Arkady gaidar and his books


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Chapter Four


We broke up for the summer. Fedka and I were full of plans for spending the holidays. There was lots of work to do.

In the first place, a raft had to be built and launched in the pond adjoining our garden, and we had to proclaim ourselves Mistress of the Seas and give battle to the joint fleet of the Pantushkins and Simakovs guarding the approaches to their orchards on the opposite shore.

We had a small home fleet in the shape of a garden wicket, but it was considerably inferior in battle efficiency to the forces of the enemy, who had half of an old gate serving as a heavy cruiser and a light torpedo boat made out of a log-built trough formerly used to feed the farm animals.

The forces were obviously unequal. And so we decided to increase our naval strength by building a colossal super-dreadnought, the latest word in engineering.

We intended using the logs of the broken-down bath house as material for our construction. To avoid a scolding, I promised Mother that our dreadnought would be built on such lines that it could always be used as a platform for rinsing the washing.

On the opposite shore, the enemy, noticing our rearmament activities, became alarmed and started building too, but our intelligence reported that the enemy was no serious match for us in this respect owing to lack of building materials. Their attempt to pinch some planks in the yard, which were intended for weather-boarding the barn, was a failure. The domestic council disapproved of such unauthorised use of material earmarked for other purposes, and the enemy's admirals—Senka Pantushkin and Grishka Simakov—got a sound thrashing from their fathers.

We spent several days messing about with those logs. Building a dreadnought was no easy job. It demanded a lot of money and time, and as it happened Fedka and I had hit a bad patch just then. We spent over fifty kopeks on nails alone, and we still had to buy rope for the anchor and material for the flag.

To raise the necessary funds we had to resort to a secret loan of seventy kopeks on the security of two text-books on religion, a German grammar and a Russian reader.

But then our dreadnought, when completed, was a beauty. We launched her late in the afternoon. Timka Shtukin and Yashka Zukkerstein gave a hand with the launching. All the bootmaker's kids, my sister and the little watchdog Volchok, alias Sharik, alias Zhuchka, acted as spectators. The raft, creaking and groaning, dropped into the water with a heavy splash. Amid loud cheers and the firing of toy pistols the ship's flag was hoisted to the mast.

Our flag was a black one with red edging and a blue circle in the middle.

Fluttering in the warm breeze, it made a brave display as we weighed anchor and shoved off.

It was getting near sundown. One could hear the distant tinkle of the bells of the homecoming herd of goats, of which Arzamas had countless numbers.

The dreadnought was manned by me and Fedka. Behind us, at a respectable distance, sailed our little wicket gate, serving as a dispatch boat.

Our squadron, fully aware of its strength, sailed out into the middle of the pond and cruised down the enemy shore. In vain did we challenge the enemy by means of speaking trumpet and signals—he refused to accept battle and hid shamefully in the bay under a half-rotten bough. In a fit of impotent fury the coastal artillery opened fire upon our ships, but we immediately placed ourselves out of range of the enemy's guns and coolly put into harbour without suffering any damage, not counting a slight shock caused by a potato which hit Yashka Zukkerstein in the back.

"O-ho-ho!" we shouted as we sailed away. "You haven't got the guts to come out and fight!"

"You wait! We'll come out all right. You needn't boast. You can't frighten us."

"Tell it to the marines! Fraidy-cats, that's what you are!"

We safely entered harbour, cast anchor, and, making our rafts fast by chains, jumped ashore.

That evening Fedka and I very nearly quarrelled. We hadn't made arrangements beforehand who was to command the fleet. My suggestion that Fedka should command the dispatch boat was turned down with a scornful spit. So then I offered him, in addition, to be captain of the dockyard, chief of the coastal artillery and chief of the air force, as soon as we got one. But not even the post of air force chief tempted Fedka, who insisted on being admiral, otherwise he threatened to go over to the enemy.

Not wishing to lose a valuable assistant, I finally gave in and suggested we should be admirals in turn—one day he, the next I.

And so we decided.

We made two bows, provided ourselves with a dozen arrows and went off into the wood. We had a stock of several "frogs". A "frog" was a tube of rolled up paper laced tight with a bit of string and stuffed with a mixture of potassium chlorate and ground charcoal. We tied the "frog" to the end of the arrow and lighted the fuse. The arrow shot up into the sky and the "frog" exploded high in the air, darting about in fiery zigzags and frightening all the jackdaws and crows.

The copse adjoined the cemetery. It was densely-wooded, pitted with holes and covered with small ponds. Yellow water-lilies, buttercups and ferns grew in the shady green glades.

Having played to our heart's content, we clambered over the wall and found ourselves in a remote corner of the cemetery. The stillness, broken only by the twitter of birds concealed in the foliage, had a soothing effect upon us after the excitement of play. We spoke in low tones as we made our way through a patch of waste land, passing burial mounds, which sometimes barely rose above the ground.

"Look," I said to Fedka, "we'll come to soldiers' graves in a minute round the corner. Last week they buried Semyon Kozhevnikov here from the hospital. I remember Kozhevnikov very well, Fedka. Long before the war, when I was still a little boy, he used to come to my father. Once he gave me a piece of elastic for a slingshot. Good elastic it was. Only my mother threw it in the fire afterwards, when the Basyugins got one of their windows smashed by a stone. She blamed me for it."

"Didn't you do it?"

"What if I did? It had to be proved, but no one saw me do it. It was just bare suspicion. D'you call that fair? Say it hadn't been me who smashed that window—I'd be blamed all the same?"

"You would," Fedka concurred. "Mothers are all alike. They'll never touch a girl's things, but if they catch a boy playing with anything they'll chuck it out. My mother broke two of my arrows with nails in them and afterwards took the rat out of the trap. Once it was still worse. I unscrewed an empty knob—you know, one of those gadgets they adorn beds with. Mother had gone to church. I sat there, got out some saltpetre and charcoal. I'll fill that knob with gun-powder, I says to myself, and then I'll go out into the wood and make an explosion. I was so busy at it that I didn't notice Mother come up behind me. 'What did you unscrew that knob for?' she says. 'Oh, you devil! And I was wondering where that knob could have got to.' And she fetched me one over the ear. Luckily, Father took my part. 'What did you take the knob for?' he asks. 'Can't you see?' I says. 'I'm making a bomb.' He frowned. 'Drop that,' he says, 'don't lark about with such things. How do you like that terrorist!' But he laughed and patted me on the head."

"Fedka," I said calmly, "I know what a terrorist is. It's one of those who throw bombs at the police and who go against the rich. What are we, Fedka, poor or rich?"

"In-between," Fedka answered after a thoughtful pause. "I wouldn't say we're very poor. Since Father got a job we have dinner every day, and on Sunday Mother makes a pie and sometimes stewed fruit. I'm terribly fond of stewed fruit. Aren't you?"

"So am I. But I like apple-jelly better. I think we're somewhere in-between too. Look at the Bebeshins—they own a whole factory. I went to their home once to see their Vaska. The number of servants and lackeys they have! And Vaska's father gave him a real live horse for a present—a pony they call it."

"They've got everything, of course," Fedka concurred. "They've got tons of money. The merchant Sinyugin built a tower over his house and put a telescope in. A whopper! When he's fed up with things on earth he goes to his tower, and they bring him snacks there, and a bottle. . . . And he sits there all night, looking at the stars and planets. The other day, though, he had a drinking party there with his pals, and they say some glass or other got broken after the observations, and now there's nothing to see any more."

"Fedka, why is it that Sinyugin has all the enjoyment, what with the stars and the planets, while others get nix? Take Sigov, who works at his factory—he has nothing to eat, let alone gazing at the planets. Yesterday he came downstairs to borrow fifty kopeks from the bootmaker."

"How do I know? Don't ask me. Ask the teacher or the clergyman."

Fedka broke off a sprig of wild jasmine as he walked along, then added in a lower voice:

"Father said everything will soon change the other way."

"What will?"

"Everything. I haven't got this straight myself yet, Borya. I was supposed to be sleeping but I only made as if I was. Father was talking to the factory watchman about strikes starting again, like in nineteen 'five. You know what happened in nineteen 'five?"

"I do, but not quite," I answered, reddening.

"There was a revolution. Only it failed. The idea was to turn out the landowners, give all the land to the peasants and take everything from the rich for the poor. You know, I heard all this from their conversation."

Fedka fell silent. And again I felt rattled that Fedka knew more than I did. I could get to know it, too, but there was no one to get it from. There was nothing about this in books. And no one talked to me about these things.

At home, after dinner, when Mother lay down to rest, I sat down beside her on the bed and said:

"Mamma, tell me something about nineteen 'five. Why do parents speak to other boys about it? Fedka knows so many interesting things, but I never know anything."

My mother turned round quickly with a frown. She looked as if she was going to scold me, but changed her mind and eyed me curiously as if she were seeing me for the first time.

"Nineteen 'five? What are you talking about?"

"You know what I'm talking about. Look how big and strong you are. You must have been quite grownup at the time, but I was only a year old, and I don't remember anything."

"What can I tell you? You should ask your father, he's a great one for telling stories. I had a beast of a time in nineteen 'five through you, you little monkey. You were a holy terror, forever screaming—I didn't have a minute's peace. When you'd start screaming the whole blessed night, I'd forget who I was and what world I lived in."

"Why did I scream, Mamma?" I asked, feeling a little hurt. "Maybe I was frightened? They say there was shooting and Cossacks. Maybe I got scared?"

"Scared your grandmother! You were just a capricious t squalling brat, that's all. You couldn't know what it was to get frightened. One night the gendarmes came to search ' our place. What they were looking for I don't know. They were carrying out regular searches in those days. They turned the place upside down, but didn't find anything. The officer was ever so polite. Tickled you with a finger and you laughed. 'Fine boy you've got there,' he says. He picked you up, sort of playfully, while he winked to the gendarme, who started to search your cradle. And suddenly you began to make water. Goodness gracious, right on that officer's uniform! I snatched you away and thrust a rag at the officer to wipe himself with. Just imagine, a new uniform he had on, and it was all soaking wet, dripped onto his trousers, too, even his sword. You gave him a proper douche, you little rascal!" Mother laughed at the memory.

"You're telling me about something quite different, Ma," I interrupted, now deeply offended. "I asked you about the revolution and you tell me some kind of nonsense—"

"Oh, leave me alone. You're are a nuisance!" Mother said, dismissing the matter.

But seeing my pained look, she paused, then got out a bunch of keys and said:

"I shan't tell you anything. Go and open the lumber-room. There's a big box there with all kinds of junk on top. Underneath them there ought to be a heap of books belonging to your father. Search among them. If he hasn't torn them all up you may find one about nineteen 'five."

I quickly seized the bunch of keys and made for the door. My mother's voice shouted a warning:

"If you get into a jar of jam instead of that box of books, or take down the pot of cream like you did last time, I'll give you such a taste of revolution that you'll never forget it!"

I spent several days in succession reading. I remember, in the first of the two books I had selected I read only three pages. This book, chosen at random, was entitled The Philosophy of Poverty. I could make nothing of this headachy stuff at the time. But the other book—stories by Stepnyak-Kravchinsky—was something I could understand, and I read it right through and reread it a second time.

Everything in these stories was the other way round. The heroes there were people the police were after, and the police sleuths, instead of arousing sympathy, provoked only contempt and indignation. These stories were about revolutionaries. The revolutionaries had their secret organisations and printing plants. They were preparing an uprising against the landowners, merchants and generals. The police fought them and hunted them. The revolutionaries then went to prison or faced the firing squad, while those who remained alive carried on their cause.

This book gripped me, because I had never read anything about revolutionaries before. I was so sorry that this Arzamas of ours was such a one-horse town and one never heard anything about revolutionaries in it. There were burglars—the Tushkovs had their attic with all the washing in it cleaned out; there were gypsy horse-thieves, and even a real robber—Vanka Seledkin, who killed the exciseman, but there were no revolutionaries.


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