I was assigned a corner in the dining-room, behind a curtain. And it was here that I spent the first four years of my school life.
All at once I found myself in the grip of that alluring but exacting discipline which Moissey Filippovich radiated when he was with us in the country. The regime was not stern but it was regular; it was on that account that it seemed severe in the beginning. I had to go to bed at nine. This hour gradually receded as I advanced in the school. I was reminded at every turn not to fail to say good-morning, to keep my hands and finger-nails tidy, not to eat with a knife, not to be tardy, always to thank the servants, and not to speak ill of people behind their backs. I learned that scores of words which seemed beyond question at home were not Russian but Ukrainian jargon. Every day there was revealed to me some aspect of a cultural environment greater than that in which I had passed the first nine years of my life. Even the shop at home began to dim and to lose its magic as compared with the spell of classical literature and the charm of the theatre. I was becoming a little urbanite. Occasionally, however, the village would flare up in my consciousness and draw me on like a lost paradise. Then I would pine, wander about, and trace with my finger on the window-pane messages to my mother, or I would cry into my pillow.
Life in the home of Moissey Filippovich was modest. He had barely means enough to make ends meet. The head of the family had no steady work. He did translations of the Greek tragedies with commentaries, he wrote tales for children, he studied Schloesser and other historians, planning to compile graphic chronological tables, and he helped his wife to conduct the school. It was later that he formed a small publishing house which grew with difficulty in the first years but rose to a high position subsequently. In about ten or twelve years he became the outstanding publisher in southern Russia, the owner of a large printing establishment and of a private residence. I lived for six years with this family, during the first period of the publishing concern. I became very familiar with type, make-up, lay-out, printing, paging, and binding. Proof reading was my favorite pastime. My love for the freshly printed page has its origin in those far-away years as a school boy.
As would be the case in bourgeois, especially petty bourgeois, homes, the servant occupied not a small although not a noticeable rôle in my life. The first maid, Dasha, made me her secret confidant, entrusting her various secrets to me. After dinner, when everybody was resting, I would stealthily make for the kitchen. There Dasha would give me fragrants of her life and tell me of her first love. Dasha was followed by a divorced Jewess from Jitomir. “What a rascal he was,” she would complain of her former husband. I began to teach her how to read. Every day she would spend not less than half an hour at my desk, trying to penetrate into the mystery of the alphabet and the formation of words. By this time there was an infant in the family, and a wet-nurse was taken in. I wrote letters for her. She complained of her troubles to her husband, who was in America. At her request I painted them in the darkest colors, adding that “our baby is the only bright star on the dark sky line of my life.” The nurse was in ecstasy. I myself reread the letter aloud with some satisfaction, although the closing part, where there was something about sending dollars, embarrassed me. Then she added:
“And now, one more letter.”
“To whom?” I asked, preparing for the creative task.
“To my cousin,” replied the nurse somewhat uncertainly. This letter also spoke of her dark life, but said nothing about the star, and ended with a suggestion that she visit him if he so desired. Hardly had the nurse left with the letters when my pupil, the maid, who had apparently been eavesdropping, appeared. “But he isn’t at all a cousin of hers,” she whispered to me indignantly. “What is he then?” I asked. “Just somebody,” she replied. And I had occasion to contemplate the complexity of human relations.
At dinner Fanny Solomonovna 1 said to me, smiling strangely: “How about some more soup, author?”
“What?” I asked, alarmed.
“Oh nothing, you composed a letter for the wet-nurse, so you are an author. How did you put it: a star on the dark sky-line? — an author, indeed!” And no longer able to restrain herself, she burst out laughing.
“It’s well written,” said Moissey Filippovich soothingly, “but you know, you shouldn’t write letters for her any more; let Fanny herself write them.”
The bewildering wrong side of life, recognized neither at home nor at school, did not however cease to exist because of that, and proved sufficiently powerful and all-pervading to command attention even from a ten-year-old boy. Barred from the schoolroom as well as from the front door of the home, it found its way in through the kitchen.
The law limiting the admission of Jews to the state schools to ten per cent of the entire number was first introduced in 1887. It was an almost hopeless effort to gain entrance into a gymnasium, requiring “pull” or bribery. The realschule differed from the gymnasium in the absence from its curriculum of ancient languages and in its broader course in mathematics, natural sciences and modern languages. The ten per cent statute applied also to the realschule. In the case of the latter, the stream of applicants was smaller and the chances for admission were therefore greater. For a long time a debate raged in the newspapers and magazines as to the merits of a classical vs. a realschule education. The conservatives held that classicism fosters discipline — it was more likely a hope that the citizen who had endured Greek in his childhood would be able to endure the Czarist regime the rest of his life. The liberals, on the other hand, without repudiating classicism, which is a sort of a foster-brother to liberalism, since both trace their origin to the Renaissance, still favored the realschule. When I was about to start my high-school education, these debates had died down, the result of a special order prohibiting discussion as to which was the more desirable type of education.
In the fall, I took my examinations for the first class of the St. Paul realschule. I passed the entrance examination with average marks: a “3” in Russian, a “4” in arithmetic. 2 This was not enough, as the ten per cent statute meant the most rigid selection complicated, of course, by bribery. It was decided to put me in the preparatory class, attached to the school as a private institution. Jews were transferred from there to the first class according to the statute, it is true, but with preference over outsiders.
The St. Paul School had originally been a German institution. It had been founded by the Lutheran parish to serve the numerous German residents of Odessa and of the southern district in general. Although the St. Paul School was endowed with all state rights, it was necessary, because it had only six grades, to take the seventh year at another realschule in order to be admitted to a university. Apparently the assumption was that in the last grade the remnants of the German spirit would be wiped out. This spirit, by the way, waned in the St. Paul School year by year. Germans formed less than half of the student body. The Germans on the staff were persistently being forced out.
The first days of study at school were days of sorrow; then they became days of joy. I started for school in a brand-new uniform, wearing a new cap with a yellow border and a remarkable metal badge which contained, between two trefoils, the complicated monogram of the school. On my back was a brand-new leather school-bag, holding new text-books in bright bindings and a handsome pencil-case stuffed with freshly sharpened pencils, a new penholder, and an eraser. In transports, I carried this entire, magnificent load through the long Uspensky Street, happy that the distance to the school was great. It seemed to me that the passers-by looked with amazement and sometimes even with envy at my astonishing equipment. Trustingly and with interest I surveyed everybody I met. Then, quite suddenly, a tall skinny boy of about thirteen, evidently a shop-apprentice, for he carried some tin object, stopped in front of this superb schoolboy and coming within a step or two, threw his head back, made a loud noise and spat amply at the shoulder of my new jacket. Looking contemptuously at me, he passed on without a word. What made him do it? I know the reason now. The impoverished boy, dressed a tattered shirt, with broken boots on bare feet, the boy whose job it was to carry out the dirty errands of his masters while their pampered sons flaunted school uniforms, vented upon me his sense of social protest. But at the time I was not interested in generalities. I wiped my shoulder for a long time with some leaves, boiling within from the helpless insult, and completed the last part of my journey in a gloomy mood.
The second blow awaited me in the courtyard of the school. “Peter Pavlovich,” the boys cried, “here is another from the preparatory class in uniform!” What did that mean? It appeared that the preparatory school was a private affair, and its members were strictly forbidden to don the St. Paul uniform. Peter Pavlovich, the black-bearded monitor, explained to me that I must remove the badge, the braid and the belt-buckle, and must replace the buttons, which had an eagle stamped on them, with ordinary ones. This was my second misfortune.
That day there were no classes at school. The German pupils and many others were all gathered in the Lutheran church whose name the school bore. I found myself under the guidance of a thick-set boy who had been left in the preparatory class for a second year and who knew the system. He put me next to him on a bench at the church. For the first time I heard an organ, and its sounds filled me with quivers. Then appeared a tall, shaven man, the facing of his coat all white; his voice reverberated through the church like a series of waves. The strangeness of his speech accentuated tenfold the grandeur of his sermon. “Who is that speaking?” I asked, all agitated. “It’s Pastor Binneman himself,” explained my new friend, Carlson. “He’s a terribly wise man, the wisest in Odessa.
“And what is he saying?”
“Well, you know, the regular things,” said Carlson with much less enthusiasm. “That one should be a good pupil, study hard, get along well with the boys.” This heavy-jawed admirer of Binneman turned out to be a most obstinate sluggard and a terrible scrapper who, during recesses, distributed black eyes right and left.
The second day brought its comforts. I promptly distinguished myself in arithmetic, and copied the lesson from the blackboard well. The teacher, Rudyenko, praised me before the entire class and gave me two “fives.” This reconciled me to the plain buttons on my jacket. The director himself, Christian Christianovich Schwannebach, taught German to the junior classes. He was a sleek official who had attained his high position only because he was the brother-in-law of Binneman himself. Christian Christianovitch began by examining the hands of all the pupils. He found that mine were clean. Then, when I had copied his lesson from the blackboard accurately, the director voiced his approval and gave me a “5.” Thus it came about that after the first actual day of school I was returning with a load of three “excellent” marks. I carried them in my leather kit like a treasure, and ran rather than walked into the Pokrovsky Alley, driven by the thirst for home glory.
So I became a schoolboy. I would rise early, drink my morning tea in a hurry, thrust a package containing my lunch into my overcoat pocket, and run to school in order to reach there in time for the morning prayer. I was not tardy. I was quiet at my desk. I listened attentively and copied carefully. I worked diligently at home over my lessons. I went to bed at the prescribed hour, in order to hurry through my tea the following morning and run to school for fear of being late for the prayer. I passed from grade to grade without difficulty. Whenever I met one of my teachers in the street, I bowed with all possible deference.
The percentage of freaks among people in general is very considerable, but it is especially high among teachers. In the St. Paul realschule the level of the teachers was perhaps above the average. The standing of the school was high, and not without reason. The regime was stern and exacting; the reins were drawn tighter and tighter every year, especially after the director’s power had passed from the hands of Schwannebach into those of Nikolay Antonovich Kaininsky. He was a physicist by profession, a humanity-hater by temperament He never looked at the person with whom he talked; he moved about the corridors and the classrooms noiselessly on rubber heels. He spoke in a small, hoarse, falsetto voice which, without being raised, could be terrifying. Outwardly Kaminsky seemed even in temper, but inwardly he was always in a state of habitual irritation. His attitude toward even the best students was one of armed neutrality. That, incidentally, was his attitude toward me.
In his capacity of physicist, Kaminsky invented a special apparatus to demonstrate the Boyle-Mariotte law of the resistance of gases. After each demonstration, there were always two or three boys who in a studied whisper would exchange the words, “Well done!” Some one would rise and in a doubtful tone inquire: “And who is the inventor of this apparatus?” Kaminsky would answer casually in his frozen falsetto: “I built it.” Everybody would exchange glances, and the two-mark boys would emit as loud a sigh of rapture as possible.
After Schwannebach had been replaced by Kaminsky as a measure for Russification, the teacher of literature, Anton Vasilyevich Krizhanovsky, became the inspector of the school. He was a red-bearded, crafty fellow, an ex-theologian, a great lover of gifts a man with a slightly liberal tendency, very clever at disguising his designs under an assumed kindliness. As soon as he was appointed inspector he became more rigorous and conservative. Krizhanovsky taught Russian from the first grade upward. He singled me out for my grammar and love of the language. He made it a fixed rule to read my written works aloud to the class, giving me a mark of “5 plus.”
The mathematician, Yurchenko, was a stubby, phlegmatic, shrewd person, who was known as the “bindyuzhnik,” which in Odessa slang meant a “heavy truck-driver.” Yurchenko addressed everybody, from the first grade to the last, by the familiar “thou,” and was not finicky about his expressions. With his consistent gruffness, he inspired a certain amount of respect which melted away, however, in the course of time, for the boys learned that Yurchenko took bribes. The other teachers were also susceptible to bribery in one form or another. A backward pupil, if he was from out of town, would be lodged with that teacher whom he needed most. If the pupil happened to be a local resident, he would employ the threatening pedagogue as a private tutor at a high price.
The second mathematician, Zlotchansky, was the opposite of Yurchenko. He was thin, with a prickly mustache on a greenish-yellow face; his eyeballs were muddy, his movements as sluggish as if he had just awakened. He coughed noisily and spat in the classroom. It was known that he had had an unhappy love-affair, that he was dissipating and drinking. Although not a bad mathematician, Zlotchansky would stare beyond his pupils, beyond his studies, and even beyond his mathematics. Several years later he cut his throat with a razor.
My relations with the two mathematicians were smooth and pleasant, since I was strong in the subject. When I was in the last grades of the realschule, I planned to go in for higher mathematics.
The teacher of history was Lyubimov, a large and imposing man with gold-rimmed glasses on a small nose, and with a manly young beard around his full face. Only when he smiled did it suddenly appear, clearly even to us boys, that the impressiveness of the man was superficial, that he was weak-willed, timid, torn within himself, and fearful lest people find out something about him.
I plunged into history with an increasing though diffused interest. Gradually I widened the circle of my studies, abandoning the poor official text-books for the university courses or the solid, tomes of Schloesser. There was undoubtedly some element of sport in my fascination for history. I learned by heart many unnecessary names and details, burdensome to the memory, in order to give occasional embarrassment to the teacher. Lyubimov was unable to cope with his class. Some times he would suddenly flare up during the lesson and look angrily about, catching a whisper that he imagined to be an insulting remark concerning himself. The class would prick up its ears in astonishment. Lyubimov also taught at a gymnasium for girls, and there, too, it was observed that he was acting strangely. The end was an attack of insanity, as a result of which Lyubimov hanged himself from a window-frame.
The geography teacher, Zhukovsky, was feared more than fire. He mowed the boys down like an automatic meat-axe. Zhukovsky demanded an entirely impossible silence in his classroom. Not infrequently stopping a student in the midst of his recitation, he would look up sharply like a bird of prey listening to the sound of distant danger. Everybody knew what it meant: not to stir and if possible not to breathe. I recall only one occasion when Zhukovsky loosed his reins somewhat I think it was on his birthday. One of the students said some thing to him that was semi-private, that is, with no bearing on the lesson. Zhukovsky tolerated it. This in itself was an event. Immediately Vakker, the fawner, arose and, with a smirk, remarked: “It’s common talk that Lyubimov can’t hold a candle to Zhukovsky.” Zhukovsky suddenly grew tense. “What’s that? Sit down!” At once there descended that special silence known only in the geography class. Vakker sat, down as if crushed by a blow. Glances full of reproach and disgust were turned upon him from all sides. “I swear, it’s the truth,” Vakker replied in a whisper, hoping to touch the heart of the geographer, with whom his standing was low.
The full-fledged teacher of German at the school was Struve, a huge German with a large head and a beard which reached to his waistline. This man carried his heavy body, which seemed a vessel of kindliness, on almost childlike limbs. Struve was a most honest person; he suffered over the failures of his pupils, he shared their agitation, he coaxed them, and was pained over every “2.” He never descended as low as a “1”; he tried never to leave a pupil behind for another year. It was he who had obtained admission to the school for the nephew of his cook, the Vakker boy, who turned out, however, to be ungifted and unattractive. Struve was a bit droll, but on the whole a sympathetic figure.
The teacher of French was Gustave Samoylovich Burnande, a Swiss — a lean person with a profile so flat that it seemed to have just been squeezed in a press. He had a small bald spot, thin, blue, unkindly lips, a sharp nose, and a mysterious large scar in the form of the letter X on his forehead. Burnande was disliked unanimously, and with reason. A sufferer from indigestion, he kept swallowing tablets during the classroom hours, and regarded every pupil as a personal enemy. The scar on his forehead was a constant source of conjecture and theory. It was said that Gustave in his youth had fought a duel, and that his opponent succeeded in tracing a twisted cross on his forehead with a rapier. This was denied several months later. It was then asserted that there had been no duel but instead a surgical operation, in the course of which part of his forehead was employed to repair his nose. The boys carefully scrutinized his nose, and the more venturesome ones affirmed that they could see the stitches. Then there were more judicial minds who sought to explain the scar as an accident of his early childhood a fall down stairs. But this explanation was repudiated as too prosaic. Moreover, it was altogether impossible to imagine Burnande as a child.
The chief janitor, who played a not unimportant rôle in our life, was the imperturbable German Anton, with imposing and graying side-whiskers. When it came to tardiness, being kept after school, incarceration, Anton’s authority was merely a routine affair, but actually it was great, and it was necessary to keep on friendly terms with him. My attitude toward him was one of indifference, as was his toward me, for I was not among his clients. I came to school on time, my kit was in order, my card was always in the left pocket of my jacket. But scores of pupils were daily at the mercy of Anton and courted his benevolence in every way. In any event, he was for all of us one of the pillars of the St. Paul realschule. Imagine our amazement when, on our return from the summer vacation, we learned that old man Anton had shot the eighteen-year-old daughter of another janitor in a fit of passion and jealousy, and was lodged in jail.
In this way the regulated life of the school and the suppressed, crushed public life of the period would be punctured by individual personal calamities which always made an exaggerated impression, like a sob in an empty vault.
There was an orphanage attached to the church of St. Paul. It occupied a corner of our courtyard. Dressed in blue, wash-worn denim, the inmates appeared in the yard with unhappy faces, wandering dejectedly in their corner and droopingly climbing the stairs. In spite of the fact that the courtyard was common ground and the orphanage not segregated, the schoolboys and the inmates represented two completely separate worlds. Once or twice I tried to converse with the boys in blue denim, but they answered gruffly, unwillingly, hurrying to their own section. They were under strict orders not to interfere in the affairs of the students. For seven years I played in this courtyard, and never knew the name of a single orphan. One must suppose that Pastor Binneman blessed them at the beginning of the year, according to the abbreviated mass-book.
In the part of the courtyard which adjoined the orphanage was the complicated apparatus for gymnastics: rings, poles, ladders both vertical and inclined trapezes, parallel bars, etcetera. Soon after I entered school, I wanted to repeat a stunt performed before me by one of the orphanage boys. Climbing the vertical ladder and suspending myself by my shoe-tips from the upper bar, head downward, I caught the lowest rung within reach and, releasing my feet, let myself go, expecting to make a loop of 180 degrees and land on the ground in one bound. But I failed to let go my hands in time and, after describing the loop, struck the ladder with my body. My chest was crushed, my breath stifled; I wriggled on the ground like a worm, grasping at the legs of the boys around me, and then losing consciousness. From then on I was more careful with my gymnastics.
My life was not of the street, of the market-place, of sports and outdoor exercises. I made up for these deficiencies when on vacation in the village. The city seemed to me created for study and reading. The boys’ street brawls seemed to me dis graceful. Yet there was never any lack of cause for a fight.
The gymnasium students, on account of their silver buttons and badges, were dubbed “herrings,” while the brass-buttoned realschule boys were called “kippers.” Returning home along the Yamskaya, I was accosted once by a long-bodied gymnasium student who kept asking: “What do you charge for kippers?” Getting no answer to his question, he shoved me along with his shoulder. “What do you want of me?” I asked in a tone of extreme courtesy. The student was taken aback.
He hesitated for a moment and then asked:
“Have you got a sling-shot?”
“A sling-shot,” I asked in turn, “what’s that?”
The long-bodied student silently pulled out of his pocket a small apparatus consisting of a rubber band on a pronged stick, and a piece of lead. “From the window I kill pigeons on the roof, and then fry them,” he said. I looked at my new acquaintance with surprise. Such an occupation was not uninviting, but it seemed nevertheless somewhat out of place and almost indecent in city surroundings.
Many of the boys went boating on the sea, many fished from the breakwater. These pleasures I did not know. Strangely enough, the sea had no part in my life in that period, although I spent seven years on its shores. During all that time I never was in a boat at sea, never fished, and generally encountered the sea only during my trips to the village and back. When Carlson showed up on Monday with a sunburned nose from which the skin was peeling, and boasted of catching chubs from a boat, his joys seemed remote and did not touch me at all. The passionate hunter and fisherman in me had not yet awakened in those days.
While in the preparatory class I became very chummy with Kostya R., the son of a physician. Kostya was one year younger than I, smaller in size, quiet in appearance, but actually a scapegrace and a rogue, with keen little eyes. He knew the town well and in this respect had a great advantage over me. He did not excel in his studies, whereas I had from the beginning maintained a record of the highest marks. At home Kostya did nothing but talk of his new friend. The result was that his mother, a little, dried-up woman, came to Fanny Solomonovna with the request that the two boys study together. After the conference, in which I participated, permission was granted. For two or three years we occupied the same bench. Then Kostya was left a grade behind, and we parted. Our relations, however, continued in later years.
Kostya had a sister in the gymnasium about two years his senior. The sister had girl friends. These friends had brothers. The girls studied music. The boys hung around their sisters’ friends. On birthdays the parents invited guests. There was a little world of sympathies, jealousies, dancing, games, envies, and animosities. The centre of this little world was the family of the wealthy merchant A., who occupied an apartment in the same house and on the same floor where Kostya lived. The corridors of the apartments all faced the same balcony in the courtyard. It was on the balcony that all sorts of meetings took place, casual and otherwise. In the home of A. there was an atmosphere altogether different from the one to which I had grown accustomed at the Schpentzers’. Here were many schoolboys and schoolgirls practising the art of flirtation under the patronizing smile of the mistress of the house. In the course of conversation, it would crop out who was interested in whom. For such matters I always displayed the greatest contempt, which was, however, a bit hypocritical. “When you fall in love with any one,” the fourteen-year-old daughter of A. would instruct me, “you must tell me.”
“I can promise you that, since I am in no danger of doing it,” I would answer with the assumed pride of a man who knows his value — I was then already in the second grade. A couple of weeks later the girls gave an exhibition of tableaux vivants. The younger daughter, with her hands raised, represented Night, against the background of a large black shawl sprinkled with stars made from silver paper.
“Look how pretty she is,” remarked the older sister, nudging me. I looked, agreed in my heart, and right there and then made a decision: the hour had come to fulfil the promise. Soon the older sister began to question me. “Have you nothing to tell me?” Dropping my eyes, I replied: “I have.”
“Who is she, then?”
But my tongue would not move. She proposed that I give the first letter of her name. This made it easier. The name of the older girl was Anna. The younger sister was named Bertha. I gave the second letter of the alphabet, and not the first.
“B?” she repeated, obviously disappointed, and there the conversation ended.
The following day, I was on my way to Kostya to study, walking as usual through the long corridor of the third floor. From the staircase, I had already observed that the two sisters were sitting on the balcony with their mother. When I was within a few feet of the group, I felt myself pierced by their needle like glances of irony. The younger girl did not smile, but on the contrary looked away from me, her face wearing an expression of terrifying indifference. This convinced me at once that I had been betrayed. The mother and the older girl shook hands with me in a manner which clearly said: “Fine gosling, now we know what is underneath your seriousness.” The younger sister stretched out her hand, flat as a little board, without looking at me and without answering my handclasp. I still had quite a walk along the balcony to negotiate, in full sight of my tormentors. All the time I felt their murderous arrows in my back. After that unheard-of treachery, I decided to sever my relations completely with this perfidious clan, not to call on them, to forget them, tear them out of my heart for ever. I was helped by the vacation period, which came soon afterward.
Unexpectedly for me, it appeared that I was near-sighted. I was taken to an eye-specialist, who supplied me with glasses. This did not hurt my pride at all, for the glasses gave me a sense of added importance. Not without some satisfaction did I anticipate my appearance in Yanovka wearing glasses. For my father, however, the glasses were a great blow. He held that it was affectation and swank on my part, and peremptorily demanded that I remove them. In vain did I protest that I could not read the writing on the blackboard and the signs on the streets. In Yanovka I wore the glasses only secretly.
And yet, in the country I was much more courageous and enterprising, and showed more abandon. I shook off the discipline of the city. I would go to Bobrinetz on horseback all alone, and return the same day toward evening. This was a journey of fifty kilometres. In Bobrinetz I displayed my glasses publicly and had no doubt as to the impression they made. There was but one municipal boys’ school in Bobrinetz. The nearest gymnasium was in Elizavetgrad, fifty kilometres away. There was a junior girls’ high school in Bobrinetz, and during the school season the girls recruited their friends from among the students of the municipal school. In the summer things were different. The high-school boys would return from Elizavetgrad, and the magnificence of their uniforms and the finesse of their manners would push the municipal pupils into the background. The antagonism was bitter. The offended Bobrinetz schoolboys would form fighting groups and on occasion would resort not only to sticks and stones but to knives as well. As I was sitting nonchalantly eating berries on the branch of a mulberry tree in the garden of some friends, some one threw a stone at me from behind a fence, hitting me on the head. This was but one small incident in a long and not entirely bloodless warfare, interrupted only by the departure of the privileged class from Bobrinetz. Things were different in Elizavetgrad. There the high-school students dominated both streets and hearts. In the summer, however, the university students would arrive from Kharkoff, Odessa and more distant cities, and shove the high-school boys into their back yards. Here the struggle was likewise fierce, and the perfidy of the girls was indescribable. But the fight, as a rule, was waged only with spiritual or moral weapons.
In the country I played croquet and ninepins, led in forfeits, and was insolent to the girls. It was there that I learned to ride a bicycle made entirely by Ivan Vasilyevich. Because of that, I dared later to exercise on the Odessa track. In the village, moreover, I managed all alone a blooded stallion in a two-wheeled gig. By this time there were already fine driving-horses in Yanovka. I offered to take my uncle Brodsky, the brewer, for a ride. “I won’t be thrown out?” asked my uncle, who was not inclined to daring enterprise. “How can you, uncle?” I replied, so indignantly that with a meek sigh he sat down behind me. I made for the ravine and passed the mill, going along a road fresh from a summer rain. The bay stallion was seeking the open spaces, and, irritated by the necessity of going up-hill, suddenly tore ahead. I pulled on the reins, pushing against the foot-bar, and raised myself high enough so that my uncle could not see that I was hanging onto the reins. But the stallion had his mind made up. He was three times younger than I, only four years old. Annoyed, he pulled the gig up the hill like a cat trying to run away from a tin can tied to its tail. I began to sense that my uncle had stopped smoking behind me, that he was breathing faster and was about to issue an ultimatum. I settled down more solidly, loosening the reins on the bay stallion, and to appear fully confident, I clicked my tongue in time with the spleen, which was pounding beautifully in the bay. “Now don’t you play, boy,” I admonished him patronizingly when he tried to gallop. I spread my arms more at ease and felt that my uncle had calmed down and had taken up his cigarette again. The game was won, although my heart was beating like the spleen of the horse.
Returning to town, I again bent my neck to the yoke of discipline. It was no great effort. Exercises and sports gave way to books and occasionally the theatre. I surrendered to the city, but hardly came in contact with it. Its life almost passed by me. And not by me alone even the grown-ups dared not stick their heads too far out the windows. Odessa was perhaps the most police-ridden city in police-ridden Russia. The main personage in town was the governor, the former Admiral Zelenoy 2d. He combined absolute power with an uncurbed temper. Innumerable anecdotes, which the Odessites exchanged in whispers, circulated about him. At that time there appeared abroad, printed in a free plant, a whole book of tales of the heroic deeds of Admiral Zelenoy 2d. I saw him but once, and then only his back. But that was enough for me. The governor was standing in his carriage, fully erect, and was cursing in his throaty voice across the street, shaking his fist. Policemen with their hands at attention and janitors with their caps in hand passed by him in review, and from behind curtained windows frightened faces looked out. I adjusted my school kit and hurried home.
Whenever I want to restore in my memory the scene of official Russia in the years of my early youth, I visualize the back of that governor, his fist stretched into space, and I hear his throaty curses, not usually found in dictionaries.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00