Arkady gaidar and his books


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THE SCHOOL







I. THE SCHOOL


Chapter One


Our town of Arzamas was a quiet little place, all buried in gardens and orchards behind rickety fences. "Parent cherries", early-ripening apples, blackthorn and red peonies galore grew in those gardens.

Placid scummy ponds ran through the town past the gardens. All the good fishes had died out in them long ago, and only slippery tadpoles and slimy frogs were to be found there. Under the hillside flowed the Tesha, a small river.

The town resembled a monastery. It had some thirty churches in it and four cloisters. There were lots of miracle-working icons in our town, but for some reason very few miracles happened in Arzamas itself. That was probably because the famous Sarovo Hermitage with its holy men was situated within sixty kilometres of our town and those holy men drew all the miracles to their place.

One was always hearing of things happening at Sarovo —now of a blind man recovering his sight, now of a cripple starting to walk, now of a hunchback becoming straightbacked, but nothing like this ever happened around our icons.

Once a rumour got around that Mitka the Gypsy, a tramp and well-known drunkard, who, every year at Twelfthtide bathed in the river through an ice-hole for a bottle of vodka, had had a vision and given up drinking. He had turned over a new leaf and was taking a monastic vow at the Monastery of Our Saviour.

Crowds flocked to the monastery. And sure enough, there was Mitka next to the choir, bowing away and publicly repenting his sins, even confessing to having stolen a goat from the merchant Bebeshin the year before and spent the money on drink. The merchant Bebeshin was moved almost to tears and gave Mitka a ruble to buy and light a candle for his soul's salvation. Many people had shed a tear at the spectacle of that sinful man mending his ways and returning to the fold.

This went on for a whole week, and just when Mitka was due to take his monastic vow, he failed to turn up at the church—whether because he had had another vision of an opposite nature or for some other reason, no one could tell. A rumour spread among the parishioners that Mitka was lying in a ditch in Novoplotinnaya Street with an empty vodka bottle lying next to him.

Deacon Pafnuti and church warden Sinyugin, the tradesman, were dispatched to the scene for the purpose of exhortation. These two gentlemen soon returned and announced with indignation that Mitka was indeed in a state of insensibility, like a stuck pig, that a second bottle lay at his side, and that when they did succeed in shaking him awake, he had started swearing, saying that he had changed his mind about becoming a monk as he was too sinful and unworthy of it.

Ours was a quiet patriarchal town. On the eve of holidays, especially at Easter, when the bells of all the thirty churches rang out, a din stood over the town which could be heard in the villages for twenty miles around.

The Annunciation Church bell drowned out all the rest. The bell of the Monastery of Our Saviour was cracked, and it made harsh jerky noises in a grating bass. The smaller bells of the St. Nicholas Monastery tinkled out their shrill song. These three leading songsters were supported by other belfries, and even the homely church of the little prison perched on the edge of the town joined the general discordant chorus.

I loved to climb up into the bell towers. The boys were allowed to do this only at Easter. It was a long way up the dark twisting staircase. Pigeons cooed softly in the stone niches. The countless turnings made you feel dizzy. From up there you could see the whole town: under the hillside the Tesha, the old mill, Goat's Island, the copse, and farther out the ravines and the blue hemline of the town's forest.

My father was a soldier in the 12th Siberian Rifle Regiment. The regiment was at the Riga section of the German front.

I was studying in the second form of the Technical High School. My mother, a feldsher, was always busy, and I grew up on my own. Every week I took my report card to my mother to be signed. She would run a cursory eye over the marks, and seeing poor ones for drawing or handwriting, would shake her head and say, "What's this?';

"It's not my fault, Ma. What can I do if I have no gift for drawing? I drew him a horse, Ma, but he says, this isn't a horse, it's a pig. So the next time I hand him my drawing and say, this is a pig, but he got angry and says, it isn't a pig and it isn't a horse, the devil only knows what it is. I'm not training to be an artist, Ma."

"All right, then what about the handwriting? Show me your exercise-book. Goodness me, what a mess! An ink blot on every line, and here between the pages a squashed beetle? Ugh, how disgusting!"

"The blots are an accident, Ma, but the beetle isn't my fault at all. You're always picking on me! It isn't as if I put that beetle there on purpose! The fool crawled in and got himself squashed, and I'm to blame for it! I should worry about handwriting—call that a science! I don't intend to become a writer at all."

"What do you intend to be?" Mother said sternly, signing the report card. "A lazybones? The Inspector here writes again that you climbed to the school roof up the fire-escape. What's the idea? Are you training to become a chimney-sweep?"

"No. Neither an artist, nor a writer, nor a chimneysweep. I'm going to be a sailor."

"Why a sailor?" Mother queried in a puzzled tone. "Nothing but! That's definite. Don't you see how interesting it is?"

Mother shook her head.

"Of all the crazy ideas! Don't you bring any bad marks home again or I'll give you a good spanking, sailor or no sailor."

Tell me another one! I can see her giving me a spanking. Why, she never touched me with a finger. Once she locked me up in the lumber-room and all next day fed me with pies and gave me twenty kopeks to go to the cinema. I wish she'd do that more often!


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