The Little Angel and Other Stories/Petka at the Bungalow

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written in 1899

PETKA AT THE BUNGALOW

Osip Abramovich, the barber, arranged a dirty sheeting on his customer's chest, and tucking it into his collar, shouted abruptly in a sharp tone, "Boy! water!"

The customer, examining his face in the glass with that sharpened intentness and interest which is exhibited only at the barber's, observed that another pimple had appeared on his chin, and turning his eyes away in dissatisfaction they fell straight on a thin little hand, which stretched out from somewhere at the side, and put a tin of hot water down on the ledge below the looking-glass. When he raised his eyes still higher, they caught the strange and distorted looking reflection of the barber, and he noticed the sharp threatening glance which he was casting down on the head of some one, and the silent movements of his lips, caused by an inaudible but expressive whisper. If the master himself was not doing the shaving but one of the assistants, Prokopy or Mikhailo, then the whisper would become loud, and take the form of a vague threat:

"Just you wait!"

This meant that the boy was not quick enough with the water, and that punishment awaited him. “Serve ’m right too,” thought the customer, bending his head down sideways, and contemplating the great moist hand by the side of his nose, three fingers of which were spread out, while the forefinger and thumb, all sticky and smelly, gently touched cheek and chin as the blunt razor, with a disagreeable grating noise, took off the lather, and with it the stiff bristles of his beard.

At this barber’s shop, permeated with the oppressive smell of cheap scents, full of tiresome flies and dirt, the customers were not very exacting. They consisted of hall-porters, overseers, and sometimes minor officials, or workmen, and often coarsely handsome but suspicious-looking fellows with ruddy cheeks, slender moustaches, and insolent oleaginous eyes.

Close by was a quarter full of houses of cheap debauchery. They lorded it over the whole neighbourhood, and gave to it a special character of something dirty, disorderly and disquieting.

The boy, who was called out to most frequently, was named Petka, and was the smallest of all who served in the establishment. The other boy Nikolka was his elder by three years, and would soon develop into an assistant. Already when a more than ordinarily humble customer looked in, and the assistants in the absence of the master were too lazy to work, they would set Nikolka to cut his hair, and laugh when he had to raise himself on tiptoe to see the back hair of some fat dvórnik. Sometimes the customer would be offended that his hair was badly cut and utter a loud complaint, and then the assistants would scold Nikolka, not seriously, but only to satisfy the cropped lout. But such cases were not of frequent occurrence, and Nikolka gave himself the airs of a man; he smoked cigarettes, spat through his teeth, used bad language, and even boasted to Petka that he drank vodka; but there he probably lied. In company with the assistants he would run to the neighbouring street to look on at a coarse fight, and when he came back laughing with delight, Osip Abramovich would give him a couple of smacks, one on each cheek.

Petka was only ten years old. He did not smoke, or drink vodka, or swear, though he knew plenty of bad words, and in all these respects he envied his companion. When there were no customers, and Prokopy, who usually had spent a sleepless night somewhere or other, and in the daytime would drowsily stumble about and throw himself into the dark corner behind the partition, and Mikhailo was reading the Police News, and amongst the accounts of thefts and robberies was looking out for the name of some regular customer, Petka and Nikolka would chat together. The latter was kinder when the two were alone together, and used to explain to the younger the meaning of the terms used to describe the various styles of hair-cutting.

Sometimes they sat at the window, by the side of a half-length figure of a female in wax with pink cheeks, staring glass eyes, and straight sparse eyelashes, and looked out on the boulevard, where life had been stirring since the early morning. The trees of the boulevard, powdered with dust, drooped motionless under the merciless burning rays of the sun, and afforded an equally grey, unrefreshing shade. On all the benches were seated men and women in dirty, uncouth attire, without kerchiefs or hats, just as though they lived there and had no other home. Whether the faces were indifferent, malignant, or dissolute, on all alike was impressed the stamp of utter weariness and contempt of their surroundings. Ofttimes a frowsy head would nod helplessly on a shoulder, and the body would try to stretch itself out to sleep like a third-class passenger after an unbroken journey of one thousand versts, but there was nowhere to lie down. The park-keeper, in a bright blune uniform with a cane in his hand, walked up and down the pathways, looking out that no one lay down on the benches, or threw himself upon the grass, which, though parched by the sun, was still so soft, so cool. The women, for the most part more neatly dressed, and even with a hint at fashion, were seemingly all of one type of countenance and of one age; although here and there might be found some old, and others quite young, almost children. All of these talked with hoarse, harsh voices; and scolded, embracing the men as simply as though they were alone on the boulevard. Sometimes they would take a snack and a drop of vodka. It might happen that a drunken man would beat an equally drunken woman. She would fall down, and get up again, and fall down again, but no one would take her part. Only the faces of the crowd as they gathered round the couple would light up with some intelligence and animation, and wear a broader grin. But when the blue-coated keeper drew near, they would listlessly disperse to their former places. Only the ill-used woman would keep on weeping, uttering meaningless oaths, with her rumpled hair covered with sand, and her semi-made bust looking dirty and yellow in the morning light, cynically and piteously exposed. They would put her on the bottom of a cab and drive her off with her head hanging down, and swaying, as if she were dead.

Nikolka knew several of the men and women by name, and told Petka nasty stories about them, and laughed showing his sharp teeth. And Petka admired his knowledge and daring, and thought that some day he would be like him. But meanwhile he wanted to be somewhere else. Wanted badly!

Petka’s days dragged on wonderfully monotonously, as like to one another as two brothers. Summer and winter alike he saw the same mirrors, one of which was cracked, and another was contorted and amusing. On the stained wall hung one and the same picture, representing two half-dressed women on the sea-shore, the only difference being that their pink bodies became more spotted with fly dirt, and that the black patch of soot became larger above the place where the common kerosene lamp gleamed all the whole winter’s day. And morning, evening, and the whole livelong day, there hung over Petka the one and the same abrupt cry, “Boy, water!” and he was always bringing it–always. There were no holidays. On Sundays, when the windows of the stores and shops ceased to illuminate the street, those of the hair-dresser’s till late at night cast a bright sheaf of light upon the pavement, and the passer-by might observe a little thin figure huddled upon his seat in the corner, and immersed in something between thought and a heavy slumber. Petka slept a great deal, but still for some reason or other he was always wanting to sleep, and it often seemed to him that all around him was not real, but a very unpleasant dream. Ofttimes he would spill the water, or fail to hear the sharp call, “Boy, water!” He grew thinner and thinner, and unsightly scabs came out on his closely-cropped head. Even the not too fastidious customers looked with aversion on this thin, freckled boy, whose eyes were always sleepy, his mouth half-open, and his hands and neck ingrained with dirt. Round his eyes and under his nose faint lines were forming as though traced by a sharp needle, and they made him look like an aged dwarf.

Petka did not know whether he was happy or unhappy, but he did want to go to some other place; but where, or what, that place was he could not have told you. When his mother, the cook, Nadejda, paid him a visit, he would eat listlessly the sweets she brought him. He never, never complained, but only asked to be taken away from the place. But he soon forgot his request, and would coolly take leave of his mother, without asking when she was coming again. And Nadejda thought with sorrow that she had only one son–and that one an imbecile.

How long he had lived in this fashion, Petka did not know, when suddenly one day his mother came to dinner, had a talk with Osip Abramovich, and told Petka that he was to be allowed to go to the bungalow at Tzaritzyno, where her master and mistress were living. At first, Petka could not realize the good news, but after a time his face broke out into faint wrinkles of soft laughter, and he began to hasten his mother’s departure. But for decency’s sake she had to talk to Osip Abramovich about his wife’s health, while Petka was gently dragging her by the hand and shoving her towards the door. He had no idea what a bungalow was like, but he supposed that it must be the very place which he had so longed to go to. With simple egotism he quite forgot Nikolka, who was standing there with his hands in his pockets endeavouring to regard Nadejda with his usual insolence. But instead of insolence there shone in his eyes a profound grief. He had no mother, and at that moment he would not have objected to having just such a stout one as Nadejda. The fact was that he too had never been at a bungalow.

The railway station with its many voices, with its bustle and the rumble of incoming trains, and the whistles of the engines, some thick and irate like the voice of Osip Abramovich, others thin and shrill like the voice of his sickly wife, with its hurrying passengers who kept coming and going in a continuous stream, as if there were no end to them–all this presented itself for the first time to the puzzled gaze of Petka, and filled him with a feeling of excitement and impatience. Like his mother, he was afraid of being late, though it wanted a good half-hour to the time of the departure of the suburban train. But when they were once seated in the carriage, and the train had started, he stuck to the window, and only his cropped head kept turning about on his thin neck, as though on a metal spindle.

Petka had been born and bred in the city, and was now in the country for the first time in his life, and everything there was to him strikingly new and strange; that you could see so far; that the world looked like a lawn; and that the sky of this new world was so wonderfully bright and far-stretching–just as if you were looking at it from the roof of a house! Petka looked at it from his own side, and when he turned to his mother, there was the same sky shining blue through the opposite window, and on its surface were flocking–like little angels–small, merry white flecks of clouds. Now Petka would turn back to his own window, now run over to the other side of the carriage, with confidence laying his ill-washed little hands on the shoulders and knees of strangers, who answered him back with a smile. But one gentleman who was reading a newspaper, and yawning all the time, either from excessive fatigue or from ennui, looked askance at the boy once or twice in not too friendly a manner, and Nadejda hastened to apologise:

“It is his first journey by rail–and he is interested.”

“Humph,” growled the gentleman, and buried himself in his newspaper.

Nadejda would very much have liked to tell him, how that Petka had lived three years with a barber, who had promised to set him upon his feet; and that this would be a very good thing, since she was a lone weak woman, with no other means of support in case of sickness or when she became old. But the expression of his face was so uninviting, that she kept all this to herself.

To the right of the railway there was a broad stretch of undulating plain, dark green with the continual moisture, and on its edge there stood grey little houses, just like toys, and upon a high green hill, at the foot of which flowed a silvery river, was perched a similarly toy-like white church. When the train, with a noisy metallic clanking, which suddenly became intensified, rushed on to a bridge, and seemed to hang suspended in the air over the mirror-like surface of a river, Petka gave a little shiver of fright and surprise, and started back from the window; but immediately turned to it again, for fear of losing a single detail of the journey. His eyes had long ceased to look sleepy, and the lines had disappeared from his face. It was as though some one had passed a hot flat-iron over his face, smoothing out the wrinkles, and leaving the surface white and shining.

For the first two days of his sojourn at the bungalow the wealth and force of the new impressions which inundated him from above and from below confused his timid little soul. In contradistinction to the savages of a former age, who felt lost on coming into a city from the wilderness, this modern savage, who had been snatched away from the stony embrace of the massive city, felt weak and impotent in the face of nature. Here everything was to him living, sentient, and possessed of conscious will. He was afraid of the forest, which gently rustled over his head, and was so dark, so passive, so terrible in its immensity. But the bright green joyful meadows, which seemed to be singing with all their bright flowers, he loved, and wished to fondle them as a sister; and the dark blue sky called him to itself, and laughed like a mother. Petka would become agitated, shudder, and grow pale, would smile at something, and slowly, like an old man, walk along the outskirts of the forest, and on the wooded shore of the pond. There, weary and out of breath, he would fling himself down on the thick damp grass, and sink into it, only his little freckled nose appearing above the green surface. For the first two days he was always going back to his mother, and nestling up to her: and when the master of the house asked him whether he liked being at the bungalow, he would smile in confusion and answer:

“Very much!”

And then he would go off again to the threatening forest, and the still water, and it was as though he were questioning them.

But after two days Petka had arrived at a complete understanding with Nature. This was brought about by the co-operation of a schoolboy named Mitya from old Tzaritzyno. The schoolboy had a swarthy countenance, the colour of a second-class carriage. His hair stood erect on the crown of his head, and was quite white, so bleached was it by the sun. He was fishing in the pond, when Petka caught sight of him and unceremoniously entered into conversation with him. They came to terms with wonderful promptitude; he allowed Petka to hold one of the rods, and afterwards took him some distance off to bathe. Petka was very much afraid of going into the water, but when once in, he did not wish to come out again, but pretended to swim, putting his forehead and nose above the water. Then he got a great gulp of water in his mouth, and beat the water with his hands and made a great splashing. At this moment he was very like a puppy, that had for the first time fallen into the water. When Petka dressed himself he was as blue as a corpse with the cold, and as he talked his teeth chattered. At the proposal of Mitya, who was of inexhaustible resource, they next explored the ruins of a mansion. They clambered upon the roof overgrown with shoots, and wandered between the broken-down walls of the great building. They did enjoy themselves there! All about heaps of stones were piled up, on which they climbed with difficulty, and between which grew young rowan and birch trees. It was still as death, and it seemed as though some one suddenly jumped out from a corner, or that some horrible, terrible face appeared through the aperture left by a broken window. By degrees Petka began to feel quite at home at the bungalow, and he forgot that there was any Osip Abramovich or barber’s shop in the world.

“Just look how he is putting on flesh! He’s a regular merchant!” Nadejda at this time would exclaim with delight.

She was stout enough herself and her face shone with the heat of the kitchen like a copper samovar. She attributed his improvement to the fact that she gave him plenty to eat. But in reality Petka ate very little indeed, not because he did not care for his food, but because he could scarcely find time for it. If only it had been possible to bolt his food without mastication!–but one must masticate, and during the intervals swing one’s feet, since Nadejda ate deuced slowly, polishing the bones and wiping her fingers on her apron, while she kept up a perpetual chatter. But he was up to the neck in business: he had to bathe four times, to cut a fishing-rod in the hazel coppice, to dig for worms–all this required time. Now Petka ran about bare-foot, and that was a thousand times pleasanter than wearing boots with thick soles: the rustling ground now warmed, now cooled his feet so deliciously. He had even discarded his second-hand school jacket, in which he looked like a full-grown master-barber, and thereby became amazingly rejuvenated. He put it on only in the evening, when he went and stood on the dam to watch the Master and Mistress boating. Well-dressed and cheerful they would laughingly take their seats in the rocking boat, which leisurely ploughed the mirror-like surface of the water on which the reflection of the trees swayed as though agitated by a breeze.

At the end of the week the Master brought from the city a letter addressed “to Cook Nadejda.” When he had read it over to her she began to cry, and smeared her face all over with the soot which was on her apron. From the fragmentary remarks which accompanied this operation, it might be deduced that the contents of the letter affected Petka. This took place in the evening. Petka was playing athletic sports by himself in the back court, and puffing out his cheeks, because that made it considerably easier to jump. The schoolboy Mitya had taught him this stupid but interesting occupation, and now Petka, like a true “sportsman,” was practising alone. The master came out, and laying his hand on his shoulder, said:

“Well, my friend, you have to go!”

Petka smiled in confusion and said nothing. “What a strange lad,” thought the master.

“Yes, have to go.”

Petka smiled. Nadejda coming up with tears in her eyes repeated:

“You have to go, sonny.”

“Where?” said Petka in surprise. He had forgotten the city; and the other place, to which he had always so wanted to go away–was found.

“To your master, Osip Abramovich.”

Still Petka failed to understand, though the matter was as clear as daylight. But his mouth felt suddenly dry, and his tongue moved with difficulty as he asked:

“How then can I go fishing to-morrow? Look, here is the rod.”

“But what can one do? He wants you. Prokopy, he says, is ill, and has been taken to the hospital. He says he has not enough hands. Don’t cry! See, he’ll be sure to let you come again. He is kind is Osip Abramovich.”

But Petka was not thinking of crying, and still did not understand. On one side there was the fact, the fishing-rod–on the other the phantom, Osip Abramovich. But gradually Petka’s thoughts began to clear and a strange metamorphosis took place: Osip Abramovich became the fact, and the fishing-rod, which had not yet had time to dry, was changed into the phantom. And then Petka surprised his mother, and distressed the master and his wife, and would have been surprised himself if he had been capable of self-analysis. He did not begin to cry, as town children, thin and half-starved, cry; he simply bawled louder than the strongest-voiced man; and began to roll on the ground, as the drunken women rolled on the boulevard. He clenched his skinny fists, and struck his mother’s hands and the ground, in fact everything he came across, feeling, indeed, the pain caused by the pebbles and sharp stones, but striving, as it were, to increase it.

In course of time Petka became calm again, and the master said to his wife, who was standing before the glass arranging a white rose in her hair:

“You see he has left off. Children’s grief is not long-lived.”

“All the same I am very sorry for the poor little boy.”

“Yes, indeed! they live under terrible conditions, but there are people who are still worse off. Are you ready?”

And they went off to Bigman’s Gardens, where dances had been arranged for the evening, and a military band was already playing. The next day Petka started for Moscow by the 7 a.m. train. Again he saw the green fields, grey with the night’s dew, only they did not now run in the same direction as before, but in the opposite. The second-hand school jacket enveloped his thin body, and from the opening at the neck stuck out the corner of a white paper collar. Petka did not turn to the window, indeed, he hardly looked at it, but sat so still and modest, with his little hands primly folded upon his knees. His eyes were sleepy and apathetic, and fine wrinkles, as in the case of an old man, gathered about his eyes and under his nose. Suddenly the pillars and the planks of the platform flashed before the window, and the train stopped.

They pressed through the hurrying crowd, and came out into the noisy street; and the great, greedy city callously swallowed up its little victim.

“Put away the fishing tackle for me,” said Petka, when his mother deposited him at the door of the barber’s shop.

“Trust me for that, sonny! Maybe you will come again.”

And once more in the dirty, stuffy shop was heard the sharp call, “Boy, water!” and the customer saw a small, dirty hand thrust out to the ledge below the mirror, and heard the vague, threatening whisper. “Just you wait a bit!” This meant that the sleepy boy had either spilled the water, or had bungled the orders. But at nights from the place where Nikolka and Petka lay side by side, a little low and agitated voice might be heard telling about the bungalow, and speaking of what is not, and what no one has ever seen or heard. And when silence supervened, and only the irregular breathing of the children was audible, another voice, unusually deep and strong for a child, would exclaim:

“The devils! May they bu’st!”

“Who are devils?”

“Why, the whole blooming lot, of course!”

A string of cars passed by, and drowned the boys’ voices with its noisy rumbling; and then that distant cry of complaint was heard, which had for long been borne in from the boulevard, where a drunken man was beating an equally drunken woman.