presented to the
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
MRS. LEO HERZ
" Aleksyei Maksimovitch Pyeshkof (pseudonym
Maxim Gorky). Born at Nijni-Novgorod, March 14,
1868. He led a vagabond life for many years, working
and tramping with the poorest classes in Russia, and his
writings record the tragedy of poverty and crime as he
found it. Among the best known of his works are
'Makar Chudra' (1890), ' Emilian Pibgai,' ' Chelkash,'
'Oshybka' (1895), ' Tyenovya Kartinki ' (1895),
'Toska,' 'Konovalov' (1896), 'Malva' (1896), ' Foma
Gordyeev' (1901), 'Mukiki' (1901). Three volumes
of short stories (189899), ' Miestchanye ' (1902),
'Comrades' (1907), 'The Spy' (1908), 'In the
Depths,' a play, and ' Tales of Two Countries ' (1914)."
Century Cyclopedia of Names.
THE CENTURY CO.
Copyright, 1915, by
THE CENTURY Co.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Maxim Gorky Frontispiece
He Dance Unweariedly, Oblivious of Everything . . 56
The Sharing-out of the Family Goods 120
When They Came Back from Church They Drank Tea
in a Depressed Manner 315
"Mother Sent Me to School . . . and from the First I
Took a Dislike to It 332
IN a narrow, darkened room, my father, dressed in a
white and unusually long garment, lay on the floor
under the window. The toes of his bare feet were curi-
ously extended, and the fingers of the still hands, which
rested peacefully upon his breast, were curved; his
merry eyes were tightly closed by the black disks of
two copper coins; the light had gone out of his still
face, and I was frightened by the ugly way he showed
My mother, only half clad in a red petticoat, knelt
and combed my father's long, soft hair, from his brow
to the nape of his neck, with the same black comb which
I loved to use to tear the rind of watermelons; she
talked unceasingly in her low, husky voice, and it
seemed as if her swollen eyes must be washed away
by the incessant flow of tears.
Holding me by the hand was my grandmother, who
had a big, round head, large eyes, and a nose like a
4 MY CHILDHOOD
sponge a dark, tender, wonderfully interesting person.
She also was weeping, and her grief formed a fitting
accompaniment to my mother's, as, shuddering the
while, she pushed me towards my father; but I, terri-
fied and uneasy, obstinately tried to hide myself
against her. I had never seen grown-up people cry
before, and I did not understand the words which my
grandmother uttered again and again:
"Say good-by to daddy. You will never see him
any more. He is dead before his time."
I had been very ill, had only just left my bed in fact,
and I remember perfectly well that at the beginning of
my illness my father used to merrily bustle about me.
Then he suddenly disappeared and his place was taken
by my grandmother, a stranger to me.
"Where did you come from?" I asked her.
"From up there, from Nijni," she answered; "but I
did not walk here, I came by boat. One does not walk
on water, you little imp."
This was ludicrous, incomprehensible, and untrue;
upstairs there lived a bearded, gaudy Persian, and in
the cellar an old, yellow Kalmuck who sold sheepskins.
One could get upstairs by riding on the banisters, or if
one fell that way, one could roll. I knew this by ex-
perience. But where was there room for water? It
was all untrue and delightfully muddled.
"And why am I a little imp?"
MY CHILDHOOD 5
"Why? Because you are so noisy," she said, laugh-
She spoke sweetly, merrily, melodiously, and from
the very first day I made friends with her; all I wanted
now was for her to make haste and take me out of that
My mother pressed me to her; her tears and groans
created in me a strange feeling of disquietude. It was
the first time I had seen her like this. She had always
appeared a stern woman of few words ; neat, glossy, and
strongly built like a horse, with a body of almost sav-
age strength, and terribly strong arms. But now she
was swollen and palpitating, and utterly desolate.
Her hair, which was always coiled so neatly about her
head, with her large, gaily trimmed cap, was tumbled
about her bare shoulders, fell over her face, and part
of it which remained plaited, trailed across my
father's sleeping face. Although I had been in the
room a long time she had not once looked at me; she
could do nothing but dress my father's hair, sobbing
and choking with tears the while.
Presently some swarthy gravediggers and a soldier
peeped in at the door.
The latter shouted angrily:
"Clear out now ! Hurry up !"
The window was curtained by a dark shawl, which
the wind inflated like a sail. I knew this because one
6 MY CHILDHOOD
day my father had taken me out in a sailing-boat, and
without warning there had come a peal of thunder.
He laughed, and holding me against his knees, cried,
"It is nothing. Don't be frightened, Luke!"
Suddenly my mother threw herself heavily on the
floor, but almost at once turned over on her back, drag-
ging her hair in the dust; her impassive, white face
had become livid, and showing her teeth like my father,
she said in a terrible voice, "Close the door! . . .
Alexis ... go away!"
Thrusting me on one side, grandmother rushed to
the door crying:
"Friends ! Don't be frightened; don't interfere, but
go away, for the love of Christ. This is not cholera
but childbirth. ... I beg of you to go, good peo-
I hid myself in a dark corner behind a box, and
thence I saw how my mother writhed upon the floor,
panting and gnashing her teeth; and grandmother,
kneeling beside her, talked lovingly and hopefully.
"In the name of the Father and of the Son . . . !
Be patient, Varusha! Holy Mother of God! . . .
Our Defense ... !"
I was terrified. They crept about on the floor close
to my father, touching him, groaning and shrieking,
and he remained unmoved and actually smiling. This
creeping about on the floor lasted a long time; several
MY CHILDHOOD 7
times my mother stood up, only to fall down again,
and grandmother rolled in and out of the room like a
large, black, soft ball. All of a sudden a child cried.
"Thank God!" said grandmother. "It is a boy!"
And she lighted a candle.
I must have fallen asleep in the corner, for I remem-
ber nothing more.
The next impression which my memory retains is a
deserted corner in a cemetery on a rainy day. I am
standing by a slippery mound of sticky earth and
looking into the pit wherein they have thrown the coffin
of my father. At the bottom there is a quantity of
water, and there are also frogs, two of which have even
jumped on to the yellow lid of the coffin.
At the graveside were myself, grandmother, a
drenched sexton, and two cross gravediggers with
We were all soaked with the warm rain which fell
in fine drops like glass beads.
"Fill in the grave," commanded the sexton, moving
Grandmother began to cry, covering her face with
a corner of the shawl which she wore for a head-cov-
ering. The gravediggers, bending nearly double, be-
gan to fling the lumps of earth on the coffin rapidly,
striking the frogs, which were leaping against the sides
of the pit, down to the bottom.
8 MY CHILDHOOD
"Come along, Lenia," said grandmother, taking hold
of my shoulder; but having no desire to depart, I
wriggled out of her hands.
"What next, O Lord 1 ?" grumbled grandmother,
partly to me, and partly to God, and she remained for
some time silent, with her head drooping dejectedly.
The grave was filled in, yet still she stood there,
till the gravediggers threw their shovels to the ground
with a resounding clangor, and a breeze suddenly
arose and died away, scattering the raindrops ; then she
took me by the hand and led me to a church some dis-
tance away, by a path which lay between a number of
"Why don't you cry*?" she asked, as we came away
from the burial-ground. "You ought to cry."
"I don't want to," was my reply.
"Well, if you don't want to, you need not," she said
This greatly surprised me, because I seldom cried,
and when I did it was more from anger than sorrow;
moreover, my father used to laugh at my tears, while
my mother would exclaim, "Don't you dare to cry!"
After this we rode in a droshky through a broad but
squalid street, between rows of houses which were
painted dark red.
As we went along, I asked grandmother, "Will those
frogs ever be able to get out*?"
MY CHILDHOOD 9
"Never!" she answered. "God bless them!"
I reflected that my father and my mother never
spoke so often or so familiarly of God.
A few days later my mother and grandmother
took me aboard a steamboat, where we had a tiny
My little brother Maxim was dead, and lay on a
table in the corner, wrapped in white and wound about
with red tape. Climbing on to the bundles and trunks
I looked out of the porthole, which seemed to me ex-
actly like the eye of a horse. Muddy, frothy water
streamed unceasingly down the pane. Once it
dashed against the glass with such violence that it
splashed me, and I involuntarily jumped back to the
"Don't be afraid," said grandmother, and lifting
me lightly in her kind arms, restored me to my place
on the bundles.
A gray, moist fog brooded over the water; from
time to time a shadowy land was visible in the distance,
only to be obscured again by the fog and the foam.
Everything about us seemed to vibrate, except my
mother who, with her hands folded behind her head,
leaned against the wall fixed and still, with a face that
was grim and hard as iron, and as expressionless.
Standing thus, mute, with closed eyes, she appeared to
10 MY CHILDHOOD
me as an absolute stranger. Her very frock was un
familiar to me.
More than once grandmother said to her softly
"Varia, won't you have something to eat*?"
My mother neither broke the silence nor stirrec
from her position.
Grandmother spoke to me in whispers, but to rm
mother she spoke aloud, and at the same time cau
tiously and timidly, and very seldom. I thought sh<
was afraid of her, which was quite intelligible, am
seemed to draw us closer together.
"Saratov !" loudly and fiercely exclaimed my mothe
with startling suddenness. "Where is the sailor?"
Strange, new words to me! Saratov? Sailor?
A broad-shouldered, gray-headed individual dressec
in blue now entered, carrying a small box which grand
mother took from him, and in which she proceeded t(
place the body of my brother. Having done this sh<
bore the box and its burden to the door on her out
stretched hands; but, alas! being so stout she coulc
only get through the narrow doorway of the cabir
sideways, and now halted before it in ludicrous uncer
"Really, Mama!" exclaimed my mother impa
tiently, taking the tiny coffin from her. Then the]
both disappeared, while I stayed behind in the cabii
regarding the man in blue.
MY CHILDHOOD 11
"Well, mate, so the little brother has gone*?" he
said, bending down to me.
"Who are you?"
"I am a sailor."
"And who is Saratov?"
"Saratov is a town. Look out of the window.
There it is!"
Observed from the window, the land seemed to
oscillate; and revealing itself obscurely and in a frag-
mentary fashion, as it lay steaming in the fog, it re-
minded me of a large piece of bread just cut off a hot
"Where has grandmother gone to?"
"To bury her little grandson."
"Are they going to bury him in the ground?"
"Yes, of course they are."
I then told the sailor about the live frogs that had
been buried with my father.
He lifted me up, and hugging and kissing me, cried,
"Oh, my poor little fellow, you don't understand. It
is not the frogs who are to be pitied, but your mother.
Think how she is bowed down by her sorrow."
Then came a resounding howl overhead. Having
already learned that it was the steamer which made
this noise, I was not afraid; but the sailor hastily set
me down on the floor and darted away, exclaiming,
"I must run!"
12 MY CHILDHOOD
The desire to escape seized me. I ventured out of
the door. The dark, narrow space outside was empty,
and not far away shone the brass on the steps of the
staircase. Glancing upwards, I saw people with wal-
lets and bundles in their hands, evidently going off the
boat. This meant that I must go off too.
But when I appeared in front of the gangway,
amidst the crowd of peasants, they all began to yell
"Who does he belong to*? Who do you belong
No one knew.
For a long time they jostled and shook and poked
me about, until the gray-haired sailor appeared and
seized me, with the explanation:
"It is the Astrakhan boy from the cabin."
And he ran off with me to the cabin, deposited me
on the bundles and went away, shaking his finger at
me, as he threatened, "I '11 give you something!"
The noise overhead became less and less. The boat
had ceased to vibrate, or to be agitated by the motion
of the water. The window of the cabin was shut in
by damp walls; within it was dark, and the air was
stifling. It seemed to me that the very bundles grew
larger and began to press upon me; it was all horrible,
and I began to wonder if I was going to be left alone
forever in that empty boat.
MY CHILDHOOD 13
I went to the door, but it would not open ; the brass
handle refused to turn, so I took a bottle of milk and
with all my force struck at it. The only result was
that the bottle broke and the milk spilled over my
legs, and trickled into my boots. Crushed by this fail-
ure, I threw myself on the bundles crying softly, and
so fell asleep.
When I awoke the boat was again in motion, and
the window of the cabin shone like the sun.
Grandmother, sitting near me, was combing her
hair and muttering something with knitted brow.
She had an extraordinary amount of hair which fell
over her shoulders and breast to her knees, and even
touched the floor. It was blue-black. Lifting it up
from the floor with one hand and holding it with diffi-
culty, she introduced an almost toothless wooden comb
into its thick strands. Her lips were twisted, her dark
eyes sparkled fiercely, while her face, encircled in that
mass of hair, looked comically small. Her expression
was almost malignant, but when I asked her why she
had such long hair she answered in her usual mellow,
"Surely God gave it to me as a punishment. . . .
Even when it is combed, just look at it! . . . When
I was young I was proud of my mane, but now I am
old I curse it. But you go to sleep. It is quite early.
The sun has only just risen."
14 MY CHILDHOOD
"But I don't want to go to sleep again."
"Very well, then don't go to sleep," she agreed at
once, plaiting her hair and glancing at the berth on
which my mother lay rigid, with upturned face.
"How did you smash that bottle last evening? Tell
me about it quietly."
So she always talked, using such peculiarly harmo-
nious words that they took root in my memory like
fragrant, bright, everlasting flowers. When she smiled
the pupils of her dark, luscious eyes dilated and
beamed with an inexpressible charm, and her strong
white teeth gleamed cheerfully. Apart from her mul-
titudinous wrinkles and her swarthy complexion, she
had a youthful and brilliant appearance. What
spoiled her was her bulbous nose, with its distended
nostrils, and red lips, caused by her habit of taking
pinches of snuff from her black snuff-box mounted with
silver, and by her fondness for drink. Everything
about her was dark, but within she was luminous with
an inextinguishable, joyful and ardent flame, which
revealed itself in her eyes. Although she was bent,
almost humpbacked, in fact, she moved lightly and
softly, for all the world like a huge cat, and was just
as gentle as that caressing animal.
Until she came into my life I seemed to have been
asleep, and hidden away in obscurity; but when she
appeared she woke me and led me to the light of day.
MY CHILDHOOD 15
Connecting all my impressions by a single thread, she
wove them into a pattern of many colors, thus making
herself my friend for life, the being nearest my heart,
the dearest and best known of all; while her disinter-
ested love for all creation enriched me, and built up
the strength needful for a hard life.
Forty years ago boats traveled slowly; we were
a long time getting to Nijni, and I shall never forget
those days almost overladen with beauty.
Good weather had set in. From morning till night
I was on the deck with grandmother, under a clear sky,
gliding between the autumn-gilded shores of the Volga,
without hurry, lazily; and, with many resounding
groans, as she rose and fell on the gray-blue water, a
barge attached by a long rope was being drawn along
by the bright red steamer. The barge was gray, and
reminded me of a wood-louse.
Unperceived, the sun floated over the Volga.
Every hour we were in the midst of fresh scenes; the
green hills rose up like rich folds on earth's sumptuous
vesture; on the shore stood towns and villages; the
golden autumn leaves floated on the water.
"Look how beautiful it all is!" grandmother ex-
claimed every minute, going from one side of the boat
to the other, with a radiant face, and eyes wide with
joy. Very often, gazing at the shore, she would for-
16 MY CHILDHOOD
get me ; she would stand on the deck, her hands folded
on her breast, smiling and in silence, with her eyes full
of tears. I would tug at her skirt of dark, sprigged
"Ah!" she would exclaim, starting. "I must have
fallen asleep, and begun to dream."
"But why are you crying?"
"For joy and for old age, my dear," she would reply,
smiling. "I am getting old, you know sixty years
have passed over my head."
And taking a pinch of snuff, she would begin to tell
me some wonderful stories about kind-hearted brig-
ands, holy people, and all sorts of wild animals and
She would tell me these stories softly, mysteriously,
with her face close to mine, fixing me with her dilated
eyes, thus actually infusing into me the strength which
was growing within me. The longer she spoke, or
rather sang, the more melodiously flowed her words.
It was inexpressibly pleasant to listen to her.
I would listen and beg for another, and this is what
"In the stove there lives an old goblin; once he got
a splinter into his paw, and rocked to and fro whim-
pering, 'Oh, little mice, it hurts very much; oh, little
mice, I can't bear it!' "
Raising her foot, she took it in her hands and
MY CHILDHOOD . 17
wagged it from side to side, wrinkling up her face
so funnily, just as if she herself had been hurt.
The sailors who stood round bearded, good-natured
men listening and laughing, and praising the stories,
"Now, Grandmother, give us another."
Afterwards they would say:
"Come and have supper with us."
At supper they regaled her with vodka, and me
with water-melon; this they did secretly, for there
went to and fro on the boat a man who forbade the
eating of fruit, and used to take it away and throw
it in the river. He was dressed like an official, and
was always drunk; people kept out of his sight.
On rare occasions my mother came on deck, and
stood on the side farthest from us. She was always
silent. Her large, well-formed body, her grim face,
her heavy crown of plaited, shining hair all about
her was compact and solid, and she appeared to me as
if she were enveloped in a fog or a transparent cloud,
out of which she looked unamiably with her gray
eyes, which were as large as grandmother's.
Once she exclaimed sternly:
"People are laughing at you, Mama!"
"God bless them!" answered grandmother, quite
unconcerned. "Let them laugh, and good luck to
i8 MY CHILDHOOD
I remember the childish joy grandmother showed at
the sight of Nijni. Taking my hand, she dragged me
to the side, crying:
"Look! Look how beautiful it is! That's Nijni,
that is ! There 's something heavenly about it. Look
at the church too. Does n't it seem to have wings'?"
And she turned to my mother, nearly weeping. "Var-
usha, look, won't you? Come here! You seem to
have forgotten all about it. Can't you show a little
My mother, with a frown, smiled bitterly.
When the boat arrived outside the beautiful town
between two rivers blocked by vessels, and bristling
with hundreds of slender masts, a large boat containing
many people was drawn alongside it. Catching the
boat-hook in the gangway, one after another the pas-
sengers came on board. A short, wizened man, dressed
in black, with a red-gold beard, a bird-like nose, and
green eyes, pushed his way in front of the others.
"Papa !" my mother cried in a hoarse, loud voice, as
she threw herself into his arms ; but he, taking her face
in his little red hands and hastily patting her cheeks,
"Now, silly! What's the matter with you? . . ."
Grandmother embraced and kissed them all at once,
turning round and round like a peg-top ; she pushed me
towards them, saying quickly:
MY CHILDHOOD 19
"Now make haste! This is Uncle Michael, this
is Jaakov, this is Aunt Natalia, these are two brothers
both called Sascha, and their sister Katerina. This
is all our family. Is n't it a large one*?"
Grandfather said to her:
"Are you quite well, Mother?" and they kissed each
other three times.
He then drew me from the dense mass of people, and
laying his hand on my head, asked:
"And who may you be*?"
"I am the Astrakhan boy from the cabin."
"What on earth is he talking about?" Grandfather
turned to my mother, but without waiting for an an-
swer, shook me and said : "You are a chip of the old
block. Get into the boat."
Having landed, the crowd of people wended its way
up the hill by a road paved with rough cobblestones
between two steep slopes covered with trampled
Grandfather and mother went in front of us all.
He was a head shorter than she was, and walked with
little hurried steps; while she, looking down on him
from her superior height, appeared literally to float
beside him. After them walked dark, sleek-haired
Uncle Michael, wizened like grandfather, bright and
curly-headed Jaakov, some fat women in brightly col-
ored dresses, and six children, all older than myself
20 MY CHILDHOOD
and all very, quiet. I was with grandmother and little
Aunt Natalia. Pale, blue-eyed and stout, she fre-
quently stood still, panting and whispering:
"Oh, I can't go any farther!"
"Why did they trouble you to come?" grumbled
grandmother angrily. "They are a silly lot !"
I did not like either the grown-up people nor the
children; I felt myself to be a stranger in their midst
even grandmother had somehow become estranged
Most of all I disliked my uncle; I felt at once that
he was my enemy, and I was conscious of a certain feel-
ing of cautious curiosity towards him.
We had now arrived at the end of our journey.
At the very top, perched on the right slope, stood the
first building in the street a squat, one-storied house,
decorated with dirty pink paint, with a narrow over-
hanging roof and bow-windows. Looked at from the
street it appeared to be a large house, but the interior,
with its gloomy, tiny rooms, was cramped. Every-
where, as on the landing-stage, angry people strove
together, and a vile smell pervaded the whole place.
I went out into the yard. That also was unpleas-
ant. It was strewn with large, wet cloths and lum-
bered with tubs, all containing muddy water, of the
same hue, in which other cloths lay soaking. In the
corner of a half-tumbled-down shed the logs burned
MY CHILDHOOD 21
brightly in a stove, upon which something was boiling
or baking, and an unseen person uttered these strange
"Santaline, fuchsin, vitriol!"
THEN began and flowed on with astonishing
rapidity an intense, varied, inexpressibly strange
life. It reminded me of a crude story, well told by a
good-natured but irritatingly truthful genius. Now,
in recalling the past, I myself find it difficult to believe,
at this distance of time, that things really were as they
were, and I have longed to dispute or reject the facts
the cruelty of the drab existence of an unwelcome rela-
tion is too painful to contemplate. But truth is
stronger than pity, and besides, I am writing not about
myself but about that narrow, stifling environment of
unpleasant impressions in which lived aye, and to this
day lives the average Russian of this class.
My grandfather's house simply seethed with mutual
hostility; all the grown people were infected and even
the children were inoculated with it. I had learned,
from overhearing grandmother's conversation, that my
mother arrived upon the very day when her brothers
demanded the distribution of the property from their
father. Her unexpected return made their desire for
this all the keener and stronger, because they were
afraid that my mother would claim the dowry intended
MY CHILDHOOD 23
for her, but withheld by my grandfather because she
had married secretly and against his wish. My uncles
considered that this dowry ought to be divided amongst
them all. Added to this, they had been quarreling
violently for a long time among themselves as to who
should open a workshop in the town, or on the Oka
in the village of Kunavin.
One day, very shortly after our arrival, a quarrel
broke out suddenly at dinner-time. My uncles started
to their feet and, leaning across the table, began to
shout and yell at grandfather, snarling and shaking
themselves like dogs; and grandfather, turning very
red, rapped on the table with a spoon and cried in a
piercing tone of voice, like the crowing of a cock: "I
will turn you out of doors !"
With her face painfully distorted, grandmother said :
"Give them what they ask, Father; then you will have
"Be quiet, simpleton !" shouted my grandfather with
flashing eyes; and it was wonderful, seeing how small
he was, that he could yell with such deafening effect.
My mother rose from the table, and going calmly to
the window, turned her back upon us all.
Suddenly Uncle Michael struck his brother on the
face with the back of his hand. The latter, with a
howl of rage, grappled with him; both rolled on the
floor growling, gasping for breath and abusing each
24 MY CHILDHOOD
other. The children began to cry, and my Aunt
Natalia, who was with child, screamed wildly; my
mother seized her round the body and dragged her
somewhere out of the way; the lively little nursemaid,
Eugenia, drove the children out of the kitchen; chairs
were knocked down; the young, broad-shouldered fore-
man, Tsiganok, sat on Uncle Michael's back, while the
head of the works, Gregory Ivanovitch, a bald-headed,
bearded man with colored spectacles, calmly bound up
my uncle's hands with towels.
Turning his head and letting his thin, straggly,
black beard trail on the floor, Uncle Michael cursed
horribly, and grandfather, running round the table, ex-
claimed bitterly: "And these are brothers! . . .
Blood relations! . . . Shame on you!"
At the beginning of the quarrel I had jumped on to
the stove in terror; and thence, with painful amaze-
ment, I had watched grandmother as she washed Uncle
Jaakov's battered face in a small basin of water, while
he cried and stamped his feet, and she said in a sad
voice: "Wicked creatures! You are nothing better
than a family of wild beasts. When will you come
to your senses'?"
Grandfather, dragging his torn shirt over his shoul-
der, called out to her: "So you have brought wild
animals into the world, eh, old woman?"
When Uncle Jaakov went out, grandmother retired
MY CHILDHOOD 25
to a corner and, quivering with grief, prayed : "Holy
Mother of God, bring my children to their senses."
Grandfather stood beside her, and, glancing at the
table, on which everything was upset or spilled, said
"When you think of them, Mother, and then of the
little one they pester Varia about . . . who has the
"Hold your tongue, for goodness* sake! Take off
that shirt and I will mend it. . . ." And laying the
palms of her hands on his head, grandmother kissed
his forehead; and he so small compared to her
pressing his face against her shoulder, said:
"We shall have to give them their shares, Mother,
that is plain."
"Yes, Father, it will have to be done."
Then they talked for a long time; amicably at first,
but it was not long before grandfather began to scrape
his feet on the floor like a cock before a fight, and
holding up a threatening finger to grandmother, said in
a fierce whisper :
"I know you ! You love them more than me. . . .
And what is your Mischka? a Jesuit ! And Jaaschka
a Freemason! And they live on me. . . .
Hangers-on ! That is all they are."
Uneasily turning on the stove, I knocked down an
iron, which fell with a crash like a thunder-clap.
26 MY CHILDHOOD
Grandfather jumped up on the step, dragged me
down, and stared at me as if he now saw me for the
"Who put you on the stove*? Your mother*?"
"I got up there by myself."
"You are lying!"
"No I 'm not. I did get up there by myself. I was
He pushed me away from him, lightly striking me
on the head with the palm of his hand.
"Just like your father ! Get out of my sight !"
And I was only too glad to run out of the kitchen.
I was very well aware that grandfather's shrewd,
sharp green eyes followed me everywhere, and I was
afraid of him. I remember how I always wished to
hide myself from that fierce glance. It seemed to me
that grandfather was malevolent ; he spoke to every one
mockingly and offensively, and, being provocative, did
his best to put every one else out of temper.
"Ugh! Tou!" he exclaimed frequently.
The long-drawn-out sound "U-gh !" always reminds
me of a sensation of misery and chill. In the recrea-
tion hour, the time for evening tea, when he, my uncles
and the workmen came into the kitchen from the work-
shop weary, with their hands stained with santaline
MY CHILDHOOD 27
and burnt by sulphuric acid, their hair bound with
linen bands, all looking like the dark-featured icon in
the corner of the kitchen in that hour of dread my
grandfather used to sit opposite to me, arousing the
envy of the other grandchildren by speaking to me
oftener than to them. Everything about him was
trenchant and to the point. His heavy satin waistcoat
embroidered with silk was old; his much-scrubbed shirt
of colored cotton was crumpled ; great patches flaunted
themselves on the knees of his trousers; and yet he
seemed to be dressed with more cleanliness and more
refinement than his sons, who wore false shirtfronts
and silk neckties.
Some days after our arrival he set me to learn the
prayers. All the other children were older than my-
self, and were already being taught to read and write
by the clerk of Uspenski Church. Timid Aunt Natalia
used to teach me softly. She was a woman with a
childlike countenance, and such transparent eyes that
it seemed to me that, looking into them, one might see
what was inside her head. I loved to look into those
eyes of hers without shifting my gaze and without
blinking; they used to twinkle as she turned her head
away and said very softly, almost in a whisper:
"That will do. ... Now please say 'Our Father,
which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. . . .' "
And if I asked, "What does 'hallowed be Thy name*
28 MY CHILDHOOD
mean*?" she would glance round timidly and admonish
me thus: "Don't ask questions. It is wrong. Just
say after me 'Our Father . . .' '
Her words troubled me. Why was it wrong to ask
questions'? The words "hallowed be Thy name" ac-
quired a mysterious significance in my mind, and I pur-
posely mixed them up in every possible way.
But my aunt, pale and almost exhausted, patiently
cleared her throat, which was always husky, and said,
"No, that is not right. Just say fallowed be Thy
name.' It is plain enough."
But my aunt, pale and almost exhausted, patiently
irritated me, and hindered me from remembering the
One day my grandfather inquired:
"Well, Oleysha, what have you been doing to-day*? ,.
Playing*? The bruises on your forehead told me as
much. Bruises are got cheaply. And how about 'Our
Father 3 *? Have you learnt it 4 ?"
"He has a very bad memory," said my aunt softly.
Grandfather smiled as if he were glad, lifting his
sandy eyebrows. "And what of it? He must be
whipped ; that 's all."
And again he turned to me.
"Did your father ever whip you*?"
As I did not know what he was talking about, I was
silent, but my mother replied:
MY CHILDHOOD 29
"No, Maxim never beat him, and what is more, for-
bade me to do so."
"And why, may I ask?"
"He said that beating is not education."
"He was a fool about everything that Maxim.
May God forgive me for speaking so of the dead!"
exclaimed grandfather distinctly and angrily. He
saw at once that these words enraged me. "What is
that sullen face for?' he asked. "Ugh! . . . Ton!
. . ." And smoothing down his reddish, silver-
streaked hair, he added:' "And this very Saturday I
am going to give Sascha a hiding."
"What is a hiding?" I asked.
They all laughed, and grandfather said: "Wait a
bit, and you shall see."
In secret I pondered over the word "hiding." Ap-
parently it had the same meaning as to whip and beat.
I had seen people beat horses, dogs and cats, and in
Astrakhan the soldiers used to beat the Persians; but
I had never before seen any one beat little children.
Yet here my uncles hit their own children over the
head and shoulders, and they bore it without resent-
ment, merely rubbing the injured part; and if I asked
them whether they were hurt, they always answered
"No, not a bit."
Then there was the famous story of the thimble.
30 MY CHILDHOOD
In the evenings, from tea-time to supper-time, my
uncles and the head workman used to sew portions of
dyed material into one piece, to which they affixed
tickets. Wishing to play a trick on half-blind Greg-
ory, Uncle Michael had told his nine-year-old nephew
to make his thimble red-hot in the candle-flame.
Sascha heated the thimble in the snuffers, made it abso-
lutely red-hot, and contriving, without attracting at-
tention, to place it close to Gregory's hand, hid himself
by the stove; but as luck would have it, grandfather
himself came in at that very moment and, sitting down
to work, slipped his finger into the red-hot thimble.
Hearing the tumult, I ran into the kitchen, and I
shall never forget how funny grandfather looked nurs-
ing his burnt finger as he jumped about and shrieked:
"Where is the villain who played this trick*?"
Uncle Michael, doubled up under the table, snatched
up the thimble and blew upon it; Gregory uncon-
cernedly went on sewing, while the shadows played on
his enormous bald patch. Then Uncle Jaakov rushed
in, and, hiding himself in the corner by the stove, stood
there quietly laughing; grandmother busied herself
with grating up raw potatoes.
"Sascha Jaakov did it!" suddenly exclaimed Uncle
"Liar!" cried Jaakov, darting out from behind the
MY CHILDHOOD 31
But his son, from one of the corners, wept and
"Papa! don't believe him. He showed me how
to do it himself."
My uncles began to abuse each other, but grand-
father all at once grew calm, put a poultice of grated
potatoes on his finger, and silently went out, taking me
They all said that Uncle Michael was to blame. I
asked naturally if he would be whipped, or get a hid-
"He ought to," answered grandfather, with a side-
long glance at me.
Uncle Michael, striking his hand upon the table,
bawled at my mother : "Varvara, make your pup hold
his jaw before I knock his head off."
"Go on, then; try to lay your hands on him!" re-
plied my mother. And no one said another word.
She had a gift of pushing people out of her way,
brushing them aside as it were, and making them feel
very small by a few brief words like these. It was
perfectly clear to me that they were all afraid of her;
even grandfather spoke to her more quietly than he
spoke to the others. It gave me great satisfaction to
observe this, and in my pride I used to say openly to
my cousins : "My mother is a match for all of them."
And they did not deny it.
32 MY CHILDHOOD
But the events which happened on Saturday dimin-
ished my respect for my mother.
By Saturday I also had had time to get into trouble.
I was fascinated by the ease with which the grown-up
people changed the color of different materials; they
took something yellow, steeped it in black dye, and it
came out dark blue. They laid a piece of gray stuff in
reddish water and it was dyed mauve. It was quite
simple, yet to me it was inexplicable. I longed to dye
something myself, and I confided my desire to Sascha
Yaakovitch, a thoughtful boy, always in favor with
his elders, always good-natured, obliging, and ready to
wait upon every one.
The adults praised him highly for his obedience and
his cleverness, but grandfather looked on him with no
favorable eye, and used to say:
"An artful beggar that!"
Thin and dark, with prominent, watchful eyes,
Sascha Yaakov used to speak in a low, rapid voice, as
if his words were choking him, and all the while he
talked he glanced fearfully from side to side as if he
were ready to run away and hide himself on the slight-
est pretext. The pupils of his hazel eyes were sta-
tionary except when he was excited, and then they be-
came merged into the whites. I did not like him. I
much preferred the despised idler, Sascha Michail-
MY CHILDHOOD 33
ovitch. He was a quiet boy, with sad eyes and a pleas-
ing smile, very like his kind mother. He had ugly,
protruding teeth, with a double row in the upper jaw;
and being very greatly concerned about this defect, he
constantly had his fingers in his mouth, trying to loosen
his back ones, very amiably allowing any one who
chose to inspect them. But that was the only inter-
esting thing about him. He lived a solitary life in a
house swarming with people, loving to sit in the dim
corners in the daytime, and at the window in the eve-
ning; quite happy if he could remain without speak-
ing, with his face pressed against the pane for hours
together, gazing at the flock of jackdaws which, now
rising high above it, now sinking swiftly earthwards, in
the red evening sky, circled round the dome of Uspen-
ski Church, and finally, obscured by an opaque black
cloud, disappeared somewhere, leaving a void behind
them. When he had seen this he had no desire to speak
of it, but a pleasant languor took possession of him.
Uncle Jaakov's Sascha, on the contrary, could talk
about everything fluently and with authority, like a
grown-up person. Hearing of my desire to learn the
process of dyeing, he advised me to take one of the best
white tablecloths from the cupboard and dye it blue.
"White always takes the color better, I know," he
said very seriously.
I dragged out a heavy tablecloth and ran with it to
34 MY CHILDHOOD
the yard, but I had no more than lowered the hem of
it into the vat of dark-blue dye when Tsiganok flew at
me from somewhere, rescued the cloth, and wringing it
out with his rough hands, cried to my cousin, who had
been looking on at my work from a safe place:
"Call your grandmother quickly."
And shaking his black, dishevelled head ominously,
he said to me:
"You '11 catch it for this."
Grandmother came running on to the scene, wailing,
and even weeping, at the sight, and scolded me in her
"Oh, you young pickle ! I hope you will be spanked
Afterwards, however, she said to Tsiganok: "You
need n't say anything about this to grandfather, Vanka.
I '11 manage to keep it from him. Let us hope that
something will happen to take up his attention."
Vanka replied in a preoccupied manner, drying his
hands on his multi-colored apron :
"Me*? I shan't tell: but you had better see that
that Sascha does n't go and tell tales."
"I will give him something to keep him quiet," said
grandmother, leading me into the house.
On Saturday, before vespers, I was called into the
kitchen, where it was all dark and still. I remember
the closely shut doors of the shed and of the room,
MY CHILDHOOD 35
and the gray mist of an autumn evening, and the
heavy patter of rain. Sitting in front of the stove on
a narrow bench, looking cross and quite unlike him-
self, was Tsiganok; grandfather, standing in the chim-
ney corner, was taking long rods out of a pail of water,
measuring them, putting them together, and flourish-
ing them in the air with a shrill whistling sound.
Grandmother, somewhere in the shadows, was taking
snuff noisily and muttering:
"Now you are in your element, tyrant!"
Sascha Jaakov was sitting in a chair in the middle of
the kitchen, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles, and
whining like an old beggar in a voice quite unlike his
"Forgive me, for Christ's sake. . . . !"
Standing by the chair, shoulder to shoulder, like
wooden figures, stood the children of Uncle Michael,
brother and sister.
"When I have flogged you I will forgive you," said
grandfather, drawing a long, damp rod across his
"Now then . . . take down your breeches !"
He spoke very calmly, and neither the sound of his
voice nor the noise made by the boy as he moved on
the squeaky chair, nor the scraping of grandmother's
feet, broke the memorable stillness of that almost dark
kitchen, under the low, blackened ceiling.
36 MY CHILDHOOD
Sascha stood up, undid his trousers, letting them
down as far as his knees, then bending and holding
them up with his hands, he stumbled to the bench. It
was painful to look at him, and my legs also began to
But worse was to come, when he submissively lay
down on the bench face downwards, and Vanka, tying
him to it by means of a wide towel placed under his
arms and round his neck, bent under him and with
black hands seized his legs by the ankles.
"Lexei!" called grandfather. "Come nearer!
Come! Don't you hear me speaking to you*? Look
and see what a flogging is. ... One !"
With a mild flourish he brought the rod down on the
naked flesh, and Sascha set up a howl.
"Rubbish!" said grandfather. "That's nothing!
. . . But here 's something to make you smart."
And he dealt such blows that the flesh was soon in
a state of inflammation and covered with great red
weals, and my cousin gave a prolonged howl.
"Is n't it nice?" asked grandfather, as his hand rose
and fell. "You don't like it? ... That's for the
When he raised his hand with a flourish my heart
seemed to rise too, and when he let his hand fall some-
thing within me seemed to sink.
"I won't do it again," squealed Sascha, in a dread-
MY CHILDHOOD 37
fully thin, weak voice, unpleasant to hear. "Did n't
I tell didn't I tell about the tablecloth*?"
Grandfather answered calmly, as if he were reading
the "Psalter" :
"Tale-bearing is no justification. The informer
gets whipped first, so take that for the tablecloth."
Grandmother threw herself upon me and seized my
hand, crying: "I won't allow Lexei to be touched!
I won't allow it, you monster!" And she began to
kick the door, calling: "Varia! Varvara!"
Grandfather darted across to her, threw her down,
seized me and carried me to the bench. I struck at
him with my fists, pulled his sandy beard, and bit his
fingers. He bellowed and held me as in a vice. In
the end, throwing me down on the bench, he struck me
on the face.
I shall never forget his savage cry: "Tie him up!
I 'm going to kill him !" nor my mother's white face and
great eyes as she ran along up and down beside the
"Father ! You must n't ! Let me have him !"
Grandfather flogged me till I lost consciousness, and
I was unwell for some days, tossing about, face down-
wards, on a wide, stuffy bed, in a little room with one
window and a lamp which was always kept burning
38 MY CHILDHOOD
before the case of icons in the corner. Those dark
days had been the greatest in my life. In the course
of them I had developed wonderfully, and I was con-
scious of a peculiar difference in myself. I began to
experience a new solicitude for others, and I became so
keenly alive to their sufferings and my own that it was
almost as if my heart had been lacerated, and thus
For this reason the quarrel between my mother and
grandmother came as a great shock to me when grand-
mother, looking so dark and big in the narrow room,
flew into a rage, and pushing my mother into the corner
where the icons were, hissed :
"Why did n't you take him away?"
"I was afraid."
"A strong, healthy creature like you! You ought
to be ashamed of yourself, Varvara! I am an old
woman and I am not afraid. For shame !"
"Do leave off, Mother; I am sick of the whole busi-
"No, you don't love him! You have no pity for
the poor orphan!"
"I have been an orphan all my life," said my mother,
speaking loudly and sadly.
After that they both cried for a long time, seated
on a box in a corner, and then my mother said :
MY CHILDHOOD 39
"If it were not for Alexei, I would leave this place
and go right away. I can't go on living in this hell,
Mother, I can't! I haven't the strength."
"Oh ! My own flesh and blood !" whispered grand-
I kept all this in my mind. Mother was weak, and,
like the others, she was afraid of grandfather, and I
was preventing her from leaving the house in which
she found it impossible to live. It was very unfor-
tunate. Before long my mother really did disappear
from the house, going somewhere on a visit.
Very soon after this, as suddenly as if he had fallen
from the ceiling, grandfather appeared, and sitting on
the bed, laid his ice-cold hands on my head.
"How do you do, young gentleman? Come! an-
swer me. Don't sulk! Well"? What have you to
I had a great mind to kick away his legs, but it hurt
me to move. His head, sandier than ever, shook from
side to side uneasily ; his bright eyes seemed to be look-
ing for something on the wall as he pulled out of his
pocket a gingerbread goat, a horn made of sugar, an
apple and a cluster of purple raisins, which he placed
on the pillow under my very nose.
"There you are ! There 's a present for you."
And he stooped and kissed me on the forehead.
40 MY CHILDHOOD
Then, stroking my head with those small, cruel hands,
yellow-stained about the crooked, claw-like nails, he
began to speak.
"I left my mark on you then, my friend. You were
very angry. You bit me and scratched me, and then
I lost my temper too. However, it will do you no
harm to have been punished more severely than you de-
served. It will go towards next time. You must
learn not to mind when people of your own family beat
you. It is part of your training. It would be differ-
ent if it came from an outsider, but from one of us it
does not count. You must not allow outsiders to lay
hands on you, but it is nothing coming from one of your
own family. I suppose you think I was never flogged?
Oleysha! I was flogged harder than you could ever
imagine even in a bad dream. I was flogged so cruelly
that God Himself might have shed tears to see it.
And what was the result? I an orphan, the son of a
poor mother have risen in my present position the
head of a guild, and a master workman."
Bending his withered, well-knit body towards me,
he began to tell me in vigorous and powerful language,
with a felicitous choice of words, about the days of his
childhood. His green eyes were very bright, and his
golden hair stood rakishly on end as, deflecting his
high-pitched voice, he breathed in my face.
"You traveled here by steamboat . . . steam will
MY CHILDHOOD 41
take you anywhere now; but when I was young I had
to tow a barge up the Volga all by myself. The barge
was in the water and I ran barefoot on the bank, which
was strewn with sharp stones. . . . Thus I went from
early in the morning to sunset, with the sun beating
fiercely on the back of my neck, and my head throbbing
as if it were full of molten iron. And sometimes I
was overcome by three kinds of ill-luck . . . my poor
little bones ached, but I had to keep on, and I could
not see the way; and then my eyes brimmed over, and
I sobbed my heart out as the tears rolled down. Ah !
Oleysha ! it won't bear talking about.
"I went on and on till the towing-rope slipped from
me and I fell down on my face, and I was not sorry for
it either! I rose up all the stronger. If I had not
rested a minute I should have died.
"That is the way we used to live then in the sight
of God and of our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ. This is
the way I took the measure of Mother Volga three
times, from Simbirsk to Ribinsk, from there to Sara-
tov, as far as Astrakhan and Markarev, to the Fair
more than three thousand versts. And by the fourth
year I had become a free water-man. I had shown my
master what I was made of."
As he spoke he seemed to increase in size like a
cloud before my very eyes, being transformed from a
small, wizened old man to an individual of fabulous
42 MY CHILDHOOD
strength. Had he not pulled a great gray barge up the
river all by himself? Now and again he jumped up
from the bed and showed me how the barges traveled
with the towing-rope round them, and how they
pumped water, singing fragments of a song in a bass
voice; then, youthfully springing back on the bed, to
my ever-increasing astonishment, he would continue
hoarsely and impressively.
"Well, sometimes, Oleysha, on a summer's evening
when we arrived at Jigulak, or some such place at the
foot of the green hills, we used to sit about lazily cook-
ing our supper while the boatmen of the hill-country
used to sing sentimental songs, and as soon as they be-
gan the whole crew would strike up, sending a thrill
through one, and making the Volga seem as if it were
running very fast like a horse, and rising up as high
as the clouds; and all kinds of trouble seemed as noth-
ing more than dust blown about by the wind. They
sang till the porridge boiled over, for which the cook
had to be flicked with a cloth. 'Play as much as you
please, but don't forget your work,' we said."
Several times people put their heads in at the door
to call him, but each time I begged him not to go.
And he laughingly waved them away, saying, "Wait
He stayed with me and told me stories until it was
almost dark, and when, after an affectionate farewell,
MY CHILDHOOD 43
he left me, I had learned that he was neither malevo-
lent nor formidable. It brought the tears into my
eyes to remember that it was he who had so cruelly
beaten me, but I could not forget it.
This visit of my grandfather opened the door to
others, and from morning till night there was always
somebody sitting on my bed, trying to amuse me; I
remember that this was not always either cheering or
Oftener than any of them came my grandmother,
who slept in the same bed with me. But it was Tsig-
anok who left the clearest impression on me in those
days. He used to appear in the evenings square-
built, broad-chested, curly headed, dressed in his best
clothes a gold-embroidered shirt, plush breeches,
boots squeaking like a harmonium. His hair was
glossy, his squinting, merry eyes gleamed under his
thick eyebrows, and his white teeth under the shadow
of his young mustache ; his shirt glowed softly as if re-
flecting the red light of the image-lamp.
"Look here !" he said, turning up his sleeve and dis-
playing his bare arm to the elbow. It was covered
with red scars. "Look how swollen it is; and it was
worse yesterday it was very painful. When your
grandfather flew into a rage and I saw that he was go-
ing to flog you, I put my arm in the way, thinking
that the rod would break, and then while he was look-
44 MY CHILDHOOD
ing for another your grandmother or your mother could
take you away and hide you. I am an old bird at
the game, my child."
He laughed gently and kindly, and glancing again
at the swollen arm, went on :
"I was so sorry for you that I thought I should
choke. It seemed such a shame! . . . But he lashed
away at you!"
Snorting and tossing his head like a horse, he went
on speaking about the affair. This childish simplicity
seemed to draw him closer to me. I told him that I
loved him very much, and he answered with a sim-
plicity which always lives in my memory.
"And I love you too ! That is why I let myself be
hurt because I love you. Do you think I would have
done it for any one else"? I should be making a fool
Later on he gave me whispered instructions, glancing
frequently at the door. "Next time he beats you don't
try to get away from him, and don't struggle. It
hurts twice as much if you resist. If you let yourself
go he will deal lightly with you. Be limp and soft,
and don't scowl at him. Try and remember this; it is
"Surely he won't whip me again !" I exclaimed.
"Why, of course!" replied Tsiganok calmly. "Of
course he will whip you again, and often too!"
MY CHILDHOOD 45
"Because grandfather is on the watch for you."
And again he cautiously advised me: "When he
whips you he brings the rod straight down. Well, if
you lie there quietly he may possibly hold the rod
lower so that it won't break your skin. . . . Now,
do you understand 1 ? Move your body towards him
and the rod, and it will be all the better for you."
Winking at me with his dark, squinting eyes, he
added: "I know more about such matters than a
policeman even. I have been beaten on my bare shoul-
ders till the skin came off, my boy !"
I looked at his bright face and remembered grand-
mother's story of Ivan-Czarevitch and Ivanoshka-dour-
WHEN I was well again I realized that Tsiganok
occupied an important position in the house-
hold. Grandfather did not storm at him as he did at
his sons, and would say behind his back, half -closing
his eyes and nodding his head :
"He is a good workman Tsiganok. Mark my
words, he will get on; he will make his fortune."
My uncles too were polite and friendly with Tsig-
anok, and never played practical jokes on him as they
did on the head workman, Gregory, who was the ob-
ject of some insulting and spiteful trick almost every
evening. Sometimes they made the handles of his
scissors red-hot, or put a nail with the point upwards
on the seat of his chair, or placed ready to his hand
pieces of material all of the same color, so that when
he, being half blind, had sewed them all into one piece,
grandfather should scold him for it.
One day when he had fallen asleep after dinner in
the kitchen, they painted his face with fuchsin, and he
had to go about for a long time a ludicrous and terrify-
ing spectacle, with two round, smeared eyeglasses look-
MY CHILDHOOD 47
ing out dully from his gray beard, and his long, livid
nose drooping dejectedly, like a tongue.
They had an inexhaustible fund of such pranks, but
the head workman bore it all in silence, only quackling
softly, and taking care before he touched either the
iron, the scissors, the needlework or the thimble, to
moisten his fingers copiously with saliva. This became
a habit with him, and even at dinner-time before he
took up his knife and fork he slobbered over his fin-
gers, causing great amusement to the children. When
he was hurt, his large face broke into waves of wrinkles,
which curiously glided over his forehead, and, raising
his eyebrows, vanished mysteriously on his bald
I do not remember how grandfather bore himself
with regard to his sons' amusements, but grandmother
used to shake her fist at them, crying :
"Shameless, ill-natured creatures!"
But my uncles spoke evil of Tsiganok too behind his
back; they made fun of him, found fault with his
work, and called him a thief and an idler.
I asked grandmother why they did this. She ex-
plained it to me without hesitation, and, as always,
made the matter quite clear to me. "You see, each
wants to take Vaniushka with him when he sets up in
business for himself; that is why they run him down
to each other. Say they, 'He 's a bad workman' ; but
48 MY CHILDHOOD
they don't mean it. It is their artfulness. In addi-
tion to this, they are afraid that Vaniushka will not go
with either of them, but will stay with grandfather,
who always gets his own way, and might set up a
third workshop with Ivanka, which would do your
uncles no good. Now do you understand*?" She
laughed softly. "They are crafty about everything,
setting God at naught; and grandfather, seeing their
artfulness, teases them by saying: 'I shall buy Ivan
a certificate of exemption so that they won't take him
for a soldier. I can't do without him.' This makes
them angry; it is just what they don't want; besides,
they grudge the money. Exemptions cost money."
I was living with grandmother again, as I had done
on the steamer, and every evening before I fell asleep
she used to tell me fairy stories, or tales about her life,
which were just like a story. But she spoke about
family affairs, such as the distribution of the property
amongst the children, and grandfather's purchase of a
new house, lightly, in the character of a stranger re-
garding the matter from a distance, or at the most that
of a neighbor, rather than that of the person next in
importance to the head of the house.
From her I learned that Tsiganok was a foundling;
he had been found one wet night in early spring, on a
bench in the porch.
"There he lay," said grandmother pensively and
MY CHILDHOOD 49
mysteriously, "hardly able to cry, for he was nearly
numb with cold."
"But why do people abandon children?"
"It is because the mother has no milk, or anything
to feed her baby with. Then she hears that a child
which has been born somewhere lately is dead, and she
goes and leaves her own there."
She paused and scratched her head; then sighing
and gazing at the ceiling, she continued :
"Poverty is always the reason, Oleysha; and a kind
of poverty which must not be talked about, for an un-
married girl dare not admit that she has a child peo-
ple would cry shame upon her.
"Grandfather wanted to hand Vaniushka over to
the police, but I said 'No, we will keep him ourselves to
fill the place of our dead ones/ For I have had eight-
een children, you know. If they had all lived they
would have filled a street eighteen new families ! I
was married at eighteen, you see, and by this time I had
had fifteen children, but God so loved my flesh and
blood that He took all of them all my little babies to
the angels, and I was sorry and glad at the same time."
Sitting on the edge of the bed in her nightdress,
huge and dishevelled, with her black hair falling about
her, she looked like the bear which a bearded woodman
from Cergatch had led into our yard not long ago.
Making the sign of the cross on her spotless, snow-
50 MY CHILDHOOD
white breast, she laughed softly, always ready to make
light of everything.
"It was better for them to be taken, but hard for
me to be left desolate, so I was delighted to have Ivanka
but even now I feel the pain of my love for you, my
little ones! . . . Well, we kept him, and baptized
him, and he still lives happily with us. At first I used
to call him 'Beetle,' because he really did buzz some-
times, and went creeping and buzzing through the
rooms just like a beetle. You must love him. He is
a good soul."
I did love Ivan, and admired him inexpressibly.
On Saturday when, after punishing the children for
the transgressions of the week, grandfather went to
vespers, we had an indescribably happy time in the
Tsiganok would get some cockroaches from the
stove, make a harness of thread for them with great
rapidity, cut out a paper sledge, and soon two pairs
of black horses were prancing on the clean, smooth,
yellow table. Ivan drove them at a canter, with a
thin splinter of wood as a whip, and urged them on,
"Now they have started for the Bishop's house."
Then he gummed a small piece of paper to the back
of one of the cockroaches and sent him to run behind
MY CHILDHOOD 51
"We forgot the bag," he explained. "The monk
drags it with him as he runs. Now then, gee-
He tied the feet of another cockroach together with
cotton, and as the insect hopped along, with its head
thrust forward, he cried, clapping his hands :
"This is the deacon coming out of the wineshop
to say vespers."
After this he showed us a mouse which stood up at
the word of command, and walked on his hind legs,
dragging his long tail behind him and blinking comi-
cally with his lively eyes, which were like black glass
He made friends of mice, and used to carry them
about in his bosom, and feed them with sugar and
"Mice are clever creatures," he used to say in a tone
of conviction. "The house-goblin is very fond of
them, and whoever feeds them will have all his wishes
granted by the old hob-goblin."
He could do conjuring tricks with cards and coins
too, and he used to shout louder than any of the chil-
dren; in fact, there was hardly any difference between
them and him. One day when they were playing cards
with him they made him "booby" several times in suc-
cession, and he was very much offended. He stuck
his lips out sulkily and refused to play any more, and
52 MY CHILDHOOD
he complained to me afterward, his nose twitching as
he spoke :
"It was a put-up job! They were signaling to one
another and passing the cards about under the table.
Do you call that playing the game*? If it comes to
trickery I 'm not so bad at it myself."
Yet he was nineteen years old and bigger than all
four of us put together.
I have special memories of him on holiday evenings,
when grandfather and Uncle Michael went out to see
their friends, and curly headed, untidy Uncle Jaakov
appeared with his guitar while grandmother prepared
tea with plenty of delicacies, and vodka in a square
bottle with red flowers cleverly molded in glass on its
lower part. Tsiganok shone bravely on these occa-
sions in his holiday attire. Creeping softly and side-
ways came Gregory, with his colored spectacles gleam-
ing; came Nyanya Eugenia pimply, red-faced and
fat like a Toby-jug, with cunning eyes and a piping
voice; came the hirsute deacon from Uspenski, and
other dark slimy people bearing a resemblance to pikes
and eels. They all ate and drank a lot, breathing hard
the while; and the children had wineglasses of sweet
syrup given them as a treat, and gradually there was
kindled a warm but strange gaiety.
Uncle Jaakov tuned his guitar amorously, and as he
did so he always uttered the same words :
MY CHILDHOOD 53
"Well, now let us begin !"
Shaking his curly head, he bent over the guitar,
stretching out his neck like a goose; the expression on
his round, careless face became dreamy, his passionate,
elusive eyes were obscured in an unctuous mist, and
lightly touching the chords, he played something dis-
jointed, involuntarily rising to his feet as he played.
His music demanded an intense silence. It rushed like
a rapid torrent from somewhere far away, stirring one's
heart and penetrating it with an incomprehensible sen-
sation of sadness and uneasiness. Under the influence
of that music we all became melancholy, and the oldest
present felt themselves to be no more than children.
We sat perfectly still lost in a dreamy silence.
Sascha Michailov especially listened with all his might
as he sat upright beside our uncle, gazing at the guitar
open-mouthed, and slobbering with delight. And the
rest of us remained as if we had been frozen, or had
been put under a spell. The only sound besides was
the gentle murmur of the samovar which did not inter-
fere with the complaint of the guitar.
Two small square windows threw their light into
the darkness of the autumn night, and from time to
time some one tapped on them lightly. The yellow
lights of two tallow candles, pointed like spears, flick-
ered on the table.
Uncle Jaakov grew more and more rigid, as though
54 MY CHILDHOOD
he were in a deep sleep with his teeth clenched; but
his hands seemed to live with a separate existence.
The bent fingers of his right hand quivered indistinctly
over the dark keyboard, just like fluttering and strug-
gling birds, while his left passed up and down the
neck with elusive rapidity.
When he had been drinking he nearly always sang
through his teeth in an unpleasantly shrill voice, an end-
"If Jaakove were a dog
He 'd howl from morn to night.
Oie! I am a-weary!
Oie! Life is dreary!
In the streets the nuns walk,
On the fence the ravens talk.
Oie! I am a-weary!
The cricket chirps behind the stove
And sets the beetles on the move.
Oie! I am a-weary!
One beggar hangs his stockings up to dry,
The other steals it away on the sly.
Oie! I am a-weary!
Yes ! Life is very dreary !"
I could not bear this song, and when my uncle came
to the part about the beggars I used to weep in a
tempest of ungovernable misery.
The music had the same effect on Tsiganok as on
the others ; he listened to it, running his fingers through
MY CHILDHOOD 55
his black, shaggy locks, and staring into a cornef, half-
Sometimes he would exclaim unexpectedly in a com-
plaining tone, "Ah ! if I only had a voice. Lord ! how
I should sing."
And grandmother, with a sigh, would say: "Are
you going to break our hearts, Jaasha 1 ? . . . Suppose
you give us a dance, Vanyatka*?"
Her request was not always complied with at once,
but it did sometimes happen that the musician sud-
denly swept the chords with his hands, then, doubling
up his fists with a gesture as if he were noiselessly cast-
ing an invisible something from him to the floor, cried
"Away, melancholy! Now, Vanka, stand up!"
Looking very smart, as he pulled his yellow blouse
straight, Tsiganok would advance to the middle of the
kitchen, very carefully, as if he were walking on nails,
and blushing all over his swarthy face and simpering
bashfully, would say entreatingly :
"Faster, please, Jaakov Vassilitch !"
The guitar jingled furiously, heels tapped spas-
modically on the floor, plates and dishes rattled on the
table and in the cupboard, while Tsiganok blazed
amidst the kitchen lights, swooping like a kite, waving
his arms like the sails of a windmill, and moving his
56 MY CHILDHOOD
feet so quickly that they seemed to be stationary; then
he stooped to the floor, and spun round and round like
a golden swallow, the splendor of his silk blouse shed-
ding an illumination all around, as it quivered and
rippled, as if he were alight and floating in the air.
He danced unweariedly, oblivious of everything, and
it seemed as though, if the door were to open, he would
have danced out, down the street, and through the town
and away . . . beyond our ken.
"Cross over!" cried Uncle Jaakov, stamping his
feet, and giving a piercing whistle ; then in an irritating
voice he shouted the old, quaint saying:
"Oh, my ! if I were not sorry to leave ray spade
I 'd from my wife and children a break have made."
The people sitting at table pawed at each other, and
from time to time shouted and yelled as if they were
being roasted alive. The bearded chief workman
slapped his bald head and joined in the uproar. Once
he bent towards me, brushing my shoulder with his
soft beard, and said in my ear, just as he might speak
to a grown-up person :
"If your father were here, Alexei Maximitch, he
would have added to the fun. A merry fellow he
was always cheerful. You remember him, don't
MY CHILDHOOD 57
"You don't*? Well, once he and your grandmother
but wait a bit."
Tall and emaciated, somewhat resembling a con-
ventional icon, he stood up, and bowing to grand-
mother, entreated in an extraordinarily gruff voice:
"Akulina Ivanovna, will you be so kind as to dance
for us as you did once with Maxim Savatyevitch 1 ? It
would cheer us up."
"What are you talking about, my dear man*?
What do you mean, Gregory Ivanovitch*?" cried
grandmother, smiling and bridling. "Fancy me danc-
ing at my time of life! I should only make people
But suddenly she jumped up with a youthful air,
arranged her skirts, and very upright, tossed her pon-
derous head and darted across the kitchen, crying :
"Well, laugh if you want to! And a lot of good
may it do you. Now, Jaasha, play up !"
My uncle let himself go, and, closing his eyes, went
on playing very slowly. Tsiganok stood still for a
moment, and then leaped over to where grandmother
was and encircled her, resting on his haunches, while
she skimmed the floor without a sound, as if she were
floating on air, her arms spread out, her eyebrows
raised, her dark eyes gazing into space. She appeared
very comical to me, and I made fun of her; but Gregory
held up his finger sternly, and all the grown-up peo-
58 MY CHILDHOOD
pie looked disapprovingly over to my side of the
"Don't make a noise, Ivan," said Gregory, and Tsig-
anok obediently jumped to one side, and sat by the
door, while Nyanya Eugenia, thrusting out her Adam's
apple, began to sing in her low-pitched, pleasant voice :
"All the week till Saturday
She does earn what e'er she may,
Making lace from morn till night
Till she 's nearly lost her sight."
Grandmother seemed more as if she were telling a
story than dancing. She moved softly, dreamily;
swaying slightly, sometimes looking about her from
under her arms, the whole of her huge body wavering
uncertainly, her feet feeling their way carefully. Then
she stood still as if suddenly frightened by something;
her face quivered and became overcast . . . but di-
rectly after it was again illuminated by her pleasant,
cordial smile. Swinging to one side as if to make way
for some one, she appeared to be refusing to give her
hand, then letting her head droop seemed to die ; again,
she was listening to some one and smiling joyfully . . .
and suddenly she was whisked from her place and
turned round and round like a whirligig, her figure
seemed to become more elegant, she seemed to grow
taller, and we could not tear our eyes away from her
so triumphantly beautiful and altogether charming did
MY CHILDHOOD 59
she appear in that moment of marvelous rejuvenation.
And Nyanya Eugenia piped :
"Then on Sundays after Mass
Till midnight dances the lass,
Leaving as late as she dare,
Holidays with her are rare."
When she had finished dancing, grandmother re-
turned to her place by the samovar. They all ap-
plauded her, and as she put her hair straight, she said :
"That is enough ! You have never seen real danc-
ing. At our home in Balakya, there was one young
girl I have forgotten her name now, with many
others but when you saw her dance you cried for joy.
To look at her was a treat. You didn't want
anything else. How I envied her sinner that I
"Singers and dancers are the greatest people in the
world," said Nyanya Eugenia gravely, and she began
to sing something about King David, while Uncle
Jaakov, embracing Tsiganok, said to him:
"You ought to dance in the wineshops. You would
turn people's heads."
"I wish I could sing!" complained Tsiganok. "If
God had given me a voice I should have been singing
ten years by now, and should have gone on singing if
only as a monk."
They all drank vodka, and Gregory drank an extra
60 MY CHILDHOOD
lot. As she poured out glass after glass for him, grand-
mother warned him :
"Take care, Grisha, or you '11 become quite blind."
"I don't care ! I 've no more use for my eyesight,"
he replied firmly.
He drank, but he did not get tipsy, only becoming
more loquacious every moment; and he spoke to me
about my father nearly all the time.
"A man with a large heart was my friend Maxim
Grandmother sighed as she corroborated :
"Yes, indeed he was a true child of God."
All this was extremely interesting, and held me spell-
bound, and filled my heart with a tender, not unpleas-
ant sadness. For sadness and gladness live within us
side by side, almost inseparable ; the one succeeding the
other with an elusive, unappreciable swiftness.
Once Uncle Jaakov, being rather tipsy, began to
rend his shirt, and to clutch furiously at his curly hair,
his grizzled mustache, his nose and his pendulous lip.
"What am I*?" he howled, dissolved in tears.
"Why am I here?" And striking himself on the cheek,
forehead and chest, he sobbed: "Worthless, de-
graded creature ! Lost soul !"
"A ah ! You 're right !" growled Gregory.
But grandmother, who was also not quite sober, said
to her son, catching hold of his hand :
MY CHILDHOOD 61
"That will do, Jaasha. God knows how to teach
, When she had been drinking, she was even more
attractive; her eyes grew darker and smiled, shedding
the warmth of her heart upon every one. Brushing
aside the handkerchief which made her face too hot,
she would say in a tipsy voice:
"Lord! Lord! How good everything is! Don't
you see how good everything is*?"
And this was a cry from her heart the watchword
of her whole life.
I was much impressed by the tears and cries of my
happy-go-lucky uncle, and I asked grandmother why
he cried and scolded and beat himself so.
"You want to know everything!" she said reluc-
tantly, quite unlike her usual manner. "But wait a
bit. You will be enlightened about this affair quite
My curiosity was still more excited by this, and I
went to the workshop and attacked Ivan on the sub-
ject, but he would not answer me. He just laughed
quietly with a sidelong glance at Gregory, and hustled
me out, crying:
"Give over now, and run away. If you don't I '11
put you in the vat and dye you."
Gregory, standing before the broad, low stove, with
vats cemented to it, stirred them with a long black
62 MY CHILDHOOD
poker, lifting it up now and again to see the colored
drops fall from its end. The brightly burning flames
played on the skin-apron, multi-colored like the chas-
uble of a priest, which he wore. The dye simmered
in the vats; an acrid vapor extended in a thick cloud
to the door. Gregory glanced at me from under his
glasses, with his clouded, bloodshot eyes, and said
abruptly to Ivan:
"You are wanted in the yard. Can't you see 1 ?"
But when Tsiganok had gone into the yard, Gregory,
sitting on a sack of santaline, beckoned me to him.
Drawing me on to his knee, and rubbing his warm,
soft beard against my cheek, he said in a tone of rem-
"Your uncle beat and tortured his wife to death,
and now his conscience pricks him. Do you under-
stand? You want to understand everything, you seej
and so you get muddled."
Gregory was as simple as grandmother, but his
words were disconcerting, and he seemed to look
through and through every one.
"How did he kill her?" he went on in a leisurely
tone. "Why, like this. He was lying in bed with
her, and he threw the counterpane over her head, and
held it down while he beat her. Why"? He doesn't
know himself why he did it."
MY CHILDHOOD 63
And paying no attention to Ivan, who, having re-
turned with an armful of goods from the yard, was
squatting before the fire, warming his hands, the head
"Perhaps it was because she was better than he was,
and he was envious of her. The Kashmirins do not
like good people, my boy. They are jealous of them.
They cannot stand them, and try to get them out of
the way. Ask your grandmother how they got rid of
your father. She will tell you everything; she hates
deceit, because she does not understand it. She may
be reckoned among the saints, although she drinks
wine and takes snuff. She is a splendid woman.
Keep hold of her, and never let her go."
He pushed me towards the door, and I went out into
the yard, depressed and scared. Vaniushka overtook
me at the entrance of the house, and whispered
"Don't be afraid of him. He is all right. Look
him straight in the eyes. That 's what he likes."
It was all very strange and distressing. I hardly
knew any other existence, but I remembered vaguely
that my father and mother used not to live like this;
they had a different way of speaking, and a different
idea of happiness. They always went about together
and sat close to each other. They laughed very fre-
quently and for a long time together, in the evenings,
64 MY CHILDHOOD
as they sat at the window and sang at the top of their
voices; and people gathered together in the street and
looked at them. The raised faces of these people as
they looked up reminded me comically of dirty plates
after dinner. But here people seldom laughed, and
when they did it was not always easy to guess what
they were laughing at. They often raged at one
another, and secretly muttered threats against each
other in the corners. The children were subdued and
neglected; beaten down to earth like the dust by the
rain. I felt myself a stranger in the house, and all
the circumstances of my existence in it were nothing
but a series of stabs, pricking me on to suspicion, and
compelling me to study what went on with the closest
My friendship with Tsiganok grew apace. Grand-
mother was occupied with household duties from sun-
rise till late at night, and I hung round Tsiganok
nearly the whole day. He still used to put his hand
under the rod whenever grandfather thrashed me, and
the next day, displaying his swollen fingers, he would
"There 's no sense in it ! It does not make it any
lighter for you, and look what it does to me. I won't
stand it any longer, so there !"
But the next time he put himself in the way of
being needlessly hurt just the same.
MY CHILDHOOD 65
"But I thought you did not mean to do it again?"