Ilya remembered quite clearly in after life his arrival at the town. He awoke early one morning and saw before him a broad, muddy river, and on the further side on a lofty hill a heap of houses, with red and green roofs and tall trees with dark foliage between them. The houses crowded picturesquely up the slopes of the hill, and above on the summit stretched out in a straight line and looked proudly down and away across the river. The golden crosses and domes of the churches stood out above the roofs up into the sky. The sun was newly risen; its slanting rays glanced back from the windows of the houses, and the whole town blazed in bright colour and glittered in shining gold.
"Ah! how beautiful it is. Look, look," said the boy, half aloud, staring with wide eyes at the wonderful picture, and gazed in silent delight for a long time.
Then the anxious thought arose in his mind, where he should live in that heap of houses—he, the little, black-haired, touzled youngster, in worn breeches of hemp-linen, and his clumsy humpbacked uncle. Would they even be admitted into this clean, rich, golden city? He thought that the little cart must be standing still on the river's bank just because no such poor, ragged, wretched folk might enter the town, and his uncle, no doubt, had gone on to beg permission to come in.
Ilya looked for his uncle with troubled eyes. In front of their cart and behind it stood many waggons; on one, wooden tubs full of milk, on another great baskets of poultry, cucumbers, or onions, bark baskets full of berries, sacks of potatoes. On the waggons and round about them sat or stood peasants and peasant women, and they were people of a strange kind. They spoke loudly with clear intonations and were not dressed in blue linen, but in clothes of gay-coloured calico and bright red cotton. Nearly all of them wore boots, and when a man with a sword at his side, a police officer or sergeant, went up and down past them, they were not in the least disturbed, and did not once salute him, and that seemed very strange to Ilya; he sat on the cart, staring at the lively scene, steeped in bright sunshine, and dreamed of the time when he too should wear boots and a shirt of red cotton. Far off, in the midst of the peasants, uncle Terenti came, as it were, to the surface. He advanced across the deep sand with big, confident strides, and held his head high; his face wore an expression of gaiety, and he smiled at Ilya from a long way off, and stretched out his hand to show him something.
"The Lord is good to us, Ilya! Don't be frightened any more! I've found uncle Petrusha straight off. There—catch—get your teeth into that!" and he held out a cake to Ilya.
The boy took it almost reverently, put it inside his shirt, and asked anxiously:
"Won't they let us into the town?"
"They'll let us in this very minute.... The ferry-boats will come and then we'll get over the river."
"They'll take us too?"
"Of course, we can't stay here."
"Oh! and I thought they'd never let us in—and where shall we live over there?"
"I don't know yet. The Lord will show us the way."
"Perhaps we'll live in the big house there with the red——"
"Oh! you silly boy; that's the barracks where the soldiers live."
"In that one then—there—that one?"
"Hardly, it's a bit too high up for us."
"That doesn't matter," said Ilya, in a tone of conviction. "We'll manage to crawl up to it."
"Oh you——!" sighed uncle Terenti, and disappeared again somewhere.
They found shelter, quite at the end of the town, near the market-place, in a big grey house; all round its walls leant outbuildings of every kind, some comparatively recent, others as old as the house itself, and of the same dirty grey colour. The doors and windows were warped, and everything in the house creaked and cracked. The outbuildings, the fence, the gates, everything was falling to pieces together, and the whole formed a mass of half-rotten wood overgrown with greenish moss. The window panes were dim with age; a couple of beams in the front wall bulged right out, and altogether the house was an image of its owner, who used it as a tavern. He, too, was old and grey; the eyes in his worn face were like the glass panes in the windows; as he walked, he leant heavily on a thick staff—evidently it was not easy for him to carry his big paunch—and he, too, creaked and cracked all the time.
Uncle Terenti established himself in one of the countless corners of the building—in a cellar, on a bench by a window opening on a corner of the courtyard. In this corner lay a great rubbish heap, and an old sweet-scented lime tree stood there between two elder bushes. It was three days after their arrival before the proprietor of the house noticed Ilya for the first time, as he tried to hide behind the rubbish heap and stared with terrified eyes.
"Where do you belong, youngster? Hey!" he asked in his creaking voice, pointing at Ilya with his stick. "How did you come here? Hey!"
Ilya blinked and said nothing.
"Hullo, where does this youngster belong here? Send him off! out with you, you rascal! Wait a bit, I'll show you!—Hey!—Oh, you scamp! What—you belong to the man who does the washing up, do you? Are you his son? Not? Oh! a relation are you? The humpbacked rascal might have said he had a relation with him! Now then, Peter, what are you looking at? The humpback has a relation with him! What's the meaning of that? That won't do!"
The potman Petrusha put his red face out of the bar window opening on the courtyard and shouted, shaking his curly head:
"He's only got the youngster for a little while. Take, care Vassily Dorimendontytch—he's a poor orphan—I know about it—but if you don't like it, he shall clear out at once."
When Ilya heard that he was to go away, he began to scream with all his might, then darted across like an arrow and slipped through the window into the cellar like a mouse into its hole. There he threw himself on the bench, buried his head in his uncle's coat and began to cry, quivering from head to foot. But his uncle came and soothed him:
"No! No! don't be frightened! He only shouts like that to make pretence. He's going silly with age; he isn't the chief person here—it's Petrusha. Petrusha settles everything here. Just be friendly with him, be very polite to him! And as for the landlord—he doesn't count for anything!"
In the early days that Ilya lived in the house, he crept everywhere and examined everything. The place pleased him and astonished him with its extraordinary roominess. It was crammed so full that Ilya truly believed more people lived there than in the whole village of Kiteshnaja, and it was as noisy inside as in a market place.
Both storeys of the house were used for the tavern, which was visited by a constant stream of customers—whilst in the attics lodged sundry women apparently always drunk, one of whom, Matiza, big and dark, with a deep bass voice, drove fear into the heart of the lad with her wild, staring black eyes. In the cellar lived the cobbler Perfishka, with his crippled, ailing wife and his seven-year-old daughter; also an old rag picker, "grandfather" Jeremy; a lean old beggar-woman, called in the courtyard by no name but "Screamer," because of her habit of shrieking out loud at all times and seasons, and the tavern cab driver, Makar Stepanitsh, a grave, silent man, advanced in years. In one corner of the courtyard was a smithy; here from morning to night the fire flamed, wheel tires were welded, horses shod, while the hammers clinked and the tall sinewy smith, Savel Gratschev, for ever sang long-drawn songs in a deep, sorrowful voice. Sometimes Savel's wife appeared in the smithy, a little round, fair-haired woman, with blue eyes. She always wore a white kerchief round her head, and by this white head stood out often quite strangely against the dark hollow of the smithy. She laughed almost all the time a little silvery laugh, while Savel chimed in at times loudly as though with a hammer stroke. But more often his answer to her laughter was a kind of growl. Men said that he loved his wife passionately, while she led a wanton life.
In every cranny of the house there was some one, and from early morning to late at night the whole place quivered with noise and outcry as though it were an old rusty kettle in which something seethed and boiled. In the evening all these people crept from their holes into the courtyard, to the bench that stood by the house door; the cobbler Perfishka played on his harmonica, Savel hummed his songs and Matiza, if she were drunk, sang something very strange, very mournful with words that no one understood, sang and wept bitterly at the same time.
In one corner of the courtyard all the children of the house crowded in a circle round grandfather Jeremy, and begged him:
"Grandfather dear! Tell us a story!"
The old rag picker looked at them with his bleared red eyes, from which tears constantly ran down over his wrinkled cheeks, and then pulling his foxy old cap further over his forehead, began in a thin, quavering voice.
"Once in a land, I don't know where, a heretic child was born of unknown parents, who were punished for their sins by Almighty God with this child...."
Grandfather Jeremy's long, grey beard shook when he opened his black, toothless mouth, his head nodded to and fro and one tear after another rolled over the wrinkles on his cheeks.
"And this heretic child was altogether wicked; he did not believe in Christ the Lord, did not love the mother of God, always went past the church without lifting his cap, would not obey his father and mother."
The children listened to the thin, quavering voice of the old man and looked silently into his face.
The fair-haired Jashka, son of the potman Petrusha, listened and looked more attentively than all the rest. He was a lean, sharp-nosed boy, with a big head on a thin neck. When he ran, his head always rolled from one side to the other as though it would shake loose from his body. His eyes were big and strangely restless. They shifted anxiously over everything as if they were afraid to rest anywhere, and when at last they rested on anything they rolled oddly in their sockets, and gave the lad a sheepish expression. He stood out from the rest also by his delicate bloodless face, and his clean, respectable clothes. Ilya quickly made friends with him, and the very first day of their acquaintance Jashka asked his new playmate with a mysterious air:
"Are there many wizards in your village?"
"Of course," answered Ilya, "several, and witches too—our neighbour could work magic."
"Had he red hair?" asked Jakov, in a trembling voice.
"No, grey. They always have grey hair."
"The grey ones are not wicked, they are good-hearted. But the red-haired ones—ah, I tell you, they drink blood."
They were sitting in the prettiest, pleasantest corner of the courtyard behind the rubbish heap under the lime tree and the elder bushes. It was reached through a narrow crack between the sheds and the house; it was always quiet there, and nothing could be seen but the sky over their heads and the house wall with three windows, two of them boarded up. It became the favourite corner of the two friends. The sparrows hopped twittering about the lime-tree branches, and the boys sat on the ground at its root and chattered of everything that interested them.
All day long before Ilya's eyes whirled a great, gay something, noisy and shouting, that blinded and deafened him. At first he was quite confused by the wild pell-mell of this life. In the bar Ilya would often stand by the table where uncle Terenti, dripping with sweat, and wet with water, rinsed the dishes and glasses and saw how people came, and ate, and drank, shouted and sang, kissed and fought. They were covered with sweat, dirty and tired; clouds of tobacco smoke enwrapped them, and in this fog they rioted like madmen.
"Hullo!" his uncle would say to him, while his humpback shook, and he bustled unceasingly with the glasses. "What do you want here? Get along into the yard, else the landlord will see you and pitch into you."
Deafened with the noise of the bar, Ilya betook himself to the courtyard. Here Savel was striking great blows on the anvil with his hammer and quarrelling with his mates. Out of the cellar the jolly song of the cobbler Perfishka rang out into the open, and from above came the scolding and shrieking of the drunken women. Savel's son Pashka, called "the rowdy," was riding round the yard on a stick shouting angrily to his steed: "Get on you devil." His round, pert face was covered with dirt and soot; there was a boil on his forehead; his strong healthy body shone through the countless holes in his shirt. Pashka was the leading bully and brawler in the courtyard; twice already he had thrashed Ilya soundly, and when Ilya complained tearfully, his uncle shrugged his shoulders and said:
"What can I do? You must bear it. It'll pass off."
"I'll give it to him next time though, see if I don't," threatened Ilya through his tears.
"No, don't do that," said his uncle decidedly. "You mustn't do that, anyway."
"Then he may do it and I'm not to?"
"He!—he belongs here, d'you see, and you're a stranger."
Ilya went on pouring out threats against Pashka, but his uncle became angry all at once, and stormed at him, a thing that very rarely happened. So the consciousness dawned in Ilya, that he was not the equal of the children who belonged to the place, and while from that time he hid his enmity to Pashka, he clung all the closer to Jakov.
Jakov always behaved himself very well; he never fought the other boys and seldom so much as shouted at them. Even in the games, he hardly ever joined the others though he loved to speak of the games the children of the rich played in the town park. Jakov's only friend among the other children of the house, excepting Ilya, was Mashka, the seven-year-old daughter of the cobbler Perfishka. Mashka was a dirty, delicate, sickly child. Her little head of black curls flitted about the court from morning to night. Her mother sat almost all the time in the doorway leading to the cellar. She was tall, with a long plait of hair down her back, and sewed incessantly, bent double over her work. Whenever she raised her head to look after her daughter, Ilya could see her face. It was a purplish, expressionless, bloated face—like the face of a corpse. Even her pleasant black eyes had about them something fixed, immovable. She spoke to no one, even to her daughter she used to beckon if she wanted her. Only very rarely she would cry in a hoarse, half-choked voice:
At first, something about this woman took Ilya's fancy. But later, when he learnt that she had been a cripple for three years and would soon die, he grew afraid of her.
Once, as Ilya passed close to her, she stretched out an arm, caught him by the sleeve and drew him, terrified, up to her.
"Please, please, my son," she said, "be good to our Mashka! Be good to her." Speech came from her with difficulty, she struggled for breath after it. "Be—very good to her, my dear."
She looked with imploring eyes in his face and let him go. Ilya from that time took charge of the cobbler's daughter with Jakov, and looked after her carefully. He liked to fulfil the request of a grown-up person the more, as most of them only spoke to him to order him about. The men and women were always very harsh to the children. Makar, the coachman, kicked at them, or struck them in the face with wet cloths if they wanted to look on at the cleaning of the carriages. Savel raged at every one who looked with curiosity into his smithy and threw coal-grit at the children. The cobbler flung the first thing that came handy at the head of any one who stood in front of his cellar window and blocked out the light. Sometimes they would strike the children for want of any other occupation or by way of playing with them. Only grandfather Jeremy never struck them.
Ilya was soon convinced that life in the village was far pleasanter than life in town. In the village he could go where he liked, but here his uncle forbade him to leave the courtyard. In the village there were cucumbers and peas, or anything you liked, to eat on the sly. But here there was no garden, and nothing to be had without paying for it. There it was spacious and still, and every one did just the same work; here every one quarrels and fights; every one does what he likes, and all are poor and eat strange bread and are half starved. Day after day Ilya drifted on, round about in the courtyard, and it became dreary to him to live in this hateful grey house with the dim windows.
One morning at the midday meal, Terenti said to his nephew with a deep sigh, "The autumn's drawing on, Ilyusha. Oh dear! that's when the pinch will come for us, come with a vengeance. My God!"
He was silent for a long time, lost in thought, looking sadly into his dish of cabbage soup. The boy, too, was thoughtful. They both took their meals at the table where the hunchback washed the dishes. A wild tumult filled the bar room.
"Petrusha thinks you ought to go to school with your friend Jashka. Ah—yes—it's very important. I see that in this place being without education is like being without eyes. You're fairly lost! But you'll need new shoes and new clothes if you go to school, and where are they to come from out of my five roubles a month ... Oh God! in Thee I set my trust."
His uncle's sighs and sad countenance made Ilya's heart sink, and he said gently, "Come, uncle! We'll get out of this place!"
"But where," asked the hunchback gloomily, "where can we go?"
"Why not into the wood?" said Ilya, gleefully excited at his idea in a moment, "grandfather lived ever so many years in the wood you used to tell me. And there are two of us. We could strip bark from the trees, and catch foxes and squirrels. You'll get a gun, and I'll catch birds in traps. Yes, and there are berries there and mushrooms. Shall we go there uncle?"
His uncle looked on him kindly and said with a smile:
"And what about wolves? and bears?"
"But we'd have a gun," cried Ilya boldly. "I won't be afraid of wild beasts when I'm grown up! I'll strangle them with my hands! I'm not afraid now—not of anything. Life is no joke here. If I am little I can see that, and they knock you about here worse than in the village. Yes! I can feel it, I'm not made of wood. When the smith gives me a whack on the head, it sings for the whole day. All the people here look as if they'd been beaten, even if they do put on airs."
"Ah! poor laddie!" said Terenti feebly, then put down his spoon and went away—went very quickly.
In the evening of this same day, Ilya sat on the floor beside his uncle's table tired out with his voyages of discovery in the courtyard, where there was never anything new. Half asleep, he heard a conversation between Terenti and grandfather Jeremy, who came to drink a glass of tea at the bar. The old rag-picker had struck up a friendship with the hunchback, and always when he came from work settled himself near Terenti to drink his tea.
"It don't matter," Ilya heard Jeremy's creaking voice, "only trust in God! See! Think only one thing, God! You're just His slave, for it says in the Bible a servant! So make sure of that! God's servant, that's what you are, and everything you have belongs to God; good or bad, everything is God's. He will know how to decide for you. He sees your life. He, our Father, sees—everything.... And a glorious day will come for you when He says to His angel, 'Go down, my servant in Heaven and lighten the burden of my servant Terenti!' And then your good fortune will come to you—believe it—it will come!"
"I do trust in the Lord, grandfather. What else have I left?" said Terenti gently. "I believe in Him. He will help."
"He? He will never leave a man in the lurch on this earth, I promise you. The earth is given to us by God, to try us, to see if we fulfil His commands. He looks down from above and gives heed. 'Children of men, do you love one another, even as I bade you?' and when He sees that life weighs heavy on Terenti, He sends a good message to old Jeremy. 'Jeremy, help my true servant!'" Then suddenly the voice of the old man altered, till it was almost like the voice of Petrusha the potman when he was angry, and he said to Terenti:
"I will give you some money, so that Ilyusha can have clothes for school. I'll give you five roubles. I'll scrape it together somehow. I'll borrow it for you. But if you are ever rich, you'll give it me back."
"Grandfather," cried Terenti.
"Sh! Don't say anything! Besides you can let me have the boy, he hasn't anything to do here anyhow. He can help me, instead of interest on the money; he can pick me up a bone or a bit of rag. I shan't need to double up my old back so often."
"Ah! God bless you," cried the hunchback with a shaking voice.
"The Lord gives to me, I to you; you to the lad and the lad to the Lord again. So it goes round the circle, and no one of us owes anything to the others. Hey! Isn't that good? Eh? Ah! my brother. I have lived and lived and seen—seen, and have seen nothing but God. Everything is His, everything belongs to Him, everything comes from Him and is for Him!"
Ilya went to sleep while they talked. But next morning early, old Jeremy waked him with the joyful summons:
"Now then, up with you, Ilyusha, you're to come with me. So cheerily! cheerily! rub the sleep out of your peepers!"