"VOLODIA is here!" cried some one in the courtyard.
"Voloditchka is here!" shrieked Natalia, rushing into the dining-room.
The whole family ran to the window, for they had been expecting their Volodia for hours. At the front porch stood a wide posting sleigh with its troika of white horses wreathed in dense clouds of steam. The sleigh was empty because Volodia was already standing in the front entry untying his hood with red, frostbitten fingers. His schoolboy's uniform, his overcoat, his cap, his goloshes, and the hair on his temples were all silvery with frost, and from his head to his feet he exhaled such a wholesome atmosphere of cold that one shivered to be near him. His mother and aunt rushed to kiss and embrace him. Natalia fell down at his feet and began pulling off his goloshes. His sisters shrieked, doors creaked and banged on every side, and his father came running into the hall in his shirt-sleeves waving a pair of scissors and crying in alarm:
"Is anything the matter? We expected you yesterday. Did you have a good journey? For heaven's sake, give him a chance to kiss his own father!"
"Bow, wow, wow!" barked the great black dog, My Lord, in a deep voice, banging the walls and furniture with his tail.
All these noises went to make up one great, joyous clamour that lasted several minutes. When the first burst of joy had subsided the family noticed that, beside Volodia, there was still another small person in the hall. He was wrapped in scarfs and shawls and hoods and was standing motionless in the shadow cast by a huge fox-skin coat.
"Volodia, who is that?" whispered Volodia's mother. "Good gracious!" Volodia exclaimed recollecting himself. "Let me present my friend Tchetchevitsin. I have brought him from school to stay with us."
"We are delighted to see you! Make yourself at home!" cried the father gaily. "Excuse my not having a coat on! Allow me!--Natalia, help Mr. Tcherepitsin to take off his things! For heaven's sake, take that dog away! This noise is too awful!"
A few minutes later Volodia and his friend were sitting in the dining-room drinking tea, dazed by their noisy reception and still rosy with cold. The wintry rays of the sun, piercing the frost and snow on the window-panes, trembled over the samovar and bathed themselves in the slop-basin. The room was warm, and the boys felt heat and cold jostling one another in their bodies, neither wanting to concede its place to the other.
"Well, Christmas will soon be here!" cried Volodia's father, rolling a cigarette. "Has it seemed long since your mother cried as she saw you off last summer? Time flies, my son! Old age comes before one has time to heave a sigh. Mr. Tchibisoff, do help yourself! We don't stand on ceremony here!"
Volodia's three sisters, Katia, Sonia, and Masha, the oldest of whom was eleven, sat around the table with their eyes fixed on their new acquaintance. Tchetchevitsin was the same age and size as Volodia, but he was neither plump nor fair like him. He was swarthy and thin and his face was covered with freckles. His hair was bristly, his eyes were small, and his lips were thick; in a word, he was very plain, and, had it not been for his schoolboy's uniform, he might have been taken for the son of a cook. He was taciturn and morose, and he never once smiled. The girls immediately decided that he must be a very clever and learned person. He seemed to be meditating something, and was so busy with his own thoughts that he started if he were asked a question and asked to have it repeated.
The girls noticed that Volodia, who was generally so talkative and gay, seldom spoke now and never smiled and on the whole did not seem glad to be at home. He only addressed his sisters once during dinner and then his remark was strange. He pointed to the samovar and said:
"In California they drink gin instead of tea."
He, too, seemed to be busy with thoughts of his own, and, to judge from the glances that the two boys occasionally exchanged, their thoughts were identical.
After tea the whole family went into the nursery, and papa and the girls sat down at the table and took up some work which they had been doing when they were interrupted by the boys' arrival. They were making decorations out of coloured paper for the Christmas tree. It was a thrilling and noisy occupation. Each new flower was greeted by the girls with shrieks of ecstasy, of terror almost, as if it had dropped from the sky. Papa, too, was in raptures, but every now and then he would throw down the scissors, exclaiming angrily that they were blunt. Mamma came running into the nursery with an anxious face and asked:
"Who has taken my scissors? Have you taken my scissors again, Ivan?"
"Good heavens, won't she even let me have a pair of scissors?" answered papa in a tearful voice, throwing himself back in his chair with the air of a much-abused man. But the next moment he was in raptures again.
On former holidays Volodia had always helped with the preparations for the Christmas tree, and had run out into the yard to watch the coachman and the shepherd heaping up a mound of snow, but this time neither he nor Tchetchevitsin took any notice of the coloured paper, neither did they once visit the stables. They sat by a window whispering together, and then opened an atlas and fell to studying it.
"First, we must go to Perm," whispered Tchetchevitsin. "Then to Tyumen, then to Tomsk, and then-- then to Kamschatka. From there the Eskimos will take us across Behring Strait in their canoes, and then--we shall be in America! There are a great many wild animals there."
"Where is California?" asked Volodia.
"California is farther down. If once we can get to America, California will only be round the corner. We can make our living by hunting and highway robbery."
All day Tchetchevitsin avoided the girls, and, if he met them, looked at them askance. After tea in the evening he was left alone with them for five minutes. To remain silent would have been awkward, so he coughed sternly, rubbed the back of his right hand with the palm of his left, looked severely at Katia, and asked:
"Have you read Mayne Reid?"
"No, I haven't-- But tell me, can you skate?"
Tchetchevitsin became lost in thought once more and did not answer her question. He only blew out his cheeks and heaved a sigh as if he were very hot. Once more he raised his eyes to Katia's face and said:
"When a herd of buffalo gallop across the pampas the whole earth trembles and the frightened mustangs kick and neigh."
Tchetchevitsin smiled wistfully and added:
"And Indians attack trains, too. But worst of all are the mosquitoes and the termites."
"What are they?"
"Termites look something like ants, only they have wings. They bite dreadfully. Do you know who I am?"
"You are Mr. Tchetchevitsin!"
"No, I am Montezuma Hawkeye, the invincible chieftain."
Masha, the youngest of the girls, looked first at him and then out of the window into the garden, where night was already falling, and said doubtfully:
"We had Tchetchevitsa (lentils) for supper last night." The absolutely unintelligible sayings of Tchetchevitsin, his continual whispered conversations with Volodia, and the fact that Volodia never played now and was always absorbed in thought--all this seemed to the girls to be both mysterious and strange. Katia and Sonia, the two oldest ones, began to spy on the boys, and when Volodia and his friend went to bed that evening, they crept to the door of their room and listened to the conversation inside. Oh! what did they hear? The boys were planning to run away to America in search of gold! They were all prepared for the journey and had a pistol ready, two knives, some dried bread, a magnifying-glass for lighting fires, a compass, and four roubles. The girls discovered that the boys would have to walk several thousand miles, fighting on the way with savages and tigers, and that they would then find gold and ivory, and slay their enemies. Next, they would turn pirates, drink gin, and at last marry beautiful wives and settle down to cultivate a plantation. Volodia and Tchetchevitsin both talked at once and kept interrupting one another from excitement. Tchetchevitsin called himself "Montezuma Hawkeye," and Volodia "my Paleface Brother."
"Be sure you don't tell mamma!" said Katia to Sonia as they went back to bed. "Volodia will bring us gold and ivory from America, but if you tell mamma she won't let him go!"
Tchetchevitsin spent the day before Christmas Eve studying a map of Asia and taking notes, while Volodia roamed about the house refusing all food, his face looking tired and puffy as if it had been stung by a bee. He stopped more than once in front of the icon in the nursery and crossed himself saying:
"O Lord, forgive me, miserable sinner! O Lord, help my poor, unfortunate mother!"
Toward evening he burst into tears. When he said good night he kissed his father and mother and sisters over and over again. Katia and Sonia realized the significance of his actions, but Masha. the youngest, understood nothing at all. Only when her eye fell upon Tchetchevitsin did she grow pensive and say with a sigh:
"Nurse says that when Lent comes we must eat peas and Tchetchevitsa."
Early on Christmas Eve Katia and Sonia slipped quietly out of bed and went to the boys' room to see them run away to America. They crept up to their door.
"So you won't go?" asked Tchetchevitsin angrily. "Tell me, you won't go?"
"Oh, dear!" wailed Volodia, weeping softly. "How can I go? I'm so sorry for mamma!"
"Paleface Brother, I beg you to go! You promised me yourself that you would. You told me yourself how nice it would be. Now, when everything is ready, you are afraid!"
"I--I'm not afraid. I--I am sorry for mamma."
"Tell me, are you going or not?"
"I'm going, only--only wait a bit, I want to stay at home a little while longer!"
"If that is the case, I'll go alone!" Tchetchevitsin said with decision. "I can get along perfectly well without you. I want to hunt and fight tigers! If you won't go, give me my pistol!"
Volodia began to cry so bitterly that his sisters could not endure the sound and began weeping softly themselves. Silence fell.
"Then you won't go?" demanded Tchetchevitsin again.
"Then get dressed!"
And to keep up Volodia's courage, Tchetchevitsin began singing the praises of America. He roared like a tiger, he whistled like a steamboat, he scolded, and promised to give Volodia all the ivory and gold they might find.
The thin, dark boy with his bristling hair and his freckles seemed to the girls to be a strange and wonderful person. He was a hero to them, a man without fear, who could roar so well that, through the closed door, one might really mistake him for a tiger or a lion.
When the girls were dressing in their own room, Katia cried with tears in her eyes:
"Oh, I'm so frightened!"
All was quiet until the family sat down to dinner at two o'clock, and then it suddenly appeared that the boys were not in the house. Inquiries were made in the servants' quarters and at the stables, but they were not there. A search was made in the village, but they could not be found. At tea time they were still missing, and when the family had to sit down to supper without them, mamma was terribly anxious and was even crying. That night another search was made in the village and men were sent down to the river with lanterns. Heavens, what an uproar arose!
Next morning the policeman arrived and went into the dining-room to write something. Mamma was crying.
Suddenly, lo and behold! a posting sleigh drove up to the front door with clouds of steam rising from its three white horses.
"Volodia is here!" cried some one in the courtyard.
"Voloditchka is here!" shrieked Natalia, rushing into the dining-room.
My Lord barked "Bow, wow, wow!" in his deep voice.
It seemed that the boys had been stopped at the hotel in the town, where they had gone about asking every one where they could buy gunpowder. As he entered the hall, Volodia burst into tears and flung his arms round his mother's neck. The girls trembled with terror at the thought of what would happen next, for they heard papa call Volodia and Tchetchevitsin into his study and begin talking to them. Mamma wept and joined in the talk.
"Do you think it was right?" papa asked, chiding them. "I hope to goodness they won't find it out at school, because, if they do, you will certainly be expelled. Be ashamed of yourself, Master Tchetchevitsin! You are a bad boy. You are a mischief-maker and your parents will punish you. Do you think it was right to run away? Where did you spend the night?"
"In the station!" answered Tchetchevitsin proudly.
Volodia was put to bed, and a towel soaked in vinegar was laid on his head. A telegram was despatched, and next day a lady arrived, Tchetchevitsin's mamma, who took her son away.
As Tchetchevitsin departed his face looked haughty and stern. He said not a word as he took his leave of the girls, but in a copy-book of Katia's he wrote these words for remembrance: