Three Men

by Maxim Gorky

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Chapter VI

Ilya's character underwent a great change as a result of these experiences. Formerly it was only from his school fellows that he had held aloof, as he had never become accustomed to their behaviour towards him or felt the smallest inclination to yield to it. In the house, on the contrary, he had always been frank and trustful, and had felt a singular joy, if any one of the grown-up people took any notice of him. Now, however, he kept away from every one, and grew serious beyond his years. His face wore an unfriendly expression, his lips were compressed, he observed his elders with attention and listened to their conversations with a searching look in his eyes. The memory of all he saw on the day that old Jeremy died weighed heavy on him, and it seemed to him that not only Petrusha and his uncle, but also he himself was guilty before the old man. Perhaps Jeremy had thought as he lay there dying and saw his store rifled, that he, Ilya, had betrayed the treasure. This fear had arisen in Ilya quite suddenly, but had grown in strength and filled his soul with doubt and torturing pain. He locked his thoughts in his heart and thereby there grew in him a mistrust of all the world, and as often as he noticed anything wicked in any one, his heart was a little easier, as though his own guilt towards the dead were lessened thereby. And he found so much evil among men and women. Every one called Petrusha a hypocrite and a liar, but all flattered him to his face, bowed respectfully to him, and addressed him with humility as Peter Akimytsch. Every one called big Matiza of the attics by a hateful name; when she was drunk they all pushed or struck her, and once as she sat below the kitchen window, the cook poured a pail of dirty water right over her, and yet they all took from her endless small kindnesses and services, and gave her no thanks but foul names and blows. Perfishka would call her to watch his ailing wife, Petrusha would get her to wash down the bar room before holidays for nothing, and she was always mending shirts for Terenti. She went everywhere and did everything without a complaint and very handily, tended the sick devotedly and loved to play with the children.

Ilya saw that the most hard-working man in the whole house, the cobbler Perfishka, was looked upon universally as a ridiculous figure, and that no notice was taken of him except when he sat on the bench in the bar room with his harmonica, half drunk, or reeled about the courtyard singing his jolly little songs.

No one could see how carefully he carried his crippled wife up the stairs, how he put his little daughter to bed, tucked her in, and made all sorts of droll faces to entertain her. No one noticed him when he taught Masha, with laughter and fun, to cook the dinner and clean the room, then settled to his work, sitting far into the night bent over a dirty shapeless boot.

When the smith was taken off to prison, no one but the cobbler troubled about his boy. But he took Pashka at once, and the unruly lad waxed the thread, swept the room, fetched water, and went to the shop for bread, kvass and onions. Every one had seen the cobbler drunk on holidays, but no one heard him next day, when, sober once more, he excused himself to his wife:

"Forgive me, Dunya, I'm not really a drunkard, I only took a mouthful to cheer me up. I work all the week—it's very weary, and then I just go and have a drink, and——"

"But do I complain of you? My God, I'm only so sorry for you," answered his wife in her hoarse voice, that sounded like a sob in her throat. "D'you think I don't see how you slave? The Lord has put me like a heavy stone round your neck. If only I could die! then you'd be free of me!"

"Don't talk like that! I won't have you say such things. It's I who trouble you, and not you, me, but I don't do it out of wickedness, only I'm so weak. See now, we'll move into another street. Everything shall be different, door and windows and everything. The windows shall look out on the street, and we'll cut out a boot in paper and stick it on them. That'll be our sign. Everybody will come to us in a crowd, and the business will flourish. Ah! then! work—work—that's the way to fill the cupboard!"

Ilya knew every detail of Perfishka's life. He saw how he toiled like a fish that tries to break the ice closing round it, and respected him the more because he jested all the time with every one and had a smile for all occasions, and played so beautifully on the harmonica.

Meanwhile Petrusha sat behind the bar, played cards with an acquaintance now and again, drank tea from morning to night, and scolded the lads who waited on the customers. Soon after Jeremy's death he installed Terenti as barman, while he amused himself by strolling about the court whistling, observing the house from all sides and tapping the walls with his fists.

Ilya observed many other things, and everything was hateful and depressing, and repelled him from his fellows more and more. Sometimes all the thoughts and impressions that accumulated in him roused a strong desire to pour out his soul to some one. But he had no desire to talk to his uncle. After the death of Jeremy, there grew up as it were an invisible wall between them, which prevented the boy from approaching Terenti as often and as frankly as before. Even Jakov could throw little, if any, light for him on the experiences of his soul; for he lived apart from every one in his own special way. The death of old Jeremy troubled him, he often thought sadly.

"How dull everything is—if only grandfather Jeremy was alive, he used to tell us stories; there's nothing so nice as stories, and he could tell them so well."

"He could do everything well," answered Ilya gloomily.

One day Jakov said to his friend, mysteriously:

"Shall I show you something? Shall I?"


"But promise you'll never say a word."

"I promise."

"Say—may I be damned in Hell, if I do."

Ilya repeated the formula, whereupon Jakov led him to the old lime-tree in the furthest corner of the courtyard. There he lifted from the stem a strip of bark, cunningly fastened, and behind it Ilya saw a big hollow in the tree. It was a space cleverly scooped out with a knife, and adorned with gay rags, scraps of paper, and bits of tin foil. In the depth of the hollow stood a small figure, cast in bronze, and a wax candle end was fixed upright before it.

"Did you see it?" asked Jakov, putting the bark again over the opening.

"Yes, I saw. What is it?"

"It's a chapel," explained Jakov. "At night I can always come out very quietly and light the candle and pray. Isn't it beautiful?"

Ilya liked his friend's idea, but at once perceived the danger.

"Suppose any one saw the light. You'd get a fine thrashing!"

"Who's going to see it in the night? They're all asleep, the world is all quiet. I'm very little and God can't hear my prayer at the end of the day, but He'll hear it at night when it's quiet, don't you think?"

"I don't know, perhaps He will," said Ilya thoughtfully, looking into the pale, big-eyed face of his comrade.

"And you? Will you come and pray too?"

"What will you pray for?" asked Ilya. "I should ask God to make me very clever, and after that, to give me everything I want. What will you ask for?"

"I? I should ask for that too," answered Jakov. After a moment he added: "I should just pray without asking for anything special, just pray, that's all, and He can give what He likes, but if you think the other way's better, then I'll do the same as you."

"All right," said Ilya.

They decided to start praying the next night at the lime-tree, and both went to bed firmly determined to wake and meet at the corner. But neither then nor on the following night could they wake, and they overslept on many other occasions; then new impressions came to bear on Ilya and the thought of the chapel fell into the background.

In the twigs of this same lime-tree where Jakov had established his chapel, Pashka set bird snares, to catch finches and siskins. He had grown clumsy and thin, and his eyes looked this way and that like the eyes of a beast of prey. He had now no time to loaf about the court. He was kept busy with Perfishka all day, and the friends only saw him on holidays, when the cobbler was drunk. Pashka used to ask them what they were learning at school, and would look gloomy and envious when they gave accounts coloured with a consciousness of their superiority.

"You needn't be so stuck up, anyhow," he said once. "I'll learn something, too, some day."

"But Perfishka won't let you."

"Then I'll run away," answered Pashka, shortly and decidedly.

And as a matter of fact soon after this speech the cobbler went round the courtyard saying with a laugh:

"My young companion has run away, the young devil! Couldn't get on with my leather science!"

It was a rainy day. Ilya looked at the worried cobbler and then at the dull grey skies, and felt pity for the froward Pashka who might now be wandering God knows where. He stood by Perfishka under a shed, leant against the wall and looked across at the house. It seemed to him that day by day it became lower, as though it were sinking into the earth under the burden of the years. Its old ribs stood out more and more sharply, as though the dirt that had accumulated within them for years could no longer find room, and were pushing them asunder. Saturated with misery, wild riot and mournful drunken songs its only abundance, pounded and bruised by never-ceasing footsteps, the house could no longer endure its life, and slowly crumbled to decay, while its dim windows stared mournfully upon God's world.

"Heigh-ho!" began the cobbler, "the old shop'll soon smash up and strew its spawn over the earth, and we that live in it, we'll scatter to the four winds, we'll seek out new holes somewhere else—we'll soon find 'em, as good as these. Then we'll begin a new life—new windows and new doors, and new bugs to bite us. Well, let's have it soon, I've had enough of this pig-sty—only in the end one gets used to it, devil take it!"

But the shoemaker's dream was not to be fulfilled. The house did not crumble down, but was bought by Petrusha. As soon as the sale was complete, Petrusha spent two days creeping into every hole and corner, and feeling and testing the old box of rubbish. Then came bricks and boards, scaffolding surrounded the whole house, and for three months on end it creaked and quivered under the blows of the workmen's hatchets. All round there was sawing and chopping, nails were driven in, old beams torn out with loud crackings and whirls of dust, and new ones put in the places, till at last the old shanty had received a new clothing of planks, and its façade was widened by a new outbuilding. Broad and thickset, the house rose now from the ground straight and sturdy, as though it had driven new roots far into the earth; along its front just below the roof, Petrusha had a big hanging sign put up, which bore the statement in golden letters on a blue ground:

"The Jolly Companions Tavern, P. S. Filimonov."

"And inside it's rotten through and through," said Perfishka mockingly.

Ilya, to whom he made this comment, smiled in sympathy. To him, too, this house, after its rebuilding, seemed a gigantic fraud. He remembered Pashka, who must now be living in another place, and seeing quite different things.

Ilya dreamed, like the cobbler, of other doors and windows and men. Now life in the house became even more unpleasant than before. The old lime-tree fell a victim to the axe, the intimate little corner in its shadow disappeared, and a new outbuilding occupied its place, and all the other favourite places where the children used to sit together and chatter, existed no longer. Only where once the smithy stood, there was one quiet little corner left, behind a heap of old chips and rotten wood. But to sit there was to court uncanny feelings, as though beneath the pile of wood lay Savel's wife with a shattered skull.

Petrusha set aside a new place for Terenti—a tiny little room next the big bar room. Through the thin partition with green paper penetrated all the noise, the smell of brandy and the reek of tobacco. It was clean and dry in Terenti's new room, and yet it was more uncomfortable there than in the cellar. The window looked on the grey wall of the shed, which concealed the sky with the sun and stars, whereas, from the old cellar window, any one kneeling down could see them all quite easily.

Terenti henceforth wore a lilac-coloured shirt, and over it a coat that hung on him as it might have done over a box. From early morning till late at night he took his place behind the bar. He spoke distantly now to every one and held few conversations, and these in a dull, snappy way, as though he were barking, and looked at his acquaintances across the counter with the eyes of a faithful dog that guards his master's property. He bought Ilya a grey cloth jacket, boots, an overcoat, and a cap. When the lad put them on for the first time, the memory of the old rag-picker came vividly before him. He hardly ever spoke to his uncle and his life passed by, monotonous and still; and although the unusual unchildlike feelings and thoughts which had grown in him kept his mind busy, he was burdened with the weight of a suffocating dreariness. More and more often his thoughts turned back to the village. Now it seemed to him quite clear and definite, how much better it had been to live there. Everything there was quieter, simpler, more intelligible. He remembered the dense woods of Kerschenez, and his uncle's tales of the hermit Antipa, and the thought of Antipa aroused the memory of another lonely soul—of Pashka. Where was he now? Perhaps he, too, had fled to the woods, and there dug out a cave to live in. The storm-wind rages through the forest, the wolves howl; it is so terrifying, and yet so good to listen. And in the winter everything shines in the sun like silver, and all is so still, so quiet, that nothing can be heard but the crunch of the snow under foot, and if you stand a moment motionless, you hear only the beating of your own heart. But in the town, it is always wild and noisy, and even the night is filled with clamour. Men sing songs, shout for the police, groan aloud, the carriages pass to and fro, and shake the window-panes with their rattling. Even in school there is much the same confusion; the boys cry out and do all sorts of mischief, and the grown-up people in the streets roar and insult one another and fight and get drunk. And all this not only causes unrest, at times it is absolutely horrible. Mankind here is mad, some are liars, like Petrusha, some evil-tempered and passionate like Savel, others miserably wretched like Perfishka or Uncle Terenti or Matiza. Ilya was specially surprised and provoked at the hateful conduct which the cobbler had lately displayed.

One morning, as Ilya was getting ready for school, Perfishka came into the bar, all dishevelled and heavy with want of sleep. He stood silently at the counter and looked at Terenti. His left eyelid quivered and blinked constantly and his underlip hung down in a strange manner. Terenti looked at him, smiled, and poured him out a small glass, three kopecks worth, Perfishka's usual morning allowance.

Perfishka took it with a shaking hand and tossed it off, but neither smacked his lips after it as usual, nor showed his approval by an oath, and forgot entirely to take his accustomed morsel of food. With his blinking left eye he looked once more at the new barman searchingly, while his right eye remained dull and motionless and seemed to see nothing.

"What's wrong with your eye?" asked Terenti.

Perfishka rubbed his eye with his hand, then looked at his hand and said loudly and emphatically:

"My wife, Avdotya Petrovna is dead."

"What? Truly?" asked Terenti, crossing himself with a glance at the sacred image. "The Lord have mercy on her soul!"

"Eh?" said Perfishka sharply, still gazing into Terenti's face.

"I said, 'The Lord have mercy on her soul!'"

"Oh!—yes—yes! She is dead," said the cobbler. Then he turned suddenly on his heel and went out.

"A strange man," muttered Terenti, shaking his head. Ilya, too, found the cobbler's behaviour very strange. On his way to school he went for a moment into the cellar to see the dead woman. It was all dark and stuffy; the women had come from the attics and were talking half aloud in a group round the death-bed. Matiza was dressing the little Masha and asked her:

"Does it catch you under the arm?"

And Masha, standing with her arms stretched out sideways said crossly:


The cobbler sat bent forward at the table and looked at his daughter, his eye blinking all the time. Ilya gave a glance at the pale, swollen face of the dead; he remembered her dark eyes, now closed for ever, and went out with a painful gnawing feeling at his heart.

When he returned from school and went into the bar room, he heard Perfishka playing the harmonica and singing in a merry tone:

"Ah, my bride, my only dear,

My heart is gone, I sadly fear,

Why have you stolen it away,

And where on earth is it to-day?"

"Oh yes! the women have turned me out!—get out, you villain, they screamed—old tippler, they called me. But I don't mind a bit. I'm a patient lamb. Blackguard me as much as you like, hit me if you like. Only let me live a little—just a little if you please. Aha! my brothers, every man likes to enjoy his life, eh? Call it Vaska, call it Jakov, the soul's the same all the time."

"Tell me who is weeping there?

What does he want, in this affair?

Be still my friend and don't complain,

But stuff your mouth with bread again."

Perfishka's face wore an expression of idiotic happiness. Ilya looked at him and felt disgust and fear. He thought in his heart that without a doubt God would punish the cobbler heavily for such behaviour on the day of his wife's death. But Perfishka was drunk the next day too, even behind his wife's coffin he reeled as he walked and winked and laughed. All held his conduct blameworthy, he was even struck in the face.

"Do you know," said Ilya to Jakov the day of the funeral, "Perfishka is a downright unbeliever!"

"Oh! bother him!" answered Jakov indifferently.

Ilya had noticed already that Jakov had altered considerably. He hardly ever appeared in the courtyard, but sat indoors all the time and seemed to take pains to avoid Ilya. At first Ilya thought that Jakov envied him his success at school and was sitting indoors over his school work. But he soon showed that he learned with even more difficulty than before; constantly his teacher had to reprove him for his inattention and his failure to understand the simplest things. Ilya did not wonder at Jakov's indifference over Perfishka, for Jakov took no special interest in the affairs of the house, but he did wish to understand what was passing in his friend's mind and he asked him:

"Why are you so down on me now? Don't you want to be friends?"

"I? Not be your friend? What on earth are you saying?" said Jakov taken aback, and then called quickly with an eager expression:

"See now, go into the house. I'm coming in a moment—I'll show you."

He jumped up and ran off, while Ilya went to his room in great perplexity.

Jakov soon appeared. He closed the door behind him, went to the window, and took a red book from his coat pocket.

"Come here!" he said, softly, with an important air, sitting down on Terenti's bed and making room for Ilya beside him. Then he opened the book, laid it on his knee, bent over it and began to read aloud, following the words along the grey paper with his finger:

"And sudden—suddenly the bold knight saw a mountain a long way off, so high that it reached to heaven, and midway up its slope was an iron tower. There the fire of his courage flamed up in his brave heart. He put his lance in rest and charged forward with a mighty shout, and sp—spurring his horse, he rushed with all his-gi—gigantic strength against the door. There was a—fearful clap of thunder—the iron tower flew into fragments, and at the same time there streamed out of the mountain fire and v—va—vapour, and a voice of thunder was heard, at which the earth trembled and the stones rolled from the mountain down to the horse's feet. 'Ha! Ha! Is it thou, bold madcap. Death and I have long awaited thee.' The knight was blinded with the fire and smoke."

"But who—who is this?" asked Ilya, amazed at the excitement that quivered in his friend's voice.

"What?" said Jakov, lifting his pale face from the book.

"Who is this—this knight?"

"He's a man, that rides a horse, with a spear, his name is Raoul the Fearless—a dragon has carried off his bride, the beautiful Louise—but listen," Jakov broke off impatiently.

"Hold on a minute—tell me, what's a dragon?"

"Oh! it's a snake with wings and feet with iron claws, and it has three heads, and breathes fire, and—d'you see?"

"My word!" cried Ilya, opening his eyes wide, "that'll be a handful to tackle!"

"Yes, just listen."

Sitting close together, trembling with curiosity and a strange delightful excitement, the two boys made their entry into a new wonder-world where huge evil monsters met their death beneath the mighty strokes of brave knights, where all was glorious and lovely and wonderful, and nothing resembled the dull monotony of daily life. There were no drunken, stupid, dwarfed little men, and instead of half-rotten wooden barracks, were gold-gleaming palaces and impregnable mountains of iron soaring to heaven, and while in thought they wandered through this wondrous fantasy realm of romance, at their backs the mad cobbler played his harmonica and sang his rhyming couplets:

"I'll serve the devil only

While my life is whole,

So when I am done for,

He cannot catch my soul."

"That's the way, my brothers," he went on, "keep it up every day. God loves the happy men."

The harmonica began to whimper again as though it taxed it to overtake the hurrying voice of the cobbler, then he sang a jolly dance tune, his voice as it were running a race with the accompaniment:

"Never mind if in your youth

Your lot be cold and rough,

Once you make your way to Hell,

You'll find it hot enough."

Every verse gained laughter and applause from the audience. The sounds of the harmonica mingled with the clatter of glasses, the heavy tread of the drinkers, and the noise of the benches dragged here and there, and the whole blended into a wild tumult, not unlike the howling of the winter storm through the forest.

But in the little cabin, shut off from this chaos of noise only by a thin partition of wood, the two boys sat bent over the book, and one read aloud softly,

"The knight caught the monster in his iron embrace, and it bellowed like thunder with wrath and pain."


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