Arkady gaidar and his books

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Chapter Five

Fedka, Timka, Yashka Zukkerstein and me were just about to start playing gorodki ( Gorodki—a Russian game resembling skittles.—Tr.) when the bootmaker's boy came running out of the garden reporting that two rafts of the Pantushkins and Simakovs had secretly moored at our shore and that those rascally admirals were now engaged in knocking the padlock off our rafts in order to tow them away to their side.

We dashed into the garden with wild yells. At the sight of us the enemy jumped onto their rafts and shoved off.

We decided to pursue the enemy and sink him.

That day Fedka was in command of the dreadnought. While he and Yashka were pushing off the unwieldy heavy raft Timka and I set off in our old tub to cut across the enemy's path. Our enemies made a mistake at the very outset. They evidently did not think that we would pursue them, and instead of steering straight for their own shore, they edged far off to the left. When they did notice their mistake they were already far offshore and were now exerting every effort to make a dash for it before we had time to cut off their retreat. Fedka and Yashka, however, were still struggling to untie the big raft. Timka and I were faced with a heroic task—that of holding up the superior enemy force for several minutes with our light vessel.

We found ourselves confronted, unsupported, by the enemy fleet and courageously opened fire upon it. It goes without saying that we immediately came under a heavy shelling from two sides.

I had been hit in the back twice with clods of earth and Timka had had his cap knocked off into the water. Our ammunition was giving out and we were drenched to the skin, but Fedka and Yashka were only just getting under way.

Seeing this, the enemy decided to make a breakthrough. We stood no chance in a head-on clash with their rafts. Our wicket would have been sunk as sure as anything. "Blaze away with our last shells!" I commanded. We held the enemy up for only half a minute with our deadly volleys. Our dreadnought was coming to the rescue at full speed.

"Steady!" Fedka yelled, opening up at long range. The enemy ships, however, were almost alongside. Only two courses were open to me—to let them get away to their home base or to block their path at the risk of a deadly engagement. I chose the latter course.

With a powerful thrust of my pole I placed our raft across their path.

The first enemy raft ran into us with a heavy bump and Timka and I found ourselves neck-deep in the warm stagnant water. But the enemy's raft, too, stopped from the blow. This was just what we wanted. Our powerful dreadnought—huge, clumsy, but sturdily built—ran head on into the side of the enemy's ship and overset it. There now remained the torpedo boat, originally the pig trough, to be tackled. Taking advantage of her high speed, she tried to slip past, but I tipped her over with my pole.

Timka and I clambered onto Fedka's raft, and now only the heads of the enemy crew stuck out of the water.

We were magnanimous, however. We took the capsized rafts in tow, allowing their vanquished crews to board them, and made a triumphant entry into our harbour with the trophies and prisoners of war amid the loud shouts and cheering of the small boys, who straddled the garden fences.

We rarely received letters from Father. And when he did write it was always one and the same thing: "I am alive and well, and sitting in the trenches, and I see no end to it."

I found his letters disappointing. No, really! Fancy a man being at the front and having nothing interesting to write about! Couldn't he describe a battle, say, an attack or some other heroic deed? Reading one of these letters gave you the impression that things were more boring at the front than they were in Arzamas in muddy autumn.

Why could others—Ensign Tupikov, for instance, Mitka's brother—write home letters describing battles and deeds of valour, and send photographs every week? On one he was photographed next to a field gun, on another next to a machine-gun, on a third on horseback with drawn sword, and there was even one picturing him with his head stuck out of an aeroplane. But Father never had himself photographed in the trenches, leave alone looking out of an aeroplane, and he never wrote home anything interesting.

One day, towards evening, there was a knock on our door. A soldier with a crutch and a wooden leg came in and asked for Mother. She wasn't at home but I was expecting her soon. The soldier then said that he was a comrade of my father's, they were serving in the same regiment, and now he was going home for good to a village in our district, and had brought us greetings and a letter from Father.

He sat down on a chair, placing his crutch against the stove, and after rummaging about in his inside pocket, produced from there a greasy letter.

The bulkiness of the packet surprised me. Father had never sent us such thick letters, and I decided that the packet probably contained some photographs.

"You served with him in the same regiment?" I asked, gazing curiously at the soldier's thin, gloomy-looking face, his grey rumpled greatcoat with the St. George's Cross and the wooden peg strapped to his left leg.

"Not only in the same regiment, but in the same company and the same platoon, and side by side in the same trench, elbow to elbow. You'll be his son, I take it?" "Yes."

"I see. Boris, eh? I know you. Heard about you from your father. There's a package for you too. Only your father said you were to hide it and not touch it until he came back."

The soldier reached for a home made leather bag cut from the top of a high-boot. With every movement of his a wave of strong-smelling iodoform spread through the room. He got out a package wrapped in a piece of cloth and tightly bound with string and gave it to me. It was a small package, but a heavy one. I wanted to open it but the soldier said:

"Don't be in a hurry. You've got plenty o' time." "Well, how are things at the front, how's the fighting, what's the spirit of our troops?" I enquired calmly and solidly.

The soldier glanced at me quizzically. His heavy, somewhat mocking glance was disconcerting, and my own question struck me as being rather pompous and silly.

"Spirit, did you say?" the soldier smiled. "I don't know about the spirit, but the smell's pretty thick. What can you expect in the trenches. Worse'n a backhouse."

He got out a tobacco pouch, rolled himself a cigarette and blew out a strong puff of acrid makhorka smoke. Looking past me at the window, which reflected the glow of sunset, he resumed:

"Everyone's fed up to the neck with it. And there's no end in sight."

Mother came in. Seeing the soldier, she stopped in the doorway and gripped the frame of the door.

"What... what's the matter?" she asked quietly with blanched lips. "Is it about Alexei?"

"Daddy has sent us a letter!" I yelled. "A thick 'un. Probably with photographs. And he's sent me a present too,"

"Is he alive and well?" Mother asked, throwing off her shawl. "When I saw a grey coat from the threshold my heart went cold. Something must have happened to Father, I thought."

"Nothing's happened so far," the soldier said. "He sends greetings, asked me to deliver this packet. He didn't want to send it by post. The post is unreliable these days."

Mother tore open the envelope. There were no photographs in it at all, only a batch of greasy close-written sheets of paper.

One of them had a bit of clay and a green dried blade of grass sticking to it.

I opened my package. Inside it lay a small Mauser with a spare clip.

"What's your father thinking of!" Mother said, displeased. "That's no toy!"

"Never mind," the soldier said. "Your son's not daft, is he? Just look at him, almost as big as I am. Let him hide it for the time being. It's a good pistol. Alexei found it in a German trench. Nice gadget. It may come in useful."

I touched the cold smooth handle, and carefully wrapping the Mauser up again, put it away in a drawer.

The soldier had tea with us. He drank glass after glass and kept telling us all about Father and about the war. I drank only half a glass, and Mother did not even touch her cup. Mother rummaged among her bottles and phials and fished out a small bottle with alcohol and poured it out for the soldier. He diluted it with water, then slowly drank it off. He sighed and shook his head.

"Life's gone all awry," he said, pushing the glass away. "They wrote me from home that the farm's gone to the dogs. But what could I do to help 'em? We went hungry ourselves for months at a stretch. You felt as miserable as sin, wished it was all over, one way or another. People have stood as much as a human being can stand. Sometimes you feel everything boiling inside o' you like rusty water in a billy-can. You think—ugh, if I only had the guts to chuck it all up and walk out. Let 'em fight if they want, but I don't owe Jerry anything and he doesn't owe me anything. Alexei and I talked about this a lot. The nights are long, you know. The fleas don't let you get any sleep. Your only comfort is singing or talking. Sometimes you feel like crying or strangling somebody, but you sit down and start singing. The tears have dried up. You feel like taking it out on somebody, but you just try! So you say, ah well, mates, buddies, dear comrades, let's have a song!"

The soldier's face reddened and became covered with moisture, and the smell of iodoform spread more and more thickly through the room. I opened the window. The air flooded in, bringing the smells of evening freshness, stacked hay in the yards and overripe cherries.

I sat on the windowsill, tracing patterns on the glass with a finger and listening to what the soldier was saying. His words left a sediment of dry bitter dust on my heart, and that dust gradually formed a thick coating over all my notions about the war, its sacred meaning and its heroes, all of which had been so clear-cut and intelligible to me until then. I looked at the soldier almost with hatred. He took off his belt and unbuttoned the wet collar of his shirt. He continued, evidently a bit tipsy:

"Death's bad, of course. But it's not death that makes war bad, it's the sense o' wrong. You don't feel that with death. Every man has to die, sooner or later—you can't help that, it's a law. But who thought up a law that you've got to fight? I didn't, you didn't, he didn't, but somebody did. Now if God were all-powerful, all-merciful and all-wise, the way they write about Him in books, He'd call that man up on the carpet and say: 'Now answer me this —what made you plunge these millions of peoples into war for? What do they stand to gain by it and what do you? Now then, come clean, so that everyone should know what it's all about.' Only"—here the soldier swayed and all but dropped the glass —"only God doesn't like to interfere in earthly matters. Ah, well, we can wait. We're a patient people. But when our patience wears thin, we'll go out ourselves and find the judges as well as the guilty parties."

The soldier fell silent and threw a sullen look at Mother, who, with eyes lowered to the tablecloth, had not uttered a word all the time. He got up and reached for the plate with the herring, saying in a conciliatory tone:

"Oh, I say! What a thing to be talking about! Never mind. . . . There'll come a time for everything. Is there anything left in the bottle, my good woman?"

Mother, without looking up, replenished his glass with drops of the warm odorous spirits.

Mother cried all that night behind the partition; I could hear the crackle of the sheets of Father's letter being turned over. Afterwards a dim greenish light shone through the crack and I guessed that Mother was praying before the icon with the little oil lamp over it. She did not show me Father's letter. What he wrote about and why she cried that night I did not know at the time.

The soldier went away in the morning.

Before leaving, he patted me on the shoulder and said, as though I had asked him something:

"Never mind, lad. . . . You're still young. Ah, you'll see a sight more than we did, I daresay!"

He took his leave and stumped off, taking away with him his crutch, the smell of iodoform and the depressing mood evoked by his presence, his coughing laugh and his bitter words.

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