Arkady gaidar and his books


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Chapter Six


Summer was drawing to a close. Fedka was working hard for his second examination, Yashka Zukkerstein was down with the fever, and I suddenly found myself alone.

I lolled on the bed, reading Father's books and the newspapers.

Nothing was to be heard about the war ending. The town was full of refugees, as the Germans had pushed forward along the front and already occupied over half of Poland. The richer refugees put up in private houses and flats, but these were few. Our merchants, monks and clergymen were pious people who were reluctant to take in refugees, most of them poor Jews with large families, and so most of the refugees lived in bunk-houses near the wood, outside the town.

By this time all the young men in the villages, all the healthy muzhiks, had been driven off to the front. Many farms were ruined. There was nobody to work the fields, and beggars started drifting into town—old men and women and children.

Previously, you could walk about the streets all day without meeting a stranger. You might not have known this or that person's name, but you were bound to have met him before, but now at every step you met with strangers, unfamiliar faces—Jews, Rumanians, Poles, Austrian prisoners of war, and wounded soldiers from the Red Cross hospital.

There was a food shortage. Butter, eggs and milk were bought up at high prices on the market early in the morning. There were queues outside the baker's, white bread had disappeared, and there was not enough black bread to go round. The tradesmen kept pushing up the prices on everything unmercifully, even on things apart from foodstuffs.

People said that Bebeshin alone had made more money in the last year than he had in five previous years. As for Sinyugin, he had grown so rich that he donated six thousand rubles towards a church, had neglected his tower with the telescope and had had delivered to him from Moscow a real live crocodile, which he turned into a pool specially built for it.

When the crocodile was being transported from the railway station there was such a big crowd of curious people following the cart that Grishka Bocharov, the boss-eyed sacristan of the Church of the Saviour, took it for a religious procession carrying the Oransk icon of Our Lady, and started to ring the bells. Grishka got thirteen days' penance for it from the bishop. Many churchgoers said that Grishka was lying when he said he had started ringing by mistake; he had done it on purpose, they said, out of sheer mischief. Doing penance was not enough for him. He should have been put in jail and made an example of. It was one thing to take a funeral, say, for a religious procession, but to take such a loathsome beast for a holy image was a deadly sin.

I closed the book and went out into the street. Having nothing to do, I ran off to the cemetery outside the town to see Timka Shtukin. Timka was out. His father, a greyheaded sturdy old man, an old acquaintance of my father's, patted me on the back, saying:

"Growing up, laddie? Your dad won't know you when he gets back. You take after your father—big, strapping fellow you'll be! That Timka of mine's an undersized little wasp, worse luck. Takes after his granddad on his mother's side, I daresay. And the food he puts away! Father keeping well? Give him my regards when you write him. A real good man, he is. He and I worked together for eight years in a village school. He was teacher, 1 was caretaker. But that was a long time ago. . . . You were a suckling, you wouldn't remember. Well, well, run along. Timka's hereabouts somewhere, catching goldfinches. Look for him among the birches, in the corner, back of the soldiers' graves. He doesn't do his bird-catching nearer—the church-warden scolds him if he sees it."

I found Timka in the birch wood. He was standing under a tree, holding a stick with a loop at the end of it and carefully moving it towards a goldfinch which was barely perceptible among the yellowing foliage. Timka threw me a scared almost pleading look and shook his head vigorously as a warning not to come any closer and frighten the bird away. I stopped.

If you ask me, there is no greater fool of a bird in all the world than the goldfinch. The boys tie a length of horsehair in the form of a loop to the tip of a long rod. This loop has to be carefully slipped over the neck of the bird.

Timka slowly moved the tip of the rod towards the finch. It cocked an eye at the loop and lazily hopped onto a nearby branch. With his tongue stuck out, holding his breath, Timka started to move the loop up again. The silly finch eyed Timka's occupation with curiosity. With idiotic indifference it let the loop slip over its ruffled head. Timka jerked the stick, and the half-strangled finch, without as much as a squeak, flopped into the grass with a wild flutter of wings. A minute later it was hopping about in a cage together with five other captive companions.

"See that!" Timka yelled, dancing about on one leg. "Smart work, that! Six of 'em. Only they're all finches. You can't catch a tit like that. You've got to use traps and snares. They're a cunning lot! But these fools just stick their heads in—"

Timka suddenly broke off and his face froze into a stony expression as if someone had given him a crack on the head with a thick stick. He held up a warning finger and stood without stirring for fully two minutes, then gave another hop and said:

"Well, did you hear it?"

"Hear what, Timka? I only heard the engine hooting at the railway station."

"Holly Moses! He didn't hear anything!" Timka said, throwing his hands up in astonishment. "Robin! Didn't you hear him give a warble? A real redbreast. I've been after him for over a week. You know where that drowned man was buried? Well, he nests there, somewhere among the maples. They grow dense there, and their leaves now are like a flame, ever so brilliant. Let's go and have a look."

Timka knew every grave, every tombstone. Hopping along bird-like, he kept up a running commentary.

"Here lies the fireman—the one who died of burns last year, and here the blind man Churbakin. They're all that kind o' people here. Merchants are not buried here, they have a special site of good land. Look at that statue with the Archangels they've put up to the Sinyugin grandmother. And here"—Timka jerked a thumb at a barely perceptible mound—"here lies a suicide man. Dad said he hanged himself—did it on purpose. He was a fitter at the depot. I can't understand how a man can hang himself on purpose."

"Through a bad life, I suppose, not through a good one, Timka, surely?"

"What d'you mean!" Timka protested, looking surprised. "It isn't bad, surely?"

"What isn't?"

"Life isn't! Life's a jolly good thing. How can death be better? You run about, do whatever you like, and here you've got to lie quiet!"

Timka laughed a ringing rippling laugh and abruptly broke off again with a sort of stunned look. After a minute's silence he whispered:

"Quiet now. He's somewhere near. Hiding himself, the cunning little thing! All the same, I'll catch him."

I stayed with Timka till late in the afternoon. A funny boy, Timka. He was only a year and a half younger than me, but so small that you wouldn't give him ten, let alone twelve years. He was such a fusspot, his classmates always made fun of him and often gave him fillips on the back of his head, but he never got offended, at least not for long. When Timka asked for anything, a penknife, say, to sharpen a pencil with, or a nib, or for help in doing a difficult sum, he always looked you straight in the face with big round eyes and a sort of apologetic smile. He was a coward, but his cowardice was of a special kind. The approach of the Inspector or the Headmaster terrified him beyond words. Once, during a lesson, the porter came in and said that Timka was wanted in the Teachers' Room. Timka sat frozen to his seat and when he did get up he slowly passed an eye round the class as if asking: "What have I done? Honour bright, I didn't do anything!" His slightly pockmarked face turned ashen with fear, and he walked out unsteadily.

At playtime we learned that he had been sent for not to be put into irons and packed off to a convict's prison, and not even to be put on the list of conduct, but simply to sign for the textbook on arithmetic which he had received free of charge the year before.

Two days later school was resumed. The classrooms were full of hubbub. Everyone was telling how he had spent the summer, how much fish, crabs, lizards and hedgehogs he had caught. One boasted of having killed a hawk, another gave an excited account of mushrooms and wild strawberries collected in the woods, and a third swore that he had caught a live snake. There were even some who had spent the summer in the Crimea and the Caucasus, at health resorts. But these were only a few. They kept aloof, did not talk about hedgehogs or wild strawberries, but carried on a dignified conversation about palm-trees, bathing and horses.

That year, for the first time, we were told that life being so dear the guardians had allowed us to wear uniforms made of a cheaper material instead of the usual woollen cloth.

Mother made me a tunic and trousers out of a material called Devil's Hide.

It must have really been the hide off a devil's back, because one day, during a raid on the monastery orchard, when a great hulking fellow of a monk chased me with a stick, my trousers got caught in a nail as I was scrambling over the wall, and they didn't tear, but kept me hanging conveniently from the wall while the monk planted a couple of painful blows.

There was another innovation. An officer was attached to us, we were given wooden rifles that looked like real ones and started military drilling.

After that letter which the one-legged soldier had brought us, we did not receive a single letter from Father. Every time Fedka's father passed down the street with his postman's bag, my little sister, who stood looking out for him, would poke a head out of the window and shout in a shrill voice:

"Uncle Sergei! Anything from Daddy?"

And the invariable answer would be:

"No, girlie, not today. There'll be one tomorrow, I'm sure."

But tomorrow, too, there would be nothing.


Chapter Seven


One day—it was already September—Fedka sat with me till late in the evening. We were doing our lessons together.

We had scarcely finished and Fedka put his books away to run home when a heavy downpour suddenly started.

I ran to shut the window overlooking the garden.

The gusts of wind raised heaps of dried fallen leaves. Several big drops fell on my face.

I pulled one half of the window shut with difficulty and leaned out for the second when a pretty large lump of clay dropped on the windowsill.

"Some wind!" I thought. "Likely to break all the trees!"

Coming back into the room I said to Fedka:

"It's regular storm. Where are you going, you silly ass? It's raining cats and dogs! Look at this lump of clay the wind sent flying into the window."

Fedka looked at it sceptically.

"Tell me another one! How can the wind send a lump like that flying?"

"You think I'm fibbing?" I said, offended. "I'm telling you, I was just shutting the window when it flopped onto the windowsill."

I looked at the lump of clay. Maybe someone did throw it on purpose? But I immediately dismissed the thought and said:

"Nonsense! Who could have thrown it? Who could be in the garden in such weather? It was the wind, of course."

Mother was sitting in the next room, sewing. My sister was sleeping. Fedka sat on for another half hour. The sky cleared. The moon peeped into the room through the wet window and the wind began to drop.

"Well, I'll run along," Fedka said.

"All right. I won't lock the door after you. Shut it tight, it'll lock itself."

Fedka jammed his cap on, thrust the books under his coat not to get them wet, and went away. I heard the door bang to as he went out.

I began to take my boots off to go to bed. Looking down on the floor I saw an exercise-book which Fedka had dropped and forgotten. It was the book in which we had been doing our sums.

"The stupid!" I thought. "Tomorrow we're having algebra—our first lesson. I'll have to take it with me." Throwing off my clothes I slipped under the blanket, and was about to turn over on my side when the doorbell rang softly and cautiously.

"Who can that be?" Mother said, wonderingly. "A telegram from Father perhaps? No, the postman always pulls the door bell. Go and open the door."

"I've undressed, Ma. It must be Fedka, he's forgotten an exercise-book here and must have remembered it on his way home—he'll need it tomorrow."

"He's a nuisance!" Mother said. "Couldn't he have come for it in the morning? Where is that book?"

She picked up the exercise-book and went out with her slippers on her bare feet.

I could hear her slippers shuffling down the stairs. The lock clicked. In the same instant a muffled cry reached my ears. I jumped up. For the moment I thought it was burglars and seized a candlestick from the table to smash the window and call for help. But from downstairs came the mingled sound of laughter and kisses, and subdued whispering. Then two pairs of feet came shuffling up the stairs.

The door was thrown open, and 1 sat as if glued to the bed, undressed, with the candlestick in my hand.

In the doorway, her eyes filled with tears, stood my happy laughing mother, and at her side, overgrown with bristly beard, besmeared with clay and wringing wet, the dearest soldier in the world to me—my father.

In a bound I flung myself into his strong hugging arms.

Behind the partition my sister stirred in her bed, disturbed by the noise. I wanted to run in and wake her, but Father restrained me and said in a low voice:

"Don't, Boris ... don't wake her ... and don't make too much noise."

Then he turned to Mother.

"Varya, if the child wakes up don't tell her I have come. Let her sleep. Where could we send her for a couple of days?"

"We'll send her to Ivanovskoye early in the morning," Mother said. "She's been asking a long time to go and stay with Grandma. The sky has cleared, I believe. Boris will take her down first thing in the morning. You needn't speak in a whisper, Alexei, she's a heavy sleeper. They sometimes come for me at night from the hospital, so she's used to it."

I stood open-mouthed, refusing to believe what I had heard.

"What?" I thought. "They want to pack little saucer-eyed Tanya off to Grandma's at peep of dawn, so's she won't be able to see Daddy, who has come home on leave? What can it mean?"

"You'll go to bed in my room, Boris," Mother said, "and tomorrow morning, round about six, you'll take Tanya down to Grandma's. And don't tell anyone there that Daddy's come home."

I looked at Father. He pressed me to him and was going to say something, but changed his mind. He hugged me still closer.

I lay down on Mother's bed, while Father and Mother remained in the dining-room and shut the door. For a long time I couldn't fall asleep. I turned over from side to side and tried counting up to fifty, up to a hundred, but it didn't help.

In my head was chaos. The moment I dwelt on what had happened all kinds of thoughts thronged confusedly in my mind, which floated in a sea of conjectures, each more absurd than the other. I felt a tightness at the temples like the pressure on one's head after too long a ride on the merry-go-round.

I didn't doze oft until late in the night. A faint creaking sound woke me up. Father came into the room with a lighted candle.

I half-opened my eyes. Father was in his socks. Stepping softly, he went over to Tanya's cot and lowered the candle.

He stood there for about three minutes, gazing at the fair curls and rosy face of his sleeping daughter. Then he bent over her. Two emotions struggled within him—the desire to fondle his daughter and the fear of wakening her. The second gained the upper hand. Swiftly, he straightened his back, turned and left the room.

The door creaked again and the room went dark.

The clock struck seven. I opened my eyes. A bright sun shone through the yellow leaves of the birch tree outside the window. I dressed quickly and looked into the next room. They were asleep in there. I shut the door and began to wake my sister.

"And where's Mummy?" she asked rubbing her eyes and staring at the empty bed.

"Mummy's been called out to the hospital. She told me when she was going away I should take you down to Grandma's."

"Oh, what a fibber you are, Borya!" my sister said, laughing and wagging a finger at me. "Only yesterday Grandma asked me to stay with her, but Mummy wouldn't let me."

"Yesterday she wouldn't, but today she's changed her mind. Dress yourself quickly. Look how fine the weather is. Grandma will take you to the woods today to gather ashberries."

Seeing that I wasn't joking, my sister sprang out of bed, and while I helped her dress, she twittered:

"So Mummy has changed her mind? Oh, I do love it when Mummy changes her mind! I say, Borya, let's take the cat Lizka with us. Well, if you won't have the cat, then let's take Towzer. He's a jolly little doggie. He licked all my face yesterday. Only Mummy scolded me. She doesn't like your face to be licked. Towzer licked her once when she was lying in the garden and she shooed him away."

My sister jumped off the bed and ran to the door.

"Open the door for me, Borya. My headscarf is lying in the corner. My pram too."

I pulled her away from the door and seated her on the bed.

"You can't go in there, Tanya. A strange man is sleeping in there. He came last night. I'll go and get your headscarf for you."

"What man?" she asked. "Like the one last time?"

"Yes, like last time."

"With a wooden leg?"

"No, an iron one."

"Oh, Borya! I've never seen one with an iron leg. I'll just have one tiny peep through the keyhole. I'll go on tiptoes."

"You'll do nothing of the kind. Sit still."

I crept softly into the room and came back with the scarf.

"And where's the pram?"

"Don't be silly! What do you want the pram for? Uncle Yegor will give you a ride there in a real cart."

The path leading to Ivanovskoye ran along the bank of the. Tesha. My sister skipped along, stopping every minute, now to pick up a twig, now to look at the geese tumbling about in the water. I walked along slowly behind. The fresh morning air, the yellow-green expanse of the autumn fields, the monotonous tinkle of the brass bells of the grazing herd—all this had a soothing effect upon me.

The intrusive thought that had been tormenting me all night was now firmly established in my mind and I no longer tried to dismiss it.

I recollected the lump of clay thrown onto the window-sill. It wasn't the wind, of course. How could the wind tear up such a heavy lump of clay from the garden bed? It was my father. He had thrown it to attract attention. It was he, who, in the rain and storm, had hidden in the garden, waiting for Fedka to go away. He did not want my sister to see him, because she was little and might give the show away. Soldiers who come home on leave don't hide themselves from people.

There was no longer any room for doubt—my father was a deserter.

On my way back I ran straight into the school Inspector.

"Gorikov," he said sternly, "what's this? Why aren't you at school during lesson-time?"

"I'm ill," I answered mechanically, not realising how ridiculous the answer was.

"Ill?" the Inspector queried. "What are you talking about? Sick people don't prowl about the streets, they lie in bed."

"I'm ill," I repeated doggedly. "I have a temperature."

"Every person has a temperature," he snapped. "Don't talk nonsense. Off you go to school!"

"Now I'm in for it!" I thought, as I trudged along behind him. "What made me lie to him about being ill? Couldn't I have thought of some other plausible excuse for my absence from school without giving the real reason?"

The old school doctor put his hand to my forehead, and without even taking my temperature, announced his diagnosis.

"Suffering from an acute attack of truancy. I prescribe poor marks for conduct and two hours after lessons without dinner."

The Inspector, with the air of a learned apothecary, approved the medicine.

He sent for the caretaker Semyon and ordered him to march me off to the classroom.

Trouble came thick and fast to me that day.

Elsa Franciskovna, our teacher of German, had been questioning Toropigin when I came in. Displeased by the interruption, she said:

"Gorikov, kommen sie hier. Conjugate the verb 'to have'. 'Ich habe'," she began.

"Du hast" prompted Chizhikov.

"Er hat," I contributed myself. "Wir. . . ." Here I stumbled again. I just couldn't keep my mind on German verbs that day;

"Hastus," someone at the back prompted maliciously.

"Hastus," I repeated automatically.

"What are you talking about? Where is your head? You should use it, not listen to a silly boy's prompting. Give me your exercise-book."

"I've forgotten it, Elsa Franciskovna. I did my homework, but I forgot all my books. I'll bring them at playtime."

"How could you forget all your books?" the teacher said angrily. "You did not forget them, you are deceiving me. You will stay on an hour after lessons."

"Elsa Franciskovna," I protested, "the Inspector has already given me two hours after school today. You don't expect me to sit here all night?"

The teacher came back with a long-spun German sentence the gist of which, from what I could gather, was that laziness and lies were to be punished and there was no avoiding this third hour of detention.

During the interval Fedka came up to me.

"Why did you come without your books and why did Semyon bring you in?"

I made up some excuse. The next, last, lesson—geography—I sat out in a sort of sleepy daze. Everything the teacher said and the pupils' answers drifted past my mind, and I only came to myself when the bell started ringing.

The monitor read the prayer. The boys banged down the tops of their desks and flew out one after another. The classroom emptied. I was left alone.

"My God!" I thought with anguish. "Three more hours ... three whole hours, and Father at home, and everything so odd. . . ."

I went downstairs. Outside the Teachers' Room stood a long narrow bench all covered with penknife carvings. Three boys were already sitting there. One was a first form boy, who had been ordered to be kept in for an hour for having shot a pellet of chewed paper at a classmate, another was punished for fighting, and the third for having tried to land a spit on the head of a passing pupil from the second-floor staircase landing.

I sat down on the bench, brooding. The caretaker Semyon went past with a jangle of keys.

The form master on duty, who kept an eye on the culprits, came out, yawned and disappeared.

I got up quietly and glanced at the clock through the door of the Teachers' Room. What? Only half an hour had gone by? I could have sworn that I had been sitting there for an hour at least.

A sudden wicked thought came into my head.

"Damn it all, I'm not a thief, I'm not in custody. At home I have a father, whom I haven't seen for two years and now have to see in such strange and mysterious circumstances, while I have to sit here like a prisoner only because the Inspector and the German teacher took it into their heads to pick on me!"

I stood up, but hesitated. Going away without leave when you were kept in was one of the most heinous offences you could commit at school.

"No, I'd better wait," I decided, turning back to the bench.

But at this point a feeling of harsh resentment suddenly gripped me. "Who cares," I thought, "Father has run away from the front"—this with a mirthless smile— "while I'm afraid to run away from here."

I ran to the cloakroom, slipped on my coat and dashed out into the street, slamming the door hard.

That evening Father tried to open my eyes to a good many things.

"Daddy," I said, "but before you ran away from the front you were a brave man, weren't you? It wasn't because you were afraid, was it?"

"I'm not a coward now either." He said this calmly, but I involuntarily turned my head to the window and started.

From the opposite side of the street a policeman was making straight for our house. He came along slowly at a rolling gait. On reaching the middle of the road he turned right and walked towards the market place.

"He's not .. . coming here," I said jerkily, my breath quickening.

The next evening Father said to me: "Borya, visitors may be coming down on us any day. Hide away that toy I sent you. Keep your nerve! You're a man now—look how you've grown! If you have any trouble at school because of me, don't take it to heart, and don't be afraid of anything. Watch what's going on around you and you'll understand then what I've been telling you."

"We'll be seeing you again, Dad, shan't we?" "Yes. I'll be coming here sometimes, but not to our house."

"Where then?"

"You'll be told when the time comes." It was already quite dark, but the bootmaker sat by the gate with his concertina and a noisy crowd of boys and girls around him.

"It's time I was going," Father said, looking worried. "I don't want to be late."

"They'll probably be there till late in the night, Daddy. It's Saturday today." Father frowned.

"What a nuisance. Can't we get out through the fence somewhere or through someone's garden? Put your wits to work, Boris. You ought to know all the holes here."

"We can't," I said. "The Aglakovs' wall on the left is a high one with nails on it. We could get through to the garden on the right, only there's a dog there, a vicious brute, like a wolf. I tell you what. If you like I'll see you down to the pond. I have a raft there and I'll take you straight to the ravines through the back yards. It's dark now, the place is deserted, and no one will see us."

The raft became awash under Father's heavy weight and the water covered our boots. Father stood without stirring. The raft slipped noiselessly through the black water. The pole often got stuck in the mud and silt at the bottom of the pond. I pulled it out every time with difficulty.

Twice I tried to come alongside the bank, but the bottom of the ravine was low and wet. So then I took a bit more to the right and moored at the bottom garden.

This garden was a deserted place, unguarded, and its fences were broken.

I led Father up to the first gap in the fence, through which one could get out of the ravine. There we took leave of each other.

I lingered for several minutes. The sound of snapping twigs under Father's heavy tread died away.


Chapter Eight


Three days later mother was called out to the police station and informed that her husband had deserted from his unit. She was made to sign a statement to the effect that she had no news of his present whereabouts and if she did have she would notify the authorities about it immediately and without fail.

Through the son of the chief of the local police the school learned the next day that my father was a deserter.

At bible lesson Father Gennady delivered a brief and edifying homily on loyalty to King and Country and the sacredness of the Oath. He added weight to this by quoting a historical instance of how, during the Japanese war, a soldier decided to save his life by fleeing the battlefield, but met death instead from the teeth of a rapacious tiger.

This incident, according to Father Gennady, pointed to the intervention of a divine providence, which inflicted dire punishment upon the deserter, for that tiger, contrary to custom, did not devour a single piece, but simply tore that soldier limb from limb and departed.

This sermon made a powerful impression on some of the boys. During the recess Toropigin timidly assayed that the tiger probably wasn't a tiger at all, but Archangel Michael, who had taken the guise of a tiger.

Simka Gorbushkin, on the other hand, doubted whether it was Michael, since Michael had quite a different mode of procedure—he didn't use his teeth, but hacked with a sword or stabbed with a spear.

The majority agreed with this, because one of the sacred pictures on the walls of the classroom showed the angels engaged in combat with the forces of hell. Michael on that picture had a spear, on which four devils were writhing, while three others made a beeline for their underground retreat heels over head.

Two days later I was told that the Teachers' Council had decided to give me a bad mark for conduct for having acted truant.

This usually meant that at the next offence committed by him the pupil would be expelled from the school.

Three days after this I was given written notice that my mother was to pay my full tuition fee immediately for the first half-year. Until then I had paid only half the fee because my father was a soldier.

Hard times set in for me. I was labelled with the shameful name of "deserter's son". Many pupils I had been friendly with gave me the cold shoulder. Others, while associating with me, treated me rather oddly, as if I had had a leg amputated or someone in the family had just died. Gradually I drifted apart from everyone, stopped joining in the games, taking part in raids on other forms and visiting my schoolmates.

I spent the long autumn evenings at home or with Timka Shtukin among his birds.

I became very friendly with Timka those days. His father was kind to me. What I couldn't understand was why he sometimes looked at me intently out of the corner of his eye, then come up and pat my head, and walk away, jangling his keys, without uttering a word.

Things in town took on a strange, lively sort of turn. The population doubled. The queues outside the shops stretched away for blocks. Knots gathered everywhere, on every street corner. Religious processions carrying wonderworking icons followed one after another. All kinds of ridiculous rumours would suddenly spread. Now it was Old Believers who were said to be taking to the forest on the upstream lakes of the river Serezha. Now it was the gypsies downstream who were said to be passing counterfeit money and the reason why everything was so dear was because there was such a lot of this false money about. And once the alarming news spread that on Friday night there was to be a beat-up of the Jews, because the war was dragging on through their espionage and treachery.

Suddenly, the town became full of tramps—God knows where they came from. All you heard was here a padlock smashed off, there a flat burgled. A Cossack squad was billeted in town. When the Cossacks, sullen-faced, with hanging forelocks, rode down the street in serried ranks wildly yelling and whooping, Mother recoiled from the window, saying:

"I haven't seen them for a long time... ever since nineteen 'five. They're at it again."

We had no news whatever from Father. I suspected that he was in Sormovo, near Nizhni Novgorod, but this was only a surmise based on the fact that before going away Father had questioned Mother about her brother Nikolai, who was working at a car-building plant there.

One day—it was already winter—Timka Shtukin came up to me in school and beckoned me aside. His mysterious manner excited my surprise rather than interest, and I followed him apathetically into a corner.

Timka looked round and whispered:

"Come to our place this evening. My dad said you were to come without fail."

"What does he want me for? What have you thought up this time?"

"I haven't thought up anything. Be sure to come."

Timka looked grave, even somewhat anxious, and I realised that he was not joking.

That evening I went to the cemetery. A snowstorm was blowing. The dim lamps, muffled in snow, barely lighted up the streets. To get to the wood and the cemetery I had to cross a small field. The sharp snowflakes pricked my face. I drew my head down into my collar and strode off along the snow-carpeted path towards the green lamp burning at the cemetery gates. My foot got caught in a gravestone and I fell into the snow. The door of the caretaker's lodge was locked. I knocked, but no one answered. I knocked again and heard footsteps behind the door.

"Who is it?" the caretaker's familiar bass demanded.

"It's me, Uncle Fyodor."

"Is that you, Boris?"

"Yes. Open the door, quick."

I entered the warmly heated lodge. On the table stood a samovar, a saucer with honey and a loaf of bread. Timka sat mending a cage as if nothing had happened.

"A snowstorm?" he said, seeing my red wet face.

"You said it!" I answered. "I hurt my foot. It's pitch dark."

Timka laughed. I couldn't make out what he was laughing about and I looked at him in surprise. Timka laughed still louder, and I could tell by his glance that he was not laughing at me but at something behind my back. Turning round, I saw Uncle Fyodor and my father. "He's been with us two days," Timka said, when we had sat down to have tea.

"Two days. . . . And you didn't tell me before! Call yourself a pal after this?"

Timka, with a guilty air, glanced first at his father, then at mine, as if seeking their support.

"A stone," the caretaker said, patting his son on the back with his heavy hand. "He may not be much to look at, but he's a reliable little chap."

Father was in civvies. He was cheerful and animated. He asked me about my school affairs and kept laughing every minute, saying:

"Never mind.. . never mind. Don't worry. Look what days are coming—don't you feel it?"

I said I felt that at the first admonition I received at school I would be kicked out.

"You should worry!" he answered coolly. "Given the desire and a good head you won't remain a fool, school or no school."

"Daddy," I said to him, "why are you so jolly, laughing all the time? Our clergyman read a sermon about you and everyone thinks of you as of the dead, and here you are as jolly as can be."

Ever since I had become Father's involuntary accomplice I spoke to him differently—as to a senior, but an equal. I could see that Father liked it.

"I'm jolly because exciting times are on the way. We've had enough tears! Ah, well. Run along now. We'll be seeing each other again soon."

It was late. I said goodbye, put on my coat and ran out onto the porch. Before the caretaker had time to come down and bolt the door after me, I felt myself flung aside with such force that I went flying head foremost into a snowdrift. In the same instant there was a stamping of feet, whistles and shouts in the entry. I ran back and saw the policeman Yevgraf, whose son Pashka had attended the parish school with me.

"Hold on," he said, recognising me and detaining me by the arm. "They'll manage there without you. Here, take the end of my hood and wipe your face. You didn't hurt your head, God forbid, did you?"

"No, I didn't hurt myself," I whispered. "What about Dad?"

"What about him? No one told him to go against the law. You can't go against the law, old chap."

Father and the caretaker were led out of the lodge with their hands tied behind them. Timka trailed after them with his coat thrown over his shoulders, but without a cap. He did not cry, but merely shivered in a strange way.

"Timka," the caretaker said gravely, "you will spend the night with your godfather. Tell him to look after the house in case anything gets lost after the search."

Father walked out in silence, his head bent. Seeing me, he straightened up and shouted encouragingly:

"Never mind, son. Goodbye. Kiss Mother and Tanya for me. And don't worry. Exciting times are on the way, old chap!"

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