Old Jeremy's health began to fail soon after these events. He went out collecting rags more and more seldom, and stayed at home most of the time, moving languidly about the courtyard, or lying in bed in his dark cabin.
The spring came on, and as the sun's rays streamed down from the blue sky with more warmth, the old man would sit in a sunny corner and count something on his fingers in an absorbed way, while his lips moved soundlessly. More and more seldom could he tell the children stories, his tongue moved with more and more difficulty. He had hardly begun to speak before a fit of coughing stopped him. Something rattled hoarsely in his chest, as though it wanted to be free.
"Please go on," Masha would command, who loved stories beyond everything.
"Wait—wait!" the old man would reply, drawing his breath with difficulty. "Wait—in a minute—it'll stop in a minute."
But the cough would not stop, but shook the exhausted frame more and more fiercely.
Sometimes the children would go away without waiting for the end of the story; as they went they would look at the old man with a strange sorrowful expression.
Ilya observed that the rag-picker's illness caused unusual anxiety both to the potman Petrusha and his uncle Terenti. Several times a day, Petrusha would appear on the steps leading from the court to the bar, take a look with his cunning grey eyes at the old man and ask:
"Now then, how goes it, grandfather? Better, eh?"
He would swagger about in his pink cotton shirt, his hands in the pockets of his wide linen trousers, whose ends were tucked into brilliantly polished boots. He was always chinking the money in his pockets. His round head was beginning to go bald already above the forehead, but there was still a good thick tuft of fair, curly hair on it, and he loved to throw it back in a foppish way. Ilya had never taken kindly to him, and now his feeling of aversion grew stronger every day. He knew that Petrusha did not like Jeremy. One day he heard the potman giving Terenti instructions concerning the old man.
"Keep an eye on him, Terenti! He's an old miser. He's got a pretty store of cash sewed up in his pillow somewhere. Keep your eyes open! He isn't long for this world, the old mole; you're a friend of his and he hasn't a living soul left him in the world! Remember that, my boy!"
In the evenings Jeremy came into the bar to Terenti as before; he conversed with the hunchback about God and Truth and the concerns of mankind. Since he had lived in the town the hunchback had become still more deformed; he seemed to have been bleached by his occupation. His eyes had got a dull, shy expression, and his body was as though melted in the hot vapours of the bar. His dirty shirt used to slip up on to his hump and leave his naked loins visible. All the time he was speaking with any one he kept both his hands behind his back, trying constantly to draw his shirt into its place, and this habit gave him the air of trying to stuff away his big hump.
When Jeremy sat outside in the courtyard, Terenti would come out frequently on to the steps and look at him, and his eyes twitched as he shaded them with his hand. The straw-coloured beard quivered on his pointed face as he asked the old man in his weak voice, embarrassed as from a guilty conscience, "Grandfather! do you want anything?"
"Many thanks. No—nothing. I don't need anything," the old man would answer.
The hunchback turned slowly on his withered legs and went back into the bar. But the old man felt himself growing weaker every day.
"It'll soon be all over with me," he said one day to Ilya, who was sitting near him. "It's time for me to die—there's only one thing still——"
He peered round the courtyard mistrustfully and went on in a whisper:
"I'm dying too soon, Ilyushka! My work is not done. I haven't had time. I've stored up money—money. I've pinched and saved for seventeen years; I wanted to build a church with it. I meant to make a temple for the Lord in the village—my home. Ah! there's need of it—such need for men to have a temple to God; our only refuge is with God. It's too little, all I've saved, it won't do it, and what shall I do with what I have? I don't know. O God! show me the way. And the ravens already flutter about me, and croak and smell a fat morsel. Listen, Ilyushka, I've got money; don't say a word to any one, but listen."
Ilya listened; he felt himself uplifted as the sharer of a great important secret, and understood very well whom the old man spoke of as the ravens.
A couple of days later when Ilya came back from school and went to his accustomed corner, he heard strange sounds in the old man's room. It was like some one murmuring—sobbing with a hoarse rattle in his throat, as though he were being strangled. Every now and then a whisper was audible.
"Ksch! Ksch! Go away!"
Full of anxiety the lad went to the door of the room, but it was fast shut. Then he cried out in a trembling voice:
Behind the door the only answer he heard was a painful breathless whisper:
"Tsch! Ksch! O Lord, have mercy—have mercy—have mercy!"
And suddenly all was still. Ilya sprang back from the door, and hesitated a moment what to do; then he went to part of the wooden partition, and, quivering with excitement, looked through a crack in it. It was dark and obscure in the old man's little room. The light could hardly penetrate the little dirty window. The sound of a spring shower was heard, as the rain drops struck the pane and the water ran down into a hollow in the yard outside the window. Ilya looked closely into the room and saw the old man lying in bed stretched out on his back and fighting the air above him with his hands.
"Grandfather!" cried the boy again, full of terror.
The old man started, lifted his head, and murmured aloud:
"Ksch! Petrusha—let it alone, think of God, it belongs to Him! I must build Him a temple with it. Ksch! Go away! Off! you raven. O God! it is Thine—Thine—guard it, take it for Thyself. Have mercy! have mercy!"
Ilya shivered with fear and was unable to stir from the spot. He saw Jeremy's black, withered hands move feebly in the air, and threaten some invisible person with his crooked fingers.
"See! it belongs to God, don't touch it!" and then the old man raised himself up and his hair bristled. Suddenly he sat upright in his bed. His white beard quivered like the wings of a flying dove. He stretched out his arms, as if to thrust some one away from him with a last effort, and fell on the ground.
Ilya shrieked and ran away. In his ears rang the whisper, "Ksch! Ksch!"
He burst into the bar room and cried breathlessly: "Uncle—he's dead!"
Terenti gave an "Ah!" of astonishment, then moved nervously up and down, pulling at his shirt and looking at Petrusha behind the bar.
"Uncle, go to him!—go quick!"
"There, what are you waiting for," said Petrusha, decidedly. "Go along. God have mercy on his soul! He was a sturdy old man. I'll go with you to see him. Ilya, you stay here. If anything is wanted, fetch me, d'you hear? Jakov, look after the bar, I shan't be a minute."
Petrusha left the bar room without undue haste, putting his feet down noisily. The two boys heard him speak again to the hunchback behind the door:
"Get on—get on—you lout!"
Ilya was seized with a great fear, from all he had seen and heard, but it did not prevent him from seeing quite exactly all that went on around him.
"Did you see how he died?" asked Jakov, who had taken his place behind the bar.
Ilya looked at him and answered with another question: "Why have they gone there?"
"To look at him—you called them."
Ilya was silent. Then he closed his eyes and said,
"It was awful. How he pushed them away!"
"Who?" asked Jakov, stretching his head forward with curiosity.
"The Devil," answered Ilya, after a short thoughtful pause.
"Did you see him?"
"What do you say?"
"Did you see the Devil, I say?" cried Jakov, devoured with curiosity, going quickly up to Ilya. But Ilya shut his eyes again and said nothing.
"Are you very frightened?" questioned Jakov further, and plucked Ilya by the sleeve.
"Wait," said Ilya, becoming mysterious all of a sudden, "I'll go after them for a minute, eh? But don't tell your father, will you?"
"I won't say a word. But come back soon."
Spurred by suspicion, Ilya hurried from the bar and in a moment was down again in the cellar. He stole, carefully, noiselessly as a mouse to the chink in the partition and looked through again. The old man was still alive, he could hear the rattle in his throat. But Ilya could not see him; the dying man's body lay on the floor at the feet of two dark figures, that in the darkness seemed grown into one enormous mis-shaped creature. Then Ilya saw how his uncle knelt beside the bed, and held the pillow which he was hurriedly sewing up. He heard the threads drawn through the stuff quite clearly; Petrusha stood behind Terenti and bent over him. He threw back his hair and whispered angrily:
"Get on—get on! you abortion! I always told you—keep needle and thread ready! But no! you haven't even a needle threaded. Oh you! Silly fool! You've made a nice mess of it—there—that'll do. God have mercy on his soul! It'll do. What's that? Pull yourself together, coward!"
The low whispering of Petrusha, the gurgling sighs of the dying man, the sound of the needle, and the monotonous rush of the water that ran into the hole in front of the window, all combined into a dull noise beneath which Ilya felt his senses wavering. He left the wall, where he had listened, and crept out of the cellar. A great black patch whirled before his eyes like a wheel, making him sick and giddy. He had to cling to the railing as he climbed the stairs to the bar room, and felt his limbs drag heavily. When at last he reached the tap-room door, he stood still and began to weep. Jakov hurried to him and spoke cheerily to him. Then he felt a slap on the back and heard Perfishka's voice, "Hullo! What's up? Speak up man! Is he dead? Ah!"
And pushing Ilya aside, he ran down the steps again so fast that they shook beneath his feet. But at the bottom he stood on the last step and cried out loudly and complainingly:
"Ah! these sharpers!"
Then Ilya heard his uncle and Petrusha come up the stairs; he did not want to cry before them, but he could not hold back the tears.
"Jakov," called Petrusha, "run down to the police station; say the old rag-picker has gone to his God—make haste!"
"Oh you," cried Perfishka, who had come up again with them, "So you've been there already, eh?"
Terenti passed by his nephew and could not look him in the face; but Petrusha laid his hand on Ilya's shoulder and said:
"Crying, lad? Cry away! that's right, it shows you have a grateful heart, and understood what the old fellow did for you. He was very, very good to you."
After a while he took Ilya by the hand and led him aside saying:
"But you needn't stand right in the doorway, all the same."
Ilya wiped away the tears with his shirt sleeve and let his glance stray over the bystanders. Petrusha had gone behind the bar again and was throwing back his curls. In front of him stood Perfishka, looking at him with a mocking grin. His face had an expression as though he had just lost his last five-kopeck piece at pitch and toss.
"Well, what's the matter, Perfishka?" asked Petrusha as he drew the drink.
"Matter? Oh! Aren't you going to give me a fee?" he answered suddenly.
"How d'you mean? For what?" asked the potman, indifferently.
"Oh you scoundrel!" cried the cobbler crossly, and stamped on the ground. "My mouth's wide open, but the roast pigeon is not for me. Well, well, that's done, anyhow. Here's luck, Peter Sakinytsch."
"What's the matter? What are you jawing about?" asked Petrusha and smiled as unconcernedly as he could.
"I only mean—I'm speaking quite simply——"
"Ah! you want a drink, that's it, eh?"
"Ha! Ha!" the cobbler's gay laugh sounded loudly.
Ilya tossed his head as though to shake off something and went outside.
That night he lay down to sleep very late, and not in his corner of the cellar but in the tap room under the table where his uncle washed the glasses. The hunchback made a bed there for his nephew, then began to wash down the tables. A lamp burned on the bar, lighting up the bulging teapots and the bottles in the cupboards against the wall. In the room it was dark. The black night came close up to the window; a fine rain pattered on the panes and the wind rustled softly.
Like a great hedgehog, Terenti crept about between the tables, sighing frequently. Whenever he came near the lamp his figure threw a great black shadow on the floor. It seemed to Ilya that the soul of old Jeremy glided behind his uncle and whispered in his ear:
The boy was frightened and shivered. The damp atmosphere of the bar oppressed him. It was Saturday. The floor was newly washed, and smelt mouldy. Ilya wanted to beg his uncle to lie down beside him as soon as possible, yet a painful, perverse feeling held him back from speaking. In his mind he saw the bent figure of old Jeremy with his white beard, and his friendly words rang in his ears all the time.
"Mind my son—God knows the measure of all things—mark that!"
"Oh, come and lie down!" Ilya burst out at last.
The hunchback started and looked up terrified.
Then he said, softly, fearfully:
"What? Who is there?"
"It is I. Come and lie down, I say."
"Soon—soon—soon," cried the hunchback quickly, and began to twist about the tables like a top. Ilya perceived that his uncle was afraid of him and thought in the stillness with a feeling of pleasure:
The rain drummed on the window panes and from all round came dull sounds. The lamp flame flickered up. Ilya covered his head with his uncle's fur jacket and lay there holding his breath. Suddenly something moved near him. A paroxysm of terror seized him; trembling, he put his head out and saw Terenti kneeling on the ground, his head bent, so that his chin touched his breast. And Ilya heard him praying in a whisper:
"O Lord, our Father in Heaven, O Lord——!"
The whisper reminded him of the death rattle of the old man. The darkness in the room began to move, the floor seemed to go round and round, and the wind howled in the chimney: "Hu—u—u——!"
"Stop that praying!" called Ilya's clear voice.
"What? What is it?" said the hunchback half aloud. "Go to sleep, for Christ's sake."
"Stop praying," repeated the boy, commandingly.
"Yes—yes. I'll stop."
The dampness and the darkness in the room weighed more and more heavily on Ilya, his breathing was oppressed and his soul was filled with fear and sorrow for the dead old man, and with a deep ill-will against his uncle. At last he sat up and groaned aloud.
"What is the matter? What is it?" called out his uncle frightened, and put an arm round him. But Ilya pushed him back, and spoke in a voice choked with tears, but ringing with bitter pain and horror.
"O God! If only I could go away and hide from it all. O God!"
He could not speak for tears. His breathing was laboured in the heavy air of the tap room, and, sobbing, he hid his face on the floor.