Three Men

by Maxim Gorky

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter IV

Grandfather Jeremy kept his word; he bought Ilya a pair of boots, a thick heavy coat and a cap, and thus equipped, the youngster was sent to school. Full at once of curiosity and anxiety he went, and gloomy and sick, with tears in his eyes he came home. The boys had recognised him as old Jeremy's companion and had jeered at him in chorus:

"Rag-picker! Stinking rag-picker!"

Some pinched him, others put their tongues out at him, and one specially impudent boy went up to him, sniffed the air, and shouted, turning away with a grimace of disgust:

"Ah! how beastly the lout smells!"

"Why do they laugh at me?" Ilya asked his uncle, full of wrath and doubt. "Is there any shame in being a rag-picker?"

"No! No!" answered Terenti, stroking his nephew's hair, and trying to hide his face from the boy's inquiring eyes. "They only do it—oh just—because they're ill-mannered. Don't worry! Try to bear it! They'll soon have enough of it, and you'll get used to it."

"But they laugh at my boots, too, and my overcoat; they said they were odds and ends dug out of a rubbish heap!"

Grandfather Jeremy comforted him, blinking in a friendly way.

"Bear it, dear lad! There's One will soon make it up to you: He! There's no one else that matters."

The old man spoke of God with such joy, such confidence in his justice, as though he knew well all the mind of God, and was initiated into all His intentions. And Jeremy's words relieved a little the boy's feeling of heart-sickness. But the next day the feeling rose up in him stronger than ever. Ilya had become accustomed to regard himself as a person of importance, a real workman. Why, Savel the smith spoke in a friendly way with him, and these school-boys laughed and mocked at him. He could get no peace, no respite. Every day the bitter insulting expressions of the school became more marked, and drove deeper into his soul. The school hours were for him a heavy, burdensome duty. He kept himself apart, held no intercourse with the others. Through his quickness of comprehension he attracted the attention of the teacher, and being held up as an example to the others, his relations with his schoolfellows became, if possible, more strained than before. He sat on the front bench, and never lost the sense of his enemies at his back. They had him constantly before their eyes, and readily discovered anything about him that might appear ridiculous. And they laughed at him all the time. Jakov attended the same school and was at once tarred with the same brush as his comrade. They usually called him "Muttonhead." He was absent-minded, learnt with difficulty, and was punished almost every day, but remained absolutely indifferent to all punishments. Mostly he seemed hardly to notice what went on round about him, and lived in a world of his own, at school as at home. He had his own thoughts, and by his odd questions moved Ilya to astonishment nearly every day. For instance, he would say, casually, gazing meditatively before him, "Tell me, Ilya, how is it that such little eyes as men have can see everything? One can see the whole street, the whole town; how can anything so big get into our little eyes?"

Or he would stare up into the sky and say suddenly:

"Ah! the sun."

"Well—what?" asked Ilya.

"How it blazes away!"

"Well, what then?"

"Oh nothing. D'you know what I was thinking? The sun and moon must be parents and the stars are their children."

At first Ilya pondered deeply over his odd sayings, but by degrees these fancies began to worry him, because they took his mind off the things that were happening close to him. And there were many things happening, and the boy had soon learnt to take good heed of them.

One day he came home from school and said with scorn to old Jeremy:

"Our teacher—ah!—he's a good one! Yesterday the son of Malafyeyev the merchant, smashed a window, and he let him off very easy, and to-day he's had the window mended and paid for it out of his own pocket."

"But see then, how good he is!" answered Jeremy.

"Good? Oh yes—very good! A little time ago Vanika Klutscharev broke a window, and he made him go without his dinner, and then he sent for Vanika's father and said: Here, pay me forty kopecks; and so Vanika got a licking from his father—that's how good he is!"

"You mustn't trouble over things like that, Ilyusha," said the old man, blinking nervously. "Try and think that it doesn't concern you. It's for God to decide what is wrong and not for us. We don't understand, we can only find out the bad things, and we're not quick to see the good. But He can weigh everything. He knows the measure and the value of everything. Look at me, I have lived so long and seen so much and no one could count how much wrong-doing I've seen. But I have never seen the truth. Eighty years have gone over my head, and it cannot be in all that long time that the truth has not come near me. But I have never seen it, I don't know it."

"Ah!" said Ilya doubtfully, "What's there to know in this? If this one must pay forty kopecks so ought the other, that's the truth."

But the old man would not agree. He said many things about himself, about the blindness of men, and how they are not fit to judge one another rightly, and how only the judgment of God is just.

Ilya listened attentively, but his face grew darker and his eyes more gloomy.

"When will God come and judge us?" he asked suddenly.

"No man knows; when the hour strikes, then He will come down from the clouds to judge the living and the dead: but no man knows when it will come to pass. But on Saturday we will both go to the holy service."

"Yes, let's go."

"All right."

On Saturday Ilya stood with the old man on the church steps between the two doors, with the beggars. Whenever the outer door was opened, Ilya felt the cold air blowing in from the street, his feet were numbed, and he moved gently with short steps up and down on the pavement. But he saw through the glass panes of the church door how the candle flames made beautiful patterns of quivering points of gold, and lit up the glimmering metal on the priest's garments, the dark heads of the reverent multitude, the faces in the sacred pictures and the splendid carving of the holy shrines.

People seemed better and kinder in the church than in the street. They looked more beautiful too in the golden candlelight that illuminated their dark forms, standing in reverent silence. Whenever the inner door opened there streamed out on the steps the solemn, deep-toned waves of song, warm, heavy with incense; gently they wrapped the lad round, and he breathed in the sweet-scented air, with delight. It was good to him to stand there beside old Jeremy, as he murmured prayers. He heard the glorious, solemn song that flooded the house of God, and waited impatiently for the door to open again and let the loud, joyful sound sweep over him, and the warm balsam-laden air cling round his being. He knew that up there in the church choir Grishka Bubnov was singing, one of the worst of his tormentors in the school, and Fedka Dolganov, too, a strong, quarrelsome lout, who had thrashed him more than once. But now he felt no hate towards them nor desire for revenge, only a little envy. He would have liked to sing in the choir and see the faces of the people. It must be so beautiful to sing there at the middle door by the altar, high above the people, and see their quiet, peaceful faces. When he left the church, he felt as though he had grown better and was ready to be reconciled to Bubnov and Dolganov and all his schoolfellows. But on the following Monday, he came home from school sombre and affronted even as before.

Everywhere, where men are gathered together in any numbers, there will be one who is ill at ease among them, and it is not at all necessary that he should be either worse or better than the rest. The ill-will of a crowd can be aroused by a lack of intelligence or by a ridiculous nose. It simply chooses some one as the object of its sport, inspired by nothing but the wish to amuse itself. In this case the lot had fallen on Ilya Lunev. No doubt in the course of time, he would have ceased to fill the rôle that his comrades had allotted to him, but now there came into Ilya's life, events that shook his soul profoundly with their terrible impressions, and so far lessened his interest in the school, that he became indifferent to its small unpleasantnesses.

The beginning came one day when Ilya, returning with Jakov from an excursion, noticed a crowd in the gateway of the house.

"Look!" said Jakov to his friend, "they're fighting again. Come along, let's get in quick!"

They hurried full speed to the house, and as they came into the courtyard, saw that there were strange men gathered there who called out:

"Send for the police! Tie his hands!"

Pressing round the smithy was a dense crowd of men, silent, motionless, with frightened faces. Children who had crept to the front, struggled away terrified. At their feet on the snow lay a woman, with her face to the ground. Her neck and the back of her head were covered with blood, and a pasty mass of something, and the snow round about her was reddened with blood. By her lay a crumpled white kerchief and a pair of big smith's tongs. Savel crouched in the smithy door and stared dumbly at the woman's hands. They were outstretched, buried deep in the snow, and the head lay between them as though she had tried to take refuge from him in the earth and hide there. The smith's brows were drawn gloomily, his face convulsed, his teeth clenched fast, the cheek bones stood out like great swellings. He supported himself with his right hand against the door post, his black fingers moved quiveringly like a cat's claws, and except for his fingers he was motionless. But to Ilya it seemed as though his close-locked lips must open, and his mighty breast cry out with all its strength. The crowd gazed without a sound; their faces were stern and earnest and though noise and tumult filled the courtyard, by the smithy all was still and motionless.

Suddenly old Jeremy crept with heavy steps from the crowd, all torn and covered with sweat, with trembling hand he held out to the smith a cup of water and said: "There! drink!"

"Don't give him water, the murderer! It's a rope round his neck he deserves," said some one, half aloud.

Savel took the cup in his left hand and drank—drank deep, and when all was gone, he looked into the empty vessel and said in a dull voice:

"I warned her. Let be, you harlot," I said, "or I'll strike you dead. I forgave her—how many times I forgave her. But she would not leave it—and so—now—it has come to pass. My Pashka is an orphan now, look to him, grandfather. God loves you, look to my boy!"

"Ah! ah! you——" lamented the old man bitterly and gripped the smith by the shoulder with his trembling hand, while some one in the crowd called out: "Listen to the villain! He talks of God."

The smith cast a terrifying glance on the bystanders and suddenly roared like a wild beast.

"What do you want? Off with you—all!" His cry fell on the crowd like a whip stroke. They recoiled from him with a dull murmur. The smith rose up and made a stride towards his dead wife, but turned at once and made for the smithy, drawn straight up to his full height. All could see how, there in his workshop, he sat down on the anvil, caught his head in his hands as though he suddenly felt an unbearable pain, and slowly rocked his body to and fro. Ilya was filled with compassion for the smith; he walked away as if in a dream, and wandered round the court, from one group to another, without comprehending a word of what was said near him. A great red stain swam before his eyes, and his heart was oppressed within him.

The police appeared on the scene and dispersed the crowd. Then they arrested the smith and led him away.

"Good-bye—good-bye, grandfather," cried Savel as he strode out of the gate.

"Good-bye, Savel Ivanitsch, good-bye, my friend," called out old Jeremy in his thin voice, hastily, as though he would hurry after him.

No one except the old man bade farewell to the smith.

The people stood about the yard in little groups, speaking of the event, and looking furtively at the place where the body of the murdered woman lay under a coarse mat. In the door of the smithy, where Savel had crouched, a policeman now settled himself, pipe in mouth. He smoked, spitting to one side, and listened to old Jeremy and looked at him with dull eyes.

"Was it he, then, who committed murder?" said the old man, slowly and mysteriously. "The power of darkness has done it, and that alone. Man cannot murder man—man in himself is good, and God is in his heart. It is not he who murders—do not believe it!"

Jeremy laid his hands on his breast, as though to ward off something from himself, and went on to make clear to the bystanders the significance of what had happened.

"Long ago the Dark One whispered in his heart, 'Kill her!'" he said, turning to the watchman.

"Ah! Long ago, you say?" said the other importantly.

"Long—long ago! 'She belongs to you,' he said, and that is not true; a horse, that may belong to me, a dog may be mine, but a woman belongs to God. She is one of the children of men. She has received from God in Heaven all her troubles and burdens, and bears them even as we. But the Dark One never ceases to whisper, 'Kill her, she is yours.' He longs that men should strive against God. He himself struggles against God, and he seeks for companions among men."

"But it wasn't the Devil who used the tongs, but the smith," said the policeman, and spat on the ground.

"But who put it into his mind?" cried the old man. "Remember that! who put the thought in his mind?"

"Look here," said the policeman, "what have you to do with the smith? Is he your son?"

"No, No! Indeed."

"But you're related to him, eh?"

"No. I have no relations."

"Well then, what are you so excited about?"

"I—Ah God——!"

"I'll tell you," said the policeman roughly; "you chatter because you're a silly old man. Now then, clear out!"

He blew a thick smoke cloud from the corner of his mouth, and turned his back on the old man. But Jeremy was not to be kept back, and spoke on quickly, tearfully, gesticulating with his hands.

Ilya, pale, with wide eyes, had wandered about the court, and now stood beside a group composed of the coachman, Makar, the cobbler, Perfishka, and Matiza, and a couple of other women from the attics.

"Before she was married even she used to carry on with the others, my dear," said one of the women. "I know well enough. Why, Pashka isn't Savel's son, his father was a teacher, who lived with Malafyeyev the merchant—he was always drunk."

"You mean the one who shot himself?" asked Perfishka.

"Right. She got herself mixed up with him."

"All the same, he had no right to kill her," said Makar judicially; "that is a bit too much. Suppose he kills his wife, and I kill mine, and every one——"

"That would be jolly work for the police," said the cobbler. "My old woman's been no good for ever so long, but I put up with it."

"Put up with it, do you? you devil!" snarled Matiza.

Even Perfishka's crippled wife had crept out of the cellar and sat huddled up in rags in her usual place in the doorway. Her hands rested still on her knees; she held her head up and gazed at the sky with her dark eyes. Her lips were firmly pressed together, and the corners of her mouth drawn down. Ilya looked first at her dusky eyes, then, like her, at the sky, and thought to himself that perhaps Perfishka's wife saw the Lord God up there, and was silently praying for something.

By degrees all the children of the house collected by the cellar door. They pulled their clothes closer about them, and sat on the cellar steps pressed close together, listening with fearful curiosity to what Savel's son was telling them of the crime. Pashka's face was troubled, and his eyes, generally so saucy, looked uncertainly and waveringly round about him. But he felt himself the hero of the day; never had people paid him so much attention as to-day. Now for the tenth time he retold the same history, and his tale sounded quite indifferent, quite unmoved.

"When she went away yesterday, father gnashed his teeth, and raged more and more, and growled all the time. He pulled my hair every minute. I soon saw something was up, and then she came back. The house was shut up, we were in the smithy, and I was standing by the bellows. All at once I saw her come nearer, and stand in the door. 'Give me the key,' she said. But father took the tongs and went at her. He went quite slowly—creeping slowly. I shut my eyes, it was awful. I wanted to cry out 'Run, mother!' but I couldn't. When I looked again, he was still going slowly towards her, and his eyes burned! Then she tried to go—she turned her back—she tried to run——"

Pashka's face quivered and his thin angular body began to shudder. He drew in a deep breath, then breathed out again, and said:

"Then he hit her on the head with the tongs."

A movement ran through the children, who had not stirred hitherto.

"She stretched out her arms and fell forward, as if she were diving into the water."

He stopped speaking, picked up a shaving, looked at it carefully, and threw it away over the heads of the children. They all sat still, silent and motionless, as if they expected him to speak again. But he said no more, and let his head fall on to his breast.

"Did he kill her quite dead?" asked Masha in her thin, trembling voice.

"Silly!" said Pashka, without raising his head.

Jakov put his arms round the little one and drew her close to him, while Ilya moved nearer to Pashka and asked him gently:

"Does it hurt you?"

"What's that to do with you?" answered Pashka, crossly.

All the children looked at him silently.

"She was always idling about," said Mashka's clear voice, but Jakov interrupted her uneasily.

"Idling? But think what the smith was like, always so cross and grumbling, enough to make any one afraid, and she so lively, like Perfishka—it was dull for her with the smith."

Pashka looked at him and spoke solemnly and gloomily like a grown-up person.

"I always said to her, 'Mother,' I said, 'look out for yourself, he'll kill you,' but she wouldn't listen. She always told me not to say anything to him. She bought me sweets and things, and the sergeant gave me five kopecks every time—every time I took him a letter from her—I got five kopecks. He's a good fellow, and so strong, and he's got a big moustache."

"Has he a sword?" asked Mashka.

"Rather," said Pashka, and added proudly, "Once I drew it out of the sheath—my word! it was heavy!"

"Now you're an orphan like Ilyushka," said Jakov thoughtfully, after a pause.

"Hardly," answered Pashka angrily. "Do you mean I've got to go and be a rag-picker? I should think not."

"I don't mean that."

"I shall just live as I like," went on Pashka proudly, with his head held up and his eyes sparkling. "I'm not an orphan, I'm only just alone in the world, and I will just live for myself, my father wouldn't send me to school, and now they'll put him in prison, and I shall just go to school and learn more than you."

"Where will you get the clothes?" said Ilya, and looked triumphantly at Pashka, "you can't go there in rags."

"Clothes? I will sell the smithy!"

All looked respectfully at Pashka, and Ilya felt himself beaten. Pashka observed the impression his words produced, and held himself still straighter.

"Yes, and I'll buy a horse, a real live horse, and I'll ride to school."

This idea pleased him so much that he even smiled, only a very, very shy smile that flitted over his mouth and was gone in a moment.

"No one will beat you now," said Mashka suddenly to Pashka, and looked at him enviously.

"He'll soon find some one willing," said Ilya in a tone of conviction.

Pashka looked at him, then spat to one side and said,

"What do you mean by that? Just you try it on with me!"

Jakov joined again in the conversation.-"How strange it is, children! there was some one—walked about and talked—and so on—full of life like all the rest, and one blow on the head with the tongs—and that's the end."

The children looked attentively at Jakov whose eyes stood out oddly under his brows.

"Yes, I thought of that, too," said Ilya.

"People say dead," went on Jakov slowly and mysteriously, "but then what is it to be dead?"

"The soul has flown away," explained Pashka moodily.

"To Heaven," added Masha, and looked up into the sky, while she nestled closer to Jakov. The stars were already flaming; one of them a great bright star that did not twinkle, seemed nearer to the earth than the rest and looked down on them like a cold unmoving eye. The three boys turned their faces upwards like Mashka. Pashka glanced up and at once slipped away. Ilya looked up long and keenly, with an expression of fear, always at the one point, and Jakov's big eyes wandered here and there over the deep blue heavens as if they were seeking something there.

"Jakov!" called out his friend, looking down again.


"I was thinking——" Ilya broke off.

"What were you thinking?" asked Jakov, speaking softly too.

"About the people here."

"What then?"

"How they——I can't bear it. Here is some one killed, and they all run about the place and seem so busy and talk all the time; but no one cried, not one."

"Yes, Jeremy did."

"He always has tears in his eyes. But Pashka, how he behaves—as if he were telling a tale."

"It isn't that, really. It pains him, but he's ashamed to cry before us; but now he's gone away, and is crying—as he's reason enough to."

Huddled close together, they sat still for a minute or two. Mashka had fallen asleep on Jakov's knees, her face still turned to the sky.

"Are you afraid?" asked Jakov very softly.

"A little," replied Ilya, in the same tone. "Now her soul is wandering round here. Yes—yes, and Masha is asleep; we must take her into the house, and I'm so afraid to go away from here."

"Let's go together."

Jakov laid the head of the sleeping child against his shoulder, put his arms round her slender body and rose with an effort, while he whispered to Ilya, who stood in the way, "Hold on, let me go in front!"

He stepped down into the cellar, staggering under his burden, while Ilya followed so close that he almost trod on his friend's heels. It seemed to Ilya that an invisible shape glided behind him, that he felt its cold breath on his neck, and he feared every moment to be gripped by it. He touched his friend on the back and called to him in a barely audible voice:

"Go quicker!"


Return to the Three Men Summary Return to the Maxim Gorky Library

© 2022