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Lullaby by Maksim Gorky

 

One sultry summer night, in an out-of-the-way alley on the outskirts of the town, I saw a strange sight. A woman, standing in the middle of an enormous puddle, was stamping her feet, splashing the mud as little boys do--she was stamping and singing a bawdy song in a nasal voice.

During the day a storm had swept mightily over the town. The heavy downpour had turned the clayey earth of the alley into mud. The puddle was deep. The woman was almost up to her knees in it. To judge by her voice, the singer was drunk. If, tired with dancing, she had dropped, she might easily have drowned in the liquid mud.

I pulled up my high boots, got into the puddle, grabbed her by the arms and dragged her to a dry spot. At first, apparently, she was scared. She followed me obediently, without a word. But then with a vigorous movement of her whole body she wrenched her right arm free, struck me on the chest, and screamed: "Help!"

Then she resolutely made for the puddle again, dragging me with her.

"You devil!" she mumbled, "I won't go! I'll get along without you.You get on without me.He-elp!"

The night watchman emerged from the darkness, stopped five steps away from us and asked in a surly tone:

"Who's making that racket there?"

I told him that I was afraid the woman would drown in the mud, and that I wanted to pull her out. The watchman looked closely at the drunken woman, spat noisily, and commanded:

"Mashka, come on out."

"I won't."

"And I'm telling you, come on out!"

"I won't do it."

"I'll give you a beating, you slut!" the watchman promised her without enmity, and turned to me affably. "She lives around here--she picks oakum for a living. Mashka's her name. Got a smoke?"

We lit cigarettes. The woman was bravely striding through the puddle, shouting now and then:

"Bosses! I'm my own boss! I'll take a bath here, if I want to."

"I'll give you a bath!" the watchman--a sturdy, bearded old man--warned her. "That's the way she carries on almost every night, and she has a crippled son at home."

"Does she live far from here?"

"She ought to be shot," said the watchman, without answering me.

"She ought to be taken home," I suggested.

The watchman sniggered in his beard, held his cigarette up to my face, and clumped away on the soggy path.

"Take her, but look at her mug first."

Meanwhile the woman sat down in the mud, paddling it with her hands, and squawked fiercely in a nasal voice:

                                                      Over the dee-eep sea-ea-ea.

Not far from where she sat, a huge star was reflected from the black emptiness above us in the greasy muddy water. When a ripple ran across the puddle, the reflection vanished. Again I stepped into the puddle, took the singer by the arm-pits, lifted her, and shoving her with my knees, led her over to the fence. She held back, waved her arms, and challenged me:

"Well, hit me, hit me! Never mind! Hit me! Ah, you beast! Ah, you butcher! Go ahead, hit me!"

Propping her against the fence, I asked her where she lived. She lifted her drunken head and looked at me out of the dark spots that were her eyes. I noticed that her nose had caved in and what was left of it stuck out like a button, that her upper lip, pulled askew by a scar, bared small teeth, and that her little bloated face wore a repellent smile.

"All right, let's go," she said.

We walked on, lurching against the fence. The wet hem of her skirt kept slapping across my legs.

"Come, dear," she mumbled, as though sobering up. "I'll let you in, I'll comfort you."

She brought me into the court-yard of a large, two-story house. Carefully, like one blind, she walked among the carts, barrels, boxes, and piles of firewood, stopped before a hole in the foundation, and invited me:

"Go in."

Holding on to the slimey wall, grasping the woman by her waist, hardly able to keep her sprawling body together, I lowered myself down the slippery steps, found the felt strip and the latch of the door, opened it, and stood on the threshold of a black pit without having the courage to go further.

"Mammy, is it you?" a soft voice asked in the dark.

"It's me."

A warm stench of decay and a smell of tar struck my nostrils. A match was lit and for a second the small flame illumined a pale childish face, and then went out.

"Who else would be coming to you? It's me," said the woman, swaying against me.

Another match was struck, there was a clink of glass and a thin funny hand lit a small tin lamp.

"Darling," said the woman, and swaying, tumbled into the corner. There, hardly raised above the brick floor, was a wide bed.

Watching the flame of the lamp closely, the child adjusted the wick as it began to smoke. He had a grave little face with a sharp nose and full lips like a girl's. It was a little face that looked as though it were painted with a fine brush, and it was startlingly out of place in this dark damp hole. Having taken care of the lamp, he looked at me with eyes so heavily fringed that they looked shaggy, and asked:

"She drunk?"

His mother, who lay across the bed, was hiccuping and snoring.

"She ought to be undressed," I said.

"Undress her," the boy replied, lowering his eyes. And when I began to pull the wet skirt off the woman, he asked quietly and in a businesslike fashion:

"The lamp--shall I put it out?"

"What for?"

He did not answer. While I was handling his mother like a sack of flour, I was watching him. He sat on the floor in a box made of heavy boards on which there was an inscription in black letters: "Handle with care. N.R. and Co." The sill of the square window was flush with the boy's shoulder. Against the wall there were several narrow shelves, on which cigarette and match-boxes were piled. Next to the box in which the boy sat there was another one, covered with yellow paper, which apparently served as a table. His funny pitiful hands behind his neck, the boy was looking up at the dark windowpanes.

Having undressed the woman, I threw her wet clothes on the stove. I washed my hands in the earthenware washbasin in the corner, and wiping them on a handkerchief, I said to the child:

"Well, now, good-by."

He looked at me, and, speaking with a slight lisp, asked:

"Now shall I put out the lamp?"

"If you like."

"And you--are you going away? Aren't you going to bed?"

With his little hand he pointed to his mother:

"With her."

"What for?" I asked stupidly, surprised.

"You know, yourself," he said with terrible simplicity, and, stretching himself, added:

"They all do it."

Abashed, I looked about me. To the right, there was the mouth of an ugly stove, on the hearth were dirty dishes, in the corner behind the box--pieces of tarred rope and a pile of picked oakum, logs of firewood, kindling, and a yoke for carrying pails of water. At my feet stretched a snoring yellow form.

"May I sit with you awhile?" I asked the boy.

He looked at me from under his brows.

"But she won't wake up till morning."

"But I don't need her."

Squatting beside his box, I told him how I had come across his mother, trying to present the matter in a comic light:

"She was sitting in the mud, paddling with her hands and singing."

He nodded his head, smiling a pale smile and scratching his narrow chest.

"She was drunk, that's why. Even when she's sober, she likes to carry on. Just like a child."

Now I was able to see his eyes clearly. His eyelashes were astonishingly long, and his eyelids too were thickly covered with beautifully curved little hairs. The blueish shadows under his eyes added to the pallor of his bloodless skin; his high forehead with a wrinkle above the nose was surmounted by a shock of curly reddish hair. The expression of his eyes, which were both attentive and calm, was indescribable, and it was with difficulty that I bore this strange inhuman gaze.

"Your legs--what's wrong with them?"

He fumbled with the rags, disengaging a withered leg which looked like a cabbage-stalk, lifted it with his hand and placed it on the edge of the box.

"That's the sort they are. Both of them. Since I was born. They won't walk, they're not alive--that's how it is."

"And what's in these boxes?"

"A menagerie," he answered, lifted his leg in his hand as though it were a stick, stuck it into the rags on the bottom of the box, and with a serene, friendly smile, offered:

"Shall I show it to you? Well, make yourself comfortable. You've never seen anything like it."

Maneuvering adroitly with his extraordinarily long, thin arms, he hoisted himself up, and began to remove boxes from the shelves, handing them to me one after another.

"Take care, don't open them, or they'll run away. Put one to your ear and listen. Well?"

"Something's moving."

"Aha, a spider's sitting there, the scoundrel! His name is Drummer. He's a smart fellow!"

The boy's marvelous eyes grew lively and tender. A smile was playing over his livid face. With rapid movements of his nimble hands he was removing boxes from the shelves, putting them first to his ear, then to mine, and talking to me animatedly.

"And here is Anisim the cockroach, a show-off like a soldier. And this is a fly, an inspector's wife, a bad lot, the worst ever! She buzzes all day long, scolds everybody, she even pulled Mammy by the hair. Not a fly, but an inspector's wife, and her rooms have windows on the street. She only looks like a fly. And this is a black cockroach, a huge one: Master. He's all right. Only he's a drunk and has no shame. He'll get tight and crawl around the court-yard naked and as shaggy as a black dog. And here's a bug: Uncle Nikodim. I caught him in the court-yard. He is a pilgrim, one of the crooks--makes believe he collects for the Church. Mammy calls him 'Cheat.' He is her lover too. She has more lovers than you can count, thick as flies, even if she has no nose."

"She doesn't beat you?"

"She? You're crazy. She can't live without me. She has a good heart, only she drinks. But on our street everybody drinks. She's pretty, and jolly too. Only she drinks, the slut. I tell her: 'Stop swilling vodka, you fool, then you'll get rich,' and she laughs at me. A woman--foolish, of course. But she's a good egg. Well, she'll sleep it off and you'll see for yourself."

He was smiling so enchantingly that you wanted to howl with unbearable burning pity for him, to cry out so that the whole town would hear you. His beautiful little head swayed on its thin neck like a strange flower, and his eyes blazed with growing animation, attracting me with irresistible power.

As I listened to his childish but terrible chatter, for a moment I forgot where I was sitting. Then suddenly I saw again the small prison window, spattered on the outside with mud, the black mouth of the stove, the heap of oakum in the corner and near the door on a pile of rags the body of the woman, the mother, yellow as butter.

"A good menagerie?" the boy asked proudly.

"Very good."

"But I haven't one butterfly, nor any moths. either."

"What's your name?"

"Lenka."

"You're my name-sake."

"Really? And you--what kind of a man are you?"

"No kind."

"Oh, you're lying. Everybody's something. I know that. You're a good chap."

"Perhaps."

"Oh, I can see. You're a 'fraidy-cat, too."

"What makes you say that?"

"Oh, I know." He smiled slyly and even winked at me.

"Why do you think so?"

"Well, you sit here with me, that means you're afraid to go home at night."

"But it's already daybreak."

"So you're going?"

"I'll come back."

He wouldn't believe me. He covered his dear shaggy eyes with his lashes and, after a pause, said:

"What for?"

"Why, just to see you. You're an interesting fellow. May I come?"

"Sure. Everybody comes here." With a sigh, he added: "You're fooling me."

"I swear I'll come."

"Do come. And come to see me, not Mammy, deuce take her. Let's you and I be friends, eh?"

"All right."

"Very well. It doesn't matter that you're big. How old are you?"

"Twenty."

"And I'm eleven. I haven't any chums. Only Katka, the water-carrier's daughter. Her mother beats her because she comes to see me.Are you a thief?"

"No. Why a thief?"

"Your mug, it's terrible. Skinny. And you have a nose like a thief's. A couple of thieves come here. One, Sashka, is a fool and nasty. The other, Vanichka, he's kind, he's kind as a dog. Have you got any little boxes?"

"I'll bring you some."

"Do. I won't tell Mammy that you're coming."

"Why not?"

"I just won't. She's always glad when men come. Why, she loves men, the bitch. It's simply awful. She's a funny girl, my Mammy. At fifteen she managed to have me, she herself doesn't know how it happened. When will you come?"

"Tomorrow evening."

"In the evening? Then she'll be drunk. And what do you do, if you're not a thief?"

"I sell Bavarian kvass."

"Yes? Bring me a bottle, will you?"

"Sure. I'll bring one. Well, I must be going."

"Run along. Will you come?"

"Positively."

He stretched both his long hands out towards me, and I pressed and shook those thin chilly bones, and without looking back, I climbed out into the yard like one drunk.

Dawn was breaking. Over the damp pile of half dilapidated buildings Venus was trembling as it faded away. From the dirty pit under the wall of the house the panes of the cellar window stared at me with their square eyes, murky and stained like the eyes of a drunkard. In a cart by the gate a red-faced peasant was asleep with his huge bare feet flung wide apart. His thick rough beard stuck up towards the sky, and white teeth glistened in it. It looked as though the peasant were laughing sarcastically with his eyes closed. An old dog with a bald spot on its back, apparently the result of a scald, ambled over to me, sniffed at my leg and howled gently and hungrily, filling my heart with futile pity for it. The morning sky, pale and pink, was reflected in the placid puddles, and these reflections lent the filthy puddles an unnecessary, insulting beauty which debauched the soul.

The following day I asked the boys on my block to catch some bugs and butterflies. I bought pretty little boxes at the apothecary's, and I went to see Lenka, taking along two bottles of kvass, some gingerbread, candy, and sweet rolls. Lenka received my gifts with vast amazement, opening his darling eyes wide. By daylight they were even more marvelous.

"Oh, oh, oh!" he cried out, in a low unchildlike voice. "All the things you've brought! Are you rich? How's that--rich, but badly dressed, and you say you're not a thief! And the little boxes! Oh, oh, oh! It's a shame to touch them. My hands aren't clean. Who's in here? Aha, a bug! Looks like copper, green, even. Oh, you devil! And will they run out and fly away? Goodness me!"

And suddenly he shouted gaily:

"Mom! Climb down and wash my hands. And look, you goose, what he has brought me! It's the same fellow, the one who dragged you here last night, like a policeman, it's the same one. His name is Lenka, too."

"You must thank him," I heard a strange low voice behind me.

The boy nodded his head rapidly.

"Thank you. Thank you."

A thick cloud of fibrous dust was floating through the cellar, and with difficulty I distinguished on the stove the disheveled head, the disfigured face of the woman, the gleam of her teeth, the involuntary, indestructible smile.

"How do you do?"

"How do you do?" the woman repeated. Her nasal voice sounded muffled but jaunty, almost cheerful. She looked at me squinting and mockingly, as it were.

Lenka, oblivious of me, munched the gingerbread and hummed, as he carefully opened the boxes. His eyelashes cast a shadow on his cheeks, emphasizing the rings under his eyes. The sun, dull, like the face of an old man, peered through the dirty windowpanes, and a mild light fell upon the boy's reddish hair. His shirt was unbuttoned, showing his chest, and I saw how the heart was beating behind the thin bones, lifting the skin and the barely perceptible nipple.

His mother climbed down from the stove, moistened a towel in the wash-basin, and coming over to Lenka took his left hand.

"He's run away! Stop him! He's run away!" he shouted. And with his whole body he began to thresh about in the box, throwing the smelly rags around, baring his blue inert legs. The woman burst out laughing, fumbling among the rags, and shouted too:

"Catch him!"

Having caught the bug, she placed him on her palm, examined him with her lively eyes, the color of a cornflower, and said to me in the tone of an old acquaintance:

"There are lots of those."

"Don't you crush it!" her son warned her sternly. "Once when she was drunk she sat on my menagerie--and crushed a lot of them!"

"Try and forget it, darling."

"I had to do a lot of burying."

"But I caught some others for you afterwards."

"Others! The ones you crushed were trained ones, silly-billy! The ones that croaked I buried under the stove; I'd crawl out and bury them--I have a cemetery there. You know, I once had a spider, Minka, he looked just like one of Mammy's lovers, the one who's in prison, the fat jolly one."

"Oh, my precious darling," said the woman, stroking her son's curls with a small, dark stumpy-fingered hand. Then, nudging me with her elbow, she asked, her eyes smiling:

"He's pretty, my little son? Look at those eyes, eh?"

"You can have one of my eyes, but give me legs," suggested Lenka, smiling and examining a bug. "He's aniron one! So fat! Mom, he looks like the monk, the one for whom you made the ladder--remember?"

"Sure I do."

And laughingly she told me this:

"You see, a monk barged in here once, a bulky man, and says: 'See here, you're an oakum-picker, can you make me a rope ladder?' And I, I'd never heard of such ladders. 'No,' says I, 'I can't.' 'Then I'll teach you,' says he. He opened his cassock and there was a long strong thinnish rope all round his belly He taught me. I twist it and twist it and think to myself: what does he want it for? Perhaps he wants to rob a church."

She laughed aloud, hugging her son's shoulders, stroking him all the while.

"Oh, these cunning fellows! He came when he said he would, and I said to him: 'Here, if this is to steal with, I won't have anything to do with it.' And he laughs slyly. 'No,' he says, 'that's for climbing over a wall. We have a great high wall, and we're sinful folk, and the sin is on the other side of the wall--understand?' Well, I understood. He needed it to go to women at night. He and I had a laugh together over it."

"You certainly like to laugh," the boy said, in the tone of an older person. "You'd better heat the samovar."

"But we haven't any sugar."

"Go buy some."

"But we haven't any money."

"All because you're such a guzzler. Get some from him." He turned to me.

"Got money?"

I gave the woman some money. She jumped to her feet, took from the stove a little battered tarnished samovar and disappeared behind the door, humming through her nose.

"Mom!" her son shouted after her. "Wash the window. I can't see anything! A smart little baggage, I'm telling you," he continued, carefully placing the boxes of insects on the shelves. They were of cardboard and suspended on strings from nails driven into the cracks between the bricks of the damp wall. "A workerWhen once she starts picking oakum, she raises such a dust that you almost choke. I shout: 'Mammy, carry me out into the court-yard or I'll choke here.' But she says: 'Have patience. I'll be lonesome without you.' She loves me, and that's all there is to it. She picks and sings. She knows a thousand songs."

Full of eagerness, his marvelous eyes flashing, he raised his thick eyebrows and sang in a hoarse alto:

                                                        Arina lay on a featherbed

I listened for a while, then I said:

"A very dirty song."

"They're all like that," Lenka declared with assurance. Suddenly he started. "Listen! There's the music! Quick, lift me up!"

I lifted his light little bones in their bag of thin gray skin. Eagerly he stuck his head out of the open window, and grew still, while his withered legs swung impotently, scraping against the wall. In the court-yard a barrel-organ squeaked irritatedly, spitting out shreds of melody. A deep-voiced child cried merrily, and a dog howled. Lenka listened to this music and hummed gently through his teeth in time with it.

The dust in the cellar settled, and the place grew lighter. A cheap clock hung over his mother's bed; the pendulum, the size of a copper coin, crawled limpingly. The dishes on the hearth were dirty, a thick layer of dust rested on everything, particularly in the corners, where the cobwebs hung in dirty shreds. Lenka's home resembled a garbage pit, and the ugliness of poverty stared from every inch of it, wounding the senses.

The samovar began to drone gloomily, a hoarse voice roared: "Get out!" and the barrel-organ suddenly grew silent.

"Take me back," said Lenka with a sigh, "they have chased them off."

I seated him in the box, and frowning and rubbing his chest with his hands, he coughed cautiously.

"My chest hurts me, it isn't good for me to breathe real air for long. Listen, have you ever seen devils?"

"No."

"I haven't either. At night I keep looking under the stove--maybe one will show up. But they don't. There are devils in cemeteries, aren't there?"

"What do you want them for?"

"It's interesting. And what if one of them turns out to be kind? Katka, the water-carrier's girl, once saw a little devil in a cellar--only she got frightened. Me, I'm not afraid of scary things."

He wrapped his legs up in the rags and continued pertly:

"I even like scary dreams, I do really. Once in my dream I saw a tree growing upside down: the leaves were on the ground, and the roots stuck up into the sky. I got into a sweat, and woke up from fright. And once I saw Mammy: there she lies naked, and a dog is gnawing at her belly; the dog takes a bite, and spits it out, takes a bite, and spits it out. And once, our house suddenly shook itself and started to move down the street; it glided along banging the doors and windows, and behind it ran the cat of the Inspector's wife."

He hunched his sharp little shoulders as if he were chilly, took a candy, unfolded the colored paper wrapper and carefully smoothing it out, placed it on the window-sill.

"I'll make something with these wrappers, something nice. Or I'll give them to Katka. She likes nice things too: pieces of glass, bits of crockery, paper, and things like that. And listen: if you kept on feeding a cockroach, would it grow to be the size of a horse?"

It was clear that he believed this to be true, so I said:

"If you feed it well, it will."

"Of course!" he cried out joyfully. "But Mammy, the silly, laughs at me."

And he added a bawdy word, insulting to a woman.

"She's foolish! And as for a cat, you can feed it up so it gets to be the size of a horse in no time--isn't that so?"

"Why, yes, that's possible."

"It's a pity, I haven't enough feed! That would be great!"

He fairly shook with excitement, pressing his hand to his chest.

"There would be flies the size of a dog! And cockroaches could be used to cart bricks--if it's the size of a horse. it must be strong, eh?"

"But you see they have whiskers."

"There's nothing wrong with whiskers--they'd be like reins, the whiskers. Or else, you'd have a spider, as enormous as what? A spider the size of a kitten, even that would be frightful. If only I had legs! I'd work real hard, and I'd feed up my whole menagerie. I'd go into the business, and I'd buy a house for Mammy in the green fields. Have you ever been in the green fields?"

"Sure."

"Tell me about it, will you?"

I began to tell him about fields and meadows. He listened eagerly without interrupting, his eyelashes dropped over his eyes and his little mouth opened slowly as though he were falling asleep. Seeing this, I began to speak more quietly. But his mother came in with the boiling samovar in her hands, a paper bag under her arm, and a bottle of vodka tucked in her breast.

"Here I am."

"I liked that," sighed the boy, opening his eyes wide. "An empty place--just nothing but grass and flowers. Mammy, why don't you get a carriage and take me to the green fields? This way I'll croak, and I'll never see them. My word, Mammy, but you're a bitch," he concluded, in a sad abused tone.

His mother chided him tenderly:

"Don't you swear, you mustn't. You're still little."

" 'Don't swear! It's all very well for you: you go where you please, just like a dog. You're a lucky one. Listen--" he turned to me--"did God make the green fields?"

"Certainly."

"Well, what for?"

"So people can go out on a jaunt."

"Green fields," said the boy, smiling pensively and sighing. "I would take my menagerie there, and I would let them all loose--run along, brothers! Listen: where do they make God--at the poor-house?"1

His mother shrieked and was literally bowled over with laughter. She fell upon the bed and shouted, kicking her legs.

"Good Lord! What aDarling! Why, the icon-painters.It's side-splitting! He's the limit!"

Lenka looked at her with a smile, and swore at her tenderly in filthy language.

"She carries on like a child. Doesn't she love to laugh!"

And he repeated the dirty word.

"Let her laugh," I said. "You don't mind."

"No, I don't," Lenka agreed. "I'm only angry at her when she doesn't wash the window. I beg her and beg her: clean the window, I can't see God's light. But she keeps on forgetting."

The woman, chuckling now and then, washed the tea-things, winked at me with her light blue eyes, and said:

"Haven't I a pretty darling? If it weren't for him, I'd have drowned myself long ago, I swear. I'd have strangled myself."

She said this with a smile.

Suddenly Lenka asked me:

"Are you a fool?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Mammy says you're a fool."

"But why do I say it?" the woman exclaimed, undaunted. "He brings a drunken woman in from the street, puts her to bed, and goes off, there you have it. I didn't mean any harm. And you, you have to tell on me. Oh, you're mean!"

She too spoke like a child. Her manner of speech was that of a girl in her teens. And her eyes too had a girlish purity, which made her face, with its stump of a nose, its drawn lip and bared teeth, look all the more hideous. Her face showed a constant nightmarish sneer, but it was a jolly sneer.

"Well, let's have tea," she offered solemnly.

The samovar stood on a box beside Lenka. A roguish jet of steam coming out from under the battered lid touched his shoulder. He put his little hand against it and when his palm grew moist, wiped it on his hair, screwing up his eyes dreamily.

"When I grow up," he said, "Mammy will make me a carriage. I'll crawl in the streets and beg alms. When they've given me enough, I'll crawl out into the green fields."

"Ho-ho!" sighed his mother, and directly after, laughed gently. "The country's paradise to him, the darling. But what do you find in the country? Camps, and beastly soldiers, and drunken peasants."

"You're lying," Lenka stopped her, frowning. "Ask him what the country's like: he's seen it."

"And I--haven't I seen it?"

"Yes, when you were drunk."

They began to argue just like children, with as much heat and lack of logic. Meanwhile the warm evening had invaded the court-yard, a thick, dove-colored cloud hung motionless in the reddened sky. It was getting dark in the cellar.

The boy drank a cup of tea, began to perspire, looked at me and at his mother, and said:

"I've eaten, I've drunk, now, by God, I'm sleepy."

"Go to sleep," his mother advised him.

"And he--he'll go. Will you go?"

"Don't worry, I won't let him go," the woman said, nudging me with her knee.

"Don't you go," Lenka begged, closed his eyes, and, stretching cozily, sank into the box. Then suddenly he lifted his head and said to his mother reproachfully:

"Why don't you marry him? And have a wedding like other women? This way you take up with all sorts they only beat you. But he--he's good."

"Hush, go to sleep," the woman said quietly, bending over her cup of tea.

"He's rich."

For a while the woman sat silent, sipping her tea from the saucer with clumsy lips. Then she turned to me as to an old acquaintance.

"That's the way we live, quietly, he and I, and nobody else. In the court-yard they scold me, call me a loose woman. Well, I'm not ashamed before anybody. Besides, you see what a mess I am, everyone sees right away what I'm good for. Yes. Sonny is asleep, the darling. I have a good child, eh?"

"Yes, very."

"I can't look at him enough. And what a head he has!"

"Yes, he's a clever boy."

"That's true. His father was a gentleman, an old man.

He was a--what-do-you-call-'em? They have offices--God, I can't think they're busy with papers. "

"You mean a notary public?"

"Yes, that's right! He was a dear old man. So kind. He loved me. I was a servant in the house."

She covered her son's bare legs with the rags, straightened the dingy pillow under his head, and continued casually:

"And then he died suddenly. It was at night. I had just left him when he dropped to the floor, and that was the end of him. You sell kvass?"

"Yes."

"In business for yourself?"

"No. I work for someone."

She moved closer to me, saying:

"Don't turn up your nose at me, young man. You can't catch it from me any more. Ask anybody in the street. They all know."

"I'm not turning up my nose at you."

Placing on my knee her little hand, the skin of the fingers work-worn and the nails broken, she continued affectionately:

"I'm so grateful to you on Lenka's account. He's had a holiday today. It was good of you."

"I have to go," I said.

"Where to?" she asked in surprise.

"I've something to attend to."

"Stay."

"I can't."

She looked at her son, at the window, at the sky, and said softly:

"Do stay. I'll cover my mug with a kerchief. I do so want to thank you on my son's account. I'll cover up, eh?"

She spoke persuasively, humanly, so affectionately, with such warm feeling. And her eyes, a child's eyes in a hideous face, shone with the smile not of a beggar, but of a person of wealth who can show gratitude in a substantial way.

"Mom," the boy cried suddenly, starting, and hitching himself up. "They're crawling! Mom, come!"

"He's dreaming," she said to me, bending over him.

I went out into the court-yard, and stood there, thinking. A nasal voice was pouring from the open window of the cellar singing a song with a jolly tune. The mother was singing a strange lullaby to her son, uttering the words distinctly:

              The passions will come, and bring
              Every unhappy thing,
              Troubles that turn the wits
              And tear the heart to bits,
              Troubles and grief and care!
              Where shall we hide, ah, where?

I walked quickly out of the court-yard, gritting my teeth so as not to bawl.

1917.

1 The Russian word for poor-house contains a pun which might suggest this idea to an imaginative child.

 
 
 

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