Arkady gaidar and his books


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Chapter Three


Once a week, every Wednesday, a solemn prayer for victory was held in the hall before lessons.

After prayers everyone faced to the left where the portraits of the Tsar and Tsarina hung.

The choir started singing the national anthem "God Save the Tsar" and all the rest joined in. I sang at the top of my voice. My voice was not exactly made for singing, but I tried so hard that the master once told me:

"Take it a bit easier, Gorikov, you're overdoing it."

I got offended. What did he mean—overdoing it?

If I had no gift for singing, then I was to let others pray for victory while I stood mum—was that it?

At home I aired my grievance to my mother.

But Mother was cold about it and said:

"You're little yet. Grow up a bit. . . . What if people are fighting. What's it got to do with you?"

"What do you mean, Ma? And say the Germans conquer us? I've read something about their atrocities, too, Ma. Why are the Germans such Huns that they don't care for anybody—old people, children—but our tsar cares for everybody?"

"Never mind that!" Mother said, displeased. "They're a fine lot, all of them. They've all gone mad—the Germans are no worse than other people, and so are ours."

Mother went away, leaving me to puzzle this out. How could the Germans be no worse than our people, when everyone knew they were? Only the other day, at the pictures, the Germans were shown burning everything, caring for no one. They destroyed the Reims Cathedral, desecrated the churches, but our people didn't destroy anything, didn't desecrate anything. On the contrary, at the same cinema, I saw a Russian officer saving a German baby from the fire. I went to Fedka.

Fedka agreed with me.

"Of course they're brutes. They sank the Lusitania with peaceful passengers on board, but we didn't sink anything. Our tsar and the English tsar are noble men. So's the French president. But that Wilhelm of theirs is a cad!"

"Fedka," I asked him, "why is the French tsar called a president?"

Fedka slowly digested this.

"I don't know," he said. "I heard that their president wasn't a tsar at all, but just ... just like that."

"Just like what?"

"I don't know, really. You know, I read a book by Dumas. Interesting book, chock-full of adventures. According to that book the French killed their tsar, and they've had a president instead of a tsar ever since."

"How can you kill a tsar?" I said, indignant. "You're a liar, Fedka, or else you've got it all mixed up."

"They killed him, it's a fact, killed him and killed his wife too. They put them all on trial and sentenced 'em to death."

"Oh, tell me another one! How can a tsar be tried? Take our judge, Ivan Fyodorovich—he tries thieves. The chap who broke Plushchikha's fence—he tried him. He tried Mitka the Gypsy for pinching a box of waters from the monks. But he daren't try the tsar, because the tsar is chief over everybody."

"You can believe me or not!" Fedka said, turning sniffy. "When Sasha Goloveshkin is through with the book, I'll let you have it. The trial there was nothing like those of Ivan Fyodorovich's. There all the people gathered, and they passed judgement and carried out the execution. I even remember the way they executed them. They don't hang people there, they've got a machine—a guillotine. They wind it up, and before you can count two it chops your head off."

"And they chopped the tsar's head off too?" "The tsar's and the tsarina's and other heads too. I'll let you have that book if you like. Very interesting. It tells about a monk too. A cunning fellow he was, fat, supposed to be holy, but in fact he was nothing of the sort. When I read about him I laughed till I cried. Mother was so angry, she got out of bed and blew out the lamp. But I waited till she had fallen asleep again and took the little icon lamp to read by."
A rumour spread that Austrian prisoners of war had arrived at the railway station. Fedka and I ran off there soon after school. The station was a long way out of town. You had to run by way of the cemetery, through the copse, then come out on to the road and cross a long winding ravine.

"What do you think, Fedka—are the prisoners of war in irons?"

"I don't know. Maybe they are. Shouldn't be surprised. Otherwise they'd do a bunk. But you can't run far in irons. You should see the jail prisoners, they barely drag their feet along."

"But those are convicts, thieves—the prisoners of war haven't stolen anything."

Fedka eyed me narrowly.

"You think people are in prison only for stealing or murdering somebody? They're doing time for all kinds o' things, my dear chap."

"What kind o' things?"

"Well, you know. . . . What was our manual teacher put in prison for? You don't know? That's just it."

I always resented the fact that Fedka knew more than I did. No matter what you asked him about—so long as it wasn't lessons—he always knew something. Through his father, I suppose. His father was a postman, and postmen, during their rounds, picked up lots of news.

The boys were fond of their manual teacher, whom they nicknamed Jackdaw. He came to our town at the beginning of the war. Rented lodgings on the outskirts. I visited him several times. He was fond of us boys, too. Taught us on his bench to make cages, boxes and traps. In the summer he'd collect a crowd of kids and go off with them into the woods or go fishing. He was a dark, skinny man and walked with a little hop, like a bird. That's why we called him Jackdaw.

They arrested him quite unexpectedly, we could never make out what for. Some boys said he was a spy who gave away all our secrets about troop movements to the Germans over the telephone. There were some who swore that our teacher was an ex-highwayman who robbed people on the public road, and now the truth had come to light.

But I didn't believe it. For one thing, you couldn't draw a telephone line all the way from here to the frontier. Secondly, what military secrets or troop movements were there to give away in Arzamas? There were hardly any troops here to speak of—just a party of seven men with a batman and four bakers of the Victualling Post at the railway station, who were soldiers only in name; actually, they were just ordinary bread-bakers. Besides, all this time there had been only one movement of troops—that was when the officer Balagushin moved from his lodgings at the Piryatins to the Basyugins. There had been no other movements.

As to the teacher having been a highwayman, that was a barefaced lie. Petka Zolotukhin had made it up, and he, as everyone knew, was the world's biggest liar. If he asked for a loan of three kopeks he'd swear afterwards that he'd given them back, or else he'd return your fishing rod without the hooks and swear he hadn't taken them. Besides, whoever heard of a teacher turning highwayman? He didn't have the face for it, he walked in such a funny way, and he was a kind man, a skinny one, besides, always coughing.

We ran, Fedka and I, till we came to the ravine. Here my curiosity got the better of me and I asked Fedka:

"No really, Fedka, what was the teacher arrested for? All that talk about being a spy and a highwayman is bosh, isn't it?"

"Of course it is," Fedka said, slowing down and looking round cautiously, as if we were in a crowd instead of a field. "He was arrested for politics, my dear chap."

Before I could ask Fedka for what politics exactly our teacher had been arrested, the heavy tramp of an approaching column reached our ears from around the bend.

There were about a hundred prisoners of war.

They weren't in irons and they were escorted by only six soldiers.

The Austrians' tired gloomy faces merged with their grey army coats and crumpled caps. They walked in silence, in closed ranks, with the measured tread of soldiers.

"So that's what they're like," Fedka and I thought, as we watched the column go past. "So these are those Austrians and Germans whose atrocities have shocked all nations. Scowling, eh? Don't like the idea of being prisoners of war? Serves you jolly well right!"

When the column had passed Fedka shook a fist at it.

"Invented poison gas, the damned German sausages!"

We returned home somewhat depressed. Why, I couldn't say. Maybe because those tired grey-faced prisoners of war had not impressed us the way we thought they would. But for their army coats they might have been taken for refugees. The same gaunt emaciated faces, the same weariness and utter apathy to everything around them.


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