Three Men

by Maxim Gorky

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Chapter VII

After the book of the Knight and the dragon came other wonderful works of the same kind—"Guak, or Invincible Loyalty," then "The History of the Brave Prince Franzil of Venice and the Young Queen Renzivena," and all impressions of reality in Ilya's mind gave way before the knights and ladies. The comrades in turn stole twenty kopeck pieces out of the bar till, and so had no lack of books. They became acquainted with the adventurous journeys of "Jashka Sinentensky," they delighted in "Japantsha the Tartar Robber-chief," and more and more they deserted the harsh pitiless realities of life for a realm where man at all times could tear asunder the bonds of Fate and make a prize of happiness. They lived long in the thrall of these fairy tales. Ilya retained the memory of only one event of his daily life during this time. One day Perfishka was summoned to the police station. He went in fear and trembling, but came joyfully back, and with him, Pashka Gratshev, whom he held fast by the hand lest he should run away again. Pashka's eyes looked as quick and bright as ever, but he had become terribly thin and yellow, and his face had no longer its former froward expression. The cobbler brought him into the bar, and began to relate, his left eye twitching rapidly.

"Behold, my friends, here we have Mr. Pavlusha Gratshev back again as large as life—just back from the town of Pensa conveyed by favour of the police. Ah! what people there are in the world! No staying happily at home for them! When they're hardly able to stand upright they're off into the wide world to seek their fortune."

Pashka stood by, one hand in the pocket of his tattered trousers, while he strove to detach the other from the cobbler's hold, looking at him sideways, darkly.

Some one advised Perfishka to give him a good sound thrashing, but the cobbler answered seriously, letting the boy go:

"What for? let him wander a bit, perhaps he'll find his happiness."

"He'll get jolly hungry, anyway," threw in Terenti, then added in a friendly tone, giving Pashka a bit of bread.

"Here, eat it, Pashka."

Pashka took the bread quietly and went towards the tap-room door.

"Whew!" the cobbler whistled after him, "going off again? Good-bye then, my friend."

Ilya, who had witnessed this scene from the door of his room, called Pashka back.

The lad stayed a moment before answering, then went up to Ilya and asked, looking suspiciously round the little room:

"What do you want?"

"Only to say how d'ye do."

"All right, good day to you."

"Sit down a minute."


"Oh, we'll have a chat."

The short sulky questions, and the hoarse, harsh voice made a painful impression on Ilya. He wanted to ask Pashka where he had been all the summer and what he had seen. But Pashka, who had found a chair and begun to gnaw his bread, started questioning on his own account.

"Finished school?"

"Early next year I'm done."

"Well, I've done my learning too!"

"Why—how?" said Ilya, incredulously.

"I've been pretty quick, eh?"

"Where did you learn?"

"In prison, with the prisoners."

Ilya approached him and asked, looking respectfully into the thin face, "How long were you in? Was it bad?"

"Oh, not so bad—four months I had of it in several prisons and different towns. I got to know some fine people there, my boy, ladies too—real swells! Spoke different languages and knew everything. I always swept out their cells. Very nice people they were, if they were in gaol."

"Were they thieves?"

"No, regular villains," answered Pashka, proudly.

Ilya blinked and his respect for Pashka increased still more.


"A couple of Jews too—fine fellows! I tell you, my lad, they knew their way about. Stripped everyone that they got a hand on—properly. Got caught in the end, and now going to Siberia!"

"But how did you learn things there?"

"Oh! I just said 'teach me to read,' and they did."

"Have you learnt to write too?"

"Writing I'm not so good at, but I'll read as much as you like. I've read lots of books already."

Ilya became excited now the conversation turned on books.

"I read with Jakov, too," he said, "and such books!"

Both began to name all the books they had read, in rivalry. Pashka had to admit with a sigh:

"I see, you've read the most, you lucky devil, and your books are nicer too. I've read mostly poetry. They had a lot of books there, but nearly all verses."

Jakov came in at this point, he raised his eyebrows and laughed:

"Now then sheep, what are you laughing at?" Pashka greeted him.

"Hullo! Where have you been?"

"Where you'll never be able to go."

"Just think," put in Ilya, "he's been reading books, too!"

"Really?" said Jakov, and came nearer in a more friendly way.

The three boys sat close together, in lively desultory conversation.

"I've seen such things, I couldn't even tell you!" cried Pashka, proud and excited. "Once I went two days without eating—not a bite! I've spent a night in the forest, alone."

"Was it bad?" asked Ilya.

"You go and try it, then you'll know. And once the dogs nearly killed me. That was in Kazan, where they put up a monument to a man, just because he made verses. A great, big man he was—his legs, I tell you, as thick as that, and his fist as big as your head, Jakov. I'll make you some poetry, boys—I know how, a bit."

He suddenly sat straight up, drew his legs in, and, looking steadily at one point, he said, quickly, with a serious, important air:——

"Men, well fed and richly dressed

Pass through the streets all day,

But if I beg a bit of bread

They answer—go away!"

He stopped, looked at the other two, and hung his head down. For a minute they all stared in an embarrassed silence, then Ilya asked, hesitatingly:——

"Is that poetry?"

"Can't you hear?" replied Pashka, crossly. "It rhymes—day, away—so of course it's poetry."

"Of course," chimed in Jakov, quickly. "You're always finding fault, Ilya."

"I've made more poetry than that!" Pashka turned to Jakov and went on again:——

"The earth is wet and the clouds are grey,

The autumn draws nearer, day by day,

And I—have no house for the winter's cold

And my clothes are tattered and worn and old."

"Ah!" said Jakov, and looked at Pashka with round eyes.

"That was regular poetry," admitted Ilya.

A fleeting blush passed over Pashka's face and he screwed up his eyes as if the smoke had got into the room.

"I shall make a long poem," he boasted. "It's not so very difficult. You go out and look about you—stream, dream, tree, free—the rhymes come up by themselves."

"And what will you do now?" asked Ilya.

Pashka let his glance wander round; there was a pause, then he said, slowly and vaguely, "oh, something or other," then added decidedly, "If I don't like it, I'll run away again."

For the time being, however, he lived with the cobbler, and every evening the children gathered there. It was quieter and more cosy in the cellar than in Terenti's room. Perfishka was seldom at home. He had sold for drink all that could be sold, and now worked by the day in various workshops, and if there was no work to be got, he sat in the bar-room. He went about half-clothed and barefoot, and his beloved old harmonica was always under his arm. It had come to be almost a part of his body, it had absorbed a portion of his cheerful disposition. The two were very much alike, out at elbows and worn, but full of jolly songs and tunes. In all the workshops of the town, Perfishka was known as a tireless singer of gay rollicking rhymes and dance tunes. Wherever he appeared he was a welcome guest, and all liked him because he could lighten the heavy weary load of existence, with his drolleries tales and anecdotes.

Whenever he earned a couple of kopecks, he gave his daughter the half. His only care now was for her. For the rest, Masha was mistress of her own fate. She had grown tall, her black hair fell below her shoulders, her big dark eyes looked out on the world seriously, and she played the hostess in the underground room most excellently. She collected shavings from the places where new building was in progress, and tried to cook the soup with them, and up to midday went about with her skirts tucked up, quite black, and wet, and busy. But once her meal was prepared, then she cleaned up the room, washed, put on a clean dress, and settled herself at the table before the window to mend her clothes. While she cobbled away with her needle at the rags, she would sing a gay song, and in her liveliness and activity, she was like a titmouse in a cage.

Matiza would often pay her a visit, and bring her rolls of bread, tea, and sugar, and once even gave her a blue dress. Masha received the visit quite like a grown-up person, a proper housewife. She would put the little samovar on the table and serve Matiza with tea, and while they enjoyed the hot stimulating drink, they would chat of the events of the day and Perfishka's conduct. Matiza used to get quite carried away with anger over the cobbler, while Masha, in her clear little voice, would not dispute, out of politeness to her guest, but still would speak of Perfishka without a trace of resentment. In everything that she said of her father, a resolute forbearance was always present.

"Quite true," she would say, in an old-fashioned way, "it is not reasonable for a man to drink so. But he loves gaiety, and only drinks to cheer himself up. While mother was alive, he did not drink much."

"Serve him right, if his liver dries up," grumbled Matiza, in her deep bass, contracting her eyebrows fiercely. "Does the soaker forget he has a child sitting at home? Disgusting brute! He'll die like a dog!"

"He knows that I'm grown up, and can look after myself," answered Masha.

"My God! my God!" Matiza would say, with a big sigh, "the things that go on in this world of God's! What'll happen to the girl? I had a little girl just like you. She stayed at home there, in the town of Chorol, and it is so far to Chorol that if I wanted to go, I couldn't find the way. That's the way with people, they live on the earth, and forget the home where they were born."

Masha liked to hear the deep voice and see the big face and the brown eyes, like those of a cow. And, even if Matiza constantly smelt of brandy, none the less Masha would sit on her lap, nestle against her big, swelling bosom, and kiss the full lips of the well-formed mouth. Matiza used to come in the morning, and in the evening the children gathered in Masha's room. They sometimes played card games of various sorts, but more often sat over a book. Masha listened always with great interest while they read aloud, and would give a little scream at any peculiarly terrifying places.

Jakov was more careful of the child than ever. He brought her from the house bread and meat, tea and sugar, and oil in beer bottles. Sometimes even he gave her any money that was left from the purchases of books. It had become an established thing for him to do all this, and he managed it all so quietly that no one noticed. Masha, for her part, took his labours as a matter of course, and made little to do over them.

"Jakov," she would say, "I've no more coals."

"All right." And presently he would either bring some coal or give her a two-kopeck bit and say, "You'll have to buy some—I couldn't steal any."

He brought Masha a slate and began to teach her in the evenings. They got on slowly, but at the end of two months Masha could read all the letters, and write them on the slate.

Ilya had become accustomed to these relations between the two, and everyone in the house seemed also to overlook them. Many a time Ilya, commissioned by his friend, would himself steal something from the kitchen or the counter and get it secretly down to the cellar. He liked the slender brown girl, who was an orphan, like himself, but he liked her specially because she knew how to face the world alone, and conducted all her affairs like a full-grown woman. He loved to see her laugh, and would always try to amuse her, and if he did not succeed, he grew cross and teased her.

"Dirty blackbird!" he would cry, scornfully.

She would blink her eyes, and reply jeeringly, "Skinny devil!"

One word would lead to another, and soon they would be quarrelling in real earnest. Masha was hot tempered and would fly at Ilya to scratch him, but he readily escaped laughing.

One day, while they were playing cards, he saw her cheat, and in his rage, called at her:

"You—Jashka's darling!" and followed it with an ugly word, whose significance he understood already. Jakov, who was present, laughed at first, then seeing his little friend's face contract with pain at the insult, and her eyes shine with tears, he became pale and dumb. Suddenly he sprang from his chair, flung himself on Ilya, struck him on the nose with his fist, grasped him by the hair and threw him to the ground. It all happened so quickly that Ilya had no time to defend himself, then he picked himself up and rushed headlong at Jakov, blind with wrath and pain. "Wait, my boy, I'll teach you," he shouted furiously. But he saw Jakov with his elbow on the table, crying bitterly, and Masha beside him saying to him with a voice choked with tears:

"Let him alone, the beast—the brute—they're a bad lot, his father's a convict, and his uncle's a hunchback—and a hump'll grow on you too, you beast," she cried, attacking Ilya quite furiously.

"You beastly dirt-grabber—rag-picker! Come here—just you come here, and I'll scratch your face for you—you dare touch me!"

Ilya did not stir. He was much distressed at the sight of Jakov crying, for he had not meant to hurt him, and he was ashamed to scuffle with a girl—though she was ready enough he could see. Without a word he left the cellar and paced the courtyard for a long time, his heart tortured with bitter feelings. At last he went to the window and looked carefully in from above. Jakov was playing cards again with his friend, Masha, the lower part of her face concealed with her cards held fanwise, seemed to be laughing, while Jakov looked at his cards and touched first one then the other. Ilya's heart was heavy. He walked up and down a while longer, then boldly and decidedly went back to the cellar.

"Let me come in again," he said, going up to the table.

His heart thumped, his face burned and his eyes were downcast. Jakov and Masha said nothing.

"I'll never insult you so again, by God, I won't any more," he went on, and looked at them.

"Well, sit down then—you!" said Masha, and Jakov added:

"Silly! You're big enough now to know what you're saying."

"No no, we're all little—just children," Masha put in, and struck the table with her fist, "and that's why we don't need any low words."

"You gave me a jolly good licking, all the same," said Ilya to Jakov reproachfully.

"You deserved it, don't complain!" said Masha, sententiously, and with a darkened face.

"All right—all right I'm not angry, it was my fault," and Ilya smiled at Petrusha's son. "We'll make it up, shall we?"

"All right, take your cards."

"You wild devil!" said Masha.

And with that peace was made. A moment later, Ilya was deep in the game, thoughtfully wrinkling his brow. He always arranged to play next to Masha; he disliked her to lose, and thought of little else all through the game. But the child played quite cleverly, and generally it was Jakov who lost.

"Oh you goggle eyes!" Masha would say, pityingly, "You've lost again."

"Devil take the cards!" answered Jakov, "it's jolly dull, nothing but playing cards. Let's read some more Kamtchadalky."

They got out a torn and dirty book and read the sorrowful history of the amorous and unfortunate Kamtchadalky.

When Pashka saw the three children amuse themselves so pleasantly, he used to say in the tone of a world explorer:

"You lead a pleasant life here, you cunning ones."

Then he would look at Jakov and Masha and smile, then add seriously:

"Go on all the same! and later on you can marry Masha, eh Jakov?"

"Silly," Masha would say, laughing, and then they all four laughed together.

Pashka was generally with them. If they had finished a book or if there was a pause in the reading, he would relate his experiences, and his tales were no less interesting than the books.

"When I found, lads, that I couldn't travel easily without a passport, I had to be very cunning. When I saw a policeman, I used to walk faster, as if some one had sent me on an errand, or I'd get up alongside the nearest grown up person, as if he was my master or my father, or some one; the policeman would look at me and let me go on, he didn't notice anything.

"It was jolly in the villages. They don't have policemen, only old men, and old women and children, peasants that work on the fields. If any one asks me who I am, I say a beggar; whom I do belong to? No one, got no relations. Where do I come from? From the town. That's all. They'd give me things to eat and drink—good things. And then you can go where you like, can run as fast as you like or crawl if you want to. And the fields and the woods are everywhere, the larks sing, you feel as if you could fly up with them. When you're full, then you don't want anything else; feel as if you could go to the end of the world. It's just as if someone was coaxing you on, like a mother with a child. But lots of times I've been jolly hungry. Oho! and my stomach wasted inside, it was so dried up. I could have eaten the dirt, my head was giddy; but then if I got a bit of bread and got my teeth in it—ah—aah—that was good—I could have eaten all day and all night. That was something like! All the same I was glad when I got into prison. At first I was frightened, but soon I was quite pleased.

"I was always so frightened of the police. I thought when they first got hold of me and began to cuff me, they'd kill me. But what d'you think it was like really? He just came softly behind and nipped me by the collar—snap!—I was looking at the watches in a jeweller's window. Oh, such a lot. Gold ones and others. All at once—snap! I began to howl, and he says quite friendly, 'who are you? Where do you come from?' So I just told him—they found it out, they know everything. 'Where do you want to go?' they ask you then. I said 'I'm wandering about'—they laughed. Then I went to gaol. They all laughed there, and then the young gentlemen took me—they were devils if you like—oho!"

Pashka never spoke of the "gentlemen" without interjections—evidently they had made a deep impression on him, though their aspect had become vague in his memory like a big, dark spot. Pashka remained a month with the cobbler, then disappeared again. Later on Perfishka found out that he had entered a printing works as an apprentice and was living in a distant quarter of the town. When Ilya heard it he was filled with envy and said to Jakov with a sigh:

"And we two have got to stay rotting here!"

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