Arkady gaidar and his books


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Chapter Two


One day, after gulping down my tea and hastily collecting my books, I ran off to school. On the way I met Timka Shtukin, my classmate, a fidgety little fellow.

Timka Shtukin was a meek, harmless kid. You could give him one on the nob without running the risk of retaliation. He willingly ate up his chums' unfinished sandwiches for them, ran to the grocer's next door to buy rolls for school lunch, and lapsed into a frightened silence at the approach of the form master, although he had no reason whatever to feel guilty.

Timka had one ruling passion—he loved birds. His father's cubbyhole at the graveyard church, of which he was the caretaker, was full of cages with all kinds of birds in them. He bought birds, sold them, swapped them, and caught them himself with a snare or trap in the cemetery.

He got it hot from his father one day when the merchant Sinyugin, paying a flying visit to his grandmother's grave, saw on the gravestone bait in the shape of scattered hempseed and a net with a string attached to it. Acting on Sinyugin's complaint, the caretaker boxed the boy's ears for him, and our teacher of religion, Father Gennady, said disapprovingly at bible lesson:

"Gravestones are put up in remembrance of the dead, and not for any other purpose. To place traps upon them, or any other contrivances is sinful and blasphemous."

He went on to cite several instances from the history of mankind when such blasphemy drew down upon the head of the culprit the dire punishment of the heavenly powers.

It should be said that Father Gennady was a master-hand at citing examples. I believe that if he found out, for instance, that I had been to the cinema the week before without leave, he would dredge up from his memories some historical precedent of the Lord's wrath descending upon the guilty criminal during his earthly existence.

Timka was walking along whistling like a thrush. Spotting me, he blinked in a friendly way while at the same time glancing suspiciously in my direction as if trying to guess whether this person was approaching him simply or intended to play some dirty trick on him.

"Timka! We'll be late for school," I said. "We may be in time for the lesson, but we'll miss prayers, sure as eggs is eggs."

"They won't notice anything?!" he said in a voice that sounded at once scared and interrogative.

"You bet they will. Ah, well, they'll leave us without lunch, that's all," I said calmly and teasingly, knowing how afraid Timka was of getting reprimands and being told off.

Timka shrank and quickened his pace, saying anxiously:

"It's not my fault! Father went to open the church. Left me in the house for a minute and was gone for ever so long. Sat all through the service. Valka Spagin's mother came to have prayers read for him."

"What, for Valka Spagin?" I said open-mouthed. "Is he dead?"

"It wasn't a service for the dead, it was for tracking him down."

"Tracking him down? What'yer talking about?" I said, a tremor in my voice. "You're talking out of your hat, Timka. I'll fetch you one on the nob in a minute. . . . I didn't go to school yesterday, Timka, I was running a temperature."

"Tweet-tweet. . . . Trra-ra-ra. . . ." Timka started whistling like a tit and hopped about on one leg, overjoyed at the fact that he was the first to tell me this news. "That's true, you weren't at school yesterday. Gee, you should have seen what happened!"

''What happened?"

"It was like this. We were sitting in the classroom. Our first lesson was French. The old hag made us do verbs in etre. Les verbes: aller, arriver, entrer, rester, tomber. She called Rayevsky to the board. He'd just started to write rester, tomber when all of a sudden the door opens and in walks the Inspector (Timka flinched), the Headmaster (Timka threw me a meaningful look), and the form master. When we sat down the Headmaster says to us: 'Gentlemen, I have bad news for you. Spagin, a Pupil of your form, has run away from home. He left a note saying that he had gone off to the German front. I can't imagine, gentlemen, that he has done this without the knowledge of his classmates. Many of you, of course, knew of this flight beforehand but did not take the trouble to bring it to my notice. I must tell you, gentlemen...' and he worked his chin for over half an hour."

I caught my breath. So that's what it was! To think that I had played truant pretending to be ill, when such things were happening, when there was such staggering news of which I knew nothing! And no one—neither Yashka Zukkerstein nor Fedka Bashmakov—had dropped in after school to tell me about it. Pals, they call themselves! When Fedka needs plugs for his toy pistol he comes to me for them. And this is what I get for it! Half the school will run off to the front, while I sit here like an idiot!

I charged into the school like a fire brigade, threw off my coat on the run, and giving the supervisor the slip, mixed with the crowd of boys coming out of the hall where prayers were held.

For days afterwards the school fairly buzzed with the news of Valka Spagin's heroic flight.

The Headmaster was mistaken in thinking that many of us had been let into the secret plan. As a matter of fact no one knew anything about it. It never entered anyone's head that Valka Spagin could run away. He was such a goody-goody, never got mixed up in any scraps or in raids on neighbours' orchards, he was always losing his trousers—in short, he was a poor yap. The last man on earth you'd expect to pull such a thing off!

We all went into a huddle, tried to find out whether any of us had noticed preparations being made for the flight. Damn it all, a fellow couldn't just put on his cap on the spur of the moment and walk off to the front without warning.

Fedka Bashmakov remembered seeing Valka with a map of the railways.

Dubilov, the dunce, said he had run into Valka the other day in a shop, where he was buying a pocket-torch battery. No amount of questioning could elicit any further information pointing to secret preparations for the flight.

The class seethed with excitement. Everybody ran about, seemed to go haywire, gave irrelevant answers during lessons, while the number of pupils who were left without lunch those days was more than double the usual number. Several days went by. Then, all of a sudden, fresh news—Mitka Tupikov, a first-form boy, had run away.

The school authorities became alarmed in real earnest.

"There's going to be a talk today at bible lesson," Fedka told me confidentially. "About all this running away. I heard them talking about it in the Teachers' Room when I went in there with the exercise-books."

Our clergyman, Father Gennady, was seventy if he was a day. Not an inch of face could be seen through the beard and eyebrows; he was stout, and to turn his head to look round he had to turn his whole body, as he had no neck to speak of.

The boys liked him. At his lessons you could do anything you liked—play cards, or draw pictures, or put a banned Nat Pinkerton or Sherlock Holmes on the desk in place of the Old Testament, because Father Gennady was short-sighted.

Father Gennady came into the classroom, his hand raised in blessing, and instantly the monitor roared:

"God the Father, The Comforter, The Spirit of Truth. . . ."

Father Gennady was hard of hearing and always demanded that prayers should be read loudly and clearly, but even he thought the monitor was overdoing it that day. He waved his hand and said gruffly:

"Now, now. . . . What's this? You must read with a pleasing voice, but you sound like a roaring bull."

Father Gennady began from afar. At first he related the parable of the prodigal son. That son, from what I could gather at the time, left his father to go travelling, but then, after roughing it, he back-pedalled.

Then he told us the parable of the talents—how a man gave his servants money, called talents, and how some of the servants went and traded and got a profit out of it, while others hid the money and got nothing.

"Now what do these parables say?" Father Gennady continued. "The first parable speaks of a disobedient son. That son left his father, wandered about for a long time, and in the end returned home under the parental roof. Need it be said that your classmates, who are not inured to the hardships of life and who secretly left their homes —need it be said what a bad time they will have of it on the ruinous path they have chosen. I plead with you again —if any one of you knows where they are, let him write to them they should not fear to come back while there is time to the parental home. Remember, in the parable when the prodigal son came home, his father, in his goodness, did not rebuke him, but clothed him in the finest garments and had the fatted calf killed as if it were a holiday. So will the parents of these two stray youths forgive them everything and receive them with open arms."

I had my doubts about these words. As to how the parents of Tupikov, the first-form pupil, would meet him, I don't know, but that the baker Spagin would kill no fatted calf on the occasion of his son's return, but would simply give him a sound thrashing with his belt—of that I was certain.

"As for the parable of the talents," Father Gennady continued, "that says that one must not bury one's gifts in the earth. You are learning all kinds of knowledge here. When you finish school each one of you will choose a profession according to his abilities, inclination and position. One of you will be, say, a respectable businessman, another a doctor, a third a civil servant. Everyone will respect you and say to himself: 'Yes, this worthy man did not bury his talents in the earth, but increased them and is now deservedly enjoying all the good things of life.' But what"—here Father Gennady raised his hands to heaven—"what, I ask you, will become of these and suchlike runaways, who, spurning all the opportunities offered them, have run away from home in search of adventure, calamitous alike for body and soul? You are growing like tender flowers in the hothouse of a loving gardener, you know neither life's storms nor cares, and you are blossoming peacefully, gladdening the eyes of your teachers and tutors. But they ... even if they do withstand all life's adversities, they will grow up, untended, into rank weeds, exposed to the winds and mixed with the roadside dust."

When Father Gennady, majestic and glowing with prophetic zeal, had sailed out of the classroom, I sighed and became thoughtful.

"Fedka!" I said.

"Yes?"

"What do you think about those talents?"

"Nothing. And you?"

"Me?"

I hesitated a moment, then added in a lower voice:

"If you ask me, Fedka, I'd have buried my talents too. What's the fun in being a businessman or a civil servant?"

"So would I," Fedka confessed after a slight pause. "What interest is there in growing up like a hothouse flower? Just spit at it and it'll wilt. Weeds, at least, are tougher—they can stand rain and heat."

"Fedka," I said, "what about Father Gennady saying: 'You shall answer in the life to come'? Who cares about the life to come if you have to answer all the same."

This took time to sink in. Fedka, too, seemed to have only a hazy idea of how to avoid the threatened punishment. His answer was evasive.

"But that won't be so soon. We'll work out something when the time comes."

That first-form chap Tupikov turned out to be a fool. He didn't even know in what direction you had to run to the front. They caught him on the third day within sixty miles of Arzamas on the road to Nizhni Novgorod.

At home, people said, they made a terrible fuss of him, bought him all kinds of presents. He gave his mother his solemn word of honour never to run away again, and for this he was promised an air rifle in the summer. At school, however, Tupikov became an object of ridicule. "Who wouldn't agree to run around the town for three days and get a real rifle for it," the boys sneered.

Most unexpectedly, Tupikov got a wigging from our geography master Malinovsky, whom we called, behind his back, "the hell-roarer".

Malinovsky called Tupikov out to the blackboard.

"Well, well. Now tell me, young man, what front were you trying to run away to? The Japanese front, maybe?" "No, sir," Tupikov answered, reddening. "The German front."

"I see," Malinovsky went on maliciously. "And what devil, may I ask you, made you steer for Nizhni Novgorod? Where is your head and in what place do you store the geography lessons that I give you? Isn't it as clear as a pikestaff that you had to go via Moscow?"—he jabbed at the map with his pointer—"via Smolensk and Brest, if you intended making for the German front? But you went toddling East, in the opposite direction. What made you go the other way? You are studying with me in order to be able to make practical use of the knowledge you gain, and not keep it in your head as if it were a dustbin. Sit down. I'm giving you bad marks. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, young man!"

The effect of this speech, it should be noted, was to suddenly bring home to the first-form boys the benefits of learning and make them study geography with surprising zeal. They even invented a new game, called "Runaway". The game consisted in one boy naming a frontier town, and another boy rattling off the principal points along the way.

If the Runaway made a mistake he paid a forfeit, and in default got a clump on the side of the head or a flip on the nose, as per arrangement.


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