When Ilya returned to the house of Petrusha Filimonov, he discovered with pleasure that he had grown considerably during the time he had spent in the shop. Every one made a point of greeting him with flattering curiosity, and Perfishka held out a hand to him. "My respects to my lord the shopman. Well brother, have you served your time? I've heard of your bold strokes. Ha! ha! Ah, brother, men will let you use your tongue to lick their boots, but not to tell them the truth."
When Mashka saw Ilya, she cried joyfully, "Ah, how tall you've grown!"
And Jakov was delighted to see his comrade again.
"This is good," he said, "now we can live together again like we used to. Do you know, I've got a book called 'The Albigenses,' such a story, I tell you! There's a man in it, Simon Montfort, he's a real monster."
And Jakov, in his vague, hurried way, started to tell his friend the contents of the book. Ilya looked at him and thought with a peaceful content, that his big-headed comrade had stayed just as he was before. Jakov saw nothing at all unusual in Ilya's conduct towards the merchant Strogany. He listened to the whole story, then said simply, "That was all right." This unmoved reception of his experience by Jakov was not to Ilya's taste. Even Petrusha, when he had heard Ilya's account of what took place in the shop, had applauded the boy's behaviour and not stinted his approval.
"You gave it him very well, my lad, very cleverly. Of course, Kiril Ivanovitch couldn't send off Karp for you. Karp knows the business, and it wouldn't be easy to replace him. But after such a scene, you couldn't stay on with him. You stuck to the truth, and played with the cards on the table, you must have come off the better."
However, a day or two after, Terenti said to his nephew softly:
"Listen. Don't be too open with Petrusha. Be careful. He doesn't like you. He abuses you behind your back. He says, 'See how the boy loves the truth, but why is it? out of sheer stupidity.' H'm, yes. That's what he says."
Ilya listened and laughed.
"And yesterday, he praised me; said I'd managed cleverly. Men are all like that, they'll praise you to your face, but behind your back they'll say things."
Petrusha's duplicity did not in the least lessen Ilya's heightened self-confidence. He felt exactly like a hero, and was convinced that he had behaved very well with regard to the merchant—better than any other had ever behaved under similar circumstances.
Two months later, when a new place had been sought for Ilya, zealously but in vain, this conversation took place between the uncle and nephew:
"Yes, it's bad," said the hunchback, gloomily, "not a place to be found for you. Everywhere it's the same thing—he's too big! What shall we do, my boy? What I do you think?"
Ilya answered decidedly and with conviction: "I'm fifteen years old. I can read and write. I'm not stupid, and if I'm insolent they'll only send me away from any other place I get. Who can do with an insolent man?"
"But then, what shall we do?" asked Terenti, anxiously, sitting on his bed and supporting himself on it with his hands.
"I'll tell you. Let me have a big box and buy me some goods—soap and scent, needles and books, all sorts of small things, and I'll go round about with them and do business for myself."
"What?—What do you mean, Ilusha? I don't quite understand. In the bar room here, in the noise, it always goes tchk!—tchk! tchk! So that my head's got weak, and then there's something never lets me alone, always the same thing, I can't think of anything else!"
A strange tortured expression showed in the hunchback's eyes, as though he wanted to reckon up something and could not get it right.
"Try it, uncle; let me go once any way."
Ilya entreated, excited by his idea which promised him freedom.
"Well, God help us! we might try."
"Ah! splendid! you'll see how it'll go," cried Ilya delighted.
"Oh dear!" Terenti sighed deeply, and went on sorrowfully: "If only you were quite grown up! Ah! then I could go away, but now you're just an anchor to hold me, it's only for your sake I stay in this beastly hole, and go down, down. I might go to some holy men and say: 'Servants of God! doers of good! interceders! I have sinned, accursed that I am, my heart is heavy, save me, pray for pardon for me to my Father!'"
And the hunchback began to weep quietly.
Ilya knew well what sin oppressed his uncle and remembered it clearly. His heart was uplifted; he pitied, but could find no words of consolation and was silent, till he saw the tears flow from the sunken, introspective eyes of his uncle, then he said: "There—there, don't cry any more! See! Wait till I get on a bit in business, then you can get away from here." After a moment's silence he resumed consolingly, "There—you'll see, you'll be forgiven."
"Do you think so really?" asked Terenti softly, and the lad repeated in a tone of conviction:
"Of course you'll be forgiven, worse things than that have been pardoned, I'm sure of it."
So it came about that Ilya took to the pedlar's trade. From morning to night he traversed the streets, with his box at his breast, while his black eyebrows contracted, and he looked out on the world full of self-confidence with his nose in the air. With his cap drawn down on his forehead, he held up his head and cried with his boyish voice beginning to break:
"Soap! blacking! pomade! hairpins! needles and thread, pins! books—beautiful books!"
Life flowed round him in a gay and tumultuous stream, and he swam with it, free and light-hearted, and felt himself to be a man even as all the others were. He drove a trade round the bazaars, went to the inns, and would order his tea importantly, drink it slowly, and eat a piece of white bread like a man who knows his worth. Life seemed to him simple, easy and pleasant.
His dreams took on clear and simple forms. He imagined how in two or three years he would sit in a clean little shop of his own, somewhere in a good street, not too noisy, and in this shop he would deal in all sorts of clean and pretty wares, that were clean to handle and did not spoil the clothes. He himself would look clean and healthy and handsome. Every one in the street would respect him and the girls would look at him with friendly glances. When his shop was shut he would sit in a clean bright little room near it and drink his tea, and read books. Cleanliness in everything seemed to him the essential determining factor of a well-ordered life. So he dreamed when trade was good and no one hurt him by rough behaviour. But if he had sold nothing and was sitting tired in the bar or somewhere in the street, then all the harshness and hustling of the police, the insulting remarks of customers, the abuse and mockery of his fellows the other pedlars, weighed on his soul and he felt within him a painful sense of unrest. His eyes opened wide and looked deeper into the web of life, and his memory, so rich in impressions, pushed into the wheels of his thought one impression after another. He saw clearly how all men strove for the same goal as he, how all longed for the same quiet, full and clean life on which his desire was set. Yet no one scrupled to thrust aside whomsoever was in his way; all were so greedy, so pitiless, and harmed one another, with no necessity, with no advantage to themselves, out of sheer pleasure in another's pain. They often laughed when they could hurt most deeply and seldom had pity on those whom they made to suffer.
Such images made his work seem hateful. The dream of a clean little shop vanished away, and he felt in his heart an enervating weariness. It seemed to him that he would never save enough money out of his trading to open the shop, and that right on into his old age he must wander about the hot, dusty streets, his box on his breast, and the straps galling his shoulders. But every success in his undertaking awakened new courage and gave new life to his dreams.
One day in a busy street Ilya quite unexpectedly met Pashka Gratschev. The smith's son tramped along the pavement with the assured stride of one free of all care, his hands in the pockets of his torn trousers, wearing a blue blouse, also torn and dirty, which was much too big for him. The heels of his big, well-worn boots clumped on the pavement at every step. His cap with a broken peak rested jauntily over his left ear, leaving half of his close-cropped head exposed to the rays of the summer sun. Face and neck alike were covered with thick greasy black dirt. He recognised Ilya from a distance, and nodded to him in a friendly way, without hastening his easy pace.
"Good luck," said Ilya. "Fancy meeting you!"
Pashka took his hand, pressed it and laughed. His teeth and eyes shone bright and dear for a moment under his black mask.
"How goes it?" asked Ilya.
"It goes as it can. When there's anything to bite at, I bite, and when there's nothing I whine and lie curled up. Ha! ha! I'm jolly glad to meet you anyhow!"
"Why do you never come to see us?" asked Ilya, smiling. It was pleasant to him to see an old comrade glad to meet him in spite of his dirty face. He looked at Pashka's worn boots and then at his own new, shining pair that had cost nine roubles, and smiled complacently.
"How should I know where you live?" said Pashka.
"With Filimonov, just the same."
"Oh! Jashka said you were in some fish shop or other."
Ilya related with pride his experiences in the house of Strogany, and how now he was keeping himself.
"That's the way," cried Gratschev approvingly, "they turned me out of the printing works just the same way, for insolence. Then I was with a painter, mixed the colours and that sort of thing, till one day I sat down on a fresh-painted signboard, and then of course there was a row, they all went for me, master and mistress, and pupils, till their arms were tired out and then sent me to the devil. Now I'm with a well-sinker, six roubles a month. I've just had dinner and I'm going back to work."
"You don't seem in a hurry with your job."
"Oh! devil take it! Whoever knows what work is doesn't get excited over it. I must come and look you up some time."
"Yes! do come."
"Do you still read books?"
"Rather. And you?"
"Yes, when I can."
"And do you still make poetry?"
"Yes, I make poetry."
Pashka laughed again happily.
"You'll come then, won't you? And don't forget the poems."
"I'll come right enough. I'll bring some brandy, too."
"Have you taken to drinking then?"
"Oh, just a little—but now, good-bye."
"Good-bye," said Ilya.
He passed on his way, thinking deeply of Pashka. To him it seemed strange that this ragged fellow had showed no envy of his own shining boots and clean clothes, indeed had hardly appeared to notice them. Again, Pashka had rejoiced openly when Ilya spoke of his independent untrammelled life. His thoughts filled Ilya with an incomprehensible unrest, and he said to himself: "Doesn't this Gratschev, then, want the same things as all the rest. What is there to wish for in life but a clean, peaceful, independent existence?"
Melancholy and unrest of this kind possessed Ilya, especially after he had visited the church. He seldom missed a service, midday or evening. He used not to pray, but would simply stand in some corner and look, without any definite thought, at the worshipping crowd and listen to the singing of the choir. Men stood there, silent and motionless, and there was a certain sense of unanimity in the stillness, as though each were endeavouring to think as all the others thought. Waves of song, blended with waves of incense, swept through the house of God, and often Ilya felt as though he were borne upwards on the stream of sound to float in the warm caressing air above. There was something that comforted the soul in the earnest, solemn voice that filled the church, so different from the hubbub of life and not to be reconciled with it. At first this feeling remained apart from everyday impressions, did not mingle with them and left him undisturbed; but later it came to him to feel as though there was something living in his heart, ceaselessly observing him; shy and anxious it dwelt concealed in a corner of his heart as he went about his accustomed business, but grew in his soul whenever he entered the church and aroused in him a strange, disquieting thought, opposing his dream of a clean, sheltered life. At such times the tales of the hermit Antipa rose in his mind, and the talk of the pious old rag-picker concerning a loving God. "The Lord sees all things, knows all things, beside Him there is nothing."
Ilya would return home full of unrest and perplexity, feeling his dreams of the future fade, and recognising that hidden in him lay something that cared not at all for his little business. But life renewed its claims on him, and this something dived quickly down again to the depths of his soul.
Jakov, with whom Ilya discussed almost everything, knew nothing of this division in his friend's soul. Indeed, Ilya came to the consciousness of it against his will, and never voluntarily let his thoughts run on this incomprehensible sensation.
His evenings were spent pleasantly. As soon as he returned, he went straight to the cellar and said to Masha quite as if he were the master in his own home:
"Now Masha, is the samovar ready?" and the samovar would be already prepared and standing on the table steaming and singing. Ilya always brought some delicacy with him, almond or honey cakes, or gingerbread or syrup, and for this Masha supplied him with tea. Besides, the girl had begun to earn money for herself; Matiza had taught her to make paper flowers, and Masha loved to shape red roses out of the thin rustling sheets. She could earn ten kopecks a day. Her father had contracted typhus, and lay for two months in hospital, returning thin and meagre with beautiful dark curls. His tousled, untrimmed beard was shaved off, and in spite of his yellow sunken cheeks, he looked five years younger. As before he worked in various shops, frequently did not even sleep at home and left all care and management of his home to Masha. She patched his clothes and called her father "Perfishka" like all the rest. The shoemaker made great fun of her demeanour to him, but felt an evident respect for his little curly-headed girl, who could laugh as heartily and cheerfully as himself.
Ilya and Jakov took their tea in the evenings with Masha as a regular custom. The three children sat at table, and drank long and deeply, chattering of everything that interested them. Ilya related all that he had seen in the town, and Jakov, who read all day long, told of his books, the scenes in the tap room, complained of his father and many times poured out a screed, quite confused and unintelligible to the other two. Masha sat all day in her underground room, worked and sang, listened to the conversation of the lads, speaking herself seldom and laughing when she felt inclined. To them all the tea tasted admirable, and the samovar covered with a thick layer of rust grinned at them in a friendly cunning way with its funny old face. Almost every day, just when the children had arranged things to their liking, it would begin to murmur and hum, pretending anger, and it would appear that there was no water in it, Masha must take it out and fill it, and this performance had to be repeated several times every evening. When the moon rode in the heavens, her light would share the festival, falling through the windows into the little room in great, glimmering streaks. This little cave, shut in with a low, heavy ceiling, and half-rotten walls, almost always lacked air and light, water and bread, and sugar and many things, but life went all the more merrily, and every night many generous feelings and many naïve youthful thoughts were born there.
From time to time Perfishka joined the company. Generally he sat on a kind of bench in a dark corner near the sturdy stove, half buried in the ground, or else he climbed on to the stove itself, and his head hung down into the room, so that if he spoke or laughed his little white teeth glimmered in the darkness. His daughter passed him a big mug of tea and a piece of sugar and bread, he would take them, laughing and say: "Many thanks Maria Perfilyevna, I am overwhelmed with your kindness." Many a time he would say with a sigh of envy, "You have a fine life, children—confound you! first rate, just like men and women," and then laughing and sighing he would go on:
"Life gets better and better—it's jollier every year; at your age I got nothing but the strap. It was always on my back, and I howled for pleasure as loud as I could. When it stopped, my back began to hurt and grumble and sulk, because it missed its old friend; but it didn't have to wait long for it—it was a most sympathetic strap. That was all the company I had in my young days. You'll soon be growing up now, and will want to look back at things—the talks, and all the different things that have happened and all this jolly life, and I'm grown big and old—thirty-six—and have nothing I want to remember. Not a spark; nothing has remained in my memory, as if I'd been deaf and blind all my young days, I only remember how my teeth chattered for hunger and cold, and the blue patches on my face; how my bones and my ears and my hair stayed healthy I can't understand. They didn't quite hit me with the stove, but on the stove, bless you, they thrashed me to their hearts' content. That was an education for you; they twisted me about like a bit of thread; but flog me as they liked, and hack me to pieces, and suck my blood as they liked, the Russian in me clung to his life! tough fellows these Russians! Pound them to bits, and they'll come up smiling! See me! they ground me to powder and cut me to ribbons, and here I live happily like the cuckoo in the wood, flutter from one alehouse to another, and am at peace with all the world. God loves me, you know; if he saw me, He'd just say: 'Oh! it's you,' He'd say, and let me go on."
The youngsters listened and laughed. Ilya laughed with the others, though Perfishka's sing-song voice awakened in him a thought which always came back and back obstinately and occupied him greatly. One day he tried to get clear about it and asked the cobbler with an incredulous laugh: "And is there really nothing in all the world that you want, Perfishka?"
"Oh! I don't say that. A mouthful of brandy, for instance, I'm always wanting."
"No, tell me the truth! There must be something in the world that you want," persisted Ilya.
"Want to know the truth, do you? Well then, I should like a new harmonica, a right-down good harmonica, say twenty-five roubles. Ha! ha! then I'd play to you!"
He stopped and laughed comfortably. Suddenly a thought pricked him, he became serious and said to Ilya, gravely:
"N—no, brother! I don't want a new one! In the first place, it's dear and I should pawn it for drink, for sure, and secondly, suppose it turned out worse than the one I have, what then? She's a real beauty, the one I've got. Beyond all money. My soul's gone into her, she understands me so well, just my finger on the keys and away she sings! She's a rare treasure—perhaps there's not another like her in the world. A harmonica, she's like a wife. Once I had a wife too, an angel—not a woman, and if I wanted to marry again—how could I? I'd never find another like my dear. Whether you like it or not, you get measuring the new one by the old, and if she isn't enough, it's bad, for me and for her. That's the way of things. Ah! brother, a thing isn't good when it's good, but when it pleases you."
Ilya could readily agree with Perfishka's praise of his instrument. No one who heard it but wondered at its ringing, tender tone. But he could not reconcile himself with the thought that the cobbler had no desire in the world. Clear and sharp, the question met him—can a man live his whole life in dirt, go about in rags, drink brandy, play the harmonica and never long for anything different, better? He had no wish to regard the contented Perfishka as half silly. He observed him constantly with the greatest interest, and was convinced that the cobbler at heart was better than all the other people in the house, tippler and good for nothing though he were.
Sometimes the young people ventured to approach those great and far-reaching questions, which open fathomless abysses before mankind, and draw down by force into their mysterious depths man's eagerly inquiring spirit and his heart. It was always Jakov who began on these questions. He had acquired an odd habit of leaning against everything as though his legs felt insecure. If he were sitting, he either held on to the nearest fixed object with his hands or supported his shoulder against it. If he were walking along the street with his quick, irregular strides, he would grasp the stone posts by the way as though he were counting them, or try the fences with his hand as though to test their stability. At tea in Masha's room, he sat generally at the window, his back against the wall and his long fingers holding fast to the chair or the edge of the table. Holding his big head sideways, with its fine, smooth, tow-coloured hair, he would look at the speaker and the blue eyes in his pale face were either wide open or half closed. He loved, as of old, to relate his dreams, and could never re-tell the story of a book he had been reading without adding something singular and incomprehensible. Ilya reproached him for this habit, but Jakov was undisturbed and said simply:
"It's better as I tell it. One mustn't alter the Holy Scriptures, but any other books, one can do as one likes about. They're written by men and I'm a man too. I can improve them if I want to. But tell me something different. When you're asleep, where is your soul?"
"How should I know?" answered Ilya, who disliked questions that roused a painful disquiet in him.
"I believe they just fly away," Jakov explained.
"Of course they fly away," Masha confirmed him in a tone of conviction.
"How do you know that?" asked Ilya sternly.
"Oh! I just think so."
"Yes, that's it, they fly away," said Jakov thoughtfully, smiling, "They must rest some time, that's how the dreams come."
Ilya did not know how to answer this observation, and said nothing in spite of a keen wish to reply. For a time all were silent. It became darker in the dim cave of a cellar; the lamp smouldered, a strong-smelling vapour came from the charcoal under the samovar. From far away a dull mysterious noise rolled down to them; it came from the bar room in wild riot and confusion above their heads, and again Jakov's voice was heard:
"See, men make a row, and work, all that sort of thing. They call that living, and then all at once—bang! and the man's dead. What does that mean? What do you think, Ilya?"
"It doesn't mean anything, they're old and they've got to die."
"That won't do, young people die, and children—healthy people die too."
"If they die, they're not healthy."
"What do men live for, anyway?"
"That's a clever question!" cried Ilya, mockingly, since he felt able to reply to this. "They live, just to live; they work and try to be happy. Every one wants to live well, and tries to get on; they all look out for chances to get rich and live comfortably."
"Yes, poor people. But rich people, they've got everything to start with, they've nothing to look out for."
"Ain't you clever! Rich. If there weren't any rich, whom would the poor work for?"
Jakov thought a little and then asked:
"You think then that every one lives just to work?"
"Yes, certainly, that is—not quite all. Some work and the rest just live. They worked before, saved money, and now they just enjoy their life."
"And what do people live for, anyhow?"
"Oh! get out with you! Because they want to. Perhaps you don't want to?" cried Ilya out of all patience. He could not have said exactly why he was annoyed, whether that Jakov raised these questions at all, or whether that he asked so stupidly. He felt definite doubts arise in him under the interrogations, and he could find no clear answer.
"Why do you live yourself? tell me that, then, why?" he shouted at Jakov.
"I don't know," answered Jakov resignedly. "I'd just as soon die. It must be beastly; still I'd like to know what it's like."
Then suddenly he began in a tone of friendly reproach:
"There's no reason to get cross. Just think; men live to work, and work comes because of men; it's just like turning a wheel, always in the same place, and you can't see why it goes round. But where does God come in? He's the axle of it all. He said to Adam and Eve, 'Be fruitful and multiply and people the earth,' but why?"
He bent over towards Ilya, and whispered mysteriously with an expression of fear in his blue eyes:
"Do you know, I believe the good God told them why; but then some one came and stole the explanation, stole it and hid it away, and that was Satan; who else could it be? and that's why no man knows why he is alive."
Ilya listened to the disconnected sentences, felt them possess his soul and was silent. But Jakov continued faster and more softly, fear quivered on his pale face, and his speech became more confused:
"What does God want of you? Do you know? Aha!" It sounded like a cry of triumph out of the flood of his trembling words. Then again they poured out of his mouth tumultuously in disconnected whispers. Masha gazed astounded, open-mouthed at her friend and protector. Ilya wrinkled his brows. He was pained that he could not follow Jakov's words. He considered himself the cleverer, but Jakov constantly reduced him to wonder by his wonderful memory and the fluency with which he spoke on all kinds of difficult questions. If he became weary of listening silently, and too straitly caught by the heavy cloud that Jakov's words begot in him, then he used to interrupt the speaker angrily:
"Oh! shut up for any sake! What are you babbling of? You've read too much, that's the truth—do you understand yourself what you say?"
"But that's just what I'm saying, that I don't understand at all," answered Jakov, wounded and obstinate.
"Then say straight out I don't understand anything, instead of chattering like a maniac, while I've got to listen to you!"
"No, wait a minute," Jakov went on. "Everything is beyond our understanding. Take the lamp, for instance—I see there is fire in it, but where does the fire come from? One minute it's there and the next it's gone. You strike a match, it burns—then the fire must be in it all the time—or does it fly about in the air, invisible?"
Ilya let himself be attracted by this new question. His face lost its contemptuous expression, and looking at the lamp, he said:
"If it were in the air, then it would always be warm. But the match burns just the same in the frost, so it can't be in the air."
"But then, where is it?" and Jakov looked expectantly at his friend.
"It's in the match," Masha's voice struck in. But the two friends, absorbed in the weighty argument, let Masha's remark pass unperceived. She was quite used to the treatment and did not resent it.
"Where is it?" cried Jakov again excitedly.
"I don't know, and I don't want to know! I only know you'd better not put your hand in it, and that it is warm when you're near it. That's enough for me."
"Oh! how clever!" cried Jakov with lively displeasure. "I don't want to know. I can say that, any fool can. No, explain to me, where does the fire come from? Bread I can understand, the corn gives the grain, and from the grain comes the flour, and the dough from the flour, and there's the bread. But what is man born for?"
Ilya looked with astonishment and envy at the big head of his friend. Sometimes when Jakov's questions drove him into a corner, he sprang up and uttered harsh, insulting words, more often he drew back to the stove, leant his broad, sturdy figure against it, and said, shaking his curly head and accentuating his words:
"You make my head go round with your topsy-turvy talk. What sort of a life do you live? To stand behind a counter—that's not so very difficult. You want to see the whole of life stand before you like a statue; you ought to wander about the town from morning to night, day after day like I do and earn your own bread, then you wouldn't worry your head over such silly things, you'd think all the time how to manage things so as to get on. Your head's so big that all this trash spreads about in it. Clever thoughts are small, they don't drive your head silly."
Jakov sat silent, bent over his chair, gripping the table. From time to time his lips moved soundlessly, and his eyes blinked. But when Ilya had finished and sat down again, Jakov began to philosophise anew:
"They say there's a book—a science—called 'Black Magic.' Everything is explained in it, how and why and wherefore. I'd like to find that book and read it, wouldn't you? It must be very horrible."
During the conversation, Masha had sat down on her bed and looked with her dark eyes first at one and then at the other. Then she began to yawn, swayed wearily, and finally stretched herself out on her couch.
"Now then, time for bed," said Ilya.
"Wait, I'll just say good-night to Masha and put out the lamp."
Then seeing Ilya stretch out a hand to open the door, he cried pettishly:
"Oh do wait. I'm frightened in the dark alone."
"What a fellow you are!" said Ilya contemptuously. "Sixteen, and like a little child. I'm not afraid of anything, if the devil came in my way, I wouldn't budge an inch. But you——"
He made a scornful gesture. Jakov looked once like an anxious nurse at Masha, and turned the lamp down. The flame flickered and went out and the darkness of night invaded the room silently from all sides, or on the nights when the moon stood high in the heavens, her gentle silver light streamed through the window on to the floor.